Kundera's 'Ignorance': odyssey without end

October 20, 2002|By Laura Demanski | By Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Ignorance, by Milan Kundera. HarperCollins. 208 pages. $23.95

Discovered by American readers in the 1980s, the celebrated Czech writer Milan Kundera has remained one of the most widely read European writers here. His towering reputation as a postmodern philosopher-novelist rests most heavily on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in English in 1984.

Kundera often writes about the peculiar historical circumstances in Eastern Europe in the last several decades, and his novels have a strong existentialist bent. In the 1980s, this meant writing about life and love under Soviet occupation, and the grimness of that political situation fit well with Kundera's disaffected aesthetic. Now, with the somber, slender Ignorance, Kundera turns to writing about life after communism -- but the mood remains overcast and portentous.

Specifically, Ignorance takes up the plight of emigrants returning to the homeland. This subject also serves as the occasion for quasi-philosophical speculation about homecoming, memory and nostalgia. The main characters in Ignorance, having fled Czechoslovakia during the Soviet occupation, find themselves newly free to return after 1989.

Irena has been living in France for 20 years, and Josef has made his life in Denmark. The two cross paths in an airport while ambivalently making their separate ways back to Prague in what Kundera repeatedly compares to the exultant return of Odysseus to Ithaca.

The comparison serves to show how compromised, debased, perhaps even extinct is the idea of nostalgic return in the modern, cosmopolitan world: "Would an Odyssey even be conceivable today? Is the epic of the return still pertinent to our time?"

Indeed, back in the Czech Republic, Irena and Josef each find a less than welcoming reception. Irena's friends disregard the life she has lived abroad, leaving her feeling "as if they were amputating her calves and joining her feet to her knees." The violence of this metaphor might be persuasive if the novel gave more details of Irena's life in France and how it has become a part of who she is. But because she is only a bare outline of a character, her distress here rings over-dramatic and false.

Kundera is always interested in questions of how we become who we think we are -- how we construct a self out of the motley materials life and circumstances offer up. Josef proves a somewhat richer case study for such explorations than Irena does. Back at home, going through old things, he comes upon a forgotten diary he kept as a teen-ager. He is astonished to find his younger self unrecognizable, a "detestable snot."

Kundera, at his best when attending to historical and human particulars, is also an inveterate armchair philosopher who will always use his characters and their stories as the jumping-off points for high-minded speculative meanderings: "Love is the glorification of the present"; "The past we remember is devoid of time."

This worked in many of his earlier books because his flights of pure theorizing were tethered to a solid novelistic ground of fully imagined, generously drawn characters. In the skeletal Ignorance, with its skeletal characters, the shakiness of the fiction shows up the banality of much of the philosophizing.

Laura Demanski studies Victorian literature at the University of Chicago. She is completing a dissertation about representations of the London poor in the writing of Henry James, Arthur Morrison and other late-19th-century novelists. She previously worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Her reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune as well as The Sun.

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