We all had the chance to read a document that says that the student Milan Kundera, born on such and such a date, came to the police station and reported that a friend of his had confided in him that his girlfriend had confided in him that a certain acquaintance of hers by the name of Miroslav Dvořáček had asked her to store his suitcase.
This was followed by a search of the dormitory room of the girl who agreed to store the suitcase, Miroslav Dvořáček’s arrest and eventually his trial that ended with a twenty-year prison sentence.
The document would probably not have caused such a big stir if the student had not gone on to become a brilliant writer of international renown. The writer himself denies that any such thing happened, stressing that he did not even know the Dvořáček in question which, incidentally, is also clear from copy of the police report. The writer has described the document’s publication as character assassination.
Despite the credible appearance of the police report facsimile I believe in the principle of the presumption of innocence. The police report was written after the event (it includes a record of the subsequent police action) and it does not bear Kundera’s signature.
It is conceivable that the informer was a different person using Kundera’s name. Furthermore, all it concerned was the information about the storing of a suitcase, a banal event that would be considered innocent in any normal society. It is also highly likely that the informer knew or had heard something far more significant. After all, the suitcase owner’s presence in the country was illegal. The only thing that is certain is that Miroslav Dvořáček was convicted and that he escaped a death sentence only by a whisker. Whoever informed on him, he or she exposed Dvořáček’s life to a great danger and permanently blighted his life. Informing of any kind is repulsive and deserves to be condemned.
Winter of 1950
Having stated all this I can move on to what is the obvious background to these events. They took place at the end of winter 1950, at the climax of the communist terror . Being aware of someone’s illegal presence in the country and not informing on them was tantamount to high treason. Nobody who found themselves in a situation like this could possibly predict what punishment would be in store for them because the administration of justice was controlled by a criminal regime. Furthermore, society was divided. Plenty of people believed it was their duty to inform on the so-called enemy.
Actions of this kind were celebrated by official propaganda as service to socialism which, let us not forget, was the hope of all mankind. Plenty of people were happy to serve the regime as provocateurs. As soon as more than one person was aware of anyone who was considered an enemy, the danger would arise that one of them was a provocateur and would inform the police. Thus everyone involved ran the risk of being convicted for harbouring an enemy.
It is true that there were also many courageous people around who in this sort of situation were willing to risk their own freedom or life rather than go to the police. It is also true that not everyone is born a hero. This is not an excuse for being an informer, only an attempt to explain the historical circumstances in which these events unfolded. It is also evidence of a regime in which you had to be courageous in order to preserve your integrity.
Those who have been convinced by the authenticity of the police document have been asking questions. Are we responsible for our own actions? What is the responsibility of an artist and do his actions, even if they were committed in his youth, influence society or at least his readers? Can one separate one’s moral stance from one’s work? Will a writer’s later work not be discredited by such actions? It is not possible to answer any of these questions without ambiguity.
I believe that every human being, especially an intellectual, ought to endeavor to act ethically when it comes to issues of principle such as this. From a reader’s perspective it may well be true that if we are disappointed in someone we believed in and admired, our feelings are hurt and our trust is shaken. However, none of this should be used to excuse or exculpate our own misdeeds. I insist that each and every one of us is responsible for our own actions and to our own conscience.
A paradox of life and art
When it comes to art I would claim that everything experienced by a writer can be reflected in his work in some way, and this is often so. The subconscious need to come to terms with one’s own contemptible action (even if it was isolated and did not assuage the perpetrator’s guilt for causing suffering to others) may none the less stimulate the birth of a great work of art. This is the paradox of art and perhaps of life too.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Czech in the Lidové noviny on 16 October 2008.
We are grateful to Ivan Klíma for the permission to publish this text in English.