Tag-Archive for ◊ main themes ◊

• Friday, June 14th, 2013

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, from a middle class family. His father was a musicologist and a pianist. Milan learned to play the piano from his father and later studied musicology and musical composition.

Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague for two terms, before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and script writing. He graduated in 1952 and worked as lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later, for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However he rejoined the party again in 1956 and was discharged once more in the seventies.

Kundera’s works were banned and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Kundera and his wife left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

He has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in 1987 won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his own home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”, says the long exiled Kundera at the beginning of his philosophical novel Ignorance. This sentence sets the main themes of the book which are: emigration, nostalgia, the longing for homecoming and the indifference that follows once back home as well as the deliberation on recollection and about human fallibility, creating a state of amnesia and ignorance. These are topics understandably close to the author’s heart, emigration being a first-hand experience for him.

Pregnant Irena, her husband Martin and their young daughter, leave their homeland, Czechoslovakia in 1969, one year after the Russian invasion, to seek refuge in Paris.

After twenty years of exile, Irena is now a mother of two daughters and a widow. With her new Swedish companion Gustaf, they decide to go back and live in the post-communist Czech Republic.
At Paris airport, while waiting for the Prague flight, her path crosses Josef – a short time heart-throb from adolescent days. He is also by coincidence, returning to his country for a brief visit after his wife’s death and twenty years of exile in Denmark.

The two uprooted protagonists, once back home after a long absence, are disillusioned to find their past forever gone. They don’t know how to pick up the threads. They come back to a completely transformed country from the one they remember, which no longer exists except in their own memories. They feel estranged in their native land among their compatriots and their families with whom they no longer have anything in common. They suffer through loss of identity as well as solitude for not fitting in with others.

Irena and Josef’ feel that their families and friends ignore them, as well as showing no interest in their lives in exile during the past twenty years. Irena, once in Prague, invites her friends and offers them an expensive French 1985 vintage Bordeaux wine but her friends who wanted “to teach (her) a lesson in patriotism” ask to drink beer instead. Irena believes that “rejecting the wine was rejecting her. She, as the person she is now, coming back after so many years…Either she succeeds in being among them as the person she has become, or else she won’t stay” because with their aloofness and disinterest in all she has been through abroad, they are erasing twenty years of her life.

Irena, on reflection, decides that her once beloved Prague of the old days is now completely alien to her. That is when she realises with assertion that she is more mature and wants to lead a life of her own and not stay in this city as it stands now. Her apprehension for the “Great Return” to the post-communist Czech Republic, occurs at the beginning of the book during her conversation with Parisian friend, Sylvie, who encourages her to go back home and reconnect with her past. After a short visit to Prague, Irena’s presentiment is proven to be correct – she no longer belongs to this new country.

Josef also feels the same as Irena and decides to go back to Denmark to continue living true to the memory of his deceased beloved wife. He was convinced after the disappointing visit to his older brother and his wife, followed by the visit to N., a Czech friend from forty years ago. To his surprise and sorrow, he discovers that neither his friend N. nor his wife are interested in his life and experiences during all his long years abroad. Josef discovers that even his mother tongue has become unfamiliar to his ears, as if it was “some unknown language”. He wonders what happened to Czech during these last two decades while he was away.

Just like Odysseus when he came back home after being tortured by his nostalgia and was eager to return to his beloved Ithaca after his long absence. To his great astonishment and affliction, he discovers “that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca, in the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost and could retrieve only by telling about it”.

The several themes meditated, philosophically analysed at length and historically paralleled with Odysseus in the Odyssey, plus the inclusion of the Czech poet Jan Skacel, the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg and the German writer,Thomas Mann, override the development of the one dimensional characters in the book. Kundera mentioned once during an interview, that the “unity” of a book can depend on its theme rather than on its plot.

The double erotic scenes at the end of the novel – between Irena and Josef on one side and her mother with Gustaf on the other, don’t enhance the story. They are gaudy and anticlimactic. They belittle the seriousness of the matters raised in the book, despite what the author says in one of his interviews that:“the erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located”.

A very emotional, short, concentrated and thought provoking book. It analyses human weaknesses and therefore problems that touch many people today. These problems are unlikely to change because they have been with us since the dawn of time. Throughout the centuries, people have been pushed to emigration and homecoming with all that it entails.

