Book Review: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
This morning’s news that Ray Bradbury had passed away put me in something of a contemplative state all day. So rather than taking advantage of an evening home, alone, to try to catch up on my Camp NaNoWriMo effort (already dreadfully behind), I picked up a book that reflected both my melancholy at losing a great author, and, in a strange way, the book I was putting off writing (the second in the Red Slaves series). The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a reflection on the way Communism distorted the lives of the people who lived under that system, though Kundera himself frames it rather more poetically on the back cover of the version of the book that has followed me through any number of moves:
I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.
The novel itself is short enough that I don’t even feel all that guilty about having lost a few hours to it. It is loosely structured in seven parts that really only reflect each other thematically in what read as short stories. The character sketches Kundera constructs for each of these segments are pithy and moving and valuable also for the chance they offer him to digress into recounting his own anecdotes and outlining his own philosophy.
Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.
The way Kundera throws meaning and meaninglessness at each other creates an interesting wave effect in the reader that ultimately makes everything weighty. You feel as though you’re reading a philosophical treatise when you run across passages like:
Laughable laughter is cataclysmic. And even so, the angels have gained something by it. They have tricked us all with their semantic hoax. Their imitation laughter and its original (the Devil’s) have the same name. People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them.
So I might have to write about laughable laughter in a little bit, as I drag myself back to the real task at hand: Constructing the second novel in my first series. In the meantime, to give you a different perspective on the historical context I’m writing past, go read some Milan Kundera yourself. His words have meat to them and cover everything from history to the relationships men and women struggle with. His cultural references to other works ranging from Madame Bovary to Goethe and the very specific experience he had during the Prague Spring are all worth reviewing, lest we forget (in the manner he describes of the great effort at revising history underway in Czechoslovakia at that time) the lessons available from our own past.