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Interview with Milan Kundera by Olga Carlisle (1985)

HIS FACE IS SHADOWED BY THE DEEPENING PARIS twilight; only the eyes stand out, an intense blue. He speaks slowly, in cultivated French, with a strong Slavic accent. ''Only a literary work that reveals an unknown fragment of human existence has a reason for being,'' he says in the extended question-and-answer interview that follows. ''To be a writer does not mean to preach a truth, it means to discover a truth.''

In the 1980's, Milan Kundera, now 56, has done for his native Czechoslovakia what Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for Latin America in the 1960's and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did for Russia in the 1970's. He has brought Eastern Europe to the attention of the Western reading public, and he has done so with insights that are universal in their appeal. His call for truth and the inner freedom without which truth cannot be recognized, his realization that in seeking truth we must be prepared to come to terms with death - these are the themes that have earned him critical acclaim, including the Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society that he was awarded two weeks ago.

Kundera's most recent novels, ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting'' (1980) and last year's ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' deal with the death of culture in our time. Implicit in the feeling of menace is the danger of nuclear war. Kundera deals with this danger allegorically, with an irrepressible sense of the grotesque.

Like his compatriot Milos Forman, the Academy Award-winning director who has adapted to exile and has thrived in the West, Kundera, who has lived in France since 1975, has been prolific enough to dispel the popular notion that writers uprooted from their native soil lose their inspiration. In book after versatile book, the reader finds passion, playfulness and a strong measure of eroticism. Kundera has succeeded in turning the Czechoslovakia of his youth into a vivid, mythical, erotic land.

The nature of his achievement may explain in part why Kundera is so fiercely protective of his privacy. No myth maker or mystifier wants to be revealed. In a recent interview, the novelist Philip Roth quoted Kundera as having told him:

''When I was a little boy in short pants, I dreamed about a miraculous ointment that would make me invisible. Then I became an adult, began to write, and wanted to be successful.

Now I'm successful and would like to have the ointment that would make me invisible.''

Predictably, there was a lack of enthusiasm in Kundera's voice when I called him in his Paris apartment from San Francisco, asking for an interview. Help came from an unexpected quarter - the memory of my grandfather, the turn-of-the-century Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev. Warned by mutual friends that the Soviet subjugation of his country had made Kundera mistrustful of Russians - all Russians - I felt I should mention my Russian origin.

Kundera replied that, in his youth, he had read and admired my grandfather's work. The ice was broken, and a date was set. But in a letter I received from him soon afterward, he wrote: ''I must warn you of my bad disposition. I am incapable of speaking of myself and of my life and the states of my soul, I am discreet to an almost pathological degree, and there is nothing I can do against that. If this is possible for you, I'd like to speak of literature.''

MILAN KUNDERA AND HIS WIFE, VERA, LIVE ON ONE of the quiet sidestreets of Montparnasse; their small apartment is a remodeled garret with a view of dove-gray Parisian roofs. What gives the living room its character are the modern, surrealistic pictures on the walls. Some are by Czechoslovak artists; the others are by Kundera himself - multicolored outsized heads and long-fingered hands, like Kundera's own.

Vera Kundera is a pretty brunette, hair cut short, slender in blue jeans. She serves us wine, and artfully peels kiwi fruit for us. As we chat, I am struck by my hosts' appreciation of the festive side of Parisian life - the ease of shopping in the nearby Bon Marche, the exotic fruit at the corner store, the art exhibitions throughout the year. But during the interview that follows, Vera is busy in the next room, typing and answering long-distance calls. Celebrity has caught up with Kundera, and it is she who has to deal with the requests that come from European television, theater and movie directors.

Tall and lean, wearing an old blue sweater, Kundera slouches in an armchair. Here, clearly, is a man who is at ease with himself - bien dans sa peau, to use the French expression he ex-plored at some length in ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being.'' Encouraged by his questions, I tell him a little about my emigre childhood in Paris. My fascination with Prague goes back to those days, when the Russian emigre poet Marina Tsvetayeva used to visit us in the evenings and recite her verses in her slightly guttural voice. One poem I never forgot was addressed to one of the statues, on a bridge over the river Vltava, a knight who keeps watch over Prague: Pale Knight, you are the guardian Of the splashing river, Of the passing years, Watching rings and treaties Smashed against the stone Embankment.

There have been so many broken In the last Four hundred years.

That was in 1936 or 1937, and, even then, Prague was too close to Nazi Germany - and to Communist Russia as well. The hugeness of the forthcoming betrayals and broken promises was impossible to imagine.

