Unlikely ally Havel comes to Kundera’s defence

The Czech Republic is still abuzz with allegations that Czech-born writer Milan Kundera informed on a suspected spy in 1950, and on Monday an unlikely ally came to Mr Kundera’s defence: former president Václav Havel. The two men famously clashed over the role played by dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia – Mr Havel accused the émigré writer of being cynical - but Mr Havel has now defended Mr Kundera and criticised his detractors.

Václav Havel, photo: CTKVáclav Havel, photo: CTK Václav Havel published his defence of Milan Kundera in this week’s edition of the news weekly Respekt, the same publication that made the claims against Mr Kundera a week ago. The magazine reported last week that Mr Kundera had gone to the police to report the presence of a suspicious person at a university dorm – the man was later exposed as a western-backed spy and spent 14 years in communist prison camps.

The story caused a sensation both at home and abroad, and Milan Kundera himself broke a 25-year media silence to deny the allegations. Many have leapt to his aid, saying the methods used by both Respekt and Adam Hradílek, the researcher at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes who penned the article, were highly unprofessional.

Now Václav Havel has added his voice. He advises extreme caution in the case, and says it must be viewed through the “prism” of the times. “I myself remember those times,” said Mr Havel, “I remember the atmosphere. I myself, looking back, don’t quite understand them, and sometimes I amaze myself at things I said, and blush.”

The former president goes on to say that from the very beginning he had serious doubts that Mr Kundera had gone to the police to report that “someone had told him that someone had told him that a spy was going to turn up looking for his suitcase.” “I do not think,” writes Václav Havel, “that it happened in such a stupid way or that it could have happened like that.”

Mr Havel ends with two messages – one addressed to “young historians” and one to Milan Kundera. To the former he says - “Please be careful when judging history! Otherwise, like your grandfathers, you risk doing more harm than good, even in good faith.” To the author he says – “Milan – try to rise above it! There are far worse things in life – as you well know – than being maligned in the press.”

Meanwhile Adam Hradílek – the researcher who made the claims – made a startling admission this week. Milan Kundera claims adamantly that he was not asked to comment on the allegations against him before the article went to press, contradicting claims made by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which says Mr Hradílek sent a fax to Mr Kundera’s home in France, the only way – it said – to contact him.

Mr Hradílek was quoted by the Czech News Agency as saying he had not confronted Kundera with evidence of the police report bearing his name. Rather, he said, he had contacted the author to ask him to explain the circumstances of a young man’s arrest that took place in 1950 in Mr Kundera’s university dormitory. “If I’d told him what I knew,” said Hradílek, “the conversation might not have continued.”