Kundera opens with a story about Gottwald, the first Communist president of Czechoslovakia, and Clementis, later an enemy of the state. When Clementis falls from grace, the propaganda department has his image removed from a famous photo of him with Gottwald. It's a great way to introduce the story of Mirek, a private citizen who's about to be arrested (and erased) by the government.
Instead of staying home and burning his incriminating papers, Mirek takes a road trip to the house of his old ladylove, Zdena, to retrieve his love letters. He realizes that he's being tailed, but he continues, anyway. At Zdena's house, he finds that she's not in the mood to fork over the old letters. He wants to smash her in the head and steal them. Spoiler: he doesn't.
Why are these letters so important to the dude, anyway? Well, on his drive back home, Mirek admits that he wants to do some revising of history of his own so that his life story will be nice and neat. Basically, Zdena is an ugly woman, and he doesn't want word to get out that he'd loved her.
When he arrives back at his apartment, Mirek finds that the secret police are already there, collecting his personal documents. His 17-year-old son is ready to kill him for leaving sensitive information lying around for the government to use against them. In the end, Mirek and his son are hauled away to prison—along with 10 of Mirek's friends.
Marketa and Karel have spent most of their married lives avoiding Karel's mother. She's bossy, intrusive, and rude—the stereotypical in-law. But as she gets older, both Karel and Marketa feel like they should spend more time with her. They invite her for a week but stipulate that she has to leave before Marketa's "cousin" Eva arrives.
Mama promises to leave on time—and then she doesn't. While they find that Mama has become a nicer person over the years, Marketa is still really annoyed by the woman's prolonged presence. She and Karel need some private time with Eva.
As you've probably guessed, Eva is not Marketa's cousin. She's a "man-chaser" who first hooked up with Karel six years ago. Karel is a "woman-chaser" who loves his wife and wants to make his infidelities easier on her. He sends Eva to make friends with Marketa so that they can have comfortable threesomes, and no one will have to feel guilty.
How thoughtful of him…
Marketa is actually really comfortable with Eva and has a perfectly lovely time with her. But Mama is cramping her style. Eva rolls with it and chats up Mama until bedtime. Before she goes to bed, Mama mentions that Eva reminds her of her old friend, Mrs. Nora. That sends Karel spiraling into his earliest sensual memories, which make him want Eva even more.
When they're finally alone, Karel makes love to both women—at once. He's deep in a fantasy, imagining that Eva is Mrs. Nora. The women think he's crazy (he's talking out loud) and decide to have a little alone time as Karel, um, recovers.
Eva invites Marketa to come and visit her next time—without Karel. Marketa realizes that she really enjoys sex a lot more when it's not with her husband, so she agrees. Karel is oblivious and happy about this sexual encounter. When he puts Mama on the train in the morning, he has nothing but good, sentimental feelings about her.
Gabrielle and Michelle are two American students studying in France for the summer. They're the favorites of their teacher, Madame Raphael. (Did you catch the fact that they all have the names of archangels?) Gabielle and Michelle have been assigned to do an oral report on Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but we'll be real: they aren't the brightest bulbs in the pack. They're not sure what the play is about; they just know that Ionesco uses symbols and comedy.
That leaves Kundera some space to talk about the origins of laughter. He tells us that laughter originated with Satan, but that angels learned to imitate the sound to mock him. The result? Nobody ever really knows if laughter is angelic or demonic. And Michelle and Gabrielle love to laugh that ambiguous laugh.
Kundera also tells us about his fall from grace in Czechoslovakia, and he uses the circle dance as a way of describing his feelings of isolation. He can no longer be a part of those dances since he's been expelled, and he envies the participants. He recalls his friend R., who helped him get a job in the days after he lost his teaching position. She asks him to write an astrology column for her publication.
But the position doesn't last because R.'s ruse is found out, she's interrogated, and then she loses her job. Kundera visits her and discovers that he wants to rape her because that will help him hold on to something while everything goes to pieces. We can't follow the logic, either.
