PARIS (AP) — Milan Kundera, the renowned but reclusive author whose dissident writings transformed him into an exiled satirist of totalitarianism and explorer of identity and the human condition, has died in Paris. He was 94.
Kundera died Tuesday afternoon, his long-standing publishing house Gallimard said in a one-sentence statement on Wednesday. It confirmed that he died in Paris, where he has lived for decades, but provided no further information.
The European Parliament held a moment of silence upon news of his passing. Kundera held both French and Czech nationality, which he lost and then regained.
Kundera was a man of few words whose novels were translated into dozens of languages, but he abhorred the publicity that came with it, refusing interviews.
“I dream of a world where writers are obliged by law to keep their identity secret and use pseudonyms,” he wrote in the 1986 essay, “The Art of the Novel.” Kundera used the sentence to respond to questions put to him in 2011 by Le Monde des Livres, agreeing to an “interview” via responses from his works.
``The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’’ Kundera's best-known novel, opens wrenchingly with Soviet tanks rolling through Prague, the Czech capital that was the author’s home until he moved to France in 1975. Weaving together themes of love and exile, politics and the deeply personal, Kundera’s novel won critical acclaim, earning him a wide readership among Westerners who embraced both his anti-Soviet subversion and the eroticism threaded through many of his works.
“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. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life,” he told the author Philip Roth in a New York Times interview in 1980, the year before he became a naturalized French citizen.
In 1989, the Velvet Revolution pushed Communists from power and Kundera’s nation was reborn as the Czech Republic, but by then he had made a new life — and a complete identity — in his apartment on Paris’ Left Bank.
“Milan Kundera was a writer who was able to reach generations of readers across all continents with his work and achieved world fame ...” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala tweeted in the Czech language. “He left behind not only a remarkable work of fiction, but also an important work of essays.”
He offered condolences to Kundera's wife Věra, who guarded her reclusive husband from the intrusions of the world.
“His life symbolized the turbulent history of our country in the 20th century. Kundera’s legacy will stay alive in his works,” Czech President Petr Pavel said.
To say his relationship with the land of his birth was complex would be an understatement. He returned to the Czech Republic rarely and incognito, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. His works, eventually written in French, were belatedly translated into Czech.
``The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’’ which won him such acclaim and was made into a film in 1988, was not published in the Czech Republic until 2006, 17 years after the Velvet Revolution, although it was available in Czech since 1985 from a compatriot who founded a publishing house in exile in Canada. Kundera ultimately won the State Award for Literature for it.
Kundera’s wife, Vera, was an essential companion to the man who eschewed technology — his translator, his social secretary, and ultimately his buffer against the outside world. It was she who fostered his friendship with Roth by serving as their linguistic go-between, and — according to a 1985 profile of the couple — it was she who handled the inevitable demands on a world-famous author.
The writings of Kundera, whose first novel ``The Joke’’ opens with a young man who is dispatched to the mines after making light of communist slogans, was banned in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, when he also lost his job as a professor of cinema. He had been writing novels and plays since 1953.
Kundera's name was often floated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the honor eluded him.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” follows a dissident surgeon from Prague to exile in Geneva and back home again. For his refusal to bend to the Communist regime, the surgeon, Tomas, is forced to become a window washer, and uses his new profession to arrange sex with hundreds of female clients. Tomas ultimately lives out his final days in the countryside with his wife, Tereza, their lives becoming more dreamlike and more tangible as the days pass.
Jiri Srstka, Kundera’s Czech literary agent at the time the book was finally published in the Czech Republic, said the author himself delayed its release there for fears it would be badly edited.
“Kundera had to read the entire book again, rewrite sections, make additions and edit the entire text. So given his perfectionism, this was a long-term job, but now readers will get the book that Milan Kundera thinks should exist,” Ststka told Radio Praha at the time.
Kundera refused to appear on camera, rejected any annotation when his complete published works were released in 2011, and, earlier, would not allow any digital copies of his writing, reflecting his loyalty to the printed word. Today, however, a Kindle version of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is among his books offered on Amazon and Google Books.
In a June 2012 speech to the French National Library — re-read on French radio by a friend — he said he feared for the future of literature.
“It seems to me that time, which continues its march pitilessly, is beginning to endanger books. It’s because of this anguish that, for several years now, I have in all my contracts a clause stipulating that they must be published only in the traditional form of a book, that they be read only on paper and not on a screen,” he said. “People walk in the street, they no longer have contact with those around them, they don’t even see the homes they pass, they have wires hanging from their ears. They gesticulate, they should, they look at no one and no one looks at them. I ask myself, do they even read books anymore? It’s possible, but for how much longer?”
In 2021, Kundera donated his private library and archive to the public library in Brno, where he was born and spent his childhood. The Moravian Library holds a vast collection of Kundera's works. Donated items include editions of Kundera’s books in Czech and some 40 other languages, articles written by and about him, published reviews and criticism of his work, authorized photographs and even drawings by the author.
Despite his fierce protection of his private life, Kundera was forced to revisit his past in 2008, when the Czech Republic’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes produced documentation indicating that in 1950, as a 21-year-old student, Kundera told police about someone in his dormitory. The man was ultimately convicted of espionage and sentenced to hard labor for 22 years.
The researcher who released the report, Adam Hradilek, defended it as the product of extensive research on Kundera.
“He has sworn his Czech friends to silence, so not even they are willing to speak to journalists about who Milan Kundera is and was,” Hradilek said at the time.
Kundera said the report was a lie, telling the Czech CTK news agency it amounted to “the assassination of an author.”
In a 1985 profile — which is among the longest and most detailed on record, and examines Kundera’s life in Paris — the author foreshadowed how much even that admission must have pained him.
“For me, indiscretion is a capital sin. Anyone who reveals someone else’s intimate life deserves to be whipped. We live in an age when private life is being destroyed. The police destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it,” he told the writer Olga Carlisle. “Life when one can’t hide from the eyes of others — that is hell.”
Associated Press journalists Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, Amer Cohadzik in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Raf Casert in Belgium contributed to this report.