BOOKS: Many Unhappy Returns ; Milan Kundera's `Essay' on the Theme of Homecoming Has Difficulty Finding Its Way, Says Lesley Chamberlain

Article excerpt

Ignorance

Milan Kundera,

trans. Linda Asher

Faber & Faber

pounds 16.99

195pp

MILAN KUNDERA's gift has been to mingle politics with an exploration of subjectivity, and the result has been thin, light- textured novels driven by appetite and disappointment. The modern novel in his hands is a sexy, anorexic, cynical thing. When Kundera was still a Czech writer, newly emigrated to France (in 1969), subjectivity, or how we fix our identity, was a fine weapon. Dominating his fiction, it ridiculed Communist proclamations of alleged good news about humanity. The brotherhood of the working man, the wisdom of the Party, but also the bribes, the lies, the coercion, the deliberate forgetfulness - those verbal facades and practical tricks were, like the texture of Kundera's prose, a kind of grating on the window.

Individuals peered out and chose a survival route for the moments they would venture outside. His subjects wandered out to take lovers, but their eroticism was enough for a network of personal and state politics, laughter and forgetting, to touch them.

Ignorance sees Kundera tackling a humanly richer theme than in his last few books. Two exiles, Irena and Josef, respectively settled in Paris and Copenhagen, return to post-Communist Prague to rediscover their old lives. It isn't easy: 20 years of political isolation and emotional absence mean no one really counts them among the living. Josef, who when he fled told his brother and sister-in- law to take what they liked from his flat, finds his brother wearing his old wristwatch.

Nothing is said; nothing returned. Josef cannot pick up a past or claim a future. He tries re-reading an adolescent diary but the obscure memory of his first love affair punishes him. Irena has a chance encounter with Josef at the airport, which gives her new hope: she remembers having met him in her Czech past. But he has no idea who she is. Her future, if it exists, is in France, where after her Czech husband died she brought up children alone.

The remaining characters exist more for symmetry than plot. The Swede Gustaf, Irena's no longer passionate lover, unlike the exiles relishes the "open" Prague of expensive restaurants and tortured English. …