My visits to Milan Kundera and his wife, Věra, became regular in 2019, when I was in the third year of my mission as Czech ambassador to France. What started as polite and admiring calls from a diplomat to his country’s greatest author evolved into friendship. But this late November evening was special, and I was as nervous as I had been at my first call to the Kunderas two years before. We sat in their Parisian apartment chatting, as usual, about this and that. When I thought the right moment had come, I stood up and said: “Milan, I know you don’t like ceremonies, but let me say a few words.”
After a brief speech, I handed over a document stating that Milan Kundera had acquired Czech citizenship. With a mild, slightly bashful smile, Kundera nodded, taking the document and signing a copy for the Czech authorities. Symbolically, Kundera returned home that evening, 40 years after having been stripped of his citizenship, and 30 years after the Velvet Revolution put his fellow dissident intellectuals in power, notably his former friend Václav Havel, who served as president from 1989 until 2003.
Why had it taken so long? Hadn’t Kundera wished to return home? Or had the Czechs preferred him in exile? After 1989, the Kunderas considered splitting their time between Paris, Prague, and Brno, where Milan was born. But this never happened. A few incognito trips to Czechia, occasional visits by Czech friends to Paris or his summer residence in Touquet, frequent phone calls—but that was all. No return. Why?
Kundera’s novels may offer some hints. His critics claimed to detect anti-Czech sentiments in them. He himself considered one of his early plays anti-Czech. More notable, he not only ridiculed Communist officials in his novels, but took critical distance from dissidents. For example, when Tomáš, the physician protagonist of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, declines to sign a petition in support of political prisoners, the reader can’t but side with him. Moreover, Kundera was said to be reluctant to authorize Czech translations of the books he had written in French. But he never spoke publicly about his relationship with his home country. In fact, he never spoke in public at all.
It was Věra who, a few weeks before the restitution of his citizenship, broke this long silence with a frank interview. She revealed her longing for a lost home, but also why they couldn’t return. Many Czech readers were stunned to learn that for decades, Kundera had faced hostility from dissidents in Prague and from other anti-Communist exiles. Friends of Havel were especially active in these attacks against Kundera; Havel’s own involvement was ambiguous.
Kundera and Havel first met in the late 1950s. Kundera, a promising young writer, was teaching at the prestigious Prague Film Academy. Havel, seven years his junior, asked him for advice, as he wanted to enter the academy. Kundera tried to help Havel, acting, in Havel’s own words, as his “agent.” Despite these efforts, the academy rejected Havel, as punishment for his “bourgeois origins”— a label used against anyone whose parents weren’t workers or peasants. Indeed, before Communism, the Havels had been among the wealthiest and most influential families in Prague.
Kundera’s and Havel’s first encounter established the pattern of their uneven relationship throughout the 1960s. Kundera was part of the cultural establishment, harvesting prizes and readers’ admiration and attracting the interest of foreign publishers. Politically, he was a maverick who was regularly criticized by dogmatic officials, and his books had to wait years for official authorization. While abandoning the Marxist idealism of his early poetry, Kundera still believed in some version of socialism. Havel, in contrast, was an ambitious outsider. He still benefited from the cultural capital of his family, which accorded him name recognition and contacts with important poets and intellectuals. But the Havels were treated as class enemies by the regime, and his professional path wasn’t easy. Havel first joined the world of theater as a stagehand. It was only with the country’s political liberalization that he gained recognition as a playwright. His politics were restrained: He was neither a die-hard anti-Communist nor a socialist (except for a brief revolt against his mother).
Several intellectuals with establishment bona fides, including Kundera, tried to help Havel on his difficult path. But given his enormous ambitions and thirst for recognition, Havel must have felt a degree of envy toward them. They had easier access to the media, to influential positions in the state cultural apparatus, and to publishers. Yet Havel achieved some success despite the obstacles he faced. His 1963 play, The Garden Party, was staged not only in Prague, but also in Germany—a considerable achievement for a young Czech author at the time. But he could hardly match the success of Kundera, whose works were widely read and translated. The Joke (1967) quickly turned into a cult text; and by 1969, three films based on his books had been made. When Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Marquez, and Julio Cortázar visited Prague in the fall of 1968, it was Kundera they sought out.
