Milan Kundera, an outcast from the Communist Party who became a global literary star with biting, sexually charged novels that captured the stifling absurdity of life in the workers’ paradise of his native Czechoslovakia, has died aged 94.
A spokesman for Gallimard, Mr Kundera’s French publisher, confirmed his death on Wednesday.
Mr. Kundera’s popular books began with “The Joke,” which was published to acclaim during the Prague Spring of 1968, then banned in retaliation after Soviet troops crushed that experiment in “socialism with a human face” a few months later. afterwards. He completed his final novel, “The Festival of Insignificance” (2015), when he was in his mid-80s and living comfortably in Paris.
The novel was his first new fiction since 2000, but its reception, lukewarm at best, was far from the reaction to his most enduringly popular novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
An instant hit when it was released in 1984, “Unbearable Lightness” has been reprinted over the years in at least two dozen languages. The novel drew even wider attention when it was adapted into a 1988 film starring Daniel Day Lewis as one of its central characters, Tomas, a Czech surgeon who criticizes the communist leadership and is consequently forced to wash windows for a living.
As punishments go, washing windows is good enough for Tomas: A relentless philanderer, he’s always open to meeting new women, including bored housewives. But the sex, as well as Tomas himself and the three other main characters – his wife, a seductive painter and the painter’s lover – is there for a greater purpose. Putting the novel in its list of best books of 1984, The New York Times Book Review observed that “the true business of this writer is to find images for the disastrous history of his country in his lifetime.”
“He uses the four ruthlessly, pitting each pair against the other as opposites in every way, to describe a world in which choice has been exhausted and people simply cannot find a way to express their humanity.”
He could be particularly ruthless in his use of female characters; so much so that the British feminist Joan Smith, in her 1989 book “Misogyny”, stated that “enemy is the common factor in all of Kundera’s writings about women.”
Other critics have calculated that revealing the terrible behavior of men was at least part of his intention. However, even the stronger women in Kundera’s books tended to be objectified, and the less fortunate were sometimes victimized in disturbing detail. (The narrator of his first novel, “The Joke,” vindictively seduces the wife of an old enemy, slaps her during sex, then says he doesn’t want her. The woman’s husband doesn’t care; he’s in love with someone. a very cool graduate student. In final outrage, the distraught woman tries to kill herself with a fistful of pills, which turn out to be laxatives.)
Mr. Kundera’s fear that Czech culture could be erased by Stalinism — just as disgraced leaders were airbrushed from official photographs — was at the heart of “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” which became available in English in 1979.
It wasn’t exactly what most Western readers would expect from a “novel”: a sequence of seven stories, told as fiction, autobiography, philosophical speculation and much more. But Mr. Kundera called it a novel nonetheless, and compared it to a set of Beethoven variations.
Writing in The Times Book Review in 1980, John Updike said that the book “is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us right in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out.”
Mr. Kundera had a deep affinity for Central European thinkers and artists — Nietzsche, Kafka, the Viennese novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, the Czech composer Jaroslav Janacek. Like Broch, he said, he sought to discover “what the novel alone can discover,” including what he called “the truth of uncertainty.”
Constant Méheut contributed reporting.