Milan Kundera

Born 1. 4. 1929 in Brno, he lives in France since 1975.
He studied music composition and spent twelve years as a lecturer on literature in Prague Academy of the Arts. The first phase of his career was problematic. As a young man he was a convinced communist, some of his early poems celebrate the Soviet Union and the coming victory of communism. The Last May (1961) was a celebration of Julius Fučík, a communist journalist, who was jailed and executed by the Nazis. Fučík is an important case: he has been an icon for the whole of the Communist regime, a symbol of heroism and the power of the nation (and the Party, of course). It was an exaggerated, idealised and over- used case, but there is little doubt Fučík really was a strong personality and his Notes from the Gallows are a powerful read. But the Party turned him into a 100 percent perfect hero of the people, almost a saint and that’s why his name, in the minds of many Czechs, is closely connected with the regime propaganda.

Kundera’s later reflection of this part of his career was so hard that he decided not to write poetry ever again, and made him very sceptical towards any kind of idealism. His later novel, Life is Elsewhere (1969), comments on this kind of detached artistry, which may be only naive, but it can also be very dangerous. Naive idealist artists, with their distance from the practical life and their tendency to fall for monumental belief systems, can also serve brutal and unjust regimes.

Kundera himself played major role in the events of 1968. He had an important and courageous speech on the IV. Writer’s Association assembly. He addressed, among other things, the importance of artistic freedom and included references to the Party bureaucracy that were quite bold for the time.

Scepticism, dark humour and rationalism are typical of Kundera’s work since the The Joke (1965). It tells a story of a young student, who gets kicked out of the university, the party and ends with miserable prospects, all because of a joke postcard, which was recovered and interpreted as a political act. Years later he wants to take revenge on the classmate who betrayed him, but the attempt ends in grotesque, awkward situations. The motif of a paradoxical twist of fate, which turns plans against its makers, is typical of Kundera’s stories.

His later work lies on the border between fiction and essay writing. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) works both as a story and on the philosophical level, of which the movie version (1988) is said to have captured very little. Kundera himself was not happy about the adaptation and he forbade further attempts to adapt his works (only two of his short stories were adapted).
In Immortality (1990) he uses several plots to express his ideas on man and society, stating right at the beginning that the whole story is arbitrary, an improvised exercise of the mind. Among other themes, his last works Slowness (1993), Identity (1998) and Ignorance (2000), deal with the problem of emigration.

His later work is written in French. Some of it was not yet published in Czech, because he insists he must translate his books to Czech himself- and he obviously hasn’t got time to do it.

His cousin, Ludvík Kundera, is a respected Czech writer and translator.

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