Milan Kundera, Author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’ Dies at 94

Czech-French writer Milan Kundera died in Paris on Tuesday, according to a statement from the Moravian State Library of Brno. He was 94.

“Unfortunately I can confirm that Mr. Milan Kundera passed away yesterday (Tuesday) after a prolonged illness,” Anna Mrazova, spokeswoman for the library in his homeland, said.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his works “reached whole generations of readers across all continents,” while President Petr Pavel called him a “world-class writer.”

“With his fate in life, he symbolized the eventful history of our country in the 20th century,” Pavel said. “Kundera’s legacy will live on in his works.”

A novelist, essayist, and poet, Kundera received international acclaim for his depiction of issues and characters that straddled the ordinary reality of everyday existence and the high world of ideas.

His tales were intertwined with deep philosophical concepts and satire reflecting his experience of life under communist oppression.

He was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1929 and joined the Communist Party in his youth but was expelled in 1950 for criticizing the regime. He had his membership restored a few years later.

Kundera’s first novel published in 1967, “The Joke,” was a sharply satirical portrayal of revenge set in a totalitarian nation, and became a worldwide best-seller.

After the Prague Spring reform movement was crushed by Soviet-led armies in 1968, he fell out of favor with authorities and was declared an enemy of the regime. He was placed under state surveillance, relentlessly harassed by the police, and had his entire life disrupted.

Kundera’s books had been banned and removed from libraries by the early 1970s. He was fired from his teaching position and forbidden from publishing.

After being forced to emigrate and having his Czechoslovak citizenship revoked, he lived as an exile in France from 1975. It was in Paris where his literary career truly blossomed, publishing his three best known works: “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” “Immortality,” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

His most famous work, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” set him as an important literary voice on the world stage and achieved mainstream popularity. The novel, set amid the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, chronicles the narrative of four people struggling to find meaning in their lives.

It was turned into a film produced by Philip Kaufman starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis in 1987 which later earned two Academy Award nominations.

However, Kundera was not satisfied with Kaufman’s simplifications of the novel’s intricate structure. He grew increasingly mistrustful of the media, arguing: “An author, once quoted by a journalist, is no longer master of his word … And this, of course, is unacceptable.”

Speaking to Philip Roth in 1980 in The New York Times, Kundera lamented that he felt “the novel has no place” in the world, saying “the totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions.”

He continued: “It seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than to ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.”

Living in seclusion for two decades, Kundera rarely gave interviews, believing that writers should speak through their work, and avoided the public spotlight.

“Not only Czech literature, but world literature as well has lost one of the greatest contemporary writers, and one of the most translated writers too,” Tomas Kubicek, director of the Kundera library, told Czech TV.


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