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Milan Kundera on Memory and a Kidnapped West

Milan Kundera, a celebrated Czech-French writer, died on July 11, 2023, at 94. Kundera’s writings have inspired a generation of readers and writers—and continue to inspire many in the years ahead. His writings have been influenced by the kind of life the writer led.

Kundera’s influential work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1989, takes on the philosophical subject of studying an individual’s fate trapped in Nietzsche’s eternal return—the prospect of having one’s life over and over again, through the joys and sorrows.

Milan Kundera was born in a middle-class household in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. At 18, the young Milan joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1947. He was enthusiastic about the Communist takeover of the country, with the support of the Soviet Union.

Later, Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party in 1950. Reason: in a letter to a friend, he made a joke about a government official. Unfortunately, the letter was intercepted by the secret police.

Kundera’s 1967 work, The Joke, is a satirical take on the totalitarianism in the Communist regime. In no time, the book was banned. Soon, his name was blocklisted, and all his books were banned. Kundera went into exile in 1975. His Czechoslovak citizenship was stripped in 1979. He became a French citizen in 1981.

Besides these fuzzy details, not much is clear about Kundera’s life. He was also very much averse to personal fame. He did not like to talk about himself very much. Writing about Milan Kundera in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Johannes Lichtman notes:

Even when he was giving interviews (he pretty much swore them off in the mid-1980s), his public comments, like his writing, were a tightly braided knot of fact and fiction. His past is shrouded and much of what is known is contested, and there is, as yet, no published biography of Kundera to settle several pressing questions.

Kundera’s book, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is dedicated to the idea that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. In another instance in the book, he writes: “The past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it.”

This philosophical trope of remembering and forgetting is very much alive in several of his works. In his 1973 book Life is Elsewhere, Kundera writes, “How sweet it would be to forget history!” The conundrum of remembering and forgetting is captured in this sentence: “remembering is a form of forgetting”.

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His essay, “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out”, published in 1984 in the literary magazine Granta, presents a defence of the cultural struggles of Central Europe against the onslaught of Russian imperialist ambitions.

Listening to Vladimir Putin, the Russian President’s speech about his claims over Ukrainian territory, you may even applaud Kundera for his foresighted vision. It pleads that the Western cultural aspect of small, Central European countries, such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine, has been slowly eroded—a conquest over historical memory by Soviet communism.

Discussing the Soviet influence on the cultural and historical memory in Central Europe, Kundera writes:

Every single one involved almost the entire population. And, in every case, each regime could not have defended itself for more than three hours if Russia had not backed it. That said, we can no longer consider what took place in Prague or Warsaw in its essence as a drama of Eastern Europe, of the Soviet Bloc, of Communism; it is a drama of the West—a West that kidnapped, displaced, and brainwashed, nevertheless insists on defending its identity.

For Kundera, the whole of Central Europe makes for one family—a family of equal nations sustained on mutual respect and a unified state. However, against the onslaught of Soviet Russia, such a dream has remained distant.

Kundera writes the whole of Central Europe is “the greatest variety within the smallest space”, unlike Russia, which is on the opposite principle of “the smallest variety within the greatest space”. He adds:

Indeed, nothing could be more foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety than Russia: uniform, standardizing, centralizing, determined to transform every nation of its empire (the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Armenians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and others) into a single Russian people (or, as is more commonly expressed in this age of generalized verbal mystification into a ‘single Soviet people’.

Milan Kundera writes that Russia’s satellite countries have vanished from the map. However, it is equally distressing that we have forgotten this tragedy or failed to notice it as it happened. Moreover, this writer evokes Central Europe’s cultural difference with Russia as a driver for their struggle for memory.

Perhaps part of the problem with Soviet influence in this region could be due to what Kundera calls the “ideology of the Slavic world”. The Czechs naively brandished their ‘Slavic ideology’ in the face of German aggression. It is also something the Russians constantly use to justify their imperial ambitions.

It was ignorant because the Czechs, throughout their entire thousand-year history, have never had any direct contact with Russia. In spite of their linguistic kinship, the Czechs and the Russians have never shared a common world: neither a common history nor a common culture. The relationship between the Poles and the Russians, though, has never been anything less than a struggle of life and death.

Central Europe is not a state, but a set of many countries. Its boundaries can always be drawn and redrawn. What makes this lay of land is its culture. Milan Kundera notes, these nations are small nations.

They are not conquerors. And, in fact, they “represent the wrong side of this History: its victims and outsiders.” Therefore, these small nations “who have not yet perished” are fighting for Europe’s future today. Kundera writes,

In our modern world where power has the tendency to become more and more concentrated in the hands of a few big countries, all European nations run the risk of becoming small nations nad of sharing their fate. In this sense the destiny of Central Europe anticipates the destiny of Europe, and its culture assumes an enormous relevance.

Milan Kundera’s main contention with the West has been that it has largely ignored the Central European nations to their fate—slowly allowing them to assimilate with the Russian culture.

In fact, for Kundera, these countries always remain a part of Western Europe in their cultural identity.  However, their West-ness has been kidnapped. According to the writer, some of these nations have now disappeared from the maps.

Almost 40 years since the article was published in Granta, there have been significant changes in the world order. There is no more the Soviet Union but a disintegrated bunch of nations. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed Europe.

Several nations discussed in this article have been integrated into the European Union and NATO, except for Ukraine (which may likely be integrated into these regimes over the years).

Cover Photo: Elisa Cabot, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

buy the unbearable lightness of being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

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Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera.

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The Joke by Milan Kundera.

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A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe by Milan Kundera

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