Anyone familiar with Kundera’s novels is eminently aware of his perpetual playfulness. This is what compelled me to attempt to understand what Kundera was doing in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as a game, using it then to help us understand what makes for a good game, as well as what makes for a bad game. And Kundera does indeed provide us with rich examples of game-playing, both good and bad, the attempts of some to prevent people from treating society as a game, and even how games can be brought to an end.
Mirek’s Game – Kundera’s novel begins with a story about a man, Mirek, and his country, Bohemia (Kundera chooses to use the name Bohemia, which he says is the more poetic, older name of his country, Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic), engaged in their own forms of attempting to erase the past. The novel opens with a story of how the Communist government of Bohemia erased a man’s image from a famous photograph in an attempt to erase the man’s existence from the very history of Communist Bohemia. After this short anecdote, we move into Mirek’s story of his trying to erase his past by trying to get “rid of his compromising papers” (13). But to do this, he has to go see Zdena, a woman he was once in love with, but who he has also tried to erase from his past (getting rid of his papers will, he hopes, help him do this) because she is ugly, and he finds his past love for her embarrassing. Both the government of Bohemia and Mirek are trying to erase their pasts for the sake of their respective destinies. Which brings us to the Game of Destiny. With Destiny, life frees itself and has “interests of its own, which did not correspond at all to Mirek’s” (14). Destiny takes on a life of its own, plowing down even the person whose destiny it is. The individual, Mirek or others in Bohemia, can be happy, secure, in good spirits, and have good health, but Destiny is unconcerned with any of these. Each of these can and very often are sacrificed to Destiny. Destiny has grandeur, clarity, beauty, style, and intelligible meaning. A past has none of these things – it can even get in the way of these things – which is why those who believe in Destiny must destroy their past. But if we go about trying to forget what we did and why we did them, are we any longer playing a game? Destiny is deterministic, and a fully deterministic game is not a game at all, since we know with absolute certainty what is going to happen. The game of trying to destroy the past is a game with the ironic goal of destroying games as such. So what I previously called the Game of Destiny is really not a game at all. It is a serious thing done seriously.
Eva’s Game – The next story in this novel is about the game a young woman named Eva has of cheerful man-chasing, and the relationship game she is involved with in Karel and Marketa’s marriage. Kundera makes it clear what the rules of cheerful man-chasing are: the woman cannot be interested in marriage, meaning she is interested in friendship and sensuality only, she allows the man everything and demands nothing from him, and she is direct and honest with him. These are good rules because the person playing the game knows it is a game, and treats it lightly. No one is in any danger of being harmed, if the game is played properly. And it is a game that can apparently work, as we see in Eva’s relationship with Karel and Marketa. Karel is apparently incapable of being faithful, and Marketa has made up for this by both allowing Karel to cheat on her, and by engaging in threesomes with him and his mistresses. Eva is involved with them precisely because Karel and Marketa’s game failed. Marketa thought there was too much at stake with one of his mistresses, whom she suspected Karel of actually loving. Both learned that you cannot play a good game if the stakes are too high and you despise one of the players. Realizing Marketa had to have a positive and non-serious connection to the third player in their “debauchery games” (55-6), Karel arranged for Eva to meet Marketa so Marketa could introduce Eva to Karel as a fair game-player. All of this came about because they did not take caution in setting up the rules couples draw up when they first get together (51) – which is to say, they were not conscious rules were being set up between them, so less-than-best rules were established. One can only play the best game if one knows all the rules to the game. Anyone can kick a ball around a field, but it is knowing all the rules that makes the game soccer.
Kundera’s Game of Survival – Here Kundera tells an autobiographical story that deals with the issue of cheating, or the use of force (whether that force is the gun or lying). Kundera found himself excluded by the government from playing the economic game – which they were trying to turn into a non-game by making it deterministic and coercion-driven. Under such conditions, Kundera came to the conclusion that it was legitimate to cheat, by creating a false connection between him and a famous French astrologer so he could convince people he could do astrology, since the only way to play a game dominated by force is by using force yourself, even if it is a minor form of it, like cheating.
By cheating, Kundera created a legitimate play-space within the coercive game the government was playing. In this play-space he played the Astrology Game, using a youth magazine, which published his column. This led him to play the Astrology Game with the editor of the magazine, unbeknownst to the editor. As Kundera points out, a horoscope “can indeed wonderfully influence, even direct, people’s behavior. We can advise them to do certain things and warn them against doing others, and induce them into humility by acquainting them with the disasters in their future” (85), which is precisely what he did with the editor. Knowing the kind of person the editor was – a ruthless type one usually finds in charge in dictatorships – Kundera created a horoscope that turned the editor into a broken man, intent on at least trying to be a better person in the hope that doing so would counteract the negative things his horoscope predicted for him.
The Game of Literature – Kundera plays the postmodern game of pointing out to his readers that he is writing a novel, often by interceding as the author to point something out to the reader. A good example of this, which also happens to deal with the issue of what makes for good game rules in the creation of literature, is found chapter 1 of Book 4:
I calculate that two or three new fictional characters are baptized here on earth every second. That is why I am always hesitant about joining that vast crowd of John the Baptists. But what can I do? After all, my characters need to have names. This time, to make clear that my heroine is mine and only mine (I am more attached to her than to any other), I am giving her a name no woman has ever borne: Tamina. I imagine her as tall and beautiful, thirty-three years old, and originally from Prague.
