The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Milan Kundera“I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for eveything.”

– Milan Kundera, From the Afterward, “A Talk with the Author”

EXCERPT From The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera:

“When Thomas Mann was very young, he wrote a naïve, intriguing story about death. In the story death is beautiful, as it is beautiful to those who dream of it very young, when it is still surreal and enchanting, like the bluish voice of far-off places.

A young man, mortally ill, gets off a train at an unknown station. He walks into the town without knowing its name and takes rooms in the house of an old woman whose forehead is covered with eczema. No, I do not wish to go into what took place in the rented rooms. I only wish to recall a single minor occurrence: walking around the front room, the ill young man had the feeling that “in between the sounds made by his footsteps he heard another sound in the rooms on either side – a soft, clear, metallic tone – but perhaps it was only an illusion. Like a golden ring falling into a silver basin, he thought…”

That minor acoustic event is never developed or explained in the story. From the standpoint of the action above it could have been omitted without any loss. The sound simply happened; all by itself; just like that. The reason I think Thomas Mann sounded that “soft, clear, metallic tone” was to create silence, the silence he needed to make the beauty audible (because the death he was speaking of was beauty-death), and if beauty is to be perceptible, it needs a certain minimal degree of silence (a perfect criterion of which happens to be the sound of a golden ring falling into a silver basin).

(Yes, I know. You haven’t the slightest idea what I’m talking about. Beauty has long since disappeared. It has slipped beneath the surface of the noise – the noise of words, the noise of cars, the noise of music, the noise of signs – we live in it constantly. It has sunk as deep as Atlantis. The only thing left is the word, whose meaning loses clarity from year to year.)

She is standing across from 6 long necks with tiny heads and flat beaks that open and close noiselessly. She does not understand them. She does not know whether they are threatening, warning, appealing, or begging. And because she does not know, she feels immense anxiety. She is afraid something will happen to the golden ring (that tuning fork of silence), and she keeps it tightly closed away in her mouth.

Tamina will never know what they came to tell her. But I do. They did not come to warn or scold or threaten her. They are not at all concerned with her. They came, each one of them, to tell her about themselves. About how they ate, how they slept, how they ran up the fence, and what they saw on the other side. About how they had spent their important childhood in the important village of Rourou. About how they saw a woman in a knitted shawl over her head. About how they swam, fell ill, and then recovered. About how they had been young, ridden bicycles, and eaten a sack of grass that day. There they are, standing face to face with Tamina, telling her their stories, all at the same time, belligerently, pressingly, aggressively, because there is nothing more important than what they want to tell her.”

From The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera

One Response to “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”

  1. “Beauty has long since disappeared. It has slipped beneath the surface of the noise – the noise of words, the noise of cars, the noise of music, the noise of signs – we live in it constantly. It has sunk as deep as Atlantis. The only thing left is the word, whose meaning loses clarity from year to year.”

    Silence has disappeared in America. It is analagous to the space needed around an art work to set it off as separate from its surroundings, but we do not allow it in our conversation. Attempt to allow two seconds of silence so that your observation will have effect and someone else will jump it immediately to fill up the space and you won’t have a chance.

    Americans cannot endure silence and cannot endure being alone. Relishing these are markers for maturity of soul; they are required for reflection.

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