The Kundera Conundrum: Kundera, Respekt and Contempt
This spring, to coincide with his eightieth birthday on April 1, Kundera's fourth book of nonfiction was published in France. Une rencontre (An Encounter) revisits his most cherished themes, and through brief meditations on a crowded gallery of writers, including Anatole France, Josef Skvorecky and Curzio Malaparte, he argues again for the fundamental autonomy of the novelist. Of course, nowhere in the book does he address the allegations of last fall. But at one point, recalling an argument he had with a journalist in the early '60s about the novelist Bohumil Hrabal, Kundera hazards a statement that one imagines he wouldn't mind having applied to himself today. Defending Hrabal's refusal to take a political stand in Communist Czechoslovakia, Kundera chided the journalist, who expected more from Hrabal: "A single book by Hrabal renders a greater service to people, to their inner freedom, than all of us with our gestures and proclamations of protest!" What a delicate scale--aesthetic works weighed against good works--for Kundera to be tipping at this point, but he seems helplessly drawn to it.
Perhaps that's because his disillusionment with "politics"--all that is not the novel--goes so deep. The novel alone preserves the essential ambiguity of existence, but in The Curtain he is also extremely doubtful about the veracity of witnesses, documents, archives: they mislead, they are misinterpreted, they obscure reality behind a curtain of received ideas. Personal memory is vulnerable in this regard too, and even his own recollection of, say, the Prague Spring, were Kundera to try to write about it autobiographically, would be "paltry, certainly full of errors, of unwitting lies." One should not be "astonished or incensed" that people mangle the past in remembering it: "What becomes of our certainties about the past, and what becomes of History itself, to which we refer every day in good faith, naively, spontaneously? Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo), stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misconstrued, an infinite realm of nontruths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal."
Kundera's great insight, however, into the instability of the past and the present is half lame on arrival. The great fertility of "nontruths" surely does not compromise every word not anchored in a piece of art. That the media tend to warp accounts of the past is surely a further incentive to correct those accounts whenever possible. But now, when what evidence there is suggests that Kundera knows more than he has said about the Dvorácek episode, he is, as ever, not talking. As specious as it is to place the civic health of the Czech Republic on Kundera's shoulders, it's also undeniable that he owes the truth, as best as he remembers it, to Miroslav Dvorácek and Iva Militká. Sometimes his antipathy toward the media seems as curdled as the Czechs' allergy to his success.
Indeed, Kundera should not be "astonished or incensed" that a young man in his former homeland sought his name in an archive and was moved to write about it in a magazine that was sure to sensationalize the story. The impulse to get the scoop is a natural one--and certainly familiar to us in the "West"--but in the Czech Republic the ambition comes spiked with a moral fervor to right the wrongs of forty blighted years. In late October the writer and editor Karel Hvížd'ala--who spent the '80s in exile in West Germany and returned to Prague after the Velvet Revolution, helping to establish several of the newspapers that now constitute the country's print media--commented on the three-way media pileup of Kundera and the members of Parliament Tlustý and Morava, and implied that the independence of the Czech press is still something of an illusion. In Western Europe, he argued, journalism is idealized as a disinterested quest to report the story, whatever that may be, but in the Czech Republic, by contrast, "journalism always served some other cause: at first, nationhood, then the building of the Czechoslovak state, then socialism, and finally capitalism. This is hard for those in Western Europe to understand."
Five weeks after "Milan Kundera's Denunciation" appeared, Martin M. Šimecka, editor in chief of Respekt, inadvertently made Hvížd'ala's point for him. Šimecka published an essay in Respekt defending Hradilek's original article and suggesting that Czechs had air-brushed their memories of the Communist era. They had failed, he said, to confront the "banality of evil" that permeated Czech life from 1948 to 1989. Apparently, Hradilek and Trešnák's speculations about Kundera, based on a sixty-year-old police report and interviews with a few survivors, but not Kundera, were part of a newly candid discourse that would correct the prettified, novelized illusions Czechs harbored about Communism. New standards were evidently needed to determine each person's responsibility for the darkness of those years: "Could a young Communist in the early '50s," Šimecka asked, "pass through that regime and, by his mere existence, which included perhaps only the raising of his hand at party meetings, avoid encroaching on the fates of other people?"
This is a remarkable, if rhetorical, question, suggesting a perspective on the past even more radical than Hradilek and Trešnák's finger-pointing: your membership in a group made you responsible for its worst crimes. It's the same iron logic that was enforced by the Communists throughout their forty years in power. It also claims amnesia to the public cleansings--like the lustration law and Cibulka's lists--that have sought, for better or worse, to weed former Communists out of positions of authority. Of course, every Czech who lived through the Communist regime must make his or her own reckoning. And Kundera seems mistaken, at best, in the fervor with which he cloaks his silence in the mantle of art. He may be damaging his legacy more by refusing to discuss that chapter of his and Dvorácek's lives--assuming he has anything to add--than he would by talking about it. But given the malignant tone of the debate, it's unsurprising that he has withdrawn, as one of his friends told a Czech newspaper, to write his last novel.
Perhaps the crowning irony of the atonement that Kundera's critics demanded of him last year is how often they seemed to be acting out scenes from his novels. Šime&cka unwittingly echoed a passage from one of the novelist's "airbrushed" works, with the crucial difference being that in Kundera's telling the overwhelming question is turned inward: "I have never voted for anyone's downfall, but I am perfectly aware that this is of questionable merit, since I was deprived of the right to raise my hand." Thus Ludvik, the main character of Kundera's first novel, The Joke, weighs his own guilt: "It's true that I've long tried to convince myself that if I had been in their position I wouldn't have acted as they did, but I'm honest enough to laugh at myself: why would I have been the only one not to raise his hand? Am I the one just man?"