I am grateful to Respekt for insisting on being the one to air my views and not letting in any other media publish my answers to the questions relating to Milan Kundera’s guilt or lack of guilt. I do have a lot to say on the subject, for Zdeněk Rotrekl and I are the only two surviving authors of those who served time under the communists. It is if the two of us who have been at odds with this ideology all our lives, were now the only ones who can determine what took place fifty-eight years ago. But what this is really about is the proverbial thick line that is to be drawn under our past. The rear-view mirror. The smaller the better.
Of course, in my judgment of the Kundera of 45 years ago (I did not know him before that) the fact that he was a communist did play an important role. Nevertheless, I liked his Laughable Loves. I liked his later essays very much indeed. And I joined in the enthusiastic applause at the opening night of The Blunder even though my applause was aimed more at the director than the author. However, unlike many others, I did not think much of The Joke.
Believing, like St. Augustine, that art is an emanation of the artist’s self, I could not and did not wish to, separate the greatness of an author’s work from his ethics. At the time when the party incarcerated and condemned me and a quarter of a million others to millions of years in terrible prisons and uranium camps, when it executed 243 men and one woman, and tortured and shot dead thousands of others, allegedly as they tried to flee the country, Milan Kundera served this party, he admired and glorified it. Ivan Klíma was also a party member in those days, yet we are good friends. Arnošt Lustig and Pavel Kohout were also friends of mine. The main reason is that they not only owned up to their communist past but also thought through its implications. And above all, they did not keep silent about it.
While the totalitarian regime was in full swing, I often discussed this with Karel Pecka (my fellow inmate for four years) whose dissident activities often brought him into contact not only with former prisoners but also former communists. This was hard for him because he too had to live with the faces of those who had investigated, judged and imprisoned him, etched in his memory. But as time passed he too recognized how hard it must have been for the former communist intellectuals to admit to themselves that this ideology had robbed them of their judgment. And to accept that they were serious about crossing their Rubicon. One of the finest people I have ever had the privilege to know, the novelist and playwright František Pavlíček, earned an absolution for his membership in the communist party by being cast out in the desert for longer than John the Baptist’s 40 days. Still, he never stopped repeating that party membership was a kind of leprosy you could not get rid of until the end of your life.
By contrast, I do not have much respect for Milan Kundera. Nevertheless, in 1992 in my capacity as President of the Czech PEN I invited him to join our organisation. He refused. Nevertheless, for several years, whenever the Czech PEN Centre committee put him forward for the Nobel prize, I did not fail to add my signature. This reflected my understanding of tolerance that the condemned writer Jan Zahradníček taught me on the courtyard of the Pankrác prison when he saw that I was gagging for revenge without realizing that I would become the first victim of my own hatred.
Everything I have ever written or said boils down to this: unless we get our own past and that of our country out of our system, it will exert a hold over us. And it will come back to haunt us when we least expect it. This is exactly what has happened to Milan Kundera. Nothing more and nothing less.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 20 October 2008.