Milan Kundera’s Czech citizenship restored after 40 years

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being’s author has lived in France since fleeing communism in 1975, and has previously questioned ‘the notion of home’

Sian Cain  –  The Guardian

‘I chose France,’ … Milan Kundera sighted in Paris in October. Photograph: Philippe Blet/Rex/Shutterstock

After more than 40 years in exile, Milan Kundera, the Czech-born author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has been given back the citizenship of his homeland.

Petr Drulák, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to France, told public television he visited the 90-year-old author in his Paris apartment last Thursday to hand deliver his citizenship certificate.

“This is a very important symbolic gesture, a symbolic return of the greatest Czech writer in the Czech Republic,” Drulák said, describing the presentation as “a very simple moment, but of great conviviality and human warmth”.

“He was in a good mood, just took the document and said thank you,” he added.

Kundera, author of internationally acclaimed fiction, was expelled for “anti-communist activities” from the Czechoslovakian party in 1950. He became a hate figure for the authorities and eventually fled to France in 1975. In 1979, his Czech citizenship was revoked and two years later he became a French citizen.

His most famous works, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, were written in France and banned in his homeland until the late 80s. His 1988 novel Immortality was his last novel written in Czech; he has since written four more novels in French, the most recent 2014’s The Festival of Insignificance.

The idea of restoring Kundera’s citizenship has been floated for years by authorities in the Czech Republic. In November 2018, prime minister Andrej Babiš announced that he had offered to restore the author and his wife Vera’s citizenship after a three-hour meeting with them in their favourite Paris restaurant.

“It was a great honour for me,” Babiš wrote at the time, describing Kundera, who is often cited as a contender for the Nobel prize in literature, as a legend of Czech, French and world literature. He said he had invited the Kunderas to visit the Czech Republic, but said the novelist’s response was non-committal.

Kundera now lives out of the spotlight and never speaks to reporters. After visiting his homeland in 1996 for the first time since he fled, Kundera has reportedly returned a number of times, but travels incognito.

In a 1984 interview with the New York Times, Kundera said that the idea of home was “something very ambiguous” for him.

“I wonder if our notion of home isn’t, in the end, an illusion, a myth. I wonder if we are not victims of that myth. I wonder if our ideas of having roots – d’être enraciné – is simply a fiction we cling to,” he said, adding that he had made the choice between living “like an émigré in France or like an ordinary person who happens to write books”.

“Do I consider my life in France as a replacement, a substitute life, and not a real life? Do I say to myself: ‘Your real life is in Czechoslovakia, among your old countrymen’? … Or do I accept my life in France – here where I really am – as my real life and try to live it fully? I chose France,” he said.

In 2008, Kundera was awarded the Czech national prize for literature but did not return to receive it. In 2009, he was awarded honorary citizenship of Brno, the city where he was born in 1929, but the author remained in France.

That same year, he refused to attend a conference in Brno dedicated to his work, sending a letter to the organisers that jokingly described the occasion as a “necrophile party”.

In the letter, which was read at the event’s opening, Kundera described himself as a French writer, and insisted that his books should be considered French literature and categorised as such in bookshops.

 

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