Back to Michelle and Gabrielle, who give their presentation of Rhinoceros—complete with cardboard rhinoceros horns on their noses. While they do it, Sarah, a fellow student looking for revenge, walks up and gives them each a hard kick. Madame Raphael thinks the girls' sobs are laughter and, desperate to be a part of something, gets up to join their "dance." The three dancing "angels" rise into the heavens in their ecstasy, right before the students' eyes.
Tamina is a waitress at a café somewhere in "the West." (West of the Iron Curtain, that is.) She'd fled from Communist Czechoslovakia with her husband, Pavel. But Pavel died and left Tamina with nothing but her memories of their life together—and those memories are fading quickly. This upsets Tamina a lot because she has nothing to live for in the present.
She schemes to retrieve some personal notebooks that she'd left behind in Prague. These notebooks are really diaries of her life with Pavel, and Tamina feels they will help her reconstruct her memories. But she has to get somebody to go to Prague and pick them up for her—remember, she's a dissident, so she can't return herself. Her friend Bibi is going there for vacay and promises to get them.
Tamina has an admirer called Hugo. He's a younger man, an intellectual—and he has really bad breath. Tamina is not into him at all, especially because she's still focused on the past and the memory of her husband. But Hugo has a phone, and Tamina needs it to call back home and arrange the pickup of her notebooks. She succumbs to his advances.
Tamina is crushed when she learns that Bibi isn't going to Prague after all and can't pick up the notebooks. She'll have to rely on Hugo to do it—but that means she'll have to pay a pretty steep price. Hugo has sex with her while she tries to think of other things. But with that toll paid, she learns that Hugo, too, can't make the trip to Prague; he has published a controversial article against the Czech government, and they won't let him in.
Tamina is in greater distress than ever because her memory of her husband's body has now been replaced by repulsive Hugo's body. And with no prospect of getting her notes back, she despairs of ever refreshing her memories.
Kristyna is a butcher's wife who's had several affairs with local men, but they are nothing like the relationship she strikes up with a young student one summer. She really likes his fancy talk about Schopenhauer, but she can't give in to his sexual advances (she needs to use contraceptives and doesn't know how to break it to him), much to his frustration. He invites her to visit him in Prague.
Kundera breaks in to describe the untranslatable Czech word litost, which is "a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery" (V."Litost?"). Kundera uses two incidents in the student's life to illustrate exactly how litost works. It turns out that he's one miserable guy.
Back in Prague, the student has been invited by his professor, Voltaire, to join a meeting of the country's greatest poets. But Kristyna is due in town that same evening, and the student sadly has to decline. When Kristyna arrives, he's miserable: she looks like a country bumpkin in the glamorous city. He gave up his night with great poets for that?
He strikes a bargain with Kristyna—he'll get Goethe to sign her book if she'll let him go—and he heads to the bar. Petrarch tells a ridiculous story about a crazy female student who was in love with him. Lermontov isn't buying it at all and winds up becoming the target of the other poets' anger. The student stands up for Lermontov in an impressive way and earns the admiration of the room.
The student tells Goethe about his disappointment with Kristyna, but the old poet tells him that a girl like that is just what a poet needs. He writes a beautiful inscription in Kristyna's book, and the student finds his desire for her rekindled. But when he goes back to his room, he finds that Kristyna still won't have sex with him. She says something about how it will "kill her." He thinks she's speaking metaphorically.
In the morning, the student is still sexually frustrated when Kristyna finally clarifies her statement. The student has a serious attack of litost and goes back to the bar to seek out his poet friends for solace. He brings along Kristyna's love letter from the night before, and Petrarch sees it. He declares it to be pure poetry and dubs the student a true poet for inspiring such a love.
When Lermontov arrives, the student snubs him because he realizes that he doesn't like Lermontov's straightforward approach to love. He really wants to be romantic and "inspired," like Petrarch and Goethe.
Kundera brings Franz Kafka into his discussion of Czechoslovakia, specifically Kafka's vision of a nameless country with no identity and that sense of disorientation that comes from memory loss in Kafka's work. It's a major issue in Communist Czechoslovakia since the regime is all about erasing people and events that don't fit with their "idyll."
