Milan Kundera (1929-2023)

Image: Elisa Cabot / Wikimedia


the czech writer he seemed more to feel the oppression of living in that society than to think about which way out he wanted

The Czech writer Milan Kundera passed away on the 11th of this month. Although his most famous work is the classic The unbearable lightness of being, the book that marked me a lot in my youth was his first novel, The joke, from 1967. At the time, I didn't quite understand its political content and how symbolic both the figure of Milan Kundera and the year of publication of the book were, if seen in the context of the Prague Spring, 1968. very precisely the artistic and intellectual wealth of the period in Czechoslovakia, from which, in addition to Milan Kundera himself, names such as the often referenced philosopher Karol Kosik and filmmakers Milos Forman and Vera Chytilová stood out.

Therefore, even though The joke e The unbearable lightness of being can be read as dramatic or even romantic works, it is not possible to remove these works from their political context and realize how much these elements appear in both texts. The first highlights the buzz that had been stirring the set of Eastern European countries, which, despite having expropriated capitalism, found themselves stagnant in the face of the possibility of building socialism, due to the political and strategic limits of the Stalinist leadership. It is worth remembering some emblematic events in the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy in different places, such as East Berlin (1953), Hungary (1956) and Kundera's own Czechoslovakia (1968).

These processes are not the same and had different immediate causes, but they all expressed the need of the working class in these countries to effectively build their own power and, with that, guarantee the construction of socialism for the future. It was clear that the Stalinist bureaucracy, in its different national versions, would not do this. On the contrary, in those countries that orbited around the Soviet Union, unlike the power born of the 1917 revolution, the processes of expropriation of the bourgeoisie and stagnant social transformation always had a centralizing bias in the bureaucracy of the governing parties. Therefore, in most countries, the working class still needed to experience government and find its own form of state.

When the First of Prague exploded, in 1968, it was not an isolated event, but the political expression of a society that organized itself and struggled to fulfill the promise of a socialist future, which no longer fit in the demagogic rhetoric of the ruling bureaucracy. A series of previous facts mark this fight, starting with the internal tensions in the governing party around “socialism with a human face”, but what directly involves the name of Milan Kundera is the meeting of the Union of Writers, held precisely at the launch of The jokeIn 1967.

Milan Kundera, whether in the 1967 book or the more famous one in 1984, shows opposition to the governing bureaucracy. However, this position does not seem to me to have an obvious strategic perspective, such as the political revolution advocated by Trotskyists, but is much more an expression of the disgust felt by the writer in relation to the Stalinist bureaucrats linked to Moscow and the disappointment in relation to the promises of the reformers who took over the government for a few months in 1968. My impression is that Milan Kundera seemed more to feel the oppression of living in that society than to think about which way out he wanted.

However, regardless of any strategic ambiguity, opposition to the government and the party is evident in his work, and this is expressed in his quest to show the subjectivity of his characters. In The joke, one of the things that most draws attention is the almost caricatured way in which Milan Kundera represents obedience to the party and the government.

One character, when recounting the troubles of her marriage to a comrade, states: “only the Party never let me down, and I always paid in kind, even at times when everyone wanted to leave it”.[I] One of these moments of crisis, according to the same character, would have been when Stalin was denounced for his crimes, in 1956. As a result, according to her, “people went crazy at the time, they spit on everything, they thought that our press was lying, the houses nationalized commerce did not work, culture suffocated, rural cooperatives should not have existed, the Soviet Union was a country without freedom and the worst part was that even the communists expressed themselves like that in their meetings”.[ii] Her husband, an intellectual who worked at a university, was one of those people who criticized the situation. The narrator said she saw in her partner “the germs of apathy, mistrust, disbelief, germs fermented in silence, in secret”.[iii]

Milan Kundera shows, a year before the explosion of the Prague Spring, without knowing that that political process would happen, that that society, despite the official discourse, is marked by apathy, distrust or even doubts regarding the future of the socialist promise done by government bureaucrats. Furthermore, it seems that there is always a ready-made response to disqualify anyone who questions the political situation.

