Prestigious award follows the restoration of his citizenship last year after decades of exile in Paris
Alison Flood – The Guardian
Milan Kundera. Photograph: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Milan Kundera, whose Czech citizenship was restored last year after he had spent more than 40 years in exile, has won one of the Czech Republic’s most prestigious literary awards, the Franz Kafka prize.
The $10,000 (£7,800) award, organised by the Franz Kafka Society and the city of Prague, is chosen by an international jury. Franz Kafka Society chairman Vladimír Železný said Kundera won for his “extraordinary contribution to Czech culture”, and for an “unmissable response” in European and world culture.
According to Železný, when the 91-year-old Kundera was reached by phone, the author said he “joyfully” accepted the prize, particularly because of his admiration of Kafka.
Kundera 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. His Czech citizenship was revoked in 1979 following the publication of his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which saw him describe then-Czechoslovak president Gustáv Husák as “the president of forgetting”, and he became a French citizen in 1981.
Some of his best-known works, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, were banned in his homeland until the late 80s, while the 1988 novel Immortality was his last novel written in Czech. He has written in French ever since.
Speaking to the New York Times in 1984, Kundera said: “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 did not return to the Czech Republic after winning the Czech national prize for literature in 2008, or being awarded honorary citizenship of Brno, the city where he was born, in 2009. Last year, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to France hand-delivered a citizenship certificate to the writer in Paris, calling the return of his Czech citizenship “a very important symbolic gesture, a symbolic return of the greatest Czech writer in the Czech Republic”.
Kundera has since donated his library and archive to the Moravian Library in Brno, which the Czech Republic’s minister of culture Lubomír Zaorálek called a “huge event”.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that Kundera had given permission for his most recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance, to be translated into Czech, the first he had allowed since 1993. The book’s translator, Anna Kareninová, told Brno Daily that it took her 10 drafts to get the translation right. Once she submitted it to Kundera in January 2020, it was “refined for a further two months with the help of Kundera’s wife Vera”, said the Czech paper, before its release in September.