Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601
In Ignorance, Kundera treats themes that could not be more personal and, at the same time, more universal. After the Eastern bloc fell in 1989, he chose not to return to Czechoslovakia. Because Kundera is one of the most visible and admired artists his country has produced in the twentieth century, his choice was controversial in Prague and led to his being publicly, repeatedly, and harshly criticized by many of his former friends. Furthermore—or, perhaps, consequently—in the fiction he wrote in the 1990’s, Kundera seemed to be consciously focused on escaping the dissident and émigré identity that had previously defined him in the eyes of many of his readers.
All of his novels since The Joke have been informed by a cosmopolitan and philosophical sensibility; he has said that “in our times we must consider a book that is unable to become a part of the world’s literature to be nonexistent.” However, a striking shift occurs with Immortality, his first novel to appear after 1989. Most of the contemporary characters and the setting in Immortality are French. His subsequent novels, Slowness and Identity, are written in French, located in France, populated by French characters, and nearly totally devoid of the political themes that had been an essential element of his previous fiction. Ignorance, therefore, comes at the end of a decade in which the conflict an émigré feels between the claims of past and present, native and adopted language, first and later home, former and current culture, old and new friends—all of which had appeared in earlier works, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being—had become an even more insistent concern for Kundera.
To investigate these conflicting claims in Ignorance, he once again turns to Czech characters, sending them back to Prague in his stead. This time, “nostalgia” joins “memory” and “forgetting” as the key words his novel explores. Irena, a widow who has lived in France for twenty years, and Josef, a widower who has lived in Denmark for the same period, are drawn back to Prague by nostalgia, which Kundera associates with Odysseus and defines as “the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” The question the novel poses is whether there can ever really be such a return, and its answer is no. Although Irena and Josef can fly from Paris to Prague, can walk streets, see friends, and recall encounters and earlier selves that they have thought longingly of in their exile, because nothing and no one—including them—remains as they remembered, the “yearning to return” can never be appeased.
When Irena brings her friends together for a dinner where she serves them good French wine, they prefer to drink Czech beer and are totally uninterested in learning what has happened to her since she left. They had “amputated twenty years from her life,” she thinks. Josef looks at sights he has cherished in his memory and finds that “during his absence an invisible broom had swept over the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.” Ultimately, Irena and Josef’s memories of an earlier encounter of their own turn out to be just as disappointing and irreconcilable. The choice they are left with is the exile’s dilemma: to return to the land of their birth and leave behind self, life, and experience of their time spent abroad, or to return to their adopted land, where all the years and places that first shaped them no longer matter to anyone but them.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 99 (September 1, 2002): 57.
Library Journal 127 (October 15, 2002): 94.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 6, 2002): 38.
Publishers Weekly 249 (August 26, 2002): 38.