The Book of Laughter and Forgetting | Critical Essay by Ellen Pifer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
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Critical Essay by Ellen Pifer

SOURCE: "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Kundera's Narration against Narration," in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 22. No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 84-96.

In the essay below, Pifer examines the way that Kundera's notion of the novel informs his narrative methods and practice, focusing mainly on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

In Milan Kundera's novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator diagnoses the disease of "graphomania." "An obsession with writing books," graphomania has, he says, overtaken contemporary mass society and reached "epidemic" proportions. While graphomaniacs attempt to write their way out of the isolation induced by an advanced state of "social atomization," their obsession with self-expression paradoxically reinforces and perpetuates the sense of "general isolation" that is symptomatic of the disease. Kundera's narrator thus concludes his diagnosis: "The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without."

Diagnosing within his own book the disease of book-writing, Kundera does more than parody the conditions under which his texts are generated and produced. Through his novel approach to novel-writing—most particularly, through the ironic voice of his narrator—he identifies, in order to subvert, some of those linguistic and cultural processes by which the writer isolates himself from others. The "wall of mirrors," cutting the writer's voice off from those "voices from without," makes obvious reference to the solipsistic tendencies of aesthetic creation and self-reflection. It recalls most directly the literary premises and practices of modernism. The monumental narratives of Proust, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and others tend to dissolve the world of material and social phenomena in the medium of consciousness. Depriving Paris, Dublin or Jefferson County of any reality beyond the prisms of a character's isolated consciousness, the avatars of modernism declared the victory of imagination over the chaos of history and the ruins of time.

To those living in a less heroic literary age, Kundera's "wall of mirrors" further suggests our contemporary sense of the limitations of language and of the literary enterprise as a whole. We are reminded of what poststructuralist critics have to say about the isolation of text from world, the confinement of all writing to the "prison house of language." In contrast to the poststructuralist critic, however, this Czech novelist regards the estrangement of language, a world of signs, from the world of things as a historical rather than necessary condition. It is a condition, in Kundera's view, that the writer must vigilantly oppose, even if his resistance to these solipsistic tendencies may never wholly succeed. In his own fiction Kundera strives to create a kind of writing that, unlike the graphomaniac's, forces open a window to the world of referents beyond language and its system of signs.

The extent to which any work of narrative fiction or history can reflect actual events taking place in a world beyond language is a matter of ongoing critical debate—and I have no intention of entering this theoretical quagmire in the discussion at hand. My interest lies, rather, in the way that Kundera's vision of the novelistic enterprise, and of the novelist's obligations to a world of referents beyond the self and language, governs his narrative methods and practice. This is not to say, however, that Kundera's view of language is nostalgic or naive. Breaking through the "wall of mirrors"—unlocking the circle of the self—exposes both the writer and his readers to uncertainty. To admit the world is to admit ambiguity, contingency, irony—above all, to question. As Kundera has said on more than one occasion, the novel's task is not to answer questions but to raise them. Scrupulously practicing what he preaches, this novelist disrupts conventional narrative structure and sabotages the writer's authority in order to interrogate the text. Sprinkling his narration with rhetorical questions, countering an "obvious explanation" with one he finds "more convincing," the author's narrating persona exposes both the characters and their author to skeptical scrutiny.

In the opening section of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, the narrator confronts his readers with a question: why, he asks, is Mirek, an intellectual whose history is being recounted here, so ashamed of an affair he had, twenty-five years ago, with an "ugly" woman named Zdena? The narrator offers an "obvious explanation" that he immediately retracts, because he doesn't "find it convincing enough." Reluctantly he admits the more convincing explanation, which also proves less flattering to the male ego: cowardly and insecure in his youth, Mirek had "taken an ugly mistress because he didn't dare go after beautiful women."

