Monday, June 6, 2016
Book Review “Ignorance”: Milan Kundera
Yearning to return to our native lands and original places of abode is one of the strongest emotions that rules and drives us. Nostalgia is thus a very noble and fundamental emotion of human beings. But for Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia and later settled in France, nostalgia is a 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, now settled in France after leaving Czechoslovakia, find such changes in the status of his motherland land when he is swept by 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 bother about him and 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 and unshared 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 only after Ram killed Ravana. Ram ultimately returns to Ayodhya along 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!
Surely returning to one’s own motherland with a sense of nostalgia 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.