Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / History / Literature

Living the Dream

Central Europe, Milan Kundera and Yugoslavia

Kundera argued that Central Europe had been ‘kidnapped’ by an alien, Bolshevik civilization, but that the rest of the continent was in too deep a state of decadence to be fully aware of what it had lost.

Some time in the summer of 1985 I was at an exhibition entitled Vienna: Dream and Reality (Wien: Traum und Wirklichkeit), a blockbusting look at the art and society of the fin-de-siecle that took over Vienna’s Neoclassical Künstlerhaus for six whole months. It was an important exhibition - not just in shaping my own interest in Central Europe, but also in signalling a change in Vienna’s own self-image, in which the unsettling modernity of the pre-World War I period came to be celebrated just as much as Lipizzaner horses, Strauss waltzes and Sachertorte. This was the fist time that Viennese curators had put Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka together with the likes of Karl Kraus, Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schönberg, as if to say that it was in these personalities that the true soul of the city was to be found. The show’s chief designer, architect Hans Hollein, put a 3-D recreation of one of Klimt’s nymphs on the roof. Not everybody was impressed; German magazine Der Spiegel described it as a “Habsburg Disneyland”, in which everything was covered in a flattering glitter, rather like the silver and gold that Klimt used in his paintings. It is Vienna: Dream and Reality we have to thank for the fact that Klimt’s erotic paintings now adorn souvenir coffee mugs, while Schiele’s disturbing self-portraits appear on Vienna’s official tourist literature.

In autumn 1987 I was back in Vienna visiting another exhibition on the same square. It was devoted to the career of Jože Plečnik (1872-1957), the Slovene architect widely perceived as an inter.-war precursor of the erudite, crafted eclecticism that was by the mid-Eighties being enthusiastically celebrated as postmodernism. Plečnik had worked in Prague and Vienna as well as his home town Ljubljana – a city which still celebrates him as one of its defining spirits. Although the exhibition was smaller than Vienna: Dream and Reality it was similar in style, an evocation of an epoch that packed a good deal of visual drama. Designed by Slovene-Italian architect Boris Podrecca, it had opened at Paris’s Centre George Pompidou the previous year, before moving on to Ljubljana, Munich and Madrid.  As an international travelling show that put Slovene architecture on the European map, it was a huge success, and helped shaped the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia’s growing self-confidence as a place that had its own identity and its own voice.

As well as marking out new territory in the art of putting on a good show, both exhibitions displayed a new-found sense of cultural space. Vienna: Dream and Reality could only be understood as a distilled expression of the multicultural world of the Habsburg Empire; while the Plečnik exhibition, with its references to the architect’s spells in Vienna and Prague, made great play of the idea of Central Europe – and pointed rather suggestively to Slovenia’s place within it.

It was by no means only in Vienna and Ljubljana that this renewed sense of Central European space was being reexamined in the mid-1980s. Indeed the question of Central Europe had assumed a new urgency, as if the common heritage of these lands offered important pointers as to where Europe might be going in the future.

A Central European Tragedy

Intellectual interest in Central Europe had been sparked on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to exiled Czech novelist Milan Kundera, whose celebrated essay The Tragedy of Central Europe had been published in French journal Débats in November 1983. It appeared in the New York Review of Books the following April, initiating a long-running debate about the fate of middle Europe, especially those cultures caught on the eastern side of the Cold-War divide.

Kundera’s essay initially made for pessimistic reading. Not only did it argue that Central Europe (apart from Austria) had been ‘kidnapped’ by an alien, Russian-Bolshevik civilization, but that the rest of the continent was in too deep a state of decadence to be fully aware of what it had lost. What initially looked like a requiem was soon to gain an altogether more optimistic sheen. Within a year of the essay’s appearance in the NYRB, however, Mikhail Gorbachev had assumed power in the Kremlin, the Soviet bloc was showing signs of opening up, and the multiethnic, cosmopolitan Central Europe eulogized so evocatively by Kundera was quickly re-spun as a symbol of what Europe could be again, rather than what had forever been left behind. 

Both a successful novelist and an outspoken public intellectual, Milan Kundera had been blacklisted by the Czechoslovak regime during the period of ‘Normalization’ that followed the Soviet invasion of 1968. Emigrating to France in 1975, he enjoyed huge success with the novels The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), both of which became international best-sellers, in the process bringing the recent history of Eastern Europe to a global audience.

