Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

It is after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and a man who is about to be arrested by the secret police (he knows he is – they don’t even bother to hide when following him anymore) goes to the house of an old girlfriend to ask for his love letters back. Elsewhere in the same city, Karel, a womanizer who nevertheless wants to make his marriage work, engineers a meeting between his wife and mistress with the goal of having a threesome. A literature student in the same city manages to develop a relationship with a woman while on holiday in the country and she visits him but the night ends without sex. Tamina, a woman who has been exiled from Czechoslovakia, works at a dead-end job somewhere in Western Europe, kept alive only by the memory of her dead husband. Meanwhile, Milan Kundera, the creator of all these people, from his apartment in Paris intersperses their stories with some from his own life and some bizarre metaphysical ramblings. What does this all mean?

I expect it’s a bit hard even for the most sophisticated literary critic to puzzle out, let alone for me. Nevertheless there is something about what Kundera has written, inclusive of his frankly way too detailed sexual imaginings, that kept me hooked. Bear with me while I attempt to puzzle them out.

Kundera begins with the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. I don’t know much about this particular event but here is a brief historical background. Czechoslovakia was of course liberated from Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union after World War II, and after a brief struggle for power the Communist Party takes control under Klement Gottwald, making it part of the patchwork of “people’s democracies” in Eastern Europe. Early on the Party is decimated by purges, with many (predominantly Jewish) leaders being forced to admit to their part in the “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist Conspiracy” and executed. In 1968, a man by the name of Alexander Dubacek gains leadership of the party and embarks on a period of political liberalization. This is not exactly unique in the history of the socialist bloc, but the CPs always acted to preserve their own power. When economic liberalization went to far, along with the growth of anti-Soviet sentiment, good old Uncle Leo ended up having to send in the tanks to ensure that his Bohemian children didn’t stray too far from the nest.

Of course, it was always much more about Soviet predominance than any actual changes in economic policy that was being objected to. China in the 1950s, Yugoslavia after detente with Tito, and Hungary in the 1970s all conducted their own experiments in the market without triggering similar outrage on the part of the USSR. So whether capitalism was really about to be restored in Czechoslovakia is sort of beside the point. In any case, I remain somewhat skeptical of claims that the Eastern bloc countries were heaven on Earth as mainstream Stalinists and even a lot of Trotskyists would have it. Moreover they showed themselves to be stagnant, repressive societies which were in the final analysis unsustainable and the only way their leaders found out was to introduce free market capitalism. While that is not an outcome to be celebrated, even less so is a blatantly imperialist Soviet invasion which ended the possibility of the Czechoslovaks rediscovering a more authentic and liberatory form of socialism, and only put off the restoration of capitalism for a couple decades in any case.

The stories that make up The Book of Laughter and Forgetting are all about this event, which functions as the “hidden center” of the book despite the fact that some of the stories rarely mention it and a few have nothing to do with it at all. In this way it is a bit similar to Haruki Murakami’s after the quake, which takes the 1995 Kobe earthquake as the event that touches off individual quests for self-discovery. However what Kundera is trying to do is much more specific, and much more intimately tied up with history. It is almost too easy to state his purpose, because he does it himself in various places with a complete lack of shame. Kundera’s father was a musical historian, whose struggles with aphasia make it increasingly difficult to pursue his study of Beethoven’s piano variations. As Kundera tells it:

A symphony is like a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, further and further away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are also like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world… The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the hidden diversity of the interior world lying inside all things.

Beethoven thus discovered in variations another area to be explored. His variations are a new “invitations to the voyage.”

Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the wondrous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves farther and farther away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under the microscope. (225-26)

So: variations. Quite a bold project to attempt in the novel form, and once again I would have been completely skeptical if someone had told me about his idea before I read the book. Nevertheless literature in this case has surprised me yet again.

So if the novel’s seven parts are variations, what are Kundera’s original measures? Easy to say, because once again he states them explicitly, this time in the title, the most obvious place possible. “Laughter” is one part. Kundera repeatedly waxes theological discussing the theme of order versus chaos. In his discussion we have “angels” and “devils”. The angels are those who see order and intelligence at work in the world, and who dedicate themselves to singing the glory of God’s creation. The demons are those who see no order. Their response to a meaningless world: laughter. To laugh is to rebel against the idea of the world as a certainty, as given to you by whatever authority. “The devil’s laughter is terribly contagious, and it spread from one person to another” is Kundera’s depiction of Satan’s fall.

On the other hand we have forgetting. To forget is, in Kundera’s view, the opposite of laughter. It is to give up one’s independence of thought and action, to accept the world as the angels give it to you. Both qualities are human, both have existed throughout history, and one cannot exist without the other. In fact one might say that forgetting follows laughter quite naturally, and the cycle stretches itself over each generation.

Both to laugh and to forget, obviously, are political acts, as the angels and devils are archetypes of political beings. The angels, as Kunedera depicts them, are the leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, such as Gustav Hasek, “the president of forgetting,” but also the true believers in the CP’s rule, including Zdena, the previously mentioned ex-girlfriend of the first section’s dissident. The angels act to make people forget in very real ways to perpetuate their rule, which would become a bit embarrassing for obvious reassons. The first scene in the book is that of Czechoslovakia’s first Communist leader, Klement Gottwald. When Gottwald appears on the balcony of a palace in Prague, his comrade Clementis lends him his fur hat to help keep away the cold. But, unfortunately for Clementis, he had under Soviet direction participated in sending arms to Israel, a concrete act of support by an allegedly socialist country to an obviously racist, imperialist settler state. This later became rather embarrassing. He is discovered to be a member of the Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy and executed, after which the photographs of him with Gottwald are touched up to remove him, as Stalin did with so many people who were purged. In this way the angels actively create the rational order they see in the world.

The variations on laughter and forgetting move away from politics at the very beginning, and become part of the drama of each character, including that of Kundera himself. Is this progressive or revolutionary? Hardly, and I think Kundera would actively resist an attempt to categorize his vision politically. Of course I really can’t stand apolitical sentiment, which as every thinking person knows is just a way to be political without dirtying one’s hands by adopting actual opinions. However in this case I am inclined to give him a pass. In his own way he has stood on the right side of the barricades with this book, and if he transforms that experience into something more deep and literary, he should be forgiven as long as he does it well. While perhaps he shows a bit too much fascination with his own cleverness as he writes, no one can say that The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is not the work of a master.

Literary qualities: 5/5, Social qualities: 3/5

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění) translated from the Czech by Aaron Asher. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996. $13.99

Similar books: Salman Rushdie, Shame, Haruki Murakami, after the quake.

Up next: Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers.

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Filed under History, Literature, Reading journal

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