Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

“‘You begin to liquidate a people,’ Hübl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was.’”

It was this quote from the book making the rounds on social media recently that led me to re-read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but then I found more to retrieve from the margins of memory.

“…but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it… we fight for access to the labs where we can retouch photos and rewrite biographies and history.”

“They wanted to efface hundreds of thousands of lives from memory and leave nothing but an unstained age of unstained idyll.”

“…erased from the country’s memory, like mistakes in a schoolchild’s homework.”

“The constitution did indeed guarantee freedom of speech, but the laws punished anything that could be considered an attack on state security. One never knew when the state would start screaming that this word or that was an attempt on its security.”

Fortunately and unfortunately, Kundera reminds us that we are not alone in this plight, and there are still those who remember.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

It’s funny how this book made more sense when I read it as a younger person — the passages about music and literature I glorified, the obscenities I took as metaphors and almost everything else as literary symbols. Now that I’m older, it all seems absurd.

And it is absurd because of how real it has become.

Along with my old yellowed notes tucked between its pages lie the pretentiousness of a young reader and the confounding of an older one.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

I will not be stingy with truth. And because the truth is often bound to be difficult and makes us squirm in our comfortable seats, the question is not whether you will like this. The question is whether you can swallow it — the nature of flawed leaders, of spiritual shepherds who are wolves to their own flock, of society, of human beings, of real characters.

This is what Olga Tokarczuk conveys to me right from the first of seven books in The Books of Jacob.

She thrusts us into 1752 Poland where there is a growing animosity towards the Jews and the longing for a messiah is intensified. But only in the second book do we meet the messianic figure: Jacob Frank who asks, “What do we want some sage for?” Jacob whose sexual perversities are now being slowly divulged to the reader. Jacob who ridicules his most earnest followers while they, in the goodness of their hearts, concoct half-truths and falsehoods about him to glorify him; because he is seemingly authentic in everything he does; and although repulsive, he is charming.

All these, eerily juxtaposed with current events in the Philippines: the FBI issuing a poster of church leader Apollo Quiboloy’s warrant of arrest for fraud, coercion, and sex trafficking; a dictator’s son who is a tax code offender leading the presidential polls; the former being an open endorser of the latter.

With an increasing throng of followers, this charismatic Jacob Frank preached the idea that the notion of sin no longer applies. There was no room for conventional morality in his philosophy. “We are to trample all the laws because they are no longer in effect…”

There is no more morality — a common refrain among leaders and their supporters today who justify wrongdoing and do not wish to face accountability! 

I was wrong. Olga did not thrust us into events over two centuries ago with this opus. She brings us to the present. This is us. This is us. Because isn’t morality dead to us unless and until the injustice is done by those we dislike, and then we cry foul and demand morality and justice?

This colossus — a lyrical galaxy of darkness and light, weakness and strength, of comets and plagues set in some of the most exciting places I have actually been to, of beautiful passages about literature and how it somehow makes solid the ground beneath us despite this chaotic world, of history and its excruciating details — is not exactly about Jacob. It is about society and how we create the tapestry of history with our actions and our choices… and it seems like we never learn.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

The main motivation for reading this book was in knowing that it recounts the transit of Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw while his body was interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Every classical musician knows this strangely romantic story of how his homesick heart finally returned home; but naturally, I also wanted to read it narrated by a Nobel winner.

Flights turned out to be an unexpected reading experience. It is a literary collage written the way the author describes postcards nowadays: “Postcards of landscapes, panoramas of old ruins, postcards ambitiously prepared so as to show as much as possible on that flat surface, are slowly being replaced by photographs focusing on details.  This is no doubt a good idea, because they relieve tired minds. There is too much world, so it’s better to concentrate on particulars, rather than the whole.”

And so she does. These details and particulars in question are the mind, the soul, psychology, the physical brain, the heart, and the entire human body; which, ironically, also turns out to be “so much world.” It is a travel book with emotional itineraries and mental maps. A special trip around, or more accurately, inside the world. But in its entirety, it is an unusual research on pain, and a unique meditation on traveling, space, time, and movement.

The literary phases of my life have always been geographic, I now realize. Even my shelves are organized based on geography. Russia on the topmost shelf, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom on the succeeding tiers, and so on… and there’s the presently expanding Fertile Crescent and Silk Route section. Tokarczuk being Polish might seem like a veering away from my current authors of choice, and yet, the undeniable influence of the Arabian Nights is still lurking in this masterpiece. Even though I have a feeling that this book will ultimately settle down in the Eastern European section beside Kundera, this one feels like it belongs to each and every section.

As it is with masterpieces, this one transcends geography.