Forty years ago, writer Milan Kundera’s Czech citizenship was revoked by the Czech government. At that point, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being was living in France; he’d later become a French citizen. This contentious moment arose out of Kudera’s criticism for the oppressive regime currently in power in the country of his birth. And while that government has changed radically since the days of the Soviet Union exerting dominance over much of Eastern Europe, Kundera’s citizenship has remained revoked.
Until now, that is. At The Guardian, Sian Cain reports that Kundera is once again a Czech citizen. “Petr Drulák, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to France, told public television he visited the 90-year-old author in his Paris apartment last Thursday to hand deliver his citizenship certificate,” Cain writes.
According to The Guardian’s reporting, this has been in the works for over a year. During a 2018 visit to France, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš met with Kundera and his wife Vera. Following that meeting, Babiš wrote that “I think they deserve the Czech citizenship they lost after emigrating.”
In a 2016 essay at Literary Hub, Nathan Scott McNamara described the difficult circumstances Kundera was in in the late 1960s.
From 1968 until 1989, Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal were put in a particularly impossible position. They spoke and wrote in Czech, a language limited to a very small part of Central Europe — and a language that had fallen under the control of a sensitive and authoritarian government.
McNamara contrasts the approaches taken by Kundera and Hrabal. Hrabal stayed, frequently running afoul of the government; Kundera left for France, where he was able to work without frequently being oppressed by a totalitarian government.
As for Kundera’s feelings about the situation, a quote from a 1980 interview conducted by Philip Roth is revealing. “If someone had told me as a boy: One day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn’t possibly imagine,” he said. “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,” Kundera added. It’s a chilling sentiment, and it helps put his move in an even greater context.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1984, Kundera expounded on his own concept of home. “I can honestly say that I feel much better here in Paris than I did in Prague, but then can I also say that I lost my home, leaving Prague?” he said. “All I know is that before I left I was terrified of ‘losing home’ and that after I left I realized — it was with a certain astonishment — that I did not feel loss, I did not feel deprived.”
Will getting his citizenship back further alter Kundera’s feelings on what home can mean? Longtime readers of his work are left with much to ponder.