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Milan Kundera's Mixed Feelings

By BURTON BOLLAG, Special to The New York Times PRAGUE, December 17, 1992

Three years after the fall of Communism and the unbanning of his books in Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera has still not allowed any of his novels written after 1968 to be published in his native Czechoslovakia.

A number of Czechoslovak writers who know him say he has not got over the hurt he felt as a result of the often hostile reception his smuggled works received among Czechoslovak intellectuals during the Communist period.

Mr. Kundera, 63 years old, fled the persecution in his country in 1975 and moved to France with his wife, Vera, a banned television newscaster. They settled in Paris, where he writes and teaches today.

He has repeatedly refused invitations for an official visit to post-Communist Czechoslovakia. And he has ignored appeals by leading Czechoslovak writers, including his harshest former critics, to meet and patch up old differences.

"I don't think he has any real reason to be hurt; it's only a proof of how sensitive he is," said Ludvik Vaculik, a prominent Czechoslovak writer and former dissident who organized one of the main underground publishing networks under Communism. "He would do best to stay here for a short time, meet his friends, speak in public. No one would be hostile."

But up to now, that step has been too big for Mr. Kundera to take. A reclusive celebrity in his adoptive country, he has become a French citizen. Four years before the fall of Communism, Mr. Kundera told an interviewer, "France is my only real homeland now." He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Turning His Back

His latest novel, "Immortality," for the first time shows no connection to his country of origin. In many ways, he has turned his back on Czechoslovakia. But he hasn't stopped peering over his shoulder.

Recently he faxed greetings to the Regional Theater of Moravia in his hometown, Brno, on the opening of his play, "Jacques and His Master." And Mr. Kundera has promised to allow "Immortality" to be published in Czechoslovakia "soon."

In late October, Mr. Kundera, the former Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel and three other Czechoslovak artists shared a dinner of wild pigeon at a small Left Bank restaurant in Paris. In Communist times Mr. Havel had been sharply critical of what he saw as Mr. Kundera's cynical attitude toward the efforts of the dissidents. But at the dinner and during a late-night discussion that followed at the Kunderas' apartment in Montparnasse, it was clear that old ideological differences had long been buried.

Asked about Mr. Kundera, Mr. Havel said later: "I found him very well informed about events here. I don't have the impression he's trying to live in isolation from his native country -- only from the media."

The criticisms of Mr. Kundera began shortly after the Communist ban on his teaching and publishing finally forced him into exile. There were a number of reasons for the hostility. But they all had one thing in common: While other writers inside Czechoslovakia were hounded by the police and forced to wash windows or stoke furnaces, Mr. Kundera was becoming one of the West's most exalted literary celebrities.

Poetry About Stalin

Some critics asserted that in the rare interviews he gave, Mr. Kundera glossed over the fact that as a young man he had been a Communist. He even wrote poetry glorifying Stalin, before becoming a critic of the Communist repressions and a leading literary figure in the reform current that eventually led to the short-lived 1968 Prague Spring.

Perhaps the most cogent criticism came from Mr. Havel. He explained his differences with Mr. Kundera in his 1986 book "Disturbing the Peace." Mr. Havel was then a dissident playwright who had already spent a long stretch in prison. In the book he comments on a scene from Mr. Kundera's 1984 novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

The son of Tomas asks his father to sign a petition calling for freedom for political prisoners. After hesitating, the father refuses because he realizes that it will do no good and is motivated primarily by the petitioners' desire to satisfy their egos.

Mr. Havel wrote that in reality such efforts, even though they were often without any immediate effect, were immensely worthwhile. And he added, "It marked the beginning of a process in which people's civic backbones began to straighten again."

Since the fall of Communism in November 1989, the Kunderas have made only two short and very private visits to Czechoslovakia, to Brno. Mr. Kundera also visited Prague, but in cognito. In Brno they stayed with friends, stopping for a brief visit at the comfortable gray stucco family house they used to live in.

Asked about his publishing plans in Czechoslovakia, Mr. Kundera provided a written answer confirming his intention to allow Atlantis, a small Czechoslovak publishing house, to gradually publish all his novels.

A Hope for 1998

Mr. Kundera explained that he wanted the new Czechoslovak editions to be the "critical and definitive" versions of his books. There are five remaining novels. "If all goes as I wish," he said, "around 1998 at the latest, all my novels will be published in my native country."

Jitka Uhdeova, the director of Atlantis, said, with barely concealed frustration, "He's a top, world-class author, but he isn't known here."

"The problem between Kundera and the writers living here," she continued, "is a problem of separation for almost 20 years. No one wanted the separation. But now it's not easy to come together again.

"This is the real tragedy of Eastern Europe. You can see it in the fate of a great man like Milan Kundera. But you can also see it in every family here."