Milan Kundera's "Ignorance", a novel that offers insight into exile and memory

Milan Kundera, photo: Gallimard

In this week's programme we talk to Zuzana Krupickova about Milan Kundera, and in particular his most recent novel "Ignorance". Zuzana has been living in Paris for over five years and there she took her doctorate on Kundera at the Sorbonne. Last year she also translated into Czech the first French Romantic poet Alphonse de la Martine, the first Czech translation of his Poetic Meditation. But today we focus on "Ignorance", Kundera's study of the nature of exile and return, which was recently translated into English.

"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.

We can comprehend this curious contradiction if we realize that for memory to function well, it needs constant practice: if recollections are not evoked again and again, in conversations with friends, they go. Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, Iike Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. The more Odysseus languished, the more he forgot. For nostalgia does not heighten memory's activity, it does not awaken recollec- tions; it suffices unto itself, unto its own feelings, so fully absorbed is it by its suffering and nothing else."

The theme of Odysseus and exile is very important in Kundera's "Ignorance". Can you say some more about this theme of exile?

"In 1975 Kundera moved to France. He emigrated when he was forty-six years old. So this theme of emigration and exile was always very important for him and as a subject for his novels. Kundera was obliged to emigrate because his situation in Czechoslovakia was very difficult. He couldn't teach at university, for example, he couldn't publish his books, and in France his first novel "The Joke" had a big success, so he had the possibility to live in France, which was to him the way to liberation and the way to be able to express himself as he wanted."

So clearly his own experience of exile explains some of the complexity of the way the theme is discussed in the book, and it focuses on the return to Prague of two central characters, Josef, who has emigrated to Denmark and is returning, and Irena, who is coming from Paris with her Swedish boyfriend. Here's a short piece which gives us a taste of the reactions of their friends to them on their return. Irena has treated some of her old friends to a case of very posh French wine - Bordeaux - and they respond by asking for beer; they only turn to the wine afterwards:

"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 try- ing to stitch her old past onto her present life. As if they were anaputating her foreann and attach- ing the hand directly to the elbow; as if they were amputating her calves and joining her feet to her knees."

That's a very striking image to describe her feelings when she discovers that people really aren't interested in her experiences of exile.

"This is something that is very common for a lot of people who emigrated from Czechoslovakia. It was the same reaction. When you come back after living a long time in another country, you have this feeling that people don't understand what you did, how you lived. They are not interested so they impose on you how they knew you before you left. So these two people, Irena and Josef, they have this experience, which is existential and not a pleasant experience. They feel more lost than before."

They come together at the end of the book rather dramatically and sexually. In fact, this is an interesting point in the book, isn't it, because Irena remembers him very affectionately and sentimentally. She can remember meeting him one night, but he can't remember her at all. He can't even remember her name. I think this is another interesting theme of the book - that we don't share memories, that we remember different things, and this is quite a frightening thing in the book.

"For Josef, Irena just symbolizes some moments of pleasure without a future. But for Irena, to meet Josef - he represents for her the possibility of a nice future and something more. So it's a little bit cynical on his part."

One interesting aspect, which we haven't mentioned yet, is the fact that the book is written in French and has not been translated yet into Czech. I think this says something about Kundera's ambivalent relationship with the Czech Republic.

"The novel was first published in Spain, in Catalan and Spanish. Kundera didn't even want to publish it in France. In Paris it was published one or two years later, if I remember well. So I think it shows the ambivalence of the relationship between Kundera and French critics, because the two books that he wrote before, "Slowness" and "Identity", are very different from what the public was used to, the style is more existentialist, less funny, there is less humour - that typical Czech humour - for which Kundera was so much appreciated. So I think he decided not to publish it in French, and we don't have this book in the Czech language. And I think that is a little bit the same, because readers of Kundera prefer his first books. They don't like his recent books so much, which they find very French and different from the Czech mentality. It's true that he has changed his style and I think that he changed in his mentality too by living in France for a long time."

Here's a short piece about Gustaf. He's the Swedish businessman boyfriend, who comes with Irena, and he isn't burdened by this knowledge of Prague, so he approaches it differently:

"Sleepy and unkempt during the Communist period, Prague came awake before his eyes: it filled up with tourists, lit up with new shops and restaurants, dressed up with restored and repainted baroque houses. "Prague is my town!" he would exclaim in English. He was in love with the city: not like a patriot searching every corner of the land for his roots, his memories, the traces of his dead, but like a traveler responding with surprise and amazement, like a child wandering dazzled through an amusement park and reluctant ever to leave it."

Even though Gustaf might be kept at bay from authentic Prague, he's the only one who seems to have a future in Prague with his girlfriend's mother - bizarrely enough - but maybe less so if you look at the way that Kundera deals with women characers. I find this a very difficult aspect of his work, although it isn't dominant in this book.

"I think it's very difficult to find a good, interesting woman character in Kundera's books, and there are more interesting male characters we can find [laughs].

So, if you're looking for strong, interesting women characters, "Ignorance" isn't the book for you, but if you're looking for very sensitive, interesting, memorable reflections on exile and memory. I'll end with a very short description of Irena's pleasure in Prague:

"Seen from where she is strolling, Prague is a broad green swathe of peaceable neighborhoods with narrow tree-lined streets. This is the Prague she loves, not the sumptuous one downtown; the Prague boom at the turn of the previous century, the Prague of the Czech lower middle class, the Prague of her childhood, where in wintertime she would ski up and down the hilly little lanes, the Prague where at dusk the encircling forests would steal into town to spread their fragrance.

Dreamily she walks on; for a few seconds she catches a glimpse of Paris, which for the first time she feels has something hostile about it: chilly geometry of the avenues; pridefulness of the Champs-Elysées; stern countenances of the giant stone women representing Equality or Fraternity; and nowhere, nowhere, a single touch of this kindly intimacy, a single whiff of this idyll she inhales here. In fact, throughout all her years as an émigré, this is the picture she has harbored as the emblem of her lost country: little houses in gardens stretching away out of sight over rolling land. She felt happy in Paris, happier than here, but only Prague held her by a secret bond of beauty. She suddenly understands how much she loves this city and how painful her departure from it must have been."

Milan Kundera's "Ignorance", translated from the French by Linda Asher, is published by Faber and Faber.

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.