Analysis of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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 The Love Triangle: Measures of Forgetting in Love, War, and Verse  

At some point in his life, one must ask himself the equivocal question: “Would you be able to make love in public?” (Kundera 141). Would you be able to love someone with sheer perfection, forgetting those in the past and only focusing on the magnificence—and laughter—of the present? For Milan Kundera, the process of forgetting is one which occurs on many levels: Forgetting occurs in love, in war, in politics, in sociology, and most importantly, in music. In the process of examining the act of forgetting on sociological, political, and musical levels, one can understand Kundera’s kaleidoscopic agenda in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

The malevolent angels in the chapter entitled “The Angels” represent those who are still associated with Communism, music that does not deviate from form, and lovers who cannot forget their past lovers and use their sexuality in an attempt to do so. In a New York Times book review written by John Updike, these “[a]ngels are the heralds of “uncontested. . .meaning on earth”; once fallen from their circle, one never stops falling, “deeper,” Kundera tells us, “away from my [his] country and into the void of a world resounding with the terrifying laughter of the angels” (“The Most Original Book of the Season”). In the same book review, Updike writes about Kundera as the son of a famous pianist; he worked as a musician under the Communist regime and dedicated his life to music, literature, and film. Naturally, music informs his understanding of his life just as much as Communist theory does.

Gustav Husak, who is named “The President of Forgetting” in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, came into power in 1969 as the Communist leader of Czechoslovakia and conducted a historical genocide; that is to say, Husak forced many Czech historians, doctors, writers, and musicians out of their respective workplaces and began an effort to rewrite history and constrain Czechoslovakian freedom (Kundera 217-218). In the book, one of these historians, Milan Hübl, explains that without its stories, its history, and its language, a people cannot survive: In essence, the Czech people under the power of the Communist regime were “crossing the desert of organized forgetting” (218). This “organized forgetting” could also be termed “social amnesia,” which is a sociological term for reification, which, “in Marxism refers to an illusion that is objectively manufactured by society. This social illusion works to preserve the status quo by presenting the human and social relationships of society as natural—and unchangeable—relations between things” (Jacoby 4).

In one of the chapter’s discussions, the narrator and his father have a discussion—a discussion circling around variation form and its sovereignty in Beethoven’s sonatas…how Beethoven had a knack for “inscribing in it his more beautiful meditations” (Kundera 221). This discussion of form sets up Kundera’s explanation of Tamina’s character, and the background for Tamina to emerge as a character is silence: “[T]hat multiple silence resounding through Bohemia” (Kundera 221). Using musical deviation from form, one can magnify the reconstruction and restriction of freedom that occurred in Czechoslovakia under the rule of Husak; similarly, individuals restructure and try to achieve freedom from their past lovers with their own acts of sexual sovereignty. This relationship among forgetting, catharsis, conformity, and sovereignty is evident in music, the relationship between and among past and present lovers, and in history as a continuous entity: “Exactly as the past is forgotten, it rules unchallenged; to be transcended, it must first be remembered. Social amnesia is society’s repression of remembrance—society’s own past” (Jacoby 5).

Enter Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata, which has one theme—sixteen measures in its entirety—and many variations, each of which “resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope” (Kundera 226). Kundera, using the relationship between theme and infinite variation, introduces the idea that without understanding the sun and stars, one cannot embrace the universe; “[e]ven though man himself is mortal, he can imagine neither the end of space nor of time nor of history nor of a people, for he always lives in an illusory infinitude” (Kundera 246).  So just as one gazes into the infinitude of the stars, Tamina gazes into the eyes of every man she engages with and mentally paints the face of her dead husband over the top of his face—each time growing further and further away from the true image of her husband. She can’t forget her past lover.

And Tamina’s journey continues when she is taken to a place where children force adults to be children again; Tamina is forced to go to the children’s island, where singing and dancing in circular form is compulsory. This obligatory drive to dance, to sing, to play games, and to be juvenile to the point of oblivion is an analog for the regime of Husak and for Beethoven’s agenda as a musician. However, Tamina strategically uses her sensuality and her body, which undoubtedly told the love story of she and her husband, a story which “had sunk into insignificance” (Kundera 242). In exercising and reveling in her sexual maturity—her variation from physical form—as contrasted with children, Tamina is able to forget her past lover effectively from time to time. None of the children have a specific function. However, the mass of them combine to offer Tamina a “singularly peaceful sensual pleasure” (Kundera 244).

As Kundera later articulates, Tamina’s strategic cathartic process echoes the dynamic of the chromatics in a king’s court; many tones and princes serve the same king—one person receiving service from many. And Kundera blends the introduction of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone empire with Tamina’s exploitation of the children to achieve freedom. The music that allows people to forget and to return to their primeval state is not classical music, as explicated in part 18 of “The Angels.” In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Karel Klos, a Czech pop singer, flees the country. In an effort to destroy form, Husak begs Klos to come back simply because he offered the people “music without memory (Kundera 249). Just as Husak manipulates the kind of music his people are allowed to listen to, being in a relationship, as Kundera posits, places sexuality on the backburner; “sexuality freed from its diabolic ties to love” becomes mere sex because “sex is not love but merely a territory love takes over” (Kundera 250).

The territory of form in music, history in Communism, and ownership in relationship is a tripartite correlation that Kundera is primarily concerned with reconnoitering. As far as music goes, there is only so much form that can exist. As far as Communism goes, there is only so much rewriting and control that one can inflict on a culture. And with respect to Tamina and the relationships among lovers, among her “lovers, there was a growing hostility between those who felt they were her favorites and those who felt rejected” (Kundera 251). They rape her, she escapes the island, they follow her, and she drowns: Kundera’s artistic representation of forgetting as futile. One can never truly forget the past; he can, however, deviate from the norm to formulate a new future. He can laugh, dance, and sing his way to a new beginning—on any level, private or public.

Works Cited

Jacoby, Russell. Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology. New Brunswick,

N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction, 1996. Print.

Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1980. Print.

Updike, John. “The Most Original Book of the Season.” The New York Times.  30 November,

1980. The New York Times on the Web. 13 April, 2013.

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