In his subsequent attempt to remove all traces, all record of his (now humiliating) three-year affair with Zdena, Mirek has, the narrator points out, set himself up as an author—claiming the rights of any novelist over his material. "One of a novelist's inalienable rights," the narrator states, "is to be able to rework his novel. If he takes a dislike to the beginning, he can rewrite it or cross it out entirely." Unfortunately, when Zdena reappears on the scene, Mirek is forced to confront the discomfiting fact that this woman is not his own invention. Kundera's narrator slyly comments: "But Zdena's existence deprived Mirek of his prerogative as an author. Zdena insisted on remaining part of the opening pages of the novel. She refused to be crossed out." While Mirek remains the focus of Kundera's satire here, the author is not above satirizing his own enterprise as well. Novelists will always claim the right to "rework" their novels for the sake of style, structure and effect. Still, the writer's efforts to provide a seamless work of art—ironing out the unsightly wrinkles caused by human nature and history—may implicate him in the same criticism levelled at Mirek. Foregrounding the processes by which the novelist rewrites and revises his material, Kundera undermines the illusion that his text is either timeless or impersonal. As Ann Banfield observes in her study, Unspeakable Sentences, "Only in writing [as opposed to speaking] may the process of revision, which is part of the process of composition, vanish in the finished piece, the 'clean copy,' leaving no sign of what the first or any intervening versions may have looked like." By calling attention to the erasure of those telling "signs" of revision, Kundera undermines the effects by which the written text appears to transcend the ephemeral and contingent conditions of its own production.

"Écriture," Banfield explains in another study, "is the name for the coming to language of a knowledge, whether objective or subjective, which is not personal." Resisting the notion of writing's impersonality—a notion that, as Banfield points out, French writers from Flaubert to Foucault have sought to emphasize—Kundera flagrantly inserts his personal biography into the narrative. Enlisting his narrating persona as guide, goad and agent provocateur, Kundera draws attention not only to the author behind the text but to the way that personal experience motivates the act of writing. "Why is Tamina on a children's island?" asks the narrator of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. "Why is that where I imagine her?" His answer characteristically fails to provide a definite answer. "I don't know," he admits, adding: "Maybe it's because on the day my father died the air was full of joyful songs sung by children's voices."

Undermining the illusion of "knowledge" that écriture creates, Kundera would open his text to uncertainty as well as the personal. Interspersing what Gerald Prince calls "signs of the 'you'" throughout the novel, Kundera's narrator repeatedly addresses and queries the narratee—the "you" implicitly or explicitly being addressed. In this way he opens the text not only to question but, in Prince's phrase, to "another world" outside the novel and its characters, which is "known to both the narrator and the narratee." Enlisting a narrating persona who shares this "other world" and all its problematic conditions with the reader, Kundera abandons the covert operations of an omniscient creator for the overt strategies of a self-conscious narrator.

By inserting his personal background and history into the text, Kundera is not building a "wall of mirrors" around himself as writing subject. Instead, he employs the biographical persona, like the other narrative devices characteristic of his art, to open a window (both literally and figuratively) on the political history of Czechoslovakia and on the invented history of his characters. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, the narrator identifies the "joyful" tune sung by "children's voices" on the day Kundera's father died as the "Internationale": "Everywhere east of the Elbe," he explains, "children are banded together in what are called Pioneer organizations" that teach them to become good communists. On the day that Kundera's father died, Gustav Husak—installed by the Russians in 1969 as the seventh president of Czechoslovakia—received an award from these children's groups. At "a festive ceremony in Prague Castle," the narrator tells us, Husak, "the president of forgetting," is "being named an Honorary Pioneer." At the end of the ceremony, the President's words, amplified over the loudspeaker, drift in through the very window of the room where Kundera's father lies dying: "Children! You are the future!" Husak proclaims. "Children! Never look back!" (italics Kundera's).

Here the author's personal loss, the death of his beloved father, serves as yet another variation on the theme of "forgetting" that informs each section of the novel. The erosion of memory that constitutes Tamina's personal tragedy is identified with the author's personal tragedy and, on a larger scale, with the tragedy of Czechoslovakia under totalitarian rule. In Kundera's unsentimental vision, moreover, children serve as emblems of the mindless "infantocracy" overtaking contemporary culture in both East and West. In the oblivious consciousness of childhood, devoid of past and memory, the author perceives the dire future of postindustrial society. Because, as the narrator later points out, children "have no past whatsoever," they bear no "burden of memory"; hence "childhood is the image of the future." In Western technocracy's enslavement to the blandishments of mass media as well as in Eastern Europe's seventy-year subjugation to totalitarian rule, Kundera detects the same mindless faith in the future. Wooed by the urge to escape history and its burdens, contemporary culture risks losing not only its collective memory but the very source of individual identity.

