The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Summary

Milan Kundera


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, like all of Kundera’s Czech novels except The Farewell Party, is divided into seven parts. Several of the parts have the same titles—two are entitled “Lost Letters,” two are entitled “Angels”—to underline the idea that the novel is a series of variations on a set of themes. Two parts focus on a young woman named Tamina, but each of the other five focuses on unrelated characters who appear only in that part. Each of the seven parts combines several genres, such as traditional novelistic narrative, autobiography, philosophical essay, dream, political commentary, linguistic analysis, realistic description, and fantasy. The parts are not linked by a single plot, but by their direct or indirect relationship to Kundera’s exploration of the meanings that he attaches to words such as “laughter,” “forgetting,” “angels,” the “circle,” “litost,” and “border”; by his reflections on Czech history; and by his voice and presence as the authorial “I.”

They are also connected—to one another, and to all of Kundera’s other fiction—by their exploration of the interrelationship of public and private life. In Kundera’s work, the threat that the border between public and private life will disappear—the fear that it already has—is the nightmare that lies behind all the verbal and sexual high jinks. Most often, this threat is expressed as an invasion of private life by public life, seen as a distortion of the sexual by the political. In Kundera, sexual relations are an arena where the politically powerless exercise power, where the oppressed oppress, where public tragedy begets private comedy. Yet they are also the sphere where character reveals itself most fully. One of the paradoxes at the heart of his novels is that, in their most intimate moments, his characters are both most themselves and most the product of the external forces acting upon them.


(The entire section is 799 words.)