Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is not one single story, but a series of short stories with common themes, all revolving around the notion of forgetting, of how history is edited and rewritten to suit the needs of the present. The first page tells an enthralling tale about two Czech Communist leaders, which sums up the pages which follow.

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square…Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head. The propaganda section made hundred of thousands of copies of the photograph…every child knew that photograph from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

I love that story. It is so evocative, powerful. It sets the tone so perfectly. It is a story that seems to sum up political history. History is written by the winner and the rest made to forget what once they knew as certainly as night follows day. Since time immemorial it has been so. And sometimes, the only thing to do is laugh at the brazen ridiculousness of it all. What else can you do? Mere mortals cannot rewrite history.

If you like Milan Kundera, then many consider this to be the pinnacle of his writing to date. Perhaps it is not the best place to start with his work, but if you love The Unbearable Lightness of Being then reading this is an absolute must.

7 out of 10

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