In Ignorance, set in contemporary Prague, one of the most distinguished writers of our time takes up the complex and emotionally charged theme of exile and creates from it a literary masterpiece. A man and a woman meet by chance while returning to their homeland, which they had abandoned twenty years earlier when they chose to become exiles. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted almost as soon as it began and then lost in the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence 'their memories no longer match.' We always believe that our memories coincide with those of the person we loved, that we experienced the same thing. But this is just an illusion as the memory records only 'an insignificant, minuscule particle' of the past, 'and no one knows why it's this bit and not any other bit.' We live our lives sunk in a vast forgetting, and we refuse to see it. Only those who return after twenty years, like Ulysses returning to his native Ithaca, can be dazzled and astounded by observing the goddess of ignorance first-hand. Milan Kundera has taken these dizzying concepts of absence, memory, forgetting, and ignorance, and transformed them into material for a novel, masterfully orchestrating them into a polyphonic and moving work.
But titles of the book do not necessarily need to reflect their main topics. In this case the title helps us to realize that nostalgia often originates and ends up in ignorance. We long for a state of affairs that no longer exists it and maybe it never did. Thus we are ignorant of the past. When we attempt to return to this imagined location, family, situation… of the past we may encounter events and feeling we were not prepared for and face our ignorance of the present. That’s exactly what happened to the woman who returned to Bohemia after spending 20 years mostly in Paris and to her fleeting love interest who returned from Denmark. Their stories and their loved ones’ provide the prism that breaks down the gray of ignorance and nostalgia into a colorful and painful rainbow.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the comparative analysis of Homer’s Odysseus. It is not a literary analysis, but a motivational one. While telling the stories of 20th century immigrants Kundera wonders what made Odysseus and Penelope tick, what kind of feeling they must have had cope with. By reaching to the classic tale, he managed to create and even more timelessness feeling for the whole book. The emotions described and analyzed are proven to be eternal.
As an immigrant this is one of the most important books I read. It helped me think about my own nostalgia and discover in what aspects I am similar to the book’s heroes and what aspects I am not. Thank you Mr. Kundera and happy birthday.
This is a great book, classic Kundera musing on the nature of the lives we lead when we take up residence someplace else and then try (either from curiosity or because we're forced) to go home again.
I am often delighted by Kundera's word studies, and in Ignorance he does not disappoint. Here he looks at the Greek-derived "nostalgia," literally "the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return," which in some languages has no literal equivalent but is rendered somewhat ineffectively as "homesickness." The Spanish equivalent anoranza, however, is a Latin derivative akin to "ignorance," or "to be unaware of, to not experience, to lack or miss." The subtle play between nostalgia and ignorance becomes the frame upon which Kundera weaves this short but dense narrative.
I appreciate the outside perspective that he has - looking at any human thought or feeling or relationship from outside makes the thought or feeling or relationship look shallow and ultimately meaningless. Objectively this may be true, but I find it to be unsatisfactory.
Irena and Josef chanced to encounter one another at Paris airport while returning to their homeland, which they had pertinaciously abandoned twenty years ago during the Russian invasion. Both of them chose to be unlawful exiles with whom families dare not to keep in contact. Irena, then pregnant with her second child, fled with her husband Martin to Paris and soon led a poverty-stricken life as a widow until she became Gustaf's mistress. Irena instantly recognized Josef at the first sight of him: they had met at a friend's party in Prague some 20 years ago. She had regretted parting with him after the party and was stricken with a wound that never healed.
Josef fled the country when he was a medical student in veterinary medicine. Unlike his brother who succumbed to the Communist reign and denied his own convictions to demonstrate support, Josef could not bear to see his country enslaved and humiliated. He settled down in Copenhagen, got married, became a vet. Not a day passed without Josef's reminiscing his deceased wife. He loved her even more, in a melancholy and memorial way, and respected all her customs, such as taking care every chair, vase, and lamp was where she had liked it.
While our protagonists sighed at the drastic changes of their once-familiar homeland and the wiping out of landmarks, a more subtle but inevitable issue emerged. Their rueful recollections and nostalgia caught up with them, in fragments, fear, and regret. However obdurately and diligently they tried to shield off past memories and put off paltry values of the past lives, the pang of regret and sense of loneliness never spared them. Irena always felt emigration was an irreparable mistake she had committed at the age of ignorance. It was out of her own will, freedom, decision and fate. Josef was always seized with the pain and guilt of his sadistic love toward his teenage girlfriend, whom he never sought over after she attempted suicide.
This book trims to the bone the inescapable issue of lost time and forgotten memories. Our protagonists were despondent at the fact that their compatriots, after some twenty years of separations, bore no interest in the exiles' lives. Why do sad memories always seem to linger around? Why do we remember this one fragment but not the other bit? Why do we often remember the faces but befuddle with names? In each of us the choice seems to occur mysteriously outside our will and our interests. Far as this book concerns, friends do not always hold the same degree of significance for each other and thus the texture, perspicuity, and depth of recollections disparate. When recollections are not evolved in a recurring manner (i.e. in conversations with friends and family), ignorance reign.
