Many years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and loved it. The characters, the plot, and Kundera’s beautiful writing made a lasting impression on me. That made it easy to decide which Czech Republic author I’d read for this week’s blog post. Kundera has written a few more books since The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the one I chose is Ignorance.
The book tells the story of people who fled the country then known as Czechoslovakia after the communists took over during a Soviet-led invasion. First there is Irena who, along with her husband Martin, settles in Paris. They build a life for themselves and their two daughters. But Martin develops a terminal illness and dies, leaving Irena to navigate life in Paris and care for their daughters on her own. Then there is Josef, who moves to Denmark after he leaves Czechoslovakia. He marries and has a good life as a veterinarian, but his spouse also dies.
Irena and Josef cross paths when they each decide to visit their homeland after the fall of communism. Irena sees Josef at the airport and remembers having met him at a bar in Prague many years ago, a meeting that was very memorable to her. She approaches Josef and reminds him of their previous encounter, and although he plays along, he has no recollection of ever having met her. Nevertheless, they agree to meet up at some point while they’re both in Prague.
As they visit with their respective friends and relatives over the next few days, they experience the discomfort one feels upon returning to a place that used to be familiar and finding that it’s changed, or maybe it’s just that they themselves have changed. Irena’s old friends show no interest in what she’s been doing while she’s been away. They have no frame of reference for the life she’s lived in Paris, so they’re only interested in the person she was before she left. Josef visits his mother’s grave and is surprised to see graves for many relatives he didn’t know had died. He realizes it’s because he had ceased to exist to those he left behind, so they felt no obligation to stay in touch with him.
Irena and Josef finally arrange their rendezvous, and they share the feelings of alienation they’ve had since their return to Prague. They each have their own expectations about what they want from this meeting, but having had similar experiences may not be enough to overcome their lack of a shared history.
Kundera interweaves mentions of The Odyssey into the plot, which serve to amplify the book’s themes of exile and alienation. After such a long time away, maybe one really can’t go home again.
I don’t recall seeing any Czech food mentions or descriptions while reading Ignorance, so I took to the Internet to find some vegan Czech recipes. I found one on the Czech Vegan (in America) blog that sounded perfect : vegan Czech goulash with bread dumplings. The goulash is made using Gardein Beefless Tips and a variety of spices (which gave me an opportunity to visit one of my favorite Sacramento shops – the Allspicery). I really liked the goulash and might actually make it again in the future.
The bread dumplings were another story. For starters, the recipe made way more dough than I needed, so if you decide to try it, I would recommend cutting the recipe in half. Also, I didn’t like boiling the dough in loaves, as opposed to dropping spoonfuls into the boiling water, which would have taken less time to cook and ensured that the dumplings were done all the way through. They turned out okay, but I probably won’t make them again.
There was only one project listed on GlobalGiving for the Czech Republic, but it was a good one. If you’ve ever spent time as a patient in a hospital, you know how boring it can be and how slowly the time passes. An organization called Lekorice combats that problem by sending volunteers into Thomayers Hospital in Prague with games, projects, and even therapy animals to help keep the patients happy and not fretting about their illnesses. They visit approximately 3,000 patients a year, mostly children or the elderly, and they also offer art programs, lectures, and performances. More information about this project, “In hospital with Licorice,” is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/in-hospital-with-licorice/.
NEXT STOP: DENMARK