The only authorized translation of the bestselling masterpiece by one of the greatest authors of our time, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" is part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology, and part autobiography.
"The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting." (p. 232)
As experimental novels go, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is relatively successful and better than most.
Kundera begins with forgetting—a commentary on the recent history of his native Czechoslovakia and his most powerful statement on forgetting:
"The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." (p. 3)
Laughter, too, embodies a universal truth for Kundera:
"Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was. . . . People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them." (p. 63)
Acts of sex are so frequent in Kundera’s narration that sex becomes as much a character as the characters who perform it. In the way that some writers may habitually bring their characters together over drinks at the pub, Kundera brings his characters together in coitus. This may be characteristic of all his work. I’ve only read one other of his novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which sex was most assuredly the main character. This realization is thought-provoking. Kundera’s sex character is neither titillating nor disgusting; s/he is just another player in the drama.
Kundera skillfully executes the novel-within-the-novel, and I forget I have been gently pushed into a fictional world within a fictional world. Still in a sphere of writers and artists living under the thumb of a repressive regime, I now inhabit the fractured world of Tamina, a young widow who struggles to reconcile life without her husband. A New York Times review suitably describes Laughter and Forgetting as “part fairy tale.” Kundera’s Tamina moves easily in and out of reality taking me with her, never quite sure if I am in a world of imagination or a commune of lost souls.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is of that genre of literature that invites the reader to come back again and again to see what more there is to be discovered. The nonfiction qualities of this book—Kundera’s description of the crushing disappointment of a revolution that only replaced one despot for another—are as intriguing to me as the fictional aspects.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a book of variations on a theme. There is no single narrative, but each of the seven parts expands on the theme of forgetting and its consequences. However, Kundera does indicate that Tamina—the heroine of Parts Four and Six—is the central character, and whenever Tamina is missing from the action, the book is for her.
As the title suggests, the nature of forgetting forms the major theme of the book. Forgetting is always seen as creating a vacuum, but that vacuum is viewed in different ways. For example, both Mirek of Part One and Tamina of Part Four are concerned with recovering old letters. Mirek wants to obtain his old love letters to an embarrassing flame so that he can destroy them and thus completely erase her from his life’s narrative; Tamina, on the other hand, wants to recover the letters she shared with her dead husband in order to stop his disappearance from her memory.
For Mirek, forgetting is positive, a means of creating the life he wants in reverse (whether or not this attitude is psychologically healthy is, of course, another question). For Tamina, forgetting deprives her life of any weight; she feels as though she’s adrift on a raft, always looking back into an indistinct past. In this way, the dichotomy of memory and forgetting seems to parallel the contrast between lightness and heaviness from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Kundera also discusses the nature of forgetting in a political context; an incident is cited in which the communist leadership, in an Orwellian move, erased an official from a photograph and thus from history. Perhaps it is a result of my (blessed) removal from the realities of communism, but Kundera’s digressions into the nature of forgetting as underlying the true inhumanity of communism served merely to emphasize the narrative regarding personal memory rather than the other way around.
As a last point, Tamina—the character the book is about and for—is, for me, utterly captivating and a character for whom I felt instant affinity; a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that she occupies so little of the novel and is developed through sparing biographical details. The book escapes feels fragmented by having Tamina at its heart.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being cemented Kundera as one of my favorite authors; although The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is less of a coherent statement, and certainly less of a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an exceptional novel that further underlines Kundera’s immense talent.
The author is a character in this book, that is a strange mixture of fiction, non-fiction and autobiography. The writer thinks about his native country, his people and its sad destiny. A central theme in this book is forgetting. For a totalitarian state forgetting is essential: let the people forget their history, forget where they came from, who their ancestors were, who their friends once were. Live in the present, in the collective joy of the here and now. Dance, and loose yourself in the drums of loud music. Stop thinking, leave that to those who are in power.
In the mean time the author writes stories, stories about forgetting, about refugees, about victims of the regime. About historians who were fired from universities, about the assassination of so-called traitors whose very existence was wiped out from history by even removing them from pictures. About the ones in the West who flirted with communism while people were killed by it.
A second theme is the theme of laughter, the two kinds of laughter: the laughing of devils and the laughing of angels, and how both can turn into a nasty extreme.
The book meanders around these themes that are explored both in made up stories and in real memories and experiences of the author. Variations on two themes, as a piece of music.
It's impressive writing, yet at the same time it is a book that very much belongs to the 1970's. Even if one could argue that there are still totalitarian states today, this book is very much about Czechoslovakia. A country that has been freed from totalitarianism, yet do all its inhabitants actually make use of their freedom of thought now?
"This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance.
It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as a mirror.
It is a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and angels." (165-6)
This really does convey what The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is like. The book is composed of a series of vignettes, some obviously related to one another and others, so far as I can tell, coming out of left field. The composition of the novel is similar to the one other Kundera book I have read, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both are told in brief snippets and focus as much (actually more) as philosophy as on characters.
The difference lies in the fact that The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a clearly defined cast, setting and plot. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting does not have any such clear cut framework. In fact, his description that the parts follow one another towards a theme, only to have sense fade into the distance, perfectly captures my experience reading this novel. Any time I started getting really interested in a particular character, journey, philosophical idea, etc, or even just started to think I knew what he was getting at, the story would inevitably leap to something else entirely, leaving me more confused and irritated than before.
He also does some weird postmodern, breaking the fourth wall stuff that really was not working for me. I have never been a huge fan of novelists including themselves as a character in their works (name and all), and this was one of those times where it did not work for me. Another thing that bothered me was the weird metaphor where death was like childhood, which also involved children raping an adult woman. That was weird and creepy, and didn't really quite work as a metaphor. And, sadly, it's not the only rape scene in the book.
Sometimes, I could tell that Kundera was getting close to something interesting here, but I don't feel like he made it. There is definitely a reason why The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the more well-known work. I would recommend reading that one first.
Some good passages. I liked the description of "graphomania" (p 92), the mention how everything was a battle for ears (something I never believed in before), the
"borderline" of sanity that everyone is on the brink of. The description of "erotic biographies"... all interesting stuff.
Retrospectively, I don't want to read it again.