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18) Milan Kundera’s The Joke: love, vengeance and self-delusion in the shadow of Stalinism

Milan Kundera, photo: Gisèle Freund,IMEC/Fonds MCC, Muzeum hl. města Prahy
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Milan Kundera, born in 1929, is without question the most famous living Czech-born writer and among the nation’s most gifted thinkers. Although a celebrated poet during the Stalinist era and a lecturer in world literature, Kundera did not start working on his first novel, The Joke, until he was thirty-three. While visiting friends in a mining region of Moravia, he heard the story of a girl jailed for stealing flowers from a cemetery to give her boyfriend. Kundera began to imagine what life would be like – at the height of Stalinism – for a girl for whom sexuality and love were tragically discrete; of a man who seduces the wife of his old nemesis out of revenge, thereby turning the act of making love into an act of hate. The politically provocative book was a sensation in Czechoslovakia when finally published in 1967 – a year before Soviet