Milan Kundera: ‘A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life.'
Christian Salmon

A reflection by Milan Kundera on the tragic history of Central Europe – this ‘Kidnapped West’ – is commented here by Christian Salmon, who was the Czech writer's assistant. Salmon is the author of Storytelling. La machine à fabriquer des histoires et à formater les esprits [Storytelling. The storytelling and mind-formatting machine] and L'ère du Clash [The Clash Era] – to name but two of his books with wide international acclaim – and in 1993 founded the International Parliament of Writers.

‘A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe, just as over the past five decades 40 million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the world paying any heed.’*

Milan Kundera, interview with Philip Roth, The New York Times, 30.11.1980.

milan kundera

Gisèle Freund, Milan Kundera, Prague, 1969


Budapeste-Athens, 1956–2015

In the autumn of 1956, as the Russian army entered Budapest and minutes before his office was destroyed by artillery, the director of the Hungarian press agency sent a desperate message via telex to the rest of the world, signing off with these words: ‘We will die for Hungary and for Europe.’ This episode from the Hungarian insurrection again came to my mind in July 2015, in Athens, a city under media siege pending the results of a referendum that would decide whether or not another plan to restructure Greek debt would be accepted. Given the desperate state of Greek finances, there was nothing much to be expected from the outcome of this referendum. Nothing, other than the untamed expression of a desire for freedom that intoxicated the crowds gathered day and night in Syntagma Square…

On 3 July, two days before the vote, I was in the office of Kostas Arvanitis, director of the pro-Syriza radio station, and I thought I was hearing him speak the same same words that the Hungarian press agency director had uttered sixty years earlier in the autumn of 1956. Of course, there were no tanks surrounding the radio building – banks having replaced tanks – but the radio director was talking about Europe, about the Europe of the Enlightenment and the France ‘that was always at our side when we fought the dictatorship’ and now he felt betrayed. ‘Here in Athens, we have statues of the philosophers of the Enlightenment era, because it is them we have to thank for the idea of an independent Greek state. Today, we feel abandoned by Europe. Worse still, Europe has become our enemy. It is waging a financial war against us, with the goal of wiping us off the map of Europe. Now it is a bitter experience for us to hear Gavroche’s song’. And in Greek he mumbled the words: ‘I fell down from the air, it’s the fault of Voltaire. My nose in the gutter too, it’s the fault of Rousseau...’

A kidnapped west

Back in Paris, I remembered that I had read the story of the Hungarian press agency director in an article by Milan Kundera, published by the magazine Le Débat in 1983. In this article, entitled ‘Un Occident kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale’ [‘A Kidnapped West: the Tragedy of Central Europe’], Kundera spoke out against the artificial division of Europe into two parts, the effect of which was to deport to the East the mosaic of small nations geographically located in the centre of Europe, culturally in the West yet politically in the East under the Soviet yoke. As a result, ‘Bohemia’, Poland, Hungary and Austria now found themselves outside their own history. Kundera did not base his thinking within the context of the Cold War conflict between East and West. He wanted to bring to light another context, a cultural one, and to re-establish the forgotten links that the small ‘Central European’ nations had woven into the history of Europe over the centuries. It was in Central Europe, he argued forcefully, that modern culture had found its greatest impetus: psychoanalysis, structuralism, dodecaphony, the music of Bartók, the modern novel of Kafka, Broch and Musil. The post-war annexation of Central Europe by the Russian Soviet Union had not only deprived Central Europe’s small nations of their cultural context, it had also cut Western Europe off from its centre of gravity.