Kundera was part of the Prague Spring of 1968, the promise of Socialism with a human face that was smashed under the treads of Soviet tanks. Publication in Prague of his first novel, ''The Joke,'' was one of that interlude's major events.

Tightly written, elaborately constructed, ''The Joke'' was an indictment of the bleak absurdity of life under Communism - but also of life anywhere, when betrayal and revenge are allowed to corrode the soul. The manuscript made its way to the Paris publishing house of Editions Gallimard -and, very quickly, to international acclaim. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kundera lost his position as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Prague, and his books were banned. Little by little, life was made unbearable for him, and he was hounded out of his native country.

The books that burst on the Western reading public in the following years traced an intellectual and emotional journey. ''Life Is Elsewhere,'' published in the United States in 1974, was a grimly ironic exploration of the ultimate consequences of revolutionary and poetic zeal. ''Laughable Loves'' (1974) and ''The Farewell Party'' (1976) celebrated erotic love, and mingled hilarity with compassion. And in ''The Farewell Party,'' a new note was struck. When one of its main characters, Jakob, elects to leave his invaded homeland, he enters new, unexplored territory, the land of exile. This, of course, was the vista that stretched before Kundera himself when he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, and it was the first thing I asked him about in our interview.

FOR NEARLY 10 years, ever since the age of 46, you have lived in France. Do you feel like an emigre, a Frenchman, a Czech, or just a European without specific nationality?

When the German intellectuals left their country for America in the 1930's, they were certain they would return one day to Germany. They considered their stay abroad temporary. I, on the other hand, have no hope whatever of returning. My stay in France is final, and, therefore, I am not an emigre. France is my only real homeland now.

Nor do I feel uprooted. For a thousand years, Czechoslovakia was part of the West. Today, it is part of the empire to the east. I would feel a great deal more uprooted in Prague than in Paris. But you still write in Czech? I write my essays in French, but my novels in Czech, because my life experiences and my imagination are anchored in Bohemia, in Prague.

It was Milos Forman, even before you, who made Czechoslovakia known to a wide public in the West, through films such as ''The Firemen's Ball.''

Indeed, he is the incarnation of what I call the spirit of Prague - he and the other Czech moviemakers, Ivan Passer and Jan Nemec. When Milos comes to Paris, everyone is shocked and dazzled. How is it possible that a famous moviemaker can be so free of snobbery? In Paris, where even a salesgirl at the Galeries Lafayette does not know how to behave naturally, Forman's simplicity acts like a provocation.

How would you define the ''spirit of Prague''?

Kafka's ''The Castle'' and Jaroslav Hasek's ''The Good Soldier Schweik'' are filled with that spirit. An extraordinary sense of the real. The common man's point of view. History seen from below. A provocative simplicity. A genius for the absurd. Humor with infinite pessimism.

For instance, a Czech requests a visa to emigrate. The official asks him, ''Where do you want to go?'' ''It doesn't matter,'' the man replies. He is given a globe. ''Please, choose.''

The man looks at the globe, turns it slowly and says, ''Don't you have another globe?''

In addition to your roots in Prague, what other literary loves have shaped you?

First, the French novelists Rabelais and Diderot. For me, the real founder, the king of French literature is Rabelais. And Diderot's ''Jacques le Fataliste'' carried the spirit of Rabelais into the 18th century. Don't be misled by the fact that Diderot was a philosopher. This novel cannot be reduced to a philo-sophical discourse. It is a play of irony. The freest novel ever written. Freedom turned into a novel. I have recently done a theatrical adaptation of it. It was staged by Susan Sontag in Cambridge, Mass., as ''Jacques and His Master.'' [The play was presented by the American Repertory Theater in January.] . Your other roots? The Central European novel of our century. Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Witold Gombrovicz. These novelists are marvelously distrustful of what Andre Malraux called the ''lyric illusions.'' Distrustful of the illusions concerning progress, distrustful of the kitsch of hope. I share their sorrow about the Western twilight. Not a sentimental sorrow. An ironic one. And my third root: modern Czech poetry. For me, it was a great schooling of the imagination.

Was Jaroslav Seifert among the modern poets who inspired you? Did he deserve the Nobel Prize he received in 1984?

He certainly did. It has been said that he was first proposed for the Nobel Prize in 1968, but the jury was prudent; it feared that a prize given to him would be considered as a gesture of sympathy for a recently occupied country.

