Books - Ignorance
Milan Kundera returns to Prague with Ignorance.
By Milan Kundera
Faber and Faber, 2002
Translated from the French by Linda Asher
Imagine that you’re visiting your hometown for a few days, not on a Great Return,
but on a nostalgic trip. What if you found that you no longer felt like a native,
but rather a tourist? Now imagine that your hometown is Prague. You’ve been
away so long that you’re just another visitor.
You arrive and meet a woman holding an umbrella. In three languages she explains
that for a sum of money she will take you on a walking tour of your memory.
She stops before each monument to your childhood and adolescence and points
with her umbrella, she speaks into a microphone your most intimate histories,
and the rest of your tour group, old friends and acquaintances from earlier
days, only nod and shuffle. At the end of your tour, souvenirs are sold: T-shirts
bearing your young likeness, postcards of your parents, commemorative dinner
plates and spoons from your old kitchen cabinets.
This is Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, a tight script for a walking tour of Prague
memories and nostalgia that finds the author at the height of his formidable
Irena, a translator, and Josef, a veterinarian, return separately to Prague
from France and Denmark only to find nothing of their old lives, and lose everything
they might have had in their adopted homes. Previously, they had been émigrés,
exotics. Now, in a refunded homeland, they are ordinary foreigners. What are
they still doing in France and Denmark when their homeland is calling them?
Isn’t it time to go home? Can they? Aren’t they responsible to memory?
In 53 epigrammatic meditations, Kundera traces Irena’s and Josef’s reconciliation
with memories of Prague, of home. Interspersed with the third-person narrative
are erudite digressions on The Odyssey, on language, on music and on the author’s
signature philosophies of lust and love. This is in some ways Kundera’s greatest
espousal yet, mature and unself-conscious.
Kundera has been gone so long, one must ask: Is he a Czech writer on a 30-year
tour of France? Or is he a Frenchman arriving in Prague for a visit, guidebook
and foreign currency in hand? Is his writing about Prague the same as a French
law firm or business conglomerate buying up a baroque house and setting up shop?
Or is he somewhere between the native and the tourist, able to operate within
both worlds with ease?
Kundera has come back to Prague – but as what?
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