We were sitting on the terrace of a traditional literary institution in Berlin admiring the view of Lake Wannsee. Somewhere on the other shore was the building where seventy years ago top Nazis, in a matter of just few hours, hatched out a plan for annihilating a whole nation.
Did you serve in the army? an Israeli literature professor asked me. No. None of my friends have done military service. I fought in the war with Egypt. Would you fight for your country? I’ve never thought about it. Probably, yes. No. I don’t know . I was dodging the answer. Maybe you don’t even realize what happy times you live in. Here, in Central Europe. But things will change. I’ve just been to Austria and Hungary and I heard the populist talk there. Things always change when you least expect it.
I was reminded of his words when Respekt – and later everyone else – started to cover and analyze the sad and convoluted story that took place in the spring of 1950, a moment in the lives of future writer Milan Kundera and former pilot Miroslav Dvořáček. The events that unfolded afterwards have unleashed enormous passions. A story from those mad, dark times full of anxiety that to us appear to go back not sixty but six hundred years.
It made me realize that the Czech Republic and my entire generation do indeed live in happy times. The world around us is in the grip of a financial crisis, the oil is running out and the war in Iraq never seems to end, yet none of this seems to penetrate our borders. Only a few of the current generation of thirty-year-olds – not to mention those even younger than us – have ever found themselves without a choice, with their back to the wall. We have only the haziest idea of what it was like to live and make decisions at a time when people sometimes, or maybe even all the time, had to choose between evil and an even greater evil. Any such decision could have caused suffering that would last for the rest of your life. By comparison, our greatest daily traumas seem like simple self-pity, unrequited love — ordinary private worries.
And if the bubble bursts
If, for Kundera, Gustáv Husák was the president of forgetting, then those of us who are sometimes referred to as Husák’s children are the generation of those who have forgotten, a generation unconcerned for what it used to be like in the past, one that lives a free life of here and now, interested only in having a good time.
Maybe this is what is normal and it would be wonderful if it lasted. But what if we are living inside a bubble of normalcy that could just as easily burst without warning? Maybe, as we speak, a new generation of dubious saviours is being born somewhere and someone’s turntable is remixing past beats using the sounds of the movement that once seduced Central Europe, causing many of the disasters of the past century.
Had it not been for Kundera – as well as Škvorecký and Hrabal – I might never have become a writer, because to write you first have to read and absorb. That is why Kundera’s Laughable Loves have leaked into my first novel The Skies under Berlin. I quote its author without his permission and U-Bahn, the band which my hero, a post-revolutionary Czech exile, founds in Berlin has the cheek to cite as its main inspiration the wild trio of the Sex Pistols, David Bowie and Milan Kundera, and to scribble the slogan Unbearable Bitterness of Being on the posters advertising its concerts. I have always loved and will always love Kundera’s novels.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 20 October 2008.