April 1 was Milan Kundera‘s 81st birthday. In his honor I read his latest book, from 2000, “Ignorance.” While reading the book I didn’t really understand the title. I kept believing that it should have been “Nostalgia” as that’s the main topic of the book. The author uses razor sharps observations for analyzing the various moods and emotions surrounding nostalgia. His observations revealed that there are many types of nostalgia. He started off with its etymological origins and then went on to contrasting it with homesickness. The rest of the book is made up with evolving examples of nostalgia from the perspectives of the immigrants who can and who cannot return, but also from the perspective of those who stayed home.
But titles of the book do not necessarily need to reflect their main topics. In this case the title helps us to realize that nostalgia often originates and ends up in ignorance. We long for a state of affairs that no longer exists it and maybe it never did. Thus we are ignorant of the past. When we attempt to return to this imagined location, family, situation… of the past we may encounter events and feeling we were not prepared for and face our ignorance of the present. That’s exactly what happened to the woman who returned to Bohemia after spending 20 years mostly in Paris and to her fleeting love interest who returned from Denmark. Their stories and their loved ones’ provide the prism that breaks down the gray of ignorance and nostalgia into a colorful and painful rainbow.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the comparative analysis of Homer’s Odysseus. It is not a literary analysis, but a motivational one. While telling the stories of 20th century immigrants Kundera wonders what made Odysseus and Penelope tick, what kind of feeling they must have had cope with. By reaching to the classic tale, he managed to create and even more timelessness feeling for the whole book. The emotions described and analyzed are proven to be eternal.
As an immigrant this is one of the most important books I read. It helped me think about my own nostalgia and discover in what aspects I am similar to the book’s heroes and what aspects I am not. Thank you Mr. Kundera and happy birthday.