Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, dies aged 94

Born in the former Czechoslovakia, the acclaimed writer went into exile in France and became a citizen in 1981

Milan Kundera was a member of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, but was expelled for good in 1970. AP
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Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, whose dark, provocative novels delved into the enigma of the human condition, has died aged 94.

"Unfortunately I can confirm that Mr Milan Kundera passed away yesterday [Tuesday] after a prolonged illness," said a spokeswoman for the Milan Kundera Library in his native city of Brno.

Through his characteristic satire and poetic prose, Kundera had sought to express all that is compelling and absurd about life, drawing on his own experiences of being stripped of his Czech nationality for dissent.

Life, he said in his work of criticism Art of the Novel (1986), "is a trap we've always known: we are born without having asked to be, locked in a body we never chose, and destined to die."

Young rebel

Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in the town of Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia. His father was a famous pianist.

He studied in Prague, where he joined the Communist Party, translated the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and wrote poetry of his own.

He also taught at a film school where his students included the future Oscar-winning director Milos Forman.

Although he professed faithfulness to communism, the independent spirit of Kundera's writing soon got him into trouble.

He was expelled from the party in 1950, rejoined in 1956 and was expelled a second time in 1970 after the Prague Spring reform movement – in which he was seen as playing a role – was crushed.

Locked out

Kundera's first novel The Joke, a work of dark humour about the one-party state published in 1967, led to a ban on his writing in Czechoslovakia while also making him famous in his homeland.

In 1975, he and his wife Vera went into exile in France, where he worked for four years as an assistant professor at the University of Rennes. They were stripped of their Czech nationality in 1979.

In his adopted home, where he became a citizen in 1981, his reputation and success grew as translations of his novels appeared, such as Life is Elsewhere (1973) set in Czechoslovakia about a poet entrapped by the communist regime.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) playfully explored through seven interlinked narratives the nature of forgetting in politics, history and daily life.

The novel was "brilliant and original", said The New York Times in 1980, "written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out".

Kundera was an author "prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination and recent Czech history", wrote the paper's John Updike.

By far his most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published in 1984 and turned into a film starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis in 1987.

The novel is a morality tale about freedom and passion, on both an individual and collective level, set against the Prague Spring and its aftermath in exile.

No going back?

Kundera's critics say he turned his back on fellow Czechs and dissidents following his exile in France.

In 2008, a Czech magazine accused him of being a police informer under communist rule, which he denied as "pure lies".

In 2013, Kundera published his first novel after a 13-year hiatus.

The Festival of Insignificance, about five friends in Paris, received mixed reviews, with The Atlantic noting its "near-impenetrable irony" and The Guardian deeming it a "stinker".

What Kundera "has to tell us seems to have less relevance", said The New York Times. "You can't help wondering what his evolution would have been like if he had stayed, or stayed longer, in Czechoslovakia," the reviewer added.

In 2019, the Czech Republic restored his nationality and the Milan Kundera Library opened in Brno this year.

Updated: July 12, 2023, 10:24 AM