The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A dereliction at the heart of freedom

Ignorance By Milan Kundera, Faber, £ 10.99

Milan Kundera’s new novel, Ignorance, is written out of impatience with an important 20th-century cliché: the Tragedy of Emigration. His own fiction, it might be said, has played no insignificant part in the creation of this cliché. Leaving his native Czechoslovakia in what had then seemed the “endless tunnel” of communism (“evil number two”) when the Sixties were coming to a close, Kundera has lived in France for almost thirty years now. Ignorance, like Slowness and Identity before it, is written in French. Its four ordinary and contemporary characters, three Czechs and a Swede, live out their toings and froings between Prague and Paris in the shadow of a great “triumphal arch” spanning two “majestic dates”. The narrator’s mock-epic long vision calls it “The Arch of the Two Greatest European Revolutions”. It is the first one, the French Revolution, which gives birth to “a great European character, the Émigré”. The second is when “Europe’s Communism burned out exactly two hundred years after the French Revolution took fire”: “with that, the great moviemaker of the collective unconscious finished off one of his most original productions, the emigration-dream show”.

Irena, her Swedish lover Gustaf, her friend Milada, and the widower Josef (whom Irena meets accidentally in Paris airport while both are waiting for the Prague flight) are the four people whose lives unfold and interlace in the matrix of this history. Kundera’s novel is like a fugue in four voices, and flight is of the essence of the fugue, a great urge to escape the compelling structure of an elaborating design, even as each fugitive creates and wonders at its meanings and patterns. Both history and the novel, each with its own plots of returns and repetitions in time and in space, hold these lives in. But they also create the possibility of freedom, through choices, decisions and fantasies. When individuals ponder these moments of defining action, as they often do in this novel, reflecting on or talking about crucial decisions like leaving one’s homeland or returning to it, they are left with a discomfiting sense of the inseparability of freedom and unfreedom, accident and design, remembering and forgetting, hauntings and vanishings.

“But still, my emigration wasn’t my own doing, my decision, my freedom, my fate,” Irena tells Milada, sitting in a Prague restaurant on one of her visits from Paris, where she has been living since the late Sixties. But Irena’s sense of the complicated feel of her own life combines her émigré history with the “sad story of her desire” — her marriage, the awakening of her body to sex, followed by motherhood and widowhood soon after, and then meeting Gustaf, the Swede who prefers Prague to Paris, wears a T-shirt saying “Kafka was born in Prague”, and ends up sharing a house with Irena’s mother in that city. Irena cannot get over the sense that she was destined for sexual neglect, and Kundera sharply captures the rue in her body over this inescapable fact: “Gustaf…was looking to her not for an adventure, a new youth, a freedom of the senses, but for a rest. Let’s not exaggerate; her body did not go untouched; but her suspicion grew that it was being touched less than it deserved.”

And then she meets Josef as both are about to fly out to Prague, his first visit since his emigration around the same time as her own. She recognizes him immediately, having met him briefly long ago in Prague, when she was with her husband. Nothing had happened then, apart from a silent frisson, and his frivolous gift of an ashtray, stolen from the restaurant, as a funny little token of their non-meeting. Irena and Josef start talking, and it is immediately obvious that he does not remember her at all, but decides to pretend to do so, possibly because he feels sexually attracted to her. “From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality.”

Josef is associated with forgetting from his first appearance in the novel, and with a sort of irresponsibility, even a heartlessness — Kundera’s famous “lightness of being” — which comes with this ability to suspend or anesthetize memory selectively, strategically yet effortlessly. Josef comes to embody the novel’s “critique of human memory”, spun out in a long meditation at the centre of the novel. (What is a phrase like that doing in the middle of a novel') He mourns a dead mother and a dead wife, the latter quite obsessively. Yet, at another level, he has managed to kill nostalgia, “the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”. “You have no obligations in Bohemia'” Irena asks him. “I am a completely free man,” he answers her in an “even” tone, in which she notes “some melancholy”.

This landscape of willed oblivion stretches over the splendid old Cartier-Bresson cities in which Kundera stages his migrations and seductions, a “desert without ecstasy” in which a perpetual afternoon reigns, with its curious mingling of numbness and clarity, the thrill as well as the fear of vast, empty spaces. This is the sedated world of Dalí’s Persistence of Memory, with its limp watches (inspired by Camembert cheese), malevolent red-ants, yellow noonlight and distant shores: “the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of time and space”, in Dalí’s own sublimely nonsensical words.

Irena and Josef meet, at last, in Prague, after a series of deferrals during which the other strands of the fugue are woven into the slow dance of their convergence. There is a moment at the beginning of their conversation in the Prague hotel, which is perhaps Kundera’s most complete, and most beautiful, rejection of the “tragedy of emigration” cliché: “‘Well, how do you like it here' Would you stay on'’ ‘No…What about you' What’s holding you here'’ ‘Nothing.’ The response is so trenchant and so like his own that they both burst into laughter. Their agreement is sealed thereby, and they set to talking with gusto, with gaiety.”

The “agreement” also kindles lust. They go to his room, and she drinks up three tiny bottles of various liquors from his bar, and notices that he is reading The Odyssey. They discuss the shrinking of Penelope’s sexual organs through abstinence, and then switch to dirty words in Czech: “A total accord in an explosion of obscenities!” Kundera’s erotic writing is the richest gift of this novel, and calls up its abiding themes: “the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdnesses in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”

Yet, with the mention of Penelope and Ulysses, another world of stories wells up in the novel, of returns and tokens and recognitions, of brutal forgetfulness and miraculous remembering. In a fit of sentimental extravagance, Irena produces the old ashtray, and Josef does not recognize it. She realizes that he had lied about remembering her. It is as if Dushmanta had seduced Shakuntala pretending to have recognized her “ring of memory”. Kundera stands such ancient recognition scenes on their heads in the desolating aftermath to Irena and Josef’s lovemaking. “You don’t know who I am!” Irena’s words become the key to the title of the novel, to the dereliction that lies sometimes at the heart of freedom. As Josef leaves her sleeping in his hotel room and flies into the night towards Paris, the sky, which was like a “dark lid”, opens out, and he notices that it is strewn with stars.

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