Set in postwar Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Stalinist purges of World War II, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is “a novel in the form of variations” that explores how totalitarianism affects individual and collective, national and personal, memories. Milan Kundera (1929– ) traces the interrelated lives of a handful of characters who are each trying to recover or banish poignant memories. Much of the novel is based on Kundera’s own knowledge of totalitarianism; following the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Kundera lost his teaching post at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, saw his books removed from the shelves of public libraries, and was banned from publishing in his homeland.
Divided into seven parts, the first section of the novel follows Mirek, a once-celebrated researcher who has been forced to leave his job and is surrounded by undercover agents. The character observes that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Yet throughout the novel, Kundera demonstrates that historical revision occurs not only at a national level but in private, everyday life as well. Kundera alternates between presenting characters’ interior monologues and the narrator’s reflections on philosophical and theoretical questions that arise, including: What constitutes history? Where do memories adhere and how are they recovered? What are the origins and characteristics of laughter? As usual, he presents these brief narratives using flashbacks, authorial asides, and other frameworks. The novel is comprised of revealing episodes, often of a sexual nature, that function as studies of larger, pervasive themes.
The first and fourth sections of the novel—both entitled “Lost Letters”—introduce characters who are trying to track down documents from their past but are motivated by opposed impulses. Mirek tries to recover incriminating letters from his former mistress, Zdena, in order to put them out of reach of the state. Although she refuses to return the letters, he is compelled to reexamine their relationship, discovering that he had unwittingly falsified it. In contrast, Tamina, a waitress in a provincial town and the main heroine of the novel, yearns to preserve an accurate memory of her beloved late husband. Still mourning her loss, she tries to retrieve their love letters from her mother-in-law’s house in Prague, hoping that they will restore her memory of her husband and their shared past. When Hugo, one of her regular customers, promises to retrieve the package, she halfheartedly enters into a relationship with him. When she discovers that Hugo has no intention of going to Prague, she becomes revolted by their relationship and her own dispassionate sexual submission.
Tamina reappears in part six in a surreal fantasy-adventure in which she is mysteriously led to an island inhabited entirely by children. Tamina, whose sexual maturity marks her as an outsider, faces a future of interminable, childish routines. At first the children fetishize her as a sexual object, then they begin to resent and torment her, and finally they regard her as an aberration and watch gloatingly as she drowns in an attempted escape from the island. In the course of her journey, Tamina discovers that sexuality, freed from the ties of love, becomes “a joy of angelic simplicity,” but that the absence of weight or significance can also result in “a terrifying burden of buoyancy.”
Laughter and Forgetting, like Kundera’s later novels, investigates dichotomies such as weight and lightness; public and private; mind and body; and boundless love and litost (a Czech word meaning “a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self”) to uncover the origins of these oppositions. For example, the narrator posits that there are two kinds of laughter—angelic and demonic—and that, taken to their extreme, the former produces fanaticism, while the latter results in skepticism. He argues that individuals must maintain “equilibrium of power” between the two forms of laughter, since one would collapse under either the burden of uncontested meaning or the burden of meaningless buoyancy.
Throughout the novel, Kundera explores how history is constructed and how modernity has altered our perception of time. The narrator argues that whereas in the past, history served as a more or less static backdrop against which our personal lives unfolded, in the 20th century, history progresses rapidly, so that our private lives appear banal and plodding in contrast to the novelty of historical events. Kundera challenges the reader’s assumptions about history, memory, love, and sex at every turn, placing distinctive characters in extraordinary situations in order to test and elucidate his theories. Above all else, Laughter and Forgetting examines the political and philosophical consequences of pushing human impulses to their furthest extremes; or, to put it another way, it explores the basic emotional origins of radical politics.
Analysis of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Aji, Aron, ed. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992.
Pifer, Ellen. “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Kundera’s Narration Against Narration.” Journal of Narrative Technique 22, no. 2 (1992): 84–96.
Straus, Nina Pelikan. “Erasing History and Deconstructing the Text: Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” Critique 28, no. 2 (1987): 69–85.
Weeks, Mark. “Milan Kundera: A Modern History of Humor amid the Comedy of History.” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 3 (2005): 130–148.
Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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