Calling attention to the biographical author, his history, and the temporal processes that help to erode as well as create written artifacts, Kundera stresses the connection not only between author and text, but between language and identity. The reliance of human and cultural identity upon language, and of language upon memory, is a central theme in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—a theme succinctly dramatized by the ten-year illness that proves fatal for Kundera's father. One major symptom of this disease is the gradual erosion of memory, which causes his father to lose "the power of speech" and ultimately the ability to write a coherent text. "At first," the narrator says, his father "simply had trouble calling up certain words or would say similar words instead and then immediately laugh at himself. In the end he had only a handful of words left…. Things lost their names and merged into a single, undifferentiated reality. I was the only one who by talking to him could temporarily transform that nameless infinity into the world of clearly named entities." In the end, the father's "memory lapses" become so fierce that the dying man has to abandon his "study of Beethoven's sonatas"; "no one," the narrator explains, "could understand the text." The father's writing, like his speech, becomes an incomprehensible jumble: an impersonal void or "nameless infinity" of "undifferentiated" language.

It is through language, Kundera reminds us, that we name or identify not only things but ourselves. Identity, like meaning in a text, arises from difference; and the ability to differentiate one word from another—or one thing, one event, one person, one author, one culture from another—depends on memory. Memory of the past, recorded as history, keeps alive our sense of differentiation and identity; it prevents us from slipping into the "nameless infinity" of "undifferentiated reality." As the novelist's character Tamina comes to realize, "the sum total of her being is no more than what she sees in the distance, behind her. And as her past begins to shrink, disappear, fall apart, Tamina begins shrinking and blurring" as well.

Such "shrinking and blurring," Kundera suggests, befalls each of us as we age, lose our faculties and slowly surrender to oblivion. Not only does the aging Mother, in Part Two of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, begin to lose her sight—she loses her memory and with it her experience of history:

One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country [as Kundera's narrator puts it] came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove [her son] Karel and [his wife] Marketa crazy. Everybody's thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled.

Karel's old Mother, the narrator suggests, has "moved on to the different world" of a second childhood. She has joined "a different order of creature: smaller, lighter, more easily blown away."

Whereas an old woman's second childhood appears natural and even comic, notwithstanding the announcement of death that it brings, Tamina's fate is truly tragic. A young woman exiled from her country and all that she loves, Tamina slides into premature death when she is brought to an island "wilderness" populated by children. There, surrounded by these tiny beings who have no past, no memory, no history, she is consigned to oblivion. On this remote "children's island," Tamina confronts a world hostile to privacy, individuation or difference. "We're all children here!" the youthful inhabitants gleefully shout. Held captive like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, Tamina tries but fails to escape. Making a run for the shore, she spies the children dancing together in a clearing and takes refuge "behind the thick trunk of a plane tree." From this hiding place she watches the children jerk and gyrate to the rhythms of rock music, the din of amplified guitars blaring from a tape recorder set down in the middle of the clearing. "The lewdness of the motions superimposed on their children's bodies," Kundera's narrator observes, "destroys the dichotomy between obscenity and innocence, purity and corruption. Sensuality loses all its meaning, innocence loses all its meaning, words fall apart." Once again taking language as his paradigm, Kundera links the forces of forgetting with the death of difference.

Pitting memory against oblivion, Kundera's novels celebrate difference at every level—starting with the systematic polarities by which language operates to create meaning. Each of these novels, moreover, typically incorporates a variety of types or modes of discourse within its narrative. Interspersing the fictional histories of his characters with passages devoted to philosophical speculation, historical commentary, and even quotations from other published and unpublished texts, Kundera makes contrast or difference both a structural and a thematic principle. The overall effect of this counterpoint is to dispel the intensity of any single, or single-voiced, narration. By disrupting the seamless effects of narration, Kundera wakens his readers from the "spell" cast by art and confronts them with the burden of history. "We who remember," his narrator tells us in Life Is Elsewhere, "must bear witness."

