“The more vast the amount of time we’ve left behind us, the more irresistible is the voice calling us to return to it.”
In this poignant recount of two people, forced to bid goodbye to their native country, in the diminished, yet flickering hope of finding a brighter tomorrow in an alien land, almost 20 years ago from the present, unravels a story replete with more questions than answers. Irena and Josef have found comfortable refuge in their respective abodes at Paris and Copenhagen and have led a fairly decent life, battling through tags of émigrés and periods of insuperable doubts. Irena has outlived her husband, Martin, reared her two daughters dutifully and seems comfortably living her life with her partner, Gustaf , many years her senior. Josef, after leading a few years of blissful matrimony with his Danish wife, had to surrender her to death which clutched the hands of a severe disease to bring down the curtains.
While it is not clear whether it was the insistence of Irena’s friend and the last request of Josef’s dying wife or the unbearable curse of her life’s banality and the inescapable ache of his loneliness that triggered the home coming, but when both took their flights to Prague, they were like two light, aimless clouds, who felt justified in being swayed adrift, since their hearts were a flutter of what they wished it to be and any likelihood of bathing in a sunnier sky was worthwhile the suspension in thin air.
But upon their arrivals, they get arrested in stifled laughs, hushed accusations, hesitant embraces and above all, a terrible wave of intermittent nostalgia.
Josef reads from the diary of a teen Josef, which he accidentally finds in the discarded little box handed over to him at his brother’s place, about his young love interest – “The desire to feel compassion for her and the desire to make her suffer are one and the same desire.”
He walks the city to spot novel changes which prick his eyes with their shiny bodies and he eloquently feels that
“during his absence, an invisible broom had swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar; the encounter he had expected never took place.”
Irena, on her part, falls into the very trap she had tried so valiantly to flee twenty years ago; her garrulous mother’s circle of influence. She thinks she can escape her tyranny by escaping the brick house but the roads too seem mercilessly hostile. She wears a local dress, she finds in a city shop, to look (and feel) one of them but when she looks herself in the mirror, the dress itself seemed to have disowned her, accusing her of a traitor who could not live through the pain of this country; a coward who did not have the courage to bear her individual struggle in the interest of her nation.
Both Irena and Josef keep trudging into a world they felt was theirs all along but upon touching which emptied into the deepest throes of their comprehension, from where they could not retrieve it, despite determined measures. The familiar images seem breathing behind a veil of forgotten identity, rendering the entire image a nebulous element. Their families, friends and well-wishers were like distant dreams which look beautiful to think of and can be an aid of comfort for passing time but hold no consequence if chased.
The story culminates with Irena and Josef bumping into each other, which suddenly looks like the only worthwhile event of their home coming, for its in this chance meeting, that they find redemption of their individualities, their choices and their fates.
Kundera handles the nuances of human mind with an expert eye, which catches every skipped beat, which arrests every fleeting thought. Living in prolonged pain turns it a friend. Then the only image vitality conjures is that of an adversary.
The ideas of forgotten and nostalgia find utter beauty in his nuanced hands. Recreating Odyssey and drawing startling parallels between the protagonists was a class piece of emotional legerdemain. And his laced language had a subtle undertone of poetry which was marvelous to encounter at various bends of this book. I will sign off with this beautiful metaphorical gift:
“She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdnesses in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”
[Image courtesy olwomen.com]