Ignorance

( 3 )

Overview

A New York Times Notable Book

Irena and Josef meet by chance while returning to their homeland, which they had abandoned twenty years earlier. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted almost as soon as it began and then lost in the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence "their memories no longer match."

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Overview

A New York Times Notable Book

Irena and Josef meet by chance while returning to their homeland, which they had abandoned twenty years earlier. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted almost as soon as it began and then lost in the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence "their memories no longer match."

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Milan Kundera's novel Ignorance explores a scenario close to his heart -- lovers who are swept away (and apart) by fate. It also shows why Kundera is one of the most distinctive talents working today. Like his earlier work, this novel is a delicious combination of eroticism and ephemeral themes, which meld into a powerful, moving tale.

Not surprisingly, fate's agent here is the 1968 Soviet invasion of Kundera's native Czechoslovakia. The book's protagonists, Josef and Irena, both fled after the crushing of the Prague Spring, only to return in the 1990s -- with much trepidation -- after the end of communist rule. What they find is a no-longer-familiar landscape, distant friends, and, briefly, solace in each other's arms. All of these notions will be familiar to fans of Kundera, whose previous works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Life Is Elsewhere, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The author, who was himself forced into exile in 1968, has spent the better part of his writing career retracing his footsteps -- a forgivable compulsion, since it has produced some fascinating work. Granted, in Ignorance this theme appears a bit shopworn, given the passage of a decade since the demise of communism in eastern Europe. And linguistically, the story comes to us third-hand; Kundera originally wrote the tale in French, which was then translated into economical English by Linda Asher. But what we get is another entertaining, quick read. Sam Stall

Maureen Howard
“Erudite and playful...An impassioned account of the émigré as a character on the stage of European history.”
Michiko Kakutani
“Milan’s Kundera’s resonant new novel IGNORANCE ….[is] wonderfully nuanced …. affecting.”
Rocky Mountain News
“Kundera is and elegant writer … He does a masterful job of reminding that the political is the personal.”
Newark Star Ledger
“[A] beautifully written tale of desire and loss.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“An entertaining and thought-provoking work”
Newsweek
“Nothing short of masterful.”
Boston Globe
“Moving … There is a painful injustice and inequality to memory, which these encounters beautifully illustrate.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A tour de force.”
Montreal Gazette
“Precise and spare …page by page this novel is dazzling.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“By far his most successful [novel] since THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING.”
Time Out New York
“Elegant … the emotional and intellectual payoff is extraordinary.”
Washington Post Book World
“Kundera once more delivers a seductive, intelligent entertainment … [with] elegance and grace.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A tour de force.”
Newsweek
“Nothing short of masterful.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“An entertaining and thought-provoking work”
Time Out New York
“Elegant … the emotional and intellectual payoff is extraordinary.”
Newark Star Ledger
“[A] beautifully written tale of desire and loss.”
Rocky Mountain News
“Kundera is and elegant writer … He does a masterful job of reminding that the political is the personal.”
Boston Globe
“Moving … There is a painful injustice and inequality to memory, which these encounters beautifully illustrate.”
Montreal Gazette
“Precise and spare …page by page this novel is dazzling.”
Washington Post Book World
“Kundera once more delivers a seductive, intelligent entertainment … [with] elegance and grace.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Literary excellence … [Kundera’s] irony and wit are …on target, his characters vivid and convincing.”
Tom LeClair
When considering Ignorance, some knowledge is useful. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Milan Kundera was fired from his university teaching position at the Prague Film Academy—and his writings were proscribed—soon after the Soviet invasion of 1968. In 1975 he emigrated to France, where he wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other novels in Czech. His three most recent novels—Immortality, Slowness and Identity—were primarily about French characters, and the last two were written in French. Ignorance was also composed in French, but returns to Czech characters as they return to their homeland after the fall of communism.

In Ignorance, Kundera asks a question he has probably often heard during his years in France: "Is it true that emigration causes artists to lose their creativity?" Although none of his four major characters are artists whose experiences might engage that question, the novel in which they exist answers in Kundera's usual indirect and qualified way: "not necessarily." Kundera's French novels have been less highly regarded than his Czech novels. Ignorance recaptures the larger-than-personal relevance of those earlier works. By reversing the émigré experience, the author creatively mines the rich material of changed people returning to a changed country and writes his best novel in more than a decade. "[T]he very notion of homeland," Kundera writes, "with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages."