It does not seem to be by chance that another character is accused of being a Trotskyist just because he wrote in a letter addressed to his girlfriend that “optimism is the opium of the human race”.[iv] The character claims to have been a joke, but what Milan Kundera seems to want to show is how coercion worked in that society, to the point that party and government members had access and were able to scrutinize the personal correspondence of their own comrades.

Se The joke can be considered the expression of people's subjectivity on the eve of the Prague Spring, The unbearable lightness of being presents balance sheet elements on that process written after 15 years. At a certain point in the work, a characterization of the new government is presented, which came to power between the attempt to renew the party and the invasion of Soviet tanks, when a magazine published a text by Tomas, the protagonist of the book: “This happened in the Spring 1968. Alexandre Dubcek was in power, surrounded by communists who felt guilty and were willing to do anything to make amends for their mistakes. But the other Communists, who howled that they were innocent, feared that the angry people would judge them. They went every day to complain to the Russian ambassador.”[v]

In this clash, the second group ended up winning, after all, in the words of Milan Kundera, “the Russians decided that free discussion was inadmissible in their domain and ordered their army to occupy the country of Tomas in the space of one night”.[vi] Milan Kundera describes the years following the Soviet invasion as "a period of burials".[vii]

The text by Tomas, physician, protagonist of The unbearable lightness of being, which was then published in the midst of the workers' uprising in the Prague Spring, nor did it directly allude to the political context. The text, distorted by the censorship of the ruling bureaucracy, was about Oedipus. However, in an explosive conjuncture, even this could not be accepted by repression.

Milan Kundera then narrates, after some time has passed since the popular uprising, the protagonist's conversation with an agent of state repression about a possible retraction. The bureaucrat said: “You are a great specialist, doctor! No one can demand that a doctor understand politics. You let yourself get involved, doctor. This situation needs to be corrected. For this reason, we want to propose the text of a declaration that you should, in our opinion, make available to the press”.[viii] In the text of this proposed declaration to Tomas, according to Milan Kundera, “there were phrases about love for the Soviet Union and loyalty to the Communist Party, there was a condemnation of the intellectuals who, it was written there, wanted to lead the country to civil war”.[ix]

The strategic debate in Milan Kundera does not point to social transformation or even overcoming that society, but evokes much more subjective questions and seems more concerned with expressing his feelings and those of his contemporaries in relation to that society. Certainly this absence of a strategic perspective and even possible political mistakes by Milan Kundera should not be attributed only to the writer's individuality, but to the absence of a political alternative.

It fell to the Stalinist regimes to suppress all opposition, left and right, for decades. In this process, given the overthrow of the Stalinist apparatus, no alternative was built that could lead the political revolution, leading the left all over the world to either delude themselves with the idea of ​​reforming capitalism or to look for what eventually might have happened. positive in Stalinist regimes.

If Milan Kundera ended up surpassing the ideals of 1968, that does not mean that his work loses its value, be it aesthetic, as in beautiful passages from The joke, be it political, as in his acid criticism against those who attacked the Prague Spring shown in The unbearable lightness of being. Kundera leaves an important literary legacy, which both expose reflections on a very rich historical moment and point to unfinished political tasks to be carried out by the new generations.

*Michel Goulart da Silva, postdoctoral fellow at the State University of Santa Catarina (UDESC), he is a professor at the Federal Institute of Santa Catarina (IFC).


[I] KUNDERA, Milan. The joke. 5th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1986, p. 30.

[ii] KUNDERA, Milan. The joke. 5th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1986, p. 31.

[iii] KUNDERA, Milan. The joke. 5th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1986, p. 31.

[iv] KUNDERA, Milan. The joke. 5th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1986, p. 52.

[v] KUNDERA, Milan. The unbearable lightness of being. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, p. 190-1.

[vi] KUNDERA, Milan. The unbearable lightness of being. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, p. 191.

[vii] KUNDERA, Milan. The unbearable lightness of being. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, p. 246.

[viii] KUNDERA, Milan. The unbearable lightness of being. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, p. 203.

[ix] KUNDERA, Milan. The unbearable lightness of being. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, p. 203.

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