Study Guide

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Summary

By Milan Kundera

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Summary

Part I: Lost Letters

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.

Ouch.

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.

Part II: Mama

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.

Part III: The Angels

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.

Part IV: Lost Letters

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.

Part V: Litost

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.

Part VI: The Angels

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.

Part VII: The Border

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.

  • Part I

    Lost Letters

    • Kundera paints a picture of a triumphant Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia's first Communist president, standing on a balcony in Prague.
    • Gottwald is surrounded by his best party buddies, including one Vladimir Clementis, who will later be erased from all photos taken on that day. Spoiler alert: Clementis is later executed.
    • Despite the fact that many Czechoslovakians have seen the pics of Clementis with Gottwald, the government's propaganda machine has noooo problem removing Clementis from history.
    • So, we're in Czechoslovakia, 1971.
    • We're introduced to Mirek, a character who has been breaking the first rule of living in a Communist society, the rule that says keep no records.
    • But Mirek believes that remembering things accurately is a way to stick it to the man, so he keeps a diary of all his important meetings and conversations.
    • After a workplace accident, Mirek decides to get his life right: he's going to destroy all those papers to keep his friends safe. But not until he meets with a woman called Zdena.
    • Mirek had an affair with Zdena when he was a young man, but his memories of that time are very spotty. In fact, Mirek isn't sure whether to trust his memories of Zdena or not.
    • Mirek remembers two specific occasions: 1) Zdena crying over the death of one Masturbov (which made him suspicious), and 2) Zdena informing Mirek that he had no skills in the bedroom.
    • To be specific, Zdena accuses Mirek of making love like an intellectual. Mirek doesn't really know what this means, but in those days, it was pretty bad to be an intellectual behind the Iron Curtain.
    • Mirek notices that he's being tailed as he makes his way to Zdena's apartment. He stops at a repair shop outside Prague to have his buddy fix his car.
    • There's a guard lady standing by a barrier outside the repair shop, and she won't let Mirek pass.
    • Mirek's mechanic friend appears and tells Mirek that he is persona non gratabecause he's had some unwanted publicity of late. (Mirek, that is.)
    • And right on cue, one of the guys that had been following Mirek appears, peeking under the hood of Mirek's car as the mechanic works on it.
    • The mechanic questions the snoop but gets nothing out of him. It's clear that Mirek's friend is disgusted by the hostile atmosphere in Czechoslovakia.
    • Kundera steps back from Mirek's story to give some background—and to tell us something about revising history.
    • Kundera opens by listing atrocities that have happened in the recent past. He notes that each one is quickly forgotten when the next horrible thing happens. Sound familiar?
    • Kundera gives some background about the coup in 1948 that brought the Communists to power in Czechoslovakia. Intellectuals were pretty pleased with this turn of events.
    • The reason that the opponents of Communism lost? They had no vision. No great plan. Communism, on the other hand, offered a kind of utopian vision for society to those who could get on board.
    • But not everyone wanted to go with this change. Those who tried to flee were seen as enemies of the state and were imprisoned. There were lots of them.
    • In the end, those idealistic intellectuals who supported the Communist takeover began to see that maybe they'd done the wrong thing. Their beautiful ideal had turned into a monster.
    • Back to Mirek. He leaves his mechanic friend to continue his journey to Zdena.
    • The strange car immediately follows Mirek again.
    • Mirek realizes that he's really screwed up by not hiding those papers that might put his friends in danger. He knows that his story is pretty much coming to a close.
    • Mirek remembers breaking up with Zdena. After this, he hooked up with and married a beautiful woman.
    • And after he is widowed, Mirek becomes even more interesting to women.
    • Things are going smoothly for Mirek, who, as a scientist, is pretty much above the wrath of the state. Until he isn't. When he won't play nice with the Russians, he loses his job.
    • But that doesn't stop Mirek. He kind of loves the tragic story that his life is turning into.
    • Mirek loves his destiny, which seems to be a thing separate from himself. Kundera says that Mirek approaches his own life as an artist would his work, as something to be perfected.
    • And that's where Zdena comes in.
    • In order to make the story of his life read like a great novel, Mirek has to edit Zdena out of the narrative.
    • Kundera wants to tell us why Zdena is such a problem for Mirek. It could be that she's a supporter of the Russian Communists.
    • That's a drag, but it's not the major problem.
    • The major problem is that Zdena is ugly. For real. Fugz.
    • Zdena's basicness bothers Mirek because in his mind, having been with an ugly woman makes his chances of hooking up with a hottie pretty slim.
    • Women apparently like to be with men who have dated beautiful women. Who knew?
    • But Zdena always brings up their relationship in public, and there is no way that Mirek can revise the past to his liking.
    • So why did Mirek stay with Zdena so long when he was a young man? He tells his friends that Zdena was in with the Communist Party, and he was a social climber. Ugliness didn't matter back then.
    • Kundera steps in to keep Mirek from lying to us.
    • According to Kundera, Mirek didn't stay with Zdena because he was a social climber. He stayed with her because he didn't think pretty women would go for him.
    • Mirek recalls another time that he and Zdena had sex. He was trying really hard to impress her after she'd told him he made love like an intellectual. From the descriptions, he didn't succeed.
    • Mirek would like to erase all of these facts from his memory—and from the story of his life.
    • Kundera lapses into memories of 1968—the "Prague Spring," when Czechs got a breather from repressive Communism.
    • Though the Russians strategically retreated, they had no intention of staying away permanently. On Aug. 21, Russia sent a huge number of troops into Bohemia and crushed the rebellion.
    • But that's a lot of ugliness to support the beautiful Communist "idyll," so the whole episode gets swept under the carpet—Aug. 21 isn't exactly a national holiday.
    • Kundera tells us that the Russians were all about revising history. Those intellectuals who had a change of heart and helped oust the Russians in the first place? It's like they never existed.
    • Including Mirek.
    • Mirek finally makes it to Zdena's apartment, despite the thugs tailing him.
    • Zdena doesn't get why Mirek has come. But she does know that he's in trouble with the authorities. She advises him to make nice with the government and ask for mercy.
    • Mirek is familiar with this route, but he's not willing to sell out. He's not going to renounce his anti-Communist statements on national TV just to get his life back. He wants a cooler life story.
    • Zdena is acting shady, and now Mirek understands: she's working for the Man. She's there to convince him to surrender to the authorities.
    • Is Mirek really interpreting Zdena's actions correctly?
    • Kundera says no.
    • Mirek suddenly understands that he's been flattering himself. Zdena really wants him to save himself.
    • Suddenly, Mirek wonders if he's misinterpreted all of Zdena's actions. Like her loyalty to the party. It wasn't because she loved Communism; it was all for Mirek.
    • Kundera imagines exactly how this strange reaction to love for Mirek would have played out for Zdena, especially when the Russians returned to Bohemia.
    • Then, Mirek tells Zdena why he's really there: he wants all his old love letters back.
    • Zdena says that she's recently re-read those letters, and that she was surprised by the amount of emotion in them. That is not what Mirek wants to hear.
    • Mirek tries to convince himself that his love letters to Zdena were sentimental because he was trying hard to be in love with her.
    • But Zdena reminds Mirek of an inconvenient truth—he's expressed lots of sentiments that he wouldn't like to be connected with. It seems that Mirek had been a budding Communist back when the two of them were together.
    • Zdena concedes that Mirek was a different person back in the day, but Mirek can only think about destroying those letters and rewriting that part of his history.
    • Zdena wants to know what Mirek intends to do with the love letters. He says that he's getting old and wants to read them so that he will know the truth about their past.
    • Lies.
    • But Zdena isn't fooled. She refuses to hand over the letters.
    • Mirek hates that Zdena has this part of his life in her hands. He contemplates bludgeoning her to death with a heavy object and stealing them back.
    • Mirek points out the two secret policemen who have followed him to Zdena's apartment, but she refuses to believe that he's being followed. Mirek thinks that's because she's one of them.
    • Mirek and Zdena say goodbye, and Mirek is totally certain that he never wants to see Zdena again.
    • Zdena, contrary to what Mirek thinks, is really panicked over the appearance of the secret police. She knows that Mirek's fate is out of her control.
    • As luck would have it, Mirek is able to give the secret police the slip on the way back to his apartment. He slows down and looks at everything as he passes by.
    • Mirek asks himself a hard question: why did he go to see Zdena when he could have been burning his own letters and diaries?
    • Mirek understands that there was nothing rational about the trip. He just wanted the chance to change his past by destroying those love letters.
    • Mirek stops at a railroad crossing to wait for a train, and he sees a village with a house in it.
    • The house at the railroad station reminds Mirek of a place where he stayed for summer vacations as a young man.
    • Mirek remembers meeting Zdena in that place. And then the truth comes out: Mirek had loved Zdena.
    • More than that, Mirek and Zdena shared a love for Communist ideals. They even denounced people to the government to support that love.
    • And then we get another big revelation: Mirek himself is no better than the Communist Party he's come to hate. Like the party people, he wants to revise history to make himself look better. Womp womp.
    • Kundera observes that people (and governments) only want power so that they can change the past—erase it completely, if it suits them.
    • But Mirek is only affected by these revelations for about a second. He drives on and wipes the memory from his mind. He's on a mission to create the perfect ending to his life story.
    • It doesn't even matter that Mirek shook off the secret police who had been following him all day. By the time he gets home, they are waiting for him.
    • Mirek's upset son is also waiting for him. (He thought his dad's trip was bonkers.)
    • The police upended the apartment, looking for Mirek's papers. And they find them.
    • One of the searchers tells Mirek that keeping those damning papers meant that he wasn't a very good friend since a lot of people are now going to get in trouble.
    • But Mirek doesn't seem upset by the thought of going to prison. In fact, it's a better ending for his life narrative.
    • That's because it's easier to erase the memory of people who emigrate or fade away from public life. News of Mirek's imprisonment will linger for a long time.
    • Also, Mirek loves the idea of being a blot on the Communist "idyll." If he's going down, he's going to take a little bit of the tyranny with him.
    • In the end, Mirek gets six years in prison, and his son gets two. Ten of his friends are imprisoned as well, based on "incriminating" evidence found in the papers Mirek failed to destroy.
  • Part II

