Late last year, as France’s six-month term in the European Union’s rotating presidency drew to a close, Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that his time at the helm be extended, while French officials hinted that the member state in waiting, the Czech Republic, would bungle its turn. The whispers were ignored, and the smaller nation assumed power–only to be embarrassed by a diplomatic crise. The Czech government had commissioned an artwork to celebrate the transition and decorate the lobby of the European Council building in Brussels. On January 12, Czech artist David Cerný unveiled a monumental sculpture whose twenty-seven pieces represented the EU’s member states: Bulgaria a network of squat toilets; France obscured by a banner announcing Grève! (“Strike!”); Germany a series of interlocking autobahns vaguely resembling a swastika; the United Kingdom conspicuous in its absence. Bulgaria demanded that its latrines be removed from the display, while Slovakia (a sausage wrapped in the Hungarian tricolor) contented itself with a formal apology. If anyone doubted Cerný’s lack of fealty toward his patron, it was soon revealed that he had pocketed the £350,000 fee meant to be shared with the twenty-six other European artists he was supposed to have tapped for collaboration on the piece. In an interview with the BBC soon after the dust-up, Cerný said that returning the money “would be sort of difficult.” By the following week he declared that he would repay the fee in full.
For Czechs who followed the Cerný flap, there was little novelty in its combination of brazen swindles and crude political provocations. In early 2008, an investigative reporter named Janek Kroupa helped Vlastimil Tlustý–then a member of the conservative ODS Party who was waging an internecine contest against Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek–to stage compromising photos of Tlustý enjoying a bath with a young woman. Apparently animated by professional curiosity, Kroupa established a fictive detective agency as a front for shopping around the images to other ODS members to see if anyone in Tlustý’s orbit had an appetite for blackmail. Jan Morava, then a 29-year-old ODS member of Parliament from a district just north of Prague, took the bait, trying to sell the photos to Mladá fronta Dnes, a national newspaper (in a deal prearranged by Kroupa). And in a remarkable twist, Morava told the “detectives” that by way of paying for the photos, he had a fresh commission to offer: he wanted to be photographed on the sly with another young woman, the 23-year-old daughter of Olga Zubová, a Green Party member whose support of ODS legislation was considered inadequate. Morava intended to use these images to suggest that Zubová’s daughter was being watched, thereby pressuring the legislator to bolster her support of ODS. The entire scheme was finally exposed in September, when Kroupa had enough evidence–much of it footage from hidden cameras–to undermine Morava. Prime Minister Topolánek called for both politicians to resign and criticized the reporter’s “provocative” approach to journalism. Morava broke into tears at the press conference in which he announced his departure. Tlustý rode it out and managed to remain in office. And despite the questions raised about his ethics, Kroupa seems only to have burnished his reputation with this manufactured exposé.
By mid-October, the Tlustý/Morava affair had been bumped from the front pages by a scandal with considerably more gravitas, though no less slavering by the media: a prominent weekly magazine claimed that in 1950, Milan Kundera had sent to prison a 22-year-old Czech who had been spying for the West. The furor this news aroused in the Czech Republic seems inseparable from the Czechs’ persistent “allergy” to the expatriate novelist. Ivan Klíma diagnosed the ailment in a 1990 interview with Philip Roth, explaining that Czechs resent Kundera for being “an indulged and rewarded child of the Communist regime [before] 1968,” too hands-off in his opposition to the party even after he began to criticize it in the ’60s, and all the while presenting his travails under Communism to the world beyond the Iron Curtain in a “simplified and spectacular way.” Now people were wondering how Kundera could have suppressed the 1950 incident for sixty years, even as he garnered international prestige for his opposition to Communism and his literary autopsies of the moral rot it breeds in the individual conscience. Perhaps he hadn’t kept the episode under wraps. Could he have recycled it in his fiction? After all, his stories and novels are full of the betrayals endemic to a totalitarian regime. Speculating on whether Kundera had pulled off a grand deception, Czech journalists spiced their accounts of the affair with scenes from his novels in which characters seem to play according to the 1950 script.
