A number of years ago I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and admit to struggling a bit with it at the time. I was given The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Jitka Olah, a student from Brno who was on a research placement with us this year and it has rekindled my interest in Kundera.
It is a fragmentary novel in a way, telling a number of stories, which are related through their connection to Prague and to a post Prague Spring Czechoslovakia. At least one of the narrative threads appears to be semi-autobiographical and whilst it is a book about Prague and the struggle for freedom, as well as the importance of not forgetting, of remembering and laughter as a weapon of both defiance and oppression, Kundera’s own failed idealism, disillusionment and sense of betrayal are tangible in the pages of the book.
It is a novel that has a musical quality, composed of a series of movements which together make up a symphony to Prague and freedom. Kundera himself calls it a novel of variations, which may be a better way of describing this set of individual, but thematically linked, narratives.
Ultimately, though, this is a bold political novel about how oppressive regimes will seek to erase the historical record as a way of defeating and silencing its critics and how remembering is a cital act of resistance. It is also about laughter, not only about how laughter might trivialise the serious, but how laughter, as a political act, in the face of oppression, can disarm the overblown pomposity of totalitarian regimes and their henchmen. THese are issues that are as relevant today as they were when Kundera wrote his book in the 1970s. Recent events in Iran and Burma make this a timely read.