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You know you're in for a deep read when you see a line like this in a book:
"You begin to liquidate a people," says Czech historian Milan Hübl, "by taking away its memory." (VI.2.4)
Author Milan Kundera knows the truth of this statement firsthand. After participating in the Czech reform movement known as the 1968 Prague Spring—which Kundera wrote about in his smash hit The Unbearable Lightness of Being—he found himself on the wrong side of a totalitarian Communist regime. Sure, he lost his teaching position and any hope of a normal life. But worse for him was the removal of his books from Czech libraries; it was as if he had been erased from the history of his country.
It's no wonder, then, that Kundera focuses so strongly on the fragility of memory in his 1979 work, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He structures the novel as "variations on a theme" to explore how losing the past—historical or personal—undermines the identity of people and nations.
The historical revisionism that Hübl speaks of isn't the only way for that loss to happen. Other tragedies, like illness and the unwelcome passage of time, also have a way of stripping Kundera's characters of the memories that give their lives context.
But it's to the revision of history that Kundera returns most often in this novel. Historical revisionism isn't just a tool in the hands of the Communist Party's propaganda wing—though it'sreally good at changing the past for political purposes. Kundera's characters also totally dabble in revisionism on a personal level, hoping to "beautify" their life stories or return to a past that gave greater meaning and purpose to their existence.
In this sense, the "weight" of history is a good thing. Whenever anyone in this novel tries to shed the metaphysical pounds of the past, bad things happen. As Hübl tells us, messing with the past means erasing yourself.
Eastern European literature, folks. It's a laugh a minute.
We've gotta to be honest: there's a pretty high creep factor in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The characters are neither particularly likeable nor particularly sympathetic, but they are characters living through extraordinary personal and historical turmoil and facing all the big questions each of us will face in our lifetimes.
These characters are finding ways to "survive crossing the desert of organized forgetting" (VI.2.8)—mostly by doing boneheaded things, trusting questionable people, and, sometimes, by just succumbing. To death. To corruption. To a bunch of creepy children on an island you can't ever escape.
And that makes these characters absolutely compelling to watch.
If that's not enough for you, though, it's also worthwhile to witness the fallout of another "Spring" reform movement—a granddaddy to the upheavals that we've seen in our own recent history across the Middle East and elsewhere. If the past is a prelude to the present, then it would serve us well not to forget.
But there's even more than that. This novel is all about a couple of crucial things that make us who we are—our memories and our pasts. It's also about the weird lightness that comes about when we lose these things. A lightness that is symbolized by laughter.
While Kundera is a big fan of memory, he's not a huge proponent of laughter. There are two reasons for this. First, laughter is a distraction from all the things that are going wrong in life. That sounds like a good thing, right?
Not if you live in Communist Czechoslovakia, where indulgence in mindless gaiety is encouraged. If you're laughing it up (or dancing in the streets), you may not realize it, but you're actually celebrating the executions of your countrymen.
And then there's the problem of laughter's origins. Is it something heaven sent, the joy of angels? Or is it really the devil laughing at things he shouldn't? Kundera tells us that there's no way to be sure until the damage is done. Laughter has a way of undercutting the most solemn things, turning serious moments into something cheap and absurd.
Because of this, laughter is the natural ally of forgetting. Both actions take the characters further away from themselves and carry them into the wasteland of insignificance. Heavy.
But in a world without the weight of memory, humanity is doomed to an existence without purpose or meaning.
Sorry, that was kind of a downer. Please enjoy this chubby bulldog puppy who is here to cheer you up.
Hungry for More?
Check out our guide to Milan Kundera's smash hit The Unbearable Lightness of Being. You're gonna need some help with that book, anyway.
This well-designed site offers biographical info, photos, and book cover art.
While The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has never made it to the silver screen, Kundera has a whole slew of works that have—most famously The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Arts and Crafts
For this Paris Review interview with Milan Kundera, the interviewer brought a typewriter and some office supplies, and together with Kundera pieced together the text for the article.
Relevant? Or Rubbish?
A chunky article on whether or not Kundera's written works have held up since the '80s—and whether or not all that violence against women in his books is really a problem.
Are We Still Talking About This?
When Kundera's latest book, called The Festival of Insignificance, was released in 2015, it made smart people wonder just how relevant this author's work is for readers today. This article will bring you up to speed on the chatter about Kundera's books and what those in the know really think about the importance of his works.
Researcher Adam Hradilek attempts to shed some light on what's quite possibly Kundera's least finest hour: the denunciation of a Czech spy to the Communist Party. Kundera's reclusive behavior and unwillingness to speak of the incident seem to confirm his bad behavior—but will we ever know the truth?
After Adam Hradilek published his piece on the possibility that Kundera denounced a fellow Czech to the Communists back in the 1950s, Kundera broke his silence on the subject.
What Is Home?
Kundera speaks to Jane Kramer of The New York Times on various bits of his life, but perhaps the most riveting part of this interview happens when he gets to talking about the word "home" and what it means to him now.
From One Ridiculously Famous Author to Another
Renowned author John Updike gives The Book of Laughter and Forgetting a thorough review.
Okay, real talk: this interview with Kundera in 1968 is in French with English subtitles. But we think that watching a young Kundera balance on a see-through inflatable chair is probably worth the slog.
A Mad Dance
Here you will find a short clip of Jaromil Jires' adaptation of Kundera's novel The Joke. In this snippet, Jires brings to life the manic dancing in occupied Czechoslovakia that Kundera mentions in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
How and What to Read, Kundera Edition
As part of a review of Kundera's The Festival of Insignificance, BBC personalities discuss their favorites of Kundera's earlier works.
Heroism, a Generation Later
Kundera mentions the execution of Milada Horakova in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Radio Prague conducts an interview with Horakova's daughter, Jana, who was only 15 when her mother lost her life for speaking out against Communism.
A Sense of Place
Click through this site to get a glimpse of Prague's landmarks (some mentioned in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), including the awesome Prague Castle complex, Charles Bridge, and the famous astronomical clock.
Photoshopping, Back in the Day
If you scroll down the page a bit, you'll see the photos of Gottwald and Clementis (before and after Clementis' fall from grace) that Kundera obsesses over in his book.