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Landscapes for Milena, with Monika Zgustová (II)

2. Milena and the destinies

I still have a book about Milena that was published in Spain in the 1960s. It is in one of those precarious, inexpensive collections of Ediciones GP.

It may be surprising that Margarete Buber-Neumann’s book, Milena, Kafka’s Friend , was published in a Spain that kept many supporters of the Third Reich in power. But that is how it was. That book was published by Tusquets much later.

Margarete was Milena’s great friend in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, she had been a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag (like so many, for being the wife of an enemy of the people; that is, of someone who was a true socialist) and the Nazi-Soviet fraternity after the invasion of Poland led to an exchange of prisoners: I give you my communists so that you can dispose of them, Pepe Stalin; Adolf, I give you this gang of anti-Zanists who had taken refuge in the USSR, the poor things, so that you can do with them as you see fit.

That is why Margarete wrote a very important book before Milena’s biography, her memoirs Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler (now published by Galaxia Gutenberg). The book about Milena Jesenská was indeed entitled Milena. Fafkas Freundin .

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There were many rich lives, intellectually and morally, in that devastated Central Europe, and many victims; Margarete and the publisher gave the title with the best intention, perhaps the only one possible at that time: to place Milena as a friend of Kafka, since there was no way of placing her in such a way as to attract the attention of the reading public. That is what was later corrected, and it was seen that Milena Jesenská’s life was intellectually rich enough, full of generosity and creativity enough not to require her connection to Kafka. That it was important, but limited in time, if only because Milena outlived Kafka by twenty years, until she died ill in Ravensbrück.

In parentheses: look at the families and relatives of the survivors, from Mahler to Natalia Ginzburg, look at their fate, their path to the camps. We will never cease to be amazed at a crime of such magnitude, and the impoverishment that all this meant for Europe (this subject was dealt with, among others, by George Steiner, he in Bluebeard’s Castle ).

So, you see why Tusquets titles the book simply Milena . But if biographies are often precious documents, the life of a person (not a character) is narrated by a narrative like that of Monika Zgustová. There we see her living, attached to an early marriage that she never ended; full of energy to get ahead as a journalist, translator, scholar; as an integral part of the great intellectual galaxy between Vienna and Prague, between Berlin and Paris… until everything broke down. And, of course, an important episode is her relationship with Kafka, a writer of whom Zgustová gives an almost seraphic portrait. Have we elevated Franz Kafka (Milena calls him Frank) to the altars by virtue of a martyrology? And weren’t people like Milena the true martyr? Although we must always insist: among millions of others. In this year of the centenary of Kafka’s death, we should all read Reiner Stach’s monumental monograph (Acantilado), Franz’s letters to Milena, his works. We wonder if this decisive writer of the twentieth century did not disappear too soon, or if he did not disappear in time, before the brown beast took his weak bones. If Milena had the strength, the determination, the courage, the health, and was not Jewish; Franz had all that against him. He would not have passed the first “selection.” And can you imagine him as a wandering exile in France or the United States? But, you see, Milena survived, and not only to go to the slaughterhouse, but to alleviate the hardships of her fellow countrywomen. There is so much evidence that this was so, that there is no need to insist. Zgustová portrays the yearning girl, the woman with lovers and husbands, the intellectual companion of that intellectual and artistic group, the combative translator and columnist, the one who refuses to go into exile, the one who saves many lives with her small protection network, the one who seems to be waiting for the Gestapo: here I am, at last . And they did. Righteous among the nations , that is what she was later declared.

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What we read in Zgustová’s novel is that biography, but with the authentic life that true narrators know how to give it, artists in resurrecting environments, an era, a life itinerary.

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A splendid book whose reading takes you to a time and to countries where creativity and suffering overflowed. Milena does not require an opera so much as a cycle of Lieder: Milena, passion and life of a woman .

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