There is a long tradition, particularly strong since the middle of the past century, of writers making use of the power of their words in defence of good causes, including their own colleagues whose life and freedom have been under threat of dictatorship of every ilk. This laudable tradition has recently taken on a new dimension, with eleven renowned writers speaking out in defence of their colleague Milan Kundera. Although he lives in a free country, France, they feel his honour is under threat from a campaign of defamation.
Sadly, their expression of solidarity bears a striking resemblance to the very thing they are protesting, for it has all the hallmarks of a campaign, one moreover that is definitely based on dubious foundations.
In March 1950 a young man by the name of Miroslav Dvořáček was arrested in Prague and following a verdict by the totalitarian justice system he spent 14 years in prison. The weekly Respekt published a document from the police archives which clearly demonstrates that Dvořáček’s arrest resulted from the denunciation by the young student Milan Kundera. The paper also published further key facts relating to this event, including a personal testimony from a contemporary. The authenticity of the police document has been confirmed by experts.
However, what is clear from the eleven writers’ memorandum is that they refuse to address what actually happened because they a priori believe Milan Kundera who, in turn, categorically denies his role in the events, claiming not to have known anything about it, not to have met those allegedly involved and never having denounced anyone.
The nature of the actual events is certainly very complex and requires close attention, but based on all the information available it is more than likely that it was indeed Milan Kundera who denounced Miroslav Dvořáček. It is, therefore, not inappropriate to ask: should we accept Milan Kundera’s subsequent denial just because he is a writer of world renown?
No, we cannot – despite his great literary talent and despite the significant contribution that his work has undoubtedly made to the world’s understanding of the nature of communist totalitarianism. After all, what is also at play here, apart from cultural merit, is the historical, non-literary truth, as well as the lives of real people. Should we disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes and jettison elementary logic just because Milan Kundera is claiming the opposite?
Are we to place unconditional trust in Milan Kundera even though we know that there is at least one matter about which he has not been truthful? Milan Kundera (and subsequently also his legal representative) have claimed that the writer did not know the key actors in this story. While this is true with regard to the victim of the denunciation, Miroslav Dvořáček, it is definitely not true in the case of two other characters: Iva Militká and Miroslav Dlask (to refresh the reader’s memory: the former is the woman whom the Western intelligence agent Miroslav Dvořáček asked to look after his suitcase, the latter her future husband who passed the information on to Kundera). Not only does Mrs. Militká remember Kundera very well (as did Mr. Dlask before his death) but there is on her bookshelves at home a book with a personal dedication to the couple from the writer himself.
It is Kundera’s first publication, a collection of communist poetry entitled Člověk zahrada širá (Man Is a Vast Garden) published in 1953 — only three years after Miroslav Dvořáček’s arrest at the Kolonka student halls of residence. In those days Kundera was an unknown young poet who did not hand out his autographs to just anyone he met. To Mirek + Iva as a souvenir (not for reading), from Milan are the words written on the book’s title page. Clearly, it is highly improbable that he would have written such a personal dedication to someone he did not know. Of course, we cannot exclude the possibility that Kundera no longer remembers his friends from those days, but that raises another legitimate question as to what else his memory may have suppressed.
We would like to make a few more comments in response to the statement by the eleven writers.
Their memorandum on Milan Kundera claims, among other things, that he is clearly exonerated by the testimony of a respected Prague scholar. They are referring to the literary historian Zdeněk Pešat, who also issued a statement on this issue. However, Mr. Pešat’s role in these events was hardly that of a respected scholar, an unbiased observer. He was simply another witness and a more obscure figure in the story.
Zdeněk Pešat claims that Miroslav Dlask confided to him that he was the one who had denounced Dvořáček. Even if we concede that the former arts faculty communist party official Zdeněk Pešat is telling the truth (unfortunately, his claim cannot be verified, as Dlask is no longer alive and Mr. Pešat refuses to talk to the media, just like Milan Kundera), does that remove the suspicion from Kundera? No, it does not. One of the versions of the events explored in the original Respekt article was that both Dlask and Kundera may have been involved in Dvořáček’s denunciation. So the testimony of this respected scholar does not amount to a refutation of anything.
The statement’s signatories further claim that Kundera’s honour has been besmirched by claims based on a dubious foundation, to say the least. Yet experts from the Security Archives, the Czech institution most competent to assess the matter, stated unequivocally that the authenticity of the document with Kundera’s denunciation is beyond any doubt. Claims in the Western media that the document is a report by the secret political police that could have been manipulated, are equally untrue. The document was typed up at an ordinary Prague police station.
The police report was a chance discovery in the archives by a young historian researching the circumstances of Miroslav Dvořáček’s case. It is, therefore, not true that a defamatory campaign has been unleashed with the express aim of besmirching Milan Kundera’s reputation, as the statement’s signatories write. We have been also deeply shocked by the cynicism and egotism reflected in Milan Kundera’s claim that the publication of the article was specially timed to coincide with the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair in order to damage him as an author.
While the weekly Respekt did not set out to delve into Milan Kundera’s past, it could not keep silent about an authentic document it uncovered, because doing so would go against the grain of its own history and integrity. The paper was founded in early 1990 by individuals (mostly Charter 77 signatories) who had been publishing it independently in samizdat form well before 1989. Respekt’s independence is unique in the Czech context, and for several years the paper has been named by the Czech Publishers’ Union as the investigative journal of the year.Its authors have received numerous awards, both domestic and international.
From its earliest days the paper has focused on the defence of democratic values, human rights, the environment and transparency in public life, as well as recent Czech history.
The signatories of the statement in defence of Milan Kundera include several major figures who have their own painful memories of dictatorships. In 1959 Czechoslovakia’s totalitarian regime asserted its power through particularly harsh repression; however, it was not Milan Kundera who was its victim but Mr Dvořáček. He was not alone – tens of thousands of young people were caught up in its claws and deprived of the chance to develop their talents; we will never know whether some had it in them to develop into great writers themselves. Their lives, not to mention their reputations, were systematically destroyed. Western Europe has long been engaged in an open debate about the Nazi period and we believe that it is just as important that such an open, albeit painful, discussion take place in the Czech Republic about both totalitarian periods: Nazism as well as the fifties’ brand of communism.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
Petr Třešňák, staff writer for Respekt and co-author of the article The Saddest of Jokes.
This article was originally published in Czech in the Salon on 11 November 2008.
We are grateful to Petr Třešňák and Martin M.Šimečka for the permission to publish this text in English.