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Sunday, November 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Riffs on returning home are unbearably light

Special to The Seattle Times

"Ignorance"


Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher HarperCollins, $23.95

"Ignorance" is the third novel Milan Kundera has written in French, his adopted language, rather than his native Czech, and a pattern is beginning to develop.

All three are short, concise works with one-word titles which deal with the difficulties couples have getting together ("Slowness") and staying together ("Identity"), and with the usual existential angst accompanying these endeavors. Misunderstandings and weaknesses affect our most profound decisions. Modern society is found wanting. (It's fast-paced, it's forgetful, its music is awful.)

Unfortunately these novels are also airy and easy to forget. Each is subtitled "A Novel" so that we might not mistake them for novellas. Kundera is still brilliant; he's just quick. It's as if one of the world's great chefs now only works in snacks.

With "Ignorance," Kundera returns to the former Czechoslovakia, but one gets the feeling he does so kicking and screaming. Irena, a Czech native now living in Paris, is remonstrated by a friend for not returning home once the Iron Curtain falls, a conversation Kundera must have heard often these past 10 years. Irena's feelings about Prague are, at best, ambivalent, yet everyone still sees her as "a young woman in pain, banished from her country," while her husband, Gustav, a Swede, is allowed to be, "[A] nice, very cosmopolitan Scandinavian who's already forgotten all about the place he comes from." Eventually, under pressure, Irena books a flight to Prague.

At the Paris airport she runs into Josef, another Czech émigré (currently living in Denmark) whom she once knew in Bohemia. But "she remembered every detail of their long-ago adventure; Josef remembered nothing. From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality."

Her homecoming is far from romantic. She brings French wine; her friends insist on Prague beer. They're not interested in her life abroad but only in what she remembers about their life together (thereby matching "Identity"'s theory about the modern function of friendship: that, friendship being crucial to memory and memory being crucial to identity, we keep our friends in order to remember who we are).

Josef's homecoming is equally problematic, as he deals with a suspicious brother and sister-in-law and his own mean-spirited past, detailed to him in a forgotten diary.

Their situation — returning home after 20 years abroad — is compared to that of the greatest of literary wanderers, Odysseus, although Kundera finds even that homecoming less than idyllic, as perhaps all homecomings must be.

Kundera, as he deconstructs the word "nostalgia," writes that it "seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there."

There can be bliss in ignorance, in other words. It allows us to yearn for what we don't know while keeping Ultimate Knowledge at arm's length: "the terror of being a body, of existing in body form" which keeps us pinned to earth "where everything alive eats and can be eaten."

"Ignorance" contains the usual sharp examinations of human foibles and desires. You'll find a dozen quotable sentences here, including one on the "admirable economy of space" of female anatomy. There's also a brilliant, unobtrusive paragraph (the one which begins "Standing at a bar, she slowly sips a beer and eats a cheese sandwich") which hit me in the gut and helped me realize that the saddest thing in the world — to me — is everyday female loneliness.

There's also not a wasted word. Is it wrong for a reader to wish for wasted words? I do with Kundera. I want more flesh on his characters. I want them heavy and earthbound, rather than existing in the lofty world of French ideas, where, I fear, they will quickly be forgotten.

Erik Lundegaard: elundegaard@earthlink.

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