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Milan Kundera, Literary Star and Communist Party Outcast, Dies at 94

Milan Kundera, a Communist Party outcast who became a global literary star with mordant, sexually charged novels that captured the suffocating absurdity of life in the workers’ paradise of his native Czechoslovakia, died on Tuesday in Paris at age 94.

A spokeswoman for Gallimard, Mr. Kundera’s publisher in France, said on Wednesday that Mr. Kundera had died “after a prolonged illness.”

Mr. Kundera’s run of popular books began with “The Joke,” which was published to acclaim during the Prague Spring of 1968, then banned with a vengeance after Soviet-led troops crushed that experiment in “socialism with a human face” a few months later. He completed his final novel, “The Festival of Insignificance” (2015), when he was in his mid-80s and living comfortably in Paris.

The novel was his first new fiction since 2000, but its reception, tepid at best, was a far cry from the reaction to his most enduringly popular novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

An instant success when it was published in 1984, “Unbearable Lightness” was reprinted over the years in at least two dozen languages. The novel drew even wider attention when it was adapted into a 1988 film starring Daniel Day Lewis as one of its central characters, Tomas, a Czech surgeon who criticizes the Communist leadership and is consequently forced to wash windows for a living.

As punishments go, washing windows is a pretty good deal for Tomas: A relentless philanderer, he’s always open to meeting new women, including bored housewives. But the sex, as well as Tomas himself and the three other main characters — his wife, a seductive painter and the painter’s lover — are there for a larger purpose. In putting the novel on its list of best books of 1984, The New York Times Book Review observed that “this writer’s real business is to find images for the disastrous history of his country in his lifetime.”

“He uses the four pitilessly, setting each pair against the other as opposites in every way, to describe a world in which choice is exhausted and people simply cannot find a way to express their humanity.”

He could be especially pitiless in his use of female characters; so much so that the British feminist Joan Smith, in her 1989 book “Misogynies,” declared that “hostility is the common factor in all Kundera’s writing about women.”

Other critics reckoned that exposing men’s horrible behavior was at least part of his intent. Still, even the stronger women in Kundera’s books tended to be objectified, and the less fortunate were sometimes victimized in disturbing detail. (The narrator of his first novel, “The Joke,” vengefully seduces the wife of an old enemy, slaps her around during sex, then says he doesn’t want her. The woman’s husband doesn’t care; he’s in love with a very cool graduate student. In a final indignity, the distraught woman tries to kill herself with a fistful of pills, which turn out to be laxatives.)

Mr. Kundera’s fear that Czech culture could be erased by Stalinism — much as disgraced leaders were airbrushed out of official photos — was at the heart of “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” which became available in English in 1979.

It was not exactly what most Western readers would have expected of a “novel”: a sequence of seven stories, told as fiction, autobiography, philosophical speculation and much else. But Mr. Kundera called it a novel nonetheless, and likened it to a set of Beethoven variations.

Writing in The Times Book Review in 1980, John Updike said the book “is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out.”

Mr. Kundera had a deep affinity for Central European thinkers and artists — Nietzsche, Kafka, the Viennese novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, the Czech composer Jaroslav Janacek. Like Broch, he said, he strove to discover “that which the novel alone can discover,” including what he called “the truth of uncertainty.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.

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