The Unbearable Lightness of Laughter

Anna L. Kleshelskaya, Dartmouth College

The latest trend in the corpus of critical articles dealing with the controversy of magical realism has been that of broadening the theoretical borders of the term in order to allow writers outside the conventional circle of magical realists into the privileged club that Alejo Carpentier claims to be exclusively Latin American. According to Wendy B. Faris, one of the leading critics of the genre, Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is an example of the “scholarly,” “epistemological” magical realism in which the source of magic stems from the observer’s vision. Wendy Faris is certainly not the first one to notice Kundera’s bordering on the “mythical expansiveness of ‘magical realism,’” (Kleberg); however her direct categorization of the novel in the critical framework of the genre does move forward to “unlock the door” to “[the] uninterpreted facets of [the novel’s uniquely Czech] experience” (Liehm).

Through a close textual analysis of the levitation scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this paper will examine Kundera’s construction of laughter as a metaphor and the source of magical departure from reality. In this scene the author observes a dancing circle of laughing children lift off the ground and fly above Prague propelled by the physical lightness generated by their laughter. I will contextualize levitation by exploring the narrative techniques that Kundera employs in constructing lightness as a mode of physical and fictional departure from reality attained through the metaphor of laughter. In “The Angels,” Part III of the novel, the narrator defines two types of laughter: the devil’s laughter and the laughter of angels. Kundera articulates the dominance of the Devil over the angels, as the Devil’s laughter questions the divine creation while the laughter of the angels is a submission to the order of God’s world. By reversing the commonly accepted “demagogy of the angels,” the angels are presented as the false advocates of truth while the Devil holds the ultimately true knowledge.

In exploring this ideological metamorphosis, I will attempt to show that Kundera creates a parallel: between the author standing outside the circle of laughing children and the dichotomy in this scene, where the lightness of angels is opposed to the devil’s “weightiness.” I will draw on the magical episode not only to demonstrate the manner in which it transgresses Kundera’s narrative style and the textual boundary of the novel, but also its simultaneous departure from and reversal of the common connotation of magic in a number of magical realist texts. If for Alejo Carpentier magic is a celebration of a national myth, history and culture—all that is Latin American—for Kundera magic seems to be endowed with a negative meaning. He reveals the source of this magic to be a product of “uncontested” meaning—that is, of submission to the political status quo.

Thus, apart from demonstrating magical realist qualities of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I set out to show how, on a larger scale, these qualities present a powerful and sweeping critique of the social and political order, where magic embodies the absurdity of reality.


Lars Kleberg, “On the Border: Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” Scando-Slavica 30 (1984): 57.

Antonin J. Liehm, “Milan Kundera: Czech Writer,” ed. Aron Aji, Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 29.