Twenty years since its first publication in English Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is still waiting to be published in the Czech Republic

03-09-2004

The novelist Milan Kundera is probably the best-known contemporary Czech author in the world. Next week the British publisher Faber and Faber is putting out a special hardback edition of his "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its first publication in English. Strangely enough, the Czech original of the book has never been published in Milan Kundera's native country.

When the "Unbearable Lightness of Being" was first published, Milan Kundera was living in Paris where he had fled from communist Czechoslovakia in 1975. Since its first publication the book has been translated into scores of languages, but the Czech original was only published by an exile publishing house in Canada in the 1980s. Milan Kundera has never given Czech publishers permission to put out his most popular book. Jan Culik is a lecturer at Glasgow University.

"When Milan Kundera is asked about this, he says that he would have to revise the Czech original and he doesn't have time to do it. He is known to be very very meticulous about the exact versions of his texts and he's been changing the English and French editions over the years. If you go back through the editions through the years, you will discover minute changes throughout it. So this argument seems justified on the face of it.

"However, I seem to have discovered that this explanation is probably not true. Because some weeks ago I met a very well-known Romanian scholar who has translated many many Czech classics into Romanian. His name is Jean Grosu, and he actually received permission from Kundera to translate all these 'banned', as it were, books from the un-revised Czech originals into Romanian, and they have been published. So it would appear that Kundera doesn't mind whether these novels come out as long as it is not the Czech Republic."

It is often said that Milan Kundera is much more read and appreciated abroad than in his homeland and that Czechs have never really accepted his writing. But Jan Culik says it is not clear what is the cause and what is the consequence in this case.

"It is very difficult to say because, obviously, if you don't have the seminal works available in the country, then of course, his work is much less known than in other countries. It is true that say, in Britain, Kundera's work is permanently available on the shelves of bookshops, which, of course, isn't the case in the Czech Republic normally, even with Czech classics. So if these books were available, people would be interested, I think, in the Czech Republic."

Nevertheless, at least from his part, Milan Kundera's relationship to his native country is a difficult one. When he does visit the Czech Republic, he arrives incognito and he declines to speak to journalists. Jan Culik from Glasgow University says there might be a concrete reason behind Milan Kundera's long-lasting reservations about his old homeland.

"Maybe, the reason for Kundera's books from the 1980s not being published in the Czech Republic is the fact that when 'The Unbearable Lightness Being' was published in the West, it was a major success for Kundera, and Czech dissident critics slammed the book. They really didn't like it. They thought it was kitsch, they said it was too black and white, they had various piddling criticisms. And I think Kundera was offended. It is not very easy when you come from Eastern Europe and try to bear witness about it to an absolutely different world, which was the West. And he did it. He managed to do this. So he expected praise and he didn't get it."

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