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Ignorance - Milan Kundera

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      07.02.2005 15:37
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      Much slighter than many of Kundera's other offerings, 'Ignorance' is a concise story, far less rambling than anything else of his I have read. Typically Kundera seems to set out with a philosophial agenda, and splits his novels into deep debates where the actual 'story' part becomes secondary. This is not the case with 'Ignorance', which has a linear plot that is easy to follow, with fewer characters and less snapshot 'time travel'. That is not to say that there are no Kunderian lessons to be learnt - the major theme is that our memories are ours and ours alone - that even events shared with our closest loved ones are separate experiences which create differing memories in the individuals, and moreover that those imprints morph and change with time.

      Having outlined the background framework, what is this singular story that Kundera has presented for us? It centres around two Czech exiles who are returning to their homeland after many years as emigres in France and Denmark. Irena and Josef never believed they would return to Bohemia, and are reluctant to do so when the chance arises. Pushed by their respective friends they find themselves taking the trip back, and bumping into each other, awakening memories and desires. What is the history shared by these two people, who have so much and so little in common? What does each mean to the other? And where will their time back in their homeland take them? Will they meet and make friends with their young ghosts? I'm loathe to tell you any of the answers, as Irena and Josef can weave their tales so much better than I. These central characters are well examined, their motivations and desires laid bare, and everything that happens is so well written, all so beautifully thought out that before you know it you've read the whole book, despite a relatively slow start.

      Kundera uses as an analogy at points throughout the story of Ulysses and his return to Ithaca, the disappointment of finding that your memories no longer match reality. This is an insight into what it means to leave your life, your homeland behind. Kundera tells of the loneliness you can never quite escape as an emigre, but that can not be sated by the return to your now alien birthplace, nor by meeting someone you believe shares a piece of memory with you, only to discover they 'no longer match'. He tells of emigre dreams, how they all yearn for the same things, and the horror of realising your dreams beong collectively to all those in your situation.

      This work is an engaging read, erotic and enlightening in places. But as a huge fan of his older novels, I cannot help but feel that it does not live up to my expectations. Part of me is quick to blame this on the fact that it was written in emigre French, rather than his native Czech. The language is still beautiful, never wasting a word, but somehow it feels like there is something missing. Certainly there is decidedly less of Kundera's superb tongue in cheek wit, his observations are still spot on, but there is less content that will make you chuckle away like a freak when you are reading it on the train.

      That said this is still definitely a great read. And an easier one that many others by the same author. In terms of other recently published novels, this is one that has rightly received critical praise. Kundera outshines many other contemporary novelists, and I only question this book in comparison to others he has written. I still loved picking out the teachings from the fictional bones of the novel, it makes you think, about yourself and others. One of the things that really affected me was to realise that I have no control over how others perceive me, or indeed whether they form memories of me at all.

      'Ignorance' by Milan Kundera, translated to English by Linda Asher. Faber & Faber, £6.99


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