Milan Kundera

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Milan Kundera

Ahmad Mujtaba

The Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
We Never Had

On July 12, the world-famous Czech-French writer Milan Kundera who is considered one of the biggest names in European literature in recent decades passed away at the age of 94. Best-known for his 1984 novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Kundera was a poetic and satirical author whose novels won praise for their observation of both politics and everyday life. He was known for dark, provocative novels dealing with the human condition and sprinkled with satire reflecting his experience of being stripped of his Czech nationality for dissent.
Kundera was born on 1 April 1929 in Brno, into an elite Czech family. His father was an accomplished pianist and musicologist who ensured that Kundera received musical training at an advanced level. So, he studied music with his father before turning to writing, becoming a lecturer in world literature at Prague’s film academy in 1952. Despite rejecting the socialist realism required of writers in 50s Czechoslovakia, his literary reputation grew with the publication of a series of poems and plays, including an ode to the communist hero Julius Fučík, Poslední máj (The Last May), published in 1955.
Kundera joined the ruling Communist Party but was expelled from it twice; once after “anti-communist activities” in 1950 and again in 1970 during the clampdown that followed the 1968 Prague Spring, of which he was one of the leading voices, publicly calling for freedom of speech and equal rights for all. His first novel, 1967’s Žert (The Joke), was inspired by the period and became a great success. A polyphonic examination of fate and rationality set around a joke about Trotsky that a student writes to impress a girl, the novel vanished from bookshops and libraries after Russian tanks arrived in Wenceslas Square. He found himself blacklisted and fired from his teaching job. His novels were removed from public libraries, while the sale of his work was banned in Czechoslovakia.
After losing hope that Czechoslovakia would ever reform, he moved to France in 1975, lost his Czech nationality in 1979 and became a French citizen in 1981. His 1979 work “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” spanned seven narratives and containing elements of the magic realism genre. Championed by his friend Philip Roth, who published Kundera as part of his series Writers from the Other Europe, it was the publication of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in 1984 that confirmed his status as an international star. Set in the heady atmosphere of Prague in 1968, the novel follows two couples as they struggle with politics and infidelity, examining the tension between freedom and responsibility. Weaving together themes of love and exile, politics and the deeply personal, Kundera’s novel won critical acclaim, earning him a wide readership among Westerners who embraced his anti-Soviet subversion.
This novel was, however, available in Czech since 1985 from a compatriot who founded a publishing house in exile in Canada. It topped the best-seller list for weeks and, the following year, Kundera won the State Award for Literature for it.
Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film adaptation, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, ensured Kundera’s ascension into the literary stratosphere. In 1985, he received the Jerusalem Prize – a prize given to writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society.
Nesmrtelnost (Immortality), Kundera’s last novel written in Czech, was published in 1988. This philosophical novel of ideas opened the way for three short novels written in French – La Lenteur (1995), L’Identité (1998) and L’Ignorance (2000) – meditating on nostalgia, memory and the possibility of a homecoming.
The ban on his writings in Czechoslovakia lasted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 which pushed communists from power and Kundera’s nation was reborn as the Czech Republic, but by then he had made a new life – and a complete identity – in his attic apartment on Paris’s Left Bank.
After 40 years away, apart from brief and low-key visits to their homeland, Kundera’s and his wife Vera’s Czech citizenship was finally restored in 2019. It was 30 years after former Czechoslovakia shed the Moscow-steered Communist rule in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and 26 years after the country’s peaceful split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
He returned to the Czech Republic rarely, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. His final works, written in French, were never translated into Czech.
Kundera translated works by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. He also taught at a film school, where his students included the future Oscar-winning director Milos Forman. He was frequently touted as a favourite to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but he never did.

The writer is an avid reader of literature.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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