Thursday, May 12, 2016

the last book I read

The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Before we go any further here, one should pause to ask: what exactly is a novel? Can it be a made-up story layered on top of and intertwined with actual historical events? Why certainly. Can it have spaceships and entire planets made out of a sort of sentient pink custard? Sure, why not. The entire story told by a dead person? Knock yourself out. A sort of semi-fictionalised travelogue featuring lots of grainy black-and-white photographs of random stuff? Yeah, OK, if you like.

So here is a novel, but it's not necessarily the sort of novel where you can start a summary by saying: there's this guy, Bernard, and he only has fourteen hours to save the Earth! There's only one problem: HE HASN'T GOT A HEAD.
Sometimes you have to start by saying a bit about the structure of the thing. So in this case that means saying: this is a novel made up of seven separate bits, a couple of which overlap and feature common characters, and most of which feature people who are from Kundera's native Czechoslovakia, back when that was a thing. There are some loose themes linking the bits, clues to which are given in the novel's title, but broadly speaking they all revolve around life in Czechoslovakia before and after the Prague Spring and how that made things very difficult for people and forced some of them (Kundera for one) into a life in exile. A potted summary of the seven parts would go something like this
  • I: Lost Letters - Mirek travels to the home of his former lover Zdena to retrieve some love letters he sent her more than 20 years previously. He is tailed everywhere in Kafka-esque fashion by the secret police, who eventually arrest him. 
  • II: Mother - Karel's mother comes to visit, which is a bit awkward as he's got plans for a threesome featuring him, his wife Marketa and their friend Eva. After a bit of Robin-Askwith-in-Confessions-Of-A-Communist-Dissident stuff featuring near-interruptions from Mum she eventually retires to bed, thus allowing some serious three-way boning to occur, leavened with a bit of existential angst lest anyone start enjoying themselves too much.
  • III: The Angels - some fragmented stuff involving two young women trying to make sense of Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, and also the author himself (or a fictionalised version thereof) in a previous incarnation as a writer of horoscopes.
  • IV: Lost Letters - Tamina, a Czech exile, wants to retrieve some old letters to her (now dead) husband that she left in Prague, and attempts to persuade a couple of her new friends (by sleeping with him in the case of the male friend) to travel to Prague to get them for her.
  • V: Litost - Krystina, a married woman in her thirties, is in the early stages of an affair with a younger student. Having agreed to come and stay with him (and presumably consummate their relationship at some point during the night), plans are derailed when the student is dragged along to a meeting of poets which runs on well into the night. For this and other reasons Krystina refuses to sleep with him when he eventually returns.
  • VI: The Angels - Tamina is mesmerised by a young man who appears one day in the cafe in which she works; she goes on a journey with him which concludes with a boat trip to a mysterious island populated entirely by children. Eventually she tries to escape and, finding herself unable to get back to land by boat, swims for it and drowns.
  • VII: The Border - Jan's main concerns are his relationship with his girlfriend Edwige, the occasional liaison with some other random woman, the sickness and imminent death of his friend Passer, and, y'know, the usual existential angst. After an unsatisfactory experience at an orgy run by his friend Barbara, the novel ends with Jan and Edwige wandering along a nudist beach somewhere.
So, as you'll gather from that, some of it is a very literal depiction of the problems caused by the oppressive Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, while some of it is much more allusive. You'll get no insight from me, for instance, on what the episode with Tamina and the children in part VI was meant to convey, other than that it features some slightly queasy sexual episodes that reminded me of similar episodes in Children Of Darkness And Light. And some of the philosophising reminded me of some similar passages in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, the previous Kundera in this list.

My personal feeling is that TULOB is better, despite TBOLAF being hailed as a work of genius by some, John Updike among them - the more linear narrative makes it easier to grasp what's going on and care about the outcome a bit more. Some of the sexy sexy stuff here is a bit odd, too - there's quite a bit of sex, but much of it is fairly mechanical and joyless, and Kundera has, or appears to have, what you might call a slightly 1970s attitude to topics like male infidelity and rape. But perhaps this is meant to reflect the deadening of emotion associated with constant surveillance and the constant possibility of being dragged off to a show-trial somewhere and never seen again: who knows.

The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting also features a cover image that might be a bit on the vicar-frightening side; previous examples have included G. and The Anatomist

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