“Three minutes thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.”
A. E. Houseman
In the 1950s and ’60s, Milan Kundera was a cultural icon in his native Czechoslovakia, but he didn’t really break through to the rest of the world until his masterful, landmark novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was published in 1984. Critics lauded this work, with its heady themes of war and revolution, liberal doses of sex, light comedy, and word games, as a genuine novel of ideas. His reputation was increased when a movie by the same name, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, was released four years later.
By this time, Kundera had been living in France for nine years, having emigrated during a period of cultural revolution in the mid-’70s. He began writing in his adopted French and, soon after, published a novel and two non-fiction collections originally written in the French. His latest book, Ignorance, follows this trend, and was translated into English by his long-time translator Linda Asher.
Milan Kundera is an author who jealously guards his private life and often responds to interviews in written format to avoid being misquoted. Some critics have put him in the Czech structuralist camp, which asserts that novels are a series of signs that do not depend on external influences for meaning. Kundera does believe that novels ought to be “autonomous,” and this explains why he has such a strong authorial presence in his work. In describing his settings, he often goes through whole etymologies of words, describes histories of revolutions in order to give us a sense of time and context, and offers sexual intrigue as a kind of intellectual foil.
The problem is: Ignorance offers us nothing new. Stylistically, it is very similar to his earlier work, though much shorter and less developed. Time-wise, it seems a logical extension. While Unbearable took place right before and immediately after the Russian invasion in the latter part of the ’60s and early ’70s, Ignorance takes place after the invasion’s end in 1991. The novel focuses on the cultural shock of trying to return to one’s homeland after an absence of some years and uses the character Irena for this purpose. With a dead husband, grown daughters, and the specter of violence gone, there should be nothing holding her back, right?
This is one of the central questions Kundera explores as he guides us through the novel. Is it the idea of homeland or homeland itself? Can you ever recover who you were at a former time? Although Irena is happy in Paris, there is still the nagging idea of home. Where is home? What is home? When the opportunity to go back to Prague arises, she decides to go and see, and put this doubt to rest. She discovers that the language there has subtly shifted, the fashions are boring (and expensive), and even her old friends, who refuse to drink the wine she bought because they think it is a sign of her condescending to them, have changed.
At the airport on the way home, she meets a man whom she believes is a lover she hasn’t seen in 20 years, but who may, in fact, be a total stranger. His name is Josef; he’s been living in Denmark and has experienced his own difficulty reconciling the past in his mind with the present time. Irena and Josef get together for a few passionate hours, and although he doesn’t know her name, he’s not exactly against a roll in the hay (hey, he’s a man, after all, right?). This time of passion is like ignorance, is it not? Okay, so here we are at the crux of the book, the part where all the ideas come together and we get some kind of resolution. Here is what we get. No kidding. This is it.
Kundera’s use of sex as a foil for ideas gets banal after a while. Too often it is used for levity or to leaven an otherwise dull plot. But even sex can’t save this book. Indeed, it opens with a conversation in chapter one, goes immediately into etymology in chapter two and doesn’t really pick up until mid-way through. Much of the short time he does spend with us is squandered on seemingly irrelevant details: a girlfriend’s botched high-school suicide and a sister-in-law’s animosity in a section of back-story on Josef.
The story is interesting in the cultural context the author provides but, ultimately, it fails to satisfy on a deeper level. The words in the novel seem so sure to satisfy that they never really rise above the text crying out, “Look, I am a book that the famous Milan Kundera wrote!” One is left to wonder if he is merely resting on his literary laurels or simply has no new way of presenting material.