The chain of democratic revolts

Viewed through the prism of central Europe, Europe suddenly appeared not as a continental empire in the process of being consolidated and unified, nor even as a federal structure destined gradually to absorb the states that compose it, but as a seismic zone where two ways of thinking about Europe clashed – the ‘imperial’ manner, meaning forced unification, the imposition of rules and the harmonisation of norms, and then the ‘resistant’ manner, namely that of the peoples who have risen up against this attempt at domination and assimilation since the nineteenth century, and indeed defeated it. This unstable and paradoxical situation explains why in the post-war period Europe’s contradictions were concentrated in Central Europe: from the Hungarian revolt of 1956 to the Prague Spring and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Polish revolts of 1956, 1968, 1970 and the 1980s… This was ‘a chain of profoundly democratic revolts’, Kundera wrote, ‘carried forth by the whole people’ and clashing with the political regimes supported by the Soviet Union, which suffocated each of these rebellions in turn, before suffering the backlash effect in 1989 when the revolts synchronised and brought down the Berlin Wall.

Our hero Varoufakis

When I met Milan again in Paris, I was surprised to see that he was following the Greek news with such passion. He was impatient to hear what I had to say. With his instinct as a novelist, and not as a politician or ideologist, he had recognised in the Greek crisis the final link in the chain of revolts waged by small nations against the great empires, which for him had now assumed the abhorrent guise of the Brussels bureaucracy. The summons of Greek Prime Minister Tsipras to Brussels reminded him of the summons of President Dubček to Moscow in 1968.

I told him about my meeting with Ianis Varoufakis, the economy minister in the Siriza government, who had just resigned rather than abdicate alongside its Prime Minister Tsipras. Kundera called him ‘our hero’. I texted this to Ianis, who could barely believe what he was hearing. In this war of narratives, which mobilised the European elites against him, the support of a writer like Kundera was like manna from heaven. In his speeches, he spoke of ‘our Athens Spring’, associating it with the Prague Spring.

In his article ‘A Kidnapped West’, Kundera developed an existential phenomenology of small nations: ‘A small nation is a nation whose very existence can be placed in question at any moment; a nation that can disappear, and knows it.’ The thing that small nations have in common is not an identity or a language, but an experience of weakness when faced with the great empires surrounding them. Not a single exclusive belonging, but a similar experience of fragility and troubled existence – an experience reflected in the great Central European novels. Indeed, the small nations confronted with great empires are the nations that are most compelled to problematise their collective existence. That is why the questions of the state’s and the individual’s sovereignty, of the relation to the Other, to language, to History – all the great philosophical questions of the twentieth century examined by linguistics, psychoanalysis and the novels of Musil, Broch and Kafka – encountered their chosen territory in Central Europe.

The death of a dog

From the 1980s onwards, the theme of death, related in the interview with Philip Roth to the fate of small nations, continued to develop and take root in Milan Kundera’s novels and essays. It is no coincidence that his next novel was entitled ‘Immortality’. ‘To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn’t even know how to be dead.’ (Immortality, Faber & Faber, 2000).

In his last essay, ‘Une rencontre’ [Encounter], published in 2009, Kundera quotes a passage from Céline’s novel Castle to Castle, in which Céline recounts the death of his dog. From the icy lands of Denmark, where she would disappear for long escapades in the forest, she is brought to France by the writer. Her roaming days are over. She falls ill and dies. Céline recounts her death throes. There is no pathos in his account. He makes no attempt to humanise the dog by endowing her with feelings or states of mind. The dying dog seeks one thing alone: to find the best position to die in. ‘I tried to lay her down in the straw… just after dawn…she didn’t like me putting her there… she wanted to be in some other place…over by the coldest part of the house on the pebbles… She stretched out nicely there… she began to rattle… it was the end… they’d told me, I didn’t believe it… but it was true… she was facing toward what she remembered, the place she’d come from, the North, Denmark, her muzzle toward the north… this very faithful dog, in a way... faithful to the forests where she used to run off… Oh, I’ve seen plenty of death throes… here… there… everywhere… but by far nothing so beautiful, discreet… faithful… the trouble with men’s death throes is all the fuss… somehow man is always on stage… even the plainest men…’


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Milan Kundera, c. 1970