Central Europe was not so much a precise region as a state of mind

For Kundera himself, talking about Central Europe in the western press was a natural way of commenting on his own novels, and on the history of the novel in general – it was Central Europe after all that had produced key modern voices like Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Hermann Broch. Central Europe had been a central theme when Joseph Roth interviewed Kundera for the NYRB in 1980, so the conversation was well under way before The Tragedy of Central Europe appeared in 1984. Published in English that same year was Antipolitics, the book-length essay about the East-West divide by Hungarian writer György Konrád. Konrád’s contention, which sounds just as utopian today as it did in the mid-Eighties, was that Central Europe represented the continent’s last great opportunity to build a social-democratic space that would be neither Soviet nor Liberal-Capitalist in nature.

But where exactly was Central Europe? Participants in the debate were fond of stating that Central Europe was not so much a precise region as a state of mind, although for writers like Kundera and Konrád it quite clearly corresponded to the former territory of the Habsburg Empire, the collapse of which was seen by them as an unmitigated cultural disaster. Not just because the Habsburg state seemed to represent a culturally mixed community of many nations, but also because it had seen the birth of so much that was important to European modern art and literature. For Lithuanian-born Pole Czesław Miłosz Central Europe encompassed a whole swathe of territory that ran from “Baroque Vilnius” to “medieval Renaissance Dubrovnik”, pretty much everything that lay to the east of the Germans but was predominantly Christian-Catholic and Jewish in heritage. While the ethnic pluralism of Central Europe was celebrated, there was at the same time a clear view of what Central Europe was not – Orthodox, Islamic or Russian. A polemic (published in the New York Times) blew up between Kundera and exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, for whom the exclusion of Russian culture from Kundera’s civilizational picture was an itself a denial of European identity.

Half-way house

In April 1987 Stipe Šuvar, chief ideologist of the Croatian branch of the Yugoslav League of Communists (and later head of the party at federal level), gave a speech at Vukovar in which he criticized the “obsession with Central Europe”, and attacked those who advocated what he called a “European orientation” for Yugoslavia’s future development.  Šuvar was a well-known hard-liner, suspicious of anything that looked like western influence, although it was initially unclear quite what it was about Central Europe that made him so hostile.

A multinational federation comprising six republics and two autonomous provinces, Yugoslavia had been ejected from the Soviet bloc following the Tito-Stalin split of 1948. It had henceforth pursued its own path, separate from either of the Cold-War blocks, while receiving economic support from both. When Kundera spoke of Central Europe as a “captured West” he never included the nations of Yugoslavia in his thesis. This was partly because Yugoslavia itself contained a mixture of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations, and was thereby too ambiguously multicultural to fit in to Kundera’s rather stark definitions of what was “east” and what was “west”; and partly because Yugoslavia’s idiosyncratic brand of communism offered a lot more in the way of cultural freedom than his native Czechoslovakia in the years of Normalization. Yugoslavia may have been a one-party state, but it was not behind any kind of iron curtain. “Day-to-day life for a Yugoslav resembles much more that of a Frenchman than that of a Soviet citizen”, Kundera wrote in Candide Had to be Destroyed (an essay originally published in Nouvel Observateur in autumn 1979). This may have been a rather rosy view that not all Yugoslavs would have agreed with, but indicative nevertheless of the vast gulf in freedoms that members of the Soviet lager felt whenever they met up with their Yugoslav colleagues.

Former Yugoslavia was the one communist territory in which Kundera’s writings were freely available. As Bosnian-Croatian novelist Miljenko Jergović remembers, “in the Yugoslavia of the 1980s, Kundera was a best-seller. By about 1985 just about everyone who read books at all was reading Kundera, except, perhaps, for the odd eccentric, party functionary or Soviet nostalgic. Kundera represented a kind of literature of initiation, the literature with which adolescents entered the world of adults.”

Jergović remembers reading Kundera’s The Joke in 1981, a book that had been taken off the shelves in Czechoslovakia itself. “Regardless of what people might have said, Kundera wasn’t treated as a subversive writer in Yugoslavia. Kundera was to us the author of extraordinarily true-to-life novels, whose stories deserved to be re-told and shared with one’s friends. His prose did mix entertainment with social critique, but the weighty political context was always spiced up with love stories that everyone could relate to“.

