Saturday, January 31, 2009

#12 - Ignorance

The last Milan Kundera book that I read was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. At the time I was living in Banff, Alberta with about six other women in a townhouse that had no furniture barring a really old, uncomfortable couch. We all slept on the floor in sleeping bags, worked awful jobs, drank too much and climbed many mountains (literally). I loved that book. But more I loved the experience of reading that book in that particular time and that particular place. In a way, it's like Melanie pointed out in the comments here a few weeks ago, sometimes the books just choose us.

Kundera's Ignorance takes these themes, or maybe ideas would be a better word, of time and place and how experience is tied explicitly to both, and explores them through two characters returning to their homeland after an extended absence. Irena and Josef run into one another in an airport, both having emigrated from their homeland (Prague) years ago, by chance. They make plans to have lunch the next day to catch up. For both, the return home is bittersweet, political regimes have changed, they've both moved on with their lives, had families, spouses, entire existences outside of the people they've left behind.

Is this right, if I say, "to coin a phrase"? -- "You can never go home again." The saying feels true for so many reasons. The time and the place will never be just the same again, it'll always be tempered by our particular experiences, and the philosophical implications of such, and that's what happens to both Irena and Josef. They feel the need to explain themselves: why they left, why it took them so long to come home, and what their lives turned out to be in their adopted countries. It can't be an easy thing, coming home after years away when everything is different, older, changed, and you somewhat expect it to be the same. Not because of a conscious realization that change didn't or couldn't happen while they were away but more so because it's impossible to imagine how much could be different.

Lives move so slowly in a way. Age catches up with people. Time turns hair gray and adds infinite bits and pieces to memories. But if you go ten, twenty years without seeing a member of your family or your friends, the awkwardness of the reunion will always remind you of how ignorant you are of the day-to-day occurences in their lives. There's no judgment in Kundera's novel about the impact of change for these two characters, in a sense, the narrator's merely observing the moments where they realize the implication of their emigration. For a girl who's always thinking of what it might be like to live somewhere different, it was an interesting book to read, a little bittersweet, and more than a little sad, but wholly fascinating.

READING CHALLENGES: One of the books from the 1001 Books list so I'll cross it off from there. Kundera was born in Brno, Czechslovakia, which is now the Czech Republic, so I'll add him to the Around the World in 52 Books challenge too. It's interesting, to read a book that's about returning to a place that has utterly changed since the collapse of communism. The book honestly made me want to go to Prague and isn't that just the point of my armchair travelling reading?


Sandra said...

This sounds like something I'd enjoy. I loved his nonfiction but have not read his novels. I enjoyed your review.

Katie said...

Hey--a Banff shout-out! Remember the big blue mural of the naked lady on my bedroom wall?

ragdoll said...

And you were the one who gave me the book missy. I have a vague recollection of the blue naked lady. I do, however, remember your Earl's pants.