Just as Flaubert employed the devices of realism to undercut Emma Bovary's romantic reveries—and created, in the process, a novel about the dangers of reading novels—so Kundera, at a later stage of the novel's development, employs the self-conscious devices of postmodernist narrative to subvert the lyric spell of his own narration. "Lyrical poetry," he has said, "is a realm in which any statement immediately becomes truth. Yesterday the poet said life is a vale of tears; today he said life is a land of smiles; and he was right both times. There is no inconsistency. The lyrical poet does not have to prove anything. The only proof is the intensity of his own emotions." The novelist, on the other hand, must assume the burden of history and, therefore, of "proof." The distinction Kundera draws between novels and lyric poetry further suggests why so much of his own writing is devoted to speculation and argument. And while the novelist endeavors, through his narrating persona, to present certain conclusions, as well as questions, with vigor and force, this persona also reminds Kundera's readers that the author is no prophet or visionary. Declining the role of omniscient creator, he is simply another limited mortal caught in "the trap" of history. As such, he enlists in his narrative not only the voice of his biographical persona but the timely voices of the author's friends and family, of Czech officials and world leaders, of current dogmas and classic works of literature.

The devices of narrative reflexivity are, paradoxically, the means by which Kundera lays siege to the graphomaniac's self-absorbed, self-reflecting "wall of mirrors." It is in the "mirrored house of poetry," moreover, that Kundera locates this "wall of mirrors" and its isolating effects. Drawing a distinction between novels and poetry that recalls Bakhtin's theory of discourse in The Dialogic Imagination, Kundera celebrates the novel's hybrid language and structure—contrasting the formal freedoms of this genre with the strictures of poetry and its compulsively "lyric attitude." But with freedom comes responsibility; the novel, unlike the poem, is answerable to history. What Kundera's narrator says of his character Tamina, who makes a scrupulous record of her past in order to oppose the forces of forgetting, may also be said of her author: "She has no desire to turn the past into poetry, she wants to give the past back its lost body. She is not compelled by a desire for beauty, she is compelled by a desire for life."

This distinction between poetry and life, beauty and history, informs all of Kundera's fiction. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina's efforts to retrieve, with all its ugliness, the past's "lost body" are contrasted with Karel's preference for poetic oblivion. Earlier in the novel, Karel rhapsodically muses over the stages of his bygone youth. Rather than strive "to give the past back its lost body," he begins to manipulate—and even to dismember—that elusive body for his own gratification. As Karel projects his desire upon the past, conjuring an "idyllic landscape" that never existed, his author likens him to "a collage artist, cutting out part of one engraving and pasting it over another." Taking delight in his finished creation, Karel gratefully contemplates the transcendent power of art: "Beauty," he reflects, "is a clean sweep of chronology, a rebellion against time."

Not only in this passage but throughout the novel Kundera invites us to contemplate the difference between the operation of historical memory—our urgent efforts to retrieve and preserve what has transpired in our experience, no matter how painful or daunting the task—and the immemorial desire of human beings "to turn the past into poetry." "History," as his narrator later remarks, "is a succession of ephemeral changes. Eternal values exist outside history. They are immutable and have no need of memory." Human memory—in contrast to Apollo's lyre—is a mortal rather than divine attribute; and those who exercise it must serve time. Those of us who seek to remember, to "bear witness," must acknowledge contingency in the very act of giving "the past back its lost body." Invoking "chronology" and the ephemeral at every turn, Kundera's skeptical, antimodernist version of narrative undermines the quest for transcendence. Precisely because they are so time-laden, his novels announce "the unbearable lightness of being."

While Kundera's distinction between poetry and prose, art and life sheds light on his enterprise as a novelist, it would be misleading to regard the distinction he draws as absolute. In the preface to his novel, Life Is Elsewhere, the author identifies the relationship of poetry to his own works of prose. In composing this novel, Kundera says, he wanted "to solve an esthetic problem: how to write a novel which would be a 'critique of poetry' and yet at the same time would itself be poetry"—would, that is, "transmit poetic intensity and imagination." Only by "catching [an] image" in the depths of its own linguistic "mirrors," he later suggests, can a novel be said to reflect or represent reality. Like most novelists since Cervantes, Kundera registers a fertile ambivalence about his obligations to art, on the one hand, and to history or actuality on the other. What merits particular attention in his case is the way that his narrative isolates and foregrounds its aesthetic or "lyric" impulse in order to undermine the spell that it casts.

It was Edmund Wilson, writing over half a century ago in Axel's Castle, who first cautioned readers about the tendency of modernist writers to abandon the novelist's traditional, and salutary, ambivalence toward the seductive power of imagination. Expressing admiration for Proust's formidable accomplishments in A la recherché du temps perdu, Wilson nonetheless offers a critical reservation: "The fascination of Proust's novel is so great that, while we are reading it, we tend to accept it in toto. In convincing us of the reality of his creations, Proust infects us with his point of view, even where his point of view has falsified his picture of life" (italics Wilson's). Now, to charge a work of fiction with "falsification" may strike some readers—particularly if they are students of narrative theory—as paradoxical, if not confused. The difference between novels and history, Banfield maintains in Unspeakable Sentences, "is that the fictional narrative statement is immune to judgments of truth or falsity; in fiction, they are suspended. Rather, it [fiction] creates by fiat a fictional reality which can only be taken as fictionally true."

Nevertheless, as Wilson's comment on Proust's "falsification" makes clear, even the most sophisticated readers of narrative fiction may implicitly acknowledge the novelist's traditional obligations to truth or history. Thomas Leitch, in a theoretical study entitled What Stories Are, is more willing to acknowledge the blurred border between fictional and nonfictional narrative, allowing that it is "a difference in emphasis." The "success or failure of a work of history," says Leitch, clearly depends on the status of the implicated propositions" it makes. By contrast, novels—even those that "may propose implicated explanations of historical events"—do not display the same degree of "this commitment." That is why, we might add, Edmund Wilson can both admire Proust's novel and find it guilty of "falsification." Wilson would certainly employ more stringent criteria, or "judgments of truth," when assessing the work of a French historian of the same period.

Still, as Banfield herself points out, the fiction writer's power to create a world "by fiat" can be viewed as a liability by novelists seeking to uphold their obligations to history. The fiction writer, Banfield says, can neither "tell the truth" nor "write a sentence of narration which is false"—which, in other words, "can be taken by readers of novels as false. His or hers is the midas touch which turns all fiction, that is, to fictional truth, and thereby abolishes all distinctions between the true and the false." By insisting, stylistically and thematically, upon the novel's burden of "proof," Kundera would deliver his readers from the "midas touch" of narrative art. By interrogating his text—inviting the reader to question and debate the narrator's assertions—he overtly appeals to those "distinctions between the true and the false" of which Banfield judges the novel incapable. To distinguish a statement of truth from a "lie," Banfield says, there must be "a communication to an interlocutor." Perhaps that is why Kundera insists that his readers adopt the role of interlocutor. He would guard against the hypnotic spell of narrative—the power of Proust's novel to transform, midas-like, the false into the true—and offer, instead, a critique of that power to which all novels, including his own, nonetheless aspire. By curbing the degree of "infection" that "poetic intensity and imagination" visit upon the novel's readers, Kundera would lift the quarantine that seals contemporary writing in a "wall of mirrors" and denies the novelist healthy exposure to history and its "judgments of truth."

The liberties Kundera takes with the categories of fiction and nonfiction, narrative and essay—the way he flagrantly juxtaposes historical reportage and documentary with the symbolic landscape of fantasy and fable—signals his commitment to the political as well as formal freedoms he perceives in the novel-genre. This is hardly surprising for a writer who regards the aesthetic and political processes as springing from a common source and operating according to the same human laws. "The metaphysics of man," he maintains, "is the same in the private sphere as in the public one."

In the "lyric attitude" of the poet Kundera identifies the same totalizing urge, the same desire to create or transform reality in toto, that fosters human faith in a cosmic order or in sundry ideologies promising paradise on earth. The same impulse that compels the poet or writer to seek immortality in song, perfection in art, leads to the creation of larger allied and alloyed structures, including grandiose political schemes. When society allows itself to be carried away by "the lyric attitude," constructing an ideal or "idyll" of absolute order and harmony, for example, the quest ends in collective disaster. That is why Kundera refers to Czechoslovakia's era of communist repression—an "era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalized murder"—as "not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet." Desire for absolute order in the social sphere, like insistence upon absolute truth or meaning in the linguistic, leads to repression. "The impulse to totalization," as Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle summarize Derrida's argument, is linked to "the totalitarian…. The desire for closure, as guarantor of meaning and intelligibility, becomes the instrumentality of repression" (italics theirs).

Observing a similar connection between the totalizing and totalitarian impulse but developing its implications well beyond the linguistic, Kundera tells an interviewer: "Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise—the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith…. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium." He adds, "hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever." When the "lyric attitude" spills over from art to life, Kundera suggests, it may take disastrous social and political forms. Fleeing from contingency, desiring to escape the burden of memory and history, the utopian dreamer embraces a nonexistent future, attempting to realize paradise—a perfect world of order, harmony and "eternal values"—on earth.

The consequences, Kundera warns, are dangerous if not fatal: "Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer." The structure is maintained through violence; elements that cannot or will not join the happy circle must be cast out, consigned to the prisons and torture chambers devised by those in charge. The totalitarian hell gradually subsumes its putative heaven.

The implications of Kundera's secular version of heaven and hell are grim. But the dire nature of these observations belies their bracing comic effect in the novels, tricked out as they are by the narrator's characteristic lightness of delivery. Nowhere is this combination of deft narration and dark inference more apparent, and effective, than in the final scene of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The novel draws to a close on the private beach of "an abandoned island" somewhere on the Adriatic, where a small resort hotel caters to vacationers. The island and its shoreline offer a kind of realistic counterpoint to that symbolic wilderness, the "children's island," from which Tamina, earlier in the novel, tries to escape. On the latter island, the symbolic circle of identical children is supplanted by a population of vacationing nudists equally uniform in their nakedness: "They went naked down the steps to the beach, where other naked people were sitting in groups, taking walks, and swimming—naked mothers and naked children, naked grandmothers and naked grandchildren, the naked young and the naked elderly."

Surrounded by this anonymous population, Kundera's protagonists, a young man named Jan and his girlfriend Edwige, make friends with a smaller "group of naked people," all of whom have come to this "natural paradise" seeking to rid themselves of "the hypocrisy of a society that cripples body and soul." By casting off their clothing, the group collectively embraces the ideal of natural freedom, of living "at one with nature." A theory advanced by one member of the group, "a man with an extraordinary paunch," formulates their collective ideal and goal: to "be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought." The idyll of "perfect harmony," perfect freedom, "perfect solidarity" requires that the accumulated legacy of the past—the traditions, norms, structures and systems of a civilization, the cultural language by which its members have identified themselves to one another and themselves—be not altered but erased. "Eternal values," as Kundera's narrator has already observed, "exist outside history."

In the nudists' shared dream of a "natural paradise" we detect the "collective lyrical delirium" that in Kundera's view governs all utopian heavens, giving rise in turn to the hell latent in each artificial paradise. As Jan gazes at the mass of naked bodies scattered along the shore, he has a dark inkling of the connection between earthly notions of heaven and the various forms of hell to which they lead. Made "melancholy" by the spectacle of so much undifferentiated, "meaningless" flesh, Jan is suddenly "overwhelmed by a strange feeling of affliction, and from that haze of affliction came an even stranger thought: that the Jews had filed into Hitler's gas chambers naked and en masse." Jan is led to consider the possibility that "nudity" is itself a kind of "uniform." Here Kundera's language evokes a suggestive connection between the Jews' uniform nakedness and the uniforms of their Nazi exterminators. Unable to bear "the sight of all those naked bodies on the beach," Jan suddenly arrives at the startling notion "that nudity is a shroud."