The prize came too late. Too late for the Czech people, who had been humiliated. Too late for Czech poetry, whose great epoch had ended long ago. Too late for Seifert, who is 83 years old. It is said that when the Swedish Ambassador came to his bedside at the hospital to tell him of the honor, Seifert looked at him for a long time. At last he said sadly, ''But what will I do now with all this money?''

What about Russian literature? Does it still touch you, or have the political events of 1968 made it distasteful to you?

I like Tolstoy very much. He is much more modern than Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy was the first, perhaps, to grasp the role of the irrational in human behavior. The role played by stupidity - but mostly by the unaccountability of human actions guided by a subconscious that is both uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

Reread the passages preceding Anna Karenina's death. Why did she kill herself without really wanting to? How was her decision born? To capture these reasons, which are irrational and elusive, Tolstoy photographs Anna's stream of consciousness. She is in a carriage; the images of the street mix in her head with her illogical, fragmented thoughts. The first creator of the interior monologue was not Joyce but Tolstoy, in these few pages of ''Anna Karenina.'' That is seldom recognized. Because Tolstoy is badly translated. I once read a French translation of this passage. I was amazed. What in the original text is illogical and fragmented becomes logical and rational in the French translation. As if the last chapter of Joyce's ''Ulysses'' were rewritten - Molly Bloom's long mono-logue given logical, conventional punctuation.

Alas, our translators betray us. They do not dare translate the unusual in our texts - the uncommon, the original. They fear that the critics will accuse them of translating badly. To protect themselves, they trivialize us. You have no idea how much time and energy I have lost correcting the translations of my books.

You speak with affection about your father in ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.''

My father was a pianist. He had a passion for modern music - for Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Janacek. He fought very hard for Leos Janacek's recognition as an artist. Janacek is a fascinating modern composer, incomparable, impossible to classify. His opera, ''From the House of the Dead,'' about hard-labor camps, based on Dostoyevsky's novel, is one of the great, prophetic works of our century, like Kafka's ''The Trial,'' or Picasso's ''Guernica.''

This difficult music my father performed in concert halls that were almost empty. As a small boy, I hated the public that refused to listen to Stravinsky and applauded Tchaikovsky or Mozart. I have retained a passion for modern art; this is my fidelity to my father. But I refused to take on his profession of musician. I liked music but I did not like musicians. I gagged at the thought of spending my life among musicians.

When my wife and I left Czechoslovakia, we could take only a very few books with us. Among them was John Updike's ''The Centaur,'' a book that touched something deep in me - an agonizing love for the humiliated, defeated father.

In ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,'' you link the memory of your father with a tale about Tamina, who lives on an island where there are only children.

This tale is a dream, a dream image that obsesses me. Imagine being forced for the rest of your days to remain surrounded by children, without ever being able to speak to an adult. A nightmare. Where does this image come from? I don't know. I don't like to analyze my dreams, I prefer to turn them into tales.

Children occupy a strange place in your books. In ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' children torture a crow, and Tereza suddenly says to Tomas, ''I am grateful to you for not having wanted children.'' On the other hand, one finds in your books a tenderness toward animals. In the last one, a pig becomes a likable character. Isn't this view of animals a bit kitschy?

I don't think so. Kitsch is a desire to please at all costs. To speak well of animals and look skeptically at children can't please the public very much. It might even irritate it slightly. Not that I have anything against children. But the kitsch of childhood annoys me.

Here in France, before the elections, all the political parties had their posters. Everywhere the same slogans about a better future, and everywhere photos of children who smile, run about and play.

Alas, our human future is not childhood but old age. The true humanism of society is revealed through its attitude toward old age. But old age, the only future that each of us faces, will never be shown on any propaganda posters. Neither on the left or on the right.

I see that the quarrel between right and left does not excite you very much.

The danger that threatens us is the totalitarian empire. Khomeini, Mao, Stalin - are they left or right? Totalitarianism is neither left nor right, and within its empire both will perish.

I was never a believer, but after seeing Czech Catholics persecuted during the Stalinist terror, I felt the deepest solidarity with them. What separated us, the belief in God, was secondary to what united us. In Prague, they hanged the Socialists and the priests. Thus a fraternity of the hanged was born.

This is why the stubborn struggle between left and right seems to me obsolete and quite provincial. I hate to participate in political life, although politics fascinates me as a show. A tragic, deathly show in the empire to the east; an intellectually sterile but amusing one in the West.

It is sometimes said that, paradoxically, oppression gives more seriousness and vitality to art and literature.

