Milan Kundera believed that truth lies in infinite inquiry

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Jand before In the Prague Spring of 1968, when the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia seemed to be resting for a short time, Milan Kundera managed to publish a novel about a joke. The joke, which a young man sent to his girlfriend on a postcard, read: “Hope is the opium of the people! Feeling ‘healthy’ makes stupidity! Long live Trotsky! ” It caused the young man a lot of trouble.

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The novel, his first, sold well. But when Soviet tanks rolled in later that year, forcing his country back into line, “The Joke” disappeared from bookstores. He was himself kicked out of the Communist Party (he had been expelled before, in 1950, for being critical, but had appealed) and was dismissed as a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts. Since no one was now allowed to hire him, he played dance concerts in the pubs of the mining towns. Finally, however, nothing was happening in Czechoslovakia, so he and his wife Vera left for France, and they stayed.

In retrospect, writing “The Joke” was a bad decision. But it was good at the time. That was life. You only had one, no second or third chance to take another course. His novels were full of characters who struggled, like him, to unpack the past, predict the future and, on that basis, jump on the right path. In the most famous of them, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, the main character Tomas first appeared standing at a window, meditating. Should he invite the beautiful supervisor Tereza to his room, or not? Would he be involved too? If so, how would he get out of it? After spending the night with her, the questions only multiplied.

Thomas, like his creator, made a bad (or good) decision against the party. He lost his job as a surgeon and became a window cleaner. He also decided, for better or worse, to stay with Tereza. But throughout the novel he wrestled with his creator’s favorite subject, the pressure against them. The Greek philosopher Parmenides had said, in particular, that lightness was positive and heaviness negative. Light was the kingdom of the soul, spaciousness, separation and freedom; heaviness was to be bound to earth and body, bound to rule, and limited. Clear enough.

But not so fast. Lightness also made both history and life unimportant, airy as a feather, the events of a day. He justified betrayal, carelessness and breaking standards (like him from the party), where heaviness emphasized duty and obedience. More importantly, lightness was about forgetting, and heaviness emphasized remembering. What was he himself, but the sum of memories? In “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, the heroine, Tamina, always remembered her deceased husband even when she was making love with other men. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

The question concerned Czechoslovakia in particular, in its vulnerable position on the map. How could he live without remembering the great people before him, Hus, Comenius, Janacek, Kafka, or without their language? Memory gave him an identity, and he gave the Czechs themselves the only power they had against the states that were oppressing them. In 1967 Mr. Kundera appealed to fellow writers to capture their time with their pens. But he opposed the idea of ​​distributing cultures within borders. There were boundaries between ideas to cross.

In Paris after 1975, living in a loft flat on the rue Récamier, feasting on frog legs and eventually writing three novels in French, it seemed to him that notions of “home” and “roots” could be as illusory as the rest of life. His Czech citizenship was revoked and, although he still spoke mostly Czech, he was almost no different when, in 2019, he got it back. Like Goethe, he saw literature becoming global and himself a citizen of the world.

He had been one for a long time. He read mostly French in his youth: Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but especially Rabelais and Diderot. French wit and experimentation surprisingly thwarted the socialist realism imposed by the post-war Soviet regime on art and literature. He put it into his writing to challenge the kitsch around him. Unfortunately, it was kitsch that he had fallen for when, at 18, he joined the party in earnest: those heavy, emotional images of sheaves of wheat, mothers and babies, brave workers brandishing spanners, the glittering brotherhood of man. He saw himself as a knife blade, cutting through the sweet rose-tinted lies to reveal the shit—and the secret—underneath.

Because the truth was secret. And novels were a wide open field of play and assumptions where he could question the whole world: digressively like Sterne in “Tristram Shandy”, or boldly, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote. No answers, only questions; kitsch provided answers (in advance). He played with philosophical thoughts, psychological analysis, searches for misunderstood words, irony, eroticism and dreams. It could make a mish-mash for readers, especially the English ones, and no other novel did as well as “Unsustainable Lightness”, although “Laughter and Forgetting” and “Immortality” sold respectably. The Nobel speech came to nothing, and he was happy, because he preferred to retreat to any kind of fame.

He liked to call his novels “polyphonic”: a word learned from his father, a concert pianist and musicologist. The many voices, parts and motifs in his work were united by a “modern point” in one piece of music. A main hero in the campaign was Janacek, whose portrait hung next to his father’s in the Paris flat: a composer who refused to write by the rules but did directly for the heart of things. He doubted that he himself was near. Since the world could not be stopped in its long rush, it was better to just laugh at it. The devil laughed, because he knew that life had no meaning; the angels also laughed, as they flew over, understanding what the meaning was.

As a child he often sat at the piano playing two chords strengthen, C minor to F minor, until his father angrily sent him away. But as those strings got heavier he felt himself getting lighter until, in a moment of ecstasy, he seemed to be floating without time. If that was an unbearable lightness, he, and many others – spent much of their short, flawless lives trying to find it again.

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