The Book of Laughter and ForgettingClick & Buy: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Novel, 1978
English translation by Michael Henry Heim


his book, as it bluntly calls itself, is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out. The strangeness of, say, Donald Bartheleme or Barry Hannah derives from shifts in a culture that, even if we do not live in Manhattan or come from Mississippi, is American and therefore instinctively recognizable. These authors ring willful changes and inversions upon forms with which we, too, have become bored, and the lines they startle us with turn out to be hitherto undiscerned lines in our own face.

But the mirror does not so readily give back validation with this playful book, more than a collection of seven stories yet certainly no novel, by an expatriate Czech resident in France, fascinated by sex, and prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination, and recent Czech history. Milan Kundera, he tells us, was as a young man among that moiety of Czechs--"the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half"--who cheered the accession of the Communists to power in February 1948. He was then among the tens of thousands rapidly disillusioned by the harsh oppressions of the new regime: "And suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the strange feeling of having sent something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. So those young, intelligent radicals started shouting to their deed, calling it back, scolding it, chasing it, hunting it down."

Kundera, the son of a famous pianist, worked--the book jacket tells us--as a laborer and jazz musician under the Communist regime, and "ultimately chose to devote himself to literature and film. In the 60's he was named professor at the Prague Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies, where his students, notably Milos Forman, were the creators of the Czech New Wave in films." When the gallant Czech attempt at "socialism with a human face" under Alexander Dubcek was crushed by the Russian invasion of Aug. 21, 1968, Kundera was erased from his country's official cultural life. By 1975 even his underground existence within his native country had become intolerable and he emigrated to France. In 1979, the Czech Government, responding to the publication in France of "Le livre du rire et de l'oubli," revoked his Czech citizenship.

So Kundera is an Adam driven from Eden again and again--first, from the socialist idyll of his youthful imagining, then from the national attempt to reclaim that idyll in the brief "Prague Spring" of 1968, and then from the Russian-dominated land itself, and lastly from the bare rolls of citizenship. Such a profound and jagged fall makes the life histories of most American writers look as stolid as the progress of a tomato plant, and it is small wonder that Kundera is able to merge personal and political significances with the ease of a Camus.

For instance, the theme of forgetting is masterfully, effortlessly ubiquitous. On the official level, erasure achieves comic effects. The comrade named Clementis who solicitously placed his own cap upon Klement Gottwald's head on the cold day of party annunciation in 1948 was hanged four years later, and airbrushed out of all propaganda photographs, so that "All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald's head." The president the Russians installed after Dubcek, Gustav Husak "is known as the president of forgetting.." Official forgetting is echoed by the personal struggle of the subjects of so revisable a government to recover lost letters, to remember details that give life emotional continuity. The expatriate native of Prague called Tamina, in the central and perhaps best of these disparate though linked chapters, recites to herself all the pet names by which her dead husband ever had called her, and, less and less able to remember his face, resorts to a desperate exercise: ". . .she developed her own special technique of calling him to mind. Whenever she sat across from a man, she would use his head as a kind of sculptor's armature. She would concentrate all her attention on him and remodel his face inside her head, darkening the complexion, adding freckles and warts, scaling down the ears, and coloring the eyes blue. But all her efforts only went to show that her husband's image had disappeared for good."

As another holdout, Mirek, puts it, "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivions." He needs to recover some lost letters for quite another reason than Tamina, who wishes to destroy the letters that he, when a party enthusiast, wrote his mistress of those nave days, Zdena. She has remained loyal to their youthful orthodoxy, even to supporting the Russian invasion of 1968. But he quite misses the point of her fidelity to the party--that it is fidelity to him and their old love: "What seemed to be political fanaticism was only an excuse, a parable, a manifesto of fidelity, a coded plaint of unrequited love." Throughout these stories of life under Communism, motives are frequently quite mistaken, and emotions of extreme inappropriateness arise. Every life is lobotomized by the severances of tyranny.

Of course, there is comedy here. "Laughable Loves," coming from a Communist state (published in 1969), seemed perhaps even funnier and sexier than it was, like jokes in a courtroom. We were cheering him on. But the theme of laughter, as developed by Kundera in these later stories, is elaborated to the point where it can no longer be felt as laughter. He is deft and paradoxical but too heavy-hearted to be a funny writer' nor can he bring to his heavy-heartedness that touch of traditional religious resignation which converts depression to the cosmic humor of Kafka, or Bruno Schulz, or the early Malamud, or Gogol. Kundera in comparison is a child of the Enlightenment, and what mysteries exist for him occur on the plane of the psychological and the sexual. There is more analysis of laughter--specified as "a wobbly, breathy sound in the upper reaches of [the] vocal register"--than laughter itself. A certain mechanical liveliness, as of French farce, attends the scenes of group sex: In "Mother," the hero's visiting elderly mother unwittingly blunders back into the living room where her son is about to commence entertaining his wife and another scantily clad woman at once; in "The Border," a zealous orgy hostess vigilantly enforces multiple contacts upon couples threatening to find happiness in a corner by themselves.

Sex is sad for Kundera, at bottom, and laughter is cruel. His book's final image is of a group of doctrinaire, self-congratulatory nudists on the (presumably French) beach, "their naked genitals staring duly, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand." The proclaimed personal freedoms of the West are no liberation for him. The hero of this final episode, named Jan, has earlier reflected that the Jews had gone to the gas chambers in naked groups, and that "nudity is a shroud." And while still a child, Jan had studied a picture of a naked woman and had "dreamed of a creature with a body offering ten or twenty erotic regions", hence, "when he was still very much a virgin, he knew what it meant to be bored with the female body." The keenest moment of sexual desire, for a male, in this "Book of Laughter and Forgetting" occurs when Kundera's autobiographical hero, without the guise of another name, is closeted with a young woman who has jeopardized her own career as editor by giving him some secret assignments, now discovered. She is composed in manner but keeps going to the bathroom. "And now suddenly the butcher knife of fear had slit her open. She was as open to me as the carcass of a heifer slit down the middle and hanging on a hook. There we were, sitting side by side on a couch in a borrowed apartment, the gurgling of the water filling the empty toilet tank in the background, and suddenly I felt a violent desire to make love to her. Or to be more exact, a violent desire to rape her. To throw myself on her and take possession of her with all her intolerably exciting contradictions, her impeccable outfits, her rebellious insides, her reason and her fear, her pride and her misery."

Against the memory of such surges of violation and exposure, which the pressures of the Communist world make possible, the public nudity of the West of course must seem tame. As to the women of Kundera's world, sex is best when it is soulless. Undergoing the charade of triadic sex, the sensitive, jealous Marketa imagines that her husband is headless: "The minute she severed the head from his body, she felt the new and intoxicated touch of freedom. The anonymity of their bodies was sudden paradise, paradise regained." And Tamina, in the second story called "The Angels," sexually beset by a band of children, because for the first time in her life her body had taken pleasure in the absence of the soul, which imagining nothing and remembering nothing, had quietly left the room." In short, pleasure demands suicide of a sort." "Or to put it another way, sexuality freed from its diabolical ties with love had become a joy of angelic simplicity."

The angels in Milan Kundera's complex universe of disjunction are malevolent. These children end by tormenting Tamina and goading her to the death by drowning she had, earlier, sought in vain. In the first story called "The Angels," they dance in the streets of Prague to celebrate some political murders; they dance in circles until they rise into the sky. The angels are the unfallen from the Communist faith; Kundera once danced in their circle, and remembers their bliss. Angels are the heralds of "uncontested. . .meaning on earth"; once fallen from their circle, one never stops falling, "deeper," Kundera tells us, "away from my country and into the void of a world resounding with the terrifying laughter of the angels that covers my every word with its din."

Kundera's prose presents a surface like that of a shattered mirror, where brightly mirroring fragments lie mixed with pieces of lusterless silvering. The Communists idyll he youthfully believed in seems somehow to exist for him still, though mockingly and excludingly. He never asks himself---the most interesting political question of the century--why a plausible and necessarily redistribution of wealth should, in its Communist form, demand such an exorbitant sacrifice of individual freedom? Why must the idyll turn, not merely less than idyll, but nightmare? Kundera describes the terrors and humiliations of the intellectual under totalitarianism, with crystalline authority, yet for all he tells us these barbarities are rooted in the sky, in whims beyond accounting. He keeps ploughing his earthly material back into the metaphors of laughter and forgetting, of angels and children. Tamina, he states, is the book's "main character and main audience, and all the others are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror." Yet in her final appearance she seems allegorized into nothing, and the episode almost whimsical. As in the case of Nabokov, a private history of fracture and outrage is rendered kaleidoscopic by the twists of a haughty artistic will--without, however, Nabokov's conviction that art, the reality we extract from reality, is sufficiently redeeming.

The position of a writer from the Socialist world in the West cannot but be uncomfortable. He cannot but despise us for our cheap freedoms, our more subtle enslavements; and we it may be, cannot but condescend to his discovery, at such heavy cost to his life, of lessons that Messrs. Churchill and Truman so roundly read to us 35 years ago. Survival tactics vary. Solzhenitsyn in Vermont builds a little iron curtain of his own and continues to thunder as if he were still imprisoned in Russia. Joseph Brodsky, the most aloof and metaphysical of dissidents in his Leningrad years, is becoming, amazingly, an American poet. Kundera--who moved, after all, only a few hundred kilometers west, and who unlike many expatriates had enjoyed considerable artistic success and prestige in his own country--seems, five years out, in a middling position. He is crossing that border he describes, to the side that men dread, "where the language of their tortured nation would sound as meaningless as the twittering of birds." A meaning once omnipresent is gone. A habit of vision developed in one context is being broken in another. The sexual descriptions, both tender and shrewd, that had an effect of subversives comment within the Czech context have a somewhat jaded, hollow ring out of it. In "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" a work of social realism and protest coexists with a brittleness, an angelic mockery that, amid much melancholy remembrance and shrewd psychology, makes us uncomfortable.


[The Joke]
[Laughable Loves]
[Life is Elsewhere]
[The Farewell Waltz]
[The Book of Laughter and Forgetting]
[The Unbearable Lightness of Being]


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