I see her walking down a street in a provincial town in the west of Europe. Yes, you’re right to have noticed: I refer to faraway Prague by name, while leaving anonymous the town where my story takes place. That breaks all the rules of perspective, but you’ll just have to make the best of it. (109)
Here, Kundera admits to breaking the rules of perspective. As a novelist, Kundera is creating a game, with rules (including a set of rules already prescribed by the history of the novel – and it is one of these he is now violating). A good game player is one who knows how to play the game so well (as Kundera does with the art of the novel) that they can now change the rules of the game – in the very spirit of the game they are playing. By pointing it out, Kundera is letting us know that he is fully aware he is breaking the rules of perspective, meaning he is fully aware of the rule, and that it is not a mistake, but a purposeful change. Kundera again gives us the rules he used to create this novel: “This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance” (227). He uses variation because “Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter” (226). He is speaking here of music, but it is clear he is also talking about the art of the novel, as the first quote suggests. Kundera often connects music, the novel, and poetry. So when he says music rises above its “essential stupidity” when the “first games with motif and theme” (248) are played, one could perhaps see this too as a critique of the novel. What is important here is Kundera sees things as becoming great only once games are played with them. Music, poetry, and the novel are all great only when we treat them as games, and do not take them too seriously, putting them in danger of no longer becoming a game, no longer becoming something new with each new work and reading of that work. This is how the game itself can have the ability to change you, as in Kundera’s novel the great poet’s poetry does for the student (192).
The Progressive Game – In the final book of the novel, Kundera introduces Jan and the Clevises. “The Clevises always supported the best possible progressive ideas” (273), which begs the question of what makes for the best possible progressive idea? How does one best play the progressive game? Kundera sets up the rules quite clearly. First, one must provoke others with the idea, but not in such a way that people become frightened – they must feel safe with you as you promote the idea. Second, the idea must be original, but acceptable by more than a few. Third, it must not be excessive – Kundera gives the example of supporting going topless at the beach, but not supporting going around town naked. And finally, the idea must not take too much energy to defend – it has to pretty much take care of itself, or take on a life of its own. A good game should be interesting, even to the point of appearing to be somewhat dangerous (something has to be at stake), but not truly dangerous (the most important things should not be at stake), it must be unique without being so strange people cannot relate to it, it must push the envelope without breaking out and getting so far away no one can understand it, and it must be something that does not need the creator around to keep it alive. These are good rules for games in general, and for art and literature in particular.
Kundera ends his novel with two examples of how one can ruin a game. The first example is given during the discussion at the Clevises, when Jan, responding to their fourteen-year-old daughter saying, “I’m not anybody’s sex object,” responded with, “My dear girl, if you only knew how easy it is not to be a sex object.”:
He uttered these words softly, but with such sincere sorrow that they resounded in the room for a long while. They were words difficult to pass over in silence, but it was not possible to respond to them either. They did not deserve approval, not being progressive, but neither did they deserve an argument, because they were not obviously against progress. They were the worst words possible, because they were situated outside the debate conducted by the spirit of the time. They were words beyond good and evil, perfectly incongruous words. (276)
After this, the progressive game came to a complete stop. Not all games are good, or should be played, so stopping a particular game is not necessarily bad. Jan managed to stop the game by doing something that could be neither condemned nor approved of, as it stepped outside of the play-space itself. He neither cheated nor played by the rules. He stopped the game cold. It is therefore ironic that later, when Jan is trying to play the orgy game, it gets just as ruined by someone else – in this case, the sponsor of the orgy. Kundera manages to give the reader one of the least erotic orgy scenes written by such a masterful (and very often, sensual) writer – all because the orgy is micromanaged by Barbara, who is hosting it. Rather than allowing people to interact in natural ways, Barbara goes around, forcing people together or apart, making sure people are switching partners and not settling down with any one person. By doing so, she manages to make her orgies boring – certainly not as much fun or as sensual as one would imagine an orgy should be, in any case.
Games are constantly being played in Kundera’s novel, and Kundera is quite explicit about what rules make for a good game, and what one can do to stop or destroy a game. We have seen that a deterministic game (the Game of Destiny), or one where force is necessary, is actually no game at all, that those who play too seriously make the game at the least no fun, and at worst so dangerous that what was a game now ceases to be a game, that micromanaging a game makes it boring, and that acting in ways beyond good and evil stops games. Kundera further sets up a contrast between those who play games and those who do (or will) not, or are indifferent to them, showing the hatred that arises for the game-players by the serious non-game players. For Kundera, those who refuse to see life as a game become very dangerous to those who do wish to see life as a game.
But if we want to do as Kundera does, and play the game of literature (or art in general), if we want to enjoy life by living it as a game, then Kundera gives us the rules, including the rules for setting up the rules (conscious rules you choose – along with our unconscious rules – are better than having only unconscious rules, or rules imposed on you). There cannot be too much at stake, so it should not force us to have to take it seriously. The players must all be friendly, direct, and honest with each other. The rules must be flexible enough to keep the game interesting. The game must have form, but it must have variations within that form. It should be interesting, even appear dangerous (something has to be at stake), but not truly dangerous. It must be unique without being so strange people cannot relate to it. It must push the envelope without breaking out and getting so far away no one can understand it. It must be something that does not need the creator around to keep it alive. And a truly good game will change the players themselves.