Response to "Ignorance" by Milan Kundera
“Staging in literature makes conceivable the extraordinary plasticity of human beings, who, precisely because they do not seem to have a determinable nature, can expand into an almost unlimited range of culture bound patternings. The impossibility of being present to ourselves becomes our possibility to play ourselves out to a fullness that knows no bounds, because no matter how vast the range, none of the possibilities will “make us tick”. (Iser, 1993, p. 297)
In Malaysia, during the Eid-ul-Fitri celebration, vast numbers of Muslims make the annual pilgrimage to their hometowns, usually with some risks that come with travelling on roads, to celebrate a day of festivity and forgiveness with family members and relatives after an grueling thirty-day fast. The coming together involves ritualistic congregational prayer at a local mosque; the seeking of forgiveness for wrongdoings committed in the past, which supposedly clears the slate of accountability and for one day one’s conscience is at ease before another marks the sins for the year to come; and the great feasting of compressed rice with peanut sauce, glutinous rice cooked in bamboo with chicken or beef rendang or curry and assorted cookies. It is a day of ritual, indulgence and merrymaking. It is a day to fill in the gap created by a year of absence and so people talk about their progress in their career and how big the children are. It is also a day of awkward conversations, false starts, incomplete utterances, phatic communication and ritualistic comments. It is a day to notice how different people have become as life leads them in different directions and so the rituals become the glue to our decentered selves.
In Ignorance, Irena’s great Odysseus’ return to her homeland after a twenty-year absence is peppered with such awkward moments. It began a few years before she returned to Prague when her mother’s visit to Paris had reduced her to “that feeling of inferiority, of weakness, of dependency” (p.21). Her matriarchal overpowering self had “flattened her daughter and…that she took a secret pleasure in her own physical superiority” (p.21). How cruel she was to deny her daughter of her moment of glory and pride over her triumph in creating a good life for herself and I wonder if secretly she resented her daughter for abandoning her country or worse her own mother for the glamorous city of Paris, a city she declared she felt more sense of belonging than Prague. Was she playing out the anathema even if only psychologically towards those who were perceived to be treacherous to the country? Perhaps it is her mother’s attempt to reenact their past relationship even after they were separated. It is fascinating how one can get stuck in a role-play enacted countless times and neither space nor time can change it because of the other person’s insistence that you project the image they have of you and of themselves.
Her mother’s denial of her life should have been an indication of things to come and her return did not turn out as magical as it was for Odysseus. Her reunion with her friends did not turn out as she expected. She offered them fine wine, which they felt was alien to their ritualistic gathering and perhaps implicit in her offering was the sense of her superiority in taste over her friends’ common choice of beer. When her friends chose to drink beer over her offer of fine wine, she saw it as a rejection of her. During the gathering she failed to turn the conversation to topics she was interested in. She concluded at the end of the reunion:
“I could go back and live with them, but they’d be a condition: I’d have to lay my whole life with you, with all of you, with the French, solemnly on the altar of the homeland and set fire to it. Twenty years of my life spent abroad would go up in smoke, in a sacrificial ceremony. And the women would sing and dance with me around the fire, with beer mugs raised high in their hands. That’s the price I’d have to pay to be pardoned. To be accepted. To become one of them again”. (p.45)
In ‘Ignorance’, we see the concept of human plasticity as suggested by Iser. We adopt different ways of being in this world as we move from one place to another. It certainly makes me wonder what I would be taking from my stay here in the U.S. and if it would alienate me even if a little to my beloved home country upon my return. Are these changes so subtle and unconscious that only my return could enlighten aspects of my multiple selves? And what would be the glue to hold them together? Is it the ritualistic congregational prayer, the compressed rice with peanut sauce and the glutinous rice cooked in bamboo with chicken or beef rendang? It will be interesting to see.