Naturally, the article that broke the Kundera story–a weird collage of historical reconstruction and literary innuendo–became a story in its own right, and the outcry about Kundera became a meta-outcry: how could allegations touching a nerve so central to Czech history be slapped together for the delectation of a tabloid readership? Serious writers and historians were aghast, and many wrote pieces trying to show why, if Kundera had betrayed someone to the police, the political climate of the 1950s might mitigate his guilt. The story’s relative longevity was sustained by Kundera’s refusal to offer more than a summary denial, one that unfortunately tended to raise more questions than it answered. It’s impossible to reach a final conclusion about the episode without a more forthcoming statement from him, because the degree of blame he might bear is so deeply tied to his motives at the time and how much he knew about the Western agent–when, and if, he may have given his name to the police. At the same time, the best intentions of journalists trying to give Kundera the benefit of the doubt by cleaving to the subjunctive in writing about the allegations have usually collapsed beyond the first wordy sentences: among the many Czech articles that I read on this subject, including those defending Kundera, only a handful stubbornly avoided the conclusiveness of the past tense. Ironically, as more writers joined the scrum of Kundera’s defense, the more tightly his name became associated with the episode and the less credible his denial appeared.
Skirmishes over the Czech Republic’s Communist past have been part of its political life for almost two decades, and the media have proven adept at profiting from them. An unfortunate precedent was set shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when widespread doubts about the new government’s legitimacy led to the enactment of a controversial “lustration” law. A closed parliamentary commission was established to vet a wide range of public officials: former senior members of the Communist Party and agents of the Státní bezpecnost (secret police, or StB) were banned from public office and other administrative positions for five years. So, too, was anyone who had signed a document agreeing to collaborate with the StB. But people had signed the agreements for different reasons and then collaborated to very different degrees, and the new law disregarded all that. Former dissidents, who had been special targets of the StB, could now find themselves blacklisted because their name appeared on the wrong list. The irony was that in shrouding the deliberations in secrecy and diverting them from open judicial review, lustration may “have helped to inhibit discussion of the past in general,” a 1999 assessment of the law in Central Europe Review concludes. “The last two decades of Communist rule remain almost entirely unexplored in [Czech] academic or popular history.”
Yet the newly freed Czech press did not leave the past unexplored, after its manner. Since the early ’90s, lists of people whose names appeared in still-classified StB archives were published by Petr Cibulka, a former member of Charter 77, leading to many painful reckonings. In 1999, when Cibulka published a second edition of the list in book form, it sold five times as many copies as the average work of fiction. (These days Cibulka posts the list online, making it easier to search for people by name and date of birth.) Two years ago in a government project called Otevrená minulost (Open Past), the StB archives were opened to the public for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, in part to respond to what one ODS member called “a growing pressing need to find a systematic solution to this problem, where we have new cases [of Communist collaboration] appearing every month.” But organizing, declassifying and digitizing the vast trove of secret police archives only made it easier for enterprising reporters to dig through files looking for famous names that might make headlines: and dig they did, resulting in a fresh spate of revelations in the daily tabloids.
The weekly Respekt is generally considered a wide-ranging, right-of-center magazine that publishes political analysis and cultural reviews. Last fall it was Respekt that published the allegations against Kundera, in a piece titled “Milan Kundera’s Denunciation.” It reads like a detective story, with its authors, Adam Hradilek and Petr Trešnák, mustering 6,000 words of derring-do, drama and inevitability around a 250-word police report that Hradilek found in the archive of his employer, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR, in its Czech acronym), while doing some research for a relative. (He did not quite stumble upon the item: he had been told, before searching the files, that Kundera might be involved.) Given the brevity of the report and the absence of corroborating material evidence, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Respekt article is the iron grip it maintains on a single interpretation of the pregnant source document. To reinforce its thesis, the article was packaged for maximum impact using all the modern tools of media suasion: an illustration of Kundera looking mischievous and intellectual filled the magazine’s cover, and a teaser promised “the story of a man who in 1950 was put in prison for fourteen years by the famous writer.” Respekt must have seeded the skies with notices, for on the Sunday before the story’s publication on October 13 Kundera’s alleged transgression was already being discussed on the evening news. No one involved comes away entirely clean from this episode–except the story’s unfortunate, sidelined subject, Miroslav Dvorácek, the man Kundera had allegedly denounced, who moved to Sweden after serving fourteen years of a twenty-two-year sentence. He is now 81 and refuses to talk to the press.
