Tag-Archive for ◊ new country ◊

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:
• Tuesday, June 09th, 2009

Cristina Garcia was born in Havana, Cuba in 1958. After Fidel Castro came to power in the early sixties, she moved with her parents to New York and following an early Catholic education, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1979 at Barnard College, at Columbia University. She later entered the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and in 1981 obtained a master’s degree in International Relations.

In the early eighties, Garcia worked for several publications: the Boston Globe for a short time, then United Press International, The Knoxville Journal in Tennessee and The New York Times. She was a correspondent at Time magazine in New York city in 1983 and also worked in San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles.

In 1990 Cristina Garcia decided to devote her time to writing fiction in order to highlight the life of Cuban immigrants in the United States. In 1984 she travelled to Cuba to meet her relatives for the first time and five years later her trip provided her with the incentive to start writing her first book, Dreaming in Cuban, published in 1992, followed by The Agüero Sisters published in 1997 and Monkey Hunting in 2003.

Cristina Garcia has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and the recipient of a Whiting writer’s award. In 1990 Garcia married Scott Brown, with whom she had a daughter, Pilar born in 1992. Garcia now lives with her daughter in Santa Monica.

The novel of The Agüero Sisters is made up of several family stories (with multiple narrators) interlaced with each other in the past and the present. It’s the rich complex story of Constancia and Reina Agüero, the two very different sisters, who were separated for thirty years.

Reina is forty eight years old, tall, dark and beautiful, liberated and a skilled master electrician,who supported the revolution and therefore remained in Havana. While her sister is the fifty one year-old Constancia, the pale, petite and conservative wife and business woman who immigrated with her husband to the United States after the Cuban revolution and adopted her new country’s culture.

What they both have in common is the intriguing, haunting and mysterious death of their mother and father, who both died many years ago, but whose memory still lives vividly with them after leaving them to inherit half truths, secrets and lies.

The author describes the Cuban landscape in detail, but not much detail is provided about Cuba before and after Fidel Castro took power. The novel mainly relates the lives of Cuban-Americans and the mysteries and myths that they carry with them and the beautiful American dream. There is also the uneasy relationship between children and parents and the hard-to-resolve question of identity.

Cristina Garcia is interested in emotional inheritance “and how those get played out subjectively in different times and places.” She said the beauty of being a novelist is that you can explore your obsessions at length.

Despite the jumps back and forth in time, the prologue gives us the main theme of the novel.

Although Garcia has an elegant style of writing and a fine description of characters, her plot is incomplete. She never reveals why Ignacio kills Blanca and two years later commits suicide. Nor has the author explained the reasons for Blanca’s disappearance and returning to her husband and child, heavily pregnant by another man, who remains anonymous throughout the book. The characters of Constancia and Reina’s daughters are neither fully developed nor do they contribute much to the story.

Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable, colourful book to read.

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