    Mama

    • Marketa and her husband, Karel, find themselves in the position of a lot of newlyweds: they have to deal with a parent neither one of them really likes.
    • In this case, it's Mama, Karel's mother. Marketa and Karel decide it's best to move as far away from Mama as humanly possible, even though she has been widowed and lives alone.
    • As time goes on, Marketa feels a little sorry for Mama and begins to write to her regularly.
    • But even though Marketa and Karel now see Mama as harmless and a bit pathetic, they still don't want her living with them. They decide instead to invite her to stay for a week.
    • Marketa and Karel have a scheduling conflict: Eva is due to stay with them at the end of Mama's week, and they definitely don't want Eva and Mama to meet.
    • Marketa and Karel tell Mama that they have to be somewhere on that day, so she'll have to leave early.
    • Mama seems fine with that, but the night before she's supposed to shove off, she tells Marketa that she's not leaving until the day after.
    • Marketa is unhappy, but she feels that Mama won't be in the way when Eva gets there.
    • Karel isn't really upset that Mama is staying longer than he had expected. She seems less horrible than before, and she also seems totally defenseless and sad.
    • We learn that Mama has always had a problem with perception—she worries about getting in the pear harvest instead of worrying about the Russian tanks destroying their land—but now her vision is literally bad.
    • Mama has also stopped caring so much about Karel's and Marketa's lives. She really couldn't care less about what's up with them these days.
    • Now, Mama just seems fragile and old, not worried at all about playing the role of mom anymore.
    • So Eva arrives, and we get some of the backstory on her—at least, from Marketa's point of view.
    • Marketa met Eva in the sauna at a spa six years earlier.
    • Marketa thinks that she doesn't normally like her husband's girlfriends (you read that right), but she considers Eva her friend since she met Eva first. She was charmed by the beautiful woman at the spa.
    • We learn that Eva considers herself a "man-chaser," a woman who pursues men the way that men pursue women—for lust and companionship (her words, not ours).
    • It's clear from the beginning that the two women dig each other. Marketa especially loves the way Eva praises her body.
    • But now, Mama has overstayed her welcome and might be spoiling Marketa and Karel's "alone time" with Eva.
    • Eva's chill about it and says that she doesn't mind the extra company.
    • Mama is pleased that she pulled off her scheme to stay with Karel and Marketa a day longer. She's also happy to meet this cousin of Marketa's. Also, Eva reminds her of someone.
    • Eva does a great job engaging Mama in conversation, asking her all about her youth.
    • Mama remembers being a schoolgirl and reciting a poem when the Austrian empire came to an end. She had forgotten the last stanza, but the audience hadn't realized that she'd messed up.
    • Karel challenges Mama's memory, saying that she graduated while the empire was still intact.
    • Karel's challenge makes Mama sad and grouchy because she knows that he's totally right.
    • But whatever, Mama's not going to admit it publicly, so she retreats to her room.
    • Now, we get the Eva story from Karel's point of view—and it's quite a bit different from Marketa's version.
    • It turns out that Karel met Eva years before Eva managed to meet Marketa in the sauna.
    • Eva had sent a letter to Karel stating that she was a man-chaser and was kinda hot for him. Karel thought she was kidding but decided to check it out, anyway. He invited her to a friend's apartment.
    • Eva is a bit awkward at this stage, and Karel thinks she's too determined in the way she declares her freedom from socially acceptable female behavior.
    • It's not long before Karel asks Eva to strip, and she tries her best to do this erotically—to classical music.
    • It doesn't really work. Eva is painfully awkward.
    • Yeah, but when she's totally naked, Eva turns her back to Karel and begins to masturbate. Hey, it's right there in the book, folks.
    • Let's just say that Karel is impressed.
    • Karel's also impressed that Eva doesn't mind Marketa. She understands that "chasing" is a personality trait and has nothing to do with a spouse.
    • Eva tells Karel she will help him out in any way she can.
    • Meanwhile, back in the present time, Mama is in her room at the other end of the apartment. Eva tries to relieve the awkwardness of the situation by chatting with Karel and Marketa.
    • Karel and Marketa learn that Eva's gotten married and has a new job—and that the new job demands that she leave them bright and early the next day.
    • Marketa is annoyed that Mama is spoiling her time with Eva.
    • Then, Karel gets a phone call from one of his lovers, who wants to make an appointment to see him.
    • This phone call does not improve Marketa's mood.
    • We learn that Marketa and Karel have a kind of unspoken "contract": Karel has never had any intention of being faithful, and Marketa just has to suck it up. On the other hand, Marketa gets to be the better person—though somehow, that doesn't seem to be a good enough perk for Marketa these days.
    • Marketa's annoyed that she lives her entire life for Karel. She's even given up her special friend, Eva, to him, and she doesn't understand why she hadn't kept Eva for herself.
    • Marketa thinks of herself as Sisyphus, rolling his rock eternally uphill.
    • And how did Marketa get to this? In high school, she was a holy terror. And now? She can't believe her situation.
    • Marketa suddenly detests her marriage.
    • Eva finds the whole situation super awkward. She can't think of anything to bring her friends out of their funk.
    • Karel hates feeling guilty about being an unfaithful jerk; Marketa hates being the better person in their relationship.
    • Marketa, by the way, is hiding in the kitchen. Eva tries to talk her out of feeling bad, but Marketa's had it with Karel's cheating.
    • Eva has something she wants to ask Marketa, but she has to wait until evening. She tells Marketa to make up with Karel, even if she can't stand her hubby anymore.
    • Somehow, Marketa is able to follow Eva's advice, and the three of them start celebrating. They now really hope that Mama is sleeping so they can get the party started.
    • Marketa and Eva go into the bathroom together to prep themselves.
    • Karel, however, has no great hopes for the evening. He remembers the first time that Marketa had suggested they participate in a threesome—and how disastrous it was.
    • Karel felt that it was too much work, having to meet the demands of two women. And then there was the jealousy of the women, who wanted equal attention from him.
    • Karel wants to think Marketa is more depraved than he is (because she apparently needs to have orgies to feel fulfilled), but hey, there was that "contract" between them. He has to always be the worse one, according to that contract.
    • In fact, the reason Karel "introduced" Eva to Marketa was that if the ladies got along, there would be no need for jealousy or bad feelings.
    • On the other hand, Karel knew that he couldn't change Marketa's dim view of his behavior. He also feels like Sisyphus.
    • Karel feels sorry for himself: he can never do what he wants (or with whomever he wants). Boohoo.
    • Too much love is apparently killing the poor man—and now he wants to be alone.
    • Back to Mama—who actually isn't asleep at this time. She finally remembers who Eva reminds her of: an old, beautiful friend called Nora.
    • Mama doesn't have a favorable memory of Nora, but Eva seems like a nice girl, so she's glad to be reminded of the past.
    • Mama tries to work out the problem of her spotty memory, especially the thing about the school poem. She figures out a way to correct her original story without losing face.
    • Now, Mama's excited to tell her new story (and to tell about Nora), but she hears the ladies in the bathroom and thinks that they're getting ready for bed. She has to hurry if she wants to speak with them.
    • Karel is actually pleased by Mama's ill-timed return to the living room. Eva steps out of the bathroom wearing only a T-shirt that doesn't cover much. And Marketa? She's only wearing beads and a sash on her waist. Eek.
    • Mama acts like nothing weird is going on. She tells everyone the corrected version of her school poem story.
    • Karel is loving every minute of this because it's making the ladies squirm. He asks Mama to recite her poem, and she does. Applause from Eva.
    • Then, Mama tells Karel that Eva reminds her of their old friend, Nora.
    • Karel has no problem remembering the beautiful Nora from his childhood. She was clearly Karel's first encounter with erotic feelings.
    • Karel makes Eva stand up in her totally inadequate T-shirt and turn around so that he can check the resemblance. It puts her in an awkward position.
    • Kundera reminds us that Mama's vision is really poor—thankfully.
    • But Karel is trying to see Eva the way that Mama used to see things—out of perspective. He wants to see Nora when he looks at her. And he does: he sees naked Nora in the changing room of a spa with her back to him. (Remember that first meeting with Eva?)
    • Karel dismisses Mama from the living room (the ladies want to sleep, blah blah blah). He's really aroused when he looks at Eva's back and remembers Nora.
    • When Mama leaves, Karel pounces on Eva. He imagines that he's also leaping through space and time to have sex with Nora.
    • And so Karel gets his orgy, moving between Eva/Nora and his wife, Marketa. When he stops to rest, the illusion of Nora melts away.
    • Karel sees Marketa and Eva as they are and feels like a triumphant chess player who has played well on two chessboards.
    • Deep in his fantasy, Karel starts screaming about how he's Bobby Fischer. Not weird at all.
    • Now for the women's point of view. Eva and Marketa hold each other while Karel is congratulating himself on his sexual prowess.
    • Eva asks Marketa if she will consent to her plan, and Marketa says yes. Eva wants Marketa to come visit her at her house—without Karel.
    • Marketa first thought she would refuse, but then Karel got up to his weird antics while lovemaking, and then a light bulb went off in her head: Karel has turned it all into a game—like a masked ball, where their identities are hidden.
    • Suddenly, Marketa doesn't have to be the "better one" in the relationship.
    • Marketa has this insight because she's able to "remove" Karel's head from his body.
    • We're talking mentally here; this isn't a David Lynch flick.
    • Marketa focuses on Eva's face while Karel's body does its thing. And this works because there's no past with a headless body. She can forget all the wrongs that Karel has done to her.
    • Karel's stupid yelling at the end of it all reinforces for Marketa that she loves Eva for herself—which is why she said she would go to visit Eva by herself.
    • In the morning, Marketa takes Eva to the train station. Now she's not so sure about visiting Eva on her own; she doesn't want to "ruin" things with Karel.
    • But Eva explains: Karel won't mind because he understands that he's the worse one. He'll never suspect Marketa of anything.
    • Karel is on cloud nine in the morning, thinking about his bedroom antics of the night before.
    • Karel drives Mama to the train station and, as before, she starts complaining about Karel and Marketa's past poor treatment of her. But nothing can touch Karel now.
    • Also, Mama is showing her age. She looks so small and defenseless.
    • Karel asks what happened to Nora. Mama tells him that they'd stopped being friends ages ago.
    • Now, Karel is revising history for himself, imagining the young Nora and his present self together, despite time and space.
    • Karel asks Mama to come and live with him and Marketa. Mama's happy to have the offer, but she's not biting anymore.
    • Instead, Karel hands Mama some money, as if she were a child, and puts her on the train.
  • Part III

