Milan Kundera is a genius, and a sexual one at that.
At some point in his or her life, one must ask himself the equivocal question that appears on page 41 of this magical book: would you be able to make love in public?
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 sexuality and most importantly, in music.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting features malevolent angels, which represent those who are still associated with Communism, music that does not deviate from form, and lovers who cannot forget their past relationships and use their sexuality sloppily 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”.
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, his understanding of music informs his writing just as much as communist theory does.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is also seeded with real events from this Czechoslovakian past.
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 essentially rewrite history and constrain Czechoslovakian freedom.
In the book, one of the historians, Milan Hübl, explains that without its stories, its history, and its language, a people cannot survive. Under the constraints of social amnesia, people will die, and it won’t be a physical death. It will be a death of mental, sexual, and artistic nature.
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; according to Kundera, people live in an “illusory infinitude” without an all-encompassing understanding of their surroundings.
So just as one gazes into the infinitude of the stars, reckless lovers gaze into the face of each new sexual lover, and each time grow further and further away from the true image of what love truly is.
You can never truly forget your past lovers.
As Kundera articulates, characters’ strategic cathartic process echo 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 this relationship is explained on a sexually explicit level in the book. 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.
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.
A quick and stimulating (no pun intended) read, I would recommend Milan Kundera’s sexy, eloquent work to anyone.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman