Milan Kundera – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting


This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance. It is a book about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about angels.

That’s how Kundera sums up his book, within the text, as he reflects on life, the characters he’s created, and how we’re all bound by just one thing: the past; which is why, the children are our future. “Children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles”.

The book is divided into seven stories, each independent of one another, but for the fact that the stories are based in and around the same time and place: a Czech Communist state in the 1970s. It’s a book about love, about losing, about moving on, about laughing, about philosophy.

I don’t know what inspired this book, but it’s beautifully written, and I challenge anyone to open a page and not find some quote, reflection or dialogue that completely blows your mind away. The stories are interesting, be it about Tamina, the young widower  who tries to recollect each and every memory of the ‘happy’ life she shared with her husband, or about litost (a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery); be it filial love and devotion, or about going to see an old loved one – who the protagonist has truly loved, but never admitted – for his lover’s ugly; or, be it about poets getting drunk and talking through the night about nothing at all, but at the same time, talking about everything.

A poet’s pride is not ordinary pride. Only the poet himself can know the value of what he writes. Others don’t understand it until much later, or they may never understand it. So, it’s the poet’s duty to be proud. If he weren’t, he would betray his own work.

Kundera’s observations, as he creates his characters, and gives them life, adds to the charm, specially when he talks about Tamina – and literally dedicates this book to her (in the text itself), while she seems to be a fictional character, consumed by pain and a dire need to forget, and get away. Move on, if you like.

And then there’s the misogyny. From the opening chapter, where Mirek is ashamed of his passionate love of Zdena, a woman few years his senior, only because Zdena was guilty of something differently serious. She was ugly, to later on, where a character defends rape, and almost discusses how beautiful it is – because, women are prone to saying ‘no’, by default, even if they mean yes. Yes, that made me wince.

It’s also a book about sex, and seduction. Sometimes, the attempted seduction results in litost, and sometimes, it results in the girl going to the bathroom and throwing up.

Ironically enough, it’s a sad, despondent book; beautifully written. It invokes pangs of sadness, moments of reflection, and it does beg the question: what will the future bring, and like children, will I be able to laugh and forget, instead of being weighed down by the past, and subsequently, forgetting to look to the future.

So far, it’s the best book I’ve read this year.

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