- The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
Faber, 228 pp, £7.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 571 11830 5
Milan Kundera says of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that ‘it is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina.’ He says this in the novel, in which he himself appears and invents Tamina. Modern satirical fantasy, of which this is an exceptionally lively and thoughtful example, gives everyone the same fictional status: the author, his characters, historical figures, angels. Part of the game is to try to tell them apart and sort out illusion from reality. The novel contains seven stories with other stories dovetailed into them, and the stories meet in a dialectical encounter with history and theory. Theories of laughter and of blackbird populations occur, and yet there are no digressions. Everything is beautifully and amazingly in place. He also says ‘it is a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and the angels.’ Dovetailed into the angels are the opposite, anti-angels: Kundera has double-meanings as well as dialectics in his province. The first of the two stories called ‘The Angels’ is about laughter, an Ionesco play, Paul Eluard, astrology and fear; and the bad and stupid characters end, in this story, by ascending to heaven. It’s not the puzzle of what this means that catches the attention, but the feat of holding the story together at all. One admires the tour de force of linking seriousness and nonsense, the high-speed cutting between them, the play element that lets fantasy have its head and the intelligence that controls it. The autonomy of such a story tends to put it beyond interpretation.
Yet this is fantasy, one notes – starting to interpret it – on a human scale. The very sensation of vertigo it produces is a human sensation. And Kundera, even at his most fantastic, has a human touch like that of the Czech films of the Sixties, when he was teaching at the Prague Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies and the young directors were his students. He conveys a liking for put-upon but dogged and resilient human beings. Kundera himself has an attractive presence in the book: reminding us of the nature of fantasy by taking responsibility for it, in his role as novelist: but also bringing himself before us in real life, as an individual living under Communism in Czechoslovakia and in exile in France. Fantasy and human reality are never far apart in the book, but they have strange conjunctions.
Among these are the effects of time and chance on human beings:
The years went by more quickly than they realised. Mother had laid down the field-marshal’s baton of her motherhood and moved on to a different world ... Karel was touched to feel how ridiculously little she weighed in his hands. He realised his mother belonged to a different order of creature: smaller, lighter, more easily blown away.
And time and chance can happen also to street names – fantastic changes, due not to life but to history, happen to the name of the street where Tamina was born, though ‘all the time it was the same street; they just kept changing its name, trying to lobotomise it.’
The sex scenes are erotic and very natural, but with moments of Dada (an eye stares out at Hugo from Tamina’s bottom): and are complicated by double-meanings, so that when Tamina thinks of sex as ‘a joy of angelic simplicity’ one is to understand, from a sense carried by the word ‘angel’ in the book, that this isn’t good, but bad. Reversals of meaning, as in Through the Looking-Glass, have an accepted place in fantasy. Kundera, who also has a serious use for words in their straight sense, chooses to use ‘angel’ in an unusual sense; and especially enjoys using ‘laughter’ in two entirely different senses. There’s a short Barthesian essay on the ambiguities of ‘laughter’ in the first ‘Angels’ story. Laughter can be healthily subversive, but can also be inane, the very sound of abject conformism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Infectious laughter (in what is anyway a very funny scene) begins to break up a rather solemn group sex session (Good. Good? Why good? No, bad). A hat, in the same story, blows into a grave and disrupts a funeral. As these moments occur in the last story, ‘The Border’, which ought to be clinching but clinches nothing, Kundera seems to be leaving open all the possibilities of meaning. Jan in this story discovers that ‘it takes ridiculously little, an insignificant breeze, to make what a man would have put down his life for one minute seem an absurd void the next.’
That there are indeed differences between the right and the wrong moments to laugh, or between good and bad or between a meaning and its opposite, Kundera is really in no doubt at all. He only makes the point that mankind gets confused about these things, and never more so than in his country, in his time. With the exuberant fantasy and the apparently odd conjunctions of his book he both represents this confusion and looks for a way out of it. He also finds a lot of it very funny, and he conveys this. Humour is his most engaging trait but is also one of his weapons. It is what he uses to ridicule the Communist state and its adherents. He saw Communism come to power in 1948, ‘to the cheers of about half the population’, with the object of creating ‘an idyll of justice for all’ – and so it’s as an idyll he pictures it. Or as a magnificent Bach fugue ‘in which every man is a note’. Hence the unlikely association here of Communism with Bach, harmony, nightingales, and round dances in which everyone joins hands. Even kicking feet in the air, as in the dance, has Party associations, and a couple who do this in a hurry to get out of their trousers and tights find it brings on such laughter (of the right sort – demonic and subversive, not angelic) that sex is out of the question. And of course angels. There’s an association of Communism with angels – as in ‘angelic simplicity’ and ‘angelic laughter’ (which is the confident, mindless and wrong kind), or as in Paul Eluard rising up over Wenceslaus Square – angels as symbols of the bad, phoney or stupid. This must be one of the oddest reversals the term has had.
