Kundera’s real joke

The Royal Academy of Spanish Language defines irony as a “disguised and fine mockery.”  These days, some 40 years after the publication of his first novel, the word I like to set Milan Kundera’s narrative is this: irony.

In 2008 a schism occurred in the literary community: the Czech writer, once considered  -although he never won- for the Nobel Prize, was accused of betraying a suspected spy in 1950, while still active in the Communist Party.

There’s a reason to the use the word “accused” instead of other one. Action is implied by the word: the journal Respekt, a Czech published research based on police records, apparently unveiled the frightening reality: Kundera in fact, had been an informer.

The action was despicable as an overlooked aspect of the personality of the Czech writer was discovered and worse, the entire system of beliefs around him and his literature was put into question. The most representative novels of Kundera, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to the Book of Laughter and Forgetting, have a similar thematic axis: Communism as a repressive regime,  chasing and condemning those who did not agree with their ideals.

Apparently the 21-year Kundera,  on March 14 at four in the afternoon, went to a police station to denounce Miroslav Dvoracek as an undercover agent. This fact, as simply as terrifying, led to the apprehension of Dvoracek, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison and ended up serving 14 in a uranium mine.

The plot thickens in an argument that may well have been the key frame of any novel of  Kundera: Dvoracek was the lover of Iva Militká, Ivan Daska’s girlfriend, who by then was a friend of Kundera’s.

The thread of events, according to Respekt, was as follows: Dvoracek told that he was a desertor military pilot who later returned to Czechoslovakia as a western spy. Militká  told this to Daská, who told Kundera, who arrived at the police station and precipitated the events that today, 58 years later,  irreversibly condemned the writer.

Betrayal of honor? Informal revenge?  What really happened?

 

The joke

Milan Kundera published his first novel in 1967: The Joke is the story of a trifle that would change for good the life of the protagonist, Ludvik, a college student, full of pride and vitality, active part of the Communist Party, who wants to test the love of her summer affair, Marketa. Separated as they were by an ideological course that will sharpen Marketa’s wits, Ludvik sent her a provocative post card in which unconsciously mocked communism and his followers, and stated: Optimism is the opium of the people! The healthy atmosphere stinks stupidity.”

This simple joke, taken literally by the shortsighted Marketa, raised the expulsion from the party of Ludvik, who had to do hard labor in a mine for dropouts or “confused sympathizers”. His college studies, his future, his perspectives, his whole ideology as it was: everything is removed by the roots.

Ludvik summed it up with a devastating phrase “all the threads had been stripped “[1].

In the end, the real joke is not so much of a thoughtless joke of his youth, but the course of his life itself, an incomplete, mutilated life, in which Ludvik revolved around a small satellite placed in a postcard.

Despite everything, and Kundera has established this categorically, The Joke is a love story, the non-stop persecution of a woman, Lucie, whom Ludvik would love in an innocent, almost intuitive way, and against all odds.

 

The defense

Of course, everything written here has the whiff of coincidence and moral sanction. Beyond that, the facts.

Since The Joke was published  -an automatic bestseller- Milan Kundera became  a cultural pariah in the Czechoslovakia of back then. Expelled in 1950 and then reinstated in the Communist Party six years later, his “counterrevolutionary bible” exiled him from his homeland and moved him to France, where he settled and changed nationality.

Milan Kundera is the perfect example of not being a prophet in his own land, where only three years ago ​​a second printing of his most famous novel was made, The unbearable lightness of being. Outside of that universe, clearly marked by Soviet totalitarianism, Milan Kundera is acclaimed. It’s about a literary celebrity, one of the most important living writers, and his work is considered as essential in contemporary literature.

The research made by Respekt, according to Fernando Valenzuela in his essay “The window of the spies” [2], has staggering inconsistencies: it bases its argument on Milan Kundera’s name appearing in one of the police reports, with so many gaps in both readability and speech, that is almost incredible to think that something like this was taken as definitive proof of  Kundera’s guilt.

More importantly, and as Valenzuela had settled, being the translator and expert of the Czech language, the reports seem to indicate that it was Militká who denounced Dvoracek. The same defendant, to crown the irony, who recently suffered a heart stroke, continues believing that it was she who betrayed him. Others, like Juan Goytisolo in El País, and supported by the text of a historian of Prague, Zdenek Pesat -who claims to know the facts by firsthand-, speculated that was actually Miliktá’s  husband who accused Dvoracek, but he did that with the purpose of protecting her, because the relationship with deserters/spies was highly convicted and she was right in the spotlight.

The question of who did it matter very little in the end, but emphasizes a whole tangle of allegations and accusations that equals a modern witch-burning against Kundera.

The Nobel Prize? Of course we can leave this out of Kundera´s wishlist, and to this unfortunate event we can easily add a number of vile documents where detractors call to get rid of all the books of the Czech origin French writer.

These instant answers -of a supposed high morality- cause me such anger hard to define. In the sentence is implied a superiority too ethereal to admit such an offense by a human being: to them, the betrayal is so heinous as the crimes against humanity, and does not allow any tolerance whatsoever. Especially if  this fact led to the “suffering” of a fellow. What these individuals seek to ignore is that the accusation is nothing but a synonym for indictment, which in turn is synonymous with the conviction from they are personally engaged to, and in this regard they are as despicable as the object of their disapproval.

 

The redemption

Nevertheless, in light of all the facts I have given, I like to think that he did it. Thus, each of his books operated as a limited atonement, intimate, of his past in the socialist youth. The sins of youth are not vested in the facts but on beliefs. Kundera was not wrong, in the manichaean sense of the word, for having betrayed a spy. If there was anything wrong with him, was on the side of his ideology, but how to blame him if at the end of the day he was a young Czech raised in a particular socio-historical context, inescapable, which was impossible to separate? His following novels denounce the repression, and were more important as where he was part of that ideological conglomerate,  he believed in that, and he was active with absolute freedom in the Communist Party.

To support this theory, which in my believe enhances his work and gives it a different complexity than usual, a fragment from  The Joke:

“… Most people are deceived by a double misconception: they believe in eternal memory (of people, things, events, nations) and the possibility of repair (for acts, for injustice). Both beliefs are false. The reality is quite the opposite: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be repaired. The role of the repair (of revenge and forgiveness) is carried out by oblivion. No one will repair the injustices that were committed, but all injustices will be forgotten “[3].

Is it possible to think perhaps that the whole work of Kundera is nothing but a long joke? A complaint after complaint: a guy kills a deer and suddenly, motivated by guilt or anxiety, or maybe for no reason at all, condemns the hunt avidly.

I like to think of a tormented Kundera, seeking his redemption through words. But just as his imaginary Ludvik, he has been the subject of a joke of an impossible magnitude, and his past does not matter. That is the real irony.

 

 

 

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