Reckoning With Memory
In contemporary Czech literature, and world literature for that matter, one of the names that stand tall is Milan Kundera. Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia before it was split into two states, Kundera initially studied musicology and musical composition; his father, Ludvik Kundera (1891-1971), was a renowned concert pianist and musicologist who served as the head of the Janáček Music Academy in his hometown. He abandoned his study of music eventually to pursue a degree in literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Prague’s Charles University. Nevertheless, his literary works are rife with musical references and influences. Prior to pursuing a career in literature, Kundera was appointed as a lecturer in world literature at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 1952.
Kundera’s literary career commenced with the publication of collections of poetry in the 1950s. From poetry, he next forayed into the world of prose by writing volumes of short stories. Before he got to publish his first novel, Kundera has written a one-act play, Majitelé klíčů (The Owners of the Keys, 1962). 1967 saw Kundera make the big leap into full-length prose with the publication of his long-awaited first novel, Žert (The Joke) 1967. His debut was warmly received by literary pundits and was succeeded by equally successful novels: Život je jinde (Life is Elsewhere, 1969) and Valčík na rozloučenou (The Farewell Waltz, 1972). While his first three novels set the tone for his career, it was his three next novels, comprising what can be called a middle period – he published ten novels so far – that catapulted him into literary stardom. These three novels are the most critically acclaimed and the most widely studied of his oeuvre.
The first book of this seminal literary triptych was Kniha smíchu a zapomnění. While it was originally written in Czech, it was first published in France under the French title Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli in 1979.A year following its initial publication, the novel was translated into English with the title The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It was only in 1981 that the original Czech version of the novel was published. The completion and eventual publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting also marked a seminal and pivotal phase in Kundera’s personal life. It was the first novel he published after he went into exile; in 1975, Kundera was permitted to move to France by the Czech regime in order to teach at the University of Rennes, a position he held until 1978.
“To put it another way, every love relationship is based on unwritten conventions rashly agreed upon by the lovers during the first weeks of their love. On the one hand, they are living a sort of dream, on the other, without realizing it, they are drawing up the fine print of their contract like the most hard-nosed of lawyers. O lovers! Be wary during those perilous first days! If you serve the other party breakfast in bd, you will be obliged to continue same in perpetuity or face charges of animosity and treason!”~ Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Prior to being allowed to emigrate, Kundera was subjected to political repression and pressure. He was a staunch supporter of Communism. His first poems were heavily laden with references to politics and Communism. Poslední máj (The Last May) a poem he published in 1955, for instance, was an homage to the Communist resistance leader Julius Fučík. Things, however, were changing and the ideologies of Communism had inevitably evolved. The looming presence of Soviet Republic’s Joseph Stalin and his artillery was slowly undermining the ideologies Kundera and his peers once fought for. But despite the crutches of Stalin threatening his home nation, Kundera remained optimistic and stood by his ideologies, even leading the Prague Spring movement. The new repressive regime, installed by the Soviets, did not meet him eye to eye.
Political and historical contexts are necessary for understanding and appreciating the very nature of Kundera’s fourth novel. With Kundera’s vocal activism, the regime soon stripped him of his teaching position. His works were considered subversive; hence, they were banned from further publication in Czechoslovakia. The backlash also extended to his membership in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, a political organization he was an active member of since he was still a teenager. He had been expelled twice only to be readmitted but his ouster in 1968 rang with a bell of finality. In the same year that The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was published, Kundera was stripped of his Czechoslovakian nationality, the last in what can only be seen as a series of unfortunate events.
With the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the landscape of Kundera’s prose was also seeing seminal development. The book’s publication marked a pivotal moment in his literary career. It would be the last of his books heavily laden with political satire; while his succeeding novels still explored politics, it was from generic lenses. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera’s homeland remained the main character. Czechoslovakia’s tumultuous history and how it has adversely impacted its denizens formed a vivid backdrop for Kundera’s novel. Along with history, his homeland’s declining politics formed the mantle upon which the landscape of the novel was painted.
Despite being exiled from and virtually erased by his homeland, Kundera’s spirit never waned. He was steadfast in his refusal to submit to any form of conventions, writing or otherwise and this was palpable in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He ditched standard literary structures, with his fourth novel divided into seven sections. The novel had no all-encompassing plot as each of these sections has its own plot and its own set of characters. These sections were ephemerally connected by similar themes, with each a variation of a theme. It is This was amplified through slice-of-life stories of various Czech people, with Kundera further disrupting the novel’s flow with elements of his own life and commentaries on Czechoslovakian history and politics.
“World domination, as everyone knows, is divided between demons and angels. But the good of the world does not require the latter to gin precedence over the former (as I thought when I was young); all it needs is a certain equilibrium of power. If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth (the reign of angels), man collapses under the burden; if the world loses all its meaning (the reign of the deomns) life is every bit as impossible.”~ Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
The first section of the novel opened with an important public gathering graced by Klement Gottwald, a communist leader. While on a balcony, he was photographed with one of his trusted comrades, Vladimir Clementis, who put his fur hat on Gottwald’s head. The photographs were displayed across the country. That was until Clementis, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, fell from grace. Four years after the pictures were taken, he was hanged for treason. In a systemic erasure of collective public memory almost akin to the Soviet regime’s erasure of Kundera, Clementis was slowly airbrushed out of the iconic photograph. The only vestige of the former comrade left was that of his hat. While the veracity of the events cannot be ascertained, the hat is an allegory to represent one of the novel’s prominent subjects: memory and forgetting.
