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Milan Kundera: Kniha smíchu a zapomnení (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

This book is divided into seven parts and concerns the various attempts by the characters to retrieve their memories – Mirek, the hero, is trying to retrieve his love letters (the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, Mirek comments, just in case we don’t get it), Tamina, now in exile, tries to remember her husband, Jan is planning to leave his country. For most of the characters – trapped in the authoritarian Czechoslovakia – it is difficult or even impossible to track down their memories, their private feelings, their private eroticism and the laughter they need is just not there. Kundera cleverly links all of these stories together and, of course, links them all to the political situation in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, the opening section concerns the airbrushing out of a photo of a Czech Communist leader (Clementis) who has subsequently fallen into disgrace and has, like Kundera, been officially forgotten. Kundera is not looking for the easy way out. The famous final scene, set on a French nudist beach, mocks the Western liberals (Western civilization was on its way out and we would soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before), leaving us with little hope.

Publishing history

First published in Czech by Sixty-Eight Publishers in 1981 (first published in French in 1979)
First published in English by Knopf in 1980
Translated by Michael Henry Heim