Remember when David Mitchell came out with Cloud Atlas and everyone freaked out? Was it a novel? Inter-related short stories? What was with the weird nesting? I don’t get the movie! All our neat little categories are coming tumbling down and now it’s the end of the world! Well, Milan Kundera does much the same in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (but since it hasn’t become a Major Motion Picture, only literary snobs care to comment on it). The cover proudly proclaims that this is “a novel,” which is a stretch by any definition of the word. It’s more like a 300-page meditation of getting old under Communist rule. I’m not so bothered by what this book is, however, or how to label it. Let’s talk about more interesting things, like sex!
There’s a lot of sex in this book, or talk of sex. Most of the characters are middle-aged, and Kundera conveys the way this turning point in life heralds a subtle shift in our perspectives. (Or, you know, so I gather, not having quite reached it myself.) The title is a good hint at the lines of inquiry Kundera lays down: there are relationships that make us happy, and there are ones we would rather not dwell on; there are relationships that make us rueful, and there are ones that never happened, so we wonder what never will be. And in this pursuit of memories real and unattainable, Kundera tries to sort through some of the psychic baggage the Russian invasion has left behind on Czech culture.
Mostly my experience with this book was one of treading water. Almost everything in here concerns things I don’t know much about. I can’t pretend to talk intelligibly about Kundera’s response to Communism in this, because I know little enough about that period. This is not a novel about being under Communist rule in the sense that Kundera isn’t about to give us exposition; it very much expects a certain familiarity.
Similarly, the emphasis on sex just reminds me how much this activity baffles me at the best of times. I get the basic idea, understand its evolutionary origins and its utility as motivation in so many tragedies. I can empathize with the characters here—but I can’t sympathize, and I’m not sure I reacted to the events in these stories in the way most readers would. It’s not just the presence of sex, because of course that happens in a lot of stories! It’s more Kundera’s emphasis on the way emotion is mixed up in the embodied sensuality of the act. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting places a lot of importance on the awareness of bodies and embodiment. Much of the sparse physical description in the book is devoted to appearances and shapes and movements of limbs. We are our bodies, or at least, the way we interact with the world is informed by them—and while I agree with that thesis to an extent, mostly I’m just reminded of my own discomfort with it.
Nevertheless, there are definitely moments that spoke to me here. I very much enjoyed “Mama,” in which Karel and Eva play host to Karel’s elderly mother the same weekend they’re having a threesome with another woman. Oops. And as hilarious as the situation is, Kundera manages to turn it into so much more than a farce. He illustrates how each of our actions can have a litany of unforeseen effects. And he manages to create three-dimensional characters in a short span of pages. Karel’s mother isn’t just a stereotypical disapproving matriarch growing ever more infirm: she is as much of a person as her son or her daughter-in-law, and thanks to the limited omniscience of our narrator, we get to see the perspectives of both generations. Kundera reminds us that the people who sit across from us are … well, people, who have thoughts and feelings and failing memories as much as we do.
Kundera reminds me of a few writers. Vonnegut is one, because there is an almost weary acceptance of the absurdity that comes with authoritarianism. Orwell, another, for the commentary on the futility of fighting that absurdity. He reminds me of Murakami too, not just because of the foreignness of the experience of the stories, but for the way his characters reflect on their bodies as four-dimensional objects—existing in time as well as space.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is fun, but in a subtle rather than exciting way. It made me think—a little about life under an occupation, a lot about how we change over the decades. I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the word for this book. I don’t know if I “got” it. It’s not really my cup of tea, but I can appreciate how it might be for others.