Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I have just finished Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and am amazed, disturbed, perplexed. This is only the second Kundera offering I have read (the first was, of course, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). I admire the unconventional, creative mix of metafiction, autobiography, political discourse, magical realism. Kundera's peculiar talent for connecting so many disconnected things is both enlightening and frustrating--it's hard to hold it all together, but I am fascinated by the connections. I am still too amazed, dazed, and confused to write a coherent book review, but I wanted the opportunity to ask those of you who love this book why you love it so much. I am not sure that I do. Its cold philosophical observations, its desire to trample over every taboo--I am just not sure about it at all. I have come to expect gritty, even perverse, eroticism from Kundera--but his frequent romanticism of rape, even pedophilia, even if for "noble" magical realist and symbolic purposes, left me not wanting to fit some of these disconnected pieces together. I just wanted to forget that I had read certain sections of the "novel". I did very much enjoy Kundera's multi-angular discussion of memory--personal memory, political memory, societal memory. It's amazing how he weaves intimate autobiographical vignettes or fictional narratives into the larger social context as he explains that communism wants to create a future by erasing the past. The opening chapter has a strong visual example of this. Kundera explains that in February 1948 two communist leaders walked onto a balcony to address a crowd in Prague, and a famous photo was taken of the two men. Years later, one of the men was hanged for treason; therefore, he was erased in the "official" version of the photo. This desire to erase, rather than work through, the past is a central strand of this collection of essays and narratives. The two images he discusses can be seen here:

One last thing I wanted to mention (out of the many intriguing passages/concepts that I did like from the book) is a poignant character sketch of one of the central characters, Tamina. Kundera explains that Tamina is a true listener, never interrupting those who speak to her, not even for simple agreement. Because of this, she is well loved. This is something I have been thinking a lot about lately, especially in the wake of reading the previously mentioned Nouwen text. It seems that the desire to always agree with others, to connect our stories to theirs, can often be a means to project ourselves upon them rather than to listen to them. Kundera writes:
"The phrase 'It's absolutely the same with me, I...' seems to be an approving echo, a way of connecting the other's thought, but that is an illusion: in reality it is a brute revolt against a brutal violence, an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy's ear by force."
Kundera recognizes the great difficulty of allowing the other's "otherness", the recognition of a disjunction that leads to the violence of difference. We sometimes (not always) want to cover others up with our talking, even if this covering masquerades as an act of concern or connection. This is a simple, yet profound and challenging psychological insight.
I recognize that this post is disjointed--and I must admit my experience of the book is as well. What has your experience been with Kundera in general, and with this book in particular?


god-free morals said...

what a very cold view of humanity you portray, especially from that of Nouwen. i would have left my comment there but you have raised him again here. so, this post has nothing to do with kundera.

this view of "otherness" i cannot relate to at all. where do we get the concepts to relate towards ourself as a self? from others. we are everything we are because of our closeness and contact with others. they are not some distant mind trapped behind a body. we have immediate and direct contact with other people.

i was not surprised to read that nouwen suffered from clinical depression. kundera is another miserable existentialist. we start with and alongside people in the world. its beauty is terrible and blinding and fragile. we finish with and alongside people in the world. there is no inside. there is no beyond.

this is not an attack on you mary, i thank for all your interesting and insightful posts, and for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

if only i were so lucky to have "immediate and direct contact with other people." i find it a lot more difficult than that.

about kundera - i read 'the unbearable lightness of being' over last summer and thought it was beautiful and sad. i thought he was very rough with the characters, very real in exposing their weaknesses and nuances.

about nouwen - i'm about 2/3 the way through reading 'intimacy' by him now and i think it's kind of interesting how he treats our desires. he kind of says 'no' to some desires instead of the 'embrace but redirect' approach or the 'embrace the root of the desire' approach that i'm used to. thanks for blogging about him, you reminded me how great he is.