If only Milan Kundera's short story collection Laughable Loves had been simply an enjoyable read... Several other adjectives come to mind: arresting, compelling, strange, detached, sometimes disappointing. None of these get to the core of the work, a core that, on finishing the book, might seem more elusive than at any time during the progress of the text.
In Laughable Loves we are presented with characters that often seem to behave like cut-outs being pushed across a stage whose set is alien to them. They often seem only partially engaged with their own lives, even lost in their surroundings, no matter how familiar they are claimed to be. They are apparently controlled by others, perhaps by forces not only beyond their control, but also beyond their influence, even beyond their experience.
On the surface, however, this is not a book about totalitarianism or overt control. There are hardly any overtly political themes or references. As a background, as might be expected, this seems to be taken as given. There are references to a faceless system here and there, but this in no Kafka-esque construction of an all-embracing and constraining reality. In Laughable Loves Milan Kundera seems to imprison people primarily within the demands of their own humanity. They seem to be enslaved by their own, inevitable, controllable but not controlled urges. This is fundamental behaviour that they think they can control, but the fact that they cannot confirms that it controls them.
And, of course, the urge of sex, the reality of sex, the realisation of sex, the promise of sex, the deferment of sex, the doing of sex, all of these vie for the forefront of consciousness, their common factor apparently both the motive and the end of all intent. We may play with gods, careers, influence or power, but our ultimate and single-minded motive is the achievement of the momentary majesty of sexual communion.
In his film, Casanova may have been likened to an erectile clockwork toy, pre-ordained by virtue of inevitable, hard-wired mechanism to perform whenever wound up. And in this book, Kundera presents people who mimic such automata, except that occasionally a spring gives, or a cog slips. "Ah, ladies and gentlemen," he writes, "a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anyone or anything seriously." But almost no-one in these stories is eventually serious about anything, except the sex drive that controls them and whose realisation so often results in no more than sensations of the ephemeral. Immediately it is the next time that is yearned. They are thus all sad, quite absurdly sad, even as the invisible hand that manipulates their cut-out play in an alien theatre makes them move and perform. Even sadder is the human cut-out who doesn't even believe that such a controlling hand might exist.