The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson offers a plot summary and analysis of theme, form, and genre in Milan Kundera's 1979 novel, 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.' The novel is a collection of seven vignettes about characters in Europe during the era of Russian occupation.

Overview of the Narrative

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was written by Czech novelist Milan Kundera in 1979. The book explores the phenomenon of forgetfulness in the domains of history, politics, and personal life. The novel, which comprises seven separate narratives, has elements of the magical realist genre, a genre of fiction that is realistic and includes mythical elements.

Plot Summary

Kundera's novel consists of seven separate stories. The first story is about Mirek, whose homeland is occupied Russia in 1971. Mirek is under police surveillance, and he tries to discreetly retrieve love letters from his former lover, Zdena. The second story is about a woman, Marketa, and her husband, Karel, who learn to cope with Karel's childlike mother while also dealing with the memories of past desires. The third story is about two American girls, Gabrielle and Michelle, at a French summer school who learn the lessons of laughter. The fourth story is about Tamina, a woman living in a remote town in Western Europe, who struggles to salvage memories of her husband and their life together in Bohemia.

The fifth story is about Kristyna, a woman who becomes romantically involved with a student of poetry and philosophy. The sixth story returns to Tamina, comparing her struggles to remember her husband with the author's own struggle to remember his dead father. In this story, Tamina travels to a remote island, where she is raped by children before drowning. The final story describes an orgy, portraying a group of naked women and other women on a beach as they have sex and exchange opinions about the fate of Western civilization.

Important Themes

Not surprisingly, laughter is an important theme in the book. Kundera portrays how laughter is a form of revolt against oppression. In one scene, characters laugh at a funeral. This irreverent behavior allows them to express disdain for the absurdities of life and the political situation in Europe. In one passage, the narrator explains that laughter is diabolical, claiming that laughter originated when the devil emitted sounds to mock God and his divine creation. Another important theme is forgetting. The narrative portrays how characters struggle to recall private heritage and history, since communist regimes attempt to render all of life public. Characters struggle not to define the future, but to redefine the past by restoring personal and familial memories.

Another important theme is human folly. Characters struggle to control their sexual urges and instincts, along with other temptations. Kundera does not pass judgment on these characters, but rather acknowledges their imperfections as human beings.

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