Kiss me!

Benjamin Markovits

Milan Kundera’s novels are built around ideas – predicaments, particular emotions, even gestures – like cities around metro stops. His characters live as close to them as possible, meet others of a like mind or misery, then depart for the next stop and the next conception. His new novel, Ignorance, isn’t about ignorance in the ordinary sense, but about the predicaments of both exile and homecoming: ‘In Spanish añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss). In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing.’ In this derivation, a sentiment is turned into a kind of blundering; and this is Kundera’s point: how much ignorance surrounds exile. The emigrant doesn’t know what’s going on at home and doesn’t know how her life would have turned out if she had stayed. The people who stay forget the ones who go and fail to notice how they themselves are changing. Delusions quickly fill the space once filled by intimate knowledge.

Most of the emigrations in question were prompted by the hardening of the Soviet influence in Czechoslovakia: the returnees trickle back after the fall of Communism in 1989. ‘What are you still doing here?’ a friend upbraids Irena when she doesn’t rush back to Prague. ‘Her friend bent towards her and gripped her hand: “It will be your great return.”’ Irena protests that she has made a life for herself in Paris; she hasn’t much desire to go back. But in the end she can’t bring herself to deny the principle behind her friend’s admonition: ‘you don’t desert when great events are happening.’ Irena’s lover, Gustaf, another emigrant of sorts, who ‘comes from a Swedish town he wholeheartedly detests, and in which he refuses to set foot’, paves the way for her ‘great return’. Before the borders open, his business sets up an office in Prague as his ‘gift’ to her; and he moves into a floor of the house occupied by her mother, an elegant and self-assured woman, whose ‘vitality’ has always cast its shadow on Irena’s own self-confidence. Before she can stop herself, Irena reflects: ‘The police barrier between the Communist countries and the West is pretty solid, thank God. I don’t have to worry that Gustaf’s contacts with Prague could be any threat to me.’ Kundera is very good at such ‘thank Gods’, the harmless phrases that betray our less innocent inclinations. But then the barrier comes down and Irena has to go ‘home’.

Reflections on the Odyssey, as you might guess, play their part in the story, and, typically, Kundera refuses to distinguish between his own preoccupations and those of his characters: ‘Calypso – ah, Calypso! I often think about her. She loved Odysseus. They lived together for seven years. We do not know how long Odysseus shared Penelope’s bed, but certainly not so long as that. And yet we extol Penelope’s pain and sneer at Calypso’s tears.’ His point is plain; we prize origins and returns over and above the time spent between, even though we spend most of our lives between. Irena runs into another emigrant, Josef, at the airport in Paris when they are both on their way back to Prague; she’d met him once in a bar before her marriage to Martin, whose political activities forced them to leave Prague in the first place. Josef had flirted with her at the time; and now she doesn’t notice that he doesn’t remember her. He married a Danish woman and moved there; before she died, she, too, urged him to visit his former home, arguing that it would be ‘unnatural, unjustifiable, even foul’ not to – a reproach Irena would recognise. They meet up in Prague and eventually go to his hotel room, where she finds a Danish copy of the Odyssey lying on the night table. ‘I thought about Odysseus, too,’ she tells him; and Josef reflects on his reunion with Penelope:

At first she didn’t recognise him. Then, when things were already clear to everyone else, when the suitors were killed and the traitors punished, she put him through new tests to be sure it really was he. Or rather to delay the moment when they would be back in bed together . . . Their night of lovemaking must have been difficult. I imagine that over those twenty years, Penelope’s organs would have tightened, shrunk.

The remark opens the way for their own night of lovemaking.

Behind Kundera’s self-assurance lies the belief that sex is the best way of getting to know the world. (Remember Tomas’s obsession with female variety in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Plausible enough, though Kundera tends to reverse the syllogism, too: the most important thing to know about the world is how people have sex. His emphasis on the sexual sometimes verges on the adolescent. Irena has another connection to Josef: Milada, the only friend who understands Irena’s hesitation about coming home, is a former girlfriend of Josef’s. She loses an ear in one of the novel’s sillier episodes: a suicide attempt prompted by the teenage Josef’s demand that she skip a school skiing trip. Looking over an old diary, Josef recalls the story but can’t get close to the schoolboy ‘snot’ he used to be: ‘Sobbing,’ he reads, ‘she clasped me to her. I was extremely alert to every sign of her pain, and I regret that I no longer remember the exact number of her sobs.’ Milada, for her part, admitted that ‘love means giving each other everything . . . Here she was prepared to give him . . . her virginity of course, but also, if he wanted it, her health and any sacrifice he could think up, and still she couldn’t bring herself to disobey a miserable school principal . . . Her self-disgust was unbearable.’ Her suicide fails as a gesture – because she doesn’t go through with it, not because it’s too lightly undertaken. She loses the ear to frostbite after drugging herself to sleep in an icy wood on the school trip. Later, she does what she can to conceal that imperfection: grows her hair thick around her ears, finds her lovers far from home; eventually, relinquishes all thought of physical love: ‘she sacrificed her erotic life to her beauty.’ She never suspects the more obvious flaw in her looks: the wrinkles that appear when she speaks. Kundera does not hold her up as a paragon of wisdom, but she is no more miserable than many other characters, including Irena, and has something of a tragic air. He takes the erotic too seriously ever to tell her, from a friend’s or a narrator’s point of view, that enough is enough.

