On the Bookshelf: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

On the agenda is Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Full Disclosure: I am a HUGE Kundera fan. This article is NOT a book review (because if Kundera writes it, merit is not in question) but more a reflection of his unique penmanship.

If you are not familiar with any of Kundera’s works, then this is a tragedy. There is no amount of essays or reviews to help you understand the essence of his work, except, to read it. Understanding is the task I have proposed to undertake since first reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I will speak more of that novel in another entry. Today’s focus is on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me as I try to keep up with his poetically abstract prose from page-to-page – he is a philosopher. Kundera has the uncanny ability to craft an entire novel around a series of abstractions. His novel and story arcs are propelled forward (or backward) more by his character’s emotional metamorphoses (usually illustrated through internal monologs) rather than by plot or dialog. Not to say there isn’t plot. The events that incite these mental or emotional epiphanies are usually small, brief, and somewhat insignificant in that they are only necessary as a transitory catalyst from which the real “plot” may happen.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts that speak to three different story arcs.

His style introduces an abstract concept pretty much within each small segment of a part of the novel (which is a LOT of abstractions since most of these segments are only 2-5 pages long). He makes his argument for the character’s emotional state of mind very quickly, then introduces an abstraction, much as a metaphor or conceit. He then relates it back to the character’s state of mind, making it tangible, then turns it back into an abstraction just beyond the scope of the reader’s grasp. The latter may be attributed to my ignorance in philosophy and many of the other literary works he cites or borrows his abstractions from, but I like to think he does this intentionally – with a smug half-smile.

Kundera also does something very unconventional in this book that I have not seen in my readings of The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Identity. In an entirely third person telling of the stories, he randomly inserts his first person perspective. This literary technique goes against every type of writing I’ve ever been taught. However, he employs this change in perspective so naturally, that the rhythm of the story is enhanced by it! The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a strange conglomeration of autobiography, literary criticism, fiction, and political statement – but it works!

For emphasis, I will post an excerpt from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Bear in mind that some of the effects may be lost if you haven’t read this book since this particular excerpt is taken from the middle. However, I chose this passage because the amount of damage and exposition required on my part is minimal as compared to other excerpts I could choose. Also, this is (in my opinion) one of the fewer abstruse abstractions, and one the aspiring writer (as myself) can relate.

Key:

  • Tamina – Main character in this story arc / bartender
  • Hugo – Bar patron
  • Banaka – Local writer
  • Graphomania – Unfortunately, this is another abstraction he coins earlier in the novel, which is eloquently introduced and explained, and crucial to understanding the abstraction of this excerpt. I will butcher and consolidate that eloquence in the spirit of the larger picture
    • Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) reinforces and aggravates the feelings of general isolation in that everyone surrounds himself with his writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from outside.
  • Personal diaries – Tamina’s main goal is to retrieve a package of love letters between her and her dead husband from the Russian occupied Czechoslovakia.
  • Bibi – A friend of Tamina’s and an aspiring writer and a protege of Banaka.
  • I – Kundera is referring to himself in the first person.

Several days later Banaka turned up at the cafe dead drunk. He sat on a bar stool, fell off twice, climbed back up twice, ordered a Calvados, and then put his head down on the counter. Tamina noticed he was crying.

“What’s the matter, Mr. Banaka?” she asked him.

Banaka looked up at her tearfully and pointed to his chest. “I’m nothing, do you understand? Nothing. I don’t exist!”

Then he went to the men’s room and from there straight outside without paying.

When Tamina told Hugo about it, he showed her a page of newsprint with several book reviews including a short note on Banaka’s works – four lines of ridicule.

The episode of Banaka pointing to his chest and crying out of existential anguish reminds me of a line from Goethe’s West-East Divan: “Is one man alive when others are alive?” Deep within Goethe’s query lies the secret of the writer’s creed. By writing books, the individual becomes a universe ( we speak of the universe of Balzac, the universe of Chekov, the universe of Kafka, do we not?). And since the principal quality of a universe is its uniqueness, the existence of another universe constitutes a threat to its very essence.

Two shoemakers can live together in perfect harmony (provided their shops are not on the same block). But once they start writing books on the lot of the shoemaker, they will begin to get in each other’s way; they will start to wonder, Is one shoemaker alive when others are alive?

Tamina feels that the eyes of a single outsider are enough to destroy the worth of her personal diaries, while Goethe thinks that if a single individual fails to set eyes on his lines, that individual calls his- Goethe’s -entire existence into question. The difference between Tamina and Goethe is the difference between human being and writer.

A person who writes books is either all ( a single universe for himself and everyone else) or nothing. And since all will never be given to anyone, every one of us who writers books is nothing. Ignored, jealous, deeply wounded, we wish the death of our fellow man. In that respect we are all alike: Banaka, Bibi, Goethe, and I.

The proliferations of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, mistresses, murderers, prostitutes, and doctors proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out into the streets with a cry of, “We are all Writers!”

The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before its too late.

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.

The abstractions, “graphomania” and Goethe’s posed question of, “is one man alive while others are alive?”, are presented plainly. Banaka’s emotional state is illustrated and the reason – a bad book review. That is the action or inciting plot device I spoke about earlier in this article. It isn’t much, and one could not base an entire chapter on this small interaction without it being trite and forced. It doesn’t appear to be much of anything, yet Kundera uses this external communication (the inciting catalyst) and cohesively relates and propels the character’s of this arc, namely, Banaka, Tamina, Kundera (as he places himself throughout this novel in a pseudo-autobiographical way), and Bibi, into their evolved state.

Kundera is illustrating several things here. 1) the tribulations of a writer 2) speaking about a generation of selfishness 3) the struggles of wanting to become immortalized among fellow writer and human alike specifically through words 4) posing and answering the question of legacy of a writer, i.e., can one great author exist at the time of another 5) explaining the fundamental similarities and juxtaposition of a single isolated human, Tamina who wants her letters for private reasons, and a immortalized writer, Goethe who writes to immortalize himself in the public, yet both are completely alone.

While relating these abstractions to his character’s, he is also posing new abstract questions, though not necessarily in questions, and this is how he can end on an abstraction while keeping the segment cohesive and inclusive. All these minor abstractions amass to the scope of his story – the greater abstraction!

Brilliance!

His style is comparable to Wong Kar-Wai’s style of filmmaking – abstract, beautiful, pioneering. Of course, Kundera, as well as Wong Kar-Wai, have predecessors. Kundera’s style of writing, Wong Kar-Wai’s style of filmmaking, are not wholly original conceptions. However, their executions, are unique and coined exclusively theirs. They, as well as others like them, are making it acceptable to push the boundaries of traditional writing and filmmaking by making abstractions attainable and relatable to general audiences. No longer is the transcription of philosophers only for the minds of the bourgeois; this is the real landmark of our generation – the era of tolerance and accessibility.

I am in awe and in envy of this talent. Of course, Kundera’s style and technique vary from novel to novel, but three novels into his volumes he has been able to blow my mind with his methodology. An author’s work is constantly evolving. It seems Kundera is gradually working and re-working this unique style of writing in and about abstractions from book to book.