The premise of the book is tantalizing and moving though the abrupt (rather unexpected and somewhat lewd) turn of the events and the ending left me fish-mouthed (careful reader will see to the twist). I was left with the impression that the whole thing was a mere illusion. Whatever the case Kundera intended it to be, Ignorance is no less mesmerizing than his best known The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This is the kind of book that does not insatiate you with complex philospohical overtones and mind-boggling prose but at the same time challenges the simple thoughts of life. The book addresses the very simple matter of life--its memory, how we have lived life and how we go about remembering life.
While the main theme of the former book is the escape and flight into exile, the themes of the latter are return (visit), memories and nostalgia. These themes are explored on a philosophical level, by examining the mythical voyages of Odysseus, and in life by visits, first of Czech people travelling abroad to visit those in exile, and later a return to Prague. The rift is enormous. In forty years, it seems the memories of people in Prague were frozen, while that of the exiles moved on. Where two former acquaintances both lived abroad, the gap seems double as big, and memories, faded or nearly unretrievable.
Beautiful descriptions of Prague and some astute comments on Communism.
A meditation (as many of Kundera’s books are) on the meaning of identity, belonging, loss and memory.
Utilizing Homer’s ODYSSEY as a touchstone, Kundera tells the story of two Czech émigrés, a woman and a man. Having briefly met in a bar 20 years prior, both return to Prague in 1989, 20 years after they both separately left when the Russian Communists stormed the country.
Irena living in Paris and Josef in Denmark, both have lost their Czech identity and returning to visit friends and family they are faced with memories and awkwardness. Where do they belong – in their adopted or home countries?
Irena never forgot having met Josef but Josef has no recall. They meet again by happenstance and spend one brief night together.
Kundera is a master at unveiling these tales. Filled with philosophy, meaningfulness and the anxiety of living. In just under 200 pages he weaves a masterful tale.
Still, I am touched by his writing, and so many passages make me stop and think of what I just read. If you haven't read Kundera, start with some of his other books.
J'ai envie de lire un autre Kundera aussitôt :)
I have read this book in its original version, ' L'Ignorance ' , during October 2012.
Like the other Kundera books that I've read in the past, 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and 'Immortality', this book takes on a philosophical tone, while scratching at the surface of some human relationships. The atmosphere reigning the 236 pages of this book is the Nostalgia:
“The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
It is a nostalgia of two Czech immigrants, Irena and Josef. They're not the characters to fall in love with, and the other characters are the same: they're shallow, egocentric people who do not share any affectionate bond with those around them.Their return to their homeland after the communist regime was overthrown wasn't a nice return. they couldn't relate to the people there. You can see how when they left, they left behind them a mess of malfunctioning relationships, with family members and friends. When they return, these complications accentuate even more. Yet, both main characters reconcile with their past after a wicked turn of events, and in an emotional way. I find them quite cold, nonetheless.
Kundera is certainly throwing some autobiographical content into this novel. He, too, like Irena, had to leave and went to France, and now identifies himself as French (He's a French citizen). He had political problems with the communist regime, and the Czech passport was taken away from him. Now, he visits the Czech Republic in incognito, like a stranger. That's how Irena and Josef felt: strangers in their hometown. So, I am sure Kundera KNOWS what he's talking about in this book, this is a topic that is rooted in his very experience, and he translated it into this novel. That fact makes me appreciate the novel even more.
I do not wish to spoil the book for those who haven't read it. So, I will refrain myself from discussing the story's plot. It isn't a typical plot, it reads more like a journal. It is about the journey that the characters are on. It's a delightful page-turner read. He questions the notion of patriotism, love, nostalgia, and intimacy in a pop-philosophical satirical tone.
I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is a lovely little book, and I am eager to read other Kundera books :)
I liked it better than The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I liked the essay part of the story on memory and emigrent experience. I think the message that Kundera gives with his bits on sexual encounters are very real. He doesn't make it more than what it is. I could do without the detail but I appreciate what he is saying.
Irena, the novel’s main character, who lives in Paris, has enjoyed the status of émigré for two decades: Parisians feel sorry for the poor Czech woman and after the fall of Czech communism in 1989, they begin to wonder why she is not hurrying back home to help out. Her Parisian friends seem to consider it her patriotic duty. Yet Irena has worked hard to become settled in Paris, where she buried her Czech husband and raised their two daughters, who for all practical matters are French. Now Irena has a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend in Paris, not a bad city in which to make one’s home. Only a visit from her mother, who still lives in Prague, persuades Irena to make a return visit to the city of her birth.
Josef, the novel’s other main character, likewise fled Czechoslovakia in 1969. He settled in Denmark, where he married a Danish woman, and they lived happily together until she died. Josef, still mourning her death and attached to their home in Denmark, where he keeps everything just as it was when she was alive, is also very slow to return to the land of his birth. Now he is returning for a visit only because he had promised his dying wife that he would.
On their way to Czechoslovakia, Irena and Josef meet by chance in the Paris airport. Irena remembers Josef from another chance encounter many years before in Prague, before she married. There had been some chemistry between the two, but after their meeting they had never seen each other again: “Their love story stopped before it could start.” Now Irena introduces herself again, and they agree to get together in Prague. Actually, Josef cannot remember her, but now he sees no reason to turn down an opportunity for friendship with a warm, good-looking woman.
Before they rendezvous in Prague, they both have certain rounds to make and this is where Kundera begins to raise doubts about the idea of the Great Return. Both Irena and Josef are struck by the strangeness of the spoken Czech language, which seems to have developed an ugly nasal drawl since their departure. They also both notice the hometown diminution effect: Landscapes and city scenes that once seemed impressive have shrunk into insignificance, if they have not disappeared altogether. Worst of all, the whole country has been inundated by tasteless popular culture and crass commercialism; for example, the music on the radio is described as “noise” and “sewage-water music,” and the tubercular face of writer Franz Kafka adorns a T-shirt for tourists.
Both Irena and Josef get a glimpse of what they might have become if they had stayed in Czechoslovakia. When the weather turns hot, Irena buys a dowdy Czech dress that makes her look “naïve, provincial, inelegant” and “pitiable, poor, weak, downtrodden.” In his high school diary that his brother had saved for him, Josef is able to contemplate the “little snot” he used to be, back in the days of his virginity, when he obsessed about girls but could express his feelings only by torturing his girlfriends emotionally. Both Irena and Josef also get an eyeful of their potential selves in the friends and relatives that they meet, who form a kind of gauntlet for the two visitors but who otherwise have not missed them for twenty years.
Irena tries to socialize with some Prague friends, but after an awkward moment, her friends declare their “plain-and-simple” preference for beer rather than the wine she offers them. Then, beer in hand, they stand around chatting to each other about local matters, pretty much ignoring Irena. They are totally uninterested in what she has been doing during the twenty years she was away. Irena realizes that they have “amputated twenty years from her life” and no longer have much in common with her. She already misses her Parisian friend Sylvie.
In the provincial hometown that he visits, Josef has to run an even worse gauntlet formed by his sister-in-law, his Czech former wife (to whom he was married for only a few months), and his stepdaughter. Josef’s brother is happy enough to see him again, though the brother is somewhat embarrassed because he has taken over the family home and Josef’s old belongings. Although she also enjoys his goods, Josef’s sister-in-law has not forgiven him for running off and causing them to suffer under the Communist regime. Worse, she calls up his former wife and tells her he is in town. Then his stepdaughter calls him to say she has to see him right away to discuss certain important matters that she cannot talk about on the phone, but when he calls back to break their appointment, the stepdaughter says her mother warned her about what “a filthy little egotist” he is.
By the time Irena and Josef meet in Prague, they are ready for some relief and consolation. They share each other’s stories over lunch and wine, then head up to his hotel room. Before long, they are making love, but it does not end well and he leaves to catch his plane back to Denmark.
Thus, the ending of the novel is immensely sad. For both Irena and Josef, the Great Return to their homeland fizzles out and so does their brief romance. Even though Josef realizes that Irena is in love with him, he is still emotionally committed to his dead wife. Irena and Josef have crossed paths again, but again their paths do not match. Another possibility, however, is that Irena will find the encounter with Josef liberating. Until this encounter, Irena has tended to be dependent in her relationships with other people—first with her mother, then with her husband, Martin, and even with her married boyfriend, Gustaf.
Throughout the novel, Kundera also draws parallels to and meditates on the ur-myth of the Great Return—the story of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.), which is at the center of Ignorance just as the story of Oedipus’s sense of moral responsibility is at the center of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Here Kundera seems to draw on the myth of Odysseus’s return primarily to show that it no longer applies to the modern world but is a romantic hangover from another time. For Odysseus, the return had tremendous validity, as he struggled to get back to his beloved homeland and wife. Around the time of the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a stirring poem about Odysseus’s restlessness after his return, the myth started going downhill. Now the myth seems totally meaningless.
Where is home anymore? Where is love? In Ignorance Kundera seems to say that in the modern world neither of these is easy to find. Kundera destroys the idea that the place of one’s birth has any special significance. Instead, life is full of possibilities. Home and love are out there somewhere, but they have to be compatible with one’s identity, which in the modern world is a shifting, developing concept, dependent not just on one’s origins but on one’s experiences, memories, ideals, and ignorance.