Lessons From Milan Kundera

The Cold War is still with us in a HarperCollins reissue of essential essays by the Czech writer

HarperCollins’s decision to issue a book consisting of translations of a pair of essays by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, and two brief introductory texts, helps fill a void in the public psyche.

The Cold War does not loom so large in the public mind anymore. We’re fixated on artificial intelligence, Ukraine, pandemics and lockdowns, civil unrest, global terrorism, and other crises. There is something quaint, even comforting, about the Le Carré-esque chess match of intellects and personalities in the geopolitical struggle that played out until perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The oft-invoked specter of nuclear annihilation never came about. Everything worked out in the end. Or so people like to think, when they think about that era at all.

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe will remind readers of how great were the stakes in the Cold War, and of just how much is at risk now in battles over free speech that are all too reminiscent of the struggles between and within nations.


It will help people see how the instincts driving censorship and repression in our time are just as totalitarian as those of the censors who made life miserable and quashed uprisings in places such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The parallels between the phenomena Kundera describes in essays penned decades ago, and the stances of those who would ban or “de-platform” speech and ideas today, are downright eerie.

The first essay featured here is “The Literature of Small Nations.” This is Kundera’s address to the Czech Writers’ Congress in 1967. The second piece is “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” written in 1983, after Kundera had resettled in France. It is the first, written not long before Soviet tanks rolled across the border in August 1968 to crush the Prague Spring and show the feisty reformers who was boss, that seems more prescient.

“The Literature of Small Nations,” translated by Linda Asher, presents Kundera’s ideas on how the Czechs have struggled through the centuries to define their identity as a nation as distinct, dynamic, and independent as those of the other great powers of Europe. He states that Czechs have gone through periods of waking and sleep.

Put another way, sometimes they have been serious about asserting their identity and culture and more often they have not. In consequence, they have run the risk of letting the whole thing devolve into something far from a national identity—indeed, into just one more regional peculiarity. Think of the Cajuns, or the Catalonians.

Kundera offers the parallel example of the Flemish cause in Belgium. He recounts a discussion with an acquaintance who complained that all the Flemish intellectuals were learning English so as to have better contacts with the global scientific sector. No one cared about speaking Flemish anymore. In Kundera’s view, the Czechs have too often failed to fight for their language and their identity. (It must frustrate him further that some of the most admired Czech authors wrote in German.)

“This means a perpetual choice between two options: either let the Czech language wither till it is reduced to a mere European dialect—and Czech culture to mere folklore—or else become a European nation with all that that involves,” Kundera writes.

A small nation on the brink of invasion by a much larger power needs all the moral courage it can summon. Kundera’s brutally honest essay does not spare his countrymen from charges of weakness and turpitude.

In fact, the nation he describes in this address is one where those he calls “vandals” run riot and impose their standards of socialist morality on people who try to publish books and articles and release movies and otherwise manifest an authentic Czech culture. These vandals practically do the Soviets’ work for them. They act much like censors of our own day, so much so that some may hardly believe Kundera wrote this piece in 1967.

Vandalism on the Rise

The vandals described in this essay have appointed themselves the judges of what others may read, see, hear, think, and say. Their egoism is so supreme that they will take offense at anyone’s suggestion that censorship poses issues of ethical overreach, or that vandals are the least bit arrogant. What the vandals oppose is often too complex for their modest intellectual abilities to process or master. Coming up against this reality makes them mean. Much like the censors of our time who have rewritten Roald Dahl and made his work into a bland, committee-approved product.

The vandal, Kundera tells us, is not a nice person.

“That proud narrow-minded fellow believes that the power to fit the world to his own image is among his alienable rights and, since the world is largely made up of matters beyond his capacities, he adapts the world to his image by destroying it,” Kundera writes.

“Thus, an adolescent knocks the head off some statue in a park because the statue infuriatingly seems a better human than he,” the author continues.

In an age when rioters and spray-painters have defaced and destroyed statues with an identity that does not sit well with their attitudes and prejudices, and have consigned names, holidays, and texts to the memory hole, Kundera’s analysis rings all too true.

He wrote in 1967. But has any writer in recent times understood what is going on better? Kundera is under no illusions about where the world is heading:

“Men who live only in their own contextless present, who know nothing of the historical continuity around it and who lack culture, can transform their nation into a desert with no history, no memory, no echoes, and untouched by beauty.”

Kundera hastens to point out that the vandalism he writes about does not always or even usually take the form of illegal hooliganism. On the contrary, vandals tend to do their work by committee. He gives the example of a member of Parliament demanding the banning of two Czech films. One of these he does not name, but the other is Daisies, a New Wave comedy-drama from 1966.

The official in question, Kundera tells us, admitted that he did not understand the films he wanted to censor. Why does this sound familiar to us in 2023? Maybe because an organizer of the Cannes Film Festival who blocked the screening of Woody Allen’s new film Coup de Chance made the flabbergasting admission, an interview with Le Figaro, that he had seen the film without seeing it.