Bewitched by a particularly virulent strain of "totalitarian poesy," the German nature participated in the dream of an Aryan paradise—and stoked the hellish fires of the gas chambers. Genocide, the attempt to erase a people and their history from the face of the earth, is one outgrowth of that totalizing impulse, or "collective lyrical delirium," which makes the nude bathers so eager to free themselves of the fetters of the past. To erase the memory of an admittedly troubled and imperfect history leads not to a brave new world, however, but to the loss of human differentiation and identity. Mass murder, mass extinction, Kundera suggests, is simply the dark fulfillment of mankind's oblivious dream of utopia.

The sunlight that shines on the closing scene of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is tinged with dark irony. The small circle of nudists standing together on the sand look harmless enough as they congratulate themselves on their temporary freedom from the "civilization" that "imprisons" them. But then the man whose single distinguishing feature is that "extraordinary paunch" begins to extol the future and its promised liberation from the strictures of the past. As the group attends to what the paunchy man is saying, Kundera draws this scene and his novel to a close: "On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand." More eloquent than any words the nudists can muster is the limp expression of their exposed genitals. Like domestic pets suddenly turned loose from their leashes, these naked organs appear bewildered by their abrupt and unexpected release from bondage; something more than mere clothing appears to have been discarded. Exposed to the harsh glare of daylight, the nudists' bodies inadvertently register the oblivion into which they have been cast: the hell of "undifferentiated reality." The pride of their once private parts has mysteriously vanished with the clothing that constrained them. The body's sudden liberation from social "bonds," from all the trappings of civilization, consigns these sad appendages to the same flaccid existence that, Kundera wittily suggests, the mind's longed-for deliverance from a binding system of difference, linguistic and cultural, would entail.

Sustaining a polyphony of light and dark themes, personal and public voices, Kundera takes full advantage of what he calls the "synthetic power of the novel." By coming at his "subject from all sides," as he puts it, the novelist combines "ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy." The culminating effect is not of closure but of equilibrium, like the contrapuntal harmony created by "the voices of polyphonic music." The musical analogy is one that Kundera consistently favors. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, his narrator draws an instructive parallel between the novel's structure and the "journey of the variation form" in music. "This entire book," he announces, "is a novel in the form of variations." Likening his narrative to the voyage of discovery Beethoven undertook, Kundera hints at the special attraction that this mode of exploration holds for a novelist attempting to cure himself of the disease of graphomania. "What Beethoven discovered in his variations," the novel's narrator points out, "was another space and direction"—"the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things."

Structuring his novel on a set of stylistic and thematic variations, Kundera, like Beethoven, seeks "another space and direction." It is an other space and direction not only because the territory is new but because it lies beyond the isolated self, outside the "wall of mirrors" enclosing the writer in endless self-reflections. The writer liberates himself by liberating his readers: he does not carry us away in the mesmerizing flow of narrated events or in a lyric flight so compelling that it cannot be examined and resisted. Instead of cutting off our "voices from without," he opens up the text to query and debate. To clear this ground or mental "space" for the reader, Kundera develops his narration, structurally and thematically, as an ongoing process of interrogation, differentiation and contrast. Differentiation discovers a virtually endless variety of entities and identities, of contrasting forms, patterns and poles of meaning. The "polyphonic" text disrupts the flow of narration, cancels its lyric impetus, by juxtaposing unlike elements that insistently retain their discrete and contrary identities. Juxtaposing these contrasting elements—interrogating one tone, stance, concept or style with another as the narrative swerves between sexual highjinks and high seriousness—Kundera's text resists the solipsistic forces that drive its production. Turning the art of narration against itself, the author creates a novel that is at once an artful manifestation of "graphomania" and his bracing attempt at a cure.

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