Milan Kundera, whose dissident writings in communist Czechoslovakia transformed him into a satirical exile from totalitarianism, died in Paris. He was 94.
The renowned author died Tuesday afternoon, his former publisher Gallimard said in a one-sentence statement Wednesday. He confirmed that he died in Paris, but did not provide further information.
The European Parliament observed a minute’s silence at the news of his death.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Kundera’s best-known novel, opens harrowingly with Soviet tanks rolling through Prague, the Czech capital that was the author’s home until he moved to France in 1975. Weaving together themes of love and exile, politics and Kundera’s deeply personal novel won critical acclaim, earning him a large readership among Westerners who embraced both his anti-Soviet subversion and the eroticism that pervades many of his works.
“If someone had told me as a child: One day you will see your nation disappear from the world, I would have considered it nonsense, something I could not imagine. A man knows that he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life,” he told author Philip Roth in a New York Times interview in 1980, a year before he became a French citizen. naturalized.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution ousted the communists from power and Kundera’s nation was reborn as the Czech Republic, but by then he had already made a new life and a full identity in his apartment on the Left Bank of Paris.
“Milan Kundera was a writer who was able to reach generations of readers on all continents with his work and achieved worldwide fame…” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala tweeted in the Czech language. “He left behind not only a remarkable work of fiction, but also an important work of essay.”
He offered his condolences to Kundera’s wife, Věra, who protected her lonely husband from the intrusions of the world. It was not immediately clear if his wife was next to him.
To say that his relationship with the land of his birth was complex would be an understatement. He returned to the Czech Republic on rare occasions and incognito, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. His final works, written in French, were never translated into Czech.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which earned him much praise and was made into a film in 1988, was not released in the Czech Republic until 2006, 17 years after the Velvet Revolution, although it was available in Czech since 1985 in a compatriot who founded a publishing house in exile in Canada. It topped the best-seller list for weeks, and the following year Kundera won the State Prize for Literature for it.
Kundera’s wife, Vera, was an essential companion to a lonely, technology-avoiding man: his translator, his social secretary, and ultimately his barrier against the outside world. It was she who fostered his friendship with Roth by serving as a language broker and, according to a 1985 profile of the couple, it was she who took his calls and handled the inevitable demands of a world-famous author.
Kundera’s writing, whose first novel “The Joke” opens with a young man who is sent to the mines after downplaying communist slogans, was banned in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, when it too lost its I work as a film teacher. He had been writing novels and plays since 1953.
Kundera’s name was often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the honor eluded him.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” follows a dissident surgeon from Prague to exile in Geneva and back home. Due to his refusal to submit to the communist regime, the surgeon Tomás is forced to become a window cleaner and uses his new profession to arrange sex with hundreds of clients. Tomás finally lives out his last days in the countryside with his wife, Tereza, and his lives become more dreamlike and tangible as the days go by.
Jiri Srstka, Kundera’s Czech literary agent at the time the book was finally published in the Czech Republic, said the author himself delayed its release there fearing it was poorly edited.
“Kundera had to reread the entire book, rewrite sections, make additions, and edit all the text. So, given his perfectionism, this was a long-term job, but now readers will get the book that Milan Kundera thinks should exist,” Ststka told Radio Praha at the time.
Kundera refused to appear on camera, refused any annotation when his collected works were published in 2011, and previously did not allow any digital copies of his writings, reflecting his loyalty to the printed word. Today, however, a Kindle version of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is offered on Amazon and Google Books.
In a June 2012 speech to the French National Library, reread by a friend on French radio, he said he feared for the future of literature.
“It seems to me that time, which continues its merciless march, begins to endanger books. It is because of this anguish that, for several years, I have had a clause in all my contracts that stipulates that they must be published only in the traditional form of a book, that they must be read only on paper and not on a screen, ”he said. saying. “People walk down the street, they no longer have contact with those around them, they don’t even see the houses they pass by, they have wires hanging from their ears. They gesticulate, they must, they don’t look at anyone and nobody looks at them. I wonder, don’t they read books anymore? It is possible, but for how much longer?
In 2021, Kundera decided to donate his private library and archive to the Brno public library, where he was born and spent his childhood. The Moravian Library has a vast collection of Kundera’s works. Items donated include editions of Kundera’s books in Czech and 40 other languages, articles written by and about him, published reviews and critiques of his work, newspaper clippings, authorized photographs, and even drawings by the author.
In recent years, Kundera allowed the translation of his latest works from French into Czech.
Despite his fierce protection of his private life (he only gave a handful of interviews and kept his biographical information to a minimum), Kundera was forced to review his past in 2008, when the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes of the Republic Checa produced documentation indicating that in 1950, as a 21-year-old student, Kundera told police about someone in his bedroom. The man was eventually found guilty of espionage and sentenced to hard labor for 22 years.
The researcher who published the report, Adam Hradilek, defended it as the product of an extensive investigation into Kundera.
“He has sworn his Czech friends to silence, so even they are not willing to talk to journalists about who Milan Kundera is and who was,” Hradilek said at the time.
Kundera called the report a lie, telling the Czech news agency CTK that it amounted to “the murder of an author.”
In a 1985 profile, among the longest and most detailed on record, examining Kundera’s life in Paris, the author foreshadowed how much even that admission must have hurt him.
“For me, indiscretion is a cardinal sin. Anyone who reveals the intimate life of another person deserves to be flogged. We live in a time when private life is being destroyed. The police destroy it in communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and the meaning of it, ”she told the writer Olga Carlisle. “Life when one cannot hide from the eyes of others, that is hell.”