You don’t even have to understand what you propose to censor. If the film contravenes certain dogmas, then don’t show it. The attitude that held sway in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Soviet crushing of its brief cultural flowering is the same mindset, albeit on a larger, more oppressive scale, as the one that banned Woody Allen’s work from Cannes in 2023.

Kundera reminds us that the totalitarian impulse knows no temporal or national borders, and that the state of free speech today is just as parlous as during the darkest chapters of modern history.

Kafka Saw It All

Both “The Literature of Small Nations” and “The Tragedy of Central Europe” stress the importance of a nation’s culture to the preservation of its independence and to its very coherence, and the centrality of literature to that culture. It is in the former piece that Kundera explicitly draws a link between the state of literature and freedom of thought in his country. The latter essay discusses in more depth the work of Franz Kafka. Kundera’s essays are as interesting for avenues of research and exegesis that they suggest as for what they actually say.

Despite writing in German, Kafka has much to say that will be of interest for those concerned with the plight of a small nation surrounded by much larger and more powerful ones not shy about eradicating local cultures and imposing their own.

Kafka’s obscure stories and fragments, no less than his widely acclaimed novels, convey whispers of a nationalist attitude, if not a full-blown ideology. The strangeness and resistance to interpretation of so much of what he wrote should not deter readers and scholars who seek to grasp this aspect of his life and thought better.

By now, the strange workings of the bureaucracy in The Trial are a well-worn synonym for tyranny and the arbitrary misuse of power. But some of the stories, and a few of the fragments that not many people have ever read, are so weird they dare the reader to venture a bold interpretation.

“The Village Schoolmaster” is as abstruse as they come. The narrator describes his relations with the eponymous character, who along with his scholarly and professional attainments is sharp-eyed enough to have spotted a mole that has made its way into the village. The mole is a hideous, horrid creature, and, given Kafka’s life and times, a bit hard to take literally. Maybe it is a German or pro-Berlin spy, sent to reconnoiter and report back. Or a pan-German ideology that has begun to grow in the mulch of citizens’ minds. Perhaps again, the mole could be moral supineness in the face of evil.

It seems no accident that one of the characters in another tale, “The Great Wall of China,” also happens to be a schoolteacher. The story describes how the people of a country menaced by invaders from the north go about building a wall in a haphazard way, without central oversight, and the wall in consequence has many parts that meet at odd angles or don’t join at all. Kafka describes the workers’ failure in this undertaking as a consequence of ignoring what the aforementioned teacher has tried to impart.

The teacher gave architecture lessons to his pupils, and even had them do exercises that involved building walls whose strength he then tested. The narrator remembers one occasion when the teacher ordered the class to erect a wall out of pebbles.

“And then the teacher, girding up his robe, ran full tilt against the wall, of course knocking it down, and scolded us so terribly for the shoddiness of our work that we ran weeping in all directions to our parents. A trivial incident, but significant of the spirit of the time,” writes Kafka, as translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.

If a schoolteacher is one who passes down knowledge to new generations, and in particular an understanding of their country’s history, literature, and culture, then, in “The Great Wall of China,” it is precisely as Kundera says. The inability to construct a solid and reliable defense against invaders from the north—a danger that both China, in periods of her history, and Czechoslovakia, in modern times, have faced—is a consequence of failing to forge a national identity informed by knowledge of the native land’s writers and ideas. Maybe the Czechs could have resisted German aggression more effectively at various moments of history if they burned with ardor and respect for their writers and cultural traditions.

As tempting as it may be to make barbarians from the north into the villains and let things rest there, Kafka clearly wants his countrymen to take a hard look in the mirror. In certain of his briefest tales and sketches, he sounds much like Kundera denouncing the member of parliament who took action against a work of the local film industry.

“The Knock on the Manor Gate” is the tale of a boy and girl who pass by the estate of someone important. The girl cannot resist knocking on the gate. Little does she or the boy know that no one may ever do this with impunity. But, given their respective ages, it is the boy whom the local officials single out for punishment. They will never let him out of prison. That’s what you get for even the appearance of curiosity, of wanting to step beyond the bounds of your neatly defined role and ask questions of the powers that be.

Reflecting on the Soviet invasion, in the latter essay in this book, Kundera describes the aggressors’ aims as an effort to wipe out his nation’s culture and argues that the invasion succeeded in moving the country into a “post-cultural” era. His insight is that literature, talent, creativity—in a word, culture—is too much for the talentless and stupid to live with has universal applications.

Repression is much the same whether the context is Kafka’s life and times in the 1910s and 1920s, or the eve of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of the Prague Spring, or an age where the tendency is to de-platform rather than discuss.

 You May Also Like

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *