Milan Kundera 1967
Translated from Czech 1992
Existential. Chauvinistic. Political. Whatever label you aim to apply to Kundera, there is only one word that truly describes who he is and what he is to the novel: Artist. Kundera owns a lot of real estate on my book shelf. So, having read a lot of his work I can say that as his first novel, The Joke demonstrates that Kundera developed an early mastery of his stylistic use of multiple narrators to explore the intentions of human thought and emotion. As is appreciated in all of Kundera’s work, the narrative of the The Joke is fast paced with brief snapshots of events woven together, not always linearly, but always with purposeful exploration of the character’s intentions and inner understanding of their actions.
Despite the innuendo of the title, The Joke isn’t really humorous – its title refers to a fateful event in the protagonist Ludvik’s young life when he sent a postcard to a girlfriend away at a communist camp during his only break during his studies. Upon sending the postcard he was frustrated with her choices so he wrote a brief message that pokes fun at the communist party. Ludvik, a communist supporter in Czechoslovakia of the 1950’s, doesn’t think much of sending the card in the mail. Yet, this decision – based on a flippant emotional response – ends up changing his life as he is banished from the Party, kicked out of college, and forced to serve in the military and work in the mines for several years. These events reshape who Ludvik becomes and how he views his place in the world he lives. The story also revolves around Helena, the later wife of the student that kicked Ludvik out of the party and Jaroslav, an old friend of Ludvik’s who plays traditional folk music as his modus to celebrate Czech history amidst the modern socialism. The relationship of Helena and Ludvik becomes key towards Ludvik’s attempt at retribution from his past through a failed act of revenge.
Among many considerations, The Joke thematically focuses around values of past relationships in relation to the limitations of one’s life situations. Ironically, before ever having read The Joke I had given a copy of this book to one of my closest friends as a gift just before he left the US to live in Taiwan. This life-changing move came about due to his immigration status that limited his ability to find work in the US despite having grown up in this country. Much like Ludvik, this friend’s opportunities were dictated by the state and I find it personally ironic that the novel’s focus on the friendship between Ludvik and Jaroslav mirrors the friendship of this friend and I. While Ludvik is limited in the work he can employ and who he can socialize with, Jaroslav is a man with opportunities granted by the state that he chooses to ignore, preferring to focus on values that the state cannot offer such as traditional music and his place in his country’s cultural and religious history. The values of these two men are woven together as their lives and actions bring them to a shared understanding of who they were and who they have become. Reading this book now in my thirties I find myself reflecting on my relationship with my old friend and who we have become from what we once were. Our lives have often gravitated in new directions as a result of brief but necessary occurrences not always mastered within our own control. This personal, visceral response to Kundera’s work is just the response that makes him a great artist: his writing touches the essence of man, prompting the reader to reflect on one’s own humanity.