Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: This is Not a Book Review

The Book of Laughter and ForgettingThe Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Debja Ni had given this book long time ago. Before i read this of Kundera i had read 'Slowness' and 'Laughable Loves', both of which i hated. Was too skeptical about this one for a long time till upon instinct one day i picked it up. I really liked the book. No, i did not like the book. I think i liked the book. Shall try to explain but like always, i can't review it. Can only give excerpts i liked and disliked. Anyway it will remain true that i loved the language of this book.

I have reached a point in my reading life where i know that i will have to read a book at least three times to imbibe it or to take a portion of it with me. May be i am imagining it but i have memory issues. This book played with my memory and i find it apt because the book is also about forgetting and forgetting is about remembering as much as it is about forgetting. So when i was reading and i saw a chapter heading called 'Lost Letters' for the second time i thought i had really lost it. I had not. The author has put in two 'Lost Letters' and two 'The Angels' in his book. I felt it was a good thing to do in a book like this. Fragmented narrative was good too, except that it confuses someone like me.

I shall begin by quoting the author of the book who appears in first person as the author of the book. In 'The Angels' he says
This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.
It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror.
It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting,...
Some portions.
It is 1971, and Mirek says: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
With this he is trying to justify what his friends call carelessness: meticulously keeping a diary, preserving his correspondence, compiling the minutes of all the meeting where they discuss the situation and ponder what to do. He says to them: We're not doing anything that violates the constitution. To hide and feel guilty would be the beginning of defeat.
I could relate to this. I believe erasing from history is the biggest form of suppression practised by all power holding people or entities. I write to remember.
I had no illusions about Kundera though. From his 'Laughable Loves' i had a fairly good idea about how he dealt with women in his work. So when i got the first glimpse of it in the following passage i wasn't surprised.
For he was aware of the great secret of life: Women don't look for handsome men. Women look for men who have had beautiful women. Having an ugly mistress is therefore a fatal mistake.
Sex description which sickened me
He had the impression that this leap onto her body was a leap across an immense period of time, the leap of a little boy hurling himself from childhood to manhood. And then, while he was moving back and forth on her, he seemed incessantly to be describing the same movement, fromchildhood to adulthood and then in reverse, and once again from the little boy miserably gazing at the gigantic body of a woman to the man clasping the body and taming it. That movement, usually measuring fifteen centimeters at most, was as long as three decades.
Again in a portion in 'Lost Letters' you will see the author reiterate what patriarchy has defined a heterosexual relationship as. Consent once synonymous to perpetual consent. Which is called rape culture in simpler terms. Listen to this.
Hugo's unexpected success brought him an equally unexpected disappointment. He could now make love to her whenever he wanted (she could hardly deny him what she had once granted), but he felt he had succeeded neither in captivating her nor in dazzling her.

Here is where i roll my eyes till they hurt. But only till i read this one about rape in 'The Angels'
If the children's first rape of Tamina was charged with that astonishing meaning, on repetition it swiftly lost its character as a message and became a more and more empty and dirty routine

Kundera also justifies objectification of women with cranky logic which has got nothing to with women and is simply his perception of them
The gaze of a man has often been described. It seems to fasten coldly on the woman, as if it were measuring, weighing, evaluating, choosing her, as if, in other words, it were turning her into a thing.
Less well known is that a woman is not entirely defenseless against that gaze. If she is turned into a thing, then she watches the man with the gaze of a thing. It is as if a hammer suddenly had eyes and watched the carpenter grip it to drive in a nail. Seeing the hammer's malicious gaze, the carpenter loses his self-confidence and hits his thumb.

I couldn't make head or tail of the analogy of the hammer either.

In 'The Border' is a discussion which again reveals the author:
"What I mean," said Jan, "is that when a man and a woman do the same thing, it's not the same thing. The man rapes, the woman castrates."
"What you mean is that it's vile to castrate a man but a fine thing to rape a woman."
"All I mean," replied Jan, "is that rape is part of eroticism, but castration is its negation."
Edwige emptied her glass in one gulp and responded angrily: "If rape is part of eroticism, then eroticism as a whole is directed against women and it's necessary to invent another kind."
Jain took a sip, was silent for a moment, and then went on: "Many years ago, in my former country, some friends an I put together an anthology of things our mistresses said while making love. Do you know what word came up most often?"
Edwige did not know.
"The word 'no.' The word 'no' repeated in succession: 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no...' The girl arrives to make love, but when the boy takes her in her in his arms, she pushes him away and says 'No,' giving the act of love the red glow of that most beautiful word and turning it into a miniature imitation rape. Even when they're approaching climax, they say 'No, no, no, no, no,' and many of them shout 'No' in the midst of it. Since then, 'no' has been a royal word for me. And what about you, were you in the habit of saying 'No'?
edwige replied that she never said "No." Why say something she didn't mean? "'When a woman says "No," she really means "Yes"' That male aphorism has always outraged me. It's as stupid as all human history."
"But that history is inside us, and we can't escape it," replied Jan. "A woman fleeing and defending herself. A woman giving herself, a man taking. A woman veiling herself, a man tearing off her clothes. These are age-old images we carry within us!"
"Age-old and idiotic! As isiotic as the holy images! And what if women are starting to be fed up with having to behave according to that pattern? What if that eternal repetition nauseates them? What if they want to invent other images and another game?"
"Yes, they're stupid images stupidly repeated. You're entirely right. But what if our desire for the female body depends on precisely those stupid images and on them alone? If those stupid old images were to be destroyed in us, would men still be able to make love to women?"
Edwige broke into laughter: "I don't think you need to worry."

