I met Milan Kundera when one of the Great Loves of My Life (GLOML) left behind a book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I thought it was amazing and, after that, tromped down the hill to downtown San Diego (then a rather dilapidated shabby place) to local used bookstores to get the rest of Kundera’s books. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I read about the Czech Spring, all the hopes and the crumbling of those hopes. Kundera’s books are semi-autobiographical and quite intimate in a way. Love and friendship combine with politics. This little bit from Wikipedia explains Kundera and the world revealed in his novels.
In 1950, his studies were briefly interrupted by political interferences. He and writer Jan Trefulka were expelled from the party for “anti-party activities.” Trefulka described the incident in his novella Pršelo jim štěstí (Happiness Rained On Them, 1962). Kundera also used the incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his novel Žert (The Joke, 1967). After Kundera graduated in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 Milan Kundera was readmitted into the Party. He was expelled for the second time in 1970. Kundera, along with other reform communist writers such as Pavel Kohout, was partly involved in the 1968 Prague Spring. This brief period of reformist activities was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Kundera remained committed to reforming Czech communism, and argued vehemently in print with fellow Czech writer Václav Havel, saying, essentially, that everyone should remain calm and that “nobody is being locked up for his opinions yet,” and “the significance of the Prague Autumn may ultimately be greater than that of the Prague Spring.” Finally, however, Kundera relinquished his reformist dreams and moved to France in 1975. He taught for a few years in the University of Rennes. He was stripped of Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979; he has been a French citizen since 1981.
Having (at that time) only very recently spent a year living under a fairly repressive regime in the Peoples Republic of China, I was still sorting out my own feelings about totalitarian Communism. That is not something every American has to do on the level of someone who has lived under it. I had been hired by it, paid by it, sheltered by it and, at the same time, had experienced through the recounting of friends’ experiences, the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. Most of those who had suffered were “different.” They spoke English as a result of working with the American Army in WW II (known in China as the “anti-Japanese War”). They might have been descended from landlords or intellectuals. They might just be taller and “whiter” than others, with athletic talent. They might have spoken up at some point against totalitarianism — as did the writer Lao She in his science fiction novel, Cat Country in which Communism is called “everybody shareskism.” It warned against following the lead of Stalin’s Russia… The list of “crimes” committed by people who suffered during the Cultural Revolution is pretty long…
The party spied on people (including me). My students spent several evenings a week in “Political Study” which was simply a way to make sure no one was ever alone. My students, who were being educated to become English teachers, had EXTRA political study every week to compensate for the evils they were subconsciously imbibing by studying this odious language. It was a crime to be different.
This passage in the book the GLOML left behind struck me as being true. Kundera is speaking of his own experience in the Prague Spring.
“That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back.” Milan Kundera,
That passage stuck with me all these years. There might be safety in a circle (“circle the wagons”) and it might be a “sacred symbol” but it doesn’t go anywhere. Its possibilities are closed. It is finished.