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Milan Kundera and the long argument with ‘home’

Milan Kundera (centre) attends a literary party in Paris in 2010 (Getty)

It has been a long road back: the author Milan Kundera, perhaps the most famous living Czech, recently had his citizenship restored to him after 40 years. It had been revoked following his opposition to the communist regime, which he fled in 1975. Two years later, he took on French citizenship.

From Paris, in 1984, Kundera expressed a feeling of ambiguity about the very idea of home: “I wonder if our notion of home isn’t, in the end, an illusion, a myth. I wonder if we are not victims of that myth.” He questioned whether he was meant to believe that his “real” life was back in Czechoslovakia, or the one he was now living, in France: “I chose France.”

Yet it appears that ever since the fall of communism – and the “Velvet Divorce” of the Czech Republic and Slovakia – his country has been trying to woo him back. Kundera, however, has proved stubbornly resistant to homegrown honours. He did not turn up to receive the Czech national prize for literature in 2008, nor the honorary citizenship of the city of Brno, his birthplace, in 2009 – the same year in which he described himself as a “French writer”.

His eventual acceptance of Czech citizenship came after a three-hour meeting in a Paris restaurant last year with the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš. The author seems notably allergic to patriotic spectacle: the citizenship certificate was quietly hand-delivered to his Paris apartment by the Czech ambassador to France, whereupon – by the ambassador’s account – “he was in a good mood, just took the document and said ‘Thank you.’ ”

Kundera is 90 now, and with advanced age there often comes the desire for some form of reconciliation with one’s early history, even if the embrace is not of the most effusive kind. But the long argument with “home” – rather like the argument with family – is one that haunts and fires many writers. They may be uncomfortable with aspects of their birthplace, and frequently their birthplace is even more uncomfortable with them, yet the further they try to escape from home, the more it tightens its feverish grip on the imagination.

James Joyce, a Dubliner who spent much of his adult life abroad, famously called Ireland “the old sow that eats her farrow”. Yet his work explored every corner and crevice of Dublin, and he vowed that “when I die Dublin will be written on my heart”. Edna O’Brien’s early novels were banned and burned in Ireland, considered scandalous for their sexual frankness, while in London she found literary stardom – but she is now garlanded in Ireland as a writer courageously ahead of her time.

The celebrated Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak was prosecuted in 2006 on charges of “insulting Turkishness” for discussing the Armenian genocide in one book, and is currently under investigation for “obscenity” for broaching the topic of sexual abuse in another. Such was the intimidation that she recently felt unable to return to Turkey for the funeral of her beloved grandmother.

And yet, no matter what the nature of the argument, the imaginative tug of home – its physical landscape, its distinctive repressions and its philosophical conflicts – remains enormous. Home is often the most enduring piece of grit in the writer’s oyster, with fictions layered around it. When I interviewed the poet Seamus Heaney in 2007 in Dublin, where he had lived for many years, he nonetheless said of his conflicted birthplace of Northern Ireland: “I am always in it, in a way. I just was dwelling elsewhere.”

On a different, national stage, the meaning of place has engulfed British politics in the last few years. We have been besieged with painful arguments of belonging, asking who is left out or beckoned in, and what it is that defines Britishness – history, geography, values, culture? Must “British” identity, that complex concept, necessarily dwindle by being part of a wider European Union?

Theresa May’s statement in 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” evoked an intentionally undesirable vision of perpetual rootlessness – and yet many people also find a kind of refuge in distance. I left Belfast for London many years ago, and something is certainly lost by leaving – that natural unity of your early self and your continuing place – but something is also found: the dual perspective of elsewhere, which no longer takes anything about your birthplace for granted, and sometimes loves aspects of it more for being away.

It’s not a bargain that can easily be resolved, except to say that Kundera’s reacceptance of his Czech citizenship seems to answer his own, earlier question. If our notion of home is indeed a myth, as he suggested, then perhaps our myths are stronger than we think: they’re so often what we return to in the end.

Jenny McCartney is a writer and reviewer. Her novel The Ghost Factory is published by 4th Estate