Tag-Archive for ◊ homeland ◊

Author:
• 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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Author:
• Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Eva Hoffman (née Ewa Wydra) was born of Jewish parents in Cracow, Poland in 1945. Despite being musically gifted she had to abandon her piano classes at the age of thirteen, to emigrate to Vancouver, Canada with her parents and younger sister.

After graduating from high school, she travelled to the USA upon receiving a scholarship for studying English literature at Rice University, Texas where she obtained her M.A., followed by Yale School of Music from 1967 to 1968. In 1974 she received a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard University.

She studied psychoanalysis and commenced a training analysis course in London, England but had to give it up as it was too ambitious for her.

Eva Hoffman has been a professor of literature and creative writing at various universities and colleges. She worked from 1979 to 1990 as an editor and writer for The New York Times and has received several awards and prizes for her work.

She married Barry Hoffman in 1971, divorced in 1976 and moved to England in 1993 where she now lives in Hampstead in north London.

Eva Hoffman is the writer of Lost in Translation published in 1989, Exit into History in 1993, Shtetl in 1997, The Secret in 2001, After Such Knowledge in 2004, Illuminations in 2008 and Time in 2009.

Isabel Merton, the novel’s protagonist is a New Yorker. She is a famous, gifted pianist who often goes on concert tours all over Europe. She is overpowered by her passion for classical music to the extent of separating from her loving husband, Peter, in order to dedicate her life to this fine art. She is hoping to reach the nirvana through this highly pure form of pianistic sounds.

While travelling across Europe for her concerts, Isabel’s path crosses in several cities with the charismatically handsome, Anzor Islikhanov, a cultured Chechen activist, an itinerant like her. They both have a passionate character in common but different commitment targets. The inevitable happens – they fall in love.

The passing passion between Isabel and Anzor is doomed to fail despite the love and attention they need due to the lack of parental affection and care from which they both suffered. Anzor’s dog is killed by his cruel, apathetic father, for a futile reason and Isabel’s divorced mother abandons her and her younger brother, Kolya. Kolya ends-up dying of a drug overdose, even though Isabel was always trying to comfort him and substitute the uncaring, absent mother.

Isabel’s entire life is driven by her devotion to her art, it’s her “raison d’être”.“She summons the poetry of Chopin’s last Ballade, so shot through with anger and anguish, as if it could heal death and all sorrow… As if, after they’ve been broken and injured, things could be made whole”. We learn from her former German teacher’s diary, Ernst Wolfe, that she had a promising future as a pianist. This diary she carries with her and reads during her travels.

As for Anzor, his life is dedicated to his homeland. His patriotism has turned into rage, hatred and revenge against the Russians. For him fighting is the only solution to gaining back the country’s sovereignty, his honour and self-respect. He says to Isabel: “We’re fighting for our survival. Our freedom… Freedom as that artist would never understand it… I cannot breathe free when my country does not breathe free”. After listening to Anzor, Isabel “wants to flee to her practice room; to her music, in which violence and rage are already transmuted into beauty…As if violence held no dominion over beauty”. Because she has no other means “with which to answer the guerilla, or the terrorist. Or herself”.

Illuminations is well written and has interesting themes, like the beauty of classical music in contrast with the ugly violence, in addition to romanticism and psychoanalysis. The musical metaphors involving Chopin, Schumann or Schubert are very well described showing the author’s knowledge and natural affinity for music. As Isabel says to her interviewer, Mariella, about classical music: “This beautiful vocabulary of the soul… where else do we find it? …music doesn’t refer to anything. Except itself. So it doesn’t tell you anything. It doesn’t explain anything and it is…Illuminations”.

The drawback of this novel is its repetitiveness which induces monotony, maybe intended by the author? Because, whether it’s London, Paris, Prague, Sofia or Vienna, it’s always the same airports, the same hotels, the same concert halls, the same apprehensive feeling before every concert and the aftermath, emptiness and forlornness. Also the recurrent conversations between the two protagonists are always the persistently bitter Anzor talking about the injustice his people are enduring while the world is turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to their problem. As for Isabel, she always listens to his conversation with complete bewilderment as she is trying to comprehend his logic.

A novel for classical music lovers about the role and power of music in a world driven by materialism and violence and the contrast between the two values and their relevance in today’s life. It’s written by a musically trained author who preferred to pursue a career in writing rather than follow her pianistic talent.

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