What is home? Is it where one lives or where one was raised? Does your home lie with the people you love or where destiny takes you? Milan Kundera questions just that in his short, thought-provoking novel, Ignorance. Like a fly on the wall, the narrator follows characters Irena and Josef back to Czechoslovakia in 1989 after a two-decade absence. Both emigrated after the soviet take-over in 1969 and, upon their return, face the reality that life in Prague went on without them.
Ignorance forces the reader to evaluate life in the midst of political turmoil and exile. It juxtaposes the lives go Czech emigres with those who weathered the communist occupation of Czechoslovakia between 1969 and 1989. Irena faces extreme difficulty in connecting with her Czech friends when she return to Prague in 1989. After twenty years of building a new home in France, she finds it hard to imagine that her return to Prague is a ‘Great Return’ home. Her childhood friends have completely different lives and seem uninterested in Irena’s experience away from Czechoslovakia. She is an outsider in a place she is supposed to consider home.
Josef moved to Denmark in 1969 and faced a similar struggle upon his return to his country of origin. He feels his family forgot he existed while he was away because many of his relatives had passed away without him receiving proper notice. Josef barely recognizes his own brother and finds it difficult to connect with his past. During his visit, he reunited with a communist friends and has an amazing discussion about the importance of past and the definition of self.
Josef and Irena cross paths on the flight back to their original home, leading to an inevitable climax: a vivid, page-turning sexual and emotional explosion between the pair. Intriguing supporting characters add substance to the work by giving the reader insight to the world in which the main characters live. As the story progresses, the lives of the characters fuse together to form a network of people all marvelously linked to one another by fate.
Kundera writes beautifully and from the heart, reaffirming his position among the elite of contemporary writers. He tells a story rich in history and tradition without being boringly technical; he adds believable emotional journeys to the history learned from textbooks. He dotes upon his characters with a parent’s love and affection. His descriptions of the dreary situations never cease to convey genuine compassion and understanding for human suffering.
Kundera’s writing is a conversation with the reader told with eloquence and clarity. Like on the commentary track of a DVD, he discusses the actions of his characters every few chapters. The work is thought-provoking without going off into the philosophical rhetoric that often fills books of this nature.
Words, art and historical data are intertwined with the journeys of the characters to add context. Kundera compares the journey of the emigres to Odysseus’ journey in Homer’s epic. He also uses the comments of Arnold Schoenberg, a 20th century musician, in an interesting philosophical analysis of time. Does our expectation of the future dictate our actions in the present? Does nostalgia overwhelm our thinking? Is it possible to live solely in the present? Milan Kundera’s ideas on the subject are definitely worth reading.