Monday, June 6, 2016

Book Review “Ignorance”: Milan Kundera

 Yearning to return to our native lands and original places of abode is not merely a noble feeling; it is also one of the strongest emotions that rules and drives us.    But for Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia and later settled in France, nostalgia is a far more  complex feeling that comes with different significances.
 Czechoslovakia was born at the end of the First World War, disappeared during the Second World War and reappeared thereafter. It was literally effaced from the map of European Civilization during Russian occupation till about the fall of communism in 1989. How would a fine novelist like Milan Kundera  find such changes in the status of his motherland land when he is swept by that noble feeling of nostalgia? And how would that generate different possibilities of human existence? Milan Kundera’s novel “Ignorance” is deep meditation on the feeling of nostalgia as it comes up with moving pictures, insights and some important questions.   The story moves around two strangers---a man and a woman who had earlier met but once----who are visiting their motherland after a long gap; it’s a story about what happens to them and what happens between them. 

 Yearning for our origins, homelands and native places is a powerful emotion that makes people do great things; it is also at the core of great narratives, literature and creative acts.  It is a theme that runs deeply through our shared history and literature. Two examples are worth mentioning: Odysseus (in Odyssey) in western mythology and Ram (in Ramayana) in Indian mythology.  Odysseus returned to Ithaca after a gap of about twenty years, ten years of war and ten years of search for motherland. After great struggle he returns ultimately to Ithaca only to get embroiled in further killings and adventures.   He comes back to Penelope, his wife, his own men, his own land and nation; and he finds himself in some murky and violent affairs that had precisely been created due to his long absence from Ithaca. Even Penelope first refuses to believe him. He has to prove himself to her and to others. How much do the inhabitants of Ithaca care for him after his leaving Ithaca? Not much!  In his absence they lived their own time they did not share with him. There is   a long discontinuity in time, life and events. To them he belonged to a period that was not theirs. He lived outside the pale of their existence, in darkness and nobody wanted to know where he was and what he did. And hence after his return he finds that painful distance and abyss that separates him from his own people.

This distance and abyss is also manifest in Ramayana, the famous Indian epic where King Ram and his wife Sita return to Ayodhya after a period of fourteen years!  Even during the fourteen years, Ram and Sita were separated for some time as Ravana, the villain, had abducted Sita; she was rescued  after Ram killed Ravana.  Ram ultimately  returns to Ayodhya  with Sita.  But this sense of satisfaction proves only short lived as under the pressure of public opinion Ram was required to abandon his own wife.  Sita had been abducted by Ravana and remained in his custody for a fairly long time, a fact the Indian people at that time would hardly accept.  Ramayana ends in the tragedy of Ram and Sita. Again the longing for the homeland generates a complex set of events!

 Returning to one’s own motherland with  after a long gap may apparently be a happy affair. But not always; at times it would be far more complex. We mostly leave in the presence and the present concerns; our memory of the past is buried under layers of later experiences and these past memories surface sometimes only under the powerful pull of nostalgia. The shared memories may under such circumstances be available to the one who is plagued by nostalgia and not to others.  Such asymmetries of memories make people strangers even in their homelands.

No wonder then Milan Kundera finds “Nostalgia” a powerful theme that becomes far more fertile in generating different experiences and different possibilities of existence. Alienation, nostalgia and home-coming runs through Milan Kundera’s “Ignorance”, which is a beautifully crafted novella. This is the story of Irena and Josef, two strangers originally from Czechoslovakia, who had left Czechoslovakia in the past, had met only once when they left Czechoslovakia and who later on meet briefly in Prague while on their respective short visit to their motherland. Their love story, that began and apparently ended in their only visit twenty years ago, remains deeply etched in their minds. How do they react to each other when they meet after twenty years under similar circumstances?  Were they really welcome in Prague? Was their visit spiritually and historically redeeming enough that would elevate nostalgia that propelled them to go to Prague?
  When Joseph and Irena ultimately return to their homes from Czechoslovakia, they had seen, in bits and pieces, the reality of homecoming. The contrast between surge of longing and the belittling hard realities they face in Prague is the high mark of this novel. And in this story Milan Kundera finds large spaces for meditating on such concepts as alienation, yearning for motherland, love and nationalism; he explores and demonstrates some dynamics of how the communities and nations (and even families) look to estranged people who had once left their homelands and yet carry a deep   sense of belongingness to their erstwhile nation. He also shows how lofty feelings of nostalgia that elevate and raise men from the ordinary and the mundane, ultimately encounter the petty concrete details that make loftiness feel its own weight.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Year of Lear: James Shapiro

