Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting marked a new direction in Milan Kundera’s development as a novelist. The novel is a synthesis of the major themes and narrative techniques of his previous fiction, but its structure is radically different. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven sections, most of which concern different characters (including Kundera) and different situations. The connections between the sections are primarily thematic and cluster around the shattering political and social impact of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the key words of the title. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is, as Kundera writes in the novel, “a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and the angels,” but it is also a testimony to the tragedy of Soviet totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia.

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The major theme of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the importance of memory to individual and collective lives. Kundera juxtaposes individual battles between memory and forgetting with Czech culture’s battle to retain its identity in the face of Soviet domination. Mirek, the main character in the first section, “Lost Letters,” justifies keeping a written record of incriminating facts, names, and dates by saying, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” For individuals such as Mirek and Tamina as well as for the Soviets in control of Czechoslovakia, “the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it.”

The novel’s other major theme is the paradox of laughter. Kundera distinguishes between skeptical, questioning laughter and self-righteous, joyful laughter throughout the novel. In a subsection entitled “On Two Kinds of Laughter,” Kundera refers to these types of laughter as devils’ and angels’ laughter. He writes: “If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth (the reign of the angels), man collapses under the burden; if the world loses all its meaning (the reign of the demons), life is every bit as impossible.” He complicates this relationship considerably, however, by asserting that “one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes.” In the last section of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera uses the metaphor of the border to describe the instability of dualities in general. Although Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting portrays both extremes—fanaticism on one side and nihilism on the other—with distance, he is especially critical of angelic laughter, which he perceives as the laughter of communist zealotry.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting erotic and sexual scenes play a dominant role. In every section of the novel, characters (though male characters profit more than female ones) learn something about themselves through failed sexual relations, but this self-knowledge is bitter and disillusioning. The two scenes of group sex in the novel are comically ridiculous, providing exaggerated examples with which to strip away any sense of human sexuality as essentially meaningful and life-affirming.

In terms of Kundera’s development as a novelist, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting marks a breakthrough in Kundera’s ideas about novelistic structure. Its formal discontinuity has led some critics to be reluctant to describe the book as a novel. John Updike is representative when he calls it “more than a collection of seven stories yet certainly no novel.” Early in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera gives the reader explicit advice on how to unify the book’s disparate parts while outlining his new aesthetic ambitions for the novel: “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.”

Kundera’s structural method in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is based on an analogy with formal musical composition. References to music in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and in Kundera’s textual comments reflect his interest and early training in classical music. Each section of the novel contains very different kinds of discourse: autobiographical fragments, historical facts and anecdotes, philosophical reflection, and fantasy. In one section, for example, Kundera juxtaposes a dreamlike tale of Tamina on an island inhabited only by children, the story of Kundera’s father’s dying days, and mini-essays concerning the demolition of Czech monuments and history. The essays cover Czech leader Gustav Hasak (“the president of forgetting”), time in Franz Kafka’s novels, Beethoven’s use of theme and variation, and the inanity of popular music. All these reflections are unified in that they refer to the same theme: Communism makes everyone into children by promising the future in exchange for the past. This kind of juxtaposition of thematically related fragments is characteristic of the entire structure of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and the result is a tour de force of narrative skill that has established Kundera’s reputation as a major writer.

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Critical Context