By Ted Gioia

His career, began with a joke—which is the literal
translation of the title of Milan Kundera's debut novel
Žert—but readers familiar with this author's worldview
will not be surprised at the eventual adverse con-
sequences.   In Kundera's fiction, jokes are rarely a
laughing matter, and laughter
itself the most equivocal of
human traits.

Milan Kundera published
The
Joke
in 1967, taking advantage
of the brief loosening in Soviet
control to release a book that
satirized the authoritarian
politics of post-World War II
Czechoslovakia.  The punchline
could have been easily predicted:
after the Soviet tanks rolled into
Prague the following year, Kundera
was blacklisted and his works banned.  Even so,
Kundera held out hopes of reforming communism,
and entered into public debate with Václav Havel, who
countered that the system was hopelessly flawed and
required replacement.  By 1975, Kundera had
abandoned his reformist dreams, and escaped to a
teaching position in France, where he published
The
Book of Laughter and Forgetting
. In response, the Czech
government revoked Kundera's citizenship.

If we take Kundera at his word, he wants to be seen
as a novelist, first and foremost, rather than a political
dissident.  Yet it is hard to read this startling and
unsettling book without placing it in the context of
the political upheavals of its times.   And even if
Kundera aimed to leave politics behind—in his later
work he made a marked attempt to distance himself
from the subject—the various factions have refused
to relieve Kundera of responsibility for his ideological
commitments.  In 2008, a Czech magazine reported
that Kundera had served as an informant to the police
in 1950, denouncing Czech pilot Miroslav Dvořáček as
a Western spy—Dvořáček later served 14 years in a
prison labor camp.  Kundera denied the allegations,
but the police station report from 1950, which  names
Kundera as the informant, has been validated as an
authentic document.

There is heavy irony in the fact that the two authors
best known as critics of the "forgetfulness" of the
post-WWII generation—Kundera and
Günter Grass
—have both themselves been accused of embracing a
similar absentmindedness when confronting their
personal pasts.   In both instances, the persistence of
memory—or at least documents in the files—
overcame the powers of forgetfulness.  

In
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, as in the
Dvořáček affair, the struggle is not about defining
the future, but redefining the past.  Kundera sets the
tone for the book in its opening pages, relating the
story of Communist party leader and hard-line
Stalinist Klement Gottwald, who gave a speech from a
balcony in Prague's Old Town Square on a chilly,
snowy day in February 1948.   At one point, Vlado
Clementis, standing next to the speaker, removes his
fur hat and places it on Gottwald's head.  After
Clementis was denounced as a Trotskyite, Zionist and
"bourgeois nationalist" and executed in 1952, his
image was retrospectively removed from photos of
1948 speech.  But the fur hat remained—a telling
Kunder-esque-and perhaps Dvořáček-esque-reminder
that even our forgetting requires us to remember.   

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a novel in seven
parts, but each section is more a stand-alone story
than part of a larger narrative.   The unity to the
work is provided by the recurring themes:  the
malleability of memory, the pain of laughter, the
mutual deceptions of human relationships, our
eager self-abasements in the petty corruptions of the
political and sexual.  Stories are interspersed with long
philosophical passages—and in this regard, Kundera
is more akin to
Musil and Dostoevsky than to his
contemporaries—but the plots are vivid, succinct, and
intensely modern in their psychological trappings.  
Even when the characters in Kundera's world seem on
the verge of turning into symbolic personae, the
author invariably intervenes before they become too
abstract, and immerses them into a crude and brutal
reality.  

Kundera also incorporates elements of magical realism
into his story, again reaching for a larger, symbolic
resonance even as he adds the most fanciful details.   
At one point in his novel, the communist true believers
become so detached from practical exigencies of the
world around them that they actually start floating up
into the air.  "Yes, they were soaring over Wenceslaus
Square," the earthbound narrator relates with half-
suppressed envy, "their dancing ring resembled a great
wreath flying off, and I ran on the ground below and
looked up to see them, as they soared farther and
farther away, and there below them was Prague with its
cafes full of poets and its prisons full of betrayers of
the people."

Some of the best passages in this novel confront the
political situation with a similar mixture of the
fantastic and acerbic.  In this regard, Kundera
inevitably reminds us of Kafka and Orwell, those two
masters at wrapping up provocation in the trappings
of a modern fairy tale.  At one juncture in
The Book of
Laughter and Forgetting
, a brilliant exposition of factional
politics takes on the guise of a quasi-scriptural account
of confrontation between angels and devils.  Here
Kundera is as biting as he is unconventional—his
tragedy stemming not from overt evil, but rather the
proud over-reaching of the seraphim and cherubim.   
A more realistic account could hardly do such a
convincing job of capturing the profundity of
seemingly good and decent people backing a
totalitarian regime that brutally suppressed all
opposition.  

"To see the devil as a partisan of Evil and an angel as
a warrior on the side of Good is to accept the
demagogy of the angels," Kundera writes.  "Things are
of course more complicated than that...If there were
too much incontestable meaning in the world (the
angels' power), man would succumb under its weight.  
If the world were to lose all its meaning (the devils'
reign), we could not live either."  In the Czecho-
slovakia of the Soviet era, the angels are in control-
imposing their "incontestable" meanings on all events.  
"Yes, say what you will, the Communists were more
intelligent," Kundera explains at one point.  "They had
an imposing program.  A plan for an entirely new
world where everyone would find a place.  The
opponents had no great dream, only some tiresome
and threadbare moral principles, with which they tried
to patch the torn trousers of the established order."

It is in the context of these larger dramas, that the
individual escapades of this novel must be viewed.  
Kundera presents tales of Tamina, the exile who longs
to recover the diaries and letters she left back in
Prague, the butcher's wife Krystyna, who enjoys her
affair with a student all the more because it is never
consummated, the dissident writer (named Kundera
here) who tries to influence public affairs through a
horoscope he writes anonymously for a Communist
party leader.  A pathos and despair arises even in the
most intimate moments—perhaps especially in the
most intimate moments—and the only weapon left for
those who lack incontestable meanings is laughter.  
But the laughter in Kundera's world is often the
bitterest form of human expression.

This novel remain less known to readers than
Kundera's 1984 work
The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
yet I would recommend
The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting
as the superior book, and the place to start
for readers hoping to come to grips with this seminal
author.   Even as the historical events that gave rise to
the conflicts related in Kundera's novel fade into the
uneasy forgetfulness of history, the human foibles on
display here are—sadly!—all too timeless.  We now
live in the exact opposite of Kundera's universe,
participating in a digital age in which every tweet and
text message is stored forever in archival memory.   
Strange to say, this new state of affairs only reinforces
the lessons and amplifies the intense reverberations of
this book, one that teaches us that fools may dispute
endlessly about the future...yet you can always identify
the most repressive powers by their heavy-handed
determination to define and control our past.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
The Book of Laughter & Forgetting
by Milan Kundera
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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