Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Milan Kundera, From Prague to Paris

This year’s Ovid Prize was awarded to Czech novelist Milan Kundera. This prize, an obscure Romanian literary award (the Roman poet Ovid was banished by the emperor Augustus to the Black Sea of modern-day Romania, most likely for having untoward relations, literary or otherwise, with the emperor’s tartish daughter, Julia), is one of many such alternatives for deserving writers who will most likely never receive the Nobel (due to their being too popular, too successful, or, according to the Swedish academy, too American–for a longer rant about this, see my first blog post). The choice of Milan Kundera for the 2011 prize was unusual not based upon his merit, but only on his recent productivity. His last published work was the novel Ignorance, in 2000. This short work was, in my opinion, better than his previous two novels, Slowness (1995) and Identity (1998), but still far from the literary apex that can be seen in his trilogy of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), and Immortality (1990). Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the 82-year-old Kundera will publish any further novels (or memoirs), and, if not, Ignorance will surely come to be seen as a not-unworthy swan song.

Though his recent novels do not have the same philosophical depth as his earlier masterpieces, they share the same penchant for authorial asides and digressions on any number of subjects that Kundera simply wants to discuss. In Ignorance, for example, we are treated to an etymological explanation of the novel’s title and main theme in the second chapter. We find that ignorance, in its Latin derivation, is not primarily related to mere unknowingness in this case, but is connected to the earlier Greek word of nostalgia. Nostalgia, “the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”, has different semantic nuances in each European language, but often refers to the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one’s country–“homesickness” we might say in English. The sense of ‘not knowing’ is represented in Spanish and Portuguese words for ‘nostalgia’ that derive from ‘ignorare’, “to be unaware of, to lack of to miss”. So, ignorance and nostalgia can both imply a meaning of “My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there.”

This conclusion leads Kundera to tell us about the ancient history of this feeling of nostalgia, which inevitably involves a recurring motif of the travels of Odysseus and his longing for Ithaca:

Odysseus lived a real dolce vita there in Calypso’s land, a life of ease, a life of delights.  And yet, between the dolce vita in a foreign place and the risky return to his home, he chose the return.  Rather than ardent exploration of the unknown (adventure), he chose the apotheosis of the known (return).  Rather than the infinite (for adventure never intends to finish), he chose the finite (for the return is a reconciliation with the finitude of life).

Kundera discusses the importance of certain dates in 20th century European history, pointing especially to the “remarkable mathematical beauty” of Czech history in the that time period: 1918 and 1938, 1948 and 1968, 1969 and 1989. He mentions how emigrants from Communist countries were received differently in France over these time periods, and were never seen to be as impressive as the emigrants from earlier Fascism. The main character of Ignorance, Irena, is a typically shallow creature created by Kundera mostly to record his own observations. In this case, Irena’s life is blatantly modeled on the author himself–they both emigrated from Prague to Paris (1969 and 1975, respectively) after the Prague Spring, and both live in permanent exile from their homeland.

The main plot of the book concerns a summary of Irena’s life in exile, and her eventual decision to return to her country for a visit after the Red Army left in 1989, 20 years after she had left. In the airport, she encounters Josef, another émigré living in Denmark with whom she had had a brief youthful affair many years ago. Her feelings of anger towards him change as she remembers the many things she had forgotten, or chose to ignore, about her past. “She had the sense that their love story, begun twenty years earlier, had merely been postponed until the two of them should be free.” Kundera examines the nature of memory and recollection, leading to the climax in which Irena (and we) learn that not everyone shares the same memories of the same events.

Irena also has an uncomfortable dinner with childhood friends during her return to Prague. She brings an expensive bottle of Bordeaux to share, but they are uninterested and order beer. She realizes that they are also uninterested in her most of the night. Finally, they drink the wine after the beer is finished and begin to turn their attention towards her:

Until that moment they have shown no interest in what she was trying to tell them. What is the meaning of this sudden onslaught? What is it they want to find out, these women who wouldn’t listen to anything before? She soon sees that their questions are of a particular kind: questions to check whether she knows what they know, whether she remembers what they remember. This has a strange effect on her, one that will stay with her:
Earlier, by their total uninterest in her experience abroad, they amputated twenty years from her life. Now, with this interrogation, they are trying to stitch her old past onto her present life. As if they were amputating her forearn and attaching the hand directly to the elbow; as if they were amputating her calves and joining her feet to her knees.

This striking description can only come from someone like Kundera, who left his homeland at the age of 46, and spent 25 years reflecting on his experience prior to this novel. An example of his ambivalence towards his country of birth is that this novel is his third that was written only in French, rather than Czech (and it has not even been translated into Czech!). This is probably the main reason why Kundera’s last three novels have been so much shorter than his earlier works (Ignorance clocks in at just under 200 pages), as well as being written in a more simplified and less humorous style.

What this last novel might lack in style, it makes up for in the depth and emotion one feels in its pages. Great novelists are great observers first, and this is a mature novel inspired by a lifetime of observations. In his musings on memory, there are not-so-faint hints of an earlier theme from The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Such is the law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer.” In a chapter about Irena’s youthful feelings towards Josef, it is hard to miss the fact that it is an old man writing the words: “When she is older she will see in these resemblances a regrettable uniformity among individuals and a tedious monotony among events; but in her adolescence she welcomes these coincidences as miraculous and she is avid to decipher their meanings.” Likewise with an opinion about the gradual change in married relationships: “Couples have a continuous conversation that lulls them, its melodious stream throwing a veil over the body’s waning desires.  When the conversation breaks off, the absence of physical love comes forward like a ghost.”

Odysseus returning to Ithaca

Odysseus continues to be used as a point of reference for the story of Irena and the theme of nostalgia. “During the twenty years of Odysseus’ absence, the people of Ithaca retained many recollections of him but never felt nostalgia for him. Whereas Odysseus did suffer nostalgia, and remembered almost nothing.” In addition, Kundera (who studied musicology and composition) occasional makes musical references to tie in with his larger theme. In this case, he discusses Arthur Schoenberg and his atonal system.

This book, although not Kundera’s best, is still quite a thought-provoking achievement that lesser authors could only hope to accomplish. It is especially worth reading for anyone who has lived away from his homeland for any period of time, or who often reflects on memories and nostalgia for the past. We all have ignorance about how our past and future will connect, but it is valuable to think about the possibilities in any case. As Kundera writes: “All predictions are wrong, that’s one of the few certainties granted to mankind.  But though predictions may be wrong, they are right about the people who voice them, not about their future but about their experience of the present moment.”

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One thought on “Milan Kundera, From Prague to Paris

  1. Pingback: Philosophy as the Art of Dying | Tigerpapers

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