PARIS (AP) – Milan Kundera, whose dissident writings in communist Czechoslovakia turned him into an exiled satirist of totalitarianism, has died in Paris at the age of 94, Czech media said on Wednesday.
Kundera’s famous novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens harrowingly with Soviet tanks rolling through Prague, the Czech capital that was the author’s home until he moved to France in 1975.
Kundera’s novel, which combines themes of love and exile, politics and the deeply personal, was critically acclaimed and garnered a wide readership among Westerners, who appreciate both his anti-Soviet subversion and the eroticism permeated by many of his works draws, welcomed.
“If someone had said to me as a boy: One day you will see your nation disappear from the world, I would have thought that nonsense, something I could not possibly have imagined. “A man knows he is mortal, but he assumes that his nation has some kind of eternal life,” he told author Philip Roth in a 1980 New York Times interview, a year before he became a French citizen.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution ousted the Communists from power and Kundera’s nation was reborn as the Czech Republic, but by then he had carved out a new life – and a full identity – in his attic apartment on the left bank of the Seine in Paris.
To say his relationship with his native country was complex would be an understatement. Even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he rarely and incognito returned to the Czech Republic. His last works written in French were never translated into Czech. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which garnered him critical acclaim and was filmed in 1988, was not released in the Czech Republic until 2006, 17 years after the Velvet Revolution, although it had been available in Czech since 1985 from a compatriot living in exile in Canada founded a publishing company. It was at the top of the bestseller list for weeks, and the following year Kundera won the State Prize for Literature for it.
Kundera’s wife, Vera, was an indispensable companion to a reclusive man who eschewed technology—his translator, his social secretary, and ultimately his buffer against the outside world. It was she who nurtured his friendship with Roth by acting as a linguistic broker, and — according to a 1985 profile of the couple — it was she who took his calls and managed the inevitable demands of a world-famous author.
The writings of Kundera, whose first novel, The Joke, begins with a young man who is sent to the mines after taking lightly communist slogans, were banned in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 , when he also lost his own position as a professor of cinema. He has been writing novels and plays since 1953.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” follows a dissident surgeon from Prague to exile in Geneva and back home again. Refusing to bow to the communist regime, surgeon Tomas is forced to become a window cleaner and uses his new job to arrange sex with hundreds of female clients.
Ultimately, Tomas spends his final days in the country with his wife Tereza, their life becoming both more dreamy and tangible as time goes by.
Jiri Srstka, Kundera’s Czech literary agent at the time of the book’s final release in the Czech Republic, said the author himself delayed publication there, fearing it might be poorly edited.
“Kundera had to reread the entire book, rewriting sections, making additions, and revising the entire text. So, given his perfectionism, this was a long-term task, but now readers will get the book that Milan Kundera believes should exist,” Ststka told Radio Praha at the time.
Kundera refused to appear on camera, declined to make any annotations when his entire published work was released in 2011, and would not allow digital copies of his writings. In a speech to the French National Library in June 2012 – reread by a friend on French radio – he said he feared for the future of literature.
“It seems to me that time, which is marching on relentlessly, is beginning to endanger the books. That’s why I’ve had a clause in all my contracts for a number of years that says they can only be published in the traditional form of a book, that they can only be read on paper and not on a screen,” he says. “People walk the streets, they no longer have contact with their fellow human beings, they don’t even see the houses they pass, they have cables hanging from their ears. They gesture that they should, they don’t look at anyone and nobody looks at them. I ask myself: Do you still read books at all? It’s possible, but for how much longer?”
His loyalty to the printed word meant that readers were able to find Kundera reviews and biographies to download, but not his works themselves.
Despite his strict protection of his private life – he gave only a handful of interviews and limited his biographical information to the bare minimum – Kundera was forced to deal with his past in 2008 when the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes of the Czech Republic produced documents to that effect that Kundera In 1950, as a 21-year-old student, he told the police about someone in his dorm. The man was eventually convicted of espionage and sentenced to 22 years of hard labor.
The researcher who published the report, Adam Hradilek, defended it as the result of extensive research on Kundera.
“He swore silence to his Czech friends, so even they are not willing to talk to journalists about who Milan Kundera is and was,” Hradilek said at the time.
Kundera said the report was a lie, telling Czech news agency CTK that it was about “the murder of an author”.
In a 1985 profile – one of the longest and most detailed ever, examining Kundera’s life in Paris – the author hinted at how much this admission must have pained him.
“For me, indiscretion is a mortal sin. Anyone who reveals another’s intimate life deserves a flogging. We live in a time where privacy is being destroyed. In communist countries it is destroyed by the police, in democratic countries it is threatened by journalists, and gradually people themselves lose their desire and sense of private life,” he told the writer Olga Carlisle. “Life when you can’t hide from the eyes of others – that’s hell.”