    The Angels

    • Kundera now focuses on Gabrielle and Michelle, American girls studying abroad in France.
    • The girls' teacher, Madame Raphael, assigns them an oral report on Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros.
    • By the way, the girls—and their teacher—have the names of archangels.
    • Back to the project, Michelle and Gabrielle are stumped. They have no idea why everyone in the play turns into rhinoceroses.
    • Michelle figures out that the rhinoceros must be a symbol or sign for something—but the girls have to figure out the meaning.
    • Gabrielle decides that the rhino horn must be a phallic symbol. Michelle doesn't understand why the women would also turn into rhinos if this is the case.
    • Michelle finally comes up with an ingenious solution: the rhinos must be there for comedic purposes
    • The girls are so pleased with themselves that they squeal with frightening laughter.
    • Kundera goes on about the nature of laughter. He quotes a long passage from Annie Leclerc's Parole de femme about laughter. It's pretty, well, laughable. And Kundera intends it to be.
    • Laughter, Leclerc says, is sensual—it's part of living life deeply. If you've heard of laughter yoga, you know what this is about. You don't have to be happy—you just fake it till you make it.
    • Kundera sees Leclerc's ideas as an opposition to male sexuality (violent and fleeting) and an ode to the feminine (prolonged sensual pleasure, gentle).
    • Leclerc sees all aspects of human existence—even the icky bits, like pooping—as sensual experiences that should give pleasure.
    • Laughter is the height of pleasure, and a person doesn't really need a reason to laugh. You just have to feel joyful at being. Kundera says you only need to be without memory or desire.
    • It's a great philosophy, maybe, but Kundera is aware that commerce has co-opted this philosophy of joy and turned it into a cliché. The real thing is all about people who are serious about their joie de vivre.
    • Now, we turn back to Michelle and Gabrielle, who are engaging in some serious laughter as they gather supplies for their report on Rhinoceros.
    • The girls are totally certain that Madame Raphael will love their work.
    • Kundera tells a story about his own life after the Russian occupation of Bohemia in 1968. He's lost his job, and no one in his right mind will have anything to do with him—except for a young woman called R., who is willing to risk the wrath of the secret police to help a dissident like Kundera.
    • R. works as an editor at a magazine for young people and offers Kundera the opportunity to write horoscopes in an astrology column. The author will remain anonymous, of course.
    • R. will tell her bosses that the author is a nuclear physicist who dabbled in astrology but was too ashamed to attach his name to his work for fear of ridicule by his colleagues.
    • Kundera doesn't get much pay, but things go so well that the editor-in-chief wants to pay him lots of money to write a horoscope specifically for him. But since that's not a very good Marxist thing to do, the chief wants to keep all of this on the DL.
    • Kundera gets a good price for his work.
    • R. tells Kundera about her boss's failings, and with that, he writes the horoscope. He words it in such a way that the chief sees doom in his future if he doesn't change his ways.
    • R. reports that her boss has changed for the better after reading his horoscope and seems sad that his horoscope has essentially doomed him.
    • Kundera challenges what we think we know about angels and Satan. He doesn't believe that angels are warriors for Good; he thinks that they are really around to protect "divine creation."
    • The devil is around just to deny the meaning of divine creation. Kundera says that the world depends on a balance between the powers of the angels and the powers of the devil.
    • Laughter belongs to the devil because laughter happens when the meaning of things is subverted.
    • Kundera reaches way back to tell the story of the first time an angel heard the devil laughing. He didn't know what to make of it, but he could see that it was contagious.
    • Since the angel understood that the laughter was somehow sacrilegious, he tried to stop it by mimicking it in a mocking way.
    • Kundera says that the angel's laughter sounded a bit like Michelle and Gabrielle's laughter.
    • So, while the devil meant to mock the absurdity of order, the angel's laughter rejoiced over how awesome the divine order of the universe really is.
    • The devil seems to win this one, though, because he laughs even harder at the absurdity of a laughing angel.
    • But since the different kinds of laughter are so similar, we have a hard time figuring out whether laughter itself is diabolical or divine. It's like a cosmic joke on humanity.
    • Kundera describes a photograph in which a group of young protesters dance in a ring while armed soldiers look on. The circle in which they are dancing becomes like a magic ring that binds them together in their innocence.
    • So, we have the police on one side (falsely united, predatory) and the protesters on the other (playing, dancing, holding hands in true unity).
    • Kundera says that dancing in a ring is ancient magic.
    • Madame Raphael, who is looking at this picture, obviously thinks so. She dreams of dancing in a ring, being accepted by a group of people—any group, really—to be one with.
    • Madame has tried to be one with lots of groups of people, but she's most interested in bonding with her students in this way.
    • Gabrielle and Michelle are reading Rhinoceros out loud in their room, debating about Ionesco's theory about how many paws on a cat could be real.
    • Neither of the girls can understand it, so they decide Ionesco's going for comedy. It's just meant to be funny—or maybe "absurd," if they're using their vocab.
    • The girls laugh at their own cleverness and at Ionesco's general weirdness. And Madame Raphael, who is wandering through the town, seems to hear their laughter.
    • It seems to Madame Raphael that somewhere nearby, people are laughing, creating their own magic ring dance—yet another one to which she hasn't been invited.
    • Kundera shares his own ring dance experience, way back in 1948 when the Communists first took over in his country.
    • Kundera joined in the dancing of the other Communist students whenever there was a reason to celebrate, like anniversaries or the hangings of dissenters.
    • But Kundera isn't part of that dance for long since he decides to speak out against the Communists. He's kicked out of the party.
    • Kundera is saddened by this turn of events because he realizes that once you're out of a circle, there's no getting back into it. It closes right up, and there are no breaks to let you back in.
    • Kundera describes being cut loose from the magic circle as a free fall, a feeling like waiting to be smashed to death at the end of it all. Meanwhile, he'd love to be back in the circle because that's human nature.
    • While Kundera is on the outs, he witnesses something amazing. It's the day after Milada Horakova and Zavis Kalandra were hanged, and there's dancing in the streets.
    • Kundera wanders through the dancing. He tells us that Kalandra had been friends with André Breton and Paul Éluard, but Éluard refused to write in Kalandra's defense.
    • Éluard is wrapped up in his theoretical understanding of Communism, thinking it is all about brotherhood and happiness, sunshine and buttercups. He doesn't understand the cold, hard reality of life in Czechoslovakia.
    • Kundera realizes that he's not part of the circle dancing. He's really more closely related to the gallows—and that's just depressing.
    • Kundera sees Éluard dancing in front of him, reciting poetry. And finally, in their ecstasy, Éluard and his fellow dancers stomp hard on the ground and lift off into the sky.
    • The flying dancers occupy the same sky as the smoke from the crematorium incinerating Kalandra and Horakova, but Éluard and his followers are oblivious.
    • Yet Kundera doesn't resent these people. He wishes he could be one with them, but he realizes that he's falling while they rise.
    • Here's one way to come down from the euphoria of the great Communist ring dance: the Russian crackdown that saw tens of thousands denounced as enemies of the state.
    • Kundera is one of these enemies of the state, and he's writing that astrology column anonymously to keep from starving to death.
    • Kundera gets a letter from R. saying that they've been discovered. He has to meet her secretly at a friend's apartment to discuss what to do.
    • When Kundera gets to the apartment and rings the bell, nobody answers. After wandering around a bit, he returns and tries again. He hears the sound of a toilet flushing inside and understands.
    • R. is there waiting for him, but her nervous stomach keeps her running to the bathroom—and so she's unable to open the door for him.
    • When Kundera finally meets R., she explains that she's been interrogated by the secret police. She dodges them for the most part, but they already know.
    • The secret police ask R. if she knows Kundera. They tell her to stop lying about the nuclear physicist and the astrology column.
    • Confident that she hasn't violated any law, R. tells the policemen the truth. They tell her that she's not supposed to work with an enemy of the state.
    • R. has to sign a statement, and then she's set free. But her editor-in-chief fires her two days later. And now, she can't get a job anywhere, not even at places that had offered her one before.
    • Kundera assures R. that they can't know about the tidy sum he's gotten from the editor-in-chief for casting his horoscope. (The chief would never let that leak out.)
    • R. laughs at this statement, and Kundera is pleased. She is the only one in that time who could properly laugh at the irony of the situation since they have to be so secretive about it.
    • R. and Kundera work out a strategy for answering the secret police at future interrogations, but R. can't control her urge to go to the bathroom—and she's embarrassed by it.
    • Michelle and Gabrielle finally get to give their presentation on Rhinoceros. They're standing in front of the class with homemade paper rhinoceros horns over their noses. They laugh.
    • Madame Raphael is pleased and laughs that scary laugh with them. Their classmates are kind of embarrassed for them.
    • But there's one student who feels differently. Her name is Sarah, and Kundera tells us that she's Jewish.
    • Sarah had asked to borrow the girls' notes one day, and they refused. Since then, she's been waiting for revenge.
    • While the girls read their analysis of the play, Sarah walks up and gives Michelle a great kick in the butt—and then does the same to Gabrielle.
    • The girls start to cry. Madame Raphael thinks it's part of the presentation. She begins to laugh, and Michelle and Gabrielle think that she's laughing at them. The tears fall faster.
    • But Madame thinks that the girls' convulsions are a dance—and she's so ready to be part of a dance. While she spazzes with laughter, she gets up and grabs the girls by their hands.
    • All are in tears (from laughter, from sadness), but Madame Raphael begins to dance. The three turn in a ring on the floor, and the girls go from crying to laughing.
    • The rest of the class is kind of horrified, but it doesn't matter to the three dancers. They're totally into the pleasure of their little dance.
    • Soon, the dancers are floating above the ground. The ceiling opens to let them float up into the sky. Remember, the girls still have their rhino horns on.
    • Madame Raphael, Michelle, and Gabrielle disappear into the heavens, three archangels laughing their heads off.
    • It's back to Kundera and R. in the borrowed apartment. Kundera realizes that he can't be around people without hurting them. He realizes that it's time to leave his country.
    • Kundera reflects on his "relationship" with R. Up until now, he's had no sexual thoughts of her whatsoever; he's only considered her intelligence and professionalism. Honest.
    • But now, as R. is being tormented and laid bare by the secret police, Kundera is aroused in the most bizarre way. In fact, he wants to rape R. We can't make this stuff up.
    • It all has something to do with her hidden self: behind her intellect, her position, and her polished clothing, there's a woman with lots of feelings. All the feels.
    • Kundera thinks that the only way to get at the essence of R. is to take that essence by violence. Um.
    • Yeah, anyway, the more R. seems to be suffering, the more Kundera wants to rape her. Yet there's a part of him that realizes this is a no-go (thankfully) because it's absurd and wrong.
    • Kundera leaves but can't shake that desire to rape R. for a while. He understands that it's incomprehensible—but he's going to try to explain it to himself, anyway.
    • Kundera feels that perhaps his desire to rape R. has to do with wanting to catch her as she falls from grace.
    • Kundera feels that he's falling farther, too—away from that splendid ring dance of his country, to a place where angel laughter will torment him.
    • Kundera feels like he's kin to Sarah, the girl who tried to kick at the absurdity of Michelle and Gabrielle but got one-upped in the end.
  • Part IV

