Ignorance is a modern retelling of The Odyssey, focusing on two emigrants who were forced from their native Czech Republic during the reign of Communism in 1968. Irena flees to Paris with her husband Martin while Josef ends up settling in Denmark. Irena and Josef had met and flirted in a Czech bar briefly years before in their twenties, and they meet by chance again in their homeland after the dust has settled from the collapse of Communism in 1989. While their memories of that first encounter at the bar differ greatly, they both feel like Odysseus returning to his homeland of Ithaca, with everything different but somehow the same. They each have to come to terms with being emigrants back in a place that no longer feels like home, with friends and family who can't (or won't even try) to understand what they're going through. Through all of this confusion and haziness, memories fade, twist, and are lost. Kundera explores the minds and memories of Irena and Josef as well as human beings as a collective, showing how we each form memories (sometimes as we wish things would have happened or more optimistically or pessimistically, depending on the situation when the memory occurred) and how we forget (sometimes ignorantly, sometimes on purpose).
I had no idea this was more of a philosophical book going into it. I only knew of Kundera from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which has been on my to-read list forever since it's on the BBC book challenge list and a lot of lists of books to read before you die. I think everyone's probably had a relationship that didn't end how you would've liked and that you sometimes replay over in your mind, trying to figure out how it could've gone better and what your life would've been like if you'd had the foresight to fix it while you had the chance. That's what attracted me to this book and it was really a fascinating and illuminating work on that subject. Everyone remembers things differently and there's no guarantee that you're going to make a big enough impact on someone's life for them to remember you for as long as you remember them. While that's kind of depressing, it's also true, and Kundera writes about these abstract ideas like time, memory, home, and absence beautifully. There were several quotes that really resonated with me (Kundera's writing is very profound and inspires lots of "aha" moments) but here are a few I could find:
“The more vast the amount of time we've left behind us, the more irresistible is the voice calling us to return to it.”
“And there lies the horror: the past we remember is devoid of time. Impossible to reexperience a love the way we reread a book or resee a film.”
“The feeling, the irrepressible yearning to return, suddenly reveals to her the existence of the past, the power of the past, of her past; in the house of her life there are windows now, windows opening to the rear, onto what she has experienced; from now on her existence will be inconceivable without these windows.”
Although there were some parts where either the translation got a little confusing or it was just getting a little too philosophical for me, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being soon. You might want to google "Prague Spring" before reading it if you're not familiar with it (as I was not and got a bit lost at times - history was never my strong suit) just so you have a better grasp of the setting and what the main characters are going through. This one probably needs a re-reading sometime in the future so I can better enjoy it and savor Kundera's messages (and probably give it one more star).