Friday, May 22, 2009

More on the Kundera Scandal (Sigh)

A very long and detailed article about the Milan Kundera scandal by New York Review of Books staffer Jana Prikryl was just posted at The Nation.

For anyone who is steeped in the complexities of the scandal, the piece is riveting. The big news in the article is Prikryl's close examination of the multiple cross-cutting ripples of influence in Czech journalism, academe, literary culture and politics
that stoked the story.

And the first few paragraphs of the piece are a brilliant evocation and denunciation of the Czech Republic's abject refusal -- across political and intellectual divides -- to embrace its potential destiny as a cultural and political force in contemporary Europe. Unspoken in Prikryl's piece is the near-insanity of the country's global-warming-denying president Václav Klaus, but her close reading of the stultifying and oblivious stunt-art nonsense of David Cerný is staggeringly good.

Cerný is best-known for his painting of a Russian tank that stood as WWII memorial to the Soviet liberation of Prague in 1991. He settled on the color pink for his statement in the heady afterglow of the Velvet Revolution, but the provocative gesture -- set against Czechoslovak efforts to peacefully work out the departure of Soviet troops from its territory -- was read either as cheeky and knowing tweak or as a spit-on-the-grave of the Warsaw Pact. (And let's be clear, when I arrived in suburban Prague in September 1991, the withdrawal wasn't totally complete.)

In her article, Prikryl observes that Cerný -- who was clearly dancing on that thin Spinal Tappian line between stupid and clever in 1991 -- is now completely politically tone deaf 18 years on. His sculpture to "celebrate" the Czech accession to EU's presidency trafficked in every vulgar and stupid stereotype of Europe's recent past (swastikas, scab picking and a bizarre self-loathing). Oh, it's art, dahling. It's art. It's just not any good.

Pushing on from that strong opening gambit, Prikryl demonstrates a wonderful knack for separating out the various strands of unacknowledged conflict and ethical collision in the publication of the article linking Kundera to the denunciation of a Western agent in the Czech magazine Respekt -- and in the attempt to hold the novelist/essayist and playwright to account for the long-ago incident uncovered by researchers.

But for all of the delicate onion-peeling in the article, I am going to be immodest and suggest that The Nation piece is wonderfully-engaging embroidery around the central and largely-indisputable facts of the case that I set out a few months ago in The American Prospect.

The new evidence about careerism and cloudy motives and perhaps conflict of interest in publicizing this incident in Kundera's past are diverting but do not alter what we already knew. (1) This denunciation by Kundera that led to an arrest and long prison sentence did happen, despite the novelist's semantic shimmying away from it; (2) It was completely explicable in the context of its era (and Prikryl's article is weakest in its time-bending citation of Milan Uhde as a potential witness for the Kundera prosecution even as he defends Kundera); and (3) That Kundera's subsequent work and his elaborate fictive and non-fictive personas must be interrogated anew in the light of this news.

Prikryl agrees with the third point in large part, especially regarding Kundera's book-length collections of essays. And it is here that the literary critic -- armed with theory and strategies of close reading -- must also add empathy/sympathy to the arsenal of analysis.

Describing a new Kundera book of essays not yet published in English (and mouth-watering because Kundera tackles the immensely problematic works of Curzio Malaparte), Prikryl writes that "... at one point, recalling an argument he had with a journalist in the early '60s about the novelist Bohumil Hrabal, Kundera hazards a statement that one imagines he wouldn't mind having applied to himself today. Defending Hrabal's refusal to take a political stand in Communist Czechoslovakia, Kundera chided the journalist, who expected more from Hrabal: 'A single book by Hrabal renders a greater service to people, to their inner freedom, than all of us with our gestures and proclamations of protest!'"

As a close reader of Hrabal, it is hard for me to disagree with Kundera's assessment. (And to read Hrabal's self-flagellations in interviews and in works published in translation a few years ago as Total Fears, it is easy to not only reserve judgment, but to forgive any transgressions against outright dissidence by Hrabal -- real or imagined.)

The strangeness of the Kundera conundrum (as Prikryl terms it) is that as Kundera cites Hrabal, he does not follow Hrabal's path (however belated) of transparency. Prikryl's article peels much of the mystery around the circumstances of how and why this incident came to light -- but no one but Kundera himself can shed more light on the central mysteries of its imporatnace to his work and his life.

No comments: