The Joke was Milan Kundera’s first novel. He began writing it in 1962, it was completed in 1965, first published in 1967 as Žert and first translated into English in 1969. Kundera didn’t like the English translation as the translators completely changed the structure of the book. The irony that the book was published in Communist Czechoslovakia uncensored but completely altered and re-arranged when published in the West was not lost on Kundera. The translation that I read is by Michael Henry Heim and was approved by Kundera and published in 1982. Looking at the Author’s Note in a more recent translation it appears that Kundera had second thoughts about aspects of this translation and personally altered it and republished it in 1992.
For me this is a re-read and re-reading books is something I’ve been doing and enjoying just lately and which I plan to continue doing. Although I’ve read and re-read most of Kundera’s books, at least up to Immortality, The Joke was one that I kept meaning to re-read but never quite got round to it. My reluctance was in part because I didn’t enjoy my first reading that much; I remember it being a bit bland, but this was after reading his later books. However, I’ve really enjoyed re-reading it and my (relatively) lower opinion of it was a bit unfair. I think now I would say it stands up there with his other works – no problem.
What spurred me on to read it now was to include this review in Stu’s Eastern-European Lit Month. When deciding to read this book I did wonder if Kundera would object to us including Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe rather than Central Europe and whether modern-day Czechs and Slovaks would have any objections as well. Maybe it’s not an issue but it’s similar to the point that Kundera made in the preface to my edition; that the West quickly thought of Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet Bloc countries as being part of the U.S.S.R. whereas the inhabitants of those countries thought of themselves as belonging to a distinct country.
The book is split into seven parts with the first six parts focusing on one of the characters where we see events through their eyes. Ludvik Jahn is the main character and he has three parts to himself whilst Jaroslav, Helena and Kostka all have a part each. The last part is a mixture of viewpoints as all the characters are brought together. Now, I always love this type of approach to a novel as the multiple viewpoints makes it more three-dimensional and realistic than a third-person narrative or one from a single first-person narrative and it works well here with the type of story that Kundera is telling.
The book opens with Ludvik returning to his hometown. He hasn’t been back there for years and he meets up with an old acquaintance called Kostka, and arranges to use his flat for a meeting with his lover when she arrives. The narrative switches to Helena, who is preparing for her trip to meet Ludvik, then switches back to Ludvik in 1948. At this time he was a young optimistic member of the Communist Party although he’s a bit of a joker and worst of all, he’s often accused of being an individualist. Ludvik has a very serious girlfriend called Marketa who is often made fun of as she never understands any jokes. Just as their relationship is forming Marketa has to leave for a short training session so they have to rely on sending each other letters. Marketa is enjoying the training session and her letters are full of her enthusiasm and optimism of the socialist order. Although Ludvik agrees with her, he’s jealous of her happiness away from him:
So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.
Their correspondence soon dries up and when she returns to Prague she is reluctant to renew their relationship. It’s not long before Ludvik is called before a Party University Committee which confronts him about his relationship with Marketa and the postcard that he sent. Although it was only meant as a joke, under the scrutiny of the committee the words on the postcard look like anti-Communist sentiments and can not be tolerated. Ludvik is thrown out of the university and the Party and soon finds himself ostracised. Even his friend Zemanek refuses to help him so he returns to his hometown. He has few options now and so he gets drafted to a Work Brigade and ends up working in a mine for years.
Ludvik finds it difficult adjusting to his new lowly status but slowly gets used to the militaristic lifestyle. The only positive side is that they get paid reasonably well and when they get leave they can let their hair down a bit. Ludvik then meets Lucie:
She was coming in my direction, in the direction of the courtyard. Why didn’t I simply walk past her? Was it because I was merely drifting aimlessly or because the unusual late-afternoon lighting in the courtyard held me back? Or was it something in the way she looked? But her appearance was utterly ordinary. True, later that ordinary quality about her was what touched and attracted me, but how was it she caught my eye and stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw her?
They form a relationship though it is often difficult arranging to meet each other as Lucie lives in a dormitory and Ludvik’s leave was erratic. Their relationship is initially Platonic but Ludvik becomes obsessed with having sex with her; he tries to organise trysts with her but is frustrated with Lucie’s reluctance together with the petty life back at the camp. This culminates in Ludvik’s attempted rape of her. When he tries to get in touch with her days later he discovers that Lucie has disappeared.
The narrative returns to the present day and we learn about Jaroslav, an old friend of Ludvik, who belongs to a folk music group. Jaroslav is interested in folk traditions of all sorts as was Ludvik when he was younger. Jaroslav and the whole town are preparing for a procession called The Ride of the Kings, an event that means a lot to Jaroslav. We now find out more about Jaroslav and Ludvik as well as Ludvik’s reason for returning to his hometown – his rendezvous with Helena. We even find out what’s happened to Lucie as well and it’s at this point that the parts of the novel start to slot together and the connections between the characters are made clearer. So I won’t reveal any more of the plot in order not to spoil it for others.
At the beginning of the book it would appear that ‘the joke’ refers solely to the joke on the postcard. However, by the end of the book it’s clear that it refers to other ‘jokes’ in the lives of the characters. In the author’s preface to my edition Kundera states:
The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its “philosophy” as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. He is condemned to triviality.