Milan Kundera: A Transnational Figure

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While not an American, Milan Kundera is an interesting figure to consider in relation to the concept of America in the World and transnationalism more generally.

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, in what was then called Czechoslovakia. He wrote a large body of critically acclaimed work, including novels such as The Joke, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality. Since 1975, he has been living in exile in France, and became a naturalized French citizen in 1981.

Going into exile in France has complex implications for Kundera’s national identity. Kundera sees himself as a French writer; he writes and publishes in French, and wants his work to be studied and classified as French literature. However, this attitude is not necessarily shared by critics and the general public. This is probably because of his Czech roots, the fact that his earlier work was originally published in Czech, and that much of his work is set in Czechoslovakia. The tension between identifying with one’s home nation and the nation one immigrates to, and how others view the identities of immigrants is an important issue in transnational literature.  It has been examined in several texts that we have explored in class, including We Need New Names. This tension is particularly interesting in Kundera’s case, as Czechslovakia is no longer a nation.

Kundera’s decision to write in French also highlights issues relating to translation, which are particularly prominent in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Firstly, the text was originally written in Czech, but published in French, and it was several years before Kundera approved a Czech edition. Reading a work in the “original” language is generally seen as a way of gaining the best or most accurate understanding of the text. However, the complicated publication history of this book questions whether it is always possible to examine a text in the “original” language. The Unbearable Lightness of Being also deals with the issue of translation within its narrative. For instance, one of the characters, a photographer named Tereza, has a dream that involves cats. The Czech word for cat (“kočka”) can also be used as a slang term for an attractive woman, a fact that is specifically referenced in the text. This clarification emphasises the possibility that Tereza’s dream reflects her concern about her husband’s infidelity. This highlights how the language a text is written in influences meaning. Therefore, both the publication history of Kundera’s work, and certain specific texts draw attention to issues of language and translation.

Kundera’s work has influenced other writers, such as Philip Roth. Therefore, it could be argued that Kundera influenced American literature. However, it is perhaps more useful to view this relationship through the lens of Appadurai’s concept of the mediascape; Kundera, Roth and other writers were able to draw inspiration from each other, thereby becoming nodes in a complex series of exchanges.

Throughout his lifetime, Kundera had a complicated relationship with a transnational movement that had a significant impact on the Global Sixties and the Global Cold War; Communism. While Kundera initially supported the Communist Party, he was also a strong voice for reform within the party, particularly during the Prague Spring in 1968. While the Prague Spring allowed for greater freedoms and aimed to introduce “Communism with a Human Face”, the subsequent invasion by the Soviet Army overturned these measures, and increased the USSR’s political control over Czechoslovakia. The events surrounding the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion resulted in an escalation in the Cold War, and caused many Western leftists to become disenchanted with Communism, at least as it existed in the USSR. It has also been argued that the lack of US intervention in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia emboldened the USSR to invade Afghanistan. In conclusion, Kundera played a significant role in a transnational movement that had important implications for how the US saw its place in the world, how it interacted with other nations, the Global Cold War and the Global Sixties.

In many ways, Milan Kundera expands and influences our understanding of issues that are relevant to transnational literature and the idea of America in the World such as immigrant identities, translation, the mediascape, the Global Cold War and the Global Sixties.

-Tanya

2 thoughts on “Milan Kundera: A Transnational Figure”

  1. Just a quick note to say sorry about the strange formatting – putting the hook over the c through it seemed to throw it off. Also, I actually published it a day earlier than the post time suggests. I made a correction later in the evening, but still before midnight, so that may have thrown it off. – Tanya

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  2. The conflict of which nation a writer identifies as their home versus the nation with which critics or the public identify the writer seems to be a common one, especially with transnational writers, or writers who immigrated or lived in exile for long periods of time. Especially in this case, given that Kundera was originally from Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists, it seems that his attempts at adapting the French nationality parallel many immigrant attempts to identify with their new country of origin only to be informed by others that this is not a valid move. How are the stakes different when an influential writer attempts to claim one country or nation over another as their own?
    -Yevanit

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