"The same moviemaker of the subconscious who, by day, was sending her bits of the home landscape as images of happiness, by night would set up terrifying returns to that same land. The day was lit with the beauty of the land forsaken, the night by the horror of returning to it. The day would show her the paradise she had lost; the night, the hell she had fled." - Milan Kundera, Ignorance
When Odysseus returned to Ithaka after twenty years of travel and travail he was welcomed home; but was his return to the place he remembered and to the wife that he remembered? With Ignorance Milan Kundera gives the reader a meditation on this theme and others. Ignorance raises the question of where home is anymore in the modern world, not only for émigrés but for anyone who moves around. The place of one’s birth no longer seems to qualify, as one grows away from it, moves to more attractive places, or becomes cosmopolitan in tastes. For people in and from formerly communist countries, sudden opportunities to travel and migrate, after decades of restricted opportunities, seem to have raised the question afresh.
Irena, the novel’s main character, who lives in Paris, has enjoyed the status of émigré for two decades: Parisians feel sorry for the poor Czech woman and after the fall of Czech communism in 1989, they begin to wonder why she is not hurrying back home to help out. Her Parisian friends seem to consider it her patriotic duty. Yet Irena has worked hard to become settled in Paris, where she buried her Czech husband and raised their two daughters, who for all practical matters are French. Now Irena has a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend in Paris, not a bad city in which to make one’s home. Only a visit from her mother, who still lives in Prague, persuades Irena to make a return visit to the city of her birth.
Josef, the novel’s other main character, likewise fled Czechoslovakia in 1969. He settled in Denmark, where he married a Danish woman, and they lived happily together until she died. Josef, still mourning her death and attached to their home in Denmark, where he keeps everything just as it was when she was alive, is also very slow to return to the land of his birth. Now he is returning for a visit only because he had promised his dying wife that he would.
On their way to Czechoslovakia, Irena and Josef meet by chance in the Paris airport. Irena remembers Josef from another chance encounter many years before in Prague, before she married. There had been some chemistry between the two, but after their meeting they had never seen each other again: “Their love story stopped before it could start.” Now Irena introduces herself again, and they agree to get together in Prague. Actually, Josef cannot remember her, but now he sees no reason to turn down an opportunity for friendship with a warm, good-looking woman.
Before they rendezvous in Prague, they both have certain rounds to make and this is where Kundera begins to raise doubts about the idea of the Great Return. Both Irena and Josef are struck by the strangeness of the spoken Czech language, which seems to have developed an ugly nasal drawl since their departure. They also both notice the hometown diminution effect: Landscapes and city scenes that once seemed impressive have shrunk into insignificance, if they have not disappeared altogether. Worst of all, the whole country has been inundated by tasteless popular culture and crass commercialism; for example, the music on the radio is described as “noise” and “sewage-water music,” and the tubercular face of writer Franz Kafka adorns a T-shirt for tourists.
Both Irena and Josef get a glimpse of what they might have become if they had stayed in Czechoslovakia. When the weather turns hot, Irena buys a dowdy Czech dress that makes her look “naïve, provincial, inelegant” and “pitiable, poor, weak, downtrodden.” In his high school diary that his brother had saved for him, Josef is able to contemplate the “little snot” he used to be, back in the days of his virginity, when he obsessed about girls but could express his feelings only by torturing his girlfriends emotionally. Both Irena and Josef also get an eyeful of their potential selves in the friends and relatives that they meet, who form a kind of gauntlet for the two visitors but who otherwise have not missed them for twenty years.
Irena tries to socialize with some Prague friends, but after an awkward moment, her friends declare their “plain-and-simple” preference for beer rather than the wine she offers them. Then, beer in hand, they stand around chatting to each other about local matters, pretty much ignoring Irena. They are totally uninterested in what she has been doing during the twenty years she was away. Irena realizes that they have “amputated twenty years from her life” and no longer have much in common with her. She already misses her Parisian friend Sylvie.
In the provincial hometown that he visits, Josef has to run an even worse gauntlet formed by his sister-in-law, his Czech former wife (to whom he was married for only a few months), and his stepdaughter. Josef’s brother is happy enough to see him again, though the brother is somewhat embarrassed because he has taken over the family home and Josef’s old belongings. Although she also enjoys his goods, Josef’s sister-in-law has not forgiven him for running off and causing them to suffer under the Communist regime. Worse, she calls up his former wife and tells her he is in town. Then his stepdaughter calls him to say she has to see him right away to discuss certain important matters that she cannot talk about on the phone, but when he calls back to break their appointment, the stepdaughter says her mother warned her about what “a filthy little egotist” he is.
By the time Irena and Josef meet in Prague, they are ready for some relief and consolation. They share each other’s stories over lunch and wine, then head up to his hotel room. Before long, they are making love, but it does not end well and he leaves to catch his plane back to Denmark.
Thus, the ending of the novel is immensely sad. For both Irena and Josef, the Great Return to their homeland fizzles out and so does their brief romance. Even though Josef realizes that Irena is in love with him, he is still emotionally committed to his dead wife. Irena and Josef have crossed paths again, but again their paths do not match. Another possibility, however, is that Irena will find the encounter with Josef liberating. Until this encounter, Irena has tended to be dependent in her relationships with other people—first with her mother, then with her husband, Martin, and even with her married boyfriend, Gustaf.
Throughout the novel, Kundera also draws parallels to and meditates on the ur-myth of the Great Return—the story of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.), which is at the center of Ignorance just as the story of Oedipus’s sense of moral responsibility is at the center of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Here Kundera seems to draw on the myth of Odysseus’s return primarily to show that it no longer applies to the modern world but is a romantic hangover from another time. For Odysseus, the return had tremendous validity, as he struggled to get back to his beloved homeland and wife. Around the time of the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a stirring poem about Odysseus’s restlessness after his return, the myth started going downhill. Now the myth seems totally meaningless.
Where is home anymore? Where is love? In Ignorance Kundera seems to say that in the modern world neither of these is easy to find. Kundera destroys the idea that the place of one’s birth has any special significance. Instead, life is full of possibilities. Home and love are out there somewhere, but they have to be compatible with one’s identity, which in the modern world is a shifting, developing concept, dependent not just on one’s origins but on one’s experiences, memories, ideals, and ignorance.