The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera has been published for the first time in the Czech Republic. It was the author’s last novel written in Czech that had not been available in his homeland before now. The only edition ever released in Czech previously was in 1981 by the exile publishing house Sixty-Eight Publishers.
“I would say the Book of Laughter and Forgetting is not a conventional novel. It doesn’t have a protagonist or a story in a traditional sense. It does have a number of characters, who, even though they never meet, are preoccupied with similar problems, and Kundera moves them into situations, using them to explore similar motives.
“One of the major ones is the way totalitarian regime makes people disappear and the nature of this specific type of forgetting: the way the regime can erase a person from a photograph, from a collective memory, from all levels of society, really.
“In the end there is no trace left and everyone is living in this strange kind of “paradise”, in this totalitarian utopia, where there is no disagreement, no dissent, no memory. And you could say that some of the characters are looking for ways to defy this.”
Mr Kundera is known for strictly authorizing any new releases of his books and he made quite a few amendments to this new Czech edition. What kind of changes are they?
“He made a significant number of cut and changes, but none of them threaten this unity of themes, as he calls it. I compared this new Czech version to the original one and the novel lost a few scenes, a few adjectives, but nothing major.
“Generally, most of the stuff left out, mentioned people or events that made sense to everyone in the 1970s or the 1980s but they are not necessary anymore.
“When Kundera published the book originally, it was the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, it was the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic under a name named Husák, it was China under Mao, but the world changes and there are different regimes and different actors now.
“And actually, to a young reader, who opens up The Book of Laughter and Forgetting now, as Kundera just released it, it might make even better sense that the original one did.”
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the Last book Kundera wrote in Czech which hasn’t been officially published in the Czech Republic until now. Do you think it is likely that break his vow not to translate his later French novels to Czech?
“Probably not. It’s very difficult to explain to someone who knows Milan Kundera’s works in French and English, because there is no problem there. His relationship to Czech readers, on the other hand, is much more difficult.
“Up until recently, Czechs had difficulties in accessing Kundera’s novels, because the books were never published here. Right now there are four other novels that he wrote in French that the Czech readers don’t know yet.
“But Milan Kundera is 88 years old and these novels were written at a different time, when he was a writer living in France. And he has just been saying one thing all along: I don’t have the time to translate my newer French novels into Czech and because Czech is my native language, I would spend so much time revising the translation that it’s out of the question. The little time I have left I want to use for further writing in French.”