I just returned from Singapore, where I spent two weeks catching up with family and friends, combined with almost non-stop feasting on spicy and hearty food.
While taking a hot shower earlier today, I was thinking about my visit and wondered about the idea of nostalgia. Which in turn reminded me of Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, which I had read several months ago.The etymology of nostalgia is introduced early on in the novel:
The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering”. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Kundera goes on to highlight how nostalgia is presented in other European languages such as French and German. For instance, in Spanish:
Añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss), In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing.
Within this compact novel, ignorance takes form as a mix of nostalgia for one’s homeland, expectations of a ‘great return’ falling short in reality, as well as selective and/or false memory combined with forgetting.
The story revolves around two principal characters – Irene and Josef – who had left their homeland years ago, settled in different foreign lands and had returned to see the country, family and friends that they left behind. As the story progresses, bit by bit it is revealed that Irene and Josef have different memories of what had been a brief encounter in a pub decades ago.
What I also found quite intriguing is the disjointedness and incoherence of what Josef remembers of his younger self and the reality, both past and present. For instance:
Finding in his teenage diaries evidence of “sentimentality mixed with sadism”, Josef wonders: “How can two such alien, such opposite beings have the same handwriting? What common essence is it that made a single person of him and this little snot?”
The book review in The Guardian sums this up quite well: The novel suggests an inverse relationship between memory and nostalgia: lone exiles are amnesiac, for nostalgia “suffices unto itself… so fully absorbed is it by its suffering and nothing else”. Memory, however, relies on collective reinforcement.
Coincidentally, I had read another compact novel that revolves around the theme of memory while I was on holiday. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes focuses significantly on false or inaccurate memories, with the protagonist, Tony constantly seeking corroboration from others on what he remembers from the past.I especially like how his genius friend, Adrian described history and what defines it:
One of the central problems of history: the question of subjective vs objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us… History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.
Both Ignorance and The Sense of an Ending deal with memory and forgetting to some extent, as well as conclude with an unexpected twist. That said, I enjoyed the former more than the latter. I like the nuanced and subtle way in which Kundera presents the loneliness that his characters experience, while the protagonist in Barnes’ novel comes across as been overtly whiny and self-absorbed.
On that note, here’s ending with two excellent TED Talks that deal with (false) memory and its repercussions:
1. Daniel Kahneman – The Riddle of Experience vs Memory
2. Elizabeth Loftus – The Fiction of Memory
P.S. I just took the above photo of Kundera’s book, placing it over an issue of The New York Times’ T Magazine that I was reading at dinner. I love how the images on the book and the magazine play off each other!