Ignorance (Milan Kundera)

Posted: August 21, 2014 in fiction
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Ignorance is a novel about immigration. It changes our reaction to the people involved, though, by referring to them as émigrés instead of immigrants. Immigrants are itinerant laborers from Latin America, southern Asia, or some other slightly disreputable country. Émigrés are refugees fleeing unsatisfactory political or economic situations. Émigrés are more educated in general and are more aware of and invested in current events. They bathe more regularly, have lighter skin, and make more of an effort to learn the language of their new country. They have children instead of anchor babies. The power of French terminology. We do this in English too – what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? We all have our reasons for leaving.

Ignorance is not just about immigration; it’s about returning after having been gone for a while. I don’t mean the two-year stints that I do in other places – Kundera means spending twenty years in a foreign country, then going back to where you were born. At this point, you can no longer call it home. Home is where you either rent or own a living space where you keep your stuff. That no longer applies to the birth country. I’ve never stayed gone the length of time that he says is necessary for The Great Return, but I feel the same things on a smaller scale, as I travel about and occasionally head back to what should be home.

Home has always been a difficult concept for me. It seems to denote a place where people feel safe, and I didn’t grow up feeling safe. Children in abusive homes seldom do, I believe. My father refused to self-medicate his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with drugs or alcohol; he beat his kids instead. I dodged that by being tiny and young; four older siblings can be useful. My mother wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, so I never felt that anything I did was good enough for her. I did notice, though, that she seemed grateful if I could handle something by myself, so I did. I rarely took my problems to anyone, and besides, I was afraid that if I did a social worker was going to come split our family apart. Somehow most of my siblings have forgotten what it was like to grow up with that, because they want to have a close relationship with her, and they argue about where she should spend her retirement. I don’t want her following me; I can only tolerate her for about three days. Visiting my mother always shows me how far I am removed from ‘home,’ culturally speaking; she tried to convince me to buy a George Strait CD this summer.

I tend to think of the area where I studied at university as home. As soon as I graduated from high school, I rocketed away from that place and moved a solid 350 miles down the road. At Thanksgiving, I went back to my mom’s house with a big bag of laundry. I set it next to the washer and said, “Look what I brought you!” She replied, “You mean look what you brought yourself. I have to wash your brother’s work clothes.” [All weekend? Really?] I had been joking; she was serious. That was the moment that I first realized that this was not home. I was happier at school anyway, so it was easy to start calling it home. My ex’s family was from that area, so after we graduated we kept calling it home and coming back to it, and now that my kids live there it’s the place with the greatest draw for me. The place I came from is Down East; the Appalachians of North Carolina and Georgia are home.

Kundera’s characters experience this in a much more extreme fashion. They left Prague when Russia stamped out Czech-ness in 1968, and now that the Communists are gone, many of the Czechs are returning (published in 2000, but probably set early-90s). After twenty years abroad, what does it mean to come home? The opening page of the novel:

“What are you still doing here?” Her tone wasn’t harsh, but it wasn’t kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

“Where should I be?” Irena asked.

“Home!”

“You mean this isn’t my home anymore?”

Of course she wasn’t trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: “You know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do know, but aren’t you forgetting that I’ve got my work here? My apartment? My children?”

“Look, I know Gustaf. He’ll do anything to help you get back to your country. And your daughters, let’s not kid ourselves! They’ve already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it’s so fascinating, what’s going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out.”

“But Sylvie! It’s not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I’ve been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!”

My life is here. This is the struggle that long-term immigrants have to deal with; where is your life? What is temporary, what is permanent? I’m renting a storage unit where I keep the detritus of nearly thirty-five years of living, and there’s an ocean and a couple of continents between my apartment and it. Which place is home? This is where I work and sleep, there is where I’ve stashed my life. How can this be home if most of my books are there?

“Tell me,” he said. “Is this still our country?”

He expected to hear a sarcastic response about worldwide capitalism homogenizing the planet, but N. was silent. Josef went on: “The Soviet empire collapsed because it could no longer hold down the nations that wanted their independence. But those nations – they’re less independent than ever now. They can’t choose their own economy or their own foreign policy or even their own advertising slogans.”

“National independence has been an illusion for a long time now,” said N.

“But if a country is not independent and doesn’t even want to be, will anyone still be willing to die for it?”

“Being willing to die isn’t what I want for my children.”

“I’ll put it another way: does anyone still love this country?”

N. slowed his steps: “Josef,” he said, touched. “How could you ever have emigrated? You’re a patriot!” Then, very seriously: “Dying for your country – that’s all finished. Maybe for you time stopped during your emigration. But they – they don’t think like you anymore.”

“Who?”

N. tipped his head toward the upper floors of the house, as if to indicate his brood. “They’re somewhere else.”

This passage shows some of my foreignness. The Americans of the South, including all of North Carolina and several other states, tend to think like Josef, patriotism being important and meaning a willingness to die for a certain plot of land and the people who live on it. I tend to be more like N – I don’t want my children to want to die. I’m ready for the American Empire to retract its claws, to loosen its grip on world affairs. Some people are criticizing Obama for not playing a larger part in international affairs (Syria), but I think the United States needs to start asking the question, is this situation any of our business? Less dominance, more cooperation, more letting other peoples handle their own problems. I’m somewhere else.

