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In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.
The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.
It is 1971, and Mirek says: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
With this he is trying to justify what his friends call carelessness: meticulously keeping a diary, preserving his correspondence, compiling the minutes of all the meetings where they discuss the situation and ponder what to do. He says to them: We're not doing anything that violates the constitution. To hide and feel guilty would be the beginning of defeat.
A week before, at work with his crew on the roof of a building under construction, he looked down and was overcome by vertigo. He lost his balance, and his fall was broken by a badly joined beam that came loose; then they had to extricate him from under it. At first sight, the injury seemed serious, but a little later, when it turned out to be only an ordinary fracture of the forearm, he was pleased by the prospect of some weeks of vacation and the opportunity finally to take care of things he had never found the time for.
He ended up agreeing with his more prudent friends. 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. So he decided to put his compromising papers in a safe place.
But first he wanted to settle the Zdena business. He had phoned her in the town where she lived, but was unable to reach her. That cost him four days. He got through to her only yesterday. She had agreed to see him this afternoon.
Mirek's seventeen-year-old son protested: Mirek would be unable to drive with his arm in a cast. And he did have trouble driving. Powerless and useless in its sling, the injured arm swayed on his chest. To shift gears, Mirek had to let go of the steering wheel.
He had had an affair with Zdena twenty-five years earlier, and all that remained from that time were some memories.
One day, she had appeared for a date wiping her eyes with a handkerchief and sniffling. He asked her what was wrong. She told him that a Russian statesman had died the day before. A certain Zhdanov, Arbuzov, or Masturbov. Judging by the abundance of her tears, the death of Masturbov had moved her more strongly than the death of her own father.
Could that really have happened? Isn't it merely his present-day hatred that has invented those tears over Masturbov's death? No, it had certainly happened. But of course it's true that the immediate circumstances which had made these tears real and believable baffled him now, and that the memory had become as implausible as a caricature.
All his memories of her were like that: They had come back together by streetcar from the apartment where they first made love. (Mirek noted with distinct satisfaction that he had completely forgotten their coitions, that he was unable to recall even a single moment of them.) She sat on a corner bench in the jolting streetcar, her face sullen, closed, surprisingly old. When he asked her why she was so silent, she told him she had not been satisfied with their lovemaking. She said he had made love to her like an intellectual.
In the political jargon of those days, the word "intellectual" was an insult. It indicated someone who did not understand life and was cut off from the people. All the Communists who were hanged at the time by other Communists were awarded such abuse. Unlike those who had their feet solidly on the ground, they were said to float in the air. So it was fair, in a way, that as punishment the ground was permanently pulled out from under their feet, that they remained suspended a little above the floor.
But what did Zdena mean by accusing him of making love like an intellectual?
For one reason or another, Zdena was displeased with him, and just as she was capable of imbuing the most abstract relationship (the relationship with Masturbov, whom she didn't know) with the most concrete feeling (embodied in a tear), so she was capable of giving the most concrete of acts an abstract significance and her own dissatisfaction a political name.
In the rearview mirror, he noticed a car persistently staying behind him. He had never doubted he was being followed, but up to now they had behaved with model discretion. Today a radical change had taken place: they wanted him to know they were there.
Out in the country, about twenty kilometers from Prague, there was a high fence with a service station and auto-repair shop behind it. He had a pal working there who could replace his defective starter. He stopped the car in front of a red-and-white-striped barrier blocking the entrance. Beside it stood a heavy woman. Mirek waited for her to raise the barrier, but she just stood there staring at him. He honked his horn, in vain. He stuck his head out of the open window. "Didn't they arrest you yet?" asked the woman.
"No, they haven't arrested me yet," answered Mirek. "Could you raise the barrier?"
She stared absently at him for some more long moments, then yawned and went back to her gatekeeper's shack. She sat down there behind a table, no longer looking his way.
So he got out of the car, walked around the barrier, and went into the repair shop to find the mechanic he knew. The mechanic came back with him and raised the barrier himself (the heavy woman was still sitting in the gatekeeper's shack, staring absently), allowing Mirek to drive in.
"You see, it's because you showed up too much on TV," said the mechanic. "All those dames know who you are."
"Who is she?" asked Mirek.
The mechanic told him that the invasion of Bohemia by the Russian army, whose occupation of the country had affected everything, had been for her a signal of a new life, out of the ordinary. She saw that people who ranked above her (and everyone ranked above her) were being deprived, on the slightest allegation, of their powers, their positions, their jobs, and their bread, and that excited her; she started to denounce people herself.
"So why is she still a gatekeeper? Why wasn't she promoted?"
The mechanic smiled. "She can't count to ten. They can't find another job for her. All they can do is let her go on denouncing people. For her, that's a promotion!"
He raised the hood and looked at the engine.
Mirek suddenly became aware of a man standing near him. He turned: the man was wearing a gray jacket, a white shirt with tie, and brown trousers. Above the thick neck and puffy face was a head of gray hair in a permanent wave. He had planted himself there to watch the mechanic leaning under the raised hood.
After a moment, the mechanic noticed him too, and he straightened up and said: "Looking for somebody?"
The thick-necked man with the permanent wave answered: "No. I'm not looking for anybody."
The mechanic leaned over the engine again and said: "In Wenceslaus Square, in Prague, a guy is throwing up. Another guy comes up to him, pulls a long face, shakes his head, and says: 'I know just what you mean.'
The assassination of Allende quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Bohemia, the bloody massacre in Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten, the din of war in the Sinai Desert drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the massacres in Cambodia caused the Sinai to be forgotten, and so on, and on and on, until everyone has completely forgotten everything.The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
A Novel. Copyright © by Milan Kundera. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
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