The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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I usually wait a few days after finishing a book before attempting to put my thoughts into words – but I was so enthusiastic after reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I immediately went into action.

Told in seven distinct parts, I was thrown off balance at the beginning when the novel took on the appearance of short stories. But as Milan Kundera explains to the curious reader, a novel can take many forms, and Kundera definitely stretches the boundaries in that regard. He explains “I have in mind the novelist’s desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historical fact, flight of fancy.  The Book of Laughter and Forgetting includes all of those things. In many ways his writing reminds me of Franz Kafka, a fellow Czechoslovakian.

And true to the title, the seven snapshots of fiction all revolve around laughter and forgetting. Humorous, bleak, thought provoking and provocative, Kundera shows the reader examples of the joy and danger in both the emotion of laughter and the human capacity to forget.

On forgetting the old cliche “ignorance is bliss” may apply. What we don’t remember about the history of civilization, our own country, and our personal lives can sometimes be a relief; no more guilt, no more remorse, no more sadness, anger, or yearning for the past. But what is left in the place of memories is an empty void. Non-existence. Kundera relates this to his own personal history, his various characters, and the population in general. His point of reference is the history of his own countrymen of Czechoslovakia. Kundera explains, “ In the course of a mere half century, it experienced democracy, fascism, revolution, Stalinist terror, as well as disintegration of Stalinism, German and Russian occupation, mass deportations, the death of the West in its own land. It is sinking under the weight of history”. Czechoslovakia lost its freedom to a communist regime where censorship prevails and history is rewritten to suit those in power. The real past no longer exists.

Several quotes on forgetting:

“ The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long a nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

“People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”

In regards to anyone proclaiming that children are the future – “The reason children are the future is not that they will one day be grownups. No, the reason is that mankind is moving more and more in the direction of infancy, and childhood is the image of the future.”

On laughter: Kurnera explores the meaning of laughter and uses various scenarios to elaborate. Several quotes:

“Laughing deeply is living deeply.”

“Laughter is the province of the Devil. There is a certain amount of malice to it. The Devils laugh pointed up the meaninglessness of things.”

But in retaliation the Angels laugh too in pure joy as a way to show appreciation for “how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was.”

Similar to Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera’s vocabulary is simple, clean, and concise. It is a marvel how the characters become crystal clear, and the plot unfolds effortlessly, so definitive with brilliance and clarity. Also, similar to Kafka is the sense of mystical surreal absurdity. In contrast, where much of Kafka’s writing is subtle and spiritual, Kundera’s writing is penetrating, carnal, and more politically candid.

Reading other critical reviews, some people judge Kundera’s writing too scattered… too crude. In my opinion, everything Kundera writes is symbolic of what is going on in the world and regardless of whether we totally understand every scenario he creates, grasp every concept he is illustrating, or agree with him morally or politically, I admire his courage, his intellect, and his imagination. And I applaud his contribution to literature.

Rated 5 Stars

All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.

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