Milan Kundera, exiled Czech author and dissident, dies in Paris aged 94

Fiction writer’s satirical take on one-party state got his works banned in former Czechoslovakia

File: Czech writer Milan Kundera poses in a garden in Prague on October 14, 1973. (AFP)
File: Czech writer Milan Kundera poses in a garden in Prague on October 14, 1973. (AFP)

Milan Kundera, the author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” whose dark, provocative novels delved into the enigma of the human condition, has died, a spokeswoman for the Milan Kundera Library in his native city of Brno said on Wednesday. He was 94.

“Unfortunately I can confirm that Mr Milan Kundera passed away yesterday (Tuesday) after a prolonged illness,” she said.

Through his characteristic satire and poetic prose Kundera had sought to express all that is compelling and absurd about life, drawing on his experiences of being stripped of his Czech nationality for dissent.

Life, he said in his work of criticism “Art of the Novel” (1986), “is a trap we’ve always known: we are born without having asked to be, locked in a body we never chose, and destined to die.”

Young rebel

Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in the town of Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia. His father was a famous pianist.

He studied in Prague, where he joined the Communist Party, translated the French poet Apollinaire and wrote poetry of his own.

File: Czech-born writer Milan Kundera (C) attends the 20th anniversary party of the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy’s review “La regle du jeu” (The rules of the game) in Paris on November 30, 2010. (Miguel MEDINA/AFP)

He also taught at a film school where his students included the future Oscar-winning director Milos Forman.

Although he professed faithfulness to communism, the independent spirit of Kundera’s writing soon got him into trouble.

He was expelled from the party in 1950, re-joined in 1956, and was expelled a second time in 1970 after the Prague Spring reform movement — in which he was seen as playing a role — was crushed.

Locked out

Kundera’s first novel “The Joke,” a work of dark humor about the one-party state published in 1967, led to a ban on his writing in Czechoslovakia while also making him famous in his homeland.

In 1975, he and his wife Vera went into exile in France, where he worked for four years as an assistant professor at the University of Rennes. They were stripped of their Czech nationality in 1979.

File: A man reads the first publication in Czech of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in Cafe Slavia in Prague, November 9, 2006. (MICHAL CIZEK/AFP)

In his adopted home, where he became a citizen in 1981, his reputation and success grew as translations of his novels appeared, such as “Life is Elsewhere” (1973) set in Czechoslovakia about a poet entrapped by the Communist regime.

“The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1979) playfully explored through seven interlinked narratives the nature of forgetting in politics, history, and daily life.

The novel was “brilliant and original,” said the New York Times in 1980, “written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out.”

Kundera was an author “fascinated by sex, and prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination, and recent Czech history,” said the Times reviewer, John Updike.

By far his most famous work, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was published in 1984 and turned into a film starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis in 1987.

The novel is a morality tale about freedom and passion, on both an individual and collective level, set against the Prague Spring and its aftermath in exile.

It was not published in the Czech Republic until 2006, 17 years after the Velvet Revolution, although it was available in Czech since 1985 from a compatriot who founded a publishing house in exile in Canada.

No going back?

Kundera’s critics say he turned his back on fellow Czechs and dissidents following his exile in France.

Kundera was forced to revisit his past in 2008, when the Czech Republic’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes produced documentation indicating that in 1950, as a 21-year-old student, Kundera told police about someone in his dormitory. The man was ultimately convicted of espionage and sentenced to hard labor for 22 years.

File: A visitor to the Milan Kundera Library in Brno, Czech Republic reads a book by the Czech novelist on April 6, 2023. (Radek Mica/AFP)

The researcher who released the report, Adam Hradilek, defended it as the product of extensive research on Kundera.

“He has sworn his Czech friends to silence, so not even they are willing to speak to journalists about who Milan Kundera is and was,” Hradilek said at the time.

Kundera said the report was a lie, telling the Czech CTK news agency it amounted to “the assassination of an author.”

In a 1985 profile — which is among the longest and most detailed on record, and examines Kundera’s life in Paris — the author foreshadowed how much even that admission must have pained him.

“For me, indiscretion is a capital sin. Anyone who reveals someone else’s intimate life deserves to be whipped. We live in an age when private life is being destroyed. The police destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it,” he told the writer Olga Carlisle. “Life when one can’t hide from the eyes of others — that is hell.”

In 2013, Kundera published his first novel after a 13-year hiatus.

“The Festival of Insignificance,” about five friends in Paris, received mixed reviews, with The Atlantic noting its “near-impenetrable irony” and The Guardian deeming it a “stinker.”

What Kundera “has to tell us seems to have less relevance,” said the New York Times. “You can’t help wondering what his evolution would have been like if he had stayed, or stayed longer, in Czechoslovakia.”

In 2019, the Czech Republic restored his nationality and in 2023 the Milan Kundera Library opened in his hometown of Brno.

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