Irena, now "forty-something," moved toFrance because her husband was harassed in 1969. After he died, she began living in Paris with a Swedish émigré named Gustaf who loves Prague, opens an office there and tries to persuade Irena to move home. On one of her trips back, Irena runs into Josef, who emigrated to Denmark and is returning to the Czech Republic for the first time in decades. She recognizes him as a man who made a pass at her when she was young, but he doesn't recognize her. Irena conceals from Josef what she remembers; he conceals from her what he has forgotten. Ignorance begins.

Josef is returning to the Czech Republic to satisfy the wish of his dead Danish wife but finds himself excited by the prospect of sex with a woman whose name he doesn't know. Irena returns to please her lover but sees in Josef a way to recapture her Czech youth, get free of Gustaf and perhaps escape her stifling family. Irena and Josef arrange to meet just before he goes back to Denmark.

While waiting for their liaison, the protagonists visit family and friends, Czechs who have managed to survive or manipulate the political system. But Irena and Josef ignore what they might learn from these people, and their false expectations of each other lead to betrayals of themselves, others and their histories. Complementing these two ambivalent and changing characters are simpler folk: Gustaf, who enjoys the novelty of Prague, and Milada, one of Josef's old girlfriends, who suffers because she never left the city. Taken together, the characters' responses to emigration represent the divided or quartered mind of their creator.

As in the past, Kundera shows little interest in soliciting readers of conventional novels. The title is off-putting. The characters and events seem like anecdotes assembled to illustrate a rambling lecture, perhaps by an amateur psychiatrist. We know little about the characters, what they look like, what they do. When emotional momentum builds between characters, Kundera shifts to other characters or to a philosophical reflection. He interrupts the novel's climactic sex scene several times. Detached telling dominates intimate showing. Abstractions take the place of the occasional concrete description.

These methods are Kundera's way of imposing ignorance on readers, giving us less than we expect or want—and forcing us to concentrate intensely on the puzzle pieces he leaves on the table. How is piece J like piece G, unlike piece I, a version of piece M? What does "home" really mean to these four characters? How are the returnees like Homer's Odysseus, to whom Kundera continually refers throughout the text? In the realm of motives, can family dynamics be separated from political oppression? What difference would knowledge of the past make when personal and social circumstances are so changed? Why is Ignorance from its first page onward saturated with a series of literal questions similar to these?

I think I know the answer to that last one. Many readers want to feel at home in a novel, secure as a native, unquestioned. But émigrés rarely feel completely at home—in their new country, back in their old country. Memory haunts them or leaves them with lacunae. They are continually forced to question the extent of their ignorance. Kundera's wayward narration and unanswerable speculations match perfectly with this ignorance, as similar methods did in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Like Kundera's characters, readers experience émigré uncertainty by moving around in this interrogative Book of Sadness and Remembering.