Yet the article, however bold its promotion, was based on an archival document later separately verified as authentic. (A photograph of the original typed page was printed alongside the article in Respekt.) According to the report, on March 14, 1950, a 20-year-old student named Milan Kundera appeared at a Prague police station. Kundera, a student at the Kolonka dormitory, which served several local universities, reported that a visitor had left his suitcase in a fellow student’s room. The visitor was a young man named Miroslav Dvorácek, and he had stowed his suitcase in the room of an old friend, a woman named Iva Militká, Kundera apparently said. She had mentioned this to her boyfriend, Miroslav Dlask. “Based on this declaration,” the report continues, two officers went to the dorm, inspected the suitcase and questioned Militká. (The report, just a half page of text, clicks like a row of falling dominoes, the phrases “based on this” and “according to that” alternating to chart how one piece of information led to the next.) “According to Militká’s declaration,” Dvorácek had “allegedly” deserted the army and “might have been” living illegally in Germany for the past year. A look in official logbooks revealed that Dvorácek was indeed a wanted man. “Based on this discovery,” two senior officers were stationed in Militká’s room. Around 8 pm “the aforementioned Dvorácek actually entered the room” and was arrested. The surprise of all concerned, including the writer of the report, that so much tediously compiled data had ended up revealing a real live enemy of the people seems preserved in the amber of that adverb “actually.” He actually showed! We actually got him!
In their article, Hradilek and Trešnák do not mention Militká’s involvement in Dvorácek’s arrest. Nor, until their final paragraphs, do they reveal a colossal conflict of interest: Militká is Hradilek’s great-aunt, and though Hradilek says he has seen her only a few times in his life and “has no relationship with her,” he initially looked into the episode as a favor to his cousin Matej Dlask, her grandson, who wanted to help his grandmother write her memoirs. When Matej asked Hradilek to investigate the story, he also mentioned “Kundera’s possible role.” Militká had eventually married Dlask, and according to the Respekt article, only in the ’90s did Dlask admit to her that back in 1950 he had told Milan Kundera about Dvorácek’s visit. (This too cannot be verified: Dlask died in the 1990s.) For Hradilek, perhaps this sequence of events supports his version of the story and discredits Kundera’s denial; because the police report he found names Kundera, as Matej said it might, it seems to bear out Militká’s claim about her husband’s admission. But of course it also raises the question of whether Hradilek began combing through old police files for less than altruistic reasons.
Another thing the Respekt story obscures is that, based on the police document’s careful attention to the timeline of the arrest–its punctilious record of the sources and sequence of new information–Kundera was reporting an anomaly and appears to have been unaware that he was exposing a fugitive. This crucial fact was also elided in newsy encapsulations abroad. The Times of London, in an otherwise accurate piece, translated the police report as follows, with ellipses: “Student Milan Kundera, born April 1, 1929 in Brno…reported to our department…Dvoracek, reportedly a deserter who had illegally fled to Germany.” The statement following the second ellipsis pertains to facts supplied by Militká, yet this redaction implicates Kundera. Adding to the confusion, some of Kundera’s defenders unwittingly misconstrued his role in the incident. Ivan Klíma wrote a thoughtful commentary for Lidové noviny, a Czech paper, exploring the episode’s ambiguities and maintaining that Kundera was entitled to the presumption of innocence. Yet Klíma proceeded on the assumption that, if the allegations were true, Kundera had known he was reporting a Western agent. “To know of someone who arrived in the country illegally, and to hide him, meant abetting treason,” Klíma wrote. Trying to offer a plea of self-defense on behalf of Kundera, he instead set up a false hypothesis that deepened his friend’s guilt.
