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The Various Stages of a Voyage: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

It took me about fifty pages of Kundera’s book (in Aaron Asher’s translation from the French) before I was drawn in and absorbed with it. The seven chapters of the book are more like short stories which are loosely tied together by theme. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has been described as a novel and, at times, autobiographical. But, like many great authors who invent their own genres of writing (Musil, Proust, Kafka, etc.) Kundera instructs us on how to read him:

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

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror.

It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels.

Like the author himself, Tamina lives in exile in another country in the west after she escapes political persecution by the Communist government in Prague. Shortly after their escape, Tamina’s husband dies and she leads a very lonely, monotonous, and silent existence. As the years slip by she is worried that her memories of her life with her husband are fading as well. She is desperate to somehow retrieve her notebooks and diaries which she left in Prague.

For Tamina is adrift on a raft and looking back, looking only back. Her entire being contains only what she sees there, far behind her. Just as her pas contracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours.

She wants to have her notebooks so that the flimsy framework of events, as she has constructed them in her school notebook, will be provided with walls and become a house she can live in. Because if the tottering structure of her memories collapses like a clumsily pitched tent, all Tamina will be left with is the present, that invisible point, that nothingness moving slowly toward death.

Throughout the book I kept thinking about memory and how our minds choose what to keep and what to discard. Even with important or traumatic events our memories can’t possibly retain every detail. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the Supreme Court nominee comes to mind: “indelible in the hippocamus is the laughter” is the horrifying detail she remembers when Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to assault her. Tamina doesn’t have the opportunity to get her diaries back but she learns that there are some parts of her memory, even though they are fragments—good or bad, that she will always have with her.

One final word about Kundera’s astonishing piece of writing is the eroticism that pervades every chapter. Orgies, menage a trois, assault, casual sex, etc. are among the acts that are described in the narrative. It was an odd theme that stands out among the others for me. But I don’t know enough about Kundera’s style and other writings to make any intelligent comments about it. So I will simply mention that it’s there and keep processing it as I read more of his fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a favorite Kundera? Please do let me know!

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