György Konrád talked of a Central European space that stretched from Warsaw to Belgrade

The Serbo-Croatian edition of Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, translated by Nikola Kršić and published by Veselin Masleša in Sarajevo and BIGZ in Belgrade, was the book that every self-respecting Yugoslav student had in their rucksack in the summer of 1985. 

Yugoslavia still sought to maintain tolerably comradely relations with its communist neighbours, however, and Kundera’s essay on Central Europe, with its overtly polemical content. was held at arms length by the mainstream Yugoslav media. A Slovene translation of Tragedy… had appeared in the theoretical review Nova Revija in the autumn of 1984. A Croatian version was published in cultural journal Gordogan in 1985, together with additional essays by György Konrád and others. The Konrád essay, entitled It’s Good to Travel (originally published in Paris in 1979), talked of a Central European space that stretched from Warsaw to Belgrade. The inclusion of Belgrade in Konrád’s imaginary space was important: as the capital of a non-aligned, non-Sovietized communist state, it represented the ideal half-way house for progressive intellectuals, a model for middle-Europe rather than something that lay beyond its boundaries. (The idea that Belgrade was a Balkan city, unrelated to Budapest, Prague or Warsaw, would have seemed anachronistic to many East-European intellectuals in 1979.)

Mediterranean melancholy

It was in the northern republic of Slovenia that the idea of Central Europe found a particularly enthusiastic reception. Indeed the idea that Slovenia belonged to something called Central Europe was more or less taken for granted; Kundera was, for many Slovene intellectuals, simply articulating something that they instinctively knew already. The idea of a Central-European cultural space had been a popular theme for Slovene and Italian intellectuals ever since the early Sixties. For Slovenes this discussion was particularly pertinent because small but significant Slovene minorities existed in both Italy and Austria, making the issue of middle-European multiculturalism a living reality rather than a historical metaphor. The Italian port city of Trieste where Latin, Slav and Teutonic cultures met, had long considered itself as the embodiment of Central Europe’s past, present and future – however melancholic that fate might be.

The Croatian-born Italian journalist and novelist Enzo Bettiza (born in the Dalmatian city of Split, he had emigrated to Italy after World War II) had written in 1966 that “between the Trieste of Svevo, the Zagreb of Krleža, the Vienna of Musil, the Prague of Kafka and the Budapest of Lukács there was a secret underground, a kind of fatal mental complicity more binding than any linguistic, ethnic or ideological divisions might suggest.” Already in 1963, Trieste-born Claudio Magris had explored the extraordinary pull of Central Europe’s cultural heritage in his work Il mito absburgico nella letteratura austriaca moderna (The Habsburg Myth in Modern Austrian Literature), an intellectual foreshadow of the themes subsequently explored by exhibitions such as Vienna: Dream and Reality.

Slovenia’s increasingly pronounced interest in the theme of Central Europe found expression in the Vilenica Festival, founded by the Slovene Writers Union in 1986 specifically in order to celebrate a literature that was Central European. The annual prize awarded by the festival was deliberately intended a regional accolade, a kind of middle-European equivalent of the Nobel. The Vilenica jury’s definition of Central Europe was at least wide enough to leave everybody’s feelings unhurt, stretching as it did “from the Baltic to the Adriatic, from Berne to Belgrade.” Vilenica’s first laureate was Fulvio Tomizza, the Italian-Croatian writer whose novels about the ethnic, linguistic and political divides of the Istrian peninsula were the perfect examples of the cross-border cultural ambiguities that had preoccupied local intellectuals since the Sixties.

The Central European context was essential in order to understand the position of Slovene culture

The Vilenica prize is still awarded every year to a “Central European author for outstanding achievements in the field of literature”, although the concept of Central Europe continues to bear its broadest possible meaning. Recent laureates have included Dragan Velikić (Serbia; 2019), Ilija Trojanov (Bulgaria/Germany; 2018), and Yuri Andrukhovych (Ukraine; 2018).

Back in 1986, Fulvio Tomizza was also a guest at the first edition of Writers on the Border (Mednarodno srečanje pisateljev ob meji), a literary round-table for regional authors held in the Slovene seaside town of Portorož. What both the Vilenica and Portorož events demonstrated was that, as far as Slovene intellectuals were concerned, the Central European context was essential in order to understand the position of Slovene culture. They also revealed the extent to which writers, rather than politicians, were treated as barometers of coming political change.

