The loss of life of creator Milan Kundera final week, on the age of 94, caught me unaware. I had been considering quite a bit just lately in regards to the cultural faultline that divides Central from Western Europe. I had been significantly struck by the readiness of Central Europe to soak up Anglo-American values, whereas retaining an angle in direction of life that distinguishes it from the West. Maybe greater than every other main Central European cultural determine, Kundera personified this East-West pressure.
Born within the Czech metropolis of Brno in 1929, Kundera started writing below the shadow of the Czechoslovak Stalinist regime. After Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring of 1968, he fell foul of the resurgent Communist rulers and emigrated to France in 1975. From that time on, he appeared to withdraw from any involvement in Czech affairs. He declared that he was now a French creator and started writing in French. He even sought to stop the interpretation of a few of his work into Czech.
Outwardly, he had shed all hint of his Czech background. Sections of the French cultural elite regarded Kundera as one in all their very own. After his loss of life final week, the Paris-based newspaper, Libération, acknowledged that Kundera was born Czech and died French.
That is maybe all a bit too neat. It’s seemingly that Kundera, who had turned more and more inwards through the years, died neither Czech nor French. Somewhat, he appeared to have reconciled himself to a state of homelessness. Certainly, his later novels more and more expressed a way of exclusion and estrangement from the world round him. Whether or not or not he wished to transcend or embrace the situation of being in exile, we are going to by no means know.
Many regard Kundera’s The Insufferable Lightness of Being as his most vital novel. Revealed in 1984, it revisits the Prague Spring. The primary protagonist is Tomáš, a Czech surgeon and mental. After refusing to pledge allegiance to the Soviet Union, Tomáš quits his place and turns into a window cleaner. Tomáš can be a consummate womaniser who feels the necessity to rationalise his promiscuous angle to intercourse by way of the language of philosophy. The ‘insufferable lightness’ within the novel’s title refers back to the lack of weight Tomáš attaches to intercourse and love. As a narrative of the uneasy relationship between infidelity and love, The Insufferable Lightness of Being is second to none.
Sadly, Kundera’s eagerness in The Insufferable Lightness of Being to philosophise in regards to the that means of bed-hopping can change into pompous and self-indulgent at factors. A few of Kundera’s critics, like American author Katie Roiphe, noticed this pomposity as a part of an ‘obscure Japanese European’ tendency to hunt ‘profundity in ethical lapses’. That is unfair. It’s way more seemingly that Kundera’s pop-philosophical exploration of infidelity was influenced by the French and American cultural milieu he was immersed in from the Nineteen Eighties onwards.
Kundera’s best novel is his first. The Joke, printed in 1967, affords a profound, but humorous critique of life below a repressive, bureaucratic Communist regime. Greater than every other work of fiction, The Joke exposes the blundering irrationality and inhumanity of the Stalinist system. Written with a biting irony, The Joke sheds a robust gentle on the Kafkaesque world Kundera and his fellow Czechs had been pressured to stay in.
On the similar time, Kundera efficiently defied the powers that be. Though The Joke’s launch was delayed by censors, the authorities finally agreed to publish it. The Joke confirmed to Kundera’s readers that it was attainable to discover a manner to withstand oppression by way of humour. It’s Central European literature at its finest.
Regardless of his declaration that he was a French creator, Kundera might by no means fairly uproot himself from Central Europe. His essay, ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’, printed in 1984 within the New York Evaluate of Books, confirmed how Central Europe had lengthy been integral to Western and European tradition, however the West had at all times failed to grasp this. So when Central Europe was taken by the Soviet Union in 1945, the West was unable to see this for the tragedy it actually was.
Even right this moment, Kundera’s phrases ring true. The West nonetheless doesn’t fairly get Central Europe. Its leaders definitely haven’t grasped the truth that Western civilisation is defended way more vigorously in Central Europe than elsewhere on the continent. Maybe the expertise of being subjugated for therefore lengthy has inspired Central Europeans to fiercely maintain on to Western traditions and values. In spite of everything, it is a world they as soon as thought they’d misplaced endlessly.
Milan Kundera captured this predicament like no different earlier than him. When Central Europeans communicate right this moment, they’re unmistakably his heirs.
Frank Furedi is the chief director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.
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