In 'Mama', my annotation has marked this portion for a book cover. Don't remember what i thought when i scribbled that. It's about how the character Mama had a different perspective about all things. Perspective is something which interests anybody who is interested in cinema. My 'book cover' portion reads this way.
...and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama's perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. though she were trying with her voice to cover the body of her friend,...
Marketa envied her animal sleep, wanting to inhale that sleep from her lips,...

From The Angels
...even the statues of Stalin have been torn down. In place of those destroyed monuments, statues of Lenin are nowadays springing up in Bohemia by the thousands, springing up like weeds among ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.

In 'Lost Letters' a portion which i liked for the way it described writing
...We write books because our children aren't interested in us. We address ourselves to an anonymous world because our wives plug their ears when we speak to them.

Of course, it is implied here that 'writers' refer to heterosexual male writers. The explanation is good, though.
Something very cinematic that i found. The method of creating silence is the same in cinema, as far as i know.
...He [Thomas Mann] needed that silence to make the beauty audible (because the death he was speaking of was death-beauty, and for beauty to be perceptible, it needs a minimal degree of silence (of which the precise measure is the sound made by a golden ring falling into a silver basin).

In 'Litost' too you can see such a description which i found quite interesting
And so I am watching them from the height of my lookout, but the distance is too great. Fortunately, there is a tear in my eye, which, like a telescope lens, brings me nearer to their faces. Now I can clearly make out the great poet, seated solidly among the others. He is surely more than seventy, but his face is still handsome, his eyes are still lively and wise. His crutches lean against the table next to him.
I see them all against the backdrop of the luminous Prague of fifteen years ago, when their books had not yet been locked away in a state cellar and when they chatted loudly and cheerfully around the large table laden with bottles...

I also came across a portion which i thought i had read in another book. But i have forgotten which one it was. Memory points towards 'The Tin drum' but i could be wrong. It could also be a Marquez. If anybody know which other book has a similar situation do let me know. I would like to read it again in remembrance. The book, after all, is about the lack of remembering; forgetting.
Their mothers' skirts spread over them like the sky." That last image pleased him so much he repeated it several times: "Poets, what you're seeing overhead is not the sky but your mothers' enormous skirts! You're all living under your mothers' skirts!"
There is a portion which will make sense to people who have fought sexual harassment in Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute [SRFTI]. One of the professors who was dismissed from service was a constant presence in the students' hostel, carousing and getting high on weed also encouraging students to do the same many a times sponsoring the substance abuse. I remember him once telling a group of us that he gets drunk he has no worries because he knows that he will be taken to a taxi by a student. That was the kind of relationship he shared with his beloved students, he had said. The following passage reminded me of one such scene which used to be quite common with this professor till some girls complained.
Lermontov said to the student: "Do you realize what you're seeing? You're a student, you don't know anything about life. But this is a great scene! They're carrying a poet. Do you know what a poem it would make?"
"Look," said Lermontov to the student, "they can't even lift him up. They have no strength in their arms. They don't have any idea what life is. Carrying a poet. What a magnificent title. Do you understand?...
Another portion which speaks the best about SRFTI
The sadder people were, the more the loudspeakers played
Kundera mentions Mann again and i intend to take him up next for reading. Shall try to find out the book he mentions here
...a young man suffering from a mortal illness gets on a train and descends in an unknown town. There is a wardrobe in his room, and every night a painfully beautiful naked woman steps out of it and tells him a long, sweetly sad tale, and that woman and that tale are death.
The author's father's death
Papa's fever had gone down a bit. It was May and we opened the window overlooking the garden. From the house opposite, the television broadcast of the ceremony was reaching us through the branches of the flowering apple trees. We heard the children singing in their high-pitched voices.
A nice way of putting death.
A few hours later, his fever suddenly rose once more. He mounted his horse and rode it for several days. He never saw me again.
An intriguing thought
Love is a privilege, and all privileges are undeserved and must be paid for.
I liked the way it came to an end.
The man spoke, all others listened wiith interest, and their bare genitals stared stupidly and sadly at the yellow sand.

View all my reviews

1 comment:

  1. I am reminded of this book through a few of these excerpts. I like Kundera for his unconventional hold on thoughts and thus their strange expressions. I appreciate his strangeness. Given that, he is too much of a thinker, to an extent that he dissects thoughts, goes into their cross sections and even after being badly entrapped in the mess of such dissections, he manages to express himself. He is well read and every thing he has read/ seen/ observed is deeply thought over. He has also been a witness to a gruelling history of Czech. All of that announces its presence in almost whatever he writes.

    Also, some of his deepest pondering are, i guess, when he had sex. a woman,to him,is perhaps more about her anatomy than being something beyond that. Through this anatomy, he finds his deepest thoughts but I guess a woman shouldn't be treated just as a medium to reach one's meditations... i hate the concept of 'muse'...a muse always appears like an object of worship but an object, nonetheless.