The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme.
This is not an easy book to review, so please forgive me if this will feel disjointed. The quote above comes from the interview with Kundera that was added at the end of my edition, I think it gives a good introduction and sets expectations. This book is a collection of stories that do not combine into a single plot, are not connected much by time or space, but they do revolve around the same theme. And revolve may be the best word here, because they seem to go in circles, but with each circle they get deeper into the theme.
Kundera sets out to explore, as he mentions in the title, the laughter and forgetting. His starting point is the totalitarian state, he uses the country of his origin, Czechoslovakia, as en example, but his theory applies to all such states. The thesis he develops throughout the book is that a totalitarian state wants us all to forget everything that does not suit the current doctrine. Everything can be forgotten, most of all people (one of the communist leaders is so thoroughly forgotten that the only thing left behind is his hat in one of the photos). Now we are all very much focused on the present, we actually try to re-focus on it, hence meditation is so popular, because we were rushing ahead so quickly we were missing the present. The problem Kundera’s characters have is that they try to preserve the past, it is their only anchor, the only thing proving their identity in a foreign country, so they fight for the past with all their might. Kundera actually at some point describes the present as ‘nothing moving slowly toward death’ (and it is difficult to argue with him, especially if one is pessimistically inclined). It is interesting to read a different point of view, it feels both distant and familiar at the same time, sometimes I guess we all feel longing for past, even being so busy rushing forward, so this longing must have been really strong when there was nothing to rush towards.
Another interesting topic that comes up is graphomania, Kundera analyses its origins and strongly believes that it can only happen in a satiated society, where everyone feels safe and not much is going on. It is born out of isolation but also breeds isolation. I very much enjoyed his thoughts on music too, how the popular music is music past history, past any thought, but at the same time how it has the capability of connecting people. Laughter is presented as a two-edged sword, the laughter of joy and meaning and the laughter of senseless irony and despair, with our language having no ability to distinguish between the two.
I read few other books by Kundera and my favorite remains The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but this definitely will be a close second. Not due to the characters or the plot, but the themes he is considering definitely make me think. I can feel the world has changed a lot since he wrote the book, but on the other hand people didn’t change that much and those themes definitely still hold. Food for thought.
Here are two more quotes from the interview with Kundera, I had so many quotes marked in the book, that I’ll split them into a separate post.
A person finds himself in a world of children, from which he cannot escape. And suddenly childhood which we all lyricize and adore, reveals itself as pure horror. As a trap. This story is not allegory. But my book is a polyphony in which various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other. The basic event of the book is the story of totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children. All totalitarianisms do this.
The stupidity of people comes from having an answer to everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.