I have mixed feelings about Milan Kundera. He is one of those prolific modern authors who tends to riff on a particular theme, and one’s appreciation of his work depends very much upon how warmly you feel towards said theme. Milan Kundera’s theme is, invariably, love; sex, relationships, the vagaries of modern social intimacies (with, of course, a heavy dose of European – mostly Czech – politics thrown in for good measure). I’ve read books by him that I have loved – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Farewell Party – and books that have left me cold – The Joke. I fear that Ignorance is going to fall into the latter category, but I fear more that it may be due to bad timing..
With Milan Kundera there is always humour. This is something I like about him as an author; he is not po-faced. This is something that Ignorance has, and I like it. However, there is something that doesn’t engage me with this book. Perhaps it is the fact that I couldn’t fully engage with either of the main characters. Perhaps it was the fact that I read this mainly on trains and my mind was elsewhere.
The opening is fantastic. An examination of nostalgia with reference to expatriated people/emigrants. “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering’. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” Excellent. Pure Kundera; modern and ancient languages, displacement, sadness – this is a promising beginning. Lots of talk about the magic of the return, which is a theme which he revisits in other work. There are also some interesting observations along the way – about the human life-span and how it defines us totally; shapes our lives, or rather we shape our lives to it. But what of the characters? Promiscuous? Of course, this is Kundera. Likeable? Perhaps, but with a huge pinch of salt. Believeable? Again, with seasoning. A woman who loses an ear as an adolescent in a suicide attempt, and for the rest of her life covers her deformity with her hair and no-one notices? Hm. I often feel that Kundera’s characters are part allegory, part true characterisation – this is certainly true and in full swing in The Farewell Party, but in Ignorance the balance is unstable, and it just seems odd.
It’s a short book so there’s not a lot more to say. Well put together, very readable, as ever, some poignant insights. The next Kundera I’ve got lined up for the future is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Watch this space.