Let us not be romantic. When oppression is lasting, it may destroy a culture completely. Culture needs a public life, the free exchange of ideas; it needs publications, exhibits, debates and open borders. Yet, for a time, culture can survive in very difficult circumstances.

After the Russian invasion in 1968, almost all Czech literature was banned, and circulated only in manuscript. Open public cultural life was destroyed. Nonetheless, the Czech literature of the 1970's was magnificent. The prose of Hrabal, Grusa, Skvorecky. It was then, at the most perilous time of its existence, that Czech literature gained its international reputation. But how long can it survive in the underground? No one knows. Europe has never experienced such situations before.

When it comes to the misfortune of nations, we must not forget the dimension of time. In a fascist, dictatorial state, everyone knows that it will end one day. Everyone looks to the end of the tunnel. In the empire to the east, the tunnel is without end. Without end, at least, from the point of view of a human life. This is why I don't like it when people compare Poland with, say, Chile. Yes, the torture, the suffering are the same. But the tunnels are of very different lengths. And this changes everything.

Political oppression presents yet another danger, which - especially for the novel - is even worse than censorship and the police. I mean moralism. Oppression creates an all-too-clear boundary between good and evil, and the writer easily gives in to the temptation of preaching. From a human point of view, this may be quite appealing, but for literature it is deadly.

Hermann Broch, the Austrian novelist whom I love above all, has said, ''The only morality for a writer is knowledge.'' Only a literary work that reveals an unknown fragment of human existence has a reason for being. To be a writer does not mean to preach a truth; it means to discover a truth.

But isn't it possible that societies experiencing oppression offer more occasions for the writer to discover ''an unknown fragment of existence'' than those that lead peaceful lives?

Perhaps. If you think about Central Europe, what a prodigious laboratory of history! In a period of 60 years, we have lived through the fall of an empire, the rebirth of small nations, democracy, Fascism, the German occupation with its massacres, the Russian occupation with its deportations, the hope of Socialism, Stalinist terror, emigration. . . . I have always been astounded by how people around me comported themselves in this situation.

Man has become enigmatic. He stands as a question. And it is out of that astonishment that the passion to write a novel is born. My skepticism in relation to certain values that are almost totally unassailable is rooted in my Central European experience.

For instance, youth is usually referred to not as a phase but as a value in itself. When they utter this word, politicians always have a silly grin on their faces. But I, when I was young, lived in a period of terror. And it was the young who supported terror, in great numbers, through inexperience, immaturity, their all-or-nothing morality, their lyric sense. The most skeptical of all among my novels is ''Life Is Elsewhere.'' Its subject is youth and poetry. The adventure of poetry during the Stalinist terror. Poetry's smile. The bloody smile of innocence.

Poetry is another of those values unassailable in our society. I was shocked when, in 1950, the great French Communist poet Paul Eluard publicly approved the hanging of his friend, the Prague writer, Zavis Kalandra. When Brezhnev sends tanks to massacre the Afghans, it is terrible, but it is, so to say, normal - it is to be expected. When a great poet praises an execution, it is a blow that shatters our whole image of the world.

Does a life rich in experience make your novels autobiographical?

No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don't like disguised autobiogaphies. I hate writers' indiscretions.

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.

Life when one can't hide from the eyes of others - that is hell. Those who have lived in totalitarian countries know it, but that system only brings out, like a magnifying glass, the tendencies of all modern society. The devastation of nature; the decline of thinking and of art; bureaucratization, depersonalization; lack of respect before personal life. Without secrecy, nothing is possible - not love, not friendship.

IT IS QUITE LATE WHEN the interview ends, and Kundera walks me back to my hotel, a short stroll in the moist Parisian night. A day or two later, the Kunderas invite me to a lunch of quail in juniper berry sauce, cooked in the Czech style. Kundera is whimsical and lighthearted. He says he reads less and less because French publishers are putting out books in smaller and smaller type. He will not consider the possibility that it is not a French plot and that he needs new glasses.

He shows the true writer's evasiveness when asked what fiction he is working on now. But he speaks willingly about his current collaboration on a ''metaphysical farce'' with the French movie director Alain Resnais. Kundera is writing the script, and he casts about for a title. Should it be ''Three Husbands and Two Lovers'' or ''Two Husbands and Three Lovers''? The need for secretiveness is undone by a sense of mischief.

This is the Milan Kundera whom his friends of 1968 remember happily, the carefree Kundera of ''Laughable Loves,'' the book he likes best of all his work, because it is linked to the gayest period of his life.