The justification for Milan Kundera’s first expulsion from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was at least partially accurate, even honest. Kundera did indeed possess “individualistic tendencies”, though whether he was “hostile” to the Party in 1950 remains an open question. At any rate, the Party and State were certainly hostile to him, and in 1979 stripped Kundera of citizenship after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Last week, the Czech Republic restored his citizenship.
Kundera, now 90 and among the most celebrated novelists of the 20th century, has little to gain from his restored citizenship. In fact, the memory of Prague, and the fact of Paris, where he has lived since his exile, have defined his work. The restoration of citizenship, then, is an act of contrition. It is an apology for a time when the state saw the citizen not as a bearer of rights, as an individual who, through criticism, can enrich the whole but instead, a thing to fit an ideological end. Kundera’s exile — he did not denounce socialism — stemmed from the insecurity of a state that thinks it is strong, but lacks the magnanimity to tolerate even the slightest dissent and difference.
Kundera’s early work was critical of totalitarianism, but his later novels are more philosophical than ideological. He wrote of love, memory, forgetting and a nostalgia that freezes places and times — human themes, in a place where people are not human. The state, then and now, too often wants the citizen to be dutiful, to be a good fill-in-the-blank, to exclude those who do not fit perfectly into its scheme. For many governments at the helm today, there is a lesson in the restoration of Kundera’s citizenship. Forty years later, narrow-minded registers of inclusion and exclusion could well require acts of contrition.