By Milan Kundera
Several years ago the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote a book about his return to East Germany after the fall of Communism. It was called The File, and took its title from the file the East German state police kept on him while he was doing research there. At the core of the book was an inquiry into how memory makes us what we are, and how it may be only another kind of imagination. Who was the real Timothy Garton Ash? The figure codenamed “Romeo” he read about in his files, or the person he remembered himself to be? What common identity do they share?
Garton Ash’s return to post-Communist Berlin is cast in the language of Graham Greene and John LeCarre, but he might have borrowed from the work of Milan Kundera. Now living in Paris and writing in French, Kundera, an expatriate Czech, has long been exploring themes of exile and memory similar to those encountered by Garton Ash. There is even a moment in Ignorance when Josef, one of the main characters, is confronted with his own “file”: a diary he kept as a young man. The experience of reading it years later is shocking: “How can two such alien, such opposite beings have the same handwriting? What common essence is it that makes a single person of him and this little snot?”
Kundera has a habit of worrying over words – how they mean different things to different people, how dependent they are upon context, and how etymologies reveal underlying relations between words and feelings. This time around his attention is focused not so much on ignorance, his title, as memory and nostalgia. In one of his familiar exploratory asides he relates nostalgia to the pain of ignorance, but the connection isn’t developed. Instead, the pain of nostalgia, the suffering of Odysseus, “caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” is another variation on the unbearable lightness of being: the sense of having lost the connection to one’s own past.
The two main characters in the book are both Czech émigrés returning to their homeland after a twenty-year exile. As if often the case with Kundera, their experience is one of disjunction. They can’t relate to any of the old places, the people they knew who stayed behind, or even each other. The “law of masochistic memory” has allowed them to “slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer.” To avoid the pain of nostalgia they play at falling in love, since love and sex are like the drugs of the Lotos-eaters, the pure glorification of the moment. Everything else can be ignored. And yet the fact remains that our lives are largely constituted of what is left over, of the parts that are sloughed off.
There isn’t much more to Ignorance than this. The story and characters – often disposable items for Kundera – provide only a slight thread from which to hang his ruminations on memory, history, identity and loss. It is all professionally done, and Kundera’s paradoxes are always worth mulling over, but the book remains little more than a brief essay on themes he has handled before.
Review first published November 30, 2002.