Though first published in a Spanish translation, Ignorance is the latest of three novels that Milan Kundera has written in French after making his mark in his native Czech with poetry, plays, criticism, and fiction, most notably the novels Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli (1979; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980) and L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’être(1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984). Like many other Czech artists and intellectuals, Kundera was booted from the Communist Party after the Prague Spring of 1968, and his writings were banned. In 1975 he and his wife were finally allowed to immigrate to France, where they have since lived, mostly in Paris, and become citizens. Ignoranceseems like a novel by an author who might want to visit his homeland but not live there.
Thematically, Ignorance raises the question of where home is anymore in the modern world, not only for émigrés but for anyone who moves around. The place of one’s birth no longer seems to qualify, as one grows away from it, moves to more attractive places, or becomes cosmopolitan in tastes. For people in and from formerly communist countries, sudden opportunities to travel and migrate, after decades of restricted opportunities, seem to have raised the question afresh.
Irena, the novel’s main character, who lives in Paris, has enjoyed the status of émigré for two decades: Parisians feel sorry for the poor Czech woman and other displaced persons of her ilk. However, after the fall of Czech communism in 1989, they begin to wonder why she is not hurrying back home to help out. Her Parisian friends seem to consider it her patriotic duty. Yet Irena has worked hard to become settled in Paris, where she buried her Czech husband and raised their two daughters, who for all practical matters are French. Now Irena has a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend in Paris, not a bad city in which to make one’s home. Only a visit from her mother, who still lives in Prague, persuades Irena to make a return visit to the city of her birth.
Josef, the novel’s other main character, likewise fled Czechoslovakia in 1969. He settled in Denmark, where he married a Danish woman, and they lived happily together until she died. Josef, still mourning her death and attached to their home in Denmark, where he keeps everything just as it was when she was alive, is also very slow to return to the land of his birth. Now he is returning for a visit only because he had promised his dying wife that he would. Josef also returns to see friends and close relatives who remained in Czechoslovakia, specifically his brother and brother’s family.
On their way to Czechoslovakia, Irena and Josef meet by chance in the Paris airport. Irena remembers Josef from another chance encounter many years before in Prague, before she married. She had joined friends in a bar, and one of them had brought along Josef. There had been some chemistry between the two, but after their meeting they had never seen each other again: “Their love story stopped before it could start.” Now Irena introduces herself again, and they agree to get together in Prague. Actually, Josef cannot remember her (he had frequented the Prague bar to pick up women), but now he sees no reason to turn down an opportunity for friendship with a warm, good-looking woman.
Before they rendezvous in Prague, they both have certain rounds to make. Here is where Kundera begins to chip away at the idea of the Great Return. Both Irena and Josef are struck by the strangeness of the spoken Czech language, which seems to have developed an ugly nasal drawl since their departure. They also both notice the hometown diminution effect: Landscapes and city scenes that once seemed impressive have shrunk into insignificance, if they have not disappeared altogether. Worst of all, the whole country has been inundated by tasteless popular culture and crass commercialism; for example, the music on the radio is described as “noise” and “sewage-water music,” and the tubercular face of writer Franz Kafka adorns a T-shirt for tourists.
Both Irena and Josef get a glimpse of what they might have become if...
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