A review of Ignorance by Milan Kundera

When Ignorance is good, the novel flows like an insightful and moving non-fiction essay along the lines of Garner’s work. The reader perceives Kundera’s insight and shares in the attempts at returning home. There are also moments of sad beauty as the characters reach out for something absent, a person or place that isn’t there. Where the work falls down is in the characterisation, which is so light and shadowy that it is almost non-existent.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Ignorance
by Milan Kundera
translated from the French by Linda Asher
Faber & Faber
195pp, Oct 2003, trade paper, rrp A$22.95, ISBN 0571215513

In “Writing Home,” the first essay of The Feel of Steel Helen Garner talks about the nature of home: “So far away and sunk so deep that no conscious act of remembering can seize the exact feel of it.” (6) This Ithican notion of home – of something lost that we struggle to return to against all odds – of something that we long for but can never return to because, as Garner says, it is “gone, gone, gone” is the subject of Kundera’s latest novel Ignorance. When Ignorance is good, the novel flows like an insightful and moving non-fiction essay along the lines of Garner’s work. The reader perceives Kundera’s insight and shares in the attempts at returning home. There are also moments of sad beauty as the characters reach out for something absent, a person or place that isn’t there. Where the work falls down is in the characterisation, which is so light and shadowy that it is almost non-existent, especially with minor characters like Milada or N. The plot is also problematic, and seems to have been created to support the thesis and therefore is heavy handed and for the most part, an irritant rather than a driving force for the book.

Ostensibly, this is the story of Irene, a Czech émigré who goes “home” after 20 years of living in Paris. Irene is goaded into a guilt ridden “great return” by a French friend, and her lover Gustaf, who has recently started a job in the Czech Republic, but from the start we feel Irene’s ambivalence as she returns to a country no longer hers. Irene finds, quite movingly for anyone who has experienced this kind of exile, that nostalgia is something that exists only inside of her, and isn’t curable by a visit “home.” For the émigré, home no longer exists. This is a painful lesson as she struggles to meet up with the friends she missed and revisit the places which have been populating her dreams. In a kind of parallel narrative, Josef is another Czech émigré who has returned after 20 years in Denmark. Josef is also trying to recover a place and time left behind, while fulfilling a promise to his dead wife. He meets Irene in the airport and the two have a brief encounter which is as full of disappointment as their trip “home.” You can’t go back to a point in time anymore than you can go back to a place you left long ago – at least as the same person. Irene is, in any case, looking for her escape. Josef too is looking for a kind of escape, but neither really wants it. They run towards that which they’ve run from.

Other characters like Milada, an old friend of Irene’s, Josef’s brother and sister in law, and N., an old friend of Josef come into the story with their own minor narratives. Milada has her own stream of consciousness, but seems to be placed there solely to lend credence to Josef’s story as he re-reads an old diary. Her relationship to Irena, and Josef seems unlikely, and doesn’t add to the story much in any case. Milada’s insights, beautiful as they are in parts, could easily be those of Irena’s, or even Josef’s. In the end, the relationships throughout the novel are vastly unsatisfying. This is, of course, the point. Love is fleeting, and ultimately meaningless, as Josef develops a post-death relationship with his wife that has little to do with her as a person. Gustaf’s desires stem from something other than a feeling for Irena, and both of them sense it. Josef and Milada, Josef and his wife, Josef and Irena – all see something completely different, feel something different, and there is no connection. The old friendships of Josef and Irena’s are disjointed and both can only listen to the stories of people whose experiences they don’t share. No one wants to know about them. No one can escape his or her own bubble of existence. Even nostalgia is a lonely and self-perpetuated emotion, removed from real desire for the past:

From then on she succumbs to the charm of these affinities, these furtive contacts between present and past; she seeks out those echoes, these co-respondences, these co-resonances that make her feel the distance between what was and what is, the temporal dimension (so new, so astonishing) of her life…(79)

Family too lacks reality. Irene’s mother is overbearing and uncaring of her daughter, willing to hurt and diminish her daughter in the most brutal of ways. Josef’s brother too is brutal in their lack of interest, and in their appropriation of the goods he left behind. The characters seem strangely absent from their own lives though, not only in returning home, but also in terms of what they’ve left behind. It’s as if they have left some crucial part of themselves in becoming emigres, that sense of engagement, of living in their own lives which can never be recovered. This makes them seem wooden, and their pain less moving, since they are detached from it, even from the theatrics which Irene puts on, or the anger which Josef feels on returning to his brother’s house. There is a frustration at the heart of this very slow novel, a sense of futility and meaninglessness, which gives the work a Beckettian feel, but doesn’t leave the reader feeling satisfied.
That said, there is a beautifully developed sense of loss that permeates the novel, expanding the notion of home into something larger – a return not only to a place left behind, but to something past – childhood, family, abandoned dreams, a deceased spouse, a place changed beyond recognition:

At the university she used to be seduced by the dreams of voyages to distant stars. What pleasure to escape far away into the universe, someplace where life expresses itself differently from here and needs no bodies! But despite all his amazing rockets, man will never progress very far in the universe. The brevity of his life makes the sky a dark lid against which he will forever crack his head, to fall back onto the earth, where everything alive eats and can be eaten. (194)

Despite the poor characterisation and strained plot, one feels that Kundera has touched on something powerful – the true sense of nostalgia. His narrator isn’t a character, but intrudes heavily into the story with musings about the Odyssean journey, or the meaning of the words for nostalgia and return: “In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away and I don’t know what has become of you.” (6) Irena, Josef and Milada are less interesting as characters than the experiences they typify. The narrator’s own observations leave the reader wanting more, while the characters leave us wanting less. Clearly Kundera has much to say on this topic of which his work keeps returning. Perhaps a non-fiction book later will get to the heart of these interesting themes of nostalgia and homecoming. Ignorance just touches the surface.
For more information visit: Ignorance

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