Sadness, remembering and some comedy: an absurd chat full of non sequiturs between Josef and a former communist; a devastating mockery of a teenage girl's desire to emigrate to a better place through suicide; Gustaf's grotesque seduction by his mother-in-law, the motherland he never had; a possibly parodic, possibly profound "mathematical" analysis of memory. Kundera's novel is a timely meditation on a Europe with more émigrés, exiles, refugees and displaced people than at any time since World War II. Ignorance is not bliss, but it troubles in canny and witty ways.
Publishers Weekly
"Would an Odyssey even be conceivable today? Is the epic of return pertinent to our own time? When Odysseus woke on Ithaca's shore that morning, could he have listened in ecstasy to the music of the Great Return if the old olive trees had been felled and he recognized nothing around him?" Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) continues to perfect his amalgam of Nietzschean aphorism and erotic tale-telling in this story of disappointing homecomings. The time is 1989 and the Communists have fallen in Prague. In the Paris airport, Irena, a Czech emigre, recognizes an ex-compatriot, Josef. More than 20 years ago, Josef almost seduced Irena in a Prague bar; the two chat and agree to meet again in Prague. Each is returning for a different reason. Irena, in 1968, fled the country with Martin, her husband, to escape the political pressure he was under. Martin is long dead, their children are grown and Irena is now being pressured to return to Prague by her Swedish lover, Gustaf, who has set up an office in the city. Josef, a veterinarian, also left the country after the Russian invasion, out of disgust. He is returning to the Czech Republic to fulfill a request from his recently deceased wife. Both discover new and annoying aspects of Prague (such as Kafka T-shirts) as well as old bitterness. When they meet, Josef neglects to tell Irena one fact: he doesn't really remember her. With elegant detachment and measured passion, Kundera once again shows himself the master of both the erudite and the carnal in this Mozartian interlude. (Oct. 4) Forecast: Kundera's succession of novels with one-word titles (Identity; Slowness; Immortality), all originally written in French, have drawn a more mixed reception from critics than his earlier novels written in Czech. This novel will probably be no exception-and will likely match the previous three in sales-but the consistency and quality of Kundera's output is matched by few contemporary writers. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Further exploring the definition and possibility of nostalgia, as well as such title-worthy themes as forgetting, lightness, and identity, Kundera's latest novel (and the best of the three he has written in French) follows two middle-aged Czech migr s who return briefly and somewhat reluctantly to their homeland in the months following the fall of communism. After several strong opening passages written in Kundera's typical blend of narrative and authorial meditation (and reminiscent of the more exciting pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality), Irena finds herself en route to Prague when she meets the similarly homebound Josef, with whom she'd nearly had an affair 20 years before. Irena's excitement and Josef's pretense of remembering her set up an ironic "Grand Return," rendered with compassion and humor, that features unpleasant memories, disappointment, sex born of desperation, and painful disconnections between the emigres and those they left behind. Though slightly thicker than Kundera's previous French offerings and hinting at the pre-Slowness fiction that won him a rabid following, Ignorance suffers from a seemingly hurried narrative whose end may produce in some fans a nostalgia for Kundera at his deepest and most playful. Recommended for libraries where Slowness and Identity were popular. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.]-Christopher Tinney, Brooklyn Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Czech émigré Kundera (Identity, 1998, etc.) returns to Prague for this hodgepodge of romance, history, and philosophy. Kundera has long since morphed into a kind of Czech Woody Allen, writing novels about neurotic characters falling into impossible love affairs while the narrator diverts himself with highbrow musings on fate and history. The odd couple this time are Josef and Irena, each returned to Prague after more than 20 years' exile to see what it has made of life after Communism. Irena has lived in Paris since 1969, and wasn't especially eager to go back-her French friends had to persuade her to return, partly because her Swedish lover Gustaf recently set up a business in Prague. Josef is returning from Denmark, where he's lived also since the 1960s. The two were young and inexperienced lovers then, in the Prague Spring that nearly toppled the Party-and led eventually to their emigration. Both married abroad, but both spouses have now died. Back again, Irena finds little that's appealing: The city is gray, her old friends foreign and distant. Josef finds that his older brother, once a Party stalwart, has adjusted to the new order and become an entrepreneur. Together, Josef and Irena try to discover what they lost when the Soviet invasion forced them apart in 1968, but their old love seems to have become as distant and alien as the city has. As usual, the author fills out the story with reflections on Schönberg, the Odyssey, and philosophy ("Memory cannot be understood, either, without a mathematical approach. The fundamental given is the ratio between the amount of time in the lived life and the amount of time from that life that is stored in memory"), which arediverting in their way but also distracting. An honorable failure: Kundera's taking himself too seriously is offset by his ability to change the subject again and again-though, at end, nothing adds up to much.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060002107
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/11/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 467,223
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.92 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Milan Kundera

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.

Biography

For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."

Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."

During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").

The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.

In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."

Good To Know

Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.

Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."

According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brno, Czechoslovakia
    1. Education:
      Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"What are you still doing here?" Her tone wasn't harsh, but it wasn't kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

"Where should I be?" Irena asked.

"Home!"

"You mean this isn't my home anymore?"

Of course she wasn't trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: "You know what I mean!"

"Yes, I do know, but aren't you forgetting that I've got my work here? My apartment? My children?"

"Look, I know Gustaf. He'll do anything to help you get back to your own country. And your daughters, let's not kid ourselves! They've already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it's so fascinating, what's going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out."

