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Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

IGNORANCE, A Novel, By Milan Kundera, Translated from the French by Linda Asher, HarperCollins: 196 pp., $23.95

October 06, 2002|JAROSLAW ANDERS | Jaroslaw Anders is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C., who often writes about Eastern and Central Europe.

Since the fall of communism, Eastern and Central Europe have been living in the time of returns. The region is supposed to be returning, after decades of Soviet-imposed hibernation, to its legitimate place in Europe and in Western civilization. There is a rush of returning exiles, sometimes exiles' children, who spent the better part of their lives abroad. Returning to this hitherto fatalistic domain are the very notions of the future, of second chances, of free choice but also of envy, loneliness and moral ambiguity that can no longer be blamed on the "political system." All those returns, and the tricks played by memory on people and nations in transition, are the subject of "Ignorance," the new novel by Czech writer Milan Kundera--by far his most successful since "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

It may appear that "Nostalgia" would have been a more fitting title. The word, as the author reminds us, is derived from the Greek nostos ("return") and algos ("pain, grief, sorrow"). In Kundera's novel, however, the term assumes a double meaning: not only of sorrow caused by the desire to return but also of pain caused by actual return. For Kundera, nostalgia is a profoundly deceptive sentiment. The author points out that in Spanish, the word for nostalgia or longing is anoranza, related, via the Catalan, to the Latin word ignorantia. We feel nostalgic because we no longer know the place or person or the moment in the past we long for. When nostalgia settles in, the object of desire is already fading. Nostalgia, writes Kundera, is a self-sufficient sentiment, "fully absorbed ... by its suffering and nothing else." In other words, it is a form of not knowing, and it rarely survives a confrontation with reality.

This is what happens to the novel's two Czech protagonists, Irena and Josef, who left Czechoslovakia in the gloomy post-1968 years. Irena, who has been living in Paris, travels to Prague to join her companion, a doting but sexually withdrawn Swedish businessman who wants to relocate them there permanently. Recently widowed Josef, who ended up in Denmark, is flying to his native country to see if his antipathy for his countrymen has abated in the years of his absence. The two meet accidentally in the Paris airport, and Irena recognizes Josef as a man who many years ago tried to pick her up in a Prague bar. She suddenly feels nostalgic for that moment--perhaps a missed chance to push her life into a different groove--and starts to flirt with Josef on the plane. Josef remembers nothing of their past encounter and has no idea who Irena is, but he plays along out of embarrassment and curiosity. They agree to meet in Prague.

What looks like one of Kundera's "laughable loves"--sexual farces of misdirected desires and casual lies--will be postponed, however, until the novel's closing chapters. First the couple must cope with the ambiguity of their return to the place they left more than 20 years ago. On an earlier visit to Prague, Irena discovered that her old friends were not only completely uninterested in her life abroad but also struggled hard to make her forget it as well--to force her to remember only what they remembered. But attempting to connect her old and new lives was a hasty, painful surgery: It resulted in the amputation of the most vital part of her experience and the stitching of her nearly forgotten past to the present moment. The process left her feeling "shortened, diminished, like a dwarf."

This time, Irena notices, with dismay, that her old self, a timid, insecure woman dominated by her mother--the self she thought she had shed forever during her tough and lonely years in Paris--is inexplicably resurfacing and taking over her life. Her relationship with the kindly Swede grows even more frustrating and strained, then takes a bizarre turn. Her Parisian friends drift away--no longer interested in a former exile turned mere expatriate.

Irena has a chilling sensation of living through the familiar dream of all exiles but with a new, sinister twist: You return to the old country and realize that you never will be able to leave it again. This time you are ensnared not by the police or border guards but by your old, discarded life that has been lying in wait all those years, ready to pounce on you as soon as you show up. For Irena, the political freedom--freedom of movement and of choice--turns into a trap. She even surprises herself feeling nostalgic for the old impermeable borders.

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