Perhaps this resentment helps explain the violence with which Havel reacted to Kundera’s essay “Czech Destiny,” published in December 1968, months after the Soviet invasion squelched the attempted democratic reforms of that year. Admittedly, Kundera was unusually lyrical, speaking of “a great mission of small nations” and claiming that the year of 1968 “moved Czechs and Slovaks to the center of world history” in such a way that the nation had “beheld its own greatness.” He celebrated the Prague Spring as a unique contribution to world politics, claiming that the Czech quest for a political system respecting both freedom and social justice was of universal importance and could provide salutary lessons for the West. He was hopeful about the pursuit of democratic reforms, even under Soviet occupation.
Havel, who never trusted Communist reformers, reacted with a sarcastic diatribe, pillorying Kundera’s “self-admiring, nostalgically patriotic delusions” and accusing him of “ridiculous provincial messianism.” He argued that the Prague reformers had merely tried to rectify their previous crimes, and that the Western model of liberal democracy was able to reconcile freedom and social justice on its own, without need of lessons from Communists. Moreover, Havel rejected any hope for the continuation of democratic reforms, calling for peaceful resistance against the occupation. Kundera responded in similarly personal terms. He accused Havel of moral exhibitionism, arguing that the radicality of his proposals might satisfy his vain need for moral leadership, but their practical consequences would be nonexistent, or harmful.
Their exchange reflected the fault line between democratic-socialist and liberal intellectuals: Kundera argued for a new model of society that would be free and fair, avoiding the vices of both Western capitalism and Eastern European authoritarianism; Havel defended Western capitalism as the only desirable model, needing fine tuning, but no major revision. These differences didn’t matter to the neo-Stalinist leaders who regained control after the 1968 revolt; the regime condemned both authors as anti-socialist and banned their work.
But the psychology of the two writers’ relationship was shaped by their professional rivalry. Though both yearned for international literary recognition, only Kundera prevailed. Havel was acknowledged as a freedom fighter and political leader, but he has never entered the canon of world literature. Nonetheless, he retained his literary ambitions and his identity as a writer. After he left the office of president, Havel wrote a play titled Leaving (which was mediocre) and directed a film based on it (which was a flop).
All of this may account for Havel’s ambivalent treatment of Kundera. After his 1969 polemic, he didn’t engage in any personal attacks against Kundera, but he did nothing to discourage such attacks by his friends and admirers. The last and most vicious of these came in 2008, when the Czech weekly Respekt published an article accusing Kundera of informing the police about a Western agent when he was a student in the 1950s. The article didn’t produce any evidence apart from hearsay and a police protocol mentioning that Kundera was the source of the information.
Although there were grounds for suspicion, the case against Kundera was rather weak. Neither Kundera’s signature nor identification number appeared in the police protocol, which would have been standard procedure. Moreover, the agent was arrested in the student room of his former girlfriend. It was she who talked about his coming to Prague with her then-boyfriend and later husband, who allegedly passed this information to Kundera. However, neither the girl nor her boyfriend was punished for being in contact with the agent, which could have been expected in that period of terror. Kundera denied any involvement, and no further evidence was produced, but the affair sullied his name, harmed his and his wife’s health, and ended their visits to Czechia.
Respekt was—and still is—published by the billionaire media magnate Zdeněk Bakala, who is Havel’s friend and the main sponsor of the Václav Havel Library. As chairman of the board of Respekt, Havel was alerted to the article before publication and gave it a green light. A week later, after the damage had been done, he issued a half-hearted statement of support for Kundera: “Don’t despair, Milan, there are worse things in life than bad press.” He philosophized about the pitfalls of judging distant historical events, while urging Kundera not to be upset by the resulting media frenzy, which would inevitably damage his reputation.