"But Sylvie! It's not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I've been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!"

"Your people have a revolution going on!"

Sylvie spoke in a tone that brooked no objection. Then she said no more. By her silence she meant to tell Irena that you don't desert when great events are happening.

"But if I go back to my country, we won't see each other anymore," said Irena, to put her friend in an uncomfortable position.

That emotional demagoguery miscarried. Sylvie's voice warmed: "Darling, I'll come see you! I promise, I promise!"

They were seated across from each other, over two empty coffee cups. Irena saw tears of emotion in Sylvie's eyes as her friend bent toward her and gripped her hand: "It will be your great return." And again: "Your great return."

Repeated, the words took on such power that, deep inside her, Irena sawthem written out with capital initials: Great Return. She dropped her resistance: she was captivated by images suddenly welling up from books read long ago, from films, from her own memory, and maybe from her ancestral memory: the lost son home again with his aged mother; the man returning to his beloved from whom cruel destiny had torn him away; the family homestead we all carry about within us; the rediscovered trail still marked by the forgotten footprints of childhood; Odysseus sighting his island after years of wandering; the return, the return, the great magic of the return.

Chapter Two

The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilize a word derived from the Greek (nostalgia, nostalgie) as well as other words with roots in their national languages: añoranza, say the Spaniards; saudade, say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called "homesickness." Or in German: Heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee. But this reduces that great notion to just its spatial element. One of the oldest European languages, Icelandic (like English) makes a distinction between two terms: söknuour: nostalgia in its general sense; and heimprá: longing for the homeland. Czechs have the Greek-derived nostalgie as well as their own noun, stesk, and their own verb; the most moving, Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe ("I yearn for you," "I'm nostalgic for you"; "I cannot bear the pain of your absence"). In Spanish añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss), In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there. Certain languages have problems with nostalgia: the French can only express it by the noun from the Greek root, and have no verb for it; they can say Je m'ennuie de toi (I miss you), but the word s'ennuyer is weak, cold -- anyhow too light for so grave a feeling. The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie, and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase: Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit, nach der verlorenen Kindheit, nach der ersten Liebe (longing for the past, for lost childhood, for a first love).

The dawn of ancient Greek culture brought the birth of the Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia. Let us emphasize: Odysseus, the greatest adventurer of all time, is also the greatest nostalgic. He went off (not very happily) to the Trojan War and stayed for ten years. Then he tried to return to his native Ithaca, but the gods' intrigues prolonged his journey, first by three years jammed with the most uncanny happenings, then by seven more years that he spent as hostage and lover with Calypso, who in her passion for him would not let him leave her island.

In Book Five of the Odyssey, Odysseus tells Calypso: "As wise as she is, I know that Penelope cannot compare to you in stature or in beauty ... And yet the only wish I wish each day is to be back there, to see in my own house the day of my return!" And Homer goes on: "As Odysseus spoke, the sun sank; the dusk came: and beneath the vault deep within the cavern, they withdrew to lie and love in each other's arms."

A far cry from the life of the poor émigré that Irena had been for a long while now. Odysseus lived a real ...

Ignorance. Copyright © by Milan Kundera. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

Ignorance
A Novel

Chapter One

"What are you still doing here?" Her tone wasn't harsh, but it wasn't kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

"Where should I be?" Irena asked.

"Home!"

"You mean this isn't my home anymore?"

Of course she wasn't trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: "You know what I mean!"

"Yes, I do know, but aren't you forgetting that I've got my work here? My apartment? My children?"

"Look, I know Gustaf. He'll do anything to help you get back to your own country. And your daughters, let's not kid ourselves! They've already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it's so fascinating, what's going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out."

"But Sylvie! It's not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I've been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!"

"Your people have a revolution going on!"

Sylvie spoke in a tone that brooked no objection. Then she said no more. By her silence she meant to tell Irena that you don't desert when great events are happening.

"But if I go back to my country, we won't see each other anymore," said Irena, to put her friend in an uncomfortable position.

That emotional demagoguery miscarried. Sylvie's voice warmed: "Darling, I'll come see you! I promise, I promise!"

