Friday, October 17, 2008

The Case of Kundera

So my article on Czech historians' discovery that Milan Kundera denounced a Western spy in 1950 is up at The American Prospect. The short version is that (a) I think this incident did happen; (b) it was completely understandable in the context of those times in Czechoslovakia; (c) it's ludicrous to paint Kundera as some kind of collaborator with the regime based on this incident, and (d) his true betrayal to his own work is in trying to deny it happened now that it's out of the bag.

I feel very confident in making the (a) argument. State archivists have confirmed the document's authenticity. Indeed, the fact that it is only being discovered now is testimony to the fact that Kundera has very minimal contacts with the Czech secret police (StB). If his contacts had been more extensive, we would have know about them by now -- whether those revelations came from the communists in the late 1960s, 1970s or 1980s as an effort to tar his reputation as a dissident, or in the orgy of delving into the secret police files after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Others, however, are trying to deny or elide this incident -- which will certainly force readers to reexamine Kundera's corpus and reevaluate his writings on totalitarianism, memory and betrayal. (I make a quick stab at it in my article.) You can check out some counterarguments here and here. I find them quite unconvincing -- desperate lunges for some plausible denials.
And Kundera's denial -- which I tackle in the article -- is a knotty and lawyerly construction.

At bottom, this incident (and the public revelation of it) is not the "assassination of the author" that Kundera has made it out to be. There's a compelling context for it, and our knowing about it may even make the work richer. But the author of Testaments Betrayed -- which compared such investigation and analysis as a trial -- is certainly going to see it as a conviction of himself in a kangaroo court of history.

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