States of consciousness

It was in 1987 that the discussion about Central Europe broke through into Yugoslavia’s weekly news magazines, a further sign that debates about culture were frequently presented as coded conversations about the future of the federation itself. Indeed 1987 was a crucial year for state which was entering a crucial phase in its disintegration. Tension in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo, with its ethnic Albanian majority and Serbian minority, had caused a split in the Serbian League of Communists that allowed pro-discipline bureaucrat Slobodan Milošević to forge a nationalist-communist faction that would go on to oust his liberal opponents. Slovenia meanwhile was sailing in the opposite direction, relaxing censorship and ideological controls in the hope that Yugoslavia could be refashioned as a confederation of republics that were moving towards democratic reform at different speeds. Discussion of Central Europe, and Slovenia’s natural place within it, was one of the ways in which Slovene intellectuals emphasized their differences from other Yugoslav republics. For party ideologists like Stipe Šuvar, Slovenia had emerged as the “oppositionist” republic that posed a serious threat to Yugoslav unity. The Slovene obsession with Central Europe, alongside Slovene punk rock, and the Slovene youth movement’s interest in environmentalism, gay rights and civil society, were all seen by Šuvar as forms of bourgeois nationalism. Indeed Šuvar had already used the term “middle-European nationalists” to dismiss the increasingly pro-reform leaders of the Slovene Youth League, The idea that there was a “Slovene syndrome”, which mixed a new sense of national self-awareness with an interest in western democracy, was a direct threat to both Milošević and Šuvar - both of whom enthusiastically supported media witch-hunts against new ideas emerging from the northern republic.     

Not only had the Slovene communist party allowed their own youth movement to emerge as an unofficial opposition, they had also allowed Slovene society to emerge as a unique democratic experiment within the Yugoslav federation. This experiment was put to the test in February 1987, when Slovene theoretical journal Nova Revija devoted a whole issue to what it called Contributions to a Slovene National Programme (Prispevki za slovenski nacionalni program). Writers from across the intellectual spectrum set out their ideas for the future of the republic. The prospect of Slovenian independence was neatly sidestepped, but the knowingly provocative suggestion that Yugoslavia should be remodeled as a confederation was made patently clear. The phrase “Central Europe” did not feature prominently in any of Nova Revija’s texts, but the assumption that Yugoslavia was made up of culturally different zones, and that Slovenia in particular had the right to aspire to its own destiny, underlay the content of the whole issue. Slovenia’s communist leadership criticized Nova Revija but fell short of having it banned, a move which suggested to hardline communists elsewhere in Yugoslavia that the Slovene establishment actually agreed with much that the journal was saying.

Central Europe was not so much an ideology as a “meteorological expression”

It was hardly surprising therefore that Yugoslavia’s news magazines seemed unduly fascinated by intellectual events such as the Vilenica Festival and Writers on the Border. The latter was reviewed at some length on March 15 1987 by Belgrade weekly magazine NIN - a relatively liberal magazine until brought to heel by Slobodan Milošević in the autumn of the same year. Entitled Handke and Kundera on the Adriatic (Handke i Kundera na Jadranu) the article ran through the main points of Kundera’s thesis, but made great play of quoting Austrian writer Peter Handke’s cynical (and already in 1987 notorious) comment that Central Europe was not so much an ideology as a “meteorological expression”. NIN also alerted readers to the fact that there was an Alpe-Adria Theatre Festival taking place on both sides of the Italian-Slovene border in the divided town of Gorizia- Nova Gorica. Cross-border cultural corporation was very much a la mode in Slovenia, suggesting a cultural openness that other Yugoslav republics did not have.

Zagreb weekly Danas devoted four pages to Central Europe on March 30 1987, interviewing an array of Croatian intellectuals who gave (admittedly rather cagey) answers to the question of what it all meant. According to professor of German literature Viktor Žmegac, “Central Europe isn’t actually located in Central Europe, it is more properly a state of consciousness, a notion which constantly changes shape like all illusions, utopias, political ideas and interpretations of culture.” His colleague Aleksandar Flaker, an expert on the Russian avant-garde who grew up in the eastern Polish city of Białystok, was rather more dismissive: Central Europe was for him little more than nostalgia for a world of “Viennese cafés, bureaucratic order and clean streets.” American literature expert Vanja Matković also called Central Europe a mirage, declaring that his ideal homeland would be a union of “California and the West Bank of the Seine.”

