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Like a delicate whisper carried by celestial winds, Milan Kundera, the renowned Franco-Czech wordsmith, departed from this world on a fateful Tuesday afternoon in Paris. His publisher Gallimard announced with a veiled sorrow that Kundera, the author of The Joke (1965) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), succumbed to an illness on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Anna Mrazova, the spokesperson for the Milan Kundera Library in his birthplace of Brno, confirmed the passing of the writer.

In 2011, Kundera, the sarcastic painter of the human condition, had the exceptional distinction of being enshrined in the prestigious pages of La Pléiade during his lifetime. Although hailing from the Czech lands, a place that stripped him of his nationality only to restore it later, Kundera captivated the hearts of the French-speaking world, establishing himself as one of the unquestioned masters of global literature.

In the distant times when he still adorned the colors of Czech identity, Milan Kundera unveiled two literary jewels to the world: The Joke (1965), acclaimed by the French poet Aragon, and Laughable Loves (1968). These works unabashedly revealed the agony of political illusions within a generation entangled in the tumult of the Prague Spring, a tempest that ushered the communists to power in 1948.

Yet, when the Prague Spring was crushed and the heavy cloak of censorship descended upon him, Kundera endured the burden of prohibitions. In 1975, he and his wife Vera, a prominent figure on the small screen in Czechoslovakia, chose exile in France. There, they emerged from the troubled waters, finding refuge in the embracing arms of a new homeland. In 1981, Kundera became a French citizen, proudly donning the colors of Molière’s nation. However, his love for his native land never fully extinguished and, in 2019, the ties were rekindled when his Czech citizenship was reinstated.

In an interview dating back to 1984, Milan Kundera reflected upon this pivotal period in his life, when he had explored various forms of expression before dedicating himself wholeheartedly to poetry. Those years, imbued with innocence and exaltation, marked a transition and a metamorphosis. Kundera erected an ethos of doubt, laughter, lightness, and disillusionment upon the ruins of that lyrical era. For him, the world was divided between skeptics and believers, and he knew precisely where he stood. Through his debut novel, Life Is Elsewhere (1969), he settled his scores with that period of blind faith, with himself. His protagonist, Jaromil, in search of the absolute, revealed himself as a failed poet during family dinners and an impostor among the social elite. This text was infused with heartbreaking bitterness.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) was the work that brought him fame. The titles of his subsequent works, such as Slowness, Immortality, Identity, and Ignorance, reflected that ambition. Kundera regarded the novel as a dance of perspectives and confrontations, perpetuating the cherished philosophical tradition of Central Europe and Germany, which he breathed into French literature. His intellectual mentors, including Broch, Musil, Milosz, and Kafka, constituted the cast of his magnum opus, The Art of the Novel (1986).

Milan Kundera refused to indulge in the nostalgic cliché of the emigrant. From 1993 onward, he wrote in French, the language of his adopted land. He also rejected the label of dissident. Exile offered him a detached perspective, an experience of oblivion, and a confrontation with the ravages of time and dictatorships. He consistently emphasized that, as a Czech, he was also European, and that Europe manifested itself primarily through the very culture that the USSR sought to obliterate.

In his captivating essay, “The Kidnapped West” (Le Débat, 1983), Milan Kundera reminded everyone of everything that the West owed to Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw: the Counter-Reformation, Haydn, Schönberg’s dodecaphonism, the works of Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz, and Schulz, the creations of Schulz… And yet, the West had forsaken Central Europe.

With the passing of Milan Kundera, a part of Czechoslovakia has faded away, following in the footsteps of Vaclav Havel in 2011 and Milos Forman in 2018. Yet, he is also one of the most brilliant European minds, in the noblest sense of the term. Thus, the quill of a genius is extinguished. The pages turned by Kundera gently close, carrying with them a unique vision of humanity, imbued with sarcasm and lucidity. But his prose, like an eternal echo, will resonate through the centuries, like a lighthouse illuminating the darkest corners of our human condition. The legend of Milan Kundera endures, inscribed in the annals of literature, immortal and infinitely light.

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