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• Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Alistair MacLeod was born in 1936 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada. When Alistair MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and after high school, he studied at St. Francis Xavier University, graduating with BA and B.Ed. degrees. In 1961 he obtained an MA degree from the University of New Brunswick and in 1968 a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.

He taught English for three years at Indiana University followed by a post at the University of Windsor, Ontario in 1969 as a professor of English and Creative Writing. Alistair MacLeod is a father of six children. He is retired and lives with his wife in Windsor, Ontario and they spend their summers on Cape Breton Island.

MacLeod has written a number of short stories: The lost Salt Gift of Blood, published in 1976 and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories in 1986. All his short stories have been collected into a single volume entitled Island: the Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod.

He has also written novels: No Great Mischief, his first novel, which took him thirteen years to write, was published in 1999 and received several awards and nominations. To Every Thing There is a Season was published in 2004 and Never Die Wondering in 2009. In 2008, Alistair MacLeod received the insignia as an officer of the Order of Canada for all his work.

No Great Mischief recounts the saga of the Scottish Highlanders, the clan MacDonald. In 1779, at the age of 55, Calum Ruadh (Calum the Red) MacDonald leaves his native Scotland with his large family – his wife, his twelve children and his dog – in an attempt to escape poverty and try his luck in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in Canada.

Two centuries later, in 1980 in Ontario, Alexander MacDonald, the narrator, is a successful orthodontist. At the age of three he was raised with his twin sister by their grandparents, while his three elder brothers were left to raise themselves following their parents’ drowning with 11 year old brother Colin, on a treacherous frozen sea in early spring. The novel starts with Alexander MacDonald going for his weekly visit to his broken-down, impoverished, alcoholic, elder brother, Calum, who lives in a run-down part of Toronto.

Alexander MacDonald is the great, great, great grand-child of Calum Ruadh MacDonald and one of the three cousins, called Alexander MacDonald in the novel. He evokes his clan’s stories, past and present, with its sad and tragic but also hopeful and joyful moments. The author mentions great battles like, Glencoe, Killiecrankie and Culloden in addition to other important events in Scottish history, as well as old traditional Highlanders’ Celtic songs. These stories have been passed on from generation to generation as part of their Scottish heritage, ensuring they are never forgotten but at the same time not forgetting that “living in the past is not living up to (one’s) potential”.

In the past the MacDonald clan faced hardship in their native land. Now exiled in Canada, the adversities continue, which make them resigned to their fate. They believe very strongly in keeping their identity and their dignity, while remaining loyal to their families, clans, countrymen and by following the old saying that “blood is thicker than water”. The credos they value are also: “We are all better when we’re loved” and Robert the Bruce’s quote from 1314: “My hope is constant in thee, clan Donald”. The MacDonald’s clan fought alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

The author underlines that even the MacDonald’s dogs and horses are faithful to them, like the members of the clan are loyal to each other. They kept the same family of dogs over the centuries. As Grandpa said after the death of their devoted dog: “ She was descended from the original Calum Ruadh dog… It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard” and Calum’s trustworthy horse, Christy, who “always kept her part of the bargain”.

The novel’s title refers to a letter written by General James Wolfe who describes in a disdainful way the Highlanders who were fighting under his command on the Plains of Abraham, outside Quebec city in 1759. He writes: “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall”. The General “was furious at the Highlanders because they wouldn’t retreat until they had carried their own wounded from the field” despite being ordered to leave them on the battle ground. They braved the enemy’s fire and disobeyed the order of the General because “they were probably fighting with their hearts rather than their heads”.

No Great Mischief is an elaborate touching story, emotionally strong, interspersed by ancient Celtic myths and anecdotes. The main themes are: the exile and the attachment that exists between the man and his own land, family blood ties, loyalty and dignity, going through several generations.

A poignant and tragic account at times, hilarious and light hearted at others. Beautifully written with well developed characters – grandpa and grandma being particularly endearing. It’s an authentic, heartfelt depiction of the belonging, allegiance and expectations of the exiled Scots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where MacLeod, himself was raised in Scottish surroundings with an oral rich tradition. The detailed description of the landscapes and especially the ocean, which is often described in various part of the story, enhances the account of this enticing novel.