Places: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli, 1979 (English translation, 1980)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1948-1980

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Prague

*Prague. Book of Laughter and Forgetting, TheCapital of Czechoslovakia, an Eastern European nation that was created after World War I, that was occupied by Nazi Germany through World War II, and that fell under the Soviet orbit in the late 1940’s. Seen through the perspectives of different characters at diverse places and times, the city becomes an emblem of the wrongs endured by the people of Czechoslovakia under communist rule. For example, in 1971, three years after the Russian occupation of his homeland, Mirek–under surveillance by the not-so-secret police–seeks to retrieve his letters from a former lover.

The novel opens in February, 1948, as the communists are taking control of the country. After describing events at the ceremony held in Prague to commemorate the event, the narrator introduces two significant and re-occurring ideas. First, that history may be altered in service to power; second, that human imagination offers escape through an element of magical realism, a communal dance in a ring. In 1950, despite the fact that several artists have been hanged by the communists, Kundera observes that the people of Prague still dance in rings–a fact that further demonstrates the contrast between the restrictive regime and the blind-to-it-all, free-spirited people of Czechoslovakia whom the regime seeks to suffocate. This tension between the controlling forces of governmental censorship and the natural forces of human emotions is reflected in the history of the characters (which some of them seek to alter) and the altered history of Czechoslovakia itself.

*Bartolomejska Street

*Bartolomejska Street. Short but famous Prague street, on which all but two buildings belong to the police. The novel’s narrator, now an excommunicated horoscope writer, takes a one-room apartment there in 1972, after the Soviet occupation of the country makes it impossible for him to work legally. From his apartment, he can see the towers of Prague Castle above, representing the glorious history of the Czech kings, and, in the police courtyards down below, the not-so-glorious history of the current Czech prisoners. This juxtaposition of past wealth and political grandeur and present oppression and penury sharply accents the decline in Czech culture that Kundera blames squarely on the communist occupation.

*Riviera

*Riviera. Resort region on southern France’s and northwestern Italy’s Mediterranean coasts where the American girls Michelle and Gabrielle take a summer-school course for foreigners in a small, unnamed town. Under Madame Raphael’s tutelage, they study Eugène Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros (1959). Kundera depicts the girls making their giggling preparations for a shallow presentation, and they provide him an opportunity to define different types of laughter. The girls laugh in their bedrooms, they laugh in the stationery store in which they buy cardboard to make rhinoceros noses for their presentation, they laugh as they imagine how their teacher will respond to their presentation. As her pet students, they know that no unpleasant reality can cloud the illusions of their laughter. At the disastrous presentation itself, the girls’ ridiculous efforts are mocked by the class, and they even receive a kick in the behind from another student. As their laughter dissolves into tears, the girls do not slink to their seats in mortified silence; instead, their teacher joins them at the front of the class, and, once again, the magic dance intervenes, offering escape as the girls and their teacher turn into angels and spiral up on high. Serving as a sort of parallel universe, this place and its characters serve to indict the callous indifference of the rest of the world, particularly Europe and the United States, for their failure to acknowledge or confront the atrocities committed by the communist regime in Eastern Europe.

Provincial town

Provincial town. Unnamed town in Western Europe in which Tamina has been working at a small café since she and her late husband, Mirek, left Czechoslovakia illegally. The displaced Tamina urgently tries to retrieve memories of her husband and their past together in Czechoslovakia’s Bohemia region–memories recorded in notebooks that she has left in her mother-in-law’s house in Prague. In her quest to remember, Tamina, guided by the unlikely angel Raphael, is taken by boat to an unreal island where she has erotic encounters with squirrels and children, and effectively forgets Prague and its past, which is her past, as well. When the darkness of the water takes her in its embrace, her final forgetting is complete.

Nudist beach

Nudist beach. Place where the novel ends, with the doctor Jan and his lover, Edwige, taking a final holiday at a nudist beach before Jan leaves Europe for the United States. Jan dreams of pure arousal innocent of physicality, while Edwige invokes a return to pagan sensuality; they assent to each other’s visions in mutual misunderstanding. In a discussion with a group of naked people, a paunchy man raises the subject of the end of Western civilization; this is received with enthusiasm by the others.

BibliographyBanerjee, Maria Nemcova. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Thorough summary and discussion of the major themes of the novel.Bell, Pearl K. “The Real Avant-Garde.” Commentary 70, no. 6 (December, 1980): 66-69. Places Kundera in a tradition of dissident Eastern European writing and praises The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’s originality.Lodge, David. “Milan Kundera, and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism.” Critical Quarterly 26, nos. 1/2 (Spring/Summer, 1984): 105-121. Compares the narrative technique of Kundera’s first novel, The Joke (1967), to that of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, calling the latter “a masterpiece of postmodernist fiction.”Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Good discussion of the novel in the wider contexts of Kundera’s thought, life, and career.Updike, John. “Czech Angels.” In Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. An often-cited enthusiastic review/essay that focuses on the themes of forgetting and eroticism in the novel.
Categories: Places