Milan Kundera, a Czech novelist writing in French, was awarded the Golden Order of Merit by Borut Pahor, the current President of Slovenia, in 2021. His most famous works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter, The Joke, and Forgetting, among other notable works. His book Ignorance, originally written in French in the year 2000, was translated into English by Linda Asher, making her the recipient of the Scott Moncrieff Prize in 2003.
‘Ignorance’ Book Summary
The translated version, comprising 200 pages, is a good read for those who like to ponder over issues of home, memory, language, love, and the meaning of life in general. Like his other novels, Ignorance too overflows with Nietzschean philosophy, with the tale of Odysseus’s homecoming unfolding in the background. At this point, one must be wondering what the legendary Greek hero has to do with the German philosopher, whose remark “God is dead” has been analyzed, criticized, and interpreted time and again. Also, why is this being explored in a novel published right at the turn of the century?
This is where the magic of Kundera becomes apparent. He is who he is because he can tell a tale of the plight of the Czech people, especially those like him who had to leave the country because of political upheaval and link their experience to that of Odysseus’ after he returned to his kingdom 20 years later. With it come bits and pieces of information regarding the Czech language, its beauty, and the predicament of translation. All of these themes are intertwined with the actual tale, which revolves mostly around Irena and Josef, both of whom fled the country after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 and then returned for the same yet different reasons after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Other minor characters include Irena’s mother, her partner Gustaf, and her late husband’s colleague Milada.
Kundera’s style and his choice of characters remain the same as in the rest of his novels, the style being subtle and lucid and his characters being middle-aged intellectuals (apart from Irena’s mother and Gustaf, both of whom appear to be rather superficial), caught up in the process of learning and unlearning about themselves and those around them. Except for the central characters, the rest move in and out of the novel. These characters assume the role of the narrator, and their recollection of past events becomes the sole driving force. However, in a typical Kundera style, the author cannot help but interrupt to explain the concepts of nostalgia, belonging, memory, and history. All the characters have their own sets of problems and lives, of which the others are unaware. An incident that has been lived by two characters is not narrated in the same manner by both, thus highlighting the way memory works, like the brief affairs that Josef had with Milada and later with Irena. Only when he went through his diary could Josef vaguely remember the former relationship; the latter had somehow been completely erased from his memory. However, even after all those years, Milada could recognize him when she saw him with Irena. Irena, too, remembers her affair with Josef vividly and is under the impression that he remembers her as well. On returning to Prague, she finds an escape from her strained relationship with her mother, the memories of her past life there, and her incompatibility with Gustaf. Both Irena and Josef have two things in common. First, they didn’t want to come back. Both loved their lives in France and Denmark, respectively, and returned only because the people that they loved told them to. Second, both had read and thought about Odysseus when he was in exile.
The reason for the title can be attributed to the fact that people are often content with being unaware of each other. It may also have to do with the absurdity of life in general, with death being the only thing that man knows will be waiting for him someday and the rest being unknown and uncertain.
‘Ignorance’ Book Ending Explained
The day arrives when Josef and Irena are to meet in Prague. Drunk and wondering about Penelope’s sexual organs, which might have shrunk after 20 years of waiting, Irena says how her organs haven’t shrunk even though she shares the same fate as Penelope. When she speaks to them in Czech, it arouses Josef, and they make love like never before. For Irena, she wants to attain all that she has missed out on for so many years in that single afternoon of lovemaking, and as for Josef, it is a desperate attempt from his side to sum up, all those adventures from his youth. What stands out in their sexual encounter is the role of language and translation. What seems sensuous in one language might seem quite plain when spoken in another. Josef yearned to have a taste of the life that he had had when in Czechoslovakia, and none other than Irena could give him that. The description carefully elaborates on the emotion that Josef feels when Irena speaks those words in Czech. Kundera asserts that it made sense only because it was spoken in Josef’s native language. But this appears to be in direct contradiction with the views of the author, who has written in French all his life and feels that his work should be considered a part of French literature. Is this then a reflection of the aging Kundera being nostalgic about his native language and his roots or a guilt-stricken writer contemplating writing a final work, his magnum opus in Czech, before retreating into oblivion?
Soon Irena gets to know that Josef doesn’t remember her and bursts into tears thinking about the loneliness that would envelop her as soon as he leaves. Created delicately by a more mature author who is aware of his flaws, Irena is someone to whom people can actually relate. Her loneliness and want of an understanding companionship is something that makes her one of us. The scene where she is sobbing terribly makes us want to empathize with her and wonder about her uncertain future. We know about Josef’s plan. He wants to go back to his home in Denmark, where a brick house with a wooden fence and a slender fir tree awaits him. But what about Irena? Where is she from? Is it in Paris or in Prague? Or maybe neither? The author, through Irena, tries to explore the complex issue of “home” in the modern world. She is trying to come to terms with the in-between space that she appears to be inhabiting, like Odysseus and the author himself, along with the lack of people around her who feel the same way.
Watching Irena fall asleep, Josef leaves her with a note referring to her as a sister, for he realizes that he has never had a sister, someone about whom he would care and connect at the same time. Irena felt like exactly that to him amongst the mass of known yet unknown people. Strange as it may seem, it was Josef’s way of looking at the relationship that had developed between Irena and him in such a short span of time. There is, of course, the uncomfortable scene of Josef looking sadly at Irena’s crotch. It might appear that the author is again making the same mistake for which he has faced frequent attacks and criticism in the past, i.e., objectifying women. Josef’s renunciation of carnal desires need not have been portrayed by comparing a woman’s crotch with that of space.
There is also the strange sexual encounter between Irena’s mother and Gustaf, with the latter finally getting the thing that he had always wanted in a relationship: freedom. The sexual encounter might be deemed offensive in plain sight, but when looked at from the perspective of the characters, it seems unobjectionable. The second-to-last chapter, which is based on Milada’s thoughts, reveals some of the most profound philosophies about life, time, and mortality that Kundera has reflected on, his words vividly evoking Nietzsche. He passes on these reflections to his readers, managing to leave them awestruck, sad, and confused all at the same time.
Overall, Ignorance is a good read. It may not have reached the heights of Kundera’s other more famous novels, but it does depict the change that Kundera – the writer and the person – has undergone with time. It adds a different touch to his oeuvre. Also, Linda Asher’s beautiful translation and the way she chooses to retain words like “styska se mi po tobe” (in Czech, meaning “I am nostalgic for you”) and “je m’ennuie de toi” (in French, meaning “I miss you”) to give a taste of Czech and French to the readers who know none makes it an even more worthwhile read.