In Central Europe, intellectuals have been traditionally assigned a special mission. Unlike their Western counterparts, they played a decisive role in nation-building in the 19th century, and were expected to contribute to the political struggles of their nations in the difficult times of the 20th century. Czech history is rich in examples: The historian František Palacký was a key political leader in the 19th century, sociologist Tomáš G. Masaryk became the founding president of Czechoslovakia, writer Karel Čapek defended Czechoslovak democracy before World War II, and philosopher Jan Patočka avoided politics all his life, only to become theorist, spokesperson, and martyr of Charter 77.
But there are also many examples of intellectuals who were accused of neglecting their mission by prioritizing art over politics or failing to reflect the nation in their works: These include the greatest 19th-century Czech poet, Karel Hynek Mácha, whose poems were about love and death, not Czech virtues, and Antonín Dvořák, whose music was deemed too cosmopolitan.
Havel, the playwright-turned-president, clearly lived up to national expectations, joining the tradition of Masaryk and Patočka, but many reproached Kundera for falling short of them. Not only did he leave the country in 1975, which some saw as a desertion of the struggle against tyranny, he also repeatedly voiced skepticism about the dissident activities of his former friends, and he was said to have withdrawn from any political activity to wholly dedicate his life to literature. Kundera made clear that he wouldn’t write politically committed literature, about which he had a very low opinion, and his critics didn’t believe his books, full of irony, laughable intrigues, and love affairs, posed any real challenge to the regime.
That may explain why the publication of The Unbearable Lightness of Being met with an enthusiastic reception just about everywhere except in Czech opposition circles. Like Dvořák, Kundera was seen as a cosmopolitan (this had already been one of Havel’s rebukes in 1969); like Mácha’s, Kundera’s themes weren’t openly political enough.
These reproaches were unfair. Rather than abandoning politics and forgetting about his home and his friends, as his detractors claimed, Kundera worked from a different conception of the political. To be sure, he refused to sign any of Havel’s numerous petitions and declarations, probably still suspecting him of moral exhibitionism. But he also took practical actions that he considered useful: publishing an article in defense of a jailed spokesperson of Charter 77 in Libération; providing discreet financial assistance to friends in need back home; and defending the notion of Central Europe in a widely read 1984 essay.
The Czech authorities stripped Kundera of his citizenship after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1978, which ridiculed the top party leader. Despite the official censure, the nation’s leading dissidents didn’t consider the book worthy of much attention. They expected a more politically explicit and engaged work, rather than what they saw as a series of erotic adventures. In this respect, the Czech anti-Communist opposition was on the same page as American neoconservatives: Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz voiced his respectful disappointment in the book in an open letter to Kundera.
During the Cold War, Czech dissidents and exiles couldn’t escape the geopolitical game of the two superpowers, and some managed to play an important part. Pavel Tigrid was the case in point. He left Czechoslovakia after the Communist coup d’état in 1948. Starting in the late 1950s, he lived in Paris as an American citizen. With funding from the US government, more specifically from the Central Intelligence Agency, he financed and edited the quarterly Svědectví (Testimony), the most important Czech anti-Communist journal in circulation. From Paris, he organized a formidable network of intelligence collection and head-hunting.
As early as the mid-1960s, Tigrid became interested in Havel, whose family, anti-Communist views, and literary talent must have seemed promising. Eventually, they met in Paris in 1968. It was the beginning of a life-long cooperation and friendship. Tigrid became a steady promoter of Havel both in Czechoslovakia and in the West. According to Jaroslav Vrzala, Tigrid’s longtime collaborator and the publisher of Svědectví, Havel’s political career was the product of his mentor’s US-sponsored efforts. These efforts paid off in 1989. Before the Velvet Revolution, Tigrid began making the case that Havel should become the Czechoslovak president and commissioned Havel-for-president posters. He then moved to Prague to serve as a key advisor to the new president, and later as his minister of culture.
How did Tigrid view Kundera? The hard-line Cold Warrior likely regarded the independent- minded intellectual, who didn’t need his network or subscribe to the ideological division of the Cold War, as somewhat suspect. Tigrid likely didn’t want Kundera to be seen as a spokesperson for the Czech opposition, overshadowing the more politically reliable Havel. He met Kundera shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1975 and offered his friendly advice to steer clear of politics. Kundera happily took this advice, not having any political ambitions.
