Yesterday when I was walking down the street I’ve walked hundred times before, I suddenly realized a need for distraction, a safe escape. I bought this book. I am quite familiar with Milan Kundera, however I knew nothing about his “Ignorance”. I read the introduction which was talking about a man and a woman meeting by a chance while returning to their homeland which they have abandoned years ago when they chose to become exiles. It was saying Milan Kundera has taken the concepts of absence, memory, forgetting and ignorance, and transformed them into a brilliant and moving novel. It was enough. I bought the book right away. If you knew me you would understand why. I had personal reasons for being in that book shop.
Maybe because this book touches different layers of emotions understandable for me, or maybe because I am again thinking of leaving my country, now for longer period, maybe both, nevertheless The Guardian talks about this book as something challenging the “moral hierarchy of emotions” laid down when Homer “glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath”, Ignorance tilts at the romantic assumption that separation from the land of one’s birth must be a kind of death – just as, for the artist, it is casually and erroneously assumed to be the death of creativity.
‘At Paris airport she meets Josef, a vet with whom she had a brief encounter in Prague, now a widower living in Denmark and making his first journey back. He too finds his emigration was driven by a need to escape – in his case his noxious, masochistic memory. With excruciating insight, Kundera homes in on the alienation of the returning émigré. Trying on a dress, Irene is momentarily imprisoned in the life she might have led had she stayed. For Josef, seeing his old watch on his brother’s wrist “threw him into a strange unease. He had the sense he was coming back into the world as might a dead man emerging from his tomb after 20 years”. His mother-tongue is an “unknown language whose every word he understood”. Their memories are out of sync with those they have left behind. Encountering resentment and “suffering-contests” over who had the hardest time under the regime, Irene is shocked by friends’ indifference to the 20-year “odyssey” that separates her from them but which has become her identity; she is like Odysseus after his 20-year wandering, “amazed to realise that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca”. Irene senses that, as a condition of reacceptance and pardon, they “want to amputate 20 years of my life from me”. [The Guardian’s review]
I am still at early chapters of the book, but one could already sense the feeling that the novel reveals how the selectiveness of memory can create rifts both with our earlier selves and between people who we share a past with. This part is especially noteworthy for me because I only now realized it. You will understand if you ever been at Irena’s place, because I’ve been:
“I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That’s where the misunderstanding starts: they don’t have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don’t intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don’t hold the same importance for each other. When Irena saw Josef at the airport, 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.” M. Kundera
If you prefer online version, you can find this book here.
I was first introduced to the concept of ‘nostalgia’ in my childhood [The Greek word consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”]. Seeing my parents and compatriots suffering for not being able to visit their homes, listening to their stories about home, talking about longing for that particular street, house, bar in the corner, library on the other side, sea, smelling the water brought from that part of the sea, you can easily understand what nostalgia really means. I was introduced to this concept at the age of 6. My parents and compats haven’t been allowed to visit their homes since…
Coming across the topics of memory, patria, nostalgy, distance, separation, I suddenly recalled an article that recently got me thinking a lot. It touches a little different dimension of being far from home though, not the case when you are forced to leave home due to the war. In ‘What Happens When You Live Abroad’ author talks about fears, prices and challenges of living abroad, the sentimental side of being a divided person because you suddenly realize “that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones.”
If you have ever lived abroad you will understand the feeling of being an ex-pat, always, no matter where you are and who you’ve become. Author puts it brilliantly:
There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.
And now, when I am thinking about leaving my home country again, I can’t deny that one reason why I so eagerly try to leave is a wish to escape myself, myself in this country. Years of attempts to convince myself that my country needs me [philosophical delusion] didn’t help. Once you made a decision to come back and now you regret it. You choose to leave again. And there’s nothing wrong about that, no matter how all turns out in the end. When you feel you compromise yourself, when you can’t breath, when “there are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.”
There are no answers for all these, there are no judgments. If you have a choice, you make a choice. And even though I liked this piece of opinion very much, it seems like this was written by someone who is speaking from the experience of her gap years. Undeniably the experience of those who immigrate due to no choice or permanently is completely different and far more complicated…
In the end I leave you with my all time favourite and most moving performance by Mariza who is singing for her compatriots…