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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Milan Kundera
Published by Penguin Books in 1988
Book Review by Bob Matherne ©2002


Not a novel but a book of variations -- a prose form of Beethoven's Opus 111 Sonata -- on two themes: laughter and forgetting. Many time the two themes intertwine -- as when a hat is blown by the wind onto the top of a coffin seconds before the minister finishes his last words and prepares to shovel the first dirt into the hole. Seeing the hat -- is it Passer popping his head up for one last look about? -- the minister sheepishly tosses the dirt to the side of the hat. The visibly suppressed laughter threatens the gathering with open forgetting of the gravity of the death of their dear friend Passer.

During a sexual orgy Jan and the bald headed man he just met are being serviced by two gals -- like mirror image gardeners, the two girls are tending their seedbed. The incongruity of the mirrored couples makes the two men forget their bodily passions and break into laughter.

In a piano concert the performer is playing a waltz with only his left hand -- oomp-pah-pah -- oomp-pah-pah -- while his right hand hangs limply at his side. Turning to the audience like Victor Borge -- he smiles as if he were playing the world's most beautiful music -- and the crowd roars with laughter -- forgetting the music, the concert, and all else.

On page 61 Kundera says, "Angels are partisans, not of Good, but of divine creation. The Devil, on the other hand, denies all rational meaning to God's world." As I pondered these words, I envisioned a struggle between creation and destruction -- a mighty tug of peace -- in which the world moves from creation to equilibrium to destruction to disequilibrium to creation again -- a Cycle of Creation. Thus I came to the startling conclusion that creation produces equilibrium and it does so by producing replicas of some rational idea - a process that we variously call mass production, technology, or kitsch. If destruction produces disequilibrium, it does so by producing new ideas and the exciting possibilities that adhere to them -- a process that in writing we call literature and in other areas we call art. Thus I came to the conclusion -- contrary to all my previous predilections -- that art is the process of destruction. Creation leads invariably to sameness, to marching rationally in step, whereas Destruction of the old regime of sameness leads to a spontaneous dance of joy. [Note: one can see on the cover of the book that Angels dancing above create a shadow of the face of the Devil on the ground.]

This book is like a gold mine -- nuggets for the taking are everywhere, but you must first enter the mine.

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