Toby Young Toby Young

In praise of Milan Kundera

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The Czech-born writer Milan Kundera has died, at the age of 94. Four years ago, Toby Young wrote this tribute to Kundera.

I was surprised to learn that the novelist Milan Kundera celebrated his 90th birthday on Monday. I had no idea he was still alive. He has taken up residence in that old people’s home that many former luminaries of western culture now occupy — the one with the sign above the door saying ‘Forgotten, but not gone’. In Kundera’s case, his decline into obscurity is probably connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Czech émigré was all the rage in the mid-1980s when he was a critic of his country’s brutal regime. Now that the Soviet Union and its satellite states are a distant memory, he seems less relevant.

I think the time is ripe for a Kundera revival, although not for the obvious reason, which is that communism is back in vogue. I think a good case can be made along those lines — and, indeed, the novelist Ewan Morrison has made it. In a recent essay, Morrison points out that Kundera warned of the dangers of airbrushing inconvenient facts from history in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. We see this today with attempts to gloss over the genocides perpetrated by Stalin and Mao.

In China, for instance, there is only one memorial to the victims of the Great Famine (1959-62), in which up to 43 million people died — a homemade structure, built by a farmer, about the size of a garden shed. As Kundera wrote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’

I think the time is ripe for a Kundera revival

But even more topical than The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Kundera’s first novel, The Joke.

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