Impressions on Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Czech born writer Milan Kundera is a literary feat that blends innovative narrative styles to approach ideological contemplations and confrontations, to build a philosophical outlook on life, existence through a voice that sheds trappings of orthodoxy. The volume discussed in this article is an English translation by one Aaron Asher from the French version of it written by Kundera.

As a modernistic writer Kundera has adopted a narrative style of a third person narrator voice which takes an active role with multimodality. The novel narrates biographical facets of the writer, interlaced with element of fictional value, while adopting tones that vary in its politics from being observational, descriptive and conversationally inquisitive to overtly and unapologetically partisan. The activeness of the book’s narrative voice and mode that addresses the reader, turning him in to a participant, with whom the story flows, echoes qualities discernible in the narrative voice in Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow.

The structure of the book would not have much logic if one were to frame it in the traditional flow and sequence and sectioning found n a novel as conceived traditionally.

The breaking down of the text in to ‘chapters’ and ‘parts’ and so on would be for the purpose of coherence no doubt. Thereby establishing order for a chain of reading the reader would embark on. That would be a practical purpose and function of such a format; to create grounding for time and space, through which the reader would be taken in to by the author. Therefore the ground which the reader is invited and ushered through would be a rational place where the imaginary acts of fiction, however ‘unreal’ they maybe, are contained in a space, or universe constructed to hold (the) phenomena described as possibilities within conditioned universes. The intergalactic battle cruisers in Star Wars are a possibility achieved in a universe advance in space technology.  The rationale is contained within the universe constructed by the author and therefore not an utterly bizarre, abstract notion. The flying broomsticks of Harry Potter and Co. with al their supernatural feats are grounded in ‘magic’ a concept we are not unfamiliar with irrespective of however much it maybe contested for its veracity and realness.

But when Kundera takes the reader through his book at varying paces and narrative modes, there is a deficit in rationale within the constructed spaces that lend a sense of absurdity. Is Kundera of the absurdist tradition? Or is he the result of no tradition? Or is he party to a tradition that is yet to find firm ground t be spared from being read as ‘absurd’ on account of unorthodox ways?

Referring to the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, Kundera presents a sub-story of two American students Gabrielle and Michelle, taking a summer course on the drama, in a coastal town in the French Mediterranean. Known as a work representative of ‘absurd theater’ Ionesco’s play is discussed in the storyline of Gabrielle and Michelle while a host of irrational and absurd elements are built into the narrative. The story of the American students end with the two girls with their teacher, Madam Raphael, rising spirally holding hands, levitating upwards, passing through the ceiling of the room and ambiguously dubbed as three ‘archangels.’ I would like to cite words of Kundera from his novel which could lend an understanding to the psychology that the writer grounds his writing.

“Angels are partisans not of Good but divine creation. The devil, on the other hand, is one who refuses to grant any rational meaning to that divinely created world.”

From a prose by James Boswell titled “Beware of cant” published in Portraits of England, an Anthology, the following is extracted-

“…[Y]ou may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholoy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times…you may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

In the afore extract I feel Boswell has propounded an illustration on how the political mind is made to act and voice itself to the world while maintaining a mind true to itself. Then one could deduce that the (willful) politician is one who does not speak his mind. Then what intonation of political thinking is woven in to the voices Kundera has created in his noel? What gaps could there be between the thinking and the public pleasing speech his characters produce? The prospect may offer new platforms for discussion and debate, yet I feel the crux of character formations and the array of events that shape their stories are given by Kundera with scarcely any divide between the truthfulness of what was said as being born of what was honestly thought by the characters. And therefore ‘the absurd’ is given allowance to take flight. The ‘foolishness’ brought in to discussion in Boswell’s words may take a new form as ‘absurdity’ born of unfiltered thoughts, of impulse and fancy. A whim and a well constructed plan may be put on the same page as being creations born of the same consciousness, with different psycho-emotional composites. But never the less they remain intermingled as born of the same being, representing the consciousness of a storyteller.

In relation to what can be understood by Kundera’s novel, I would like to present a perspective on how the ‘absurd’ may take shape. Public behaviour is distinguished as acceptable and unacceptable. It is the public domain that gives birth to ‘propriety.’ In the privacy of one’s own personal space (especially of the mind) distinctions of acceptability may cease. And in such a state of affairs, behaviour is not adjudicate upon and distinguished as sane or insane. One could in fact argue that sanity is a necessity insisted by the public from the person, and therefore what is dubbed as ‘absurd’ is what the public may not easily digest as acceptable. The absurd can be born of the person who disallows public intrusion to his mode of, expression, communication and also state of being.

Through the course of the novel Kundera presents a thesis of distinguishing History from the Past. Through a character named Mirek, a victim of communist persecution in Prague, the writer presents a facet to the Aristotelian theory of “man by nature is a political animal.” The past of an individual is seen by the author as integral to the formation of identity and the controlling of history is a contortion of identity with political motive. In the story of Mirek Kundera says

“Mirek rewrote history just like the communist party, like al political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but that’s not true. 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.”

