Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, conquered the Republic of Letters on his own terms and became the most admired novelist produced by Central Europe between 1945 and the present. He left Czechoslovakia when it became politically unendurable in the 1970s, and since then has burnished the reputation of Czech culture across the globe. Like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, he even mastered a second language in middle age. Today, after a quarter of a century in France, he writes in French.
You might assume that his fellow Czechs, particularly the writers, would look on him with some pride and affection. But you could expect that only if you ignored the easily injured pride of smallish nations, the inevitable resentments of less successful authors, and the tortured emotional ambivalence that often accompanies emigration. The Prague Post has said that Czechs have an "irate and resentful relationship" with Mr. Kundera. But that puts it mildly. Many Czechs see him as a renegade, even a traitor.
He made a crucial mistake when he was living abroad during the last 15 years of the communist era. He assumed that the Soviet empire would last indefinitely, and he said he didn't expect the Czechs to be free again in his lifetime, if ever. Those back home who were fighting for democracy (some from prison cells) took that as an insult. They thought that ignoring their struggle was irresponsible and selfish. Then, when communism abruptly died, Mr. Kundera chose to remain in France. He rarely goes "home." Home is Paris now.
The Czechs probably won't change their view of him when they read, in the May 20 issue of The New Yorker, his abrasive account of this quarrel, wrapped in a work of fiction called The Great Return. It's an amazing document. It exposes in detail the hurt feelings of a normally aloof writer and asks, in the incisive Kundera manner, fundamental questions for the age of mass migration. Do emigrants owe loyalty to their homelands? Does nationalism make unreasonable demands on private citizens? Is it an emigrant's moral duty to return eventually? And how seriously should an artist take the feelings of compatriots when they clash with his own inclinations?
In the story, Mr. Kundera creates a stand-in for himself, a widow named Irena who left Czechoslovakia with her husband in the 1970s, after Soviet tanks closed down the democracy the Czechs were trying to create. In Paris she's raised her children, survived her husband's death, and acquired French friends as well as a Swedish lover. But her relations with her homeland have grown prickly, like Mr. Kundera's. Happy as a Parisian, she nevertheless feels pressured to return.
A French friend reminds Irena that great events are transpiring back home, and she should be there to take part. Staying in France, now that communism has been replaced by democracy, amounts to desertion. So Irena revisits Prague, seeks out some of her women friends, and gives a party to reintroduce herself. There she discovers that her Czech contemporaries don't want to know anything about her life in the West. They would prefer to leave those decades blank. Worse than that, they can't imagine the world outside and don't wish to try.
A few years ago, in the New Republic, a Polish critic, Stanislaw Baranczak, said that by writing in French Mr. Kundera had given up his roots and exchanged the Pilsner of his native tongue for Veuve Cliquot. Mr. Kundera puts that metaphor to work when he has Irena's Prague guests reject the French wine she offers in favour of Czech beer.
In historic perspective, there's nothing out of the ordinary in Milan Kundera's decision to live abroad. He's following the path of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Mavis Gallant, as well as Conrad and Nabokov. But those writers didn't escape resentment, and neither can he. We all have certain expectations. Our tradition dictates that emigration is a tragedy and expatriates should be afflicted by melancholy. Mr. Kundera looks with a cool eye on the notion that nostalgia is admirable. He traces it to The Odyssey, "the great founding epic of nostalgia." Homer, he thinks, gave nostalgia a special place in the "moral hierarchy of emotions." Those who do not feel it are assumed to lack an essential element in their ethical and emotional make-up.
Irena, like her creator, decides against moving back. She could return, she realizes, but her old friends would impose a condition: She would have to lay her whole non-Czech life, all those years in France, "solemnly on the altar of the homeland and set fire to it. Twenty years of my life spent abroad would go up in smoke, in a sacrificial ceremony." She would have to pay that price to be pardoned, "to be one of them again."
In the past, Mr. Kundera has devoted many pages to the cultural richness of the Czechs. Now, perhaps embittered by the responses to himself and his work, he sees them as mean-spirited and doggedly provincial. Eventually we understand a major point he's making: It was not just communism and Russian imperialism that Irena/Kundera fled after the Russian tanks arrived in Prague in 1968. It was also emotional and intellectual suffocation.