This article first appeared in the Nov. 12, 1980 issue of the Nassau Weekly.
Milan Kundera, a Czechoslovakian author and sometime filmmaker, has written a book so good that I cannot believe the American public will remain ignorant of his immense talents. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting isn’t Kundera’s first — three novels and a story collection are available in English, and several volumes of poetry and a play remain untranslated. Kundera writes in Czechoslovakian, although his native country has banned all his books (indeed with French publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1979, the Czech government revoked his citizenship.) Deprived of an audience that understands his language, he sadly must rely on translations to reach the great majority of his readers. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting reflects the isolation and loneliness that a writer in his situation must feel.
This is a political novel in the Brechtian sense; it seeks to educate the audience rather than gain its empathy. Kundera is outspoken, but never polemical; he communicates his message with skillful subtlety.
The book deals mainly with life in Czechslovakia after the Russian takeover of 1968. Many of its minor characters are real people — Klement Gottwald the Communist leader, Paul Eluard the Surrealist poet — and the settings are historically accurate. Kundera himself appears periodically. He was active in the Communist insurgence in the late Forties, but was subsequently expelled from the party, and now lives as an exile, in Paris.
The novel’s main characters, however, are ghosts — Tamina the waitress, Madame Raphael the school teacher, Mirek the old student. They are the ghosts of a people whose literature, culture, and history have been systematically destroyed by totalitarianism. At one point, the narrator, who himself like a ghost haunts the lonely lives of his characters, says,
“There are all kinds of ghosts prowling these confused streets. They are the ghosts of monuments demolished — demolished by the Czech Reformation, demolished by the Austrian Counterreformation, demolished by the Czech Republic, demolished by the Communists. Even the statues of Stalin have been torn down. All over this country, wherever statues were thus destroyed, Lenin statues have sprouted up like the thousands. They grow like weeds on the ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.”
Memory is the final and most formidable fortress that totalitarianism must conquer. Kundera writes, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Sadly, memory is not impregnable. Eventually, when long besieged, its ramparts crack and crumble, and the mind capitulates. For Tamina, who has lost her husband and homeland, the only bridge to the past is the journal which she kept during the years she lived in Czechoslovakia, and which she left behind when she departed. With customary detachment, the narrator comments, “I picture the world growing up around Tamina like a circular wall, and I picture her as a small patch of grass down below. The only rose growing on that patch of grass is the memory of her husband.”
Tamina can never return to her country, and so she must rely on relatives and friends to send her journal to her. But her parents are old and obstinate, her friends selfish, and phone calls cost too much. Every day her past recedes further.
“There she sits on a raft, looking back, looking only back. The sum total of her being is no more than what she sees in the distance, behind her. And as her past begins to shrink, disappear, fall apart, Tamina begins shrinking and blurring.”
Deeply nostalgic, the novel mourns for all those like Tamina who have emigrated, or have been silenced — for that band of ghosts “fading like a procession off into the mist.” Tamina fails to retrieve her notebooks, her memory fades, her past is lost. She is left, like many of Kundera’s characters, in silence.
Silence is the condition of a people bereft of their culture, whose very language, drained of all its folklore, makes an empty, metallic sound, the sound of hollow-hearted laughter. For Kundera, the Czech people have become like the ostriches which follow Tamina around the fence of their wire cage when she visits the zoo, and which terrify her in her dreams.
“The ostriches were like messengers who had learned their vital message by heart, but whose vocal cords had been slit by the enemy, so that when they finally reached their goal, all they could do was move their mouths.”
I am quoting liberally, but it is difficult to do otherwise. It would be criminal to paraphrase such beautiful prose. Kundera’s work in film (he wrote and directed the film made from his earlier novel, The Joke) deeply influences his writing; his visual sense is accurate and stunning. Each of the book’s seven parts are subdivided into 300-500 word sections, which are numbered. Montage is the primary principle of order.
This is arguably not a novel at all, but a collection of short parables. There is no central character, no sustained action. The narrator is only the most casual observer, disappearing for pages at a time. Nevertheless the recurring images of isolation and spiritual dryness bind the parts of this book as tightly as could plot, character, or any other more obvious methods of composition.
Kundera writes, “This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance.
“It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is the main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror.”
We Americans tend to make light of our heritage, or at best take it for granted. Nevertheless, we all, like Tamina, live to a certain extent in the past, probably more than we know or would like to believe. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting offers a glimpse of how lifeless life can be when the past is forcibly forgotten. It is a dark, disturbing book, superbly done.