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Milan Kundera and the Unavoidable Question of Identity – A Look into the Life and Works of the Iconic Czech Writer

  Many people are familiar with him because of these famous sentences: “Life is elsewhere”, “Kitsch is a transit station between existence and oblivion”, “Some books are to be read during the day, and some books can only be read at night”… For many
  people He said that whenever the novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is mentioned, his name will come to mind.
  Milan Kundera.
  The writer, who had been expected to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and could be regarded as “popular” in the Chinese circle, died recently at the age of 94.
  In numerous media reports, Kundera was mentioned as a “European writer”. In fact, he was born and raised in the Czech Republic, a Central European country, and many of his famous works were also written in Czech; he settled in France in his later years, and insisted on writing in French as a French writer in the second half of his life.
  The World Reporter contacted Kundera’s Chinese student, Professor Dong Qiang, the director of the French Department of Peking University, and he commented on Kundera: “In my opinion, Milan Kundera is the most important novelist in the 20th century. ‘One’. He pushed modern literature to new heights. He is a thoughtful and interesting writer. Without Milan Kundera, 20th century literature would be much less interesting.” Coincidentally, this year is also the Czech novel
  ” The 100th anniversary of the death of Yaroslav Hasek, author of The Good Soldier Schweik. It can be said that Kundera was also influenced by the exploration of the living conditions of “little people in the big era” in “The Good Soldier Schweik”. Indeed, in the turbulent and troubled 20th century, the focus of writers is no longer on heroes and myths, but the life and death of little people has become the object of their discussion.
  In the blink of an eye, a hundred years have passed. In the dark, two writers born in Czech Republic passed away one century apart, which seems to be an echo and resonance of fate, and also announces the official end of the era of “little people”.
weight of life

  Speaking of Kundera, his most famous novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” cannot be bypassed. The plot of the novel seems simple, but in fact it is quite complicated:
  a doctor living in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, falls in love with two women with completely opposite personalities and backgrounds at the same time. It happened to coincide with the outbreak of the “Prague Spring” in 1968, when a small country with few people encountered the military intervention of a strong neighbor, and the lives of ordinary people involuntarily underwent earth-shaking changes.

  Kundera called the practice of dividing characters with a simple black and white criterion as “kitsch”.

  In the love triangle, the three protagonists lived in exile in Switzerland for a while, but in the end, they had to return to their original country. The hero lost his original job as a doctor, and eventually died with his wife in a village near Prague.
  Ordinary people living in big cities are just a symbol on paper to outsiders, and they can be names that are briefly mentioned in a small piece of social news in newspapers. Maybe in two or three days, their names will disappear from people’s minds, as if they never existed. From this point of view, they are “light”; but everyone’s life cannot be reversed, nor can they start all over again, so for a single individual, life is unbearable “heavy”.
  The seemingly simple plot contains complex propositions.
  The separation and reunion of the hero Thomas, his wife Teresa, and his lover Sabina, the choice between going and staying, how many of them are decisions that can be grasped by themselves, and how many are forced to succumb to the background of the big era.
  After the painter Sabina left the Czech Republic, she wandered around like duckweed, while Teresa and Thomas chose to return to their homeland, living a poor but close-knit life in an unknown village.
  No matter which way of life they choose, they try to maintain the dignity of life, and in an environment where they cannot help themselves, this choice should not be examined too much through a moral filter.
  The practice of labeling people, or dividing characters with a simple black and white criterion, was called “kitsch” by Kundera.
  In the social environment of Eastern Europe, there is the “kitsch” of Eastern Europe; in the social environment of Western Europe, there is the “kitsch” of Western Europe.
  For example, in the novel, Sabina leaves the Czech Republic and comes to Switzerland. She faces middle-class Westerners who seem to sympathize with the Czechs, but actually keep labeling the Czechs.
  According to this logic, Kundera, who has been marked by his own famous words, has also embarked on the road of being “kitsch” by the public.

  From Hasek to Kundera, Czech novelists have gone through a turbulent 100 years of laughter and tears.

  And this is exactly what Kundera himself fears: the living existence of the physical body will come to an abrupt end one day, leaving only a bunch of “famous quotes” or “labels”, and these labels are exactly what he is heading towards. A path of helplessness that is forgotten.
  Therefore, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is not aimed at a certain social form, nor does it criticize a certain country. On the contrary, it explores the living conditions of several ordinary people in different social forms, which also contains the writer’s own Deeply introspective.
czech, czech

  If the genre of novels in the 19th century was Tolstoy’s thick and magnificent tomes, or Dickens’s detailed and morally charged social whipping works, then what should the novels of the 20th century look like?
  Kundera and his “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” can provide a sliced ​​answer. In Kundera’s novels, especially “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, the plot is often pieced together like a few words, and the angle of describing the characters is like a sketch, with only a vague outline.
  Behind this writing style, there is a complex cultural tradition, which is related to identity recognition and cultural recognition.
  Milan Kundera insisted that he was a French writer. Whether he admitted it or not, his home country, Czech Republic, had always exerted an influence that could not be ignored in his creation and personal destiny.
  In Eastern Europe, where multiple ethnic groups and languages ​​lived side by side, people here have not had a strong self-identity for many centuries.
  When a peasant living in Bohemia was asked which nationality he was in the 19th century, he might not be able to give an answer right away. But in the 20th century, various identities still found these people. Therefore, in the 20th century, people were at a loss as to what to do when faced with many problems. The Czech Republic, a small country that only appeared on the map of Europe at this time (it was Czechoslovakia when it first appeared), naturally had to face such cultural difficulties.
  Hasek, the author of “The Good Soldier Schweik”, who died 100 years ago, witnessed the process of Czech from scratch, and also witnessed how the people who lived in this land struggled helplessly under the impact of the torrent of the 20th century. In the novel, Schweik’s loyalty to his own army is suspicious. Apart from superficially carrying out all kinds of absurd orders to his superiors, he often uses a variety of black humor to resolve them.

