Kundera and forgetting

“The author is transformed into a figure in a novel,” writes Martin M. Šimečka, commenting on the revelation that in 1950 Milan Kundera—then a film student, later a world-famous novelist—visited his local police station and informed on Miroslav Dvořáček, a young Czech pilot working undercover in Prague for a Western intelligence agency. After Kundera tipped off the police, Dvořáček was arrested and eventually served fourteen years laboring as a prisoner in a uranium mine, according to a report by Adam Hradilek of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes published in the Czech journal Respekt. Rachel Donadio has a concise account in today’s New York Times. Kundera has denied the charge outright, calling it “a total lie” and suggesting that it’s an attempt at an “author assassination” timed to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The headline of the lead story in today’s Lidové noviny: “Is Kundera Lying about his Past?” The newspaper writes that “Milan Kundera affirms that he did not betray the spy Miroslav Dvořáček to the police, but it’s difficult to explain the existence of the police record any other way.” An online follow-up article in Respekt by Petr Třešňák considers the possibilities for reconciling the typescript that incriminates Kundera with his protestations of innocence. Might a friend of Kundera’s have stolen his citizen’s identity card and impersonated Kundera while denouncing the spy? Given that Czechoslovakia at the time was a morbidly hysterical police state, running show trials and torturing prisoners, it’s unlikely anyone would have taken such a pointless risk.

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has posted an English-language biography of Dvořáček, along with links to documents relating to him in security archives, including the police memo that names Kundera as the informer.

To some American readers it may come as a surprise that Kundera was once a true believer in Communism. In the West, he’s been able to suppress that epoch in his biography, as I explained in “Kundera Is Elsewhere,” one of two articles that I wrote about Kundera for Lingua Franca in October 1999:

In the mid-1980s, the dissident Milan Jungmann accused Kundera of having misled Westerners about the extent of his Communist past—of having “turned his biography into kitsch for uninitiated foreign readers.” “Half of my life I spent as a relatively unknown Czech intellectual,” Kundera had told Philip Roth in 1984. Nonsense, Jungmann countered. In fact, Kundera’s name was “a household word” in the 1950s and 1960s. “He was the best-known spokesman of a wave undermining the borders between socialist and world culture,” Jungmann wrote. Kundera’s poetry, articles, speeches, and plays were eagerly anticipated and widely acclaimed. He won the Klement Gottwald State Prize in 1963 and taught for years in the tony Prague film school that launched the Czech New Wave. In The Joke, Kundera would mock the propaganda surrounding the Stalinist culture hero Julius Fučík, a communist journalist executed by the Nazis. But as Derek Sayer notes in his indispensable history The Coasts of Bohemia (Princeton, 1998), in 1955 Kundera was still so much a part of that culture that one of his own poems portrayed Fučík as a sort of Marxist Christ.

In Kundera’s defense, the literary critic Jan Trefulka pointed out last summer in Lidové noviny that “The political loosening of the 1960s did not happen of its own accord.” A longtime friend of Václav Havel’s, Trefulka, too, was a communist before the Russian invasion turned him into an impeccably credentialed dissident. The Prague Spring owed much to intellectuals of Kundera’s and Trefulka’s ilk, who laid the groundwork for liberalization inside the Party.

These fierce disputes about Kundera’s artistic and political past have been little reported in the West, and here, too, one senses the power of translation’s almost invisible hand. The Russian invasion forcibly changed Kundera from a Czech writer into an international writer, whose books were read mainly in foreign languages. Thanks to circumstance and copyright law, Kundera was given an opportunity that most mature artists can only dream about: He was able to decide which of his works he wanted the world to judge him by. Defensibly enough, he has quarantined his early socialism-tinged work. Hard as it is for Czechs to read Kundera’s late, capitalist novels, it is much harder for Westerners to read his early, communist poetry and essays. The Czechs, as a result, know a Kundera even more muddied, human, and self-contradictory than the rest of the world knows.