Saturday 11 August 2012

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

After reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and realizing that this was my book form (if I ever become a book, this is what I'll be) I became determined to read everything Kundera has ever written (ok almost everything). That is why when I stepped into a bookstore on Brick Lane a couple of weeks ago I ignored the piles of books on the way and went straight to a corner, where I was told Kundera is hiding. And there it was, a shelf of 6-7 books and no way of picking. That's when I saw The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The title immediately caught my attention. I would never connect forgetting and laughter, let alone put them in the same sentence on in the same title of a book. But again, if you come to think about it, you wouldn't put 'unbearable' and 'lightness' together either.

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance. It is a book about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about angels.

That is how Kundera himself describes his novel and I doubt I could find a better way. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is comprised of seven unrelated parts, all set in 1970s Bohemia, Czech Republic, during the years of the Russian occupation. The somehow independent from one another stories combine smoothly into a general feeling of impeding doom, of a disaster waiting to happen, of a despair that suffocates. One can easily recognize there are two driving themes - laughter and forgetting. The author explores their variations in the political, philosophical, and everyday sense creating rich characters, rich stories, rich experiences.

Forgetting. We all do, unfortunately. Sometimes I do pray to forget because the shame of what I did in the past obstructs my living in the present and my plans for the future. These prays are usually answered. No matter what we do, we forget. I realized it a couple of months ago when I was looking at a picture from my first school and I realized I have forgotten half of the names of my classmates. That is when it struck me and I felt a slow despair rising slowly. If i don't remember my past, where is my future?

The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.

In Kundera's world forgetting is an unescapable sin. Our existence is constantly marked and affected by forgetting. Memory is fragile and fleeting, yet memory and only memory determines the individuals we are. In the political sense, forgetting is the power of communism, memory - its worst enemy. In Russian occupied Bohemia the prime minister is the minister of forgetting. The collective memory is altered, transformed, changed, or erased to fit a new regime. Without memory, the people are fleeting in a void. Indeed:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

In a personal sense forgetting is even worse. Tamina and her husband left Prague as political enemies only for her husband to die a few months later abroad. Ever since Tamina has been submerged in her daily life as a waitress only to realize she has forgotten her past. She clinches to the only hope she has of recovering it - the diary she kept when she was happy. Without that diary, which follows with details the ups and downs,the happiness and the sorrow, the sex and the fightings, Tamina cannot see a future for herself. It seems weird to stick to the past when the future is awaiting for u. Yet, how are you to build a future if you have forgotten who you were before? The scariest thing is that we know the things we have forgotten are hidden somewhere in the brain (biology or whatever, but in fact everything we have ever seen or read is stored in the neurons) but we cannot retrieve it. In that sense is man's biggest agony.

In my life forgetting has been my agony. No matter how bad I have felt, I tend to forget and I keep making the same mistake over and over again just to feel the same emptiness, the same despair early in the morning when nothing makes sense, the same feeling it's only me who is standing, while the whole world is revolving. I have forgotten how much it hurt and I did it all the same.

And yet, as the coin has two sides (and the living is unbearably light): Kundera points out:

We must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory.

That is what I will always adore about Kundera. Never a straight answer and never a magical way to eternal happiness. Life is dual, being is unbearable, the end is doomed and we have to make our peace with the imperfections of the world.

From the forgetting to the laughter. I am not really sure how to make the transition but there is a quote that has stuck in my mind:

The first time an angel heard the devil’s laughter, he was dumbfounded. That happened at a feast in a crowded room, where the devil’s laughter, which is terribly contagious, spread from one person to another. The angel clearly understood that such laughter was directed against God and against the dignity of His works. He knew that he must react swiftly somehow, but felt weak and defenseless. Unable to come up with anything of his own, he aped adversary. Opening his mouth, he emitted broken, spasmodic sounds in the higher reaches of his vocal range (a bit like the sound made on the street of a seaside town by Michelle and Gabrielle), but giving them an opposite meaning: whereas the devil’s laughter denoted the absurdity of things, the angel on the contrary meant to rejoice over how well ordered, wisely conceived, good and meaningful everything here below was.

The angel and the devil faced each other and, mouths wide open, emitted nearly the same sounds, but each one’s noises expressed the absolute opposite of the other’s. And seeing the angel laugh, the devil laughed all the more, all the harder, and all the more blatantly, because the laughing angel was infinitely comical.

Laughable laughter is disastrous. Even so, the angels have gained something from it. They have tricked us with a semantic imposture. Their imitation of laughter and (the devil’s) original laughter are both called by the same name. Nowadays, we don’t even realize that the same external display serves two absolutely opposed internal attitude. There are two laughters, and we have no word to tell one from the other.

Laughter in Kundera's world carries infinite meanings. It is the devil's creation. It is the enemy of love. It is what tears us away from the world and throws us into our own solitude. It is an escape and a protection from reality.

I just realized this review is an absolute vomit of words and ideas that don't seem to make sense. In my head they do and they represent the way I was feeling after finishing The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It took me a month to write a review and I realized, I did forget a lot. But I will laugh the devil's laugh now and end with my most favorite quote.

Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you've brought breakfast in bed you'll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.

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