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Secrets and Lies

I’ve been trying to decide how to feel about the accusations against Milan Kundera. Kundera is the latest in a string of writers once celebrated for their stances on human rights ??? Gunter Grass, Christa Woolf, Heiner Muller, even George Orwell ??? who have been accused by historians of informing on friends or otherwise serving repressive regimes. (Grass, “the conscience of Germany,” revealed his own wartime service in the Waffen SS in his 2006 memoir, Peeling the Onion.) Kundera has vehemently denied the accusation, calling it “the assassination of an author,” and equating the culture of gossip and accusation in the Western media with the repressions carried out under totalitarian regimes: “We live in an age when private life is being destroyed. The police destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it.”

Two things interest me here: the first is the assumption that we can make a direct connection between a writer’s work and his life. Adam Hradilek, the historian who leveled the accusation, speculated that this secret from his past explains Kundera’s reclusiveness and his resistance to any attempts to connect his life and his fiction. As Maya Jaggi notes in her recent commentary on the story, “There is nothing sinister in a novelist insisting on the distinction between his characters and himself, nor ??? despite my 20 years as a literary interviewer ??? do I find anything untoward in authors zealously guarding their privacy.” (Given the intensity of some readers’ response to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it’s hard to blame Kundera for wanting to live out of public sight.) But Jaggi goes on to suggest, as a number of other commentators have, that even if the story were true, it might help to explain the passionate moral stance that drives Kundera’s work: “far from invalidating Kundera’s fiction, and its anti-Communist thrust, it might affirm the depth and complexity of his disillusionment, even adding a spur of guilt to his anger at the regime.”

Why do we write fiction? What is it that drives some of us to spend our lives spinning elaborate lies? Every writer is, in some sense, an informant, whispering secrets into our ears. What mystifies me is why any secret policeman would choose to listen to one, given this belief that one can find truth in our lies. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all these writers have been accused of serving failed regimes. Note to future tyrants: Don’t bother with writers. They make stuff up.)

But then, it’s become clear that the power of the secret police lies not in their capacity to enforce an ideology, but rather in making those within their power carry the weight of guilty secrets. Tyranny is rule by shame: the perfect dictatorship is a land in which no man can look another in the eye. (In fact, the secret policeman’s most effective recruits are never writers, but gossips, yentas, babushki who monitor and shame.) Grass and Kundera were not yet writers at the time when they are accused of committing their crimes against conscience, but our temptation to read their work as a life-long response to that shame reflects a sense that both men continue to stand in the shadow of the wall long after that wall has fallen.

And that’s the irony of repressive politics: shame may inspire obedience, at least in the short term, but it also inspires writing. We want to think that great writers have great souls, but without secrets there would be no need for lies. Fiction is one way that we wrestle with shame, trying to make sense of it, revise it, turn it from burden into gift. (Not all shame is guilty, of course. There’s also the shame of the victim, the beaten, or those who simply fail to conform. Each has produced great writing.) Children aren’t ashamed because they lie; they lie because they’re ashamed. And when that lie is well-made, even they can come — with a growing hope — to believe it. Our first story is the fall from grace, and we’ve been weaving our fig leaf ever since.

I’ve been writing about an informant lately, spinning lies about a man who tries to lie his way out of history and into art, so for me the most moving commentary on this whole affair was Benjamin Pogrund’s Guardian essay on Tuesday about the shame confronting those who are pressured to inform. For me, this essay does what good writing should: not make us self-righteous, but rather help us to understand.

History allows us neither to forgive nor to forget. What fiction can do, through its lies, is to grant us access to a more profound secret: we are most revealed by what we most deny.

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