If you’re looking for a towering intellect to dispense guidance and illumination on current events, particularly one from Central Europe, the hearth of gravitas, piano sonatas, polyglotism, the reading of Hegel etc, Milan Kundera, in A Kidnapped West, will be a bit of a disappointment.
This isn’t Kundera’s fault. The volume contains a short speech from 1967 and an essay from 1983. It’s a pleasure to see a publisher giving oxygen to learned discourse, and while both texts are as urbane and erudite as you would expect, we have moved on a great deal. A Kidnapped West needs to be filed under intellectual history.
Not that everything has changed, how-ever. In his 1967 address to the Czech Writers’ Congress, Kundera laments the ‘provincialism’ of Czech teachers who know little about European literature (and this is 1960s Czechoslovakia, where, like in Hungary and Poland, reading a good book was just about the only form of non-sexual entertainment available). For Kundera, the vandal isn’t the arsonist. The threat to culture comes from another type: ‘The vandal, rather, is that prideful narrow mind, pleased with itself and ever ready to claim its rights.’ Kundera’s definition neatly covers both Molière’s faux dévots and the keyboard warriors of social media.
The bulk of the book is the eponymous essay ‘A Kidnapped West’. ‘Today, all of Central Europe has been subjugated by Russia, with the exception of little Austria.’ In 1983, Kundera was in exile in Paris, and his essay can be summed up as: we’re so cultured, we’re so westernised, why don’t you care we’ve been kidnapped by Russians who’ve never seen a flush toilet? Unfortunately, there wasn’t much concern about the ‘other Europe’, the vassal states of the Warsaw Pact, in the cultural spheres – with the notable exceptions of Roger Scruton and Norman Stone. Nor was there much talk about Kundera at the time, because he hadn’t yet published The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The essay expresses the sense of abandonment felt by the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians (Kundera describes how the less worldly Hungarian revolutionaries were convinced the West would come to their aid in 1956).