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Remembering a literary giant


With profound sorrow, the world of literature last week bid adieu to an acclaimed author whose words have left an ineradicable mark on the universal literary landscape. He was Milan Kundera, the esteemed Czech writer and original exotic novelist, who balanced comedy and tragedy while combining the absurdities of life and love in his writings. Kundera passed away in Paris on July 11.

Perhaps best known for his novels, Kundera was also a poet, playwright and essayist, and wrote several collections of short stories. He won accolades for his style in depicting themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas.

From The Joke in 1967, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1978, The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1984 to The Festival of Insignificance in 2013, among a few, all his works bear witness to the human condition torn between the desire for freedom and the struggle to achieve it.

I learnt about this legendary intellectual heavyweight in the mid-eighties when I read Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Although I was too young to grasp the expanse of the intent in the book to a large extent, I still remember the content how the power of totalitarian regimes can tamper with history and create an alternate past.

Kundera’s rise to international fame came with the publication of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1984. It is the story of four Czech artists and intellectuals and a dog caught up in the brief period of reforms that ended when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. The novel was made into a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche and directed by Philip Kaufman in 1988, earning two Academy Award nominations.

Kundera won global accolades for the way he depicted themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas.

In 1985, he received the Jerusalem Prize - a prize given to writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society. While he was a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize for literature, the award remained elusive.

In these essays, too, he offered a workshop on how to write. How to manage voice and perspective. He taught us how to have fun with language and form – and let the imagination run wild, and how to deal with thought and concept, materiality and politics.

Through his works, Kundera gifted us a profound understanding of our shared humanity and an invitation to explore the boundless depths of our souls. His words will continue to resonate through the ages, reminding us of the power of literature to illuminate our lives and inspire us to seek truth, love and freedom.

While Czech President Petr Pavel called him a “world-class writer”, Prime Minister Petr Fiala commented that Kundera’s works “reached whole generations of readers across all continents”.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 into an elite family, Kundera first accessed the world of culture through music. His father, a pianist and musicologist, ensured his son received musical training at an advanced level. Kundera studied in Prague, becoming a lecturer in world literature.

Jobless in his early twenties, Kundera played jazz on the piano to make ends meet. By that time, he had moved to Prague. His first novel The Joke led to a ban on his writing in Czechoslovakia. It was audacious in form and theme. He emigrated to France in 1975 after being ostracised for criticising the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

No doubt, Kundera’s words will forever echo through the corridors of our hearts as they remind us of our shared humanity, our capacity for love, and our eternal quest for meaning. And his voice will continue to resonate, whispering truths to us all!

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