Wednesday September 13, 2006

Milan Kundera: Ignorance

Light blue book cover Milan Kundera’s novel Ignorance is about a few characters that emigrated from Czechoslovakia during Communist rule, and what happens to such people when the Communist regime falls and they return to confront those that stayed behind. What does one do with the years or decades spent in another country? What are the consequences of returning, and what are the consequences of staying?

Ignorance opens in 1989 with a conversation between a Franco-Czech and her French friend; the one utterly baffled that the other hasn’t returned to her country to support the protests. After just two pages, though, it veers into a lengthy discussion of the word “nostalgia” in various languages, the Odyssey, Arnold Schoenberg’s ideas about his legacy, and the numerical beauty of the history of the Czechs in the 20th century. In other words, it’s typical Kundera, diffuse and seemingly stream-of consciousness, weaving threads that will come together only gradually as the book weaves along.

    “They can’t understand that we left without the slightest hope of coming back. We did our best to drop anchor where we were. Do you know Skacel?”
    “The poet?”
    “There’s a stanza where he talks about his sadness; he says he wants to build a house out of it and lock himself inside for a hundred years. We all saw a three-hundred-year-long tunnel stretching ahead of us.”
    “Sure, we did too, here.”
    “So then why isn’t anyone willint go acknowledge that?”
    “Because people revise their feelings if the feelings were wrong. If history has disproved them.”
    “And then, too: everybody thinks we left to get ourselves an easy life. They don’t know how hard it is to carve out a little place for yourself in a foreign world. Can you imagine—leaving your country with a baby and with another one in your belly. Loosing your husband. Raising your two daughters with no money . . .”

When Communism falls in Cuba, many many Cuban-Americans will be faced with the stay here/return home question. Probably many contemplate that decision even today, and some may know exactly what they will do when Castro is dead and the island is free. But when it happens, this question takes on a whole new meaning. Those who once lived in Cuba and no longer do will be faced with questions and feelings that are probably too distant and abstract to contemplate now.

The book follows two people returning to their home country after decades, and the mixed feelings they experience at returning (temporarily for one of them) to places and people they have had no contact with in all that time.

    Now time as a very different look; it is no longer the conquering present capturing the future; it is the present conquered and captured and carried off by the past. She sees a young man disconnecting himself from her life and going away, forevermore out of reach. Mesmerized, all she can do is watch this piece of her life move off; all she can do is watch it and suffer. She is experiencing a brand-new feeling called nostalgia.
    That feeling, that irrepressible yearning to return, suddenly reveals to her the existence of the past, of her past; in the house of her life there are windows now, windows opening to the rear, onto what she has experienced; from now on her existence will be inconceivable without these windows.

Their two stories weave and intertwine, and towards the end they have a remarkable encounter, which I suppose implies that immigrants will always relate to each other in a way that is fundamentally different from how they relate to natives of their adopted country, or their friends and family that stayed behind.

It’s a sad book, but I have to hasten to say that Kundera doesn’t hit the reader over the head with anything. He forever digresses into beautiful stream-of-consciousness fragments, and even many of the scenes with his proper characters have the flavor of dreams. Reading any of his books is quite different from reading anything else.

Milan Kundera published his first novel in 1967. In 1975 he immigrated to France (so one assumes that this novel has its share of autobiography, or in any case that he knows whereof he speaks), but continued to write in Czech until 1990. His novels after that, written in French, got much shorter, and acquired a more direct poetry—a stronger sense of abstractness (they also all have one-word titles). This particular one has special significance for many Miami residents, but they’re all quite breathtaking, really.

And don’t get me started on the older, longer novels, which are full of strange literary experiments, history, sex, and the beginnings of that same poetry. You may have seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but of course the movie only shows the part of the book is filmable. I recommend reading all of his books in quick succession over a few months.


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  1. gansibele    Wed Sep 13, 08:40 AM #  

    Reading Kundera in Cuba, it was startling to see how much connection there was between life in the two countries. My favorite was “The Joke” -we all went through surreal experiences like that. “Life is Elsewhere”, “The Book of Laughable Loves”, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”. All amazing reads.

  2. paula    Wed Sep 13, 09:43 AM #  

    I’ll have to add this one to my reading list. I’ve read the “Unbearable Lightness of Being” “The Book of Laughable Loves.” Loved them both!

  3. J-J    Wed Sep 13, 01:57 PM #  

    I don’t know, I’ve read The Unberable Lightness of Being, and it left me a little bit dissapointed, I guess Kundera is not my type of writer…I take Saul Bellow any day before Kundera, but to each its own.

    All that said, his new book sounds interesting, if anything because of the Czech/Cuba parallel.

    I’ll try to see if I can get a copy at MB Library..or at the Aventura Borders…recently I have been getting some first class, horrible-Miami-style customer service at Books & Books, which isa real shame since I’ve been a loyal custumer since ‘96, their MB cafe seems to have a bizare anti-laptop attitude, and it doesnt matter if I order wine/dinner/coffe, I always feel unwelcome…But I digress, sorry about that…the Kundera book does sound interesting…and I don’t know maybe we should have a “Critical Miami book club” what do you guys think?


  4. Manola Blablablanik    Wed Sep 13, 02:24 PM #  

    Thanks for the tip … I’ve been looking for new things to read lately and Kundera is a favorite.

    The music in Unbearable Lightness was great. I loved the little, dreamy piano pieces by Leos Janacek, who was also Czech.

    J-J, what a pity. That is such a great Lincoln Road spot. I wonder what the deal is?

  5. disn'dat    Thu Sep 14, 10:39 PM #  

    alesh dear:
    check it out, the kronos quartet thing….
    i might, as an employee of mdc, be able to get a couple of tickets at no cost, lets see.