Book of laughter and forgetting – review

My views

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“…because love is continual interrogation. I don’t know of a better definition of love.”

Milan Kundera

This won’t be the Kundera book I would recommend to a reader new to him. Not that it is bad – it still has all the interesting psychology (he dislikes the word), philosophy (he dislikes that too) and sex (… Well, he is a man.); the trouble with this book is it is too much into Kunderism. The good thing about him is he never beats around the bush. It is as if he knows what he has show and only tells parts of the story that say it – thus there is only vague suggestions regarding what happened during the time between events focused on in consecutive chapters. I don’t mind it if anything I actually prefer it over novels filled with useless details just there to establish connections in events and characters. (And while we are talking about his art, there is, of course, his nosy presence as writer of novel – telling you stories from his real life as well as that modern omniscient* narrator thing who only sees his character doing things but has no idea about their motivations – and is thus always making guesses (thus also the asterisk on omniscient).

But this time there is not only any unity of action but no unity of plot, This book is nearer to a collection of short stories rather than a single novel, stories that often aren’t connected in any way other than the common themes of laughter and/or forgetting. And Kundera is aware of this and says it is intentional. This is where the interview, in the end, comes handy. He defines novel as

“A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist’s desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy: 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. “

Milan Kundera

The two themes here are laughter and forgetting. Forgetting makes obvious sense as he had to deal with communism:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

Milan Kundera

The quote would make obvious sense to anyone who has read 1984 or know about historical revisionism. There are of course the aspects of the theme as felt by people too. How it light to be without the burden of past memories; how one wishes to retain happy memories of past and how difficult it is.

“Children, Never look Back!” and this meant that we must never allow the future to be weighed down by memory . for children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.”

Milan Kundera

“We will never remember anything by sitting in one place waiting for the memories to come back to us of their own accord! Memories are scattered all over the world. We must travel if we want to find them and flush them from their hiding places!

Milan Kundera

“The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.”

Milan Kundera

As to laughter, it is of two kinds – the one of the devil and one of angels:

“Those who consider the Devil to be a partisan of Evil and angels to be warriors for Good accept the demagogy of the angels. Things are clearly more complicated. Angels are partisans not of Good, but of divine creation. The Devil, on the other hand, denies all rational meaning to God’s world. ‘ World domination, as everyone knows, is divided between demons and angels. But the good of the world does not require the latter to gain precedence over the former (as I thought when I was young); all it needs is a certain equilibrium of power. 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.”

Milan Kundera

Now Russian revolution and communism are angels on their way to make the world; a paradise (a place of too much uncontested meaning) and so not a very nice thing – however this paradise is tempting to people, who much like angels, want to live in a fully meaningful world. That is why communists don’t like art – art is all about raising questions:

“The history of music is mortal, but the idiocy of the guitar is eternal.”

Milan Kundera

“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties, the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.”

Milan Kundera

So all artist are devil’s advocates. But there can be too much of that too.

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for anage of universal deafness and lack of understanding.

“It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history. Human life — and herein lies its secret — takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch.”

Milan Kundera

The island of children is lot like communist paradise – full of children with no memories. The children there are realistic – true little angels (as per Kundera’s definition above) and not innocent version from a TVC.

Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan

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