They were seated across from each other, over two empty coffee cups. Irena saw tears of emotion in Sylvie's eyes as her friend bent toward her and gripped her hand: "It will be your great return." And again: "Your great return."

Repeated, the words took on such power that, deep inside her, Irena saw them written out with capital initials: Great Return. She dropped her resistance: she was captivated by images suddenly welling up from books read long ago, from films, from her own memory, and maybe from her ancestral memory: the lost son home again with his aged mother; the man returning to his beloved from whom cruel destiny had torn him away; the family homestead we all carry about within us; the rediscovered trail still marked by the forgotten footprints of childhood; Odysseus sighting his island after years of wandering; the return, the return, the great magic of the return.

Chapter Two

The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilize a word derived from the Greek (nostalgia, nostalgie) as well as other words with roots in their national languages: añoranza, say the Spaniards; saudade, say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called "homesickness." Or in German: Heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee. But this reduces that great notion to just its spatial element. One of the oldest European languages, Icelandic (like English) makes a distinction between two terms: söknuour: nostalgia in its general sense; and heimprá: longing for the homeland. Czechs have the Greek-derived nostalgie as well as their own noun, stesk, and their own verb; the most moving, Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe ("I yearn for you," "I'm nostalgic for you"; "I cannot bear the pain of your absence"). In Spanish añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss), In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there. Certain languages have problems with nostalgia: the French can only express it by the noun from the Greek root, and have no verb for it; they can say Je m'ennuie de toi (I miss you), but the word s'ennuyer is weak, cold -- anyhow too light for so grave a feeling. The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie, and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase: Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit, nach der verlorenen Kindheit, nach der ersten Liebe (longing for the past, for lost childhood, for a first love).

The dawn of ancient Greek culture brought the birth of the Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia. Let us emphasize: Odysseus, the greatest adventurer of all time, is also the greatest nostalgic. He went off (not very happily) to the Trojan War and stayed for ten years. Then he tried to return to his native Ithaca, but the gods' intrigues prolonged his journey, first by three years jammed with the most uncanny happenings, then by seven more years that he spent as hostage and lover with Calypso, who in her passion for him would not let him leave her island.

In Book Five of the Odyssey, Odysseus tells Calypso: "As wise as she is, I know that Penelope cannot compare to you in stature or in beauty ... And yet the only wish I wish each day is to be back there, to see in my own house the day of my return!" And Homer goes on: "As Odysseus spoke, the sun sank; the dusk came: and beneath the vault deep within the cavern, they withdrew to lie and love in each other's arms."

A far cry from the life of the poor émigré that Irena had been for a long while now. Odysseus lived a real ...

Ignorance
A Novel
. Copyright © by Milan Kundera. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

