Apr 16th, 2020, 05:11 PM

Milan Kundera's Prague

By Stefan Levchenko
Old Town Square in Prague where some of the events in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" took place. Image credit: Stefan Levchenko
Taking Czech Republic's renowned author as my own private guide.

As an experienced traveler, before going on a trip, I always familiarize myself with the culture of the country of my destination. More precisely, authentic literature, cinema and music serve as a prism for the perception of what I encounter in a foreign land. ABBA was my Swedish guide, Orhan Pamuk added a flavor to my Turkish adventure, Antonioni showed me Italy, and Milan Kundera became my inseparable companion during the long weekend in Czech Republic.

Milan Kundera is one of the most famous Czech writers who was particularly active during the communist era. He often found himself prosecuted by the authorities, who found his books unsuitable for sustaining the ruling ideolody. Kundera is known for his vivid prose and his characters’ complex relationship with the world, their own selves and other people. I started familiarizing myself with his body of works by dissolving into his most popular novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. I recall those eventful hours on the trains going through Swiss alps, excitedly absorbing the complex story of Tomáš, Tereza, Franz and Sabina. Already then I felt that something so reflective, so masterfully written, as if the author was digging out the most beautiful things from the before unknown depth of my soul, was provoking within me a huge interest in visiting his motherland.

View from St. Nicholas church Image credit: Stefan Levchenko

“Chance and chance alone has a message for us,” Kundera insisted. During my short visit to Prague, I gave myself up to chances. I decided to be disconnected from mobile Internet throughout my whole trip. I have to confess, there is an almost barbarian magic in asking for directions, having small talks, looking for a place to eat without any idea which one you’ll end up in. By chance, I found a café dedicated to the actresses of the past (and young Faye Dunaway kept me company for lunch); by chance, I ended up eating a local delicacy – fried cheese with jam – at the food market (which I projected to eat at a restaurant); by chance, I got to know a Vietnamese shop owner (Czech Republic has a surprisingly big Vietnamese community) in the district with communist era architecture, asking him for directions.

Prague 13, a district in socialist realism style Image credit: Stefan Levchenko


Another part of my trip was well-planned in advance, but even during the most thought-out projections, the most unexpected things occur — and thus, I prefer to unfold Kundera’s quote and apply it to everything that happens in my life. I did have a desire to take a stroll on the streets of Prague, I did plan to use the metro, but, I did not plan to find out that most of the trash cans in Prague separate everything not only by the sort of the material, but also by color (unlike in Paris, the great Western capital). I did not plan to sense the exact smell of Moscow metro solely in the area with the socialist modernism architecture (isn’t that ironic?). I did not plan to look in the deep eyes of the most touching subway inhabitants I’ve ever seen.

Kundera’s always describes his characters in a particularly colorful and precise way. In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” he writes, “[Characters are] not born of a mother's womb; they [are] born of a stimulating phrase or two […]. Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.”  A writer’s imagination gives birth to characters. Probably, Kundera’s approach to his characters influenced my imagination so that Prague metro users have impressed me unlike those of any other city.

An elegant girl, about 15 years of age, with salon straight ginger hair and freckles (like young and Slavic Lindsay Lohan) going to a school event – surrounded by classmates, but everyone – first and foremost she – knows that this young lady is the ultimate star of the evening and of entire Czech Republic. A young blonde Russian guy secretly observing my serious face with huge black sunglasses on it, sobbing to his mother about how much he wants to do multiple things at once, and her comforting him affectionately. A boy, no older than 17, with puffy red lips, dark hair, snow white skin, a nose bigger than European average, but neat, and, most importantly, big brown eyes that serve as mirrors of a quintessential Slavic soul. All of those metro encounters were young; and in them, I saw two images – the superhuman version of myself in the irreversible years and the halo of Milan Kundera sending me a little “hello” from my current country of residence (Kundera now lives in Paris).

Prague metro Image credit: Stefan Levchenko

The regions cultural history is changing in modern, globalized institutions. Czech Republic, 30 years after the fall of communism, is a progressive European nation that people of different political opinions, ethnic backgrounds and sexual preferences call an accepting home. In Prague’s largest gay club TERMAX, frequented by a young crowd and styled in a touchingly nostalgic way, like a school disco venue, I got a chance to talk to a 22-year-old Miloš. I asked the young man about Kundera’s influence on the Czech quotidian and his own life. Miloš, sipping his Vodka Red Bull, told me, “Oh yeah, I remember my literature professor being so impressed by his work that once he even brought a woman to class, who, he claimed, was an inspiration for… what is her name… Sabina? Anyway, I don’t remember much about it, and, oh my god, this is one Lady Gaga song I can’t miss, let’s go!” Miloš’ response put me in a state of a calm satisfaction. And as I was moving my body to Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory”, the thought that most young Czechs at least have an idea about who Kundera is has made my head spin more than vodka. More information on Kundera's significance today can be found here

Legal CBD meets a communist era cartoon hero Krtek Image credit: Stefan Levchenko


If you choose to visit Prague, here are some of the logistic tourism essentials. The cheapest way to get to Prague from Paris is to use its flag carrier Czech Airlines. However, it is not the best national airline I’ve used, as it is de-facto low-cost. Be prepared that meals on board are very modest and no free alcohol is served, however you can choose more food from the buy on board service. I’ve stayed in a cozy district called Florec, on Pernerova street, fully covered with trees as if with the blanket, in Hotel Adeba. The hotel is located three metro stops away from the historical center and the average price for one night is just 23 euros.

Pernerova Street Image credit: Stefan Levchenko

Museum of Communism made me cry; “The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire” turned me down once again, and I put on t.A.T.u. songs in my headphones and danced all alone in the crowded club; I ran from the Petrin Hill to recreate a lost half of Tereza’s dream; in the socialist era district, I took off on the swings to the bluest sky of unfulfilled dreams; and I felt attracted to every pair of eyes on the crowded Charles Bridge as each of them, in their diversity, symbolized another edge of Milan Kundera – my own private guide into the invisible corners of Czech Republic.