The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera is a novel which was published first in France in the year 1979. Kundera has made it unequivocally clear that he should be regarded as a ‘French’ novelist and his books should be canonised as ‘French Literature.’ When it came to be known that the latest work by Kundera was published in France, the Czech government revoked his citizenship, and he left for France; the Czech novelist has remained a French citizen since then. Notwithstanding, the fantastical atmosphere of his novels, seemingly they have done enough to offend the Czech government. His novels are quite unlike other novels, he is delightfully evocative and poetically provocative; his sentences are seductive and beguiling in nature hiding many dimensions of meaning within. His analysis is thought-provoking and metaphysical in nature which questions the resilience, lightness, and flimsiness of the human spirit or the constant enigma that shrouds it. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is widely regarded as one of the finest works of fiction of all time, especially in the literary spectrum of the twentieth century. The Book of Laughter is one of his well-known works in his oeuvre. After the effect that his masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had on me, it was a delight to return to Kundera and his different, indifferent and relevant yet isolated world of musical flights. One gets the sense that Kundera writes from a solitary place (a place of meditation and self-induced melancholy) yet his works speak to the human heart or the human senses in a way that no other writing does.

The beauty of his sentences, floating dazzlingly into metaphors and similes; their simplicity and lucidity mingled with an artistic richness that one fails to find much in contemporary literature. His images that linger in the subconscious mind long after they have culminated into nothingness, like Beethoven’s music which forms an inherent theme in one of the seven narratives (or, like Beethoven, seven variations) of this novel. This is a novel; a short story collection; a glimpse of the novella; an essay and much, much more which the boundaries of genre cannot classify or comprehend; it starts off as a short narrative but slips into something else, compelled by the gravity of authorial instinct, it transforms into a nostalgia, similar to that of a discovery of lost music. There is something about an elegy in his works; a repressed elegy which shimmers but never leaps on the surface. How, the reader stares at dismay as the pages go by, does he make the most heinous and disturbing emotions seem real and beautiful? Perhaps because Kundera is not pessimistic or optimistic; he, simply, is a hedonist. Hedonism, a symbol of vulgarity it has become, seems so pure and natural in his works as if it is the ideology that every being desires to follow and cherish in their lifetime. As if nothing more but the natural flow of life which transforms into hedonism; a form of spiritual detachment and liberation in his works.

The seven narratives have a life of their own, yet they have some linking rope which ties them in one book. It is not a theme, nor it is justifiably or sufficiently the meditation on the nature of laughter and forgetting, it is something truly else; it is the beauty of Kundera’s unique and utterly inimitable voice which binds them together, the feeling or the realisation that this piece was placed amongst other pieces by one mind, one man and one writer is a realisation enough to justify the beauty of this novel. There is no sense of Godliness in Kundera’s works, but his works are devoted to something abstract and metaphysical; perhaps, it is the fleeting quality of human memory and human emotions which he dissects in the form of eroticism. The reader can feel the passing of time and the wastefulness of human emotion in his works yet the transparency and the sensitivity of his characters’ fleeting emotions tremor and linger long after the book is finished.

Strangest musings on erotic adventures form themselves and are inflicted upon his characters. The sheer originality of eroticism finds a different vocabulary in this novel; it touches the hem of vulgarity without ever losing its richness and maturity. Elizabeth Pochoda (literary critic for The Nation) once said about Kundera: ‘His a comedy deep enough for tears.’ Perhaps it is, Kundera’s meditation on the seriousness of humanity is carried out with a poetic sense of humour found in none of his peers, that is the reason why, in the end, it causes such deep heartache and disquiet. This heartache and disquiet are most manifest in a scene where Kundera’s father is living out the last part of his life and Kundera narrates and begins to dissect the relationship between variations and Beethoven’s last days of life; the manner in which it ends is heart-breaking yet beautifully poetic. I fail to think of an example which approaches a story in the form of an essay and remains so, so moving.

The world which he inhabits is a menagerie of themes; a carnival which goes on endlessly in which only the dancers and players are ever replaced; rest everything remains the same and nothing alters except certain rules only to return in eternal recurrence. This book also addresses some of the same themes which were to be discussed at length in The Unbearable Lightness of Being; but nonetheless, it is as good as any other great book Kundera has ever written. Its structure is unique, its characters brilliant, and its themes are supremely eternal to the human consciousness. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is one of the strongest books of the twentieth century, along with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One must read it and analyse it deeply in order to appreciate the beauty and greatness of this classic. Below, is a quote from a chapter from this book which broke my heart; it is one of the best sentences I have ever read:

‘It is not surprising that in his later years variations became the favourite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well (as Tamina and I know) that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.’
–    Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Leave a comment

1 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
1 Comment authors
Oliver Mukemu Recent comment authors
Oliver Mukemu
Oliver Mukemu

Brilliant review!