Kundera weaves a few characters and the barest of plots around his extended musing on the emigrant experience of returning ‘home’. Storyline is largely incidental to Kundera’s reflections, which I think are in pretty much equal parts perceptive and projection.
At some points his characters seem childishly egocentric, unaware of the irony of their constant lament, “No-one will listen to me. No one is really interested in what I have to say,” as they, themselves, show not a shred of interest in anyone else. This is particularly applied to the returning Czech émigrés:
The worst thing is, [the locals who had not emigrated] kept talking to me about things and people I knew nothing about. They refused to see that after all this time, their world has evaporated from my head. They thought with all my memory blanks I was trying to make myself interesting. To stand out. It was a very strange conversation: I’d forgotten who they had been; they weren’t interested in who I’d become. Can you believe that not one person here has ever asked me a single question about my life abroad? Not one single question! Never!
Where Kundera goes, perhaps, beyond this is in presenting this as a human condition thing. In response Irena’s complaint about the indifference of her erstwhile compatriots, fellow émigré Josef asks of her adopted country:
She is about to say yes, but then she thinks again; she wants to be precise, and she speaks slowly: “No, of course not! But when people spend a lot of time together, they assume they know each other. They don’t ask themselves any questions and they don’t worry about it. They’re not interested in each other, but it’s completely innocent. They don’t realise it.”
OK, sure, there’s stuff to mull over here (and Kundera is a definitive writer for mulling things over). Moreover he bolsters his case with suggestions that we can’t really interact – our perceptions and, particularly, our memories - even of the same events - are so unavoidably disparate. This particular issue is recurring for him – or, at least, there are real shades of it in this line from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania, the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.
But, perhaps, blind projection – look at that wonderful generalisation of ‘everyone’. How far is Kundera presuming his experience – honestly and articulately expressed – is uniform? Take just the example from this extract: when people return or arrive from other countries, even other cities, in my experience it’s enormously common to hear them plastered (or, if it’s you, to be plastered) with questions about the experience, even to the point of the visitor getting tired of responding to similar questions. Sure some are just enquiring at a shallow, etiquette level, but many are genuinely interested in detail. I could be completely wrong – Kundera’s friends would know – but from this book I wouldn’t be surprised if much of these thoughts come from his own experience as an émigré, and that he wasn’t that interested in the experience of those who stayed, and was surprised at how little interest was shown in him. Many readers would be able to relate to this, but I don’t know how much of this is more about personality than humanity.
Other elements that make this sound more profound than whiny are: his assured prose style; educated description of subtleties of how different languages deal with the term ‘nostalgia’; and the classical motif of Odysseus. But I think this sort of thing is intellectually neutral, and, in itself, shows more about class than insight (cf. Fry’s The Liar). And even though he must have been in his seventies, he still had his trademark adultery (cf. Lodge) – also seen as European sophistication in an SBS sort of way. It doesn’t rule the whole book – it’s more of a coda – but I just don’t get how casually it’s viewed – like someone deciding to try out a new hairstyle or something. I did, however, relate to Joseph’s cringing at reading his old diaries, and Kundera is highly adept at evoking specific resonances like this. If you read him it might be something else, but it will probably leap off the page at you. That being said, overall this was a pretty meandering book – probably just as well it was more of a novella than a novel.