Milan Kundera's writing just seems to strike a right note with me, ever since the first time I read his works on a public commute as a wide-eyed college sophomore, getting hooked on the philosophical ramblings that are so essential to college years.
And that fascination apparently has withstood the test of time for me - maybe because deep down inside me a college philosopher still survives.
"Both of them are pidgeonholed, labeled, and they will be judged by how true they are to their labels (of course, that and that alone is what's emphatically called "being true to oneself")."
There's something about his books that makes them feel like narrative sketches, filled with author's musings in long, heavily punctuated sentences; ruminations about particular world experiences that finally, tangentially connect to the characters - and the characters themselves serving as just a canvas for Kundera's introspective reflections.
As with other Kundera's books that I've read, the background is, of course, Czech Republic, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the events it sprang in motion. The surface of the plot in Ignorance is a story of two émigrés, Irena and Josef, who have chosen to leave Czechoslovakia after the infamous end of the Prague Spring, and who have returned to visit their motherland 20 years later, after the regime that had driven them out collapsed.
"They had really done a lot for me. They saw me as the embodiment of an émigré's suffering. Then the time came for me to confirm that suffering by my joyous return to the homeland. And that confirmation didn't happen. They felt duped. And so did I, because up till then I'd thought they loved me not for my suffering but for my self."
And it does not come as a surprise to either one of them that they do not fit the mold of an émigré as the world labels such as them; that the land they left behind has irrevocably ceased being their home; that new lives have been started elsewhere and there is no easy way of shrugging those new memories in order to fit back into the mold from which they have sprang decades ago.
"She had always taken it as a given that emigrating was a misfortune. But, now she wonders, wasn't it instead an illusion of misfortune, an illusion suggested by the way people perceive an émigré?"
The motif Kundera relies on is the story of Odysseus, of his single-minded journey back to where he was from, to Ithaca, to his old life, where he - supposedly - belonged, where he was one of them, where his life outside of the boundaries of the island was little but an interruption in the regular chain of events. But what about the two decades of his life he spent elsewhere? Do they matter? And how is he supposed to reconcile them with the life to which he made his "great return"?
"For twenty years he [Odysseus] had thought about nothing but his return. But once he was back, he was amazed to realize that his life, the very essence of his life, its center, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca, in the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost, and could retrieve only by talking about it. [...] But in Ithaca he was not a stranger, he was one of their own, so it never occurred to anyone to say, "Tell us!"
To both Irena and Josef it seems that their lives outside of their - now former - home do not really matter to those whom they once left behind. And they cannot reconcile the memories of the old and the memories of the new; they cannot reconcile who they have become and who people think they should be; the past and the present.
And, an émigré myself - by choice and happily, unlike Irena and Josef - I can feel their unease and uncertainties resonating within me; having visited the place I'm from after living abroad for many years and realizing that past has moved on and that new home has been made, in another country, with me changed by the new place that I have adopted as much as it has adopted me, with me never again able to return to being who I was before leaving the homeland - because new memories have been made and internalized, and home has moved with me.
"It was a very strange conversation: I'd forgotten who they had been; they weren't interested in who I'd become. Can you believe that not one person here has ever asked me a single question about my life abroad? Not one single question! Never! I keep having the sense that they want to amputate twenty years of my life from me. Really, it does feel like an amputation. I feel shortened, diminished, like a dwarf."
Why does this happen? Tricks of memory, perhaps? The fickleness and selectiveness and shortsightedness of it; an ally on which we cannot truly rely. Memory is what we are so tempted to think we share with the others - but maybe it's just the illusion, like most other things in our lives. Because memory is what we make it, infusing it with meanings and significances that reflect more on ourselves than what actually happened.
"I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That's where the misunderstanding starts: they don't have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don't intersect, and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don't hold the same importance for each other."
Kundera's writing still has the magic in its wistful philosophizing, exploration of nostalgia and memory, and I highly recommend this book. It leaves behind a vague feeling of dissatisfaction - not the irritated one of something not living up to the expectations, but the disappointment and dissatisfaction in the very expectations you hold, and somehow I find this feeling resonating and captivating.