Tag Archives: Czech Republic

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting–Milan Kundera


An all Windswept Bones review..*

Milan Kundera’s forth published book, 1978’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is or is not a novel..

This and his The Unbearable Lightness of Being are considered his major works, of his ten published books of fiction. He has authored drama, poetry and most noteworthy many books of essays. His last published novel was Ignorance in 2000.

Philip Roth ( who became a friend of Kundera’s) helped introduce his works to US readers in the late 70’s in Penguins “Voices From the Other Europe” series which Roth edited. Pre -internet cross cultural literary discoveries were relegated to a few publishers or quarterlies, Penguin put Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš , and Bohumil Hrabal and Kundera on the world literature radar. From this series I had read Kundera’s The Farewell Party (now re-translated as The Farewell Waltz)  and The Joke.

The backdrop for our ‘novel’ up for review here is primarily the events just before and after the 1968 Prague Spring. We already notice something is a bit different by Part 1, entitled, Mama: when we find four of the nineteen  numbered sections are author asides, essay-observations of events and the political micro-climate surrounding the characters in the narrative. Later, even more strangely, the Kundera stand-in narrator sits next to us (without introduction) and ask us what we think about character’s feelings of shame toward  each other. But he doesn’t really direct his question to us, its more voicing his thoughts out loud as a story teller to himself as he works out the direction the story will take. As each Section closes with the end of that story and new characters and story are introduced in the next part it becomes evident that we are being taken gradually further and further away from the confines of the familiar form in each succeeding part. The pattern of intertwined authorial essays on political and historical philosophy continues throughout all seven parts and expands the book’s axis into realms where ‘novels’ customarily don’t tread form wise.

Try as I might to avoid reading novels that  aspire to be literature like one would pack undersized luggage, I often still find myself trying to cram my preconceived notions of what a novel should be into my figurative ‘traditional novel definition’ carry-on bag. Didn’t James famously call the novel that ‘loose baggy monster’? From Lawrence Sterne and Dennis Diderot I should have learned to leave such reader’s prejudices behind altogether…

Which segues into Milan Kundera’s proclamation in his The Art of the Novel, that Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist are the two greatest novels of the 18th Century. Coincidentally I had just read both last winter, so my memories of them were somewhat retrievable. Kundera was attracted to Shandy’s wonderful self aware endless digressions, (an anti narrative of sorts), and Jacques authorial asides commenting in the present tense on his own story, as exploding the traditional novel form. He commented that he could not believe that “no one [authors of fiction] followed them [Sterne and Diderot]”:

If you feel the tiniest bit obliged to me for what I have just told you, you should be infinitely grateful for what I haven’t said – Diderot’s narrator of Jacques the Fatalist

In Part 4, ‘Lost Letters’ Kundera-author opens with a paragraph informing his readers that:

I calculate that two or three new fictional characters are baptized here on earth every second. That is why I am always hesitant about joining that vast crowd of John The Baptists. But what can I do? After all, my characters need to have names. This time to make clear that the heroine is mine and only mine, I am giving her a name no woman ever before has borne: Tamina. I imagine her as tall and beautiful, thirty three years old, and originally from Prague

In for me the book’s most powerful part, Kundera the narrator- author relates an autobiographical account of his dying father’s coping with aphasia- (loss of ability to speak, to string words together meaningfully) he must interpret the last sentence his father could utter  “Now I know” pointing to a sheet of music as a revelation about why the composer Brahm’s focused on ‘variation themes’ near the end of his life. This to explain and expand in Diderot fashion, the bones of this book:

The book is a novel in the form of variations and follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.

Since the book  has dispensed with the whole plot thing to hold it together in traditional novelistic sense ( though there are ‘plot lines’ in each of the seven section’s individual narratives). The form (if we grant Kundera the narrator his above claim) can be seen as repetitions developing his themes,  as in a late Brahms whatzit. The tableau’s are examined by Kundera the essayist while they are being created. They are meditations on personal/the individual vs cultural history. Kundera views it in terms of repetitions, as cyclical, at least collective European history. The comparisons are made, held up contrasting personal temporal history, vs the ‘public’ history… The line of sight’s of each character’s involvement in their time is one of farsightedness. “Mama” in Part Two can only see a” big pear in the foreground, and in the distance a Russian tank no bigger than a ladybug”.

Scattered in its reflections on the cultural ethos of the time, angles of view include a look at personal relations, there are predominantly male-female relationships in the book, including  the character’s sexual life and politics. Intercourse is a metaphor subtextually. Penetration, subjugation, the psychology of ‘power’ at the individual level, is foregrounded and associated with forceful will- to- power enacted, on the societal level, like in the takeover of the Czech regime by the Russians subsequent to the Prague Spring. The personal level depiction of sexual power politics is often blunt, male dominated and some may find it not to their tastes. As Diderot put it near the end of Jacques the Fatalist:

This chronicle will be either interesting or it won’t, though that’s neither here nor there. My intention was to be true, and in this I have succeeded

Its for each reader to decide.


*please refer to other reviews for their usage of ‘Bones’



Filed under Milan Kundera

Closely Watched Trains– Bohumil Hrabal



Closely Watched Trains was my first introduction to this amazing Czech writer who was as at home in his favorite pub, as he was quoting Emanual Kant at the soccer matches…

In keeping with a semi-confessional nature here at Traces, I have to admit to having a copy of this and his Too Loud A Solitude sitting unread on my bookshelves for over three decades. After reading them, I have decided only at the last minute to stay my execution…

I started with this one on the advice that it may be his most conventional work, and maybe his most famous (it was made into an Academy Award Winning movie in 1966). On one level it is a pretty straight forward story with a flashback or two, of the timid, bumbling young railroad dispatcher apprentice Milos Hrma. The depot is a microcosm of Czech life in the madness that is the Nazi occupation of 1946. Hrma to me is not as ‘simple’ as he seems. I would say he’s been emotionally flayed and significantly tries to become a ‘man’ in the world. His impotency is figurative as well as real. Hrma’s as the narrator is the emotionally detached lens panning the scenes with little coloration, but given his distraction he renders it in the fashion of a daydream. Hrabal has simplified Hrma’s emotional constructs as Hrma’s lens plays on the cruel absurdities of life in his Nazi occupied country.

The novel is colonized in the story level by characters that are typecast: a clown, a Casanova, a slut, and the fumbling , naive young hero, but they are also more than caricatures by a wide margin, we are allowed to glimpse their fragile attempts to escape the imposed unreality, to at least visualize a semblance of a future, such as seen by Hublika’s “cloud writing”, projections of his fantasy reality as we gaze along with him at his created sky.  The bounds of what is ‘normal’ or real are constantly stretched,  as in the pigeon-encrusted station master who constantly tries to retain his sanity after conflicts with his staff by stomping upstairs in the depot and shouting tirades down the air vent shaft, as if he’s God shouting down from the heavens. Besides the ‘Polish’ Pigeons, which are pretty much the only form of life not subject to human atrocity, the domestic animals are abused, maimed and mistreated through out. All humanity is reduced to the level of fauna, at one point, the SS call the Czechs ‘bestial’ and later the Nazis are referred to by the station master as ‘beasts’..

The Pargeter translated prose borders on the poetic. Sadness and humor in almost every sentence. Do not be deceived by its length… there is a palpable density to it, and a powerful ending that will be moving for some, or possibly a bit over-reaching for others.

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