Plot: Czech expatriate Irena, who has been living in France, decides to return to her home after twenty years. During the trip she meets, by chance, Josef, a fellow émigré who was briefly her lover in Prague.
The novel examines the feelings instigated by the return to a homeland, which has ceased to be a home. In doing so, it reworks the Odyssean themes of homecoming. It paints a poignant picture of love and its manifestations, a recurring theme in Kundera's novels. The novel explores and centres around the way that people have selective memories as a precursor to ignorance. The concept of ignorance is presented as a two-fold phenomenon; in which ignorance can be a willing action that people participate in, such as avoiding unpleasant conversation topics or acting out. Yet also exploring the involuntary aspects of being ignorant, such as feigning ignorance of the past or avoiding the truth.
Review: Since Milan Kundera stopped writing fiction in Czech, he has produced two slim novels in French, Slowness (1996) and Identity (1998). Both are set in France, where he has lived since 1975. Ignorance, too, is a compact exploration of variations on a theme: that of "home", nostalgia for homeland, and the irony of the Odyssean homecoming. Yet like much of Kundera's fiction, its deeper concern is with memory and forgetting.
Irene is a Czech émigré who has spent 20 years in Paris since the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968, alternating between waking nostalgia and the fearful "emigration-dream" of finding herself back in her native land. With the collapse of communism in 1989, she bows to pressure from French friends to embark on the "great return", the romantic voyage "home", only to rediscover that she had left partly to escape her over bearing mother. "The implacable forces of history that had attacked her freedom had set her free."
At Paris airport she meets Josef, a vet with whom she had a brief encounter in Prague, now a widower living in Denmark and making his first journey back. He too finds his emigration was driven by a need to escape - in his case his noxious, masochistic memory. With excruciating insight, Kundera homes in on the alienation of the returning émigré. Trying on a dress, Irene is momentarily imprisoned in the life she might have led had she stayed. For Josef, seeing his old watch on his brother's wrist "threw him into a strange unease. He had the sense he was coming back into the world as might a dead man emerging from his tomb after 20 years". His mother-tongue is an "unknown language whose every word he understood". Their memories are out of sync with those they have left behind. Encountering resentment and "suffering-contests" over who had the hardest time under the regime, Irene is shocked by friends' indifference to the 20-year "odyssey" that separates her from them but which has become her identity; she is like Odysseus after his 20-year wandering, "amazed to realise that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca". Irene senses that, as a condition of reacceptance and pardon, they "want to amputate 20 years of my life from me".
Kundera also skewers facile assumptions about the émigré. Irene is dropped by a Parisian friend who feels duped by her refusal to confirm her suffering with a joyous homecoming. According to Irene, the French, for whom "judgments precede experience", were "already thoroughly informed that Stalinism is an evil and emigration is a tragedy. They weren't interested in what we thought, they were interested in us as living proof of what they thought".
Their alienation inexorably brings Irene and Josef together. Yet the novel also reveals how the selectiveness of memory, regardless of geographical displacement, can create rifts both with our earlier selves and between people who ostensibly share a past. Finding in his teenage diaries evidence of "sentimentality mixed with sadism", Josef wonders: "How can two such alien, such opposite beings have the same handwriting? What common essence is it that made a single person of him and this little snot?" He remembers next to nothing of his break-up with a girlfriend in his adolescence, but the novel reveals her trauma, which led to a botched suicide attempt that left her frostbitten, her beauty marred by an amputated ear.
Irene too remembers perfectly her first encounter with Josef, while he recalls nothing, not even her name. Their attraction is based on an "unjust and revolting inequality", and is exposed as a delusion in an inevitable sex scene. As Kundera once told Philip Roth, the erotic scenes in which all his novels culminate are the "focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located". This is a pity, since the eroticism is banal and tawdry; the couple are aroused by "dirty" words in their mother tongue, while in a parallel scene, Irene's mother seduces her daughter's cuckolded Swedish lover, Gustaf. The denouement, an unravelling of illusion, proves bathetic rather than profound.
There are also inane, inchoate parallels between Irene and Josef's early girlfriend, whose suicide attempt was born of overpowering "nostalgia" for a dawning past, and also resulted in "amputation". Yet the novel is propelled by Kundera's ironic probing of the mythology of home, the delusions of roots. Nostalgia, from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (suffering), is the "suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return". Provocatively, the novel suggests an inverse relationship between memory and nostalgia: lone exiles are amnesiac, for nostalgia "suffices unto itself... so fully absorbed is it by its suffering and nothing else". Memory, however, relies on collective reinforcement. Émigrés in "compatriot colonies" retell tales to the "point of nausea", rendering them unforgettable. Josef opts to return to Denmark, realizing that if he stays in Prague he will lose the memory of his dead wife, whom no one asks after.
Challenging the "moral hierarchy of emotions" laid down when Homer "glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath", Ignorance tilts at the romantic assumption that separation from the land of one's birth must be a kind of death - just as, for the artist, it is casually and erroneously assumed to be the death of creativity.
Opening Line: “What are you still doing here?”
Closing Line: “Through the port hole, he saw far off in the sky a low wooden fence, and a brick house with a slender fir tree like a lifted arm before it.”
Quotes: “In Irena’s head the alcohol plays a double role: it frees her fantasy, encourages her boldness, makes her sensual, and at the same time it dims her memory. She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdness in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”