Czech Republic Magazine

Milan Kundera: an ongoing struggle with Prague, forgetfulness and Central Europe’s uniqueness

On April 1, Milan Kundera celebrated his 90th birthday. This anniversary month seems like the perfect opportunity to evoke his contentious relation with his home country, the Czech Republic, (although he was born in then-Czechoslovakia), and its capital city, Prague.

This oft-debated and controversial question usually overtakes the substance and nature of his work itself : the manner in which Kundera fled Communist-era Czechoslovakia, his refusal to translate his French books into Czech, the allegations of collaboration with the StB feed a flow of countless gossip and polemics regarding the reclusive, world-famous, Brno-born author.

However, people tend to forget that if Kundera did physically leave his native country, the Czech Republic, and Prague especially, have left a deep and lasting mark on his novels and various writings. Obsessed by the enigmatic aura of Prague, Kundera spent years trying to clear up its mystery — or, on the contrary, darkening still the legend of the Czech capital.

Kundera, a deeply-engraved obsession with Prague

Throughout Kundera’s books, Prague is indeed depicted in a truly disturbing manner: under his pen, the Czech capital becomes a mythical and treacherous entity. Prague seems to be a full-grown character of his novels, or at least an unavoidable inspiration. Kundera shares with the Central European authors he admires, like Kafka, an obsession with the polymorphic and muddled capital.

In a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Kafka wrote: “Prague doesn’t let go. Of either of us. This old crone has claws. One has to yield, or else. We would have to set fire to it on two sides, at the Vyšehrad and at the Hradčany; then it would be possible for us to get away.” In his writings, the exiled writer conveys the same image of an odd, worrying city — a place without escape — even for a man who left it decades ago.

For Kundera, Prague is the place of forgetting; a city slowly slipping into an almost chosen oblivion. As in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, streets lose their identity along with their names, to such an extent that the residents themselves seem unable to recognize the place they dwell for years.

Prague’s polymorphic and ever-changing identity

That is the case of Tamina’s street. Tamina is one of the main characters, and even more, the character for whom The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, according to Kundera, was written. She was born in the Schwerinova street during the German occupation; her father was born in the Tchernokostelecka avenue in the days of Austria-Hungary; her mother came to live with her father in the Marshal-Foch avenue after the First World War; Tamina grew up in the Stalin avenue; and she left the Vinohrady avenue to live with her husband.

Despite this abundance of diverse names, this is the same street all along. Prague becomes a fantastic town in the true sense of the word, eluding its own reality in the fictional universe of Kundera.

Prague is languidly losing its consistency, a laboratory which demonstrates the ineluctable decay of memories the world endures, sliding into oblivion. “The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.”, Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Exactness and uniqueness as an antidote to oblivion?

At the very beginning of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera briefly describes a photograph of the Communist leader Klement Gottwald haranguing a crowd on Prague’s Old Town Square. Like many other Communist-era pictures, this one was altered by the censorship authorities: the face of Vlado Clementis, then persona non grata, was erased.

This picture became the embodiment of the state of forgetting which paralysed the Prague of Kundera’s young years: a city whose memories are eaten and drowned by the Communist ideology, always moving, swaying and revoking itself. Forgetfulness and oblivion is a totalitarian weapon — an idea and a fear which will durably change Kundera’s way of writing and his perception of truth, particularly literary truth.

Moving to France in 1975, Kundera invests his time in a battle against the institutionalized forgetting he encountered in Czechoslovakia, as much in his writing as in reality — and seemingly against all kinds of forgetting. He explores the idea of exactness, for example in the Unbearable Lightness of Being. In this book, arguably his most famous one, he goes into an exhaustive description of the way words can be perceived differently depending on the person reading them — through the characters of Sabina and Franz, he shows the width of human experience, and the inherent rightness of individual perception — against forgetting, which tends to overthrow personal thought and individual opinion.

Kundera, Prague and the mission of translation

In his search for exhaustiveness and exactness, Kundera develops a deep interest for translation. In his essay Testaments Betrayed, he examines three translations of an extract of Kafka’s The Castle, and eventually adds a fourth of his own making; he observes with great precision the wide-ranging and consequential impact of each little betrayal of the original text. Kundera seems to be obsessed with the idea of rightness, exactness and respect for the original text.

In this regard, he takes a strong stance against the deformation and misinterpretation of his own texts. In an interview for the Corriere della Sera, prominent French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut asked him why he simplified the elaborated style he had in the first novel, The Joke. Surprised by this question, Kundera later proofread the French version and discovered the numerous metaphors added in the first translation. He revised from top to bottom, twice, the French translation of The Joke, judging that his original words had been betrayed. He later confessed that, over the years, the correction, editing and proofreading of the translations of his books became his main activity.

Kundera defends the absolute uniqueness of each word and the inalienable truth they contain and convey. That’s one of the main reasons why he refuses that his last novels, originally written in French, be translated into Czech language — considering that no one is able to translate his books from the language he adopted to his own mother tongue (even though they’re translated into dozens of other languages throughout the world). Although this choice strongly contributed to further alienating his Czech readers, we can appreciate his decision to stay true to the same ideas he conveys in his books.

Kundera, an inherently Central European author?

Kundera, despite his exile, has been deeply influenced by his experience and years spent in Czechoslovakia. Over the decades, he always remained convinced of the idea of an intimate and revengeful Prague, torn between lightness and weight, remembrance and forgetting. Throughout his work, Milan Kundera quintessentially stays a Central European writer, as well as a witty witness and subtle spokesman of Central Europe’s reality.

In his novels as much as in his essays, he emphasized the need to recollect and highlight the uniqueness, the odd fate of his native region in the modern world  — as in The Stolen West or The Tragedy of Central Europe, where he anchors himself within the long-lasting traditions of Central Europe, in spite of his flight of 1975. With his clever and hopeless novels, Milan Kundera fully belongs to the hall of fame of his beloved European literature.

Written by Louise Ostermann Twardowski

A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Feel free to check out her other articles here!

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.

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