As misunderstandings and speculations piled up, Hradilek himself came under scrutiny. He is a 32-year-old researcher at the USTR, with a general arts degree from Charles University and some three years’ experience collecting oral histories. The Czech government established the USTR as a research body early last year to study human rights abuses that occurred in Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1989, under both Nazis and Communists, which in its bureaucratspeak the institute calls “the time of nonfreedom.” Last spring it hired Hradilek to interview Czechs about life before 1989 and to help organize the archive that was to contain these accounts. The question was, Why had Hradilek published the incendiary Kundera claims in the splashiest manner possible, while at the same time touting, in his Respekt byline, his affiliation with the apparently impartial USTR? The institute had added to the impression that the article was a coproduction between itself and the magazine by posting the original police report on the institute website just as the story hit newsstands (Hradilek had shown the piece to a USTR press officer five days before publication, and the institute decided to pre-empt a media onslaught by putting the police report online). The USTR publishes the monthly journal Pamet’ a Dejiny (Memory and History), so historians were astonished that the story had not been vetted by the institute and published under its own auspices.
Not long ago I spent an hour on the phone with Hradilek. He seemed like a smart, congenial guy, just returned from a three-month Fulbright at Columbia University, where he’d managed to sit out the worst of the media hurricane. If there was opportunism in his pursuit of the story’s publication–and he told me he considered it “my personal finding”–it seemed balanced by his belief that the Czech Republic needs to confront the hard facts of what happened under Communism, one fragment of the ugly mosaic being the police report he’d found, whose sixty-year-old ink indelibly named Kundera. Yet as we spoke I sensed that the sheer gravity surrounding that famous name pulled a lot of control and discretion out of Hradilek’s hands, and the story, bigger than his own experience and reputation in the world, simply got away from him. Speaking with a Czech journalist in October, he acknowledged that the article’s headline was “very harsh” and mentioned that he planned to publish a more complete version of his research into the Dvorácek episode in an academic journal.
Hradilek said that he’d declined at the outset to write such a piece for Pamet’ a Dejiny because he had researched the Kundera story in his spare time and found the police report in a USTR archive that is open to the public. He was under pressure to publish sooner rather than later because a number of other journalists had sniffed out the story and were prepared to scoop him. How had the story leaked? He said it was known to many of his relatives, thus word of the police report had eventually reached the ears of “maybe around fifty people,” plus about “ten journalists.” And last summer, while helping Petr Trešnák, who was an editor at Respekt, assemble documents for another article, Hradilek told him about the police report. It was no surprise to Trešnák: apparently he’d already heard about it, and Trešnák said that Respekt would be interested in publishing a co-written piece, for which he would supply additional facts about Kundera’s life and fiction. The editors wanted to run the piece in October, in a back-to-school issue that would have a wider circulation among universities. This seemed like an excellent idea to Hradilek. At the same time, Hradilek told me that what disappointed him most was the “hysteria” the story provoked in the Czech Republic. He speculates that Kundera’s own reaction was colored by reports in France (where the novelist has lived since 1975) that misread the Respekt article and suggested that Kundera had collaborated with the secret police, which, Hradilek said, “simply isn’t true.”
He also told me that his first draft of the Respekt piece focused solely on Dvorácek’s story. The magazine and Trešnák then revised it so that Dvorácek’s desperate tale was braided together with the rise of young Milan Kundera, with the intersection of their lives finding echoes in Kundera’s fiction. “Milan Kundera’s Denunciation” features several cutaways to episodes in the writer’s oeuvre, and in each case the word “inspiration” makes a suggestive appearance, implying that not only did Kundera perpetrate the deed in question but that perhaps he is also a literary fraud, refusing to acknowledge that scenes in his novels are modeled on and indebted to a youthful trespass. Hradilek scoffed at the notion that Pamet’ a Dejiny would have published such a controversial story in its own pages: “No one here at the USTR would be trying to dig up something on Kundera, because then it would be really like an inquisition institute.” What did seem to irk him was the notion that Kundera might have a principled reason for keeping quiet about his Communist background: “opportunistic” was the word Hradilek used to describe the novelist’s activities in his youth, when he “entered the Communist Party around 1948, then was expelled and then asked again for admission in 1953, and was accepted in 1956. This is crazy; this is like entering the NSDAP [the National Socialist Party] in 1944!”
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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?”