The ghost of literature’s past

By Laura Bardsley

Recently reported in the New York Times, Czech novelist Milan Kundera was accused of turning a Western spy in to the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. Kundera is a well-known dissident writer, famous for being strongly opposed to the communist regime. He was accused of reporting to communist authorities the whereabouts of Miroslav Dvoracek, a man considered a traitor by the communist regime. Iva Militka, who was in contact with Dvoracek, had set up an appointment for him to drop by her flat and told her husband to be, Miroslav Dlask, of Dvoracek’s whereabouts. Dlask apparently then told Kundera of Dvoracek’s whereabouts and a tip caused Dvoracek’s arrest at Milikta’s flat and 14 years in a labour camp. Kundera was accused of reporting him to the authorities. It should be noted that these accusations are just accusations, but they lead to a further question. Should the personal misdeeds, past or present, of a writer reflect poorly on their work? One should think not. Such misdeeds could be the influence of their work, leading to an exclusive, better understanding and more intimate approach to the writer’s issues.

Take Günter Grass for example. The author, famous for being brashly critical of Germany and its past, revealed in 2006 just before his newest novel was released that he had been drafted by the Waffen SS at 17. This comes as a shocking revelation to some, as Grass has been regarded as representing the “conscience of a country with too much to lament”(Alan Riding, N.Y. Times). After completing 25 novels and winning the Nobel Prize in 1999, Grass’s revelation was met with mixed feelings. The response could go either way; one could revel in the audacity of such a brash critic being hypocritical and advocate the removal of previously rewarded honorariums or one could laud the bravery and experience that Grass displayed in letting his shameful past surface. The latter seems to be the more plausible in the end. Who better to shove the unwanted past of a nation aged by its history in its face than a man who was in the exact same situation? Grass was the perfect fit to act as Germany’s conscience.

A more intimate look at Germany’s undesirable history would not be possible without the author actually having lived it. An author’s past experiences mould how they perceive events and their surrounding situation. Grass, half a century after his service in the SS, finally can come to terms with it. Germany, being forced to by his brash criticism, may be able to do the same. Any author could only level such criticism having lived it themselves. Instead of seeing an author’s past misdeeds as follies, one should view them as a mould and a muse.

Grass, when asked about participating in the SS, admitted that he did not see the horror of Hitler and his faction’s acts until the Nuremburg Trials. Such honesty is so rare in the modern day– accused persons often sugar-coat their answers to seem better. This honesty is why an author needs such past experiences to fully engage the issue they address. Empirical knowledge, along with theoretical, is always more beneficial to having a fully widened view on any issue.

Instead of condemning the works of an author because of their previous follies or even accusations, one should in turn embrace their honesty and omnipresent perspectives. The self has always been accredited as being its hardest judge, so who better to analyze certain issues and follies than those who have been involved in those same misdeeds.

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