Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978) unfolds as a series of intersecting narratives set in post-1968 Prague and its displaced Czech nationhood under a suffocating totalitarian authority. This, of course, is a recurrent political motif of Kundera’s work and as such The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where deemed strategic, heavily draws on notions of control and surveillance, which in turn result in the “consolidtion” or “erasure” of imposed/sanctioned memory: a crucial veriable in defining the modern nation state.
The first narrative of Kundera’s book is titled “Lost Letters” and it deals with a Czech intellectual, Mirek, who is under surveillance by the Secret Police and whom they follow around the clock. Mirek, on the day concerned, drives to a nearby town to visit a lover from years ago, Zdena, from whom Mirek wants to retrieve letters and notes exchanged between the two. Mirek knows he is being watched and that an imminent arrest is more than plausible and his movements hint a distinct sense of knowing the inevitable fate hanging over him like a cloud. The story is set in a context when Czechoslovakia is conquered by the imperial USSR, and where the social and intellectual fabrics of the former had undergone upheavel, owing to a wave of deaths, exiles and detentions of progressive Czechoslovakia. Mirek’s being “watched” and “followed” is openly done and Mirek, too, acknowledges the Secret Police cops from a distance with eye contact, or with a smile.
On the way to Zdena’s, Mirek pulls over at a garage to get a minor repair done to his car. While the mechanic — someone who knows Mirek personally — is working on the vehicle the two chasers casually walk over and overlook the garageman work. Later, on the return journey home, Mirek plays a trick on the followers and “loses them” somewhere at an intersection. Seeing that the followers have lost track of him he chuckles to himself as he drives on, but the Secret Police awaits Mirek, later, as he pulls up at his home. They give Mirek a smile and a nod, as if an adult would to an errent aadolescent. Mirek is soon after arrested for sedition: a charge based on his secret notebooks and reports, which are forcibly pulled out of his work desk. The search is conducted with a legal, valid warrent. Mirek is sentenced to six years and his son is given a term of two years. Ten others are similarly sent to jail for terms between 2-6 years, based on Mirek’s notebook “evidence”.
In the same narrative, the way “memory” is manipulated by the State machine is reflected in a “moment” Kundera shares from Communist Czech history. Here, the reference is to 1948, where a triumphant Klement Gottwald, as President of the republic, stands before a jubilant Prague gathering from a balcony. His fellow partisan and activist Vlado Clementis is seen by his side. There is mild snow falling, when Clementis removes a fur cap he is wearing and places it on Gottwald’s head. Kundera writes how a photograph of this event then became a famous propaganda shot — Gottwald addressing the Prague crowd, wearing Clementis’ fur cap. Four years later, Clementis is tried and hung for high treason. Soon after, Clementis “disappears” from the propaganda photo, with the evidence of him ever having been there. The fur cap on Gottwald’s head remains.
When Sarath Fonseka, retired Army General, was detained being taken into custody — and was subsequently jailed through a prolonged yet sensational trial — in 2010, the Lankan nation came very close to the Gottwald-Clementis parable mentioned above. In this instance, the Rajapaksha bastion, donned in Fonseka’s militarily-produced fur cap, were waving to the crowd with the former leader of its paid state militia “removed” from that happy, triumphal picture. This assault of “memory” is one moment — one flimsy link — of a chain of continuous such “ruptures” and “refreshings”, cascading from the highest node of authority to the lowest end of the social fabric. For instance, the State’s intervention with the population patterns in the North, following the war, and the very colonization schemes for these parts that were being penned in the deep South are conscious/unconscious efforts at denting/refining “memory” of the “rest of” the people (other than the original claiments of the confiscated land) to suit the State’s agenda.
Let us take another example. Every other junction of a suburb has a threewheeler park: one which gets established with time, with little items being added to the “park” as days roll on. Some of these places even end up with makeshift crude benches put up by the threewheeler owners who frequent the spot. Other more prominent junctions find Buddha statues being put up with elaborate expense, and strategic “acts of merit” at times of public festivals such as April new year and Vesak, undertaken by these sangams. There is a twofold way in which “memory” is played on by these seeming acts of vibrance. At one level, this kind of seeming participation in the community’s social and cultural life — by the erection of statues, the give away of “dhansael” and the decorating the area in Vesak times etc — is a way of claiming legitimacy to that territory the threewheeler syndicate holds. In reality, their “ownership” of that strip of land depends on how far they can “justify” their occupation. This is, in a way, a translation of the right to ownership of land under the medieval/feudal ethic: you got to “work” the land to keep it under your belt.
Secondly, the very reformation of the territory, also imparts an unseen signal that filters into the collected consciousness of the community at large, of which the threewheeler shed, above, is a part. Ownership and heirloom becomes “natural” and “accepted” over a passage of time, provided that what earlier used to be a bare jak tree with a broken stump by its side is now a “merit-oozing” threewheeler park with dhansael in May and lightbulbs at night around a porcelain-tiled shrine. In a community drilled by show offy fake piety, the erection of a gaudy altar is a weapon of claiming the deed; is a shield of holding off opposition. With pirith being chanted from a volume-increased radio first thing every morning, which Urban Development officer will accost the threewheeler shed and call it an “illegal” and “obstructive” set up?
In the early months of 2009, the State-media introduced the word “Puthukudyirippu” to the collective register of the Southern Sinhala vocabulary. If this word existed in the day-to-day collection of the average Southern Sinhala in pre-2009, it has to be a rarity. In middle school geography, we are handed down maps with Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Mannar clearly marked. Elephant Pass would be another “landmark” with Point Pedro and the like being there for strategic reasons. That vast hinterland that forms the heart of the Vanni was never a part of the Southern classroom: it was not a part of the consciousness of the people of the South until January-May 2009. It was in these last months of the LTTE that the finer zoomed-in sections of the Northern map, such as Anandipuram, Mullavaikkal, Puthukudyirippu etc began to take seed in the Southern mind. The “territory”, in other words, was being formed for legitimacy to be gained through conquest/”retrieval”. The way in which newscasters suddenly began pelting out these words — possibly for the first time in the history of Lankan broadcast — as if they were familiar, well known (to the average South) suburbs and such was entertaining in a pathetic, perverse way.
The “making” of Puthukudyirippu (PTK) for the Southern Sinhala psyche as a de-historicized, “terrorist”-infested “last stronghold” is a play by the State on the memory of the viewers of that great humanitarian tragi-comedy. The object of the State is manipulation of the collective psyche so that the controversial assault on that last stand of the LTTE is seen, in a classical sense, a comedy (in spite of the errors). For that purpose, Clementis has to be doctored away from the photo; and Mirek’s secret notebooks have to be confiscated. Clementis and Mirek — the analogy for the discursive reading of “alter” versions of truth and reality (that do not complement the State-minted narrative of things) — has to be monitored, brought under control, detained and punished/reformed.