Friday, October 17, 2008

Kundera: feet of clay?

Milan Kundera

The unbearable weight of history

Oct 16th 2008
From The Economist print edition

A long-buried scandal may taint a giant’s reputation

MILAN KUNDERA’S poignant novels epitomised the tragic division of central Europe from the rest of the continent. Works such as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” told of lives clouded or ruined by totalitarianism.

The story of Miroslav Dvoracek, a Czech spy for the West, would fit well into a Kundera novel. Caught by the secret police in 1950 while on an undercover mission to Prague, he was tortured and then served 14 years in a labour camp. He was lucky not to be executed. He has spent nearly six decades believing that a childhood friend called Iva Militka betrayed him; he had unwisely contacted her during his clandestine trip. Similarly, she has always blamed herself for talking too freely about her visitor to student friends. Now a police record found by Adam Hradilek, a historian at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, in Prague, suggests that it was one of those friends, the young Mr Kundera, who was the informer.

Mr Kundera, a recluse for decades, insists that he had no involvement in the affair and is baffled by the document. Communist-era records are not wholly trustworthy. But a statement from the Czech archives says it is not a fake; the incident (if it happened) could help explain why Mr Kundera, then in trouble with the authorities, was allowed to stay at university even though he had been expelled from the Communist Party.

True or not, the story echoes themes of guilt, betrayal and self-interest found in Mr Kundera’s own work, such as “unbearable lightness” (dodged but burdensome responsibility). In “The Owner of the Keys”, a play published in 1962, the hero kills a witness who sees him sheltering a former lover from the Gestapo.

As Mr Kundera himself has written so eloquently, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Under totalitarianism, fairy tales good and bad often trumped truth. Some heroes of the Prague Spring in 1968 had been enthusiastic backers of the Stalinist regime’s murderous purges after the communist putsch of 1948.

Mr Hradilek surmises that Mr Kundera probably acted out of self-interest, not malice or conviction. Millions faced such choices in those times. Some have owned up; many have not. Countless episodes like that linger over eastern Europe like an invisible toxic cloud.

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