But I also fill Josef’s role whenever I go back. In my memory, towns stay fixed; in reality, they are always changing. The city I grew up close to built a new shopping center out toward the airport (Target! Best Buy! Starbucks! Welcome to twenty-first century America!); it’s become one of the biggest shopping areas in town and it killed the mall, so the residents see the city as shaped differently than when I lived there. The university I attended has changed the center of campus, ripping out streets and putting in walking areas and a huge fountain; my heart doesn’t recognize it as home any more, even though that is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult. The town close by has changed less, but time still marches on. Zoo Video disappeared more than ten years ago, KFC closed and became Dunkin Donuts, there’s a new Dairy Queen, and last week there was a fire in one of the buildings downtown. Its future is still uncertain, but I think they’ve decided that they don’t have to tear it down. There are some changes I’m comfortable with, like the restaurant that changes hands every couple of years because the parking lot is too small and too much of a pain to get in and out of so nothing lasts, but the downtown area has too distinct a character to lose a building easily.

Kundera spends some time with our relationship to time. We don’t possess the past because our memories are so faulty. We forget things, we reconstruct alternate versions to make sense of the disconnected scenes we can remember clearly, and sometimes we fabricate memories without quite meaning to. In the early years of our marriage the ex had a favorite story to tell about our married life, and once I told her that it hadn’t happened the way she was telling it, and she responded that it made a better story the way she told it. She was right, but she was also purposely obscuring the truth and making me seem different than I am. But it makes a better story, so that’s how it gets remembered. This is the difference between history and the past. According to Kundera, we don’t possess the future either; we can’t predict it or adequately prepare for it, so it’s out of our reach. Because of our inability to grasp either past or future, we can’t really say that we have the present either. The present is indissolubly linked to two unknowable moments, so it becomes covered by the same fog, the same ignorance.

Kundera’s Irena and Josef come back to Prague to think about the possibility of moving back permanently, but they have grown too foreign, their lives are somewhere else, they don’t fit any more. They belong in their new countries, France and Denmark. Their old friends have moved on, and there is no vacant place in anyone’s life for them to step into. Nothing they left behind belongs to them. Thomas Wolfe titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, and while I haven’t read it to see what he intends with that phrase, as an expat I’ve felt it to be true. You can’t go home again because home is never where you left it. It’s changed, moved along, and so have you. I don’t have a single home right now; ‘home’ is an area that covers three counties and several cities that are all on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

Kundera’s novels seem to be getting shorter, tighter. This would have been only one part of Immortality or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but it stands on its own quite well. Ignorance and Identity are much more strongly unified, which I imagine makes them more approachable. Kundera is publishing nonfiction these days too, so it makes sense that the philosophical musings are taking up less space in his fiction. He’s becoming less post-modern. Maybe the rest of us are too. Story is becoming the center of literary fiction again; I wonder what we’ll call this period, thirty years from now?

I envy people with simpler lives, shorter stories. Characters in Hardy novels seem to grow straight out of the ground – their families have lived in the same place for generations, they know everyone they see and everyone they see knows them. I’ve spent my life looking for roots, but I don’t really have them. I’d like to belong to a place instead of wandering about the world, building a life out of blocks that don’t fit together. I’ve got Lincoln Logs, Legos, Duplo blocks, K’Nex pieces, and a bit of an old erector set, and I’m trying to make a coherent whole out of these chunks of different things. Sometimes I can keep things balanced, but other days I just slide apart.

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Comments
  1. pinkagendist says:

    I very much relate to this. I grew up playing and replaying Anastasia in my mind. Pining for the day the Dowager Empress would recognize me and whisk me away to where I really belonged 🙂 The fantasy was not helped by my many physical similarities to my family; but the similarities stopped there. At ‘home’ I felt mostly like an inconvenient guest. The kind people hope will leave shortly.
    I’ve looked and looked, and decided there’s no such thing as home. People just wrap themselves in those illusory romantic notions for comfort.
    Sotogrande is my home, but only until the day I leave. Then a different car will park outside the door, different furniture will fill the rooms, different food will be served, and once different and younger people occupy the surrounding houses there will be nothing left of me here at all. And that process will never end for me or anyone else.
    Behind the illusion of home is the desire for permanence, which is just subconscious code for immortality. If we stop time, if we don’t move, if nothing changes- then nothing bad could possibly happen and we’ll live forever. But we won’t.

  2. theoccasionalman says:

    I felt like the unwelcome guest as a child, but now much less so. As adults, we can interact more maturely, and I have different expectations. We’re better at tolerating difference and being realistic about each other.
    I think that home is more of a feeling than an actual place, though I’d like to have a place associated with it. Security is important to our psychological well-being, after all. And I don’t have problems with comforting illusions, the way that you do.
    I didn’t go into this in the entry, but as I think on what you say, maybe my desire for a home/secure location is more of a desire for a community. I want to feel like I belong. I’m content with the idea of death — I’m not saying I’m in a hurry for it, but there are lots of other things that scare me more, like staying here for another year. Running into my colleagues on their way back from summer vacations, and they’re all happy and excited to return here, talking about staying for as long as the company keeps the contract with the university, and I wanted to leave three days after I arrived. It’s starting to remind me of the old guy in The Shawshank Redemption — they’re getting institutionalized.

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