In 1990, Milan Kundera and his wife Vera at home in Paris, France

Cityscape of Prague, Czech Republic

  That is, in the 20th century, with the awakening of nationalism, people on this land were finally divided into different labels: Czechs, Germans, Slovaks, Jews… and in the 1930s, people’s All kinds of identity labels finally led to a fatal disaster: Under the leadership of Nazi Germany, the frenzy of anti-Semitism reached its peak, which eventually led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews.
  It can be said that labeling others and trying to divide people into various groups finally led to the most tragic and inhumane incident in the 20th century.
  The Czechs, being at the center of many of the great events of the 20th century, naturally felt deeply affected.
  Deliberately creating a variety of vague spaces for the “little people” in the novel makes people have certain guesses. It can be said that it is an attempt by Kundera to fight against modernity, and it is also to show a certain kind of reality in front of the cold modern war and killing machines. An attempt at human care.
  It can be said that from “The Good Soldier Shuajk” to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, from Hasek to Kundera, Czech novelists have gone through a turbulent 100 years of laughter and tears.
exile

  Identity is the ultimate proposition that cannot be avoided in Milan Kundera’s works and life.
  On April 1, 1929, he was born in Czechoslovakia, a country formed in 1918 and split in 1992 to become two countries, Czechoslovakia and Slovakia.
  In 1967, Milan Kundera published his debut novel “The Joke” written in Czech. The novel accused the absurd reality with delicate brushwork, which also made him famous.
  The ensuing “Prague Spring” soon made him the most unpopular man in the country, and his books were banned.
  After 1975, Kundera left the Czech Republic and started a new life in France. He recalled the moment of leaving in this way: “We, my wife and I, took four suitcases and a few cartons of books and drove away. This is all we took away.
  ” No longer going back to my hometown: “I don’t have a dream of returning home, I took Prague away—its breath, taste, language, scenery and culture.” After leaving the motherland, forgetting
  and remembering have become propositions that writing has to face. “Laughing and Forgetting Records”, published in 1979, was his first novel in France. He borrowed the structure of musical variations, seven chapters, independent of each other, each with a story, but all pointed to the same theme: laughter and forget. At the same time, these stories all implicitly implied the “Prague Spring” in 1968.

  After the book was published, the Czech government revoked his citizenship. “One day I received a text message informing me that my citizenship had been taken away…Once your citizenship is taken away, Czechs are legally prohibited from having any contact with you. Suddenly, with the Czech Republic All contact of nations becomes illegal. For them you no longer exist.”
  Two years later, Milan Kundera officially became a French citizen. It was not until 2019, when the then Czech Prime Minister Babis visited in person, that Kundera regained Czech citizenship.
  In 1984, he published “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which made him famous in the world literary world, but he did something that no one expected. Subsequently, he announced that he would no longer accept any media interviews. Then, with the 1986 publication of the collection of reviews, The Art of the Fiction, he declared himself a French writer. He began to focus on the creation of French literature, but “Slowness” and “Identity” written in French were not recognized by French readers.

  In France, he refused to reveal his past to anyone.
live elsewhere

  Kundera himself became more and more low-key. In France, he refused to reveal his past to anyone.
  Dong Qiang recalled that when he was with Kundera, he never talked about his past, especially the Czech political system, “Milan Kundera’s biggest characteristic is that he doesn’t want to be seen as relying on his own life experience. And to be valued, he is an artist, has his own sublimation of art, and hates being labeled.”
  In the 1990s, Kundera held seminars at the Higher School of Social Sciences in Paris. The admissions brochure was only one sentence, and no photos were allowed in the lectures.
  Kundera, who lives in a Western country, can be said to have shown a certain distaste for the Western mass media environment. After watching the movie “Love in Prague” adapted from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, he bluntly said that he was very disappointed with this movie. He also loathes dealing with journalists because “the voice of the novel itself has been drowned out by some stupid cacophony of either one or the other.”
  Kundera, who is extremely vigilant about labels, must also be evading the various marks that Western media put on him. But despite this, Kundera still couldn’t escape the discussion of himself in the public opinion field with a “kitsch” attitude: some people attacked Kundera’s novels for deliberately belittling women, and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” beautified the behavior of playing with women. What’s more, a Czech media published an article claiming that Kundera had served as an eyeliner for the Czech authorities to monitor opponents during the Cold War. This article even drew Kundera’s angry counterattack.
  In desperation, Kundera became more silent in his later years, and even his personal photos were not allowed to be taken by reporters, and all external calibers were released by his wife. Even the Czech Prime Minister’s visit only received a simple “thank you” and “goodbye” from Kundera.
  Milan Kundera’s low-key and silence in the second half of his life may be due to the influence of the first half of his life. In his view, all the consciousness that makes people, his imaginary world, and his obsession are all in the first half of his life. Formed, and always maintained.
  For Kundera, Prague is a complicated existence. Prague is always Prague, and it seems that it is no longer that Prague. All his creations are connected with Prague and everything he has experienced.
  And because of this, he sees Prague less and less as Prague and as just a fictional European city. This is also the reason why he was able to transcend the identity label he hated and become a great writer facing the world.