Milan Kundera,
(HarperCollins/Faber & Faber, 2002)

Milan Kundera is one of the finest, most challenging and thought-provoking novelists writing today. This is a superlative novel, an incredible exploration of the sadness and loneliness caused by its central characters' displacement from their homeland. Kundera explores the effect of emigration/exile on an artist's creativity, on his memory -- on the very roots and fibre of his being. He writes powerfully, movingly, passionately, and his dialogue is always filmic and highly visual. His imagery is often graphic, as is his portrayal of sex and human relationships. Kundera often has a very dispassionate approach in these matters. You don't come away from reading one of this man's books easily -- he constantly provokes you, and wrenches feelings and thoughts from deep within you.

Born in 1929, Kundera was sacked from his university post in Czechoslovakia following the Russian invasion of his homeland in spring, 1968. He finally emigrated to France in 1975, where he has lived and worked ever since. He now writes in French rather than in his native Czech. This version is beautifully translated by Linda Asher.

This novel has recaptured some of that "edge" of his earlier Czech novels, the most memorable of which (for me at any rate) has to be the superb The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. This earlier novel explored themes of love/freedom, fidelity/infidelity, communication/misunderstanding, all under the strain of the political events of the Prague spring of '68. These themes are represented beautifully in that novel's fascinating metaphors of lightness and weight. You can even find a very fine film adaptation of this book, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin (the latter two of whom were reunited under much "lighter," frothier circumstances in Chocolat).

Anyway, let's get back to Ignorance. I'm not going to reveal the novel's events -- but I will give you a few clues as to its intriguing themes and concepts. The first two pages of the story, set in the early 1990s, depict an innocuous cafe conversation between Sylvie and Irena, a Czech exile. At the end of an incredibly powerful, two-page opening chapter, Kundera slams us with the following words:

"(The) Great Return -- Repeated, the words took on such power that, deep inside her, Irena saw them written out with capital initials: Great Return. She dropped her resistance: she was captured by images suddenly welling up from books read long ago, from films, from her own memory, and maybe from her ancestral memory: the lost son home again with his aged mother; the man returning to his beloved from whom cruel destiny had 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."

In this novel, the theme of exile is emotionally very profound, and through the four central characters' odyssey to their homeland, Kundera asks some breathtaking questions. Is it true that exile/emigration causes artists to lose their creativity? Can an exile's questions about belonging ever find an adequate reply? Can a displaced person ever feel at home/retain their cultural roots and identity anywhere they settle? The book's themes revolve around ignorance, absence, memory, forgetting, identity and yearning. To Kundera, memories are weak, unreliable and inconsistent -- they cloud and distort reality, and it is truly fascinating (and I would argue a privilege) to share in his portrayal of a "changed" person returning to a "changed" country. One of the novel's characters, Josef, finds himself, on return, "listening to an unknown language whose every word he understood." Josef's memory bank doesn't match, doesn't "fit" or make sense any longer.

This Homeric concept of voyage and return is fundamental to this novel. Kundera writes with devastating impact: "The very notion of homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, or to other languages."

I'm going to finish (because it drains me to write about this brilliant book) by quoting the first few lines of Chapter 2 -- I only got as far as page 5 before I was overwhelmed by the power of the concepts Kundera was throwing at me. The issues raised in this chapter in particular are fundamental to those of us who love to explore the essence of what constitutes "roots," "culture" and "belonging."

Kundera writes: "The Greek word for 'return' is 'nostos.' 'Algos' means 'suffering.' So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilise a word derived from the Greek ('nostalgia, nostalgie') as well as other words with roots in their national languages: 'anoranza,' say the Spaniards; 'saudade,' say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country: a longing for country, for home."

Kundera moves through this compelling linguistic exploration to the ancient Greek culture's concept of "Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia." This is a hugely fascinating and rewarding book.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 29 November 2003

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