|Sex sells, and Milan Kundera is no exception. The frank attitude of the Czech people towards sex under Communism continued in the post-Communism Czech Republic, when Prague became a popular spot for sex tourists. This is a still from a pornographic film shot in the Czech Republic.|
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)
by Milan Kundera
I remember, in junior high, furtively thumbing through a copy of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1988, after the movie version came out, because the movie was rated R for sexual content. I was 12 at the time, not even close to my first date, kiss or relationship, let alone sexual activity with anyone. I remember being confused by The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and unable to make sense of any of it, let alone find erotic content. That memory returned to me while I was reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a novel of seven interrelated narratives (or variations on a theme as the author/narrator himself explains during the book) that share the theme of memory/forgetting. Very little laughter occurs, and what attention is paid to laughter is not flattering. No, this is mostly The Book of Forgetting.
I will forever associate Kundera with the pan-European film trilogy Three Colors, by Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski. Those films weren't released until the mid 1990's, but I feel like they are a good summary of the impact of several decades of philosophical existentialism on the feature film experience. After all, I sincerely doubt that The Book of Laughter and Forgetting would have made the 1001 Books project had The Unbearable Lightness of Being been such a hit with Western audiences in the mid 1980's. And, you know, now that I'm two books into Kundera's bibliography, I feel like it is his frank, sympathetic depiction of adults having sex that is the key to his success, much in the same way 12 year old me picked up the movie version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (at a time when I was reading science fiction out of the young adult section in the local public library in Northern California.
Sex sells in popular entertainment, be it book, music or film. Kundera writes about sex in such a way that it is almost entirely deprived of erotic charge. His characters grope, fumble and stifle laughter during furtive sexual encounters staged during the Russian occupation of the Czech Republic. In a broad sense, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting belongs to the genre of novels that depict life in Communist occupied Eastern Europe, but it is the sex that sets him apart, like it or not. Personally, I feel like every artistic word ever uttered about sex or sexual relationships has been rendered entirely irrelevant by the explosion of pornography on the internet. I'm not talking about love, but the depiction of sexual acts in art and literature. Nothing an author could possibly write about the sexual act could rival a five minute search of literally any term at a site like Pornhub.