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.
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 entire section is 832 words.)