Reading guide for Ignorance by Milan Kundera

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Ignorance

by Milan Kundera

Ignorance
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Oct 2002, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2003, 208 pages

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Introduction
The collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 put an end not only to an ideology but to a perennial European character, the Émigré. After decades of being pitied as the Great Victim or despised as the Great Traitor [p. 30], he (or she) was now free to go back home, perhaps even morally obliged to do so. But what is home? Is it merely a place or something more tenuous and less easily attainable? And can someone who's spent half a life in the grip of nostalgia -- "the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return" [p. 5] -- emerge from it so easily? These are among the questions that Milan Kundera poses in Ignorance, a novel whose remarkably brief span encompasses two centuries of European history along with the intertwining relationships of several contemporary Europeans.

Twenty years after leaving their native country, two Czech émigrés meet in the Paris airport as they wait for the flight to Prague. Irena is considering returning home for good. Josef, who found asylum in Denmark and married a Danish woman, is only visiting. Irena still keenly remembers the night many years before when she and Josef flirted in a bar in Prague. Josef can't remember Irena's name. Although they are immediately drawn to each other, their attraction -- at least on Irena's part -- is based on a misapprehension, one that will become apparent only at the most awkward and humiliating possible moment.

In the days leading up to their assignation, Kundera tracks his protagonists' movements with the smooth precision of a surveillance camera. We see Irena at a reunion of her old friends; with her bawdy, irrepressibly competitive mother, and with her entrepreneurial Swedish boyfriend, Gustav, who loves the vulgar, tourist-friendly Prague that Irena despises. We follow Josef to a meeting with his long-estranged brother and sister-in-law, a meeting in which tenderness vies with guilt and resentment. And, Ignorance being a Kundera novel, we also encounter a series of dazzling meditations on emigration, memory and loss, and particularly on The Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia, whose hero sacrifices the luxuries of exile for a risky return to a home where he is now a stranger.


Discussion Questions
  1. As in his previous novels, Kundera isn't content to merely tell a story; he also comments on it, via digressions on themes ranging from history to etymology and music. What is the effect of this method? Does it emotionally distance you from the narrative and characters or cause you to see them in a different light? Would you describe Ignorance as a realist novel?

  2. When her Parisian friend Sylvie urges her to go home to her country, Irena replies "You mean this"--meaning Paris -- "isn't my home anymore?" This exchange suggests that "home" may be a relative phenomenon, that today's home may not be tomorrow's. How is this theme developed elsewhere in Ignorance? Can any of Kundera's characters be said to have a true home, or is home in this book always changeable, unreliable, and perhaps even illusory? And is going home a guarantee of happiness?

  3. Even as Ignorance questions the permanence of home, it also raises doubts about the authenticity of the self, as in this moment when Irena glimpses her reflection in a department store mirror: "The person she saw was not she, it was somebody else, or…it was she but she living a different life." [p. 31] How would you sum up this novel's view of identity? Have Kundera's characters chosen their identities or have their identities been imposed on them by outside forces?

  4. Early in the novel Kundera draws a series of correspondences and oppositions: between homesickness, nostalgia, and ignorance; between the longing for a place and the longing for a vanished past or a lost love. How does he develop these themes? Is Irena's nostalgia, for example, merely an expression of ignorance? Conversely, what is the reason for Josef's "nostalgic insufficiency?" [p. 74] When do these characters confuse homesickness with other types of longing, and with what consequences?

  5. What is the significance of Ignorance's frequent references to The Odyssey? Do any events in this novel parallel those in Homer's epic? Is Josef's devotion to his deceased wife, for example, meant to recall Odysseus's devotion to Penelope? Compare the way Kundera uses The Odyssey in this book to the way Joyce uses it in Ulysses.

  6. "Our century is the only one in which historic dates have taken such a voracious grip on every single person's life." [p.11] In what ways are the characters in Ignorance shaped by history and their personal destinies determined by it? Are they ever able to resist history? Does Kundera's view of historical forces hold out any hope for the freedom and dignity of the individual?

  7. How would you describe Irena's and Josef's relationships with their families and old friends? Why are these so often marked by suspicion, incomprehension or outright hostility? In contrast, Irena and Josef seem to share a frictionless instant intimacy, even though they are little more than strangers. Is Kundera suggesting that the intimacy of strangers is somehow superior to the stifling, conventional closeness that prevails within most families? Are some of the characters' relationships more genuine than others?

  8. What role is played by Irena's friend Milada who, unbeknown to Irena, was once Josef's girlfriend? Does Josef's past treatment of Milada predict his future behavior toward Irena? Is he morally responsible for Milada's mutilation or has Milada merely sacrificed herself for a sentimental fantasy? What do you make of Kundera's use of coincidence? Does he seem to view it the way Irena does -- as an expression of fate?

  9. Are you surprised by the sexual encounter between Irena's mother and her boyfriend? Does it strike you as a betrayal of Irena, who at the time is betraying Gustav with Josef? Is Josef himself guilty of betraying Irena by his silence? How would you characterize this novel's attitude toward sex?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Opposite of Everyone
by Joshilyn Jackson

"Quirky and appealing characters, an engaging story, and honest dialogue make this a great book!"
- BookBrowse

About the book
Join the discussion!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: A Great Reckoning
    A Great Reckoning
    by Louise Penny
    Canadian author Louise Penny is back with her twelfth entry in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache ...
  • Book Jacket: Homegoing
    Homegoing
    by Yaa Gyasi
    It's all very well to challenge people to be the masters of their own destiny, but when you&#...
  • Book Jacket: When Breath Becomes Air
    When Breath Becomes Air
    by Paul Kalanithi
    When Breath Becomes Air is the autobiography of Paul Kalanithi, written in the time period between ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Victoria
    by Daisy Goodwin

    Daisy Goodwin breathes new life into Victoria's story, and does so with sensitivity, verve, and wit." - Amanda Foreman

    Read Member Reviews

Who Said...

Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay:
$400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.