Kundera’s brand of intellectualism has sex appeal of the sort which is particularly attractive to youth – characterised as it is by multilingual wordplay, sweeping historical and philosophical interconnections, a leaning towards science fiction and metaphysics, and that broadly assured frame of erotic reference. The kind of intellectualism, in other words, that often looks flashy when one is older and reading something for a second time. Ignorance displays a lot of his old tricks – etymologies, classic literary references, philosophical speculations about the ratio of memory-time to time lived etc – but it looks as if here he’s juggling with real knives. Not that the characters matter so much – they serve mainly to populate his predicaments – but the predicaments do. Homecoming is a heavy business, and Kundera seems to know intimately what it’s like.

There are the bad dreams – ‘She is in an aeroplane that switches direction and lands at an unknown airport; uniformed men with guns are waiting for her at the foot of the gangway; in a cold sweat, she recognises the Czech police’ – which become more terrible still to Irena when she realises that ‘all emigrants’ had them. ‘How could the very private experience of a dream be a collective event?’ And there’s the suspicion of another life, another self, living at home in the old way, ‘as if long ago, at the start of her adult life, she had had the choice among several possible lives and had ended up choosing the one that took her to France. And as if those other lives – rejected and abandoned – were still lying in wait for her and were jealously watching for her from their lairs.’ Odysseus ‘was waiting for just one thing, for them finally to say: “Tell us!” And that is the one thing they never said.’ Only ‘a stranger gets asked: “Who are you? Where do you come from?”’ An emigrant is not, quite, a stranger. And the people left behind demand a sacrifice when an emigrant returns. ‘I could go back and live with them,’ Irena says, ‘but there’d be a condition: I’d have to lay my whole life with you – with all of you, with the French – solemnly on the altar of the homeland and set fire to it.’ There are so many things to come to terms with along the way – ‘the serious, important conversation he had come for would not take place. And to his surprise, that was a comfort; it was a liberation’ – before the main question can be answered:

She had always taken it as a given that emigrating was a misfortune. But now she wonders, wasn’t it rather an illusion of misfortune, an illusion suggested by the way people perceive an émigré? Wasn’t she interpreting her own life according to the operating instructions other people had handed her? And she thought that even though it was imposed from the outside and against her will, her emigration was perhaps, without her knowing it, the best outcome for her life. The implacable forces of history that had attacked her freedom had set her free.

The bravado of the concluding lines doesn’t last long. The emigrants in Ignorance ask the implied unanswerable question again and again: are they happier in their new lives than they would have been if they’d stayed put?

Yet it is often only their misery that allows us to like them. At the end of the book, Irena throws herself on Josef, offers him the rest of her life, the life she thinks they would have had together if she had allowed herself to be seduced by him so many years before. He hesitates; and she begins to suspect the truth: he had not recognised her in the airport; and has no idea, even now, who she is. ‘Kiss me!’ she demands. ‘She tastes his kiss, gauges the degree of his coldness, and says: “You’re a bad man!”’ There is a great deal in that phrase, ‘gauges the degree of his coldness’; clinical coldness is manifest both in Josef’s ‘degrees’ of indifference, and the ‘gauge’ of Irena’s lips. They are both guilty of doing too much measuring.

There is something cold about all Kundera’s characters, and all their calculations – it is not so much that they are wrong about their lives, but, as Hamlet complains to Polonius, it is not ‘honesty to have it thus set down’. Behind the precision of their self-reflection lies the belief that ‘people aren’t interested in one another, it’s taken for granted.’ That is what Irena coldly gauges in Josef’s cold kiss. That is why she calls him a ‘bad man’ – she lacks the faith to call him inaccurate or misguided. Yet there is a way of being right that changes what you see; in other words, a different habit of honesty might find other things to tell the truth about. In fact, it might be an emigrant’s curse to measure and reflect so much. Josef declares at one point that ‘it’s only when you come back to the country after a long absence that you notice the obvious: people aren’t interested in one another.’ If Irena weren’t so miserable it might be hard to pity her; but Kundera has his own calculated take on that phenomenon: ‘The desire to feel compassion for her and the desire to make her suffer are one and the same desire.’ In the remarkable conclusion to the book, Irena’s mother argues the corollary to justify her own betrayal of her daughter. ‘We are strong, you and I,’ she tells Gustaf, who is lying spent in bed beside her. ‘But we are good, too – we won’t be harming anyone. Nobody will know a thing.’ Kundera seems to agree with them. Gustaf ‘knows that his act of love had nothing to do with a vice’. He has found ‘love as he’s always wanted it and never had it: love-repose; love-oblivion; love-desertion; love-carefreeness; love-meaninglessness’. You can’t get much colder than this.