The analogy of musical form is a beguiling siren for literary artists, and the rocks are white with their bones. Milan Kundera, a Czech writer in exile, is a virtuoso both of music and of fiction, and he has the talent, more unusual still, of controlling the freedoms he assumes. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a seven-part invention of immense wit, intelligence, and verve. Symphonic it isn’t; but in the genre of literary chamber music, it’s a remarkable achievement.
This delicacy of touch seems to be a relatively recent development in Kundera’s writing. I have not read his first novel, The Joke (1967); but the early Laughable Loves (short stories) and Life Is Elsewhere (a novel), both published in the US in 1973, are not distinguished for their indirection. “Edward and God,” most successful of the short stories, describes a grotesque set of sexual outrages committed by a simpleton on the socialist pieties; it is a witty but vengeful story, and not subtle in its vengeance. The hero of Life Is Elsewhere, an all but unmitigated heel, doesn’t fully support the weight of his own analysis; we know he is what he is finally labeled too long before the fact is finally demonstrated.
On the other hand, The Farewell Party (1976) plays out a complex and elusive comedy with a sense of style worthy of Congreve or Sheridan. It’s a sharp, amoral quadrille, full of reversals and betrayals, disillusioned and casually contemptuous of the regime, but no more so than of its own characters. Not even Kundera’s saints (there is one in this book) come off very well; his scoundrels are about as weak and wicked as they seem, but those who complain of them are worse. The grotesque arrangements with which the book concludes bring a measure of sardonic satisfaction to the characters, and a meaner grin to the reader. The Farewell Party deepens Kundera’s original vein of game-playing into regions of mystification previously inhabited by Hoffmann and Tieck. There’s a certain blue light associated with one of the characters, of which the reader may make what he will; on one page a juvenile angel wanders across the scene on her way from nowhere to nowhere; and a single wide-reaching phrase passes through the mind of a vacant young lady (on page 124), leaving the reader with much, very much, to meditate.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is more loosely woven and freely modulated than anything else Kundera has yet attempted. Its themes return more persistently to forgetting than to laughter; and in fact the book is mostly about remembering what other people have forgotten. A good part of what is to be remembered is, for Kundera, Czechoslovakia—the nation, the people, their culture, their history. There is a personal reason for this; the author has been exiled from his native land, so that he must try desperately to remember it, to prevent its being taken from him spiritually as it has already been taken physically. But his plight is also that of his countrymen; deliberately, systematically, and ruthlessly, the current regime is trying to make the nation forget itself. Clementis, the communist official who stood beside the leader Gottwald in February 1948 and considerately put his cap on Gottwald’s bare head, was charged with treason four years later, wiped out of the history books, and airbrushed out of the photographs of that scene. All that remains of Clementis is the picture of his cap on Gottwald’s head.
Retrospective rewriting and redrawing of history proceed apace, in Czechoslovakia as in other totalitarian countries; it is a process of engineered forgetting against which only a few people can wage a lonely interior struggle—and that struggle is Kundera’s central theme. On the first page of the book’s first unit, the character called Mirek strikes this note: “the struggle of man against power,” he says, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The things one can do to remember are few and unimpressive; like Tamina, a later character with whom he is only allusively connected, Mirek wants to recover a packet of long-abandoned letters. They are important to him (he wrote them), not at all to the person who holds them; she refuses to give them up—refuses point blank, without explanation, irrevocably. Mirek, who has known all along that he is under investigation, is arrested, given a perfunctory trial, sentenced to six years in jail. There is laughter in this story, and forgetting, but mostly there are bitterness and remembering.
An incidental character in the story tells a good Czech joke. “Right in the middle of Prague, Wenceslaus Square, there’s this guy throwing up. And this other guy comes along, takes a look at him, shakes his head, and says, ‘I know just what you mean.’ ”
The laughter in the book is more often hostile than genial. In the course of the final unit, a large-scale sexual orgy takes place under the disciplined management of a martinet named Barbara; laughter is the revenge, there, of two sympathetic males who cannot help finding hilarious all this determined sexual manipulation—they disturb the solemnity of the occasion, and are promptly expelled.
Again, in a more complex story, “The Angels,” a drillmaster teacher persuades a couple of earnest, stupid American girls who are studying Ionesco’s Rhinoceros that the play is supposed to be funny. They put on card-board noses and try to entice the class into laughing obediently with them. But one of their fellow citizens, an intelligent young woman named Sarah, maneuvers into position to boot these young angels vigorously in the rear; and the resulting roar of genuine laughter blows both the girls and their insensitive teacher out of the classroom and into the sky. Laughter, it seems, may be an act of exclusion as well as of complicity; there are perverted laughter and a kind of counter-laughter. When he thinks of Husak’s Czechoslovakia, Kundera thinks of a ring of children led by the party boss, closing a circle, surrendering to the idiot rhythms of rock music, and forgetting, in a round of communal laughter, the executed, the exiled, the jailed, the obliterated.
