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Author interview. Czech novelist-in-exile Milan Kundera

His hair is white, though his face is young -- young enough, in fact, that one is tempted to think at first glance of a student. He is tall, slender, square-jawed; yet his manner is shy and reticent. The blue light that shines from his eyes quickly switches from irony to gloom like the surface of certain lakes that change from darker to lighter shades as clouds move above them in the sky. He is Milan Kundera, the Czechoslovakian writer who, along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is perhaps the most famous 'emigr'e novelist from a communist country living in the West, and probably one of the most important and signifi cant contemporary writers anywhere.

Milan Kundera's five novels -- particularly the last one (``The Unbearable Lightness of Being'') -- have become immensely popular in the West and have been translated into three dozen languages. To many critics, he towers above his con temporaries -- including the most famous Latin American, British, French, and German names that come to mind -- because of the depth of his probing and the philosophical heights that his novels explore in search of man's fate today, even though he stages trivial characters in grotesque circumstances.

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Here in the heart of Paris, on a street of the Montparnasse, the writer and his wife, Vera, live in almost total isolation in a small, fifth-floor apartment filled with books. He makes it a policy not to give interviews to the press. There are rare exceptions: A fellow writer whom he agrees to see may later write a story about the meeting.

In my particular case, after having turned me down initially, he changed his mind upon finding out that I had been a pupil of German philosopher Martin Heidegger -- considered by many to have been the most profound thinker of our time -- whom he greatly admires and who obviously has some influence on his own views.

His novels portray the crudeness of those who rule his country. He has not concealed his anger at the Russian masters who are systematically and brutally destroying the Mittel Europa culture (in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania) so as to better and more completely erase these countries' sense of national identity.

Mr. Kundera is not basically interested in politics, which he considers to be ``mere shadow theaters concealing deeper, truer, more ominous forces at work.'' Totalitarianism (of the left or right or in any guise) fills him with horror. Thus he is not tempted to place Western democracy and Russian communism in the same bag.

To believe that he was awed with admiration and respect for Western values and Western culture, after he left Prague and sought refuge in Paris, would be grossly misinterpreting his true feelings as he expressed them to me in private. On the one hand, yes, he has escaped the claws of the Soviet rulers, and to have been able to live free of fear and coercion once more is something that he values highly as an individual.

On the other hand, ``landing in Paris -- in the West for that matter -- turned out to be, intellectually speaking, a terrible letdown.'' He and other writers in central and east European countries under Soviet rule believed that in Paris a significant, striving cultural life continued even as the remnants of the Viennese cultural pole (which once inspired Bruch, Musil, Stefan Zweig, Mahler, Wittgenstein, Freud, von Hofmannsthal, Gombrowitz, Wassermann, and Kafka) were being crushed by Russia. ``We were following with a passion through every means of communication available what was going on in Paris, London, Rome, New York, in the theater, in literature, in music.''

But when Mr. Kundera made his safe landing in Paris, he discovered ``much to [my] dismay that Paris and perhaps more generally the West had also been turned into a cultural wasteland.'' Yes, writers publish and work freely. They are not molested or jailed. ``But the general level of culture has simply collapsed.'' Understandably, he refrains from passing judgment on fellow writers in the West, but he feels that much recent writing in the West is ``appallingly superficial and sterile.'' In his view, the

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Paris literary world, which for centuries and up to 1950 put its imprint on Western culture, is in shambles. There is no Gide, Val'ery, Claudel, Malraux, Martin du Gard, or Romain Rolland.

The last significant French writer was probably Jean-Paul Sartre, he asserts, ``and paradoxically he also helped bury the French cultural world.'' Brilliant and empty games with words and concepts that fill Parisian weekly magazine cultural sections do not impress him. ``The only important playright left is Ionesco, and he is over 70.''

Names of famous American and Latin American writers which I bring up leave him skeptical as well. ``Maybe the novel is dead as a literary form. But beyond that, all I can see as expressions of cultural life are TV soaps, vulgar articles in the press, clever ads for consumer goods, and a preoccupation with one's physical shape -- like jogging. Over here, like over there, a cultural vacuum.

``Obviously, the end of an era. Perhaps the beginning of a new barbarian age? The point is not so much how this is happening -- whether through communist police brutality, Nazi coercion, gradual alienation in Western democracies -- but what is happening. What deep, common process is at work that lowers man, that leads him back to tribal behavior, that crushes spiritual and humanistic values?''

Mr. Kundera does not deny that ``he is deeply pessimistic.'' Perhaps, he thinks, man started on the path leading to self-destruction during the Renaissance, when he chose to improve his lot by using technological means, thus divorcing himself from nature and turning against his natural habitat by launching a systematic aggression against the very sources of life. In thinking about these matters, one must be very cautious and avoid simplifications, avoid jumping to conclusions. He feels that at the root of man's problems today -- living under the permanent threat of nuclear destruction, of pollution, of a new plague perhaps -- there is a deeper cause than Marxism, Maoism, Khomeneism, or parliamentary democracy. Man has decided to play God, he says. And did Pascal not write about man: ``Neither god nor animal, but when he plays God he turns into an animal.''

Kundera is bitter about Western writers, who he feels have all but deserted central and east European writers and ``couldn't care less about them. They remember them only once in a while for self-serving purposes such as rallying the ideological flag.'' The writings of Czech, Hungarian, and Polish writers under Soviet domination appear in specialized magazines that function as cultural ghettos and not in the better-known establishment publications and publishing houses, he complains -- even though he pe rsonally represents an exception to this rule.

One question seems to bother him deeply. Should a writer go into exile and stop sharing his countrymen's fate? Does he not risk, after a while, losing his source of inspiration? Obviously, Kundera will not write about Frenchmen or Americans, whom he does not instinctively understand. Furthermore, does not tyranny stimulate creativity? Was French theater not at its most creative stage under Louis XIV's tight censorship? Did Brazilian theater not mature under the worst phase of the military dictator ship? Did not Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn write under Stalinist rule? Kundera has no ready-made answers to these questions. Only time will tell, he feels, whether in the long run any creativity will survive under Soviet domination.

Whether a writer should go into exile or be sentenced to silence in his own country is a problem that also tormented Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and many other prominent writers. Obviously Kundera is not about to return to Prague, but he is toying with the idea at present of finding a small village in the mountains where he will be more invisible, more sheltered, more isolated than in Paris, and where he will be left alone with his Czechoslovakian sources of inspiration, his very privat e world.

A recent theatrical experiment in Boston and another one in the movies (a script for Alain Renais) seem to have persuaded him to stick to writing novels. And, indeed, a new one about which he refuses to speak is apparently in the works. Authoritative voices on both sides of the Atlantic now mention him as a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. ``My biggest problem has to do with the translations of my books: I find them very, very unsatisfying. It gives me much work. In the e nd I have little control. People today seem to not mind whether I meant one thing or another, as long as the translation is finished in time and the book published in time,'' he says bitterly.

Contrary to appearances, his sarcastic humor -- ``his weapon against hypocrisy'' -- owes nothing to Gogol and is rather in line with a certain Czechoslovakian tradition. In fact, while he admires Tolstoy, Kundera says his country's literature is not akin to Russian literature at all, but is linked to Western culture. He acknowledges a debt to Cervantes, Rabelais, Diderot, and Flaubert rather than to Dostoyevsky or Saltykov.

Humor amid desperation: This is the poignant impression -- one conveyed by certain works of Mozart -- that the visitor carries with him upon leaving Milan Kundera and his neat, shiny, warm Czechoslovakian nest tucked in one of Paris's gray, self-assured, 19th-century bourgeois buildings.

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