Born on April 1, 1929, in Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera was a gifted student of music and writing. However, he had a political side as well because of his opposition as an activist for socialist reformation of the communist party. The biography notes, “Kundera served as an opposition leader in the reform movement that resulted in the Prague Spring of 1968, in which Czech artists and intellectuals led a cultural uprising denouncing governmental repression of the arts” (Lenin Imports para. #4). The cultural uprising was short-lived, but it had lasting effects for Kundera who was expelled from the Communist party in 1970. After expulsion, he was punished by not being allowed to work. By 1975, he dissented to France. While many might say he dissented because of political views, it seems more plausible that the persecution for not supporting the Communist party had placed him in a position where the inability to work or live forced him to relocate. But, to understand that decision, one must understand the totalitarian power over the workforce the party had.
By 1968, Czechoslovakia became a Russian-controlled Communist country. The employed citizens insurance and pensions. However, it was seized along with any assets that denied the citizens the right to feel secure economically. Vecernik writes, “the administration of employment served as a tool of domination over the citizens in their work and family life: (3). Employment was used as a means to garner support while being used as a punishment for those who did not. In Kundera’s case, he was expelled from his job immediately after being expelled from the party. The regime possibly meant to cripple him financially to teach him a lesson politically, but his talents with music allowed him to make enough money to survive.
Critics argue that Kundera’s literary work is political. Kundera disagrees, and he often says he writes with an aesthetic lens. As a post-Modern writer, it seems he wants to bring his characters to life and not have readers examine his life to validate the story. But, certainly, it is apparent that Communism had a lasting effect on him personally. Lenin Imports write, “Communism and the politics of his country are essential to his novels’ content, and his gradual disillusionment with communism can be traced in the evolution of his work” (para. #9). It is plausible that he simply used his experiences to write stories of authentic experiences. It also seems more logical that the party never wanted him to leave but to confirm because he had been expelled twice and punished with losing his job. The fact that the events of his private life are unknown but his characters’ lives are open books infers he did not intend to write political stories, but he meant to write about authentic places and events that his characters lived.
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it says, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (Kundera). The quote suggests that what he endured was better forgotten. It also hints of sadness as he no longer had his home, his career, his friends, his country, or recognition of his literature by his countrymen. His work also does not seem to be railing against the Communist party, but it does infer he was disillusioned and wished to see it reform. Instead of a dissident, one might refer to him as an expatriate. The experiences he had under a Communist rule made him who he was. The experiences made his characters who they were. By no means is he making a political statement, but he is asking his readers to think beyond it. He is validating his existence, his feelings, and his authenticity as a writer.
Lenin Imports, Milan Kundera. Encounter Essays, Web, (n.d.), Retrieved on Aug. 28, 2016, from http://www.leninimports.com/milan_kundera.html
Vecernik, Jiri, “Czech Social Reform/Non-reform: Routes, Actors and Problems,” The William Bradford Institute, 2004.