The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt | The Nation


The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt

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Hradilek would not comment on one of the most salient charges against "Milan Kundera's Denunciation": that it had weakened the credibility of the USTR, and that, as one columnist put it, the "cryptocommunists" in Parliament who'd been itching to shut down the institute had finally been given a pretext to do so. By November, Pavel Žácek, the institute's director, had distanced himself from the Respekt story, stating publicly that he hadn't read the article before it was printed and that USTR historians who indiscriminately publicized sensitive material on boldface names "would have to go" from the institute. Recent events tell a different story. Back home from his Fulbright, Hradilek has returned to the institute while at least three leading historians have resigned, citing its politicization. As for Žácek, his superiors in the institute's governing council (a group of seven, made up of historians and former dissidents elected by the Czech senate) threatened him with dismissal, and announced in December that a competition would be held for his position in early 2009, a process in which he'd be allowed to participate. A few weeks later, in January, the council reversed course and announced that Žácek's contract had been extended for another year.

About the Author

Jana Prikryl
Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

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When Kundera spoke by phone to the Czech Press Agency the day the Respekt story was published, he grew agitated and, his voice rising, uttered a denial based on a factual assertion that was neither germane nor in dispute: "I never saw that person! I didn't know that person at all.... How could I report someone I didn't know?" (The remarks Kundera made that day were disseminated on the radio, on the web and in print, and they remain his only public comments on the subject, aside from a later threat to sue Respekt and a subsequent retraction of the threat.) Kundera called the piece an "assassination of an author"; "the only mystery is how my name got there [in the report], and I don't know how to explain that." He mentioned repeatedly to the Czech Press Agency that he had been denied a chance to comment before the article was published, and now, with the story circling the world, there wasn't "even an inch of room left for my voice. Not an inch, but a wide expanse should have been left open, since the allegation is so serious. I am simply infuriated." He also suggested that the piece was published on October 13 to coincide with the first day of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Czech writer Pavel Kohout, who was also a Communist in the '50s but has spoken openly about that chapter of his life, said in an interview with an online bookstore that Kundera's perturbation seemed to him "unKunderaesque," lacking the novelist's usual skepticism and detachment. Kohout said he would have been less surprised if Kundera had responded, in effect, "I don't see what all the fuss is about." If nobody ever saw reason to condemn Kundera for the Communist enthusiasm and propagandist poetry of his youth, why now condemn an action that is entirely consistent with that enthusiasm, making a routine police report about a random visitor, which any good comrade could have been expected to provide?

But, of course, in his writing Kundera holds the conscience to a higher standard, and that is one reason why this episode has been so hard to digest. In the novel Life Is Elsewhere, completed in 1969 and published in France in 1973, he diagnoses the adolescent insecurities and ambitions that lead his main character, the budding poet Jaromil, to join the Communist Party: at Jaromil's first party meeting, "he stopped being nervous and shy.... He had found people among whom he no longer existed as a mother's son or a student in a class, but as his own self." At the end of the book, Jaromil attains a socialist triumph of sorts when he marches over to the police station to denounce his girlfriend's brother, who opposes the regime and intends to defect: at the station, about to give his statement, "for the first time he felt he was truly facing his [interlocutor] as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man." Kundera lingers in excruciating detail on Jaromil's self-satisfaction after he has performed this service to his country: he skips out of the station, and "he didn't feel like being alone. It seemed to him that during the past hour his features had hardened, his step become firmer, and his voice more decisive. And he longed to be seen in his new incarnation." Rereading such passages (this story maps closest to the allegations against Kundera), one is perfectly aware that no biographical facts need underlie them; but one also feels that Kundera's denial--he told the Czech Press Agency, "If a person were going to do something like this, they'd have to have a motive; I have no memory of that woman [Militká]"--conceals the inner complexity that his novels often bitterly bring to light.

For very different reasons, Kundera's defenders and critics were eager to put the episode in its historical context. Two days after the story broke, a literary historian named Zdenek Pešat released a statement claiming that, in 1950, Miroslav Dlask, the boyfriend of Militká's mentioned in the police report, had told him that he had gone to the police with Dvorácek's name. Apparently, Kundera's role in the episode never came up between them. As for Dlask, he was protecting himself: Pešat was then a third-year student in the university's philosophy department and a member of the department's Communist committee, to whom Dlask turned because he felt he should inform both the police and the party of Dvorácek's presence in the dorm. Pešat said that at the time he never divulged Dlask's role in Dvorácek's arrest but now felt it was his duty to come forward, given the accusations being made about Kundera. Pešat then gave an interview saying that Kundera called him the day after he'd spoken up, and they were otherwise strangers. Another troop of columnists pointed out that Pešat's account did nothing to exonerate Kundera: couldn't both men have gone to the police? It was a question that couldn't be pursued, because Pešat's statement mentioned that he was seriously ill, bedridden and not able to respond to the media.

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