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Milan Kundera's Czech Citizenship Is Restored After 40 Years

Writer Milan Kundera has had Czech citizenship restored, 40 years after it was revoked and his books banned. Kundera is seen here in 2010 in Paris, where he has lived since leaving Czechoslovakia in 1975.
Miguel Medina
AFP via Getty Images
Writer Milan Kundera has had Czech citizenship restored, 40 years after it was revoked and his books banned. Kundera is seen here in 2010 in Paris, where he has lived since leaving Czechoslovakia in 1975.

The novelist Milan Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975. He and his wife had gone to France for what was supposed to be a short stint at a university, and they did not go back. The communist government revoked Kundera's citizenship in 1979, and since then he has scarcely returned to his homeland, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

But after 40 years, the author is a Czech citizen once more.

Czech ambassador to France Petr Drulak went to Kundera's Paris apartment last week and handed him a citizenship certificate. "For me it was very moving," Drulak told Czech Radio. "For all of us actually, it was a very emotional moment because after 40 years, Milan Kundera is a Czech citizen again."

Drulak said the move was a symbolic gesture, and that the 90-year-old Kundera has always remained connected to his home country, even in exile.

"He stayed by his convictions and identity, a profound Czech, I would say. He is really someone who is very linked to this country and he is very interested in what is going on in Czech Republic," he said.

It's not clear whether Kundera is as enthusiastic about the gesture as the Czech government is; he hasn't commented on the matter, and he no longer talks to reporters.

Kundera became a French citizen in 1981, and when he does visit the Czech Republic, he reportedlygoes incognito. He was awarded the Czech national literature prize in 2008, but did not attend the ceremony.

Czechoslovak authorities banned Kundera's books and revoked his citizenship after the 1979 publishing in France of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In that book, Kundera calls then-Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak "the president of forgetting."

He is best known for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which became an international bestseller when it was published in 1984. The story of a couple, Tomas and Tereza, takes place amidst the Soviet crackdown and the Prague Spring of 1968. Four years after the book's publication, the story was adapted for an American-made film.

Kundera's legacy has been complicated in the Czech Republic. Since 1989, he has written his novels in French, and Czech Radio reports that he has refused to allow anyone but himself to translate them into Czech — something he has not always opted to do. As a result, many of Kundera's later novels are not available in his mother tongue.

In 2008, a Czech magazine published a report indicating that in 1950 Kundera informed the secret police about a supposed spy, who was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for 14 years. Kundera vehemently denied the claims, calling them "pure lies" and "the assassination of an author."

Last year, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš visited Kundera and his wife in Paris and offered to restore their citizenship. The author was reportedlynon-committal, with the couple expressing hope that it would not require "too much paperwork."

Many years ago, he indicated that he did not intend to go back to his homeland.

"There is no such dream of a return," he told a German newspaper in 1984. "I took my Prague; the smell, the taste, the language, the landscape, the culture."

In an interview with The New York Times that same year, Kundera described how the very meaning of "home" changes in translation.

"In French, of course, the word 'home' doesn't exist," he said. "You have to say 'chez moi' or 'dans ma patrie' - which means that 'home' is already politicized, that 'home' already includes a politics, a state, a nation. Whereas the word 'home' is very beautiful in its exactitude. Losing it, in French, is one of those diabolical problems of translation. You have to ask: What is home? What does it mean to be 'at home'? It's a complicated question. 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?

"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."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.