In part 6 of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera states that the “entire book is a novel in the form of variations.” He also declares that “it is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for 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 this authorial digression can be seen the nexus of the book. With historical anecdotes, philosophical reflections, artistic criticism, and personal revelations, Kundera weaves his own voice and experience in and out of the stories he presents. Tamina epitomizes, perhaps, the soul in exile, besieged by forgetfulness yet unable to forge a new life in an alien environment. Kundera, on the other hand, is the successful exile, allowed to leave Czechoslovakia in 1975 for a university post in Rennes. Having settled in Paris in 1978, he survives in exile by evoking the life and spirit of his native Prague.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, a structure based on musical polyphony. In an interview with Philip Roth, Kundera explains his theory of novelistic unity: “The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting.” Each of the seven divisions of the book is a different tale; in only two, part 4 and part 6, does Tamina appear. The other five parts are separate stories held together by the thematic variations, echoing incidents, and the omnipresent narrator.
Part 1, “Lost Letters,” opens with the narrator describing a famous Czech photograph of Communist leader Klement Gottwald addressing the Czech citizenry from a Prague balcony in February, 1948. In the original picture, Gottwald was flanked by his comrade, Clementis, who, moments before, had set his own hat on Gottwald’s head to protect him from the snow. Four years later, Clementis, having been accused of treason and hanged, was airbrushed out of the photograph by the propaganda section of the government. Subsequently, Gottwald has stood on the balcony alone, but Clementis’ hat remains upon his head.
This primary incident of “forgetting” in the book is accompanied by the sardonic humor implicit in Clementis’ hat. The story of part 1 concerns Mirek, a former Party member, who was active in the Prague Spring reform movement and lost his position after the Russian invasion of 1968. At the time of the story, in 1971, he is working as a laborer. Having broken his arm, he has a few weeks free from work and is determined to retrieve old love letters from his former mistress, Zdena, who has remained a loyal Party member and who has continued to love him despite their political and personal disaffiliation. Mirek wants his letters back because he is ashamed of having loved a woman as ugly as Zdena; he wants to airbrush her out of his life just as the propaganda department has removed Clementis from Czech history. Zdena refuses to return the letters. In obsessively following this mission, Mirek has neglected to destroy papers which incriminate himself and his friends. The secret police, who entered his apartment soon after he left to see Zdena, greet him on his return. Mirek, his son, and several of their friends are sentenced to prison.
In part 2, “Mother,” a married couple, Marketa and Karel, have invited Karel’s mother to visit them for a week. Mother persists in staying an extra day, the Sunday on which Eva, Marketa’s friend and Karel’s lover, is due. Although Eva has come to participate in a “homespun orgy” with Marketa and Karel, the couple decide that Mother will go to bed early and not bother them. Marketa introduces Eva as her cousin, and Mother shows familial interest in Eva, who reminds her of an old friend, Nora.
When Karel sees the resemblance, his sexual lethargy, which had beset him early in the evening, dissipates, and he initiates a frenzied lovemaking session, inspired by his memory of Nora. As a four-year-old, he once caught a glimpse of Nora naked; the image and its accompanying dizzying sensation have remained imprinted in his memory. He transfers the image onto Eva and becomes a four-year-old satyr. Marketa, who has secretly been invited to join Eva and her husband for a similar weekend, manages to make love wantonly to her husband by imaginatively severing his head from his body.
In the morning, Marketa drives Eva to the train station and reaffirms their assignation with Eva’s husband. Karel, still full of his excitement from the previous night, later drives Mother to the station and invites her to come and live with him and Marketa. Although she is grateful, Mother declines the invitation. Karel arranges a first-class coach for her and presses some money into her hand. She accepts it matter-of-factly, as a child accepts a gift of money from an adult. Karel stands on the platform waving until the train is out of sight.
Part 3, entitled “The Angels” (as is part 6), is a fable about two American girls, Gabrielle and Michelle, who are attending a summer-school course for foreigners in a small town on the Riviera. Mme Raphael, their teacher, assigns them to present a report on Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros (1959). Enthralled by the recognition that Ionesco meant to create a comic effect with the symbol of the rhinoceros, the girls decide to present their report wearing horns on their noses. Mme Raphael is enchanted. The class reacts at first with sympathetic embarrassment, but when one student who dislikes the two girls recognizes a golden opportunity for revenge and neatly kicks each of them in the behind, the class breaks out in laughter. Mme Raphael, thinking the incident a prearranged part of the report joins in unrestrainedly. She misunderstands Gabrielle’s and Michelle’s embarrassed writhings as a dance and joins hands with them. The three dance in a circle around the room, until they begin to rise heavenward in their angelic circle of laughter, leaving the stupefied students below.
In relating this tale, Kundera interjects philosophical speculation on the nature of laughter, dividing it into two types: that of the Devil and that of the Angels. The first points up the meaninglessness of things; the second celebrates the rational order of the good and sensible conception of the earth. Taken to extremes, the former leads to despair, the latter to idyllic totalitarianism.
Kundera also relates his personal history of involvement with the Czech Communist Party. As a student in 1948, he danced in the circle that brought the Communists to power. Later, having been expelled from the Party and shut out of the circle for a political misstep, he witnessed the poet Paul Eluard’s betrayal of his...