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

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The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt

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Other writers and historians pointed out that Kundera was the student head of his dormitory, and as such responsible for order there; once Dlask told him about Dvorácek's presence, Kundera would have felt under pressure to report the incident--lest Dlask (or anybody else who noticed the overnight guest in Militká's room) go to the police himself and report both Dvorácek's arrival and Kundera's shirking of his duty. A historian told the daily Právo that people often reported one another because they didn't know if a suspicious person had been planted by the secret police to test their loyalty to the party. Failure to make such a report could earn you six to ten years in prison. But did every Czech report on every other? How much duress would Kundera have been under? Questions of loyalty and conscience became so perplexing that some Czechs commenting on the episode made perfectly contradictory statements. The writer Milan Uhde defended Kundera and said that in his place, as head of a dormitory, he also would have gone to the police. But when asked more directly if he himself would ever have reported anyone, Uhde said:

About the Author

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

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Oh, not by 1952. When I sat at the radio in 1950 with my father and heard reports from the political trials, where the son of one condemned man said that he was denouncing his father, my dad was sitting beside me and made the single political statement he ever uttered in my presence: "I thought he'd offer to put the noose around his father's neck." And I gathered from this one venomous sentence, which undercut the whole trial, that it was a monstrosity. From that moment on, to go to the police--even if only to say I'd seen two boys stealing a motorcycle--no! From then on I wouldn't dare tell the Czechoslovak police even about the most ordinary, despicable, objectively condemnable act!

Kundera's critics--or, more precisely, those who seemed disgusted by the prominent defenders he'd attracted--also looked back to the political atmosphere of the 1950s but saw it more as an omen of where the country is heading today. In an op-ed in Lidové noviny at the end of October, the literary critic and former dissident Bohumil Doležal wrote that the whole affair wasn't a question of the conduct of one writer; it was about "freedom of expression and the freedom to refer back to problematic chapters of the past." He compared the statement that Václav Havel had made in support of Kundera--if the allegation was true, Havel said, we must "try to view it through the prism of its own time"--with the logic of Czech nationalists "defending the barbarities committed against Germans in the spring and summer of 1945," when 3 million German civilians were forcibly expelled from Czechoslovakia and several hundred thousand died during the exodus. Doležal seemed to think that anyone who criticized Respekt was advocating a two-tier system of justice in which ordinary citizens would be subject to archivally aided inquiries and celebrities spared such scrutiny. He feared that the upswell of support for Kundera cast doubt on Czech democracy, which is "based on faith in the public, in its ability to judge what is true and what is a lie, and on the faith that the public is grown up and doesn't need curators."

But this line of argument was disingenuous, since the majority of Respekt's critics weren't saying celebrities were off-limits; they were simply advocating for consistent standards in bringing archival discoveries about the Communist era to light. After all, it wasn't just the breathless tone of "Milan Kundera's Denunciation" that upset people; its sly methods were equally disturbing. In the article, Hradilek mentions that he had earlier sent a fax to Kundera, giving him a chance to comment on the matter, but that the novelist had chosen to maintain his silence. When the fax was posted on Respekt's website two days after the story broke, it was shown to contain no word about the police report and no reference to the imminent Respekt article or the USTR, only a request from the oral historian Adam Hradilek to talk about Kundera's role in an episode Hradilek was researching, involving a young man who'd been arrested in 1950 from Kundera's college dorm. Because Kundera stopped giving interviews nearly twenty-five years ago (they "can only lead to the disappearance of the writer," he wrote in The Art of the Novel, and, he added, all his reported remarks after 1985 "are to be considered forgeries"), it seems possible that he or his wife could have discarded the fax as just another quixotic missive from medialand. In an interview, Petr Trešnák, Hradilek's co-author, fumed over Kundera's inaccessibility and truculence: "How can a person who has done everything possible over the past twenty-five years to prevent people from contacting him now complain that we didn't approach him?" Kundera, in other words, had this coming.

Whatever one concludes about Kundera's guilt, it is possible to imagine that the allegation was less dismaying to the writer than the form it took and the attention it drew. Having one's past splashed across front pages and reduced to a sound bite seems like the nightmare fulfillment of the issues Kundera has been exploring in his nonfiction for the past twenty years--a point easily missed amid the more facile claims that the central themes of his fiction were somehow "inspired" by the Dvorácek incident. An elegiac current runs through his latest book in English, The Curtain, which is also his third treatise on the novel. Like The Art of the Novel (1986) and Testaments Betrayed (1993), The Curtain is a digressive, erudite, somewhat exasperating meditation on the moral virtue of the form--and Kundera is anxious, almost hopeless, about its future. His philosophy has altered little over the course of these books: he seems to be mining the same ground more and more deeply rather than exploring fresh terrain. Besides ruminating on the history of classical music and that of the novel, he is preoccupied with the conflicting aims of art and journalism, and by the struggle of writers--Salman Rushdie and E.M. Cioran, for instance--to assert the primacy of their work over their actions and over widespread misinterpretations of both.

Kundera has little patience for public utterances not lodged in the polyvocal framework of a novel, in which every character's perspective jostles against every other character's perspective. In Testaments Betrayed, he notes that this narrative structure, invented by Rabelais and Cervantes, cultivated a new genus of morality, "the morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding." Kundera's dismay at what he sees as the novel's eclipse in Western culture--snuffed out by a pestilence of "novelized confessions, novelized journalism, novelized score-settling, novelized autobiographies, novelized indiscretions, novelized denunciations"--is clearly directed at both sides of the old Iron Curtain, at anyone presumptuous enough to request his private opinion or to write about his deeds rather than quote his published works. In The Curtain he deplores not only the "small-context terrorism" that nations like the Czech Republic have imposed on their artists, "reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland," but also the direction French culture is taking, prizing the "social resonance" of certain inferior works regardless of their limited aesthetic worth, which "demonstrates that indifference to aesthetic value inevitably shifts the whole culture back into provincialism."

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