Warding off cultural amnesia with a pen
Milan Kundera is a writer with a curious background for the latest Western ''cultural hero,'' but the French have lionized him, the BBC recently aired two programs on him, and Radio Canada has broadcast several interviews with him. Kundera's latest novel, ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' was published this year with virtually unanimous critical acclaim here and in Europe. Most recently Kundera, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia to France in 1968, has been proclaimed the heir apparent to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's laurels as ''the most important writer from behind the Iron Curtain.'' It is doubtful Kundera himself would agree.
Kundera's stature as a writer is unquestionable, but the comparison with the Nobel Prize-winning Russian, like much about the Czech author, is misleading. He has exercised his readers to acknowledge what the rest of the West has all too blithely forgotten since Yalta: Central Europe is not by its cultural legacy an ''Eastern'' region. In fact, Kundera has repeatedly argued, as he did in an article in The New York Review of Books (Jan. 22, 1981), that much of what has made the West modern - ''Viennese psycho-an-aly-sis, the structuralism of Prague , the new aesthetics of the novel through the works of Kafka, Musil, and Broch, the dodecaphonia of Vienna, and the music of Bartok, and, at last, the absurd theater of Witkiewicz'' - had its origins in Central Europe.
Kundera also argues against the proposition that he is a political writer. He does not rage at the crimes of the Soviet-installed, post-Dubcek regimes, except as they have impinged upon Czech cultural freedom, which is, Kundera notes, the true lifeblood of his country: ''Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life...,'' he said in an interview with Philip Roth (reprinted in the afterword of ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting''). ''When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness, it uses the method of organized forgetting. This is what is currently happening in Bohemia. Contemporary Czech literature, insofar as it has any value at all, has not been printed (since 1968); 200 Czech writers have been proscribed, including the dead Franz Kafka, 145 Czech historians have been dismissed from their posts, history has been rewritten, monuments demolished. A nation that loses its awareness of its past gradually loses its self.''
In ''Writers Against Rulers,'' Czech journalist Dusan Hamsik relates the comically stubborn strategy Kundera employed against the Czech national censor over the idiocy of censoring the publication of a speech Kundera had given to the Writers' Union in 1967 - a speech attacking censorship. Not long after, Kundera's books were taken off the shelves of libraries and bookstores in Czechoslovakia, and he was removed from his university teaching position. He and his wife subsequently left the country.
Yet Kundera insists that the vagaries of totalitarianism are merely backdrops for his fiction, and that he would trade all of Brecht for one work of Ionesco. But each of Kundera's novels is laced with direct and obvious references to conditions in contemporary Czechoslovakia. In a recent Sunday Times (London) interview with Philip Roth (reprinted in the Village Voice), Kundera acknowledged that a passage in ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' was intended as a small greeting to a dead friend,'' the late Jan Prochazka, a writer whose casual conversations were recorded by the secret police, then edited, and later replayed over Czech radio to smear his character.
It is not surprising that ''Life is Elsewhere,'' the first novel Kundera published in the West after his hegira, savaged the life of a would-be Czech poet, party member, lover, and proletarian hero. The book might be read as Kundera's autobiographical apology, for he, like the character of ''The Poet,'' joined the party at an early age, seduced by its utopian promises. Kundera was also known by the sobriquet of his main character. In the novel, the erotic elements and the young man's urgent desire to ''act in the real world'' lead to his corruption, both personal and poetic. Author is distinguished from character , however, by the former's subsequent disavowal of narcissism. Kundera stated in an interview with Antonin Liehm, translated in ''The Politics of Culture'' (Random House, 1968), that maturity comes only when ''a person ... leaves his 'lyrical age' behind.''
Harsh bits of experienced history act as counterpoints to the recurrent Don Juan theme in Kundera's writing - a theme that is, at times, misread so that Kundera comes off as a lambent Henry Miller. Liehm, however, a Czech political journalist and film critic, quotes Kundera's rejoinder: ''In a world in which everything is permitted, in the world of sexual revolution, Don Juan the great conqueror has turned into a great collector of women. ... There is a profound difference. Don Juan once transgressed the law and demolished conventions. A great collector, however, conforms to laws and conventions....'' Kundera feels that today's Don Juans ''have been cheated of their tragic dimension, their debauchery is no longer a challenge, a provocation, their adventures are comic.'' Such sentiments are voiced by the character Havel in Kundera's book of short stories, ''Laughable Loves.''
Something else: Sexuality as a form of cultural resistance has been a motif used by 20th-century Czech writers, first to spoof their German oppressors, and then to satirize the Soviets and the Communist Party's institutionalization of prim social realism. Kundera differs from his predecessors, however, by turning sexuality into a quandary reflecting his belief that the complexities and entrapments of love reflect those of politics - specifically, those of power. If there is a single mood characteristic of Kundera's fiction, it is summed up in the untranslatable word litost,m which serves as a, if not the, theme of ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.'' Kundera provides contexts for understanding the term: ''Litostm is a state of torment caused by sudden insight into one's own miserable self. '' Litostm can occur in affairs of state, in high cultural places , anywhere.
In Czech politics, litostm characterized the 1968 invasion when Russian tanks ended the idyll that Czech culture could influence Czech society as it always had, regardless of the face the party had to put on to please the large, heavy Soviet body to the east. But how to overcome litost?m To laugh and forget? That is for children who, Kundera points out, are the hope of the world only so long as they do not have a past.
It is in part to keep the cultural past alive in the present that Kundera continues to write - but without pretensions of the ''sacralization'' of any duties he has as a writer. Quoting the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, about whom he taught a course in Paris this year, Kundera remarks: ''Great works are always amusing.'' But beware: Kundera's amusement ranges from the sole complaint he noted lodged by the American Embassy during the Russian occupation of Prague in August 1968 - Soviet soldiers were picking pears from the embassy garden without permission - to the lack of tragedy surrounding the West's ceding Central Europe to the Soviets. The latter is a concession Kundera dates, again, from August 1968, as the beginning of the end for all of Europe: consent to give away the past on which the culture of the present builds.
By no means, however, is Kundera a fatalist. In character, he lives with the hope of skepticism, which ''doesn't annihilate the world; it only turns it into questions,'' he told Antonin Liehm (interview translated in ''Politics of Culture''). ''That's why skepticism is the most fruitful attitude I know of. It is precisely the kind of constructive skepticism that can change our unfavorable situation into an advantage.'' What else to expect from a man born on April first, that day which, Kundera remarks, ''has its metaphysical significance''?