Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
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 first part of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting perfectly demonstrates Kundera’s novelistic method. Each of its sections presents private and public variations on the theme of forgetting. The love story of Mirek and Zdena is intimately connected to both their individual political histories and the history of their country. Mirek’s desire to forget his former love, Zdena, to “airbrush” her out of the picture of his past and his life, is a private reflection of the public effort of the Czech people to erase the past deed that they would like to forget—their support of the Communists in 1947 and 1948. The Communist Party is also engaged in an effort to forget when it seeks to eliminate its own past mistakes by airbrushing Clementis from the photograph described on the novel’s first page. The bare space on the wall where Clementis once stood in the photograph is tied to the bare space in his history where Mirek’s memories of Zdena should be. Zdena’s passionate love of Mirek is presented as both a product of, and the impulse behind, the passionate single-mindedness that also made her a loyal party member; Mirek’s decision to become a political dissident is connected to his desire to forget the embarrassment of his youthful relationship with Zdena. The hat on Gottwald’s head is an emblem of all the personal and public pasts that cannot be erased.
Similar variations on the theme of forgetting continue throughout the novel, joined by new themes that are introduced with their own variations in each of the succeeding parts. The novel, Kundera writes, is “about Tamina. . . . She is its 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.” In other words, the parts devoted to Tamina—the fourth and sixth parts, which are the parts that repeat the titles of the earlier parts “Lost Letters” and “Angels”—are the heart of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. There, the novel’s themes echo and reverberate in a story that combines sex, love, exile, memory, forgetting, laughter, the circle, angels, politics, and borders in both startling and extremely subtle ways. There, they come together in a story that also introduces the thematic notes upon which Kundera’s next novel would be composed. To Tamina, the unbearable lightness of being represented by the island of memory-less children is the ultimate nightmare: a world in which meaning disappears and nothing matters. Like Tereza (even their names echo each other), Tamina clings to meaning, to memory, to mortality—and to the existential burden of spiritual heaviness that comes with them—because, for her, that is what it means to be human. The alternative, Kundera seems to suggest in the novel’s final section and coda, is a freedom without meaning and a life without purpose.