The opening anecdote also captured the facet of memory Kundera was most concerned with: the process of creation of memories and how these are altered with the passage of time. The slow removal of Clementis from official images reflected this. It also underscored how memories – and, by extension, history – can be changed, and worse, erased, particularly with the aid of the state. Totalitarian states, as envisioned in works of dystopia, have no scruples about interfering with their denizens’ lives. Public memory is at the mercy of the ruling party. Those who have fallen out of grace see bits and pieces of their life inevitably erased from all forms of memory, from public to private. After all, as the passage of time has shown, history is dictated by the victor. It is no wonder that historical revisionism and gaslighting have become rampant in the contemporary.
Memory then represents our existence and it is a powerful element of our lives. Of the plenitude of characters that populated the novel, it was Tamina who was the highest embodiment of the powers of memory. Her fixation on memories and the power they hold mirrored that of Kundera. Like the author, Tamina was in exile in Western Europe. Recently widowed, she tried to recall the life she lived with her late husband. Try as she might, she cannot make her mind remember. Her memories were clouded. Private memories, after all, are vulnerable to the decline of the body and to the passage of time. Vis-a-vis memory, forgetting is inevitable. Tamina’s case was the antithesis of Clementis’ case. The fading of memory is a natural process that comes along with our body’s decline. Sure, there are memories also that we want to cherish forever. We keep them in journals and photographs which we keep as keepsakes. However, like our existence, private memories are finite. Pictures fade. Words in journals start losing sense.
But there is also a level of bliss from the absence of memory. While memory was depicted as existence, the lack of it represented innocence. This lack of understanding of the evils of the world at large allows us to laugh and trust without reservation. Being a blank canvas, however, makes us vulnerable to the manipulation and influences of others, especially those with no good intentions. Our inexperience allows evil minds to mold us, to shape our personalities. If they can airbrush a prominent figure from our public memory then they have the means of shaping it the way they wanted it. Our inexperience, however, also allows us to learn and grow. Kundera himself once believed in the causes of Communism until he found himself pushed into the corner for it.
“Laughable laughter is cataclysmic. And even so, the angels have gained something by it. They have tricked us all with thier semantic hoax. Their imitation laughter and its original (the devil’s) have the same name. People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them.”~ Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
In a book that extensively dealt with memory and forgetting, the book was rife with paradoxes. From contrasting political ideologies, the novel was born. The classic and constant battle between good and evil – angels and demons were repeatedly mentioned – was prevalent all throughout the story. Innocence was juxtaposed with the ugly sides of humanity, such as unprovoked violence and even rape. Laughter, meanwhile, was one of the novel’s prevalent themes. In a totalitarian state where conformity was prevalent, laughter was a form of nonconformity. It was a form of rebellion against an oppressive regime. Elsewhere, the novel had ruminations on love and romance. This was again contrasted with the frailties of human nature. Sexual desires were uncontrollable. Temptations were ubiquitous. It is these imperfections that make us human.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is, in a way, Kundera’s own revolt in the same manner that laughter is an expression of disdain against the absurdities of oppression. With the recent events immediately preceding the writing and publication of the book, Kundera’s fourth novel was unsurprisingly brimming with political satire and commentaries, with memory as its primary vessel. Kundera’s examination of memory was extensive and vivid. Memory is a powerful object but memory, particularly the public ones, is also malleable. It can be changed over time and can be scrutinized. Public memory can be erased, dictated by those in power. At the same time, private memories are not safe from the decline of the body. They naturally fade. Memory can be forgotten no matter how hard we try to hold unto them.
The Book of Laughter of Forgetting is a lush book, unconventional in both scope and execution. In his fourth novel, Kundera challenged and pushed the boundaries of storytelling, proving his mettle as a writer. It comes as no surprise that The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is one of the most renowned and revered works of literature.
“Being a corpse struck her as an unbearble disgrace. One minute you are a human being protected by modesty – the sanctity of nudity and privacy – and the next you die, and your body is suddenly up for grabs. Anyone can tear your clothes off, rip you open, inspect your insides, and – holding his nose to keep the stink away – stick you into the deep freeze or the flames.”~ Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
I first encountered Milan Kundera through must-read challenges. The exiled Czech writer was a prominent presence in such lists, with some of his works even listed as among the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. His first novel I read was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I admittedly struggled with, primarily because his prose was new territory to me. There was a lot of sex; it was an element, I eventually realized, that was prevalent in his works. This experience, however, did not stop me from exploring his other works. Immortality made up for my initial impressions of Kundera. Both were memorable. Three years after my last Kundera novel, I made The Book of Laughter and Forgetting a part of my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. Honestly, I was reluctant about reading the novel because it was defined as a short story collection; I am not really fond of short stories. I was eventually able to overcome my ambivalence, thus, my purchase of a copy of the book. Indeed, the novel did come across as a collection rather than a straight narrative. I did not mind for it showed me Kundera’s brilliance as a writer. The landscape of his homeland was vividly captured by his storytelling. His story was populated with an eclectic cast of characters who gave life to the story. It is no wonder that the book is often cited as his magnum opus. Interestingly, the three Kundera novels I have read all belong to his middle period. They are considered the best of his oeuvre. This, however, is not stopping me from reading his other works.
Author: Milan Kundera
Translator: Michael Henry Heim
Publishing Date: 1994
Number of Pages: 228
Rich in its stories, characters, and imaginative range, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the novel that brought Milan Kundera his first big international success in the late 1970s. Like all his work, it is valuable for far more than just its historical implications. In seven wonderfully integrated parts, different aspects of human existence are magnified and reduced, reordered and emphasized, newly examined, analyzed and experienced. (Source: Goodreads)
About the Author
To learn more about the storied Czech writer, click here.
Most interesting article. Kundera is famous for Unbearable Lightness but I knew nothing about him personally.