Tigrid, an experienced intelligence operative and the gatekeeper for the information circulating among the Czech anti-Communist opposition both at home and abroad, took great care that the images of Havel and Kundera remained in line with his political plans. One can therefore imagine how disturbed he was in 1984, when Kundera was catapulted into global literary superstardom with the success of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which made him a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tigrid wasn’t the only one to be worried. Many Prague dissidents didn’t like the idea. In their view, a Nobel for Kundera would be a snub to Havel, and so a setback for their cause.
It was against this backdrop that Czech dissidents sent a petition to the Nobel committee in support of Jaroslav Seifert, the great lyrical poet, then in his 80s, who was virtually unknown outside Czechoslovakia but who was among the first signatories of the Charter 77. Some of those who put their names on the petition later regretted it, as they weren’t aware when they signed that its main rationale was to divert the prize from Kundera. The petition achieved its aim. The surprising award of the Nobel Prize in 1984 to Jaroslav Seifert was an insult to the Czech Communists, but also a triumph for the political project of Václav Havel.
With the end of the Cold War, Havel and his allies felt vindicated by events: Contrary to Kundera’s earlier hopes, the victorious West wasn’t interested in discussing third ways between socialism and capitalism, instead setting out to impose liberal capitalism across Central Europe. Throughout the 1990s, it looked as if Havel had got it right in his polemic against Kundera more than 20 years earlier. An emboldened Washington greatly appreciated Havel’s pro-Western outlook, as it conveniently fit the interventionism of the Clinton and Bush administrations, from the NATO enlargement to the Iraq War. On the other hand, the former dissidents led by Havel were gradually marginalized by economic pragmatists who built Czech capitalism, led by Václav Klaus.
In this new panorama, Kundera still didn’t fit in: Neither Havel’s moralists nor Klaus’s pragmatists were keen to invite him back. Still, mutual friends tried to reconcile Kundera and Havel in the early 1990s. They shared a polite but lukewarm dinner in Paris. Kundera was awarded the State Honor by Havel, but Kundera sent Věra in his stead to receive it while staying in a hotel nearby. The article in Respekt was the final blow to reconciliation attempts.
More than a decade later, the mood is different in Czechia. There are still people who believe that the legacy of Václav Havel needs to be protected at any costs, not against Klaus but against the populism associated with former President Miloš Zeman and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. On the other hand, after the disastrous consequences of US interventions abroad and the corruption and failures of Czech capitalism, the belief that Havel got it right is less widespread than it was in the 1990s. Moreover, Czech readers now judge Kundera by his literary merits rather than the demands of dissident politics, and they like what they read. His books remain best-sellers.
The main difference between Kundera and Havel is their treatment of humor, an important Czech value. Havel’s plays are often funny as they expose the absurdity of the bureaucratic, technocratic, totalitarian world. But his essays are deadly serious, for Havel believed that there is a way out of all this absurdity: the pursuit of truth and Western democracy. It was this attitude that made him a natural ally of American neoconservatives.
Kundera’s laughter, in contrast, cut across all his novels and essays, always appearing in the presence of the tragic. Both laughter and tragedy, for him, led back to the inescapable ambiguity of a world that can’t be redeemed by any truth or political regime. But Kundera didn’t succumb to nihilism, finding hope in the cultural traditions of the West and Central Europe in particular, in music and in the art of the novel, and in the openness and unexpected turns of history. All this left him open to contradictory ideas as long as they didn’t solidify into dogmas that couldn’t be laughed off.
There is more to be gained from revisiting Kundera’s work, then, than the pleasures of his superb prose. The certainties of the old US-Soviet bipolarity are now far in the past, the era of American unipolarity is waning, and Eastern Europe is once again a geopolitical battleground. Under these conditions, we need to find ways to think about the world anew, all the while avoiding the trap of political absolutes—whether socialism or capitalism, economic pragmatism or national populism—and using the power of irony against those who claim to have found the ultimate truth. In short, we need to reread Milan Kundera.