This intriguing and surprising writer can also be plain-spoken and direct. A good deal of his charm – his moral attractiveness, especially when he speaks in his own person – comes from directness and seriousness. Some things in his novel are being advanced as truths. They mean what they say, are not reversible, and have no part in fantasy. On the first page, someone says ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ This is one of the irreversible truths of the novel. Tamina struggles to remember her dead husband; Kundera’s dying father to recall the use of language. The deepest meaning Kundera gives to his political theme is not through satire but by evoking the power of memory; and Husak’s crime, as President of Czechoslovakia, is to be ‘the president of forgetting’. But not all of his ideas stand up well to exposure. One idea confidently offered here as a revealing truth derives from the Czech word litost – ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’. The idea isn’t put to much use in the story ‘Litost’, which might suggest that, stripped of its pretensions, it’s not much of an idea. It certainly has an air of the morbus fraudulentus that Chekhov detected in his admirers when they talked to him à la Chekhov about despair. It’s worrying to think that it could be partly responsible for the notices this book has had in America, which are of the kind given to Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Kundera’s reception in America prompts the thought of Milos Forman’s arrival in Hollywood. One thinks of what these two Czechs from the Prague film school have in common on their home ground – the vivid sense of life, the irony, the wholesome sympathies – and then of the same sympathies giving rise to a film as fraudulent in its ideas as One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
Ideas about literature are prominent in the same story, ‘Litost’, which takes for granted a huge gap between literature and life. A student throws up his one chance of a night with his girl in order to spend it with a crowd of the poets he venerates. The drunken, story-telling crowd have such names as Goethe, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Lermontov. Mocking exposure of great men at their most absurd is an old game, and all of these are thoroughly exposed (except perhaps Lermontov – for the authenticity of his litost). Yet a whiff of idolatry stays in the air: they are great artists and therefore absurd, they aren’t like us, they even envy and admire ordinary human satisfactions, but art is not life ... This is a damaging story. It could be true of Kundera’s own art in some ways – but one doesn’t want to believe that these are his ideas.
What of Tamina, this central character in and for whom the novel focuses everything it has to say? We meet her in only two stories, but they are quite clear, direct ones. Tamina is that lovely thing, a centre of silence in an otherwise busy novel. How we see her first is as a silent barmaid in a café somewhere abroad, among people who try to chat up barmaids, or are busy writing novels or discussing their orgasms. How the author sees her is as a girl adrift on a raft, ‘and looking back, looking only back’. The story is a simple one about letters and diaries left behind in Czechoslovakia, which she wants, and fails to get out of the country. They concern her husband, now dead, and she wants them to help her to remember him. We meet her again on an island where children indulge her with polymorphous sex play that feels like ‘a long-awaited rest, a reward’: but it’s not what she wants, this ‘joy of angelic simplicity’, because she’s still thinking of her husband and of real love – which, because real, had been all difficulties, never simple. The children go on to torture her, quite playfully, because ‘she does not belong to their world,’ and when she tries to escape they watch her drown. It’s not a convincing fable, because it doesn’t have anything to convince one about. A few facts of life – such as that communities can generate a glow of community feeling, but can also be ruthless with those who don’t conform, and that totalitarian states behave in these ways – are here transposed into storybook scenes: but that’s not a way of learning anything fresh about them. What’s more interesting, in fact, is Kundera speaking in his own voice about his father, music and language, as he does in the intervals of this story.
But one sees that Tamina stands for faithfulness as one of the truths offered by the novel. She commemorates memory. It’s naive, but also brave and generous of the author to come out from behind the subtleties of his fantasy and dialectic to make such an obvious appeal for Tamina, who ‘means more to me than anyone ever has’. But the book as a whole has its generosity. It’s not the book of an exile who has evaded an intolerable situation in his own country, but of one who still lives with that situation and takes it on himself.