Ipick up the book, A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe, knowing what it is. This slim volume, less than a hundred pages, by Milan Kundera, now 94 and we haven’t read a new work of his for some time, is the result of the publisher’s good intention to add ideas that still matter to the current conversations. It is also a subtle reminder
that Kundera, in his own words a writer trapped in history, cannot be made redundant by its passage beyond his pages, for, there are readers who return to him only with archival curiosity, no longer for the sensuality of ideas that unravel an era of unfreedom. Inevitable, isn’t it? We are too quick to grade writers according to the relevance granted to them by the zeitgeist, a word casually deployed by those who are prone to reducing history to the size of yesterday’s headlines.
A Kidnapped West ( Faber, £10) is a collection of his two previously published essays, ‘The Literature of Small Nations’ (1967), originally his address to the Czech Writers’ Congress, and ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ (1983), each with a new introduction. He wrote these essays, in two different stages of his life, as a writer struggling to measure the geography of his imagination in a world made smaller by the staggering pretence of ideology, and later, as an exile arguing with memory. Why read them today?
He writes in ‘The Literature of Small Nations’: “I don’t like it when people put fascism and communism on an equal footing. Fascism, based on a straightforward anti-humanism, created a relatively simple situation in moral terms: having presented itself as the antithesis of humanist principles and virtues, it left them intact. By contrast, Stalinism took over the legacy of a great humanist movement that, despite the Stalinist fury, has managed to retain a good number of the original postures, ideas, terms, and dreams. To see that humanist movement turn into its opposite, carrying with it the whole of human goodness, transforming the love of mankind into cruelty toward man, love of truth into denunciation, and so forth—this forces an unexpected vision of the very fundaments of human values and virtues. What is history, what is man’s place in history—what is man himself, finally? You cannot answer all these questions the same way before and after that experience. No one emerges from it as the same person he was on entering.”
The scars of that experience are there on those pages we devoured with such relish, marvelling at the spartan elegance with which he turned the darkest joke of his political inheritance into fiction’s most enduring aphorisms of existential dread. Imagining for him was defining his life in a shrinking place. You reread his address to fellow writers, all dreaming of air from inside a huge lie, with the humbling realisation that, not far from our secure zones, someone is still dreaming, writing, fighting, and dying for the freedom denied to him by leaders born in the ruins of Stalinism but still empowered by its instincts.
‘A Kidnapped West’, or ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’, is one of the most influential essays in, to take that much quoted aphorism once more from his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, man’s “struggle against power”, which is “the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Meditating on a creative explosion disproportionate to the geographical size of his home, he finds it difficult to draw the borders of Central Europe, because it is not a state but “a culture or a fate”. His vision of it is based on “a deep distrust of History, that goddess of Hegel and Marx, that incarnation of reason that judges and arbitrates our fate—that is the history of conquerors.” The reality is that he has become an outsider in the larger history of Europe. What makes the outsider’s struggle unique is that he doesn’t have the luxury of the media, which is controlled by the state. The Central European revolts were “prepared, shaped, realised by novels, poetry, theatre, cinema, historiography, literary reviews, popular comedy and cabaret, philosophical discussions—that is, by culture.”
When we read this, four decades after its publication, we just can’t escape the fate of a small nation—and its fight for being alive in the shadow of the Big-Lie state, still claiming monopoly over the “goddess of Hegel and Marx”, no matter communism is not any longer in power. Volodymyr Zelensky, the citizen president in jeans and tees, may not be Václav Havel, but the former comic has come to bring alive the spirit of the Prague Spring in the first full-scale land war after 1945. It is as if even in the post-Soviet era, the Big Boot hovers over the small nation. We read the essays of Kundera and once again realise that the most original arguments for freedom come from the realm of culture. Every struggle needs its philosopher. And some of them end up as kings.
We call such professionals of argument public intellectuals. They assume that their social responsibility is matched by their engagement with liberating ideas. They are not cause junkies; they are explorers, navigating contradictions and manufactured complexities, slaying taboos and pausing before truth. They are idealists, committed to the pursuit of the mind, and indifferent to the rewards of power. This portrait may look far removed from reality, born in the romance of the illusionist. As the so-called marketplace of ideas gets crowded with disputes ranging from ideologies to theologies, gender to race, gods to apostles, the idealist finds it hard to hold on to his position, for someone is ready with a label, or a badge of ostracisation. So we witness the public intellectual preferring silence to submission, or submission to silence. The trend is even more prevalent at a time when new pieties are being preserved by the latest doctrine of righteousness. Like any other cliché, woke, too, is worn-out familiarity. A good mind, as Martin Amis has shown, must declare a “war against cliché”.
Clichés overwhelm the texts of national dissection. Clichés spare us the complexities of an argument; clichés propel the stories of ‘populism’ and ‘strongmen’, of ‘neo-nationalist dictatorship’. Such stories ignore singular attitudes of nations and draw upon stereotypes. The word bowl of global trends provides palatable explanations that can be effortlessly fitted into slogans and ‘progressive’ accusations. The challenge for the moral idealist is to resist.
It is apparent in the Indian story too, increasingly told through clichés. Some interlocutors of the cultural change that sweeps across Indian politics capture it in phrases of democratic profanities, as if deviation from the path chosen by the first nation-builders is a subversion of democracy itself. They have chosen to stay in denial, and withdrawn from the arena of questions, a public intellectual’s natural habitat. Still, marking a seminal shift in the arguments over the nation, some of them are bringing the impulses of civilisation and the ancient ethos of the Hindu mind to the conversation. Evolutions of nations run parallel to the arc of arguments they generate. After the profusion of deniers and harrumphers, the Indian story is getting new tellers.
S alman Rushdie, who launches our hooray to ideas and their smartest faces, tells Open that, in these times of “competing narratives”, literature alone has “the power to remind us of what we are really like.” The following pages are inhabited by storytellers travelling to the farthest realms of imagination and knowledge, all the while making reality more comprehensible.