The book in which these themes cross, mingle, and are transformed is an apparently naïve mixture of autobiography, fantasy, satirical essay, realistic narrative, and parable. The author tries to convey no elaborate sense of place; Prague is Prague, but other places are anyplace. “It goes against all rules of perspective,” says Kundera casually, “but you’ll just have to put up with it.” There are no real landscapes, just light indications of a vague background; and persons are merely outlined with a trait or two. They tend in fact to be quite empty and ordinary people, without pronounced individual concerns, elaborate ideas, or refined manners. Most have jobs, of one sort or another, or at least offices to which they go; but they never think of what happens there, and consequently we have no idea of what they do, as we say, “for a living.” Like the characters of Kafka, they live in a gray world so lacking in distinctive features and qualities that half the work of forgetting seems already done for them. Especially at the beginning of Kundera’s stories, the scene looks completely ordinary and rather dull; but in the course of the action, quietly and without much ado, things are complicated or reversed; the ground on which one stood, apparently securely, slips out from under one’s feet.
Eva is a friend of Marketa, the wife of Karel. They have met in a sauna, and though later Marketa introduces Eva to Karel, he is always odd man out in their relationship. Still, we learn almost in passing, Eva introduced herself to Karel before she made the acquaintance of his wife; in fact Karel and Eva were lovers since their first meeting, and it is at Karel’s instigation that Eva has made friends with Marketa. Now Eva is good friends with both Karel and Marketa—in fact she has come to town for a modest domestic orgy with them both.
A difficulty has turned up, however; Karel’s aged mother who has been visiting with them has not gone away on schedule—the orgy is imperiled. Fortunately, the mother is nearly blind, and obsessed with a past that her half-gone memory has completely muddled. So that when the two half-naked women blunder into mother’s presence, she thinks nothing of it; indeed, she remarks a similarity between Eva and an old acquaintance, Nora, whom Karel had once (many years ago, when he was only four) seen naked. The resemblance is not striking, but Karel, with some effort, makes it out; and erotic excitement from that old memory stirs him to frenzies of desire. Mother is sent off to bed, and the orgy takes place with extraordinary success. But while Karel is congratulating himself on his performance, Eva and Marketa agree on a rendezvous in which Eva’s husband will join while Karel is excluded. So Eva really is Marketa’s special friend, as we were told at the beginning of the story, although we had various intervening reasons to doubt this.
Meanwhile, Karel is pleased with his mother, whose feats of memory (combined with her myopia and imbecility) have raised his sexual performance to a level where he compares himself jubilantly to Bobby Fischer, master of simultaneous play. Indeed, as he drives her to the station (while Eva and Marketa are consolidating their secret plans for the future), he invites the old lady to come live with him and his wife. Thus from its quiet, even drab, opening the story develops patterns of wry duplicity and wit.
Even here, beneath the brittle comedy, we hear a hollow echo, sounding from Kundera’s sense of unalterable human loneliness. His central figure, Tamina,* is a silent, lonely woman, cut off like Mirek from a packet of lost letters (her past), that lie tantalizingly out of her reach, in Czechoslovakia. Struggling to retain the memory of her husband and their life together, the friends who have cut them off, the family now grown hostile and suspicious, she encounters everywhere the brutality of human indifference. Everywhere she finds people eager to talk, talk, talk about themselves, their interests, and feelings, in order to avoid having to listen, understand, and maybe even sympathize. The experience is duplicated in a fantastically funny scene involving a group of poets in which each is so self-absorbed that he can’t hear any of the others. The vision culminates in an incident with all the fantastic brilliance of nightmare: Tamina visits a zoo where half a dozen mute ostriches rush up to their fence at her approach, and click their beaks frantically, as if talking a blue streak—but without saying anything, or even emitting a sound.
A constant interweaving of fantasy and realism, surreal metaphor and prosaic literalness, is characteristic of Kundera’s technique. He intervenes frequently to address his readers directly, question his characters, recite his own experiences, or account for his authorial proceedings. He is particularly careful to leave undefined the relations between various episodes of his novel; it is the reader’s business to make of these relations what he can. Again and again in this artfully artless book an act or gesture turns imperceptibly into its exact opposite—a circle of unity into a circle of exclusion, playful children into cruel monsters, a funeral into a farce, freedom into lockstep, nudity into a disguise, laughter into sadism, poetry into political machinery, artificial innocence into cynical exploitation. These subtle transformations and unemphasized points of distant correspondence are the special privileges of a meticulously crafted fiction.
The book exercises an active, involving fascination; it is too surpassingly nimble and subtle to allow the usual sense of fictional identification. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a way of defining the flexible, sinuous appeal that Kundera’s novel makes to our minds. He is a cold comedian in a poignant situation, and I doubt if anyone who reads his book carefully will conclude that his response to the modern condition is to laugh at it and forget it.
That a book which combines so delicately dry wit and a deep sense of humanity should cause the author to be deprived of his citizenship is one more of the acute ironies of our time. Perhaps there is no more startling instance of our inhuman capacity for forgetting than the fact that such a situation can be taken, today, as a matter of course.
February 5, 1981
When he says no woman was ever before named “Tamina,” Kundera is inviting us, deviously as usual, to think of The Magic Flute, against which his story plays a bitter counterpoint. When he says it is no accident that the “guide” who delivers her up to the demonic camp of the angelic children is named “Raphael,” he points us not only to the affable archangel but to Madame Raphael, the mind-killing teacher. Of Kundera’s seven units, two are entitled “Lost Letters,” two “The Angels,” the cross-relations being more complex than a review can indicate. But it is useful to start with the slant that Kundera’s angels, like Blake’s, can be quite nasty creatures, more vicious and selfish by a good deal than the demons they are determined to obliterate. ↩