Friday, 19 July 2013

Book Review: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera seems to be a stimulating place for men and women of letters. Many renowned writers originate from the region like just for instance Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch, or Max Brod. They all were writers in German language and thrived in the bilingual atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy around and after 1900. The twentieth century saw important authors who wrote in Czech like for example Jaroslav Seifert, Pavel Kohout, Karel Čapek, Bohumil Hrabal, or Jaroslav Hašek. Many Czech writers were driven to go into exile either soon after the end of World War II in 1945 or after the crushing of Prague Spring in 1968. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, which I'm reviewing today, was written and first published in France.

Milan Kundera was born in Brno, now Czech Republic, in April 1929. Under the impression of the German occupation and World War II he joined the Communist Party, but was expelled in 1950, re-admitted in 1956 and expelled again in 1970. He began his literary career as a poet, essayist and playwright. His first novel, inspired by the expulsion from the communist party in 1950, was The Joke (Žert: 1967). After the violent end of the Prague Spring in 1968 his books were first banned from libraries and then from publication altogether. In 1975 Milan Kundera finally emigrated to France and was denationalized by the Czechoslovak regime four years later. His first work written in exile was The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění: 1978) followed by his best known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí: 1984). In the 1990s Milan Kundera switched to writing in French instead of his native Czech and he considers himself as a French writer now. His first novel in the adopted language was Slowness (La Lenteur: 1995). His latest published works are the essay collections The Curtain (Le rideau) from 2005 and Encounter (Une rencontre) from 2009. Milan Kundera has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature already several times and lives a secluded life in Paris, France.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting isn't a novel. Milan Kundera himself calls it a variation on a theme, namely on laughter and forgetting, and in fact it's a collection of seven independent stories linked together by those two essential reactions of human nature to the outside world, be it in the sphere of politics, history, love or life in general. The first story titled Lost Letters is about Mirek who wishes to forget his Communist youth which included a love affair with unalluring Zdena. He tries in vain to make her return his love letters because they could discredit him in the dissident community. On his return home he and his son are arrested. Mama is the second story. It deals with an old woman from a provincial town who visits her son Karel and daughter-in-law Marketa in Prague. She is introduced to Eva, an alleged cousin of Marketa and really the lover of Karel. When the mother drops in to tell Karel that Eva reminds her of her old friend Nora, she almost catches the three in a sex game which they arranged for that Sunday. In the end the old woman retreats to her room and the memory of Nora turns on Karel to play his role in his game with Marketa and Eva. In the third story The Angels in the shape of two American students and a teacher called Mrs. Raphael make an appearance. It's a story about absurdity, that of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, that of politics in Czechoslovakia under Communist reign which forced Milan Kundera to secretly write horoscopes, and that of life altogether. The masses are described as the circle-dancing angels soaring into the sky laughing. The Lost Letters of the fourth story are those of Tamina's late husband which they left in Prague together with her diaries, when they fled from Czechoslovakia some years earlier. Tamina wants to get them back to revive her fading memory of her husband. When Bibi, a guest from the café where she works and at the same time a friend, tells her that she intends to visit Prague during holidays, Tamina sets all her hopes in her to fetch the letters and diaries. In the end the travel never comes about and all Tamina's talks to her relatives in Czechoslovakia have been in vain. In his fifth story Milan Kundera explains the idea of Lítost, "a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self" which - as it seems - has no word in any other than the Czech language. The story serving to explain lítost revolves around Kristyna, the wife of a butcher in a provincial town, and a student from Prague who is invited to a gathering of renowned poets and writers at the Literature Club the very night when he expects to be together with Kristyna. The Angels and Tamina reappear and eventually disappear in the sixth story together with Milan Kundera's terminally ill father. A boy called Raphael takes Tamina to an island of children who are curious, thoughtless, innocent, intrusive and cruel. While the children circle dance, Tamina tries to escape from the island swimming, but drowns in the sea surrounded by the children in a small boat who just watch. The last story is titled The Border and is dedicated to the idea of socially accepted conduct as well as reform. The family Clovis and its friends serve as the model of adapted individuals who consider themselves progressive because they support new ideas which in reality are only the next step in social evolution and in no way revolutionary. Not even a sex orgy excludes its participants from the circle of ordinary people.

There are many passages in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting which remind of magical realism. In addition Milan Kundera interspersed his stories with many autobiographical remarks and first-hand historical information about Czechoslovakia and her people. Altogether it may not be an easy read for a relaxed weekend at home because the book requires concentration as well as a certain gift for reading between the lines or deciphering symbols. The circle dance in the two Angels stories is quite clearly a symbol for society hooked to light entertainment and conformism, but other symbols are less accessible. There's also the sexual component which runs through the whole book and which might not be to everybody's taste. I didn't mind reading about protagonists having sex or participating in sex orgies, but especially readers firmly rooted in a religious setting (Christian, Muslim or other) might feel embarrassed by the frank descriptions although they are far from detailed enough to be pornographic.

For me The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera was a wonderful read which made me think about society a lot and that's definitely something which I always appreciate. In a nutshell: I recommend the book for reading.


  1. I read this a long time ago. Kundera was highly fashionable in France in the 1980s/1990s.
    I remember I had a hard time finishing this one.
    I prefer The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    PS: I never think of warning people that there are explicit sex scenes in books. Why do you do it? (apart from sparing the feelings of potential readers) Do you do it for explicit violence too?

    1. It's true that Milan Kundera - along with some other Czech writers - has been in fashion in the 1980s/1990s. Most of them are old now and don't produce a book every few years anymore. I heard that Pavel Kohout had his 85th birthday on Saturday! Besides Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 are long past and almost forgotten by the public. So maybe this is why they get less attention today.

      P.S: As for my warning of sex scenes in the book. It just occurred to me that some readers might feel embarrassed by them and wish to know it in advance. I realized that there are quite some touchy people out there when I found reviews against other assumedly amoral/dangerous books or films which I considered completely harmless.


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