A Week in Books: The return of Kundera

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The Independent Culture

It was hard not to think about the return of Kundera's Grand March this week. I watched the Live 8 coverage from a hotel room in Kiev. A few streets away lay the huge square where, late last November, scores of thousands of protesters braved winter, exhaustion and the threat of lethal force to challenge the theft of an election and safeguard democracy in Ukraine. Like Geldof's philanthropic legions, but with far more personal courage, the makers of the Orange Revolution helped to restore the good name of the slogan-chanting, banner-waving mass in Europe.

On Sunday morning, Ukraine's snow-swathed drama seemed a universe away. The sun-baked expanse of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti hosted not shivering demonstrators but cooling fountains, outdoor cafés and bicycle rickshaws. Only the sudden flash of bright orange T-shirts, scarves and dresses hinted that this was recent revolutionary ground. Nowhere does the phrase "fashion statement" mean more than in this city.

I came to Kiev to speak at a mind-stretching conference about changing cultural visions of Europe, imaginatively organised by the British Council in Ukraine. Here, in the Tsarist-era committee rooms of the Ukrainian parliament, flanked by the city's lovely wooded parklands, it often seemed as if two separate Grand Marches were politely shuffling past each other. Several of the Ukrainians spoke warmly about their slow trek towards Euro-integration, with its final goal of EU membership. On the other hand, speakers from the continent's Western half flayed a selfish, ethnocentric project that was going nowhere fast. Euro-aspirants played generous host to Euro-renegades. That, I suppose, is democracy for you.

Elsewhere in Kiev, you can meet the shade of one of the great non-marchers in fiction. Halfway down the winding, cobbled street of Andriyivsky Uzviz is the family home of Mikhail Bulgakov. Since 1993, it has housed a haunting museum dedicated to the dazzlingly inventive Soviet-era writer. Bulgakov, though canny enough to outfox Stalin and die of natural causes in 1940, could only ever have marched with the awkward squad.

Much of The White Guard, his classic semi-autobiographical novel of Kiev in the bloody aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, unfolds in this house. Now, in its low-lit, memento-strewn rooms, real family possessions sit alongside objects from his fiction, their imaginary status signalled by a ghostly coating of white paint. The fate of the Turbins, the dreamy clan Bulgakov based on his own family, dramatises the risks run by non-joiners in an age of loud collective commitments.

Today's campaigners advance under milder banners than those of 1917. Who could object to pan-European liberal democracy or a fair deal for Africa? But Kundera's critique of the Grand March finds something inherently corrupting about the joys of mass orthodoxy, however noble the cause. History also needs the mavericks who never walk in step. At least that's what I sensed among the eerie shadows of Bulgakov's house.