One of the world’s most respected writers is being excoriated in the western media.
What is one to do when confronted with the choice between denouncing a foreign spy or looking the other way and letting him get on with whatever he might be up to? And were one to inform the police would it be an act of betrayal?
On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer. Unless one has an ideological affinity with his aims, there is both a legal and moral case for exposing anyone who has sneaked into your country on a false pretext in order to subvert its government or steal its secrets.
Mind you, reporting a foreign agent to the police is quite different from informing on fellow-citizens as part of a political witch-hunt. Betrayal was what happened during the anti-communist hysteria in America in the McCarthy era when people denounced their own friends and neighbours either out of fear or in order to curry favour with the establishment; or what happened in Nazi Germany; or indeed what happened nearer home, on the Indian subcontinent, during Partition. Handing over a spy to the authorities, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: almost an honourable act.
Yet, in a bizarre travesty, one of the world’s most respected writers is being excoriated in the western media over allegations that as a young university student, more than 50 years ago, he alerted the police about the presence of a Western spy in his area leading to the latter’s arrest and prosecution. Milan Kundera, the internationally-renowned Czech novelist once hailed by the West for his anti-communist campaign, has been accused of “betraying” a foreign spy in the 1950s — a charge he strongly denies.
The allegation, first made by the government-sponsored Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes whose job is to collect and publish communist-era files, has been breathlessly recycled in the international media over the past week under headings like “The Unbearable betrayal of Milan Kundera?” (left-wing Independent) and “The Unbearable weight of history” (right-wing Economist) — an allusion to one of his best-known novels The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The spy was a young Czech called Miroslav Dvoracek who was recruited in Germany by American intelligence and sent back to Prague on an espionage mission. It is alleged that Kundera learned about his whereabouts from a fellow woman student, who knew Dvoracek, and reported him to the police.
But the 79-year-old writer, who lives in France, says he has no recollection of such an incident. He has called the allegation “the assassination of an author” and questioned the authenticity of the document cited by the Institute.
“I am totally astonished by something that I did not expect, about which I knew nothing ... and that did not happen. I did not the man at all,” he has said.
Dvoracek, who is now 80 — and ailing — and lives in Sweden, says it is now immaterial as to who informed on him though his wife blames Kundera.
For one thing, the authenticity of the communist-era “secret” files needs to be treated with scepticism as the post-communist regimes in some countries, notably Poland and former East Germany, have been accused of using them to settle political scores. As Yasmina Raza, French playwright and novelist, pointed out in The Guardian “here is a document, a deposition dating from 1950, the authenticity of which no one is in a position to guarantee, dug up 60 years after the events to which it relates and communicated all over the world.” She called it an “irrelevant media frenzy” aimed at damaging the reputation of “an exceptional life.” The Economist, too, acknowledged that “communist-era records are not wholly trustworthy.”
What I find surprising, though, is that even those who are infuriated by the way the story has been played up have not paused to ask: so what if Kundera indeed exposed a foreign spy, especially when there is no evidence that he had anything, personally, to gain by it? Ultimately, the question to ponder is: would a politically aware western university student — particularly someone with links to the ruling party as Kundera had — would have behaved differently if he had stumbled on a communist spy on the campus? Or would he have rolled out a red carpet for the man from the KGB?
Talking about writers, Tariq Ali, the U.K.-based Marxist Pakistani writer’s latest book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power — a critique of Pakistan’s military and political class — has run into trouble with Pakistani authorities. He says that for four weeks, his Pakistani distributors have been waiting for “clearance” from the Ministry of Information and nobody seems to know the reason for the inordinate delay. He fears that it might be headed for a ban on orders from the “top.”
6 months ago