 I have never been a formal student of literature and never studied Shakespeare in class room. I read Shakespeare as I went along. And that’s greater reason why I feel that Shakespeare is perhaps the world's greatest explorer of human nature. James Shapiro's "The Year of Lear" is an important contribution to the ever increasing body of scholarly works on Shakespeare and it shows how Shakespeare's observant mind used the contemporary debates and concerns in shaping his major creative works!  That such a passionate work of great scholarship should appear during the year that marks 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare also proves that with times posterity's interest in Shakespeare has not declined a whit, and that Shakespeare still continues to be an important  industry that keeps generating quality works on his life and works! While reading "The Year of Lear” I was most impressed by James Shapiro's marshalling of facts as also his passionate exposition of the spirit of the  period he has written about.

James Shapiro argues that the year 1606 was truly eventful in social, political and religious life of the English people. The year saw great upheavals and tempests that continued to reverberate for  many decades to come.  It was also the most important and productive year for Shakespeare, for he wrote three major celebrated works during this year, "King Lear", "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra".   Shapiro further demonstrates that the happenings of this  period have deeply etched the high creative contours of these three major plays written in 1606.  His book is not merely about Shakespeare’s creativity. It goes beyond Shakespeare and gives a live demonstration of how great writers and artists deeply engage themselves with the complex social forces   that shape destinies of societies and give rise to   dominant narratives and literature of people.  In that sense Shapiro's "The Year of Lear" is not merely an unravelling of Shakespeare's Act of Creation but also a contribution to the study of creativity in literature.

After an intense survey of major themes unfolding in the third year of the reign of James I, Shapiro shows that the period was marked by three or four interrelated dominant social, political and religious themes. And he shows that   these themes were uppermost in the mind of Shakespeare during this period and they powerfully resonate in his three creative works of this period. If literary works are deep meditations on the life and all its afflictions, then here was Shakespeare deeply reflecting on the tumultuous events and themes that were sweeping the English nation. 

The first theme concerned with the union and the division of the kingdom/s---the issue that became important after James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth---- and this forms the core of King Lear.     King Lear's very scheme of dividing the kingdom among three daughters was fraught with political unwisdom and ineptitude! Shakespeare also built around this politically unsustainable proposal a wretchedly unethical and immoral scheme emanating from the senile king's lack of judgement.  The story of King Lear was thus modified by Shakespeare in the light of the contemporary acrimonious debates, and what resulted was perhaps his greatest work "King Lear".

The second was the deep simmering religious disharmony that surfaced violently in the form of seditious "Gun-Powder Plot" that would have blown up the entire parliament along with the King. In November 1605 the nation was shocked   to learn about this conspiracy when the plot  was busted. This brought to the fore the old rivalry between the Protestants and the Catholics and the passions started running high. The spirit of sedition, murder and conspiracy was in the air and was picked up by Shakespeare and grafted on a Scottish story to present Macbeth, one of the greatest tragedies Shakespeare wrote.

 The third theme in the year 1606 was the high profile visit of King James's brother-in-law (King of Denmark) and the accompanying atmosphere of courtly manners and styles masquerading social biases and deep conflicts in the society. And this formed an important influence in the writing of Antony and Cleopatra. With detailed arguments and impressive facts and records James Shapiro shows how the general debates arising from this visit are reflected in the making of Antony and Cleopatra, one of the masterpieces of Shakespeare.

  The fourth important contemporary theme was about witchcraft, the toxic atmosphere of miracles and psychic phenomena. Considerable debate was raging on this issue and in many cases it was argued that such phenomena were either tricks or the reportage of the gullible and the simpleminded. Moreover, many such cases were shown to be closely related to Catholic/Jesuits giving it a political undertone.  This theme of witchcraft has recurred in Macbeth and in King Lear and has aesthetically enhanced   magical suggestiveness of various events in these works. 
1606 was also a year that saw ravages brought about by plague and its social and psychological implications and personal tragedies. All these found reflections in Shakespeare’s plays.

James Shapiro's book  demonstrates that all literary and artistic creativity stems from the 'Now and the Present' of the life; and the great literature, however fanciful it may be in terms of its presentation and rendering, is always rooted in the life of people and the mores of the society. 

 Passion with which James Shapiro writes is unique. His book is also a contribution to history of England during the reign of King James I. As one continues reading the book one feels as if one is a part of the then society of the 16th century England of King James I.  It was great pleasure reading this book that was timely brought out during the Shakespeare festival.  

If Shakespeare has survived for over four centuries and has emerged stronger and greater, it is not merely because of the merits of his literary works alone.  It is also because of abiding faith and total devotion of scholars like James Shapiro.