from Tablet

In Memory of Milan Kundera

On the passing of the great Czech writer and dissident


Milan Kundera in Prague, 1973 / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In the spring of 1993, I was working at the Slavonic Library in Prague with the remains of the rich collections of the former RZIA (Russian Historical Archive Abroad), which the Soviet liberators had pillaged back in 1945. Every day I would take a long lunch break and wander around the old city, stopping now at a wine bar, now at a secondhand bookstore. Once, in the middle of May, I came upon a copy of Milan Kundera’s 1961 poetry collection, Poslední máj (The Last May). The title of Kundera’s collection was a doleful homage to the long romantic (and to some, Byronic) poem “Máj by Karel Hynek Mácha, an icon of Czech national culture then bursting through the Habsburg seams. But Kundera’s title could also be read as a gesture of melancholy—mourning the Prague Spring and the parting with the poet’s homeland—well in advance of 1968 and the Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of the city of Golem.

Kundera’s collection was inscribed to an unknown Czech lady—almost like a Prague-set novella that Stefan Zweig had forgotten to write. I purchased the volume, and it now occupies a place of honor in my rare books collection alongside the Nabokovs and Bunins and the other spoils of expatriate writing from Eastern and Central Europe. As I think of Milan Kundera’s passing in Paris at the age of 94, I remember my first encounter with his work back when I was a 19-year-old Moscow refusenik, and the shock of discovering that such a literary sensibility could actually emerge directly from the Soviet system.

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