November 15, 2017
Milan Kundera returns to Czech
by Alex Primiani
To have your work published in your own country, your own language is an honor few(-ish) people receive. For the first time since it was written, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the fourth book by renowned Czech writer and sharp critic of Eastern Bloc Communism Milan Kundera, will be published in the Czech Republic, in his native Czech.
According to Howard Amos at the Calvert Journal—an online publication that reports on the contemporary literary and artistic scenes of the “New East”—Europe, the Balkans, Russia, and Central Asia–the Brno-based literary press Atlantis will release the book in Czech this month.
Kundera is best known for his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which followed two couples during the years around the Prague Spring in 1968. Kundera’s always been attracted to the metaphysical and interpersonal in his work, with a prominent strain of political thinking, as well. His first few novels were vehement critiques of the Soviet-dominated Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, from which Kundera was expelled on several occasions for “anti-party activities.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a moving and imaginative novel that questions the role of memory in relation to the political machinations within a society, as well as within an individual person.
Since the mid-seventies, Kundera has called France his home; in retaliation for his expatration, Czechoslovakia revoked Kundera’s citizenship. He has written in French ever since.
Kundera’s relationship with his native country is both troubling and tellingly representative of the conflicts that shaped twentieth-century Europe. That chunk of land known as Eastern Europe endured turbulent ideologies throughout the 1900s. To be denied entry to the country of one’s upbringing, and recourse to one’s mother tongue, must be a wholly disturbing attack on free expression. While the Calvert Journal portrays that denial as self-imposed in Kundera’s case, there’s very little that trumps the psychological damage of knowing your own country is out to get you.
In the end, it seems, this is neither good nor bad news, but a reminder of the struggles many writers face in bringing their work to light in their own countries.
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.