The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A 'novel' in a series of short-story-like variations dealing with individual and social memory, forgetting and identity; sex, love, humour, good and evil. Vintage Kundera: highly annoying, highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 318 Date: May 1996
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571174379

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It's with a somehow guilty feeling that I admit that I have never been particularly fond of Milan Kundera. He's certainly a very good writer and undoubtedly a very intelligent man capable of interesting philosophical insights. All those qualities contributed to a cult status accorded to Kundera, compounded by the frisson of political subversion – never a harmful thing for a writer from what used to be known as Eastern Europe (but which returned to its status as Middle (or Central) Europe with the fall of the Iron Curtain).

Reading Kundera was the Done Thing, despite (or maybe because of) the official ban on his books. The first Kundera novels I read were samizdat publications, lovingly wrapped in brown paper and reverently handed on to me by an earnest friend who was into This Kind of Thing.

I read, I appreciated – and I got annoyed, at least then, in the Poland of my late teens. Equipped with twenty years of accumulated life experience including the (historical) dismantling of the communist block and my own (personal) emigration, I picked up The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, one of the titles I have not read before, expecting a different experience. But it wasn't: I still read, I appreciated (probably more than I had done twenty years ago) and I got annoyed (even more than twenty years ago).

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting presents itself as a novel, but it really is a collection of short stories, with only some of them sharing any characters or settings. The link, which justifies – at least in some experimentalist sense – the label of a novel, is the subject matter. Kundera sees his stories as variations (he's got musical education and often uses musical analogies when talking about his writing) and indeed, they are all woven around the same issues and they do come together to form a whole perhaps greater than the sum of all individual pieces.

As many a Central European writer, Kundera is – unsurprisingly – obsessed by history and memory. It's the memory of the past that gives people the sense of self and it's the collective, cultural memory of the past that gives the peoples the unique sense of national identity.

In the usual Kundera fashion, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting intertwines the intimately personal and the political, combining confident, creative plotting and surreal, dream-like imagery with (pseudo)philosophical deliberations, farcical and absurd humour, and autobiographical motifs. In fact, Kundera – or his persona, anyway – is more than a cameo character in several stories, in addition to a cast of rather memorable but almost universally unlikeable others.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is full of authorial or pseudo-authorial digressions and it's those direct instances of the author's voice that bring to the fore all the things that I find irritating in Kundera, as much now as I did twenty years ago: his sentimental cynicism, his elitist lamentations on popular music , his somehow maudlin obsession with sexual love, in fact with sex in general (it's perhaps not an accident that, at least in my edition, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting concludes with Kundera being interviewed by Philip Roth, a very different writer but sharing some of Kundera's preoccupations), his supposedly ironically deadpan but in fact self-pitying to the extreme account of what he sees as destruction of Czechoslovakian intelligentsia and potentially, destruction of the national identity.

No, I still don't LIKE Milan Kundera, but I have to admit that he is a virtuoso writer, with the lightest of touches, original insights, a gift for writing quotable sentences and creating mildly absurd, mildly visionary tales about everyman smashed to bits by the steamrollers of history. All these qualities are clearly exhibited in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and make for an enjoyable and stimulating book: read and you decide for yourself if you find him as annoying as I do.

Highly recommended.

You might also appreciate The Escape by Adam Thirlwell.

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