Elegant honesty in words unspoken
Fiction: Artist or showman; philosopher or thinker, Milan Kundera, Czech-born self-exile and long settled in France, answers to all four. He has always been clever and, increasingly, unbearably clever, yet Kundera even at his most indolent is consistently redeemed by the natural grace of his prose and its ease of expression.
There was a time when he wrote relatively straightforward narratives such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), a novel that chronicled the adventures of a young doctor, Tomas, caught between two very different women, against the background of the repressed post-1968 Czechoslovakia. Yet Kundera, even then, was always sneaking a glance at the space, at the mysterious, quasi-philosophical territory lying beyond story.
For him, the life beyond story, and the details that make up life, are all-important. This preoccupation has come quite wonderfully to full expression in his new novel, Ignorance, which explores states of not knowing, of being ignorant of - in fact, for ignorance here read youth and inexperience, and of what happens when understanding is reached. It is not surprising for a novelist who, having intelligently dissected his chosen genre in a provocative study, The Art of the Novel, to then abandon formal conventions such as narrative.
Sensation, the abstract made physical, the clarity of sudden understanding - these absorb him. Laughter, Being, Forgetfulness, Memory - he has always pursued his specialist themes, another of which is Identity, often brilliantly, at times irritatingly, though invariably engagingly.
In one of his finest works, Immortality (1991), a graceful and beguiling novel- within-several-novels, an absorbing and sophisticated meditation begins with the recalling of a simple gesture. An elderly woman turns and smiles girlishly at the young instructor at the end of her swimming lesson. "Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover." Kundera has come to see the relevance of moments caught in time at the point where they may be forgotten for ever or vividly remembered.
Long intent on redirecting the novel form from narrative to meditation, he looks at his country's past in a way that is both apolitical and intensely political. Fiction, for him, has become an elegant series of thoughtful reflections on life, love and memory.
Ignorance - the harshness of the word itself belies the peculiar beauty of the multi-dimensional text - again looks at memory and the ways in which experience shapes it. But there are several themes at work. Initially, the notion of homeland and the ways in which circumstances affect the way in which one views one's country. Irena is from Prague, but has lived in Paris for close on 20 years. Her first husband having died, she is now with Gustaf, a Swede with secrets of his own. The novel begins in the middle of a conversation between Irena and one of her friends, a French woman, who feels with the death of Communism Irena should return home to Prague. Fired with revolutionary zeal, Sylvie dismisses Irena's protests, urging: "It will be your great return. Your great return." It turns out rather differently. But not before Kundera has deliberated over the word "return" as it appears in several languages. There is also the notion of the wanderer and exile, from Odysseus to composer Arnold Schoenberg. He looks at the notion of leaving. "Loyal to the tradition of the French Revolution, the Communist countries hurled anathema at emigration, deemed to be the most odious treason. Everyone who stayed abroad was convicted in absentia in their home country, and their compatriots did not have any contact with them." Having established a conversational tone which is sustained throughout, Kundera makes it possible to include many digressions, ponder their relevance and then continue observing the respective fortunes of his characters - those who stayed as well as those who went elsewhere.
For all the emphasis on the personal, Ignorance has a political sense as well. "Europe's Communism burned out exactly two hundred years after the French Revolution took fire" and Kundera questions that context: "For Irena's Parisian friend Sylvie, that was a coincidence loaded with meaning. But what meaning?". Irena is secure, if not exactly content, in her new country. Her second husband gets along better with her mother than Irena ever did. At the airport she recognises another returning Czech, and believes she knows him. They are both about to embark on their great return.For Irena it is the history of a former love come full circle and they arrange to meet later. The man, Josef, returning home from his new life in Denmark, "hadn't the faintest idea who she was". The encounter is classic Kundera, playful and indirectly direct, it also seems to have distinct echoes of a previous work, Slowness (1996), the first novel he wrote in French. With its cartoon-collage structure, it is a testament to his playful handling of the elements of farce as well as his love of trickery, elements of all of which are present, albeit more mutedly, in the new book.
Ignorance, however, possesses a harder, more real core. It is as elegant, almost as clever, but far more human, less archly subtle, not as indolent. Here, a number of lives, and with them dreams and fears, are exposed.
Josef, whose wife has recently died, returns to a home place he can barely recognise, to a brother who views him as an interested party to the family home where he lives, while his wife, Josef's sister-in-law, views the returned exile as a threat.
Irena also learns that to return home requires more than making a choice. Kundera is very effective in sequences in which an entire personal history, played out against the larger reality of Czech history, is contained within a few sentences. Dialogue is convincingly alert to what is unsaid. There is also another side to Josef, the cruel young fellow he meets up with through the entries in his long-forgotten schoolboy diary.
Josef, who in an act of family rebellion became a vet instead of a doctor, confronts memory, well aware that it "detested him, that it did nothing but slander him, therefore he tried not to believe it and to be more lenient toward his own life. But that didn't help: he took no pleasure in looking back. Because Josef's memory was malevolent and provided him with nothing to make him cherish his life in his country, he crossed the border with a brisk step and no regrets."
The variations on the theme of memory and its conflicts are interesting, as are Kundera's reflections on the notion of homeland, as paradise or hell, "with all its emotional power bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages".
Kundera's characteristic grace and style are well represented, but the sheer depths of this little book surprise. Taking as its central thesis a history based on an allegedly shared memory recalled by one character,unknown to another, Ignorance is based on precisely that, not knowing. There is a great deal more going on. Memory is far more often based on what we want it to be, than what it actually is, and this is the realisation Kundera ponders in one of his most attractive, convincing and honest performances to date.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times
Ignorance. By Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher. Faber, 195pp. £16.99