Review: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Review: The Book of Laughter and ForgettingThe Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
Published by Penguin on March 3, 1987
Genres: Magical Realism
Pages: 237
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
two-stars

Rich in its stories, characters, and imaginative range, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the novel that brought Milan Kundera his first big international success in the late 1970s. Like all his work, it is valuable for far more than its historical implications. In seven wonderfully integrated parts, different aspects of human existence are magnified and reduced, reordered and emphasized, newly examined, analyzed, and experienced.

This is not a book that really lends itself to summarization, so I’m not going to even try (Yoda would be disappointed otherwise, and you don’t want to disappoint Yoda). The best explanation of the book comes from within its own pages:

“This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance.
It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as a mirror.
It is a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and angels.” (165-6)

This really does convey what The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is like. The book is composed of a series of vignettes, some obviously related to one another and others, so far as I can tell, coming out of left field. The composition of the novel is similar to the one other Kundera book I have read, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both are told in brief snippets and focus as much (actually more) as philosophy as on characters.

The difference lies in the fact that The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a clearly defined cast, setting and plot. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting does not have any such clear cut framework. In fact, his description that the parts follow one another towards a theme, only to have sense fade into the distance, perfectly captures my experience reading this novel. Any time I started getting really interested in a particular character, journey, philosophical idea, etc, or even just started to think I knew what he was getting at, the story would inevitably leap to something else entirely, leaving me more confused and irritated than before.

He also does some weird postmodern, breaking the fourth wall stuff that really was not working for me. I have never been a huge fan of novelists including themselves as a character in their works (name and all), and this was one of those times where it did not work for me. Another thing that bothered me was the weird metaphor where death was like childhood, which also involved children raping an adult woman. That was weird and creepy, and didn’t really quite work as a metaphor. And, sadly, it’s not the only rape scene in the book.

Sometimes, I could tell that Kundera was getting close to something interesting here, but I don’t feel like he made it. There is definitely a reason why The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the more well-known work. I would recommend reading that one first.

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