IGNORANCE

By Milan Kundera

Translated from the French

By Linda Asher

HarperCollins. 195 pp. $23.95

"Strip," commands the unnamed young man to his girlfriend in "The Hitchhiking Game," that troubling story (from Laughable Loves) about the dark power of eros to undermine our fragile human happiness. "Strip," says the painter Sabina to the photographer Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, when the two -- wife and mistress to Tomas -- snap nude photos of each other.

"Strip." It's a good word to bear in mind when reading Milan Kundera, almost the definition of the aesthetics in the Czech master's later works. As a writer, he emphasizes narrative speed, lightness and economy. He ignores the descriptive thickening of more naturalistic authors, and instead peels away his characters' social existences -- the rigmarole of career and quotidian life -- to display their existential uncertainties and confusions. As exiles -- members of the Czech emigration after the Russians' suppression of their country's uprising in 1968 -- these same characters frequently feel deracinated, homesick, incomplete, naked. Often they discover themselves most fully in sexual intimacy or abandon, and Kundera typically ends his books with erotic epiphanies. Not least, if one thinks of "strip" as a noun, he constructs his novels out of multiple strands or ribbons, an interlacing of narratives, dramatic vignettes, personal reflection, aphorisms about history and human behavior, mini-essays on psychology, music and communism, almost anything. And nothing to excess.

I don't mean to push this ecdysiast philosophy of writing too far. After all, in The Art of the Novel, Kundera points to Cervantes, Rabelais, Sterne and Diderot as his great baggy masters of laughter, digression and authorial intrusion. They are carnivalesque, unbounded by good taste, wild, containing multitudes. Moreover, Kundera properly loathes what he has called the closed circle or ring, the lyrical, the uniform, preferring the outcast, the loner, those who refuse or cannot sing the party song. That said, the novels written in his adopted French -- Slowness (1995) and now Ignorance -- exhibit the elegance and compactness one associates with the country in which Kundera has resided for more than 25 years. They have room and time only for the essentials.

Ignorance traces the intersecting paths of two Czech exiles -- Irene, now living in France, and Josef, working as a veterinarian in Denmark -- who return "home" to Prague for a visit after the fall of the Soviet Empire. To tell their story, and that of some of the people they care about, Kundera starts with an inquiry, like an ancient rhetor or 19th-century German philologist, into the meaning of the word nostalgia. "The Greek word for 'return' is nostos. Algos means 'suffering.' So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. . . . In Spanish an~oranza comes from the verb an~orar (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: You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you."

Much of Ignorance may be regarded as a commentary on that last sentence: "You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you." The "you" may be the family and friends left behind -- or it may be the e{acute}migre{acute} himself, slowly forgotten by that family and those friends. The "you" may certainly stand for one's own youthful self: When Josef reads his adolescent diaries, he wonders "what common essence is it that makes a single person of him and this little snot?" The "you" could be the young man Irena glimpsed long ago, the love missed, the road she should have taken. Or the "you" may represent the beloved dead -- Josef's much-missed wife -- or even the alienation and strangeness that one lover can accuse another of. Kundera deftly uses all these possible meanings, most of them universals of the human journey through life: One hardly needs to be Czech or an exile to recognize the tensions between the past and the present, the battle between domestic tranquility and amorous excitement, the claims of what should be remembered and the unexpected legacy of what has long been forgotten.

What happens in Ignorance? Irena's lover Gustav sets up a branch office of his business in Prague; Irena flies there to see him and at the airport fortuitously encounters a man with whom she was infatuated years before; the two arrange to meet later. Josef meanwhile spends an afternoon with his brother and recollects his erotic past, especially his perverse toying with the affections of a girl who tried to kill herself. Irena sips wine and chats with her old friend Milada, leaving Gustav alone at home with her mother. Josef looks forward to returning to Denmark. Above these unexceptional stories hovers Kundera's easygoing, soothing presence, raising questions, speculating about loss and history and sex:

"A human lifetime is 80 years long on average. A person imagines and organizes his life with that span in mind. . . . Sexual relations can take up the whole of adult life. But if that life were a lot longer, might not staleness stifle the capacity for arousal well before one's physical powers declined? For there is an enormous difference between the first and the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth, or the ten-thousandth coitus. Where lies the boundary line beyond which repetition becomes stereotyped, if not comical or even impossible? And once that boundary is crossed, what would become of the erotic relationship between a man and a woman? Would it vanish? Or, on the contrary, would lovers consider the sexual phase of their lives to be the barbaric prehistory of real love? Answering these questions is as easy as imagining the psychology of the inhabitants of an unknown planet."

As in his famous earlier works The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera once more delivers a seductive, intelligent entertainment. Sometimes, as the French say, he even makes you furiously to think. But fundamentally he isn't so much a seriously profound novelist as a learned, vivacious one -- more Calvino than Kafka, more Robertson Davies than Roberto Calasso, though recalling aspects of all four. Even if Ignorance may not be entirely bliss -- the novel is finally a little too slight for that, and maybe a little too smooth in its moves -- it still offers a couple of hours of intensely interesting talk, followed by some hot sex. Not a bad way to spend an evening. *

Michael Dirda is a writer and senior editor of Book World.

Milan Kundera