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Accusation Puts Kundera At Heart Of Novelistic Intrigue

Do Kundera's harrowing novels reflect his own past?
The international media have already picked over the bones of the story of how Milan Kundera, the most famous contemporary Czech-born novelist, supposedly squealed on someone decades ago. It started when a report by a Czechoslovak state security official emerged from 60 years of oblivion, dryly summarizing the testimony of the young Kundera, a student, against a spy for the West -- a former military pilot -- who had just returned to Czechoslovakia.

Here, the fates of these two men parted. The latter, caught red-handed, toiled away for 14 years in a uranium mine. The former became a world-famous writer, regularly tabbed as a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature. Although Kundera has denied the authenticity of the document, the fact that this yellowed piece of paper has cast a shadow over the reputation of a great writer is already a minor misfortune. It casts doubt on his public position and the deepest meaning of his works.

That's because the idea of betrayal in the form of denunciation -- a sin that the communist regime committed against civic do-gooders -- always fascinated Kundera's artistic imagination. He is a master of the fine-lined psychological sketch.

His first novel -- "The Joke," from 1967 -- was built around a denunciation and brought Kundera immediate worldwide fame. It is the story of a student who is driven out of his university because of the report of a scheming acquaintance. A moment of youthful bravado -- a note including the text "Long live Trotsky!" -- destroys his entire life. After all, "comrade judges" don't understand jokes.

This and Kundera's subsequent novels opened the eyes of several generations of readers -- and not only Czechs -- to the monstrous effectiveness of totalitarianism, which is capable of grinding any human decency into ash. In his works and in his public statements, Kundera has repeatedly returned to the phenomenon of squealing as a sign of spiritual degeneration.

Does this mean the writer was using his art to work out his own fall from grace, pitilessly inserting his heroes between the millstones of treason and universally indifferent history? Maybe his passionate defense of the novel as a medium, one that should be read without any reference to the author, comes from a desire to push his own past outside the framework of reality? Was it with a desire to forget that he wrote in his essay on Cervantes: "The recognition of the unknown aspects of human existence -- that is the only moral of the novel, and it is wrong to sully that with reference to the unknown aspects of the author's existence"?

Many people will be tempted, no doubt, to reconsider Kundera's role in Czech life and in literature from the heights of these revelations. But the report of a nameless communist security agent is not a key to understanding creative art. Rereading the novels with the intention of reinterpreting them is an empty exercise. This scandalous story -- which has turned the 79-year-old Kundera into a hero of one his own novels -- will most likely fill his old age with bitterness. For a while, history will be the subject of retrials by journalists with too much free time on their hands, confirming Kundera's own intuition: "The novel (like, incidentally, culture as whole) finds itself increasingly in the hands of the media, and the media are agents of planetary unification, steadily pulling culture downward."

The seriousness of the accusation -- which is completely founded on a moldering slip of paper and is unsupported by any eyewitness testimony -- simply goes to show that in a society without comradely judges, it is hard to prove one's innocence. And if the accusation is a malicious slander, who can be held to account?

Yefim Fishtein is a broadcaster for RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.