It is still a fairly common cliche in Prague: a backpacker with a beat up copy of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trying to discover the Prague Kundera once described.
That Prague–desperate amidst the Russian invasion–does not exist anymore. The locals don’t want it to exist. I always sense a little disappointment when tourists find out that Prague is not at all the exotic, gloomy city that Kundera wrote about. It has–like it or not–become free and commerce-driven. No Russian soldiers, no interrogation, just free market capitalism. The literary scene is not great, despite foreign media and guidebooks’ keeping on “selling it” as the city of uber-intellectuals, such as Kundera, Kafka and Havel. Understandably, it is a much more appealing brand than “just another up and coming Eastern European city.”
With that in mind, I found it amusing to read today’s article in the travel section of The New York Times entitled “Milan Kundera’s Prague: Trumping the Unbearable Darkness of History.” Oh no, here we go again, longing for the way Prague felt under communism. Kundera has actually had a very troubled relationship to the post-communist country. He has lived in France for the last few decades and hasn’t even wanted his books to be published in Czech. The idea that his is the Prague being sold to tourists wouldn’t be particularly appealing to him, I don’t think.
As the author of the article pointed out, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is no love letter to Prague. That is an accurate observation. It is a great book, don’t get me wrong. One of my all time favorites. However, to think that it will make you understand the Prague you are seeing today is silly.
There is a lot more to Prague than its communist past. Try looking back longer than 20, 40 years. Prague has a great Gothic and Baroque past that–in the grand scheme of things–is a lot more relevant that its 40 years under communism (20 years ago).