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07/11/2008

It's time Kundera talked

A dementi is not enough. Milan Kundera should come out with his version of the story, because Iva Militka and Miroslav Dvoracek deserve the truth. By Anja Seeliger

The eighty-year old Miroslav Dvoracek will probably die without knowing who betrayed him to the Czech police back in 1950, condemning him to 14 years hard labour in a uranium mine. The 79-year old Iva Militka who, in the same year told her then boyfriend and later husband, Miroslav Dlask, about Dvoracek's visit to her student hall of residence, will probably never know whether it was her husband who subsequently went to the police with this information, or his friend Milan Kundera, or indeed both. She will only know that her school friend Miroslav Dvoracek spent the rest of his life believing that she had betrayed him. This is not just about Kundera, this is about Iva Militka and Miroslav Dvoracek.

But no one seems interested in them. The Czech magazine Respekt published an article about the events surrounding a police report, dated 14 March 1950, which stated that a man by the name of Milan Kundera, born 1 April 1929 in Brno, had informed on Miroslav Dvoracek. A barrage of sharp criticism from writers and intellectuals ensued. In Le Monde, writer Yasmina Reza wrote that the document should have been handled "with caution" and really shouldn't have been published at all. Writer and former Czech president Vaclav Havel spoke in Respekt about defaming Kundera's name, Hungarian writer Gyögy Dalos expressed his fear in the German magazine Freitag that "this affair has been seized upon by the media as if it was a secret police exposure." German writer Rolf Schneider explained in die Welt that secret-police files should not be trusted anyway (and managed to overlook that the document in question was not a secret-police file but a normal police report). In the French magazine Le Point, Bernard-Henri Levy questioned the authenticity of the police report with giving his reasons. In Le Monde, historians Pierre Nora and Krzysztof Pomian expressed their outrage that such a document could be published without first subjecting it to "minute scrutiny". Eleven other prominent writers, among them Rushdie, Coetzee, Marquez, Semprun and Roth, have expressed their anger at the publication. And the Czech Academy of Sciences has reproached the historian, Adam Hradilek, who first reported on the document in Respekt magazine, for publishing the police report, saying that this "testifies to a lack of scientific thinking." (pdf in Czech)

What should Hradilek have done instead? Put the report back into the pile of files and keep his mouth shut? Stick it in the shredder? Or should he have simply informed his colleagues and hoped that the media would not get wind of it? But it would have been impossible to keep this sort of thing under wraps. Rumours would have spread uncontrollably. And Kundera would have been justified in talking about defamation. Instead Hradilek put all the facts known to him on the table: the document, the statements by Militka and other witnesses. He also tried to present the affair within the context of its time. This is stuff that can be argued about. Rumours are not.

For all the information in circulation, there are no eye-witnesses left to consult. The police officer who wrote the report is dead. Iva Militka's husband Miroslav Dlask died in 1990s, without telling his wife what really happened on that fateful day in March. He only admitted to her that he had told Kundera about Dvoracek's visit. Miroslav Dvoracek suffered a stroke. The aged literary historian, Zdenek Pesat, who soon after the affair broke explained in a written statement that Miroslav Dlask had personally confessed to him about informing on Dvoracek, is on a respirator and cannot speak. As such we neither know when Dlask made this confession and what exactly he is supposed to have said. Other files, which might shed more light on the event have yet to be uncovered.

The only person who might be able to explain what happened is Milan Kundera. And it's high time he did so. He rebuffed Adam Hradilek's article, describing it as "pure lies", a mere dementi. But he has not said a word about the events at the time or about Miroslav Dlask. And Havel, Dalos, Schneider, Reza and Rusdie et al. have not asked him to. They are not interested in who denounced Dvoracek. In their defence of Kundera, Dvoracek and Militka play at most a marginal role.

Instead they are telling historians to treat the whole affair with kid gloves and to review it in the light of its time. But how we should assess Kundera's actions in 1950, whether he deserves criticism or whether his work needs re-reading, is secondary. First we have to know whether on 14 March 1950, Milan Kundera informed the police about Dvoracek's visit to Militka, or not.

At the moment there is only one document which proves that he did: the police report from 14 March 1950. No one has proved that the document is a fake. The examination which Nora and Pomian called for has since been carried out and there can be little doubt as to the authenticity of the document, according to Jerome Depuis in the French magazine L'Express. Dupuis travelled to Prague and cites the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes: "We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined – and the document was found to be authentic."

Two days ago Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet, dissident, post-1989 diplomat and politician, and now president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he had been to Prague to see the controversial police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that "the document is real. There's no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera's document, it it no denunciation, it's a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn't do it, then I have to believe him."

It wouldn't hurt to subject the document to another full forensic report. But if the paper is an original, and everything points to this, what about its contents?

- Of course someone could have gone to the police and fradulently used Kundera's name. Miroslav Dlask for example. Is this likely? Was it not necessary in those days to show identification papers when filing a police report? Kundera's name, date of birth, and postal address given in the report are correct. And why would Dlask have pretended to be Kundera? Why would he have wanted to involve him? If it was so easy to hide his real identity from the police, wouldn't he rather have given an invented name? I don't know what the normal procedure was in a Prague police station in 1950. But Vaclav Havel knows. Ivan Klima knows and the academics at the Czech Academy should know too. So why are they saying nothing?

- Kundera did not sign the report. Why would he? The document is not an interrogation protocol, it's an internal report listing the events of the day. The police officer not only reports that a notification was made at 16 hours, he also lists the measures that he subsequently undertook: searching and monitoring Militka's student residence and arresting Dvoracek at 20 hours. Why would someone who notified the police at 16 hours then sign this report?

- And Zdenek Pesat's statement, that Militka's friend Miroslav Dlask told him that he had informed the police about the unwanted visit, does not prove anything. What was the exact nature of this confession? Did Dlask tell Pesat that he had used Kundera's name at the police station? Because otherwise Dlask's alleged denunciation does not rule out Kundera's. One could have gone to the police, the other to the secret police, independently of one another. This is not as absurd as it sounds. As Jiri Grusa explained on the radio: "Everyone knew in those days, three years after the Communist putsch, that every failure to report suspicious behaviour came with a five year prison sentence. The level of fear in the country was staggering."

Milan Kundera has every right to defend his name. But before he talks about the "assassination of an author" and demands an apology from Respekt, he and the media should spare a thought for Iva Militka and Miroslav Dvoracek. They deserve the truth.

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This article was originally published at Perlentaucher on 23.10.2008. It has since been updated with new information.

Anja Seeliger is a journalist and co-founder of the German internetmagazine perlentaucher and signandsight.com

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