IntroductionThe collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 put an end not only to an ideology but to a perennial European character, the Émigré. After decades of being pitied as the Great Victim or despised as the Great Traitor [p. 30], he (or she) was now free to go back home, perhaps even morally obliged to do so. But what is home? Is it merely a place or something more tenuous and less easily attainable? And can someone who's spent half a life in the grip of nostalgia -- "the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return" [p. 5] -- emerge from it so easily? These are among the questions that Milan Kundera poses in Ignorance, a novel whose remarkably brief span encompasses two centuries of European history along with the intertwining relationships of several contemporary Europeans.Twenty years after leaving their native country, two Czech émigrés meet in the Paris airport as they wait for the flight to Prague. Irena is considering returning home for good. Josef, who found asylum in Denmark and married a Danish woman, is only visiting. Irena still keenly remembers the night many years before when she and Josef flirted in a bar in Prague. Josef can't remember Irena's name. Although they are immediately drawn to each other, their attraction -- at least on Irena's part -- is based on a misapprehension, one that will become apparent only at the most awkward and humiliating possible moment. In the days leading up to their assignation, Kundera tracks his protagonists' movements with the smooth precision of a surveillance camera. We see Irena at a reunion of her old friends; with her bawdy, irrepressibly competitive mother, andwith her entrepreneurial Swedish boyfriend, Gustav, who loves the vulgar, tourist-friendly Prague that Irena despises. We follow Josef to a meeting with his long-estranged brother and sister-in-law, a meeting in which tenderness vies with guilt and resentment. And, Ignorance being a Kundera novel, we also encounter a series of dazzling meditations on emigration, memory and loss, and particularly on The Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia, whose hero sacrifices the luxuries of exile for a risky return to a home where he is now a stranger. Discussion Questions
  • As in his previous novels, Kundera isn't content to merely tell a story; he also comments on it, via digressions on themes ranging from history to etymology and music. What is the effect of this method? Does it emotionally distance you from the narrative and characters or cause you to see them in a different light? Would you describe Ignorance as a realist novel?
  • When her Parisian friend Sylvie urges her to go home to her country, Irena replies "You mean this"--meaning Paris -- "isn't my home anymore?" This exchange suggests that "home" may be a relative phenomenon, that today's home may not be tomorrow's. How is this theme developed elsewhere in Ignorance? Can any of Kundera's characters be said to have a true home, or is home in this book always changeable, unreliable, and perhaps even illusory? And is going home a guarantee of happiness?
  • Even as Ignorance questions the permanence of home, it also raises doubts about the authenticity of the self, as in this moment when Irena glimpses her reflection in a department store mirror: "The person she saw was not she, it was somebody else, or…it was she but she living a different life." [p. 31] How would you sum up this novel's view of identity? Have Kundera's characters chosen their identities or have their identities been imposed on them by outside forces?
  • Early in the novel Kundera draws a series of correspondences and oppositions: between homesickness, nostalgia, and ignorance; between the longing for a place and the longing for a vanished past or a lost love. How does he develop these themes? Is Irena's nostalgia, for example, merely an expression of ignorance? Conversely, what is the reason for Josef's "nostalgic insufficiency?" [p. 74] When do these characters confuse homesickness with other types of longing, and with what consequences?
  • What is the significance of Ignorance's frequent references to The Odyssey? Do any events in this novel parallel those in Homer's epic? Is Josef's devotion to his deceased wife, for example, meant to recall Odysseus's devotion to Penelope? Compare the way Kundera uses The Odyssey in this book to the way Joyce uses it in Ulysses.
  • "Our century is the only one in which historic dates have taken such a voracious grip on every single person's life." [p.11] In what ways are the characters in Ignorance shaped by history and their personal destinies determined by it? Are they ever able to resist history? Does Kundera's view of historical forces hold out any hope for the freedom and dignity of the individual?
  • How would you describe Irena's and Josef's relationships with their families and old friends? Why are these so often marked by suspicion, incomprehension or outright hostility? In contrast, Irena and Josef seem to share a frictionless instant intimacy, even though they are little more than strangers. Is Kundera suggesting that the intimacy of strangers is somehow superior to the stifling, conventional closeness that prevails within most families? Are some of the characters' relationships more genuine than others?
  • What role is played by Irena's friend Milada who, unbeknown to Irena, was once Josef's girlfriend? Does Josef's past treatment of Milada predict his future behavior toward Irena? Is he morally responsible for Milada's mutilation or has Milada merely sacrificed herself for a sentimental fantasy? What do you make of Kundera's use of coincidence? Does he seem to view it the way Irena does -- as an expression of fate?
  • Are you surprised by the sexual encounter between Irena's mother and her boyfriend? Does it strike you as a betrayal of Irena, who at the time is betraying Gustav with Josef? Is Josef himself guilty of betraying Irena by his silence? How would you characterize this novel's attitude toward sex? About the Author: The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, for more than twenty years. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Life is Elsewhere, Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Immortality, Slowness, and Identity, and the short story collection Laughable Loves. His works of nonfiction include The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed.
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2003

    Nostalgia broken down

    A beautifully written work that gets to the soul of deeply rooted feelings of nostalgia, love, and loss. Kundera ties his characters' past and present in an interesting homecoming.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2003

    Well written, but not magnificent.

    Although this has been said MANY times, Kundera's works in Czech were brilliant, and his subsequent works in French have paled. While Ignorance is better than both his previous books in French, it still doesn't have the eloquence that The Unbearable Lightness of Being possessed. The philosophical passages of this book have a very rehashed feeling, as if we have heard all this before and it is no longer relevant. However the characters are well defined and the question of memories and ignorance are very thought provoking. Unfortunately, Kundera has yet to live up to his earlier works. I still recommend this book because it was a good read; good, but not brilliant.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2009

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