Milan Kundera and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

There is a cliché that writers write what they know.  In the life of Milan Kundera, it involved writing about the people who remained happy under Communist rule, while he, an exiled Czechoslovakian, was forgotten.  In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera introduces the themes of laughter and forgetting in Lost Letters when Mirek says, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (4).  The reader will feel the importance of both emotions, but he continues to use them repetitively to remind readers of his connections to both.  In Mama, Karel’s mother was forgotten for years because she did not fit into the lifestyle he and Marketa chose to live.  The couple’s happiness was dependent on them being “far from Mama” (Kundera 37).  The pair’s partner, Eva, was described as, “friendship and sensuality” (Kundera 47). The parallel between Mama and Eva is explained in the representation of the love and friendship being dependent on their mother being forgotten.  In comparison, Kundera compares his character’s happiness as love and their misery as ‘litost.’ By analyzing the stories in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, readers will compare the thematic conflict of litost and love used by Kundera to define the parallels of human emotions.

In Kundera’s story, What is Litost?, he uses the thematic conflict of litost and love to remind readers why people are either happy in the present or forgetful of the past.  Litost is defined as, “…a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery” (Kundera 167).  In this story, litost and love are defined by telling the story of a student who is weaker at swimming than his girlfriend.  The young woman shows her love for him by slowing her pace to match his.  But, as she begins to swim faster, he feels weaker than her because he was not a good swimmer. He also represents a character who was forgotten.  At this moment, he feels a sense of self-imposed suffering that brings about his litost.  Kundera writes, “Torment is followed by the desire for revenge. The goal of revenge is to make one’s partner look as miserable as oneself” (168).  To make her feel as he does, he slaps her.  Seeing her misery, he no longer feels litost since he no longer feels a sense of weakness. Kundera states the thematic conflict when he writes, “One of the customary remedies for misery is love” (167). She does not react other than to cry because she loves him.  Even as they swam, she showed her love by being beside him and not in front of him so as not to compete.  In her representation of love, “All his faults are redeemed by love’s magical gaze, under which even inept swimming, with the head held high above the surface, can become charming” (167).  Even as she cried, she blamed herself when she thought he slapped her because she swam in an area he had previously forbid.  The memory of her love for him was stronger than forgetting that he hit her which reflected the conflict between litost and love.

Kundera uses many parallels in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting to explain human emotionsBy interjecting himself into several fictional stories, he tells his personal story of being the forgotten one who experiences litost.  Also, the relationship between people and human emotions will resonate with readers because of the reality that he interjects into his stories. More importantly, a reader will understand that for every emotion, there is an opposite that will lift you to the heavens or plunge you into hell.  Just as Kundera uses fiction to reflect on his reality, the readers will self-reflect on how emotions affect the people around them who define relationships, families, and communities.



Works Cited

Kundera, Milan, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” (A. Asher, Trans.), New York, NY: Harper Perennial, (1998).


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