The greater the period of time left behind us, the more irresistible the voice inviting us to return. This phrase has the look and feel of evidence, but all the same it is untrue. As one gets older and the end nears, each moment becomes more and more precious, and one no longer has time to waste on memories. One has to understand the mathematical paradox of nostalgia: it is more powerful in the throes of youth when the volume of life lived is completely insignificant.
Milan Kundera, L'ignorance
Watching this pretentious quilt of a film a while back, I was reminded of an old (and incorrect) saying: judge not the act for the place in which it occurs. Paris, a place I have never been able to get over, makes the most trivial of acts and banal of conversations seem more profound and life-changing. It colors the shades of my twilights, the reflections upon a citied river, the dappled incongruity of the houses and brasseries that have no comparison in any other city, the weather that always seems to enhance our rising emotions. Yes, readers of these pages know my weaknesses, and one of them is surely for the metropolises of Northern Europe. Strange that, as my ancestors hail from all corners of the Mediterranean; perhaps it is my conscious effort to overcome my bloodlines; perhaps, and more likely, it is among these northern lights – Paris, London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Moscow, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna, Stockholm, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki – that my soul has found the balance of culture, language, art and humanism that will forever nourish its dreams. And should memory serve me well – and it is usually a docile hound – I first flipped through this book on the ground floor of this bookstore several years ago.
Only the German translation was available, and a few pages of random reading (my usual method of selection) suggested that waiting to acquire the original would probably be a better idea. Memory has yet to yield any data regarding that brief dalliance apart from the plot blurb on the back, which I seem to remember verbatim, and a few scattered thoughts about one woman's rather melodramatic and tragic return home (home, in this case, being this breathtaking city). The result is an odd novel, more a pastiche of the author's memories than anything else, and proof positive that where something takes place undoubtedly influences how we view what takes place. Our protagonist – well, our initial protagonist – is a Czech émigré called Irena, now living in Paris with her adult daughter. Like many of her compatriots Irena fled her homeland when the Red Army decided to practice tank manoeuvres in downtown Prague. Twenty-one years later, when the wall of ignorance between East and West was finally torn down, she was faced with a choice: return to a country she no longer knows or remain in another country where she will never truly be at home. It is a choice that every émigré and political refugee faces once another tyrant has been destroyed (we have, thank Heavens, only a few left), and there are no advantages to making a decision that has already been made by history. As our omniscient narrator comments: "But what can a man who has come to see the country of his past think of, if not of his past?" And here is where Irena wades through the waters of oblivion and finds some shells and artefacts she did not expect.
She goes back in time to her ex-husband Martin, now held against the light of the most typical filters of the past: her current lover, a Swede by the name of Gustaf, and "the one who got away," a Czech émigré and veterinarian called Josef. Martin dies after several years in France and with him dies her last opportunity to speak her native language on a daily basis, her daughter predictably preferring the new to the old. Gustaf is the very opposite of Martin: loud, almost rambunctious, unbeset by sadness and nostalgia (like many Scandinavians, he felt "limited" by the smallness of his country), and callow in the ways of the Iron Curtain. When the Berlin Wall does tumble, it is Gustaf who immediately suggests that Irena go back and take a look around – with him, of course, as a willing accomplice. Since he has never lost his country or the occasion to return to it, he could not possibly understand what leaving the ones you love for good might signify. His blithe, almost troglodyte manner is belied by the heaviness in Irena's eyes. Irena, we are told early on, is very much like the most famous wanderer in literary history. Indeed, given the twenty-year hiatus and the irretrievability of so much of the past (Odysseus and Irena both leave around the age of thirty-five), Ignorance provides a true account of Ulysses, because unlike Joyce's masterpiece, we witness a departure, period of absence, and return. The return is more important than the wanderings because the wanderings mean nothing if they cannot end; this is not to find fault with the metaphor Joyce borrowed but rather to underscore Kundera's closer approximation. And like Odysseus, who returns to his beloved Penelope after two decades away, Irena feels little of what she thought she might feel upon her touching Czech soil anew. So much so that Kundera offers an analysis: "If I were a doctor, I would issue the following prognosis in his case: 'The patient suffers from an insufficiency of nostalgia.'" This prognosis is quickly amended to: "'The patient suffers from a masochistic deformation of his memory.'" What is amusing about such a remark is that it no longer refers to Irena, but to the man she re-encounters twenty years later, Josef.
About a third of the way through the novel, Josef hijacks the narrator's attention and we are thrown headlong into his world. Josef also left his family behind, although he was unmarried and began a family in his new homeland, Denmark. Unlike Irena, however, Josef selected another small country as his destination; he would not melt into the ethnic stew that France was becoming in the 1960s, but stick out rather prominently in still-homogenous Copenhagen. Here we find a wonderful passage on the much-maligned "small country complex":
To be ready to give your life for your country: all nations of the world have known the temptation of such a sacrifice. The enemies of the Czechs, as it were, have also known it: the Germans, the Russians. But these are great nations. Their patriotism is different: they are exalted by their glory, their importance, their universal mission. The Czechs loved their country not because it was rife with glory but because it was unknown; not because it was great and elevated, but because it was small and constantly imperiled. Thus their patriotism signifies immense compassion for their country. The Danes are the same. It was not by chance that Josef chose to emigrate to a small country.
The details of Josef's youth after he discovers his old high school diary and is astonished that he didn't bother to take it along with him might remind the Kundera connoisseur of the author himself. After all, we are regaled on the usual tales of skirt-chasing, music, and Romanticism that is kept alive by Kundera's own digressions on figures such as this poet and this composer. Amidst these digressions is a tapestry of beautiful images, failed dreams, and tainted memories that can only come from a long life of reflection, art, and moral intuition. In one great passage, Josef spots his watch on the wrist of his brother, and then compares his return to that of a dead man returning from the grave twenty years later and finding his possessions divvied up among his survivors; another passage features the bittersweetness of nostalgia as "the captive, conquered present overcome by the past." That is not to say that the world of Kundera – who turns eighty-five today – is not tinged with hope: he remains, in fact, incorrigibly optimistic about the future of art while rightly attacking the trendy nonsense with which the twentieth century was saturated. Long-time Kundera readers have realized that each successive work seems to be a summary of his previous output, at once more precisely tied to his experiences and more abstractly philosophical, and we read and are transported to all the right points of the past. Even if most of them aren't really there anymore.