Kundera recalls his father's last days, when his mind remained sharp but he'd lost the ability to speak. Papa could only say, "That's strange," and this seems to sum up the whole situation in Kundera's country. Both are suffering from a kind of amnesia, a loss of memory that dissolves identity.
And on that note, we're back to Tamina. After the whole icky incident with Hugo, she withdraws from everyone around her. Until one day, that is, when Raphael walks into the café. He seems to read her thoughts, and he convinces her to go away with him. Unfortunately for Tamina, Raphael is about to give her what she wants: a life without weight, without cares or sorrow.
Raphael sends Tamina on a boat trip across a lake to a little island occupied by children. Tamina is assigned, as if she were at camp, to be part of a group called the Squirrels. She has to participate in the children's games, sleep in the dorm-style cabin, and—weirdest of all—participate in the children's washing and toilet rituals.
Soon things take an even more bizarre turn: Tamina can tell that the kids are aroused by her naked body. And that arousal is catching. She allows the kids to touch her body, and she feels great pleasure from it because she's able to be weightless this way and leave her past behind her—until one of the kids hurts her.
Tamina stops the sexual games with the children, and they don't take it too kindly. Pretty soon, things go downhill. Tamina doesn't want to play their games anymore; they take to attacking her. Tamina tries to fight back, and she finds herself caught in their nets. Eventually, she realizes that she'll have to make a run for it, or she'll have to spend eternity with these little brats.
She decides to swim back to her old life, but after a full day of swimming with no progress, she realizes there's only one way out. She lets herself sink while the children watch.
Jan and Edwige are not exactly a couple, but they've been together for a while. They don't really communicate well, but it doesn't seem to matter because they get along just fine. Jan is 45 years old and about to leave for the United States to work. He's going to spend his remaining time in the country visiting with his old friends.
Jan is attracted to the story of Daphnis and Chloe, a pair of Greek adolescents who find great sexual pleasure in arousal alone. He's bored to death with his sexual experiences and wishes he could go back to that early state of sexual awakening.
Jan begins his farewell visits with Hanna, a beautiful young actress with a bad marriage and a missing son. Hanna knows how gorgeous she is and, of course, is very self-centered. She talks with him about a mutual friend, Passer, who has cancer. Hanna spent an enjoyable afternoon hunting mushrooms with him, but the effort nearly killed him, and he's now in the hospital.
Next up is the Clevis family, and Jan walks in when they are in the middle of a debate about whether or not women should be allowed to sunbathe topless. The teenage daughter ends the debate by declaring how sick she is of men turning women into sex objects. Awkward. Papa Clevis urges Jan to visit Passer before it's too late.
In the meantime, Jan runs into Barbara, who invites him to participate in an orgy at her house before he leaves for the United States. Since he's not coming back, Jan thinks, why not? But the invitation also gets him to thinking about his age and how he's kind of tired of all this.
Jan finally sees Passer in the hospital and finds that, in fact, Passer's condition really is as bad as everyone says. But Passer is in good spirits, and they have a good, if awkward, conversation.
When Passer dies, Jan and his friends gather at his graveside. Papa Clevis loses his hat to the wind and looks on in horror as it scuttles toward the open grave. He doesn't want to interrupt the speaker, but he also doesn't want something horribly funny to happen at this funeral. He doesn't act quickly enough: the hat drops into the grave, and no one can hold back the laughter.
Jan attends Barbara's orgy, where he meets another guy who's also having a hard time taking the whole thing seriously. The absurdity of the situation is too much for the men, who burst out laughing. Barbara is enraged at them for not being into it, and she kicks out Jan. He doesn't seem sad to go.
Jan and Edwige take a last trip to the seashore before he leaves for the United States. It's a nude beach, which Jan hates and Edwige loves. As they walk on the seashore with other nude sunbathers, Jan is reminded of Daphnis and Chloe. He actually calls out to Daphnis; Edwige hears him.
But she misunderstands him, as usual, and believes that he wants to go back to a time before Christianity spoiled the world for everyone. The other nude sunbathers think this is a brilliant observation, but Jan can only reflect on how absurd the whole scene really is.