World-renowned Czech novelist Milan Kundera celebrates 75th birthday

01-04-2004

April 1st marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of perhaps the best known contemporary Czech novelist in the world, Milan Kundera. Rather surprisingly, the author - who has visited the country on only a couple of occasions since the Velvet Revolution - is less popular in the Czech Republic than he is elsewhere. But why isn't Kundera held in high regard in the country of his birth?

"Milan Kundera is admired in most parts of the Euro-Atlantic world at least as an international author. But he has some problems with his domestic readership and with critics, too."

Literature professor Tomas Vrba on author Milan Kundera, who is 75 years old today. Perhaps the best known contemporary Czech novelist in the world, Kundera was born in Brno in 1929. His first novel The Joke came out in 1967 and was made into a film the following year. However, following the crushing of the Prague Spring - of which the author was a passionate advocate - Kundera lost his teaching post at the FAMU film school. In 1975 he emigrated to France, where he lives to this day.

Given his international reputation, it is perhaps surprising how little affection the author is held in here in the Czech Republic. Writer Iva Pekarkova.

"Milan Kundera, who I think in fact opened the doors to so many other Czech writers to the English and world readers community, once said some place 'I don't feel like a Czech person, I feel like a European'. And this was it - the nation hated him for I don't know how long, twenty years. It's still there, it still goes with him wherever he goes."

There are other reasons why Kundera is not as popular in the Czech Republic as he is elsewhere. One is that - unlike many exiled writers - he did not allow his work to circulate in underground, samizdat form during the Communist era. Tomas Vrba says, however, that the author was acting on artistic principle.

"I'd say that from the very beginning he was trying to master the language and writing in such a perfectionist way that he really couldn't imagine that his texts might be published without his direct supervision. Yes, he gave permission to Josef Skvorecky's publishing house in Toronto, 68 Publishers, and if I'm not wrong two or three of his novels were published there, but later he expressed his reservations about the editorial work."

But perhaps what rankles most with the Czech literary establishment is that Milan Kundera has not been accommodating to his current Czech publishers, and also effectively blocks the translation of more recent novels such as Immortality and Ignorance from French, the language he now writes in. Tomas Vrba again.

"Surprisingly enough, the Czech readership is the only readership in the world which is not allowed to read the latest novels and essays. And the situation became even more difficult when he stopped writing in Czech and only writes in French. He once declared that it's out of the question to ask anybody else to prepare Czech translations."

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