Saturday, November 18, 2006

Czechs Finally Get Their Lightness

After 22 years of anticipation, readers in the Czech Republic have been snatching up copies of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, the book that vaulted Milan Kundera into the ranks of great 20th century writers.

Although written in Czech in 1984, the book, like much of Kundera’s work, was translated into dozens of languages, but never appeared in his native land, in his native tongue.

Until now. Some 30,000 copies were sold in a mere two weeks, leaving the small Czech publisher Atlantis gladly scrambling to print more.

For Jiri Penas, cultural editor at “Tyden”, or Week, (the Czech equivalent of Time or Newsweek), publication of Lightness is further proof the Czech Republic is more a “normal” country than the totalitarian one of its past.

“The book is popular in Spain, Italy, all over Europe, and even in America, it’s considered a major work of the twentieth century,” explains Penas. (TO ME) “It only made sense that a book dealing with the fate of Czechoslovakia, with its Czech themes should be available in Czech to readers here.”

The book focuses on the fateful year of 1968 when the hopes of the Prague Spring were crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks and replaced by a hardline period of “Normalization.” The tale is told through the eyes of two young couples and is smattered throughout with existentialist musings about the futility of it all.

The novel in fact was first published in Czech in 1985, by “68 Publishers,” a small Toronto-based publisher made up of then writers in exile. Only a handful of copies, however, made it through the Iron Curtain. Pirated copies have also floated around the Internet.

While the Czech literary community welcomed the book as long overdue, some suggested its relevancy has expired.

Vladimir Novotny, a literature professor, told the “Prague Post,” that while Lightness is “one of the most stunning texts of Czech postwar literature,” it has come to Czech readers too late. He told the English weekly it “comes as a museum exhibit, not as an alive book that could engage more readers. People will look at it as a valued classic, it will be read but cannot grip as it could right after 1990.”

So why did it take the 77-year-old Kundera so long?

The quirky native of Brno is famed for being a perfectionist and carefully checks every one of his works before publication and even then he is rarely satisfied. Kundera was so disappointed with the 1988 Hollywood adaptation of Lightness that he vowed never to sell the rights to any of his books again.

“It took me some time to put together the translation because I wanted it to be definitive – without leaving out any words or including mistakes” he himself explains in the introduction to the Czech version of Lightness.

That’s all the reclusive Kundera has said on the subject and few expect anything more. He rarely if ever gives interviews and when he does travel back home to the Czech Republic, he does so in disguise to avoid publicity.

Czech commentators, however, have been abuzz with their own theories for the delay.

Some point to Kundera’s testy relation with his intellectual counterparts back home. Kundera has lived in France for more than 30 years after having his citizenship stripped while there on a trip in 1974. He now rights in French, not Czech. And when Czech dissidents urged him to join the underground movement to agitate against the Communist regime in the 1980s, Kundera ignored them and instead plunged further into writing novels.

Jan Culik from Glasgow University says some dissidents panned Lightness when it came out, and Kundera hasn’t forgotten.

“Maybe, the reason for Kundera’s books from the 1980s not being published in the Czech Republic is the fact that when “Unbearable Lightness of Being” was published in the West, it was a major success for Kundera, and Czech dissident critics slammed the book,” Culik explains. “They really didn’t like it. They thought it was kitsch, they said it was too black and white, they had various small criticisms. And I think Kundera was offended.”

Penas doesn’t agree. He says while some dissidents did criticize the book, most praised it. He says some Czechs feel slighted by Kundera’s refusal to talk with Czech media or return home without disguise.

“But you have to understand, Kundera doesn’t give interviews not only to Czech media, but all media. He doesn’t want to be a celebrity, he shuns that type of life,” he says.

As to why it took so long for the book to appear, Penas says it has nothing to do with badblood but rather Kundera’s sense of obligation to his readers back home.

“Kundera promised his publisher Atantis in the early 1990s to give them one of his works every year. He never did, and they probably gently pushed him to work on this book, knowing what a commercial success it would be. And he agreed.”

With the book finally in their hands, however, Czech readers could care less.

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