Kundera seems to be unreservedly attributing his character Mirek the political depth that any man formed institution (such as a political party) would be identified as having. An individual cannot be completely spared or divorced from the political landscape in which he traverses and acts in. The treacheries and sins committed by the communists of Prague or any other political force may be perpetrated by an individual propelled by his own politics or politically shaded emotions. Kundera’s distinctions of ‘History’ from ‘the past’ seem to be conceived on the nature of what has preceded our present. And the extents of its politicization as well as by whom. Kundera in his novel would seem to propose that ‘History’ is a device of a politically motivated force or entity, where records are kept and rigorously maintained. The past, resides memories of an individual who posses it as personal, and perhaps as undeclared experiences that led to the present. The future and its lack of significance, in the larger experience of man’s existence is very interestingly linked to what significance lie in the past. If the future, which is ‘a present to be,’ is materially inconceivable and perpetually pending, then to the man who lives and bears memory of having lived, it is indifferent until it has given him prospects of living. The individual, once he has perceived his situations in the realm of materiality can place it either in the present, in which he still continues to ‘feel it,’ or in the past of which he carries the memory of having ‘felt it.’ Both these instances are known to him, having had or continuing to have contact with his faculties. But the future cannot be classified in the world of experience as neither ‘being felt’ nor ‘having been felt.’ And thus it becomes in the words of Kundera, a void, which is not linked to man’s realm of experience and memory.

Moving on to a different aspect of the schema of the novel, the character of Tamina, human existence is discussed in relation to existential philosophy expounded by French theorist Jean-Paul Satre. The sordid marooning of Tamina in an island of children shows how conformity by the odd one is required for survival. Kundera presents a dose of existentialism in relation to circumstances encountered by the character when made to play hopscotch- “She must go on hopping like this day after day, bearing on her shoulders as she hops the weight of time like a cross growing heavier from day to day.”

The image of repetition, a circular, cyclical motion of action resonates with the myth Sisyphus which ahs been evoked in existentialist literature.

In his critical denouncement of communism and its strangulations of individuality and identity not conducive for the perpetuation of communist regimental machinery of control, Kundera takes on the matter of name changing and renaming and the vast politicized landscapes that transform an urban human habitation that is a city, in to an entity testimony to political and military might of an invader who fast becomes master over all and everything. Shakespearean loftiness of “What’s in a name…” has to be dismissed in the face of the crises Kundera speaks of, and the depth and significance of naming and renaming must be grappled as a political act that is by no means “a rose by any other name.”  Kundera’s prose bring out an impassioned voice which bespeaks experiences of pain and anguish in dealing the politics of naming that is integral to identity constitution. Kundera laments Prague’s state of being battered in to identitylessness by successive regimes. He cites Prague as a city without a memory as presented in the writings of Franz Kafka. The political potency of a name is very artfully put in to perspective when Kundera says “…a name is continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name.” Kundera speaks of the renaming and reconstruction of a sphere of human habitation (such as a city) becomes routine to the extent that the act loses significance to the point that it loses purpose however much politically strategized it may be.

When Kundera portrays Prague as a victim of successive political agenda that defaced the city and refaced it in to a path of transformation that tracked towards unrecognizability, he appears to suggest that Prague is a subordinate to the regime and was erased of the linkage it carried with the collective soul of its populace. The scathing attack Kundera lunches against the Church and polity makes one wonder is he heretic? Is he an anarchist? Probably yes, his voice is that of a rebel who is intelligently raging against the machine. The author accuses the Church of putting in force an ever present veil of oppression over the lives of the citizenry through politically devised topography. This makes one wonder, what would Prague be without the numerous institutional presences? Kundera vehemently resents with bitterness.

While accusations are voiced against the religiously motivated machinery that effaced Prague of what it was, not much is said of what Prague could have been. But then The Book of laughter and Forgetting is not a ground on which hypothetical futures are speculated when History had set a course for a present that agonize a son of Prague such as Kundera.

Is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting a lament? Is it a creative wail of a grief stricken soul? Yes one could believe so, and so much more as well. Kundera’s grief breathes out what I feel is an intellectual lament, which analytically takes to task the factors that make up the collective his voice represents. His seems to be a voice that wails in whispers, for that is what the kind as the ones in his book are allowed in the vast domains of politicized spaces. They are allowed only to view in silence and speak in whispers and nothing more than sotto voce, lest their laments become outcries. And so it seems as a people traversing on a trajectory of polity and regime agenda they struggle to keep some sense of who and what they believe themselves to be. Within inner sancta of individuals in their emotion’s depths, memories may be preserved with sanctity. Kundera is gently unfolding such sanctified memories. Memories that may be unsung, unspoken, unwritten and not so much as breathed beyond the parameters of one’s being, lest it is swept up by a tide of persecuting political conformity.

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