In September 1987 Danas reported on the second edition of the Vilenica Festival, quoting guest-of-honour Claudio Magris in describing Central Europe as a “fantastical construction which we find necessary in order to create the illusion of a worse reality.” The winner of the Vilenica prize in 1987 was the Austrian Peter Handke, whose dismissal of Central Europe as a “meteorological expression” was already becoming a widely circulated cliché. 

The one living Yugoslav writer who could accurately be described as a true representative of the Central European canon was of course Danilo Kiš (1935-1989), the Hungarian-Jewish-Montenegrin author whose key works offered darkly revealing commentary on the main themes of Central and East-European History. Kiš’s Variations on the Theme of Central Europe, published in Cross Currents in 1987, famously compared Central Europe to the Dragon of Alca in Anatole France’s novel Penguin Island: “no one who claimed to have seen it could say what it looked like”. Kiš was intrigued not so much by Kundera’s insistence on looking afresh at Eastern Europe as by the West’s response, as if the West had suddenly noticed that “parts of its own cultural heritage was missing”. This sense of loss was frequently expressed as a nostalgic yearning for something that would never come back, which is why the lost cultural world of Vienna, Prague and Budapest suddenly seemed so glitteringly seductive.

It was Kiš who put his finger on the cultural vacuum at the heart of the continent: its towns and cities had been emptied of its Jewish component in World War II, and there was very little you could do to put it back. He talked of the Jewish population of Vienna, Budapest and Warsaw as giving “coloured tone to the Central European landscape - as well as providing it with dynamic force.” Their disappearance, wrote Kiš, had turned Vienna (and by extension large tracts of Central Europe as a whole) into a “spiritual province”.

Impossible utopias

If the Yugoslav press was intrigued by Central Europe in 1987, it was partly because Slovene writers had succeeded in turning discussion of Central Europe into a debate on what it meant to be Slovene. Yugoslavia was not the only context that Slovene society and culture had at its disposal, and a wider frame of reference was necessary in order to understand Slovenia’s past and explore its potential future.

Many observers in other Yugoslav republics (and not just party ideologists) found this attitude rather alarming: wasn’t Yugoslavia, despite all its problems, sufficiently open-ended, idealistic and multicultural to provide its member-nations with a livable future? Yugoslavia was a transnational utopia that was real; Central Europe only existed in books.

Croatia was one other republic that could, like Slovenia, imagine itself existing in a non-Yugoslav context, although Croatian intellectuals were initially cagey about declaring enthusiasm for Central European themes. Until about 1990, that is, when rising tensions with Serbia placed vulgar takes on cultural geography at the centre of public discussion. Talking of Central Europe was a very public way of turning one’s back on the Balkans.

That Central Europe was an amorphous concept that could be harnessed according to political needs was tacitly admitted by Kundera himself in his original essay, when he wrote that “Central Europe is not a state; it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary and must be drawn and re-drawn with each new historical situation.”

The malleability of the Central European idea has survived into the present day, with conservative politicians in Hungary, Poland – and indeed Slovenia – positioning Central Europe as a challenge to the West, a zone of conservative tradition that can rejuvenate a Europe exhausted by the perceived ravages of liberalism, free markets, an over-powerful French-German axis, or the “Brussels elites” of populist cliché.  Paradoxically, use of the term Central Europe among Central Europe’s new right no longer denotes a “captured West” that is returning to its natural home, but a contra-West that might actually be more properly described as a New East. 

In the meantime our mythical homelands have multiplied, or at least for those of us who do not want to sign up to the conservative nationalism peddled by the Central European state-builders of the 2020s. There is always wistful solace to be found in reexaminations of the multiculturalism of the Habsburg Empire, the religious tolerance of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or indeed the impossible utopia that was federal Yugoslavia, a state whose demise is arguably the most tragic of all.

© Jonathan Bousfield

Parts of this article were first published in New Eastern Europe

The Yugoslav edition of The Unbearable Lightness of Being boasted an award-winning cover design by Bogdan Kršić