    Lost Letters

    • Kundera introduces us to 33-year-old Tamina—waitress in Western Europe, former resident of Prague.
    • Customers—what few of them there are—love Tamina because she knows how to listen. She never, ever talks about herself.
    • Tamina doesn't engage in the kind of competitive convos that most of us do. You know, the kind when one person tells something about him- or herself, and the other butts in to tell about a similar experience.
    • Bibi is a customer at the café where Tamina works. She tells Tamina that she's been planning to go to Prague that summer on vacay with her hubby.
    • Suddenly, Tamina is interested in the conversation—there's something she wants Bibi to pick up for her in Prague.
    • Bibi agrees to help and then tells Tamina that she's going to write a book. Since Tamina wants to stay on Bibi's good side, she encourages her to talk about it.
    • Bibi says she wants to meet Banaka, a local author who might be able to help her get started on her new project.
    • Tamina phones her mother-in-law, who lives back in Czechoslovakia. Mom-in-law is irritated because Tamina never calls, but the phone rates are super expensive for Tamina.
    • Tamina asks her mother-in-law to retrieve a parcel that her late husband, Pavel, had locked in his father's desk drawer.
    • Mom-in-law doesn't want to comply unless she knows Tamina's motive. She starts to cry. As moms-in-law do.
    • Tamina can only see dollar signs: this call's going to be expensive.
    • Tamina promises to call her mother-in-law again soon, but by the time she hangs up, she has spent most of her disposable income for that payday.
    • We get some backstory on Tamina and her husband, Pavel. They left Bohemia on the sly, bolting for the West while on a state-sanctioned vacay to Yugoslavia.
    • But because they were doing something illegal, Tamina and Pavel tried to draw as little attention to themselves as possible—and that meant leaving most of their belongings behind in Prague.
    • The parcel in her father-in-law's desk holds letters between Tamina and her husband, along with some of Tamina's personal notebooks.
    • Pavel dies after he and Tamina emigrate, and Tamina has his ashes scattered because she doesn't know where she'll wind up. All she really has left are her memories of their life together. And that's fine—until she begins to forget important details. Over time, everything has begun to fade.
    • Tamina practices visualization techniques to keep the memory of her husband's face strong. But the details slip away.
    • Tamina even uses the faces of men in her daily life to strengthen her powers of recollection: she practices turning their faces into Pavel's face. Mentally, of course.
    • While they were married, Pavel wanted Tamina to keep a diary of their life together, but she resisted. How could she forget something that she loved so much? That's what she thought, anyway.
    • So Tamina didn't do a good job of keeping up those notebooks—and now, she regrets it.
    • We get some more of Tamina's backstory. She and her husband lived in Bohemia for 11 years. She had left behind 11 notebooks at her mom-in-law's house—one for every year that she and her husband were together. When he died, Tamina decided to recreate the notebooks from memory.
    • But it turns out that Tamina's memory of those days is pretty spotty. While she half-remembers things, she can't always remember when they happened.
    • Tamina thinks that remembering her vacations with Pavel (one every year) will help her piece things together, but two of them are completely missing from her memory.
    • Tamina even tries to recall all the pet names that her husband gave her—new ones cropped up over time—but she can't.
    • Why is it so important for Tamina to remember her time with her husband? Kundera says it's because the past is all she has. It's the only thing that defines and anchors her.
    • Without the past, she has only the present—and there's not much for her there.
    • Tamina hasn't asked for her mom-in-law to send her the notebooks by mail because she fears that the secret police will intercept them. After all, she and Pavel did leave the country illegally.
    • Tamina needs her friend Bibi to physically retrieve the notebooks for her, so Tamina decides to do something that will keep her on Bibi's friend list.
    • Tamina wants to help Bibi along with her book-writing project by introducing her to the local author, Banaka. Tamina asks another customer, Hugo, about Banaka's books.
    • But Hugo tells Tamina that Banaka is not the best role model for an author. His books stink. Tamina decides that Bibi doesn't really need to read Banaka's books—a meeting should be enough.
    • Tamina arranges the meeting through a philosophy professor who knows Banaka. Tamina knows the professor because she lends him her apartment so that he can carry on an affair.
    • Bibi is excited about meeting Banaka and thinks that perhaps Tamina can hook up with the author if he's sexy enough.
    • Bibi's comment about Tamina possibly hooking up with Banaka leads to some important info about Tamina's love life: she hasn't had a lover since her husband died.
    • It's not that Tamina thinks that her dead husband will be angry with her from someplace in the afterlife (because she doesn't believe in all that). She just knows that no matter who she's with, she'll always imagine that she's with her husband.
    • Tamina also feels that being with a new man now—when her husband can't defend his past claim to her—is somehow wrong. She knows this is weird, but she can't help it.
    • So, whenever she thinks about making love to someone else, the image of her husband returns to haunt her.
    • Thankfully for Tamina, Banaka is hideous. He's also not charismatic in any way.
    • Banaka visits with Bibi and Tamina at Tamina's apartment and tries to discuss the book that Bibi plans to write. But of course, Bibi has no idea—or, at least, she's super vague about it.
    • Banaka convinces Bibi that she's not really interested in writing a novel. (Who has time to develop all those characters?)
    • Banaka claims that the only proper kind of writing involves truthful reporting of the author's point of view. Everything else is lies and illusion.
    • It doesn't matter that Bibi has nothing special to offer by way of experience or original thought, claims Banaka.
    • Bibi ecstatically agrees with everything that ugly Banaka has to say, and Tamina is pleased that everything is going so well. Bibi is sure to help her get her notebooks now.
    • Bibi ends the discussion by claiming to have so much to say that she feels like she's going to burst—and then she makes the mistake of praising Banaka's books, which are awful.
    • Back to Kundera. He tells the story of meeting a taxi driver in Paris who had been a sailor. And of course, the driver-sailor is writing his life story—but not for the sake of his children or family. He thinks that telling his story might help other people.
    • Kundera has an epiphany: writers write because their own wives and children aren't interested in them. They have to make their life story valuable to other people instead.
    • Kundera says that the taxi driver is a "graphomaniac": he's driven to write books for an anonymous audience.
    • Kundera says that graphomania becomes a real social problem under certain conditions. For example, when people 1) have time for useless activities, 2) feel isolated, and 3) live in a nation without social upheaval.
    • Sadly, graphomania makes isolation worse. Kundera says that while the printing press used to make us feel more connected to each other, graphomania is a buzzkill.
    • Instead of opening us up to the ideas of others, graphomania suffocates us in our own thoughts and words. No one can get a word in edgewise.
    • Anyway, Hugo decides he has a thing for Tamina, even though he knows he's doomed to failure with her. But that doesn't stop him from trying—he asks her out on a date.
    • Tamina has a lot on her mind: she has to convince her mom-in-law to hand over her notebooks to her father, who will have to travel to pick them up. This will take a lot of telephone diplomacy, and that's expensive. So when Hugo asks Tamina over for lunch, she sees an opportunity: Hugo has a telephone.
    • Hugo tries hard to impress Tamina. He drives her to the zoo to see the animals.
    • Tamina is taken by six noiseless ostriches that move their beaks like they're actually talking. It kind of breaks Tamina's heart—and makes her feel like the ostriches are trying to warn her about something.
    • While Tamina is freaked out by the distressing behavior of the ostriches, Hugo explains it away: they're young. They always do that.
    • Tamina tells Hugo about her notebooks and about how Bibi is going to carry them over the border for her. Hugo wonders if the notebooks have any political content.
    • Tamina doesn't know how to explain why she fears the secret police opening her notebooks, so she just tells Hugo that they are political in nature.
    • Hugo advises Tamina not to tell Bibi that she's going to be carrying sensitive documents. She should think she's carrying something insignificant, like love letters.
    • Hugo has no idea how close to the truth he's come with that description. Tamina is pretty miffed at his thinking: how are love letters insignificant?
    • Hugo redeems himself by offering to fetch them if Bibi fails to do it.
    • At Hugo's house, Tamina makes a call to her mom-in-law about the notebooks, but she gets nowhere. Mom-in-law insists that Tamina never gave her the key to the desk.
    • Kundera says that Tamina should just go back and retrieve her notebooks herself. She's not important enough to attract the attention of the secret police.
    • But Tamina thinks that she can't go back because it would be a betrayal of her husband: they left because he'd been denounced by his own countrymen. Pavel had gotten on the wrong side of the government (so easy to do), and pretty soon, he'd been demoted at his job. Even his friends wouldn't go near him out of fear.
    • For Tamina, going back to Czechoslovakia would be like forgiving all the former friends and colleagues who had turned their backs on Pavel.
    • Tamina remembers the flight from Bohemia and her first morning waking up as a free person. It was completely silent in the little Alpine village where she and Pavel had landed.
    • After Pavel died, Tamina tried to contact some friends with the news, but no one responded. She took a trip to the seaside and tried to drown herself—but it didn't work.
    • Tamina reached a kind of peace with her life then, but it was a tough truce. She decided to retreat within herself.
    • Tamina is hanging out with Bibi and some friends at Bibi's house. They are watching a creepy author on TV talk about his latest book, which has to do with his sex life.
    • Everybody gets hooked on the author's discussion of orgasms and starts to discuss the importance of them. The writer goes on about his early life, as written in the book.
    • Tamina breaks away to use Bibi's telephone.
    • Tamina calls her father and tries to convince him to pick up her notebooks from her mom-in-law. Problem? He doesn't like Tamina's mother-in-law.
    • Her dad tries to convince Tamina to take a fur coat that he's been saving for her instead. Much better than some old notebooks, right?
    • Dad tells Tamina to get her brother to go out there and pick up the parcel for her. Tamina realizes that this is a good idea and asks her father to do the phoning for her.
    • Tamina's dad never liked Pavel, and she worries that he might have done something to harm the notebooks that were a chronicle of her married life.
    • Tamina understands that the notebooks are only important to her if she has exclusive rights over them—she can't bear the thought of any hostile person looking into them.
    • Bibi casually drops a bomb on Tamina: her husband has decided that they are not going to Prague for vacation. Tamina's hopes for her notebooks vanish.
    • When Tamina goes to sleep, she dreams of those freaky ostriches. She has a golden ring in her mouth and has to keep it shut, or she'll lose it.
    • What's with the golden ring, anyway? Well, Kundera is going to tell us. He gets it from a work by Thomas Mann called Death in Venice. There, the ring is related to death, specifically to a deathly ill young man. This character rents rooms from an old woman and hears a sound that reminds him of a "golden ring falling into a silver basin."
    • Kundera interprets that sound to emphasize silence; the sound makes the silence beautiful. Kundera links beauty to silence: in order to perceive it, we need silence.
    • This is the silence that Tamina experienced when she first woke up in a free country. She also experienced it in the sea when she tried to kill herself.
    • And this is why Kundera puts that golden ring into Tamina's mouth in the dream.
    • Tamina is horribly upset by those mute ostriches because she thinks they are trying to warn her of something.
    • But Kundera says no: they just want to tell her about themselves. He links this back to the desire of people to write their life stories for others to read—to that isolating graphomania.
    • Banaka shows up at Tamina's café drunk as a skunk. He's having a pity party because he's had a bad review of his books. He tells Tamina that he doesn't exist.
    • Kundera explains this claim of non-existence: when a man writes, he becomes his own universe. When someone intrudes on this universe, that person destroys it.
    • That's exactly what Tamina feels about her notebooks. If an outsider looks at them, that person will devalue them. It would ruin everything that Tamina feels about those writings.
    • Kundera says that a writer is either everything or nothing. Nothing in-between. And since no one can be everything...well, you get the drift.
    • Kundera says that everyone wants to be a writer, and everybody has the potential. Also, everyone wants to convert their experiences into words before they die so that these experiences aren't lost.
    • And yet, by turning ourselves into people with something to say, we become deaf to others. It's a tragic paradox.
    • Tamina realizes that Hugo is now the only one who can get her notebooks for her. Hugo really wants to impress her (translation: sleep with her), so he keeps trying.
    • Hugo shows Tamina an article that he's had published in a magazine. He talks and talks about his work, trying to impress. Tamina does that thing where she tries to turn his face into her husband's.
    • Hugo's not sure how to interpret Tamina's stare, but it makes him nervous.
    • But Hugo's bad breath breaks Tamina's concentration, and she loses the image of her husband. Hugo's just Hugo again.
    • Hugo repeats his promise to go to Prague and retrieve Tamina's notebooks.
    • Tamina's father has got her brother to agree to pick up her notebooks from her mother-in-law and take them to Prague.
    • Hugo tells Tamina that she can use his phone whenever she wants to call her family in Bohemia. He also tells her that he knows they'll never have sex. But still, he likes being with her.
    • And that declaration doesn't stop Hugo from trying to put the moves on Tamina. She doesn't try to escape, but she's clearly not into it.
    • Hugo is not deterred: Tamina's hesitance actually turns him on even more.
    • Tamina knew that this moment would come, so she kind of gives up. But she still sees her husband's image before her.
    • Hugo takes Tamina's silence and stillness to mean that she wants him (what?), so he's surprised to find that she's not physically aroused.
    • Though Hugo thinks things are going really well in bed with Tamina, she's about a million miles away. She's thinking about her notebooks to take her mind off the sex.
    • Tamina can tell that Hugo is getting the message that she's not into it, though it takes him a while to get it.
    • But that doesn't stop Hugo. Instead, he tries to impress Tamina with his sexual prowess. She knows what he's up to, and it's not working.
    • In the end, Hugo and Tamina both wind up thinking of other things to "get through it." Hugo, however, definitely gets more out of the experience than Tamina.
    • Tamina's brother retrieves her papers from the desk in her mom-in-law's home—which turned out to be unlocked. He takes them to their dad's house in Prague.
    • Tamina makes her brother and father promise not to read any of it—but she knows that they will. Of course.
    • It makes Tamina feel icky to think that they will know all of her intimate thoughts from back in the day, but she still wants her stuff back.
    • However, Tamina realizes that she will never be able to go back to her brother and father again. She feels shamed.
    • Hugo is disappointed with his sexual encounters with Tamina. He knows that even though she can't deny him, she's not really his.
    • Hugo tells Tamina that he wants to write a book about their love. Tamina stares at him the way that she does when she's turning his face into her husband's in her mind. He can't take it.
    • Suddenly, Hugo hates Tamina because he feels that she's milking her tragic past. He knows that she just wants him around so that he'll get her notebooks from Prague. Now he wants to hurt her.
    • Hugo tells Tamina that his article is about power in her country, and that he can't possibly travel there without danger. Tamina tries to convince him that nobody there will read his stuff. Ouch.
    • Things don't get better between Hugo and Tamina from here on out. Hugo turns the conversation into a political stand: he had to publish his article, he says. He couldn't keep silent about injustice. Blah blah blah.
    • Tamina can't stand Hugo anymore. She actually has to run to the bathroom to puke.
    • And here's another thing: Tamina can't see her husband's body anymore. She can only visualize Hugo's private bits.
    • Tamina goes completely silent on Hugo and walks away. Tamina picks up her old life at the café and never contacts anyone in Prague again.
  • Part V

    Litost

    • Who is Kristyna?
    • Well, now that you asked...Kristyna is a mother in her 30s who's married to the butcher in her town and is also having an affair with the mechanic. And then there's this student...
    • The young student comes to town for the summer to live with his mom. Kristyna notices him checking her out.
    • But even though these two are into each other, Kristyna doesn't give in to the student right away. She wants to make it last, you know?
    • Also, dude's a learned boy, and he talks to Kristyna about things that no man has ever discussed with her—things like poetry and philosophy. It makes her feel kinda special and awed.
    • But it doesn't make Kristyna give in to the student's advances. She wants to keep the relationship on the ethereal side.
    • We learn that Kristyna has to be super careful about sex—she's been told that another pregnancy might actually be fatal to her.
    • But Kristyna can't bring herself to tell her new young boyfriend about this predicament.
    • By the end of the summer, the student hasn't got very far with his new love. Kristyna knows that she'll have to visit him in Prague—and spend the night with him there.
    • So, what is litost? It's a Czech word. The meaning gets a bit lost in translation.
    • So, instead of defining litost, Kundera gives examples. First, it's the story of the student (Kristyna's lover) who goes swimming one day with his girlfriend (a different one). She's clearly a stronger swimmer than he is, but she doesn't want to hurt his feelings. She keeps pace with him—until she just has to break out and have fun.
    • The student tries to keep up with his girlfriend but nearly drowns. He's totally humiliated, and Kundera says that he feels litost at this moment.
    • The student's response? He yells at his girlfriend and slaps her face. Badly done, young scholar. But somehow, once he's attacked her, he feels a lot better. Fantastic.
    • The second example features the same student. When his parents made him take violin lessons, he refused to follow his master's instructions. If he was criticized, he deliberately played worse to annoy his master. But then he felt litost.
    • At this point, Kundera feels he can make up a definition of litost: it's "torment created by the sight of one's own misery."
    • Love should fix this feeling, but only if the woman loved by a man is as inferior as he is. If she has abilities above and beyond his, it means that she's had a past without him. Somehow, this is not acceptable. Hey, this is Kundera's thinking—not ours.
    • Whenever a male lover is reminded that his ideas about his girl are fantasy, misery happens. And so, therefore, does litost.
    • So, once we feel litost, we feel the need for revenge. Misery loves company, right?
    • But it's not just about revenge. In order to complete the cycle of litost, our young student has to throw in a cover-up lie. For example, he tells his lady friend that he slapped her out of fear that she'd drown.
    • Girlfriend doesn't buy it and chucks the student. He's now into Kristyna because she kind of worships him. She has no intention of trying to "outswim" him in any way.
    • Now, who is Voltaire?
    • Long story short: Voltaire is one of the student's professors. Kundera gives him the name Voltaire because he shares some of the less admirable traits of the historical Voltaire.
    • Voltaire invites the student to a gathering of great minds at the Writers Club. But it also happens to be on the night when Kristyna's going to be in town.
    • The student is in a quandary. He really, really wants to hang out with the pretentious literary talent promising to be at the Writers Club, but then again, he hasn't had, uh, female company in a while. He hates himself for it, but he has to turn down Voltaire's invite.
    • Kristyna arrives in Prague to meet her lover boy—and he immediately regrets her coming. She looks like a country bumpkin amid the sophistication of the big city.
    • Dude's feeling litost big time, especially when Kristyna lights into him for inviting her to a dump of a pub. She expected to be wined and dined.
    • The student resents giving up an evening with the greatest poets of his day for a sordid fling with a woman who now doesn't look half as good as the women in Prague.
    • The student name-drops the poet of honor who was meant to be at the Writers Club that evening, and Kristyna goes wild. She knows the poet's work by heart.
    • Kristyna won't hear of the student missing such an opportunity, so she agrees to wait for him in his awful flat.
    • In exchange, the student promises to get the poet to autograph a copy of his work for Kristyna.
    • The student meets Voltaire at the Writers Club. Kundera tells us that he's remembering this episode from a great distance of space and time.
    • Kundera tells us what the fate of Voltaire will be after the Russians arrive, and it's not pretty: he'll be expelled from the university. But Kundera is reminiscing now; he's talking about the past.
    • Kundera decides to call the poet at the Writers Club Goethe and then he populates the club with other late, great poets.
    • There's Lermontov, Petrarch, Verlaine, Yesenin, and Boccaccio.
    • Just to clarify: these are not the actual poets that are present at the meeting. Kundera is nicknaming them by matching their characters to poets from the past.
    • Petrarch is chatting with Boccaccio about women—no shock there, if you're familiar with their work. Petrarch says he could go on for weeks about women and how they dominate men. Goethe says he'll only give him 10 minutes on the subject.
    • Petrarch tells the group about an incident that took place at his home the week before. One evening after his wife had taken her bath, a young girl appears and rings their bell.
    • Petrarch says that he supports a poetry club at a girls' school and that the young ladies all worship him (snort). This was one of the girls at the door.
    • Petrarch doesn't want his wife to see this girl—of course—so he quickly tells her to meet him by the cellar door. He lies to his wife and says that nobody was at the door.
    • Petrarch tells his wife that he's going to the cellar for some coal for the fire. She doesn't really buy that since he's been lying about with gallbladder trouble all day.
    • The girl says only that she has to see him. Petrarch never finds out more because his suspicious wife has followed him to the cellar.
    • In the end, Petrarch is able to tell the girl that they'll have to talk out on the street. He goes upstairs and turns on the bath, thinking it will buy him some time as it fills up.
    • Back on the street, Petrarch argues with the girl. (He never reveals the exact nature of their spat.) Petrarch tells her to come back when his wife isn't home, but she insists on seeing him.
    • Petrarch knows that the water's running into the bathtub this whole time, and that his suspicious wife is probably about to start poking around again. So, he makes a run for his apartment.
    • The girl follows him, and Petrarch barely has time to get inside his apartment and disable the doorbell before she rings it again. And he barely shuts off the tap before he floods the bathroom.
    • The girl, however, won't be put off so easily. She's still hovering in the hallway when he checks the peephole for her.
    • The poet that Kundera calls Boccaccio has to get in his two cents. He can't believe that Petrarch would encourage women poets; he's a misogynist and proud of it.
    • Boccaccio explains that misogyny has nothing to do with hating women; it's really a hatred of stereotyped femininity.
    • As such, Boccaccio claims, women can only be happy hooking up with a misogynist. "Worshipers"—like Petrarch, who puts classic feminine traits on a pedestal—are terrible partners as they just move from one object of adoration to the next. Boccaccio cites the story of Petrarch, his wife, and the young girl.
    • But Petrarch refuses to be cast as the stereotypical cheating male. He continues his story and tells Boccaccio that he went in to his wife and told her everything that was going on.
    • Boccaccio is not impressed; that's just like a "worshiper," in his opinion.
    • Petrarch continues his story. He says that his wife takes over and goes out to deal with the girl since he was too afraid to do it himself. Ugh.
    • No one is there when his wife steps out into the hall. But a few moments later, it sounds like Armageddon out there. The disgruntled girl is smashing windows with a metal bar.
    • The elderly neighbors are tickled by the scene. Petrarch is terrified when the girl finally smashes her way into his bedroom. Now, his wife is officially freaked out.
    • But Petrarch now plays the hero of his own story. He confronts the girl, takes away the metal bar, and holds her hand.
    • Lermontov doesn't buy Petrarch's story. Surprisingly, Boccaccio sides with Petrarch. The details aren't important, in his opinion.
    • "Worshipers" always see their mothers in women, and Petrarch is no different. These types of poets see everything as symbolic of their mothers, according to Boccaccio.
    • Yesenin takes offense, thinking that Boccaccio is starting a "yo' mama" fight. He tries to spit on Boccaccio but gets Goethe instead.
    • That's all the fight Yesenin has in him.
    • Petrarch isn't ready to give up the stage yet. He wants to finish his story. The girl, he says, came to confess her love for him—and all so he would know true love once in his life.
    • Ick.
    • The poets are not falling for this. But Petrarch says that this isn't just a slapstick Boccaccio-style tale. The girl actually tells his wife that she loves her, too.
    • Lermontov can't stand it. He'd prefer funny to saccharine. Petrarch accuses him of being jealous because he'd never had two beautiful women love him.
    • Goethe decides to tease Lermontov, too, by telling him that he has "complexes." Voltaire jumps on that bandwagon. He takes it a bit too far, analyzing all of Lermontov's poetry.
    • But Goethe decides on the ultimate male insult: he tells the whole group that Lermontov's problem is "hypercelibacy." He's just not hooking up enough.
    • This spat between the great poets puts the student in an awkward position. He worships the whole group quite a lot, but he can't help feeling for Lermontov. He really identifies with the poet's enforced celibacy issues—which reminds him that he has to get back to Kristyna, who is waiting for him in his ugly room.
    • But the student decides to pee first and winds up side by side with Lermontov in the toilets. Lermontov accuses the other poets of not being subtle. He thinks the student is on their side.
    • The student agrees with the wronged Lermontov, who is now insisting that he's proud.
    • Back at the table, Lermontov tries to set things right. He claims to be the only poet of the country, next to Goethe. Voltaire accuses him of being a "small man."
    • The student decides to take a breath and jump into the spotlight. He defends Lermontov's right to call himself proud. And he does it rather brilliantly.
    • The poets agree with the student and praise him.
    • Goethe is totally impressed with the student, but the student is absolutely tongue-tied when trying to get in on a one-on-one convo with the great poet.
    • The student decides to tell Goethe about Kristyna and how she wants Goethe to autograph his book for her. Goethe digs this. He wants to know more about the student's ladylove.
    • The student gives Goethe the whole picture, including the disappointing bits.
    • Goethe thinks Kristyna is da bomb because she is a small-town girl. An authentic girl like that is exactly what a poet needs, he says. And then he writes a whole page in Kristyna's book, praising her for the queen that he thinks she is.
    • The poets are far past the last call for alcohol at the club, and they get put out on the street. But Goethe isn't very mobile (he has crutches), and he's very drunk. He begs to be left there.
    • The poets know, however, that Goethe's shrew of a wife will kill him if he doesn't make it home.
    • Lermontov says that Goethe wants to recapture his youth by staying out all night, but he offers to stay with him.
    • Voltaire knows, however, that Goethe literally can't walk because of illness.
    • So, the poets try to carry Goethe home—but Goethe weighs a lot, and the poets are supremely drunk. They drop him a lot.
    • Lermontov keeps the student from helping by chatting him up.
    • When the poets finally get Goethe down to the curb, Lermontov tells the student that he's just witnessed a great scene. He proposes to write a poem called "Carrying a Poet" and add it to his current book of poetry. We can't wait to read that one.
    • So, now, things stand like this: Verlaine sings on the sidewalk, Yesenin has fallen into a drunken sleep against a building, and Voltaire and Boccaccio dump Goethe into a taxi.
    • Petrarch is too afraid of Goethe's wife to go along and calm her down, so Lermontov takes his place. Now, that's a good friend.
    • The student is left standing on the sidewalk with Petrarch, but he knows it's time to get back to Kristyna.
    • Petrarch compliments the student's ability to listen to others, and the student repeats what Petrarch has said about his girl troubles just to confirm Petrarch's opinion of him.
    • The student has so impressed Petrarch that he gets the end of the story: Petrarch's wife let the distraught lover girl stay in their apartment for the night.
    • By the time they woke up the next day, Petrarch's very efficient mother-in-law had the broken windows replaced—and the girl was gone. It was like it never happened.
    • Petrarch takes the opportunity to explain the difference between one of his stories and those of Boccaccio: his don't necessarily end with a sex joke.
    • Petrarch tells the student that a true poet has empathy with others and is able to identify with other people. He believes the student has this ability.
    • As he listens to Petrarch, the student once again feels lofty things for Kristyna. All his disgust totally evaporates.
    • Petrarch explains that Boccaccio is always jesting—and that laughter makes us lonely people. (Kind of like the irony craze of the '90s and 2000s, right?) Joking, he says, "is the enemy of love and poetry."
    • The student is totally into this theory. He's very earnest about things—and he knows that he's absolutely on Petrarch's side.
    • Kristyna, meanwhile, has fallen asleep on the student's bed. She'd given up on lover boy after the first few hours.
    • Kristyna was also pretty sure that the student didn't get her book signed. She's bowled over by the words Goethe has written to her in the book when she does see them.
    • This means Kristyna's ready to forgive the student for neglecting her all night—and so they begin to make love.
    • But, of course, Kristyna still has the problem she won't tell the student about: she fears getting pregnant, and she knows he hasn't taken the proper precautions.
    • The student can't figure it out, but he thinks that Kristyna is too shy for him to ask her what the heck is going on. So he keeps trying. And she keeps pushing him off.
    • Kristyna tells the student that it would kill her to proceed any further. He thinks she's being metaphorical—that she would die of grief if she couldn't continue to be with him.
    • But Kristyna is being quite literal.
    • Never mind. Though the student is frustrated by her behavior, he's also ecstatically happy with this misunderstanding.
    • Still, the student is a young man, and no matter how poetic the whole scene is, he still has his desires. He promises to die with Kristyna.
    • Kristyna won't give in, and the student gives up. She reaches over and, uh, holds "the scepter of her love standing up in her honor." Yes, it's exactly what you think.
    • And she continues to hold it—just hold it—all through the night. We're not sure how this is physically possible, but there it is.
    • As Kristyna prepares to leave on the train, she tells the student the truth about the whole "sex will kill me" thing.
    • The student is indignant: how could Kristyna think he would get her pregnant? He's not as stupid as all that. Hmmm, if you're saying that, Mr. Student, we're gonna have to doubt you know how all of this works.
    • Even though the student is utterly miffed at the missed opportunity, Kristyna's still on cloud nine. It was a sublime evening: all poetry and high-minded love. None of that physical stuff.
    • The student reflects on the waste of an evening in bed with Kristyna. He realizes that if he hadn't been so wrapped up in poetic language, he would have understood things properly.
    • As he falls deeper into despair, the student begins to laugh. And with that, litost overtakes him.
    • Kundera sums up his illustration of litost for us. A person dealing with litost can either a) lash out at a weaker partner or b) seek revenge on those who are stronger.
    • Kundera returns to the earlier scenario involving the student and his violin teacher. Since the student can't avoid his lessons, he plays worse on purpose.
    • Kundera continues the fantasy to highlight his point. The teacher goes bonkers and chucks the student out the window—but the student wins because he knows the teacher's going down for murder.
    • Kundera suspects that this reaction to litost rules human history. He explains how the Spartans destroyed themselves in this exact way.
    • Kundera traces the origins of litost to Bohemia and gives us a rundown of the military and social struggles that shaped the region.
    • Back in August 1968, when the Russians occupied the land, Kundera says that litost did the talking for the people.
    • The result? Bohemians contributed to their own destruction—"revenge through annihilation" of the self. Charming.
    • Back to the student. He really can't vent that litost on Kristyna because she's already gotten on the train. Kundera calls this "litost block." We kid you not.
    • Without any outlet for his destructive feelings, the student thinks of Lermontov from the night before and realizes that the poet's behavior was a venting of litost.
    • Lermontov had wanted the other poets to tear him to shreds after he'd declared his pride.
    • The student finds a love note from Kristyna in his jacket pocket, and it renews his feelings of self-hatred. If only he hadn't been so stupid, he wouldn't be, uh, love-less.
    • The student returns to the Writers Club in the hope that he might find Lermontov and crew there. In fact, Lermontov and Petrarch are there, but the student is too shy to approach them. And the poets don't seem to recognize him.
    • The student feels very sorry for himself. He drinks cognac.
    • Petrarch finally invites the student over, but the student has entered the self-destructive phase of litost. Instead, he leaves Kristyna's love letter on the table and tries to leave.
    • Petrarch stops the student from leaving the Writers Club and sits with him at the table where he'd left Kristyna's love letter. The student wants the earth to open up and swallow him.
    • Lermontov joins, and Petrarch shares Kristyna's letter with him. He makes the short declaration of love sound like a beautiful poem.
    • In fact, Kundera says that the only thing left of this story of botched love is poetry. Kristyna is taking away Goethe's beautiful inscription with her, and now we've got the love letter in the club.
    • Petrarch insists that the student admit to being a poet. No one has to twist the student's arm for that.
    • The student had been seeking out Lermontov when he was abandoned and feeling the full force of litost block.
    • But now that he's been crowned a poet by Petrarch, he's totally forgotten his old mate. Also, Lermontov can't stand triumphant lovers.
    • Kundera says that Lermontov has been ruined by the whole "hypercelibacy" thing. The student should empathize, but he can't get over Lermontov's harshness.
    • The student and Petrarch leave Lermontov to his litost and loneliness. And, maybe, also to his cognac.
  • Part VI

    The Angels

    • Kundera circles back to the story of Communist leader Klement Gottwald accepting Clementis' fur hat. (Remember the opening of Part I?)
    • Then, Franz Kafka makes an appearance. Apparently, the balcony that the Communist leaders stood upon was once part of a German school—Kafka's school.
    • Kundera says that Kafka talks about Prague as a "city without memory" in his novel The Trial. Even his protagonist remembers nothing.
    • Prague is also a place that constantly erases its own history, replacing the names of streets and public structures with names related to whatever the current regime is.
    • Kundera sees this pattern of building and erasure everywhere—including on the street where his character Tamina was born. The street name changed about five times while her family lived there.
    • And for those who do remember, there are the monuments about town that have come and gone.
    • During this time, statues of Lenin are all the rage, as Stalin is sooo last season.
    • We get more about Czechoslovakia as the "Republic of Forgetting." Kundera calls Gustav Husak, the last Communist president of Czechoslovakia, the "President of Forgetting."
    • Husak is not a nice guy. Under him, intellectuals were persecuted, and culture was destroyed. His major target? Historians.
    • Kundera says that this is not a coincidence. His friend Milan Hübl, a historian, tells him that the fastest way to destroy a culture is to obliterate its history (i.e., its history books and historians). Then a new history can be rewritten to suit the new guy(s) in charge.
    • Kundera knows that this is happening to his people, and he knows it will mean the death of their lives as Czechs.
    • A dark time falls on Kundera: his father is dying, and his friend Hübl is arrested and sentenced to a long prison term. Things are not going well.
    • Kundera's dad has trouble finding words for things, and by the end, he loses nearly all his vocab. He can still say, "That's strange," which seems utterly appropriate.
    • The problem? Dad's mind is still working, but he can't communicate.
    • And as in most parent-child relationships, Kundera regrets not talking more with his dad when the old man still had the power of speech.
    • Kundera's dad was writing a book about Beethoven's sonatas, so Kundera tries to discuss it with his dad. But though he can talk up a storm, he knows nothing about Beethoven. Dad knows it all, but he can't speak. Oh, the irony.
    • Kundera's dad has an epiphany one day about Beethoven's variations, but he has only just enough words to tell his son that he's got an idea. He can't actually communicate it.
    • Kundera is now preoccupied with silence: his father's silence, and the enforced silence of the historians who were arrested by the Communist regime in Bohemia.
    • Which brings Kundera back to Tamina. She's still a waitress at the café in the shabby Western town. But she's no longer her old self. She couldn't possibly care less about the chatter of the customers any more. She and Bibi are no longer friends.
    • One day, Tamina drops off the face of the earth. Her boss goes to her apartment to check on her, but there's no Tamina there. And the police never, ever solve the mystery of her disappearance.
    • Kundera sheds some light on Tamina's disappearance. A young man comes to the café one day and calls Tamina by name; he seems to know about her sad existence. He talks to her, asks her questions—and Tamina's hooked. No one has actually asked her anything since her husband died.
    • The young man tells Tamina that she has the remembering thing all wrong. She's actually forgetting and can't forgive herself for doing it. He tells her to forget about it.
    • But Tamina doesn't know how to let it go. She wants the heaviness of the past to leave her, but still, it's always with her.
    • The young man tells Tamina that she needs to get away to a place where such heavy memories aren't a thing. A weightless place.
    • At this point, Tamina is totally under the young man's spell, and she leaves the café with him.
    • Kundera says that he understands Tamina's inability to forgive herself about the past. He felt the same way about his own dad.
    • But this prick of conscience actually helped Kundera figure out what his old man wanted to say about Beethoven but couldn't.
    • Kundera uses similes to explain the function of a musical variation. Symphonies are like epics, where we journey through the wide world from point A to point B.
    • Variations are journeys through the interior. Because of its "compactness," variation form is a bit like a poem: it requires economical expression.
    • Kundera says that Beethoven uses the 16 measures of the variation form to dig deep, like going "into the interior of the earth."
    • So, okay, we might not ever journey enough to experience everything in the world, but it seems frustrating that we might not even be able to know our own interior selves—or those of our loved ones.
    • And that is where Tamina's and Kundera's remorse sets in.
    • Kundera and Tamina spend their time worrying about the exterior world when they're in the process of losing the interior lives of the people they love the best.
    • Heavy.
    • And that, Kundera says, is why wise Beethoven stuck with those inward-looking variations toward the end of his life.
    • Kundera claims that his novel takes on the form of musical variations: he's putting stories together that allow us to journey to the interior.
    • To the interior of what? Well, lots of things, but really, the center of the whole thing is Tamina. That's right: Kundera claims that the other stories in this work are variations on the theme of Tamina.
    • However, in addition to being about Tamina and Prague, the book is about angels. And wouldn't you know it, the young man who whisks Tamina away is called Raphael.
    • And now we're with Tamina and Raphael in the car, as he drives her farther away from her old life.
    • In fact, Raphael takes Tamina to a creepy, murky body of water. How can this end well?
    • Even Tamina, who has been living her life like a sleepwalker, suddenly wakes up to the danger of her situation.
    • The ugly landscape reminds her of the place back in Bohemia where her husband worked as a bulldozer operator. All the despair of that time comes back to her.
    • But Tamina has no notebooks with her to write down this memory. She wants to go back because now she feels like she has a framework for looking back into the past.
    • Tamina is exhilarated because, like Kundera's dad, she's had an epiphany: memories don't just walk back into your mind. You have to journey out into the world to find them.
    • But Tamina can't say any of this to Raphael because someone by the water is waiting for them.
    • Raphael gets rough with Tamina and pulls her down to the shore. A 12-year-old boy greets them. He has a rowboat for them.
    • Both Raphael and the boy start laughing, and Tamina begins to forget again. She gets into the boat with the boy; Raphael stays on the shore. He's smiling and shaking his head.
    • Tamina's pretty darn uneasy about that gesture.
    • Tamina takes over the rowing from the boy. He takes out a tape recorder and plays some hardcore rock music, and he begins moving in ways that seem obscene to Tamina.
    • Tamina wants to hand the oars back to the boy, but he gets nasty with her and commands her to go on. Soon, she sees land.
    • Tamina and the boy are greeted by children at the shore of this new island, and they walk up a path to a building. Tamina notices some low-hanging volleyball nets out front.
    • A little girl escorts Tamina and the boy into the building, where Tamina sees a dormitory room with beds. Her new home.
    • Tamina is kind of appalled: she's too old for dorm life. But the creepy girl tells her that children don't need rooms of their own.
    • What?
    • There are no adults in sight, and the little girl seems to ignore Tamina's alarm.
    • Tamina has been assigned to the Squirrels—you know, just like a group at camp.
    • Suddenly, Tamina realizes that she does not want to be there, and she asks about the freaky little boy who brought her to the island. She tells the 9-year-old girl that she never asked to come there.
    • But the little girl isn't having any of it. She tells Tamina that she must be lying since no one goes on a journey without consent.
    • Tamina runs back to the shore to find the boy, but he and the boat are gone. She's stuck with the creepy little kids and her placement on the Squirrels team.
    • The kids greet Tamina when she returns and ask her to join them in their circle. Tamina thinks about Raphael smiling and shaking his head. This freaks her out.
    • Tamina leaves the children to go curl up on her dorm bed.
    • Kundera gives us the 411 on Tamina's husband, Pavel. He died in a hospital—at night, when Tamina wasn't there. In the morning, she found his bed empty.
    • Pavel's roommate said that Tamina's husband's body was dragged by the feet across the floor.
    • Kundera muses over what death means to us at different ages. For the young Tamina, fear of death was a fear of nonexistence.
    • But Tamina's biggest adult fear concerning death? Becoming a corpse. Suddenly, everyone has access to your body—and you can't do anything to protect yourself.
    • Tamina wanted to cremate her husband for this reason, so she wouldn't have to worry about his body being defiled over time.
    • Kundera goes back to the Thomas Mann story of the fatally ill young man. On his journey into death, he stays in a room where a beautiful naked woman appears every night. The woman tells him a tale. Kundera says that the woman and the tale are death. Yes, it is beautiful. And strange. And also blue in color.
    • Blue? Yes, indeed. Kundera says that nonbeing is "infinite empty space," and we all know that empty space is blue. Duh.
    • But Kundera (and Tamina) don't buy this "death as beautiful blue experience" thing. They know it is hard, tiresome work. Kundera experienced it with his father.
    • Kundera likens his father's journey toward death to riding a horse to a faraway place. All deaths are journeys—like Tamina's drive to the water in a red sports car.
    • Kundera believes that the desire for the death journey has to do with the dying person's urge to hide his or her body. You know, so no one can do bad things to it. But it doesn't work, as we see with Tamina's husband.
    • Kundera explores just why he put poor Tamina on that island with all those creepy children. Maybe it's because he remembers children singing as his father died.
    • It went down like this: Gustav Husak was receiving his honorary Pioneer kerchief from some children at Prague Castle.
    • Kundera and his father could hear the ceremony from the TV in the house across the garden.
    • The doctor told Kundera that his father wasn't aware of the outside world anymore, but Kundera was pretty sure that was wrong. He joked with his dad about Husak and the Pioneers.
    • And his dad laughed back.
    • Kundera heard Husak's ridiculous rhetoric and closed the windows so they wouldn't have to listen to it anymore.
    • After that, Kundera says, his dad "mounted his horse" and rode off into the sunset. So to speak.
    • Tamina tries to figure out a way to escape the island, but she has no luck. And what to do about all the children surrounding her? Tamina tries to ignore them, but they get scarily hostile. So now she's trying to appease them by playing their games.
    • Worst of all, Tamina has to go to the bathroom with these kids (remember kindergarten bathroom time?) and undress in front of them. They all stare at her grown-up body, and it creeps her out.
    • Still, Tamina feels kind of powerful. Her body is grown and perfect, something that she has over all those kiddos.
    • Tamina gives in to life on the island. It's a journey back into childhood, a place in time before her life with her husband. She can forget all that tragedy here.
    • Tamina has to give up on her shyness about her body, and she seems to adjust well to communal nakedness. She doesn't have to worry about adult sexuality here.
    • But Tamina does have to concern herself with budding, preadolescent sexual curiosity. She imagines herself as that pretty first-grade teacher that she once had a girl-crush on—the one she wanted to go to the bathroom with. She can understand the arousal of the kids now.
    • Tamina's team, the Squirrels, really benefits from her bigness. They win all the competitions on the island.
    • The children wait on Tamina hand and foot when she is in the bathroom. And they get a little touchy-feely in the process: they want to explore her body because it is strange and inviting to them.
    • At bedtime, things get especially weird. The children tuck in Tamina, but they find every excuse to touch all the parts of her body that are different from theirs. (Hint: the private bits.)
    • Tamina is actually okay with it. It feels good and comforting to her.
    • Tamina is feeling a lot of pleasure, and the kids can see that in her face. It fascinates them.
    • Tamina doesn't care about the weirdness of the situation because it's like her soul has detached from her body, and all that's left is a body feeling really good and enjoying itself.
    • It's back to Kundera and his dad. Kundera shares his dad's explanation of musical scales, which he compares to a royal court.
    • Because the notes become players at court in this analogy, music becomes something more than sound for Kundera. It becomes action—a royal drama.
    • Music appeals to everyone for this reason: everyone can make a guess about the narrative playing out in the notes.
    • Kundera then tells a story about a kind of musical Communism. He says that this "royal hierarchy" of notes one day gets overthrown by one man who wants to make all notes equal.
    • This man establishes the 12-tone system, a new musical empire. But like all empires, this one is overthrown and replaced by a new one.
    • This story brings Kundera back to his unfortunate historian friend Milan Hübl and leads to a discussion about how it's impossible for human beings to fathom the end of anything: history, time, cultures, languages, countries.
    • Kundera believes that we all live an illusion, expecting "infinitude"—that nothing connected with us will ever end or die.
    • Progress, then, is just another way to talk about the death of other things. But we never really think about it in that way.
    • So it was that the composer Arnold Schoenberg, Emperor of the 12-Tone, neither thought about the royal musical court that he displaced nor about the sudden death waiting for his own kingdom.
    • Kundera says that the history of music is over, and its end was brought about by a desire for progress and change.
    • Kundera muses on the end of musical history. It doesn't mean total silence; instead, it means that anything goes.
    • It's pretty clear that Kundera is not a fan of rock or pop music. He says there's a kind of unifying power in this hateful music. It helps people reaffirm that they are alive and existing (not a good thing for Kundera), which is why it's more popular than Beethoven.
    • Kundera remembers taking his father for a walk about a year before he died and hearing music blaring through loudspeakers. Apparently, this was something the Communist regime did to keep people from thinking or remembering.
    • Kundera's dad, who had a hard time speaking, was able to comment on the stupidity of the music. He wasn't dissing the music he'd loved all his life; he was talking about thoughtless music. The music that Kundera's father loved so much was an exception to the stupidity of music in its thoughtless state.
    • But all that wonderful history of exceptional music is lost to "the idiocy of guitars."
    • We're guessing Kundera wasn't a fan of the Sex Pistols.
    • Kundera refers to the pop singer Karel Klos, who left Czechoslovakia in 1977. President Husak begged him to return because Klos created music without memory. It's a music that disregards and tramples on what Kundera and his father believe to be historically rich music (like Ellington and Schoenberg.)
    • Perfect for the "President of Forgetting."
    • Though Kundera laments the rise of thoughtless, soulless guitar music, he also totally gets that hanging out with Beethoven all the time is "dangerous": it's a position of privilege, and Kundera has seen firsthand the kind of damage that privilege can do.
    • Which brings us back to Tamina. She's thinking that she's being punished for having had a happy love with her husband. She'd been living a privileged life, and now she has to pay.
    • But good love is also difficult because you are living in constant fear of losing it—or annoying the people around you who are jealous.
    • So maybe the sensual pleasure Tamina now feels on the island with the children—sensuality without thought or fear—is a reward for her suffering.
    • Kundera describes adult love as a regime that takes over and "occupies" sexuality, which makes sex less about pleasure and more about responsibility and drama.
    • On the island, Tamina's sexuality is freed from any "diabolic" ties to love. Which means, of course, that what she feels is angelic.
    • But now, Kundera's language about Tamina and the children changes. He describes the children's actions as the "rape" of Tamina.
    • Because it happens every day, the children's touches become kind of dirty. The angelic nature of their "innocent" curiosity changes with their developing desire and with the repetition of the touches.
    • A new hierarchy is established among the kids—and it's disturbing. Those who love the little sex games are set apart from those who don't. And some kids think that others are favorites. Creepy.
    • The hostility grows until one day, a kid gives Tamina a purple nurple. She doesn't like having her nipple tweaked, so she stops the games.
    • The kids hate having no access to Tamina's body. When she participates in their games, the teams fight over whether or not she's following the rules.
    • There's a lot of shouting, and Tamina can't take it. She accepts the blame for stepping on the line in hopscotch, just to get some peace.
    • But this is a bad mistake. Her own team—the beloved Squirrels—turns against her. They attack.
    • Well, then Tamina beats the &#@% out of the kids.
    • In the end, Tamina takes a rock to the forehead and slinks away to the dorm. She's never gonna play with these kids again.
    • Then, the verbal abuse starts. The kids begin to taunt Tamina for all those adult private bits that they once so loved. They chase her all over the island chanting, "Tits, tits, tits."
    • Not creepy at all.
    • Tamina decides to engage in guerilla warfare. She ambushes and hurts as many kids as she can.
    • One day, however, Tamina is caught in nets—the little volleyball-looking nets that had been hanging outside the dorm on the first day she arrived. They were always meant for her.
    • The children drag Tamina off in their nets. Kundera says that the children really aren't bad types; they're just trying to share Tamina.
    • The kids are using Tamina to draw closer to one another: she's the shared object of their hatred, a scapegoat for all their pent-up frustrations.
    • Further, Tamina isn't really one of these kids. She's not part of their world. So it's easier and more appropriate for them to hurt her and hate her.
    • Kundera keeps up the alternative reading of the children's behavior: Tamina is filled with negativity in hatred. The kids positively and cheerfully want to destroy her.
    • Somehow, the children's anger gives way, and they let Tamina free. Not, of course, until they've beaten and peed on her. But, you know: all's fair in love and war.
    • Tamina mechanically returns to playing with the children because she really has no choice. But she knows that she's not a part of their world and never can be; she's a border-dweller.
    • And suddenly, the weightiness of Tamina's former existence returns. She has to keep playing hopscotch for all eternity.
    • Think about that. All. Eternity.
    • Tamina is so preoccupied with the horribleness of that thought that she no longer worries about her life in Prague with her husband.
    • Kundera jumps over to some other children: the ones cheering for President Husak when they presented him with his Pioneer handkerchief.
    • Kundera remembers Husak saying that children are the future, and suddenly, he catches another meaning from that phrase.
    • It isn't a statement of hope to say that children are the future. To Kundera, it means that humanity is always devolving into childhood.
    • Kundera also remembers Husak telling the children never to look back. Kundera knows what that was about: Husak wanted them to forget the past, to drop the weight of historical baggage.
    • Kundera tells us there are differences between the "historical" and the "eternal." History is made up of fleeting moments and changes, but values are eternal. Husak is on the side of the eternal and unchanging. He's outside or beyond history. Who needs it?
    • Kundera recalls the day he shut the window on the broadcast of Husak's speech to the children Pioneers. Karel Klos, the pop star, came on stage to rile up the emotions of the audience.
    • But neither Kundera nor his father heard that bit. They also didn't witness the rainbow that broke out over Prague exactly at that moment.
    • Some politicians have all the luck.
    • Back on the island, Tamina hears the tape recorder music of the young boatman who brought her to this place and starts to form ideas of escape.
    • All the children join the boatman in his obscene dancing, and Tamina can no longer stand it. She feels a hollowness in her stomach that Kundera calls an "unbearable absence of weight."
    • But that lightness also has a weight to it, a kind of psychological impact that Tamina can no longer bear. The purposelessness of her existence on the island is getting to her.
    • Tamina runs down to the shore looking for the boat, but it's not there. She makes a circuit of the small island—nothing. Then the children find her.
    • Tamina decides that she don't need no stinking boat—she's going to swim back to her life under her own steam.
    • The children chuck stones at Tamina as she swims away. But she's doing well, and soon their rocks can't touch her.
    • Tamina feels good getting her body moving. That is, until the sun begins to set, and she still hasn't reached the other shore.
    • Tamina isn't sure where she's headed, or why she's going there. She wants to get away—but not in Kundera's sense of dying. She wants to live.
    • Tamina doesn't know where she wants to go, but she does know she wants to get the heck away from the island.
    • The sun comes up, and Tamina realizes that after swimming all night, she's just a short distance from that cursed island and its brats. What?
    • Tamina decides that the next best thing is to die, and the water will do just fine for her. She inhales water into her lungs.
    • Now the kids come after Tamina—and not in a useful or pleasant way. Basically, they're just there to watch her die, up close.
    • Long story short, Tamina drowns.
  • Part VII

    The Border

    • We have another set of characters here: Jan (guy) and Edwige (girl).
    • Jan has a problem. Whenever he makes love with Edwige, he can't read her face. It's a blank.
    • And though Edwige is normally a chatty Cathy, once her clothes come off, she's totally silent. Jan can't ask Edwige what she's thinking—and he doesn't know what to do about it.
    • Jan thinks that talking dirty to Edwige might elicit a response. Or perhaps he could just ask her what she likes.
    • But Edwige is very obliging and likes everything.
    • Jan thinks of bodies making love as an unreeling of an old-school film. The emotions of this sexual drama, to his way of thinking, should be projected on the lady's face.
    • But with Edwige, the film canisters are empty, and the drama never shows.
    • Jan decides he just has to stop having sex with Edwige: he's gonna friend zone her. But he realizes that this is easier said than done.
    • Making love with Edwige is almost like an involuntary action for Jan.
    • Kundera introduces the blackbird to us. He thinks about how it became a city bird somewhere around the 19th century. (That's during the Industrial Revolution. Coincidence? We think not.)
    • Kundera says that this change (or invasion) is much more important than any human-on-human hostility. When the relationships in nature change, it's far more serious.
    • It's as though the blackbirds betrayed their own nature to hang out with the humans. They crossed a line.
    • Most of us wouldn't think twice about the blackbird migration because we're too focused on other events in history that we are told are more important. We're just lemmings like that.
    • Anyway, back to Jan. We get a little more backstory there: he's 45, his fling with Edwige was out of the ordinary for him, and he is going to the United States to work.
    • Also, Jan's current favorite read is Daphnis and Chloe, a second-century boy-meets-girl novel.
    • Daphnis and Chloe are super young, right on the edge of adolescence. They don't really know anything of sexual desire or the realities of sex. Hugging is still the bestest.
    • And this innocence is the thing that draws Jan to the work.
    • Kundera introduces a young and beautiful actress named Hanna. She is sitting in her chair, chatting away to Jan, tracing a circle with her thumb on the table next to her.
    • Kundera thinks of this as a magic circle that she's drawing around herself, to focus all attention on her.
    • Hanna's going through a hard time. She's had a breakdown because her son (living with her ex) has run away. There's been no word from or about him.
    • Hanna mentions to Jan that she's met a friend of his called Passer. Passer has cancer, but he doesn't seem to know or acknowledge it.
    • Passer has also had to have a serious operation that has left him unable to have sex again. Hanna met him after he had recovered and was visiting mutual friends, the Clevises.
    • Hanna, like everyone else, loves Passer. She went out mushroom hunting with him at the Clevises' house. Everyone was amazed at his ability even to walk after such an illness.
    • On to the Clevises. We first meet them as they're watching a TV debate about whether or not people should be allowed to continue to sunbathe topless on the beaches of Europe.
    • The debate panel includes a psychoanalyst, a Marxist, and a Christian. We know it sounds like the start of a joke, but it's not.
    • As you can imagine, each of the panelists gives a pretty stereotypical answer that conforms to their ideologies.
    • The common argument? Tops should be worn to preserve the innocence of children.
    • However, some people believe that parents should walk around naked to get their kids used to it.
    • The Clevises (mom, dad, and 14-year-old daughter) are progressives and therefore hate tops at beaches. Jan visits them just at the moment that they are debating among themselves.
    • Kundera observes that the Clevises' brand of progressive thinking is peculiar. They will only adopt progressive ideas that both feel nonconformist and have a chance of becoming popular. They don't go in for excessively liberal ideas; they only want the "best progressive ideas."
    • Papa Clevis wants to include Jan in the debate and says that all breasts should be naked as long as they are beautiful. He says this because he thinks that Jan is a womanizer—and that this will make him comfortable.
    • But the Clevis daughter attacks: why is it okay for ugly, fat men to show off their bellies if women can't bare whatever kinds of breasts they have?
    • Mama Clevis is super proud of her girl. And so is Papa, even though he said the offensive thing to begin with.
    • The daughter continues her attack. She says that men should just back off the debate since women don't bare their breasts for men's pleasure.
    • This makes everyone a little uncomfortable. After all, the daughter is only 14. Should she really be talking about women as sex objects? Should she even be aware of these issues?
    • Papa Clevis changes the subject to talk about Passer. Everybody admires his tenacity in the face of illness and disability.
    • Papa Clevis tells the story of Hanna taking Passer mushroom hunting. Passer returned happy but near death's door with fatigue. He had to go to the hospital.
    • Papa Clevis tells Jan that Passer is likely not long for this world and that he should go visit him if he wants to say goodbye.
    • Back to Daphnis and Chloe. Jan observes that Daphnis is a prepubescent dude who's all good with sexual arousal (without sexual climax).
    • Jan remembers a chick he hooked up with a year ago. She was the opposite—and to top things off, she was super demanding in bed—and could never be satisfied.
    • For some reason, this woman reminds Jan of someone called Hertz, who was an opera director in Central Europe.
    • Hertz was a bit odd in his technique with his female singers: he made them strip straight down to their birthday suits, and then he'd place a pencil somewhere in their bodies—hey, you'll have to read it to find out where—to "help them with their posture."
    • Sure, Hertz.
    • Of course, Hertz's unorthodox methods got him in trouble, and he was cast out of the opera company.
    • But the scandal did make Jan curious about opera. He would go and imagine the singers naked. Jan was fascinated by the fact that he was aroused because Hertz was aroused. Like secondary arousal. Hmm.
    • Kundera introduces us to more of Jan's "interesting" friends. This time, it's Barbara, a woman who holds orgies at her house. Barbara demands that Jan attend one of these, and soon.
    • Since Jan is preparing to leave for the United States, he thinks, "Why the heck not?" He knows he won't be coming back and doesn't really have to worry about his reputation.
    • And besides, there will be naked people there.
    • All of this gets Jan to thinking about the concept of crossing borders. Sure, there's the physical border that he's about to cross. But there's also another kind of border—although Jan can't name it.
    • Jan thinks about yet another woman that he loved (his favorite, actually), who seemed to have very little will to live, even though she loved her life.
    • Kundera says that this is a kind of borderline: between wanting to live and having a life of purpose and meaning, and just not. And as we live our lives, that border is way closer than we think it is.
    • Kundera has a theory about men's love lives and their sexual reputations. There are two lists of women ("erotic biographies"): 1) actual notches in bedposts and 2) the ones who got away.
    • There are also the women who reciprocate love or lust, but you can't hook up with them because they are "on the other side of border."
    • Jan had this experience once with a woman he met on a train. She was younger than he was, and he'd met her somewhere before.
    • Being the practiced womanizer that he was, Jan immediately tried to turn on the charm. But for some reason, he was off key. He just couldn't make the chemistry happen.
    • No matter how hard he tried—and Jan pulls his best moves—he just knows he's not impressing this woman. In fact, he feels her gaze much more strongly influencing him.
    • And when Jan realizes this, he loses his nerve. He sees himself the way the woman sees him, and it's not flattering.
    • Despite all this, the young woman invites him to her home. But Jan refuses. Kundera says it's because she was not on the same side of the border as Jan.
    • We're getting into "gazes" in this chapter. Kundera says we've heard an awful lot about the "male gaze": that assessing look from a man that turns a woman into an object of sexual desire.
    • But that sword cuts both ways, at least according to Kundera. If the woman becomes an object, then she gazes on the man with the eyes of a thing. And that's cold.
    • What kind of thing does she become? A hammer. Kundera chooses a hammer.
    • As such, the hammer then turns the power relationship between itself and the carpenter on its head. Yeah, it's a weird metaphor. Hang in there.
    • Jan finds himself on the losing side of this relationship more and more as he gets older. But he can't tell if it's because he's seeing women differently or if it's because women are acting to subvert the whole gaze-game thing.
    • Nowhere is this role reversal as obvious as it is in Barbara's house. Jan listens to his friend Pascal complain about this situation.
    • The last time Pascal visited Barbara, the girls undressed in front of him, on Barbara's command. Pascal was put off. The girls weren't doing this because they were aroused. To them, he was an object.
    • Barbara told Pascal that he had to make love to these two women, and if he couldn't, um, get ready to do so in less than a minute, he would have to leave.
    • Pascal couldn't take the pressure and quickly found himself outside on the sidewalk. Hammer, meet carpenter.
    • But Jan doesn't really sympathize with Pascal, who has done worse things to women. He feels that Pascal has gotten his comeuppance.
    • Jan tells Edwige about this whole situation, and then he insists that when women behave like men, it's far worse. It's a different kind of sexual violence.
    • Men rape, says Jan, and women castrate. Somehow, rape is not such a bad thing to Jan. It's part of a fantasy, something erotic, in his opinion. (What?!)
    • Edwige is not having of this, of course. She tells Jan that if all this is true, it's time to invent a new kind of sexuality.
    • But Jan stupidly doesn't give up. He tells Edwige that he and his friends compared notes about what their lovers said the most during sexual encounters.
    • Can you guess what it was? Jan says it was the word "no." And his theory is that a woman's "no" isn't really "no": it's just something that turns the sex act into a mini-rape. How enticing.
    • Edwige isn't pleased with this theory. Yet Jan even more stupidly keeps trying to defend this exaltation of rape as part of the natural order of things.
    • Jan worries that changing this concept (i.e., eroticism based on a rape fantasy) will make men impotent. Edwige snorts at him. He's truly an idiot.
    • Edwige tells Jan—to his surprise—that sex is just not that important in the grand scheme of things. It's just a sign of friendship.
    • So that night, Jan and Edwige do not make love. And somehow, Jan is more than okay with that.
    • Jan remembers an affair he once had with a married woman. Their routine was always the same. Until, one day, it wasn't.
    • When they were undressing, the woman smiled at Jan. And he could hardly keep himself from smiling back. He took that smile as an indication of how ridiculous the whole situation was. He felt that if they couldn't keep from laughing, they would ruin the possibility of future lovemaking completely.
    • And this was another border: Jan and this woman were just steps away from crossing that line into invalidating their trysts by laughing at themselves.
    • But Jan saves the day by taking action and moving things along, keeping the devil called laughter at bay.
    • Jan finally goes to visit Passer, who is now at death's door. Still, his friend is full of spirit and energy.
    • Though things look grim, the doctors still hold out hope for Passer—if only he can make it through the next couple of weeks.
    • Passer talks to Jan about Hanna, for whom he's fallen head over heels, despite the fact that he is so close to death.
    • Jan tries to comfort his friend by telling him that we're all really close to death, all the time. He tries to make the future (which Passer has no part in) look not so bright or interesting.
    • But Passer won't have any part in that. In fact, he won't play into any of Jan's attempts to cheer him up with stupid jokes or wild proclamations about sex being turned into something silly.
    • Passer just smiles at Jan with the tolerance of a good friend.
    • Jan can't shake that image of the border. He tries to understand it better, and he believes it's because his time is winding down.
    • Jan defines his allotted time as "the maximum dose of repetitions." Jan recalls a comedian who used repetition of everyday things to make his audience laugh.
    • Jan believes that laughter accompanies border crossings, but he doesn't know what happens after the laughter fades.
    • Kundera disagrees with Jan's idea that the border is something that crosses our lives at one point. He thinks instead that the border is always nearby. Whatever that border is, anyway.
    • Kundera points to Jan's beloved girlfriend who talked about having a very thin will to live. It doesn't take much to push a human beyond that point.
    • Jan thinks about the literal border, the one that separates his country from the free world. He and other expats cross that border and find no meaning when they look back over it.
    • Kundera disagrees that the metaphysical border has little to do with repetitions. Repetitions make that border visible for us, but it doesn't exist because of them.
    • Kundera tells us about an adolescent experience Jan had: dreaming of an alien creature that had a multitude of erogenous zones. Do we sense a theme here?
    • The point of this dream? It shows that Jan—virgin Jan—was already underwhelmed by the female body. He knew that arousal had its limitations.
    • And boom, right then, the border appears for Jan. And what is on the other side of it? The female body as object, a thing with no meaning at all.
    • Spoiler alert: Passer dies. We now see his funeral, with all the unsavory characters we've met so far in this section.
    • Everything goes well with the graveside ceremony until the end, when a belated speaker gets up to eulogize his dead friend.
    • The gravediggers, however, are already lowering the coffin into the grave. They're not totally sure what to do at this point.
    • This puts the speaker at a disadvantage. He'd written his entire speech as a direct address to Passer, who is now sitting at the bottom of the newly dug grave.
    • It's an awkward situation. And it's made worse by gusts of wind that pick up Papa Clevis' hat and deposit it right at the edge of the grave.
    • This is cringeworthy. What is Papa Clevis to do? He doesn't want to interrupt the speaker, who has already had his fair share of trouble to get through the speech.
    • But here's the thing: that hat is totally going into that grave. And everyone there knows it and feels the tension. Nobody can focus on anything but that hat.
    • So Papa Clevis tries to retrieve the hat, but the wind will have none of it. Long story short: the hat goes into the grave.
    • Papa Clevis acts like it never happened, but the mourners can't pretend. And when the speaker goes to sprinkle dirt on top of Passer's coffin, all that nervousness lets out as laughter.
    • It's because the mourners know that the speaker sees a hat sitting on top of Passer's coffin, as though the coffin dressed up just for the occasion.
    • So the mourners have to stifle that laughter because, seriously, how inappropriate is that?
    • It's a tough job, even for the widow and her family.
    • And we head back to Barbara's house for some more sexual perversion. This time, there's a young girl Barbara is bullying into stripping in front of 20 or so people.
    • And then things really start heating up. Barbara goes around the room breaking up couples who might be interested in doing only conventional things. This includes Jan.
    • Jan winds up in conversation with a man who seems to be on his wavelength about the bizarre proceedings.
    • The men comment on how the whole orgy is like an orchestrated dance. Barbara, of course, is the choreographer.
    • And Barbara is exacting. She roots out a young couple and separates them, making them pair off with other people.
    • Pretty soon, Barbara turns her attention to Jan and his friend. She sends Jan off with the girl who began the whole thing with her striptease, and she, uh, takes care of the friend herself.
    • Jan can't help but notice that the two women are doing the same things with their partners—and he feels like an object rather than a person.
    • When he looks over at his friend, Jan realizes that he's laughing. And it's all over for Jan from that point on. He can't stop laughing. Neither can his friend.
    • Barbara is furious. She accuses the men of doing the same thing to her that happened at Passer's funeral. This is serious business.
    • But Jan can't control himself. He's crying with laughter. Barbara kicks him out.
    • Jan and Edwige take a final trip to the seaside, right before Jan leaves for the United States. They each have their own rooms.
    • Jan and Edwige go to the beach together. It's a nude beach—a tiny detail that Jan doesn't seem to have known beforehand. Edwige is totally comfortable with this; Jan isn't.
    • As Jan and Edwige walk around the beach, Kundera intrudes to comment on the amazing variety of boobs that they see. Jan sees the whole display as totally meaningless.
    • Jan feels the border creeping up on him again. Probably because he can't keep the thought of naked Jews being sent to the gas chambers out of his head. Eek.
    • Jan can't understand why that thought hit him just then, except that perhaps nakedness is the "uniform" of people on the other side of the border.
    • Jan tries to communicate his discomfort to Edwige, but she misunderstands him. She only comments that all naked bodies are beautiful.
    • The beach itself has a kind of isolated, pastoral quality about it. (There's a goat bleating somewhere out there.) Jan thinks of Daphnis' and Chloe's naked bodies.
    • Daphnis' innocent arousal makes Jan want to go back to younger days, when he had only a vague notion of what it meant to be a sexual being.
    • Jan wants desire without concern for fulfillment—so he says Daphnis' name out loud. Edwige is down with this because she thinks Jan is calling out to the pre-Christian era. She has no idea.
    • But it doesn't even matter that Edwige and Jan operate on totally different wavelengths. Jan just goes with the flow, pretending to desire a purer mankind.
    • Edwige gets carried away with the idea and declares that this island, where they are standing, must be Daphnis' Island. Jan thinks their hotel is on the other side of the border.
    • Edwige is excited by this idea and shares it with some other naked people on the beach. They think that Jan is fantastically imaginative, and they develop their own theories about the end of civilization as we know it—a kind of liberation from the weight of tradition.
    • But in the end, Kundera focuses on these people's naked bodies, which now seem absurd and sad.