Ignorance by Milan Kundera

Book: Ignorance by Milan Kundera Read Free Book Online
Authors: Milan Kundera
Tags: Fiction, General
violent current of worries carried Irena far away from him and from the people who knew him. He vanished from conversations, and even his two daughters, who were too young when he was alive, took no further interest in him. One day she met Gustaf, and to prolong their conversation, he told her he had known her husband. That was the last time that Martin was with her, a strong, important, influential presence serving as a bridge to the man who was soon to be her lover. Once Martin had fulfilled that mission, he withdrew for good.
    Long before, in Prague, on their wedding day, Martin had settled Irena in his villa; his own library and office were on the second floor, and he kept the street level for his life as husband and father; before they left for France he transferred the villa to his mother-in-law, and twenty years later she gave Gustaf that second floor, by then entirely refurbished. When Milada came there to visit Irena, she reminisced about her former colleague: "This is where Martin used to work," she said, reflective. But no shade of Martin appeared after those words. He had long ago been dislodged from the house, he and all his shades.
    After his wife's death Josef noticed that without daily conversations, the murmur of their past life grew faint. To intensify it, he tried to revive his wife's image, but the lackluster result distressed him. She'd had a dozen different smiles. He strained his imagination to re-create them. He failed. She'd had a gift for fast funny lines that would delight him. He couldn't call forth a single one. He finally wondered: if he were to add up the few recollections he still had from their life together, how much time would they take? A minute? Two minutes?
    That's another enigma about memory, more basic than all the rest: do recollections have some measurable temporal volume? do they unfold over a span of time? He tries to picture their first encounter: he sees a staircase leading down from the sidewalk into a beer cellar; he sees couples here and there in a yellow half-light; and he sees her, his future wife, sitting across from him, a brandy glass in hand, her gaze fixed on him, with a shy smile. For a long while he watches her holding her glass and smiling; he scrutinizes this face, this hand, and through all this time she remains motionless, does not lift the glass to her mouth or change her smile in the slightest. And there lies the horror: the past we remember is devoid of time. Impossible to reexperience a love the way we reread a book or resee a film. Dead, Josef's wife has no dimension at all, either material or temporal.
    Therefore all efforts to revive her in his mind soon became torture. Instead of rejoicing at having retrieved this or that forgotten moment, he was driven to despair by the immensity of the void around that moment. Then one day he forbade himself that painful ramble through the cor-
    ridors of the past, and stopped his vain efforts to bring her back as she had been. He even thought that by his fixation on her bygone existence, he was traitorously relegating her to a museum of vanished objects and excluding her from his present life.
    Besides, they had never made a cult of reminiscence. Not that they'd destroyed their private correspondence, of course, or their datebooks with notes on errands and appointments. But it never occurred to them to reread them. He therefore determined to live with the dead woman the way he had with the living one. He now went to her grave not to reminisce but to spend time with her; to see her eyes looking at him, and looking not from the past but from the present moment.
    And now a new life began for him: living with the dead woman. There is a new clock organizing his time. A stickler for tidiness, she used to be irritated by the disorder he left everywhere. Now he does the housecleaning himself, meticulously. For he loves their home even more now than he did when she was alive: the low wooden fence with its little

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