Author: Milan Kundera
Year Published: 2002
Kundera’s newest novel, Ignorance, follows themes similar to several of his other novels, with the concentration of this one on nostalgia, on what people believe they should be feeling at a given moment even when they are not, and on how the decisions we make at the ‘Age of Ignorance’ (or in our late teens/early twenties) affect our lives when we come to know and understand ourselves better later in life. Intermixed with these themes is the story of Odysseus’ travels in the Odyssey and how it parallels the Great Return home of each of the characters.
The story is about two Czech émigrés who left during the Communist era and are now returning to Czech for the first time since the Communist regime ended in 1989. During Irena’s return, she realizes how people have come to accept her as an émigré who left instead of staying loyal to her country. As she meets with her old Czech friends, she realizes the terms of their acceptance. They want to know nothing about her life outside the country. They want to amputate it, as she puts it, and by doing so, make her the same as them. Josef, on the other hand, returns to visit his family and revisits an old diary of his childhood. He marvels at the character he once was with distaste – how could he have been that creature, who seems so different from who he is now? These two émigrés end up meeting by chance to continue an old romance that neither of them accurately remembers.
One of the main themes of the book is the terms and conditions by which people accept another as one of their own. They look for similarities, memories they can both reminisce together, even if they both share a different perception of what actually occurred. After all, no two people share the same memories, which fade with time. Often people don’t even remember themselves for who they were, and reading old writings, they ask themselves how this writer could have possibly been them at one point. People change, but others don’t see them for who they are now. Only who they once knew, or as Kundera puts it “a reality no longer is what it was when it was it cannot be reconstructed.
I always walk away from a Kundera book thinking a little differently about life, and while many of the ideas in this book have been written about in greater detail in his other books, I still enjoyed it as a quick read/refresher.