TW: rape fantasies, scenes of sexual nature involving children, suicide (non-graphic).
Welcome back, and happy Saturday! Today I’m reviewing Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translated from French by Aaron Asher, and from the original Czech by Kundera himself. I had previously read a short story by Kundera before reading this, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this novel. I’m not sure it’s really a novel, rather a series of connected parts told from various perspectives. The earlier parts, I found mostly enjoyable, but the book became more surreal, more avant-garde, and deals with more taboo topics that made parts of the book unpleasant to read.
The early parts, as I said, were promising. They contain thought-provoking political commentary alongside sexual scenes, mixing the serious with the more light-hearted. The middle parts were probably where the book peaked for me, with the discussions of laughter and forgetting as central to the human experience. The earlier sections built up to these well, introducing themes in a subtle way to be expounded upon later. Kundera’s prose is excellent (and though this is a translation, Kundera has fully authorised this translation, and has said that he recognises his book in this translation), and makes the reading experience a delight. I would like, for the first part of this review, to stick with these earlier sections. To be more specific, the first four parts are the ones I’m really focusing on here.
In these first four parts, we mix Kundera’s life with the life of his characters. In the first part, a young man goes to visit a woman he once had an affair with, only to be deeply disappointed by the reality of her. Throughout the story, he is followed, and eventually arrested, along with his son and several of his friends. This story was a really interesting look into the political landscape of Prague, and also introduced a theme of misogyny that runs in the male characters throughout this book. While I am generally put off by misogyny, the theme was explored in an interesting way in the early stories, and it did feel as though the characters were being critiqued somewhat for their thought processes towards women, rather than celebrated for them. The second part was also a standout to me, a more amusing tale of a couple struck by infidelity. The husbands’ — Karel’s — infidelity had long ago been accepted by his wife, who had engineered a meeting between her husband and her friend, a young woman she met in a sauna, who declared herself “a cheerful man-chaser”. Between these three characters is an electric sensuality, an atmosphere pushed into tension by the presence of Karel’s mother. The third and fourth parts are where the central themes are really explored in depth, and they were stylistically fascinating to read and contained a lot of thought-provoking elements on politics, life in Prague, and what it is to be human.
After the halfway mark, however, the book took some turns that I enjoyed less and less as it progressed. The idea behind part 5, “Litost”, was one that I enjoyed, but I didn’t enjoy how overbearing Kundera’s presence as an author became. The interjections pulled me out of the story, and felt a bit too much like Kundera showing how clever he was. I also wasn’t a big fan of the relationship depicted in this story, but that was more of a personal preference.
And then this book got really weird. Now, to be clear, I am not against ‘weird’ in books as a general rule. However, in one section of this book (Part 6), Kundera went a step too far for me. One of the characters we met earlier in the book, Tamina, takes a journey without knowing where she is going. Where she is going turns out to be an island of children, who treat her as some kind of ethereal being with her adult body. This attitude has an undertone I found uncomfortable, which escalates into (non-explicit) scenes of a sexual nature involving Tamina and the children. I don’t understand how this added anything to the book at all other than making the reader uncomfortable. Thematically it doesn’t seem to develop anything, and the surrealism of this part didn’t fit alongside the rest of the book for me. Another uncomfortable element of this book was the pervasiveness of the misogyny and rape fantasies that are prevalent throughout the book. The attitudes towards sex and sexuality generally were not ones I enjoyed reading, and although I did feel as though Kundera criticised them at points, it felt unnecessary to have this repeating theme crop up so many times and never have the depth of thematic exploration increased.
Overall, the first half of this book was considerably more enjoyable than the second. Had Kundera continued to expound upon his themes in the second half rather than turning to the shock factor to engage readers, I would have had much more positive feelings towards the second half. As it is, the latter parts really missed the mark for me.