Ignorance by Milan Kundera
Literary Fiction ; (208 pgs)
A man and a woman meet by chance while returning to their homeland, which they had abandoned twenty years earlier when they chose to become exiles. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted almost as soon as it began and then lost in the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence "their memories no longer match." We always believe that our memories coincide with those of the person we loved, that we experienced the same thing. But this is just an illusion. Then again, what can we expect of our weak memory? It records only "an insignificant, minuscule particle" of the past, "and no one knows why it's this bit and not any other bit." We live our lives sunk in a vast forgetting, a fact we refuse to recognize. Only those who return after twenty years, like Odysseus returning to his native Ithaca, can be dazzled and astounded by observing the goddess of ignorance firsthand. (GoodReads)
Nostalgia and memory do not have a one-to-one relationship, so says Kundera. "Whereas Odysseus did suffer nostalgia, and remembered almost nothing." "For nostalgia does not heighten memory's activity, it does not awaken recollection; it suffices unto itself, until its own feeling, so fully absorbed is it by its suffering and nothing else." Irena is consumed by memories but feels very little nostalgia to return. In fact, it is only by her friend's persuasion that she decides to visit the homeland. She feels as though her 20 years in France, having raised her own family and made her own life, is her actual homeland. She feels she has no more ties to her homeland, no more ties even to the mother she left behind. But her memories randomly and by surprise haunt her every day life, and it is through these memories that she is pushed to return, ultimately. Josef, on the other hand, "had neither reason nor occasion to concern himself with recollections bound to the country he no longer lived in," yet yearns to return and in fact does. What a complex dynamic between memory and nostalgia.
Sometimes while reading this book it feels like rugged terrain, struggling to keep pace or a grasp on ideas. It seems too much in a much too convoluted sense. It feels like there are two dichotomous personalities to the book (much like memory and nostalgia come to think of it). This is especially the case when Kundera shifts from social relationships to the inner relationship within the main character with their own selves. And then much like nostalgia and memory, the novel is very interconnected, weaving a root system through the book to link the components of what makes us human as a whole. Ultimately, formulating a vision of the complexity of the human spirit.
There is a special part in the novel that needs recording. It goes above and beyond the premise of nostalgia and memory. It will make you think about what truly makes us human, and why nostalgia most likely exists in the first place. This part of the book is also the link between our relationships to people and to ourselves. It also shows how very little we know, or even begin to understand, of our own makeup as human beings. I will post this as a special Excerpt of Ignorance by Milan Kundera:
A human lifetime is 80 years long on average. A person imagines and organizes his life with that span in mind. What I have just said everyone knows, but only rarely do we realize that the number of years granted us is not merely a quantitative fact, an external feature (like nose length or eye color), but is part of the very definition of the human. A person who might live, with all his faculties, twice as long, say 160 years, would not belong to our species. Nothing about his life would be like ours - not love, or ambitions or feelings, or nostalgia; nothing. If after 20 years abroad an emigre were to come back to his native land with another hundred years of life ahead of him, he would have little sense of a Great Return, for him it would probably not be a return at all, just one of many byways in the long journey of his life.
For the very notion of the homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages. Sexual relations can take up the whole of adult life. But if that life were a lot longer, might not staleness stifle the capacity for arousal well before one's physical powers declined? For there is an enormous difference between the first and the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth, or the tenthousandth coitus. Where lies the boundary line beyond which repitition becomes stereotyped if not comical or even possible? And once that boundary is crossed, what would become of the erotic relationship between a man and a woman? Would it vanish? Or, on the contrary, would lovers consider the sexual phase of the their lives to be the barbaric prehistory of real love? Answering these questions is as easy as imagining the psychology of the inhabitants of an unknown planet.
The notion of love (of great love, of one-and-only love) itself also derives, probably, from the narrow bounds of the time we were granted. If that time were boundless, would Josef be so attached to his deceased wife? We who must die so soon, we just don't know.
Memory cannot be understood, either, without a mathematical approach. The fundamental given is the ratio between the amount of time in the lived life and the amount of time from that life that is stored in memory. No one has ever tried to calculate this ratio, and in fact there exists no technique for doing so; yet without much risk of error I could assume that the memory retains no more than a millionth, in short an utterly infinitesimal bit of the lived life. That fact too is part of the essence of man. If someone could retain in his memory everything he had experienced, if he could at any time call up any fragment of his past, he would be nothing like human beings: neither his loves nor his friendships nor his angers nor his capacity to forgive or avenge would resemble ours.
We will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past, rewrite it, falsify it, who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other; such a critique is proper (it cannot fail to be), but it doesn't count for much unless a more basic critique precedes it: a critique of human memory as such. For after all, what can memory actually do, the poor thing? It is only capable of retaining a paltry little scrap of the past, and no one knows why just this scrap and not some other one, since in each of us the choice occurs mysteriously, outside our will or our interests. We won't understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was when it was; it cannot be reconstructed.
Blurbs from the book: Some of the most representative blurbs about this book. I would have to agree with all immensely.
"Nothing short of masterful." Newsweek
"By far his most successful [novel] since The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Haunting...thunderclaps of insight, absurd metaphors and characters who haplessly misunderstand one another collide in his hypnotically repetitive and bitingly humorous prose." San Francisco Chronicle