Milan Kundera

"Ignorance"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson NOV 12, 2002)

Ignorance by Milan Kundera
Ignorance, the new novel by Milan Kundera, easily could have been called The Book of Leaving and Forgetting. Possibly, that title would have been too similar to an earlier work, The Book of Laughter of Forgetting. Unfortunately, little laughter can be found in the new book. However, despite its overall theme of regret and remorse, it is filled with genuine insight as well as clever comment on clearly recognizable human foibles. It visits places that we have all been without itself becoming redundant.

Read excerptIrena and Josef, Kundera's primary characters, are, to apply an appropriate cliche, navigating as they drive forward using the rear view mirror. And, this is where the "ignorance" of the title is aptly descriptive: besides being awkward, their rear view mirrors are of the fun house variety, a poor and distorted reflection of what has been passed.

Kundera writes that ignorance is "derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss)." He links it, etymologically, with the word nostalgia, which he says "seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away," he continues, "and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there."

Like his main characters, Kundera is a Czech emigrant. Much of his previous writing has concerned the out-of-place feeling the emigrant experience generates. (Kundera, himself, may have successfully made the transition. For a number of years he has lived in France, and he has even written his most recent books in French.)

Irena, his female character, left Czechoslovakia in 1968 following the Russian takeover of the country because her husband was hounded by the authorities for supposedly anti-governmental views. They fled to Paris where, after several years, her husband died. Irena is left on her own. She fends for herself, first as a domestic, finally, in a more professional capacity, as a translator. She survives by her own struggle and ultimately settles into her new life.

Josef, a veterinarian from a family of higher status physicians, likewise escapes what he sees as the subjugation of his country by and the passive complicity of his countrymen to a mindless Communism. He goes to Denmark where he sets up a practice and marries a Dane. Ultimately and inevitably, he "fits in."

Most of the novel takes place when Josef returns to Prague for a first visit after twenty years away. Irena has made that initial return a few years earlier. It's the late 1980's, and the country has taken off its Communist cloak and put back on a capitalist robe almost as quickly as that latter garment was shed twenty years previously.

Both Irena and Josef are frustrated that no one seems to want to remember the past two decades, particularly why each of them left the country or what they did while away. It is as if none of this ever happened. And, the two of them seem only able to look back.

Josef fondly remembers a painting that he purchased from a Czech painter. To him, its unique style represented freedom and individuality. When he returns to his family home, now owned by his older brother, he sees that his brother has appropriated the painting as well as all the family possessions in Josef's absence. It is as if nothing, the painting in particular, was ever his.

During a Prague visit, Irena holds a party where she tries to introduce her former Czech girlfriends to a fine French Bordeaux. The guests end up preferring local beer instead, only drinking the wine after being too drunk to appreciate it. No one is interested in what Irena has been doing or in her new life.

Irena and Josef cling to the past, to memories, which they have constructed, as the reader slowly sees, very much the hard way. Josef is driven by memories of his recently deceased Danish wife whom he comes to appreciate only after her death. And Irena, ironically, has been driven for decades by a fleeting romantic memory of Josef. Not to give the story away, but this turns out to be very unfortunate and destructively rear-view.

Kundera makes numerous references in the book to the story of Ulysseus, his twenty-year absence from Ithaca, and then his "Great Return," which were highly traumatic, Kundera says, both the absence and the return. As it always is.

Kundera writes: "…the lost son home again with his aged mother; the man returning to his beloved from whom cruel destiny has torn him away; the family homestead we all carry about within us; the rediscovered trail still marked by the forgotten footprints of childhood; Odysseus sighting his island after years of wandering: the return, the return, the great magic of the return."

Perhaps, Josef and Irena put too much trust in memory. Perhaps, they look back too often as they try to move ahead, hoping to return magically to where they first began. Perhaps, this behavior is ignorance. Or, perhaps, it is simply our lot, our nature as humans. Kundera does well in making a creative and generally empathetic case for this final conjecture.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Ignorance at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Milan KunderaMilan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. He wrote his first poems during his high school years. After World War II he worked as a jazz musician before going to college. He studied music, film and literature at university in Prague. He moved on to become a professor at the film faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. He also published poems, essays and stage plays. In the same period of time he joined the editorial staff at the literature magazines "Literarni noviny" and "Listy." Kundera joined the Communist Party in 1948, as many other Czech intellectuals did at that time. In 1950 he got expelled from the Party because of "individualistic tendencies."

After graduation in 1952 he was appointed lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy. He joined the Communist Party once again and stayed on from 1956 to 1970. In 1953 he published his first book of poems. Kundera got known after collections of poems through his three volumes "Laughable Loves," written and published between 1958 and 1968. In his first novel, "The Joke" from 1967, he dealt with Stalinism. After the Sovjet invasion in the spring of 1968 Kundera lost his permission to teach and his books were removed from all public libraries in the country.

He has lived in France since 1975, having gone into self-exile by the censoring or suppression of his work by the government of his native country. Kundera has long denied any political motivation in his writings, however. His work is always humorous, skeptical, and fundamentally pessimistic in describing the universal human condition, whether under Communism or elsewhere. In The Art of the Novel (1988), a collection of essays, Kundera repeats his conviction that the novel must be "autonomous," created independent of any system of political belief.

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