Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Book Review: Ignorance by Milan Kundera

Translated by Linda Asher.

There was a time in my early twenties when I consumed Milan Kundera novels. The infatuation began at the end of my first year of university, on holiday in Menorca reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera expanded my horizons of what was possible in a novel: I think I was a little overawed. When I got back I typed up a passage and blue-tacked it to my wall.

"He considered music a liberating force. It liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library. It opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world and make friends."

Nearly a decade later I still know this quote word for word. It hung for years next to one from Nelson Mandela and another by someone else I can not now remember. Kundera offered everything I wanted at the time in a novel: lyrical prose, Eastern European communist settings, intellectual fodder. The flow of words, images poking through the prose, invocation of emotions I, in my youth, found impossibly romantic. All suited me.

From there I progressed quickly. Through The Book of Laughter and Forgetting with its stunning first page and a half anecdote about the capacity for history to forget those who once stood centre stage, and Immortality with its post-modern concept of the creation of a character. Then came Ignorance and finally Life is Elsewhere and Xavier. Xavier seemed like a stroke of genius, at once liberating the protagonist, Jaromil, from his earthly station and allowing the novel to float across borders and under curtains. Xavier the exquisite metaphor for the majesty of freedom: freedom to drift from one story to another, one reality dissolving into the next. And Jaromil, full of romantic suffering, allowing Kundera to discuss the shape death gives life.

Kundera is a young mans’ novelist. And I loved him for it. But towards the end of these the familiar style grew a little repetitive. At the same time a vast array of other authors were unfurling before my eyes and I moved on to new territory.

I hadn’t read another Kundera in at least 5 years. So when the one of the book clubs I’m in – incidentally led by someone currently writing his PhD on Kundera – decided to read Ignorance, I was excited. And yet I almost didn’t re-read it. I was afraid, I think, deep down, that I had outgrown Kundera, that his work would no longer have the same impact on me as it once did.

By the end of page five these fears had been dispelled. The smooth prose once more captivated me, with psychology, philosophy, linguistics and more entwining around and through the story, explaining and advancing it,  Where some novelists seem to use fiction only as a sounding board for their musings, Kundera knits his into the fabric of the story, enlightening and entertaining alongside a worthwhile plot.

The genesis of Ignorance is an interesting one. Having published just one novel, The Joke, in 1967, Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975, to settle in France. For many years he published his most famous novels from abroad. Then, in the late 1990s, while others were returning to their homelands, Kundera chose to stay in France, and switched from writing in Czech to French. His three French novels, to which Ignorance belongs, are shorter than his Czech novels. Of them, Ignorance is perhaps the most biographically similar to Kundera’s own life, a response to the Diaspora that left Communist Block countries in the 50s, 60s and 70s to settle in Western Europe. It is a love story for home. But what home is, and whether it can change as one’s life does, is not certain. It’s a love story for memory and nostalgia and all the complex emotions precipitated by emigration. Guilt and jealousy and superiority and happiness and sadness and longing.

Having emigrated in the 1970s, Irena settled in Paris with her husband and young family. Though life proved difficult after her husband died, she battled through, and feels strong and independent for it. Josef left Czechoslovakia and found love and happiness in Denmark. When they meet, by chance, on a long put off homecoming, they pick up the shreds of a love that was abandoned years earlier, before it had chance to blossom. Each adrift in their homeland, culturally disconnected from their former peers and with the language sounding strange to their ears, they find solace in each other, connected by memories of who they were and uncertainty about who they have become. But memory is unreliable: do they remember the past in the same way? And what of Milada, a lonely woman scarred by a traumatic event in her teens? As their stories and experiences converge, Kundera poses the major question of the book: what of identity and memory when we are ignorant of our true selves?

Interspersed with this story, Kundera muses on Homer’s Odyssey and Odysseus’s experience of homecoming, drawing parallels with those of Irena and Josef. One of the great things about Kundera is that he eschews glib answers in favour of mess and uncertainty. There are no simple truths, only a mishmash of contradiction. My copies often end up full of notes on passages that I underline to return to:

“All predictions are wrong, that’s one of the few certainties granted to mankind. But though predictions may be wrong, they are right about the people who voice them, not about the future but about their experience of the present moment.”

Nostalgia is a concern Kundera returns to regularly. Jonathan Safran Foer took the title of his debut, Everything is Illuminated from a quote about nostalgia from The Unbearable Lightness of Being – “in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine”. This quote could almost act as a summery for Ignorance. What if, on returning home, you find your nostalgic memories of the past have become wrong? What if nostalgia has been deceiving you all along?

Kundera critiques his characters, explores them in a way that is more akin to psychoanalysis than fiction. It’s hard not to use hackneyed phrases such as tour-de-force when describing his approach to storytelling. However, something that struck me on this reading that I hadn’t fully voiced before, was the flaw in his understanding of human beings. He intellectualises rather than empathises, and as a result discounts the influence that compassion, generosity and kindness play as impulses to human behaviour. As a result his characters feel cold and unapproachable. As separate individuals, they are fine, but as a fictional landscape populated by invented characters, they do not convince.

Returning to Milan Kundera after a few years off was a wonderful experience, though it probably had less effect on my now than it once did. But then, I’m not sure how many books there are that have as great an impact on my now as when I was younger. Everyone should read Kundera at some point in the life, preferably when their young. All authors have the weaknesses, but few possess as many knockout strengths as he.

Ignorance was first published by Faber and Faber in 2003. ISBN: 9780571215515. 208pp


meg said...

I'll have to check this book out -- my only experience with Kundera was "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" in my younger years as well, but I remember liking it a lot.

Minnie said...

I loved 'The Joke' ... Yes, I think you're right: these are works for the young - and doubtless more for men than women (there's a fair bit of sexism in Kunder!).
Have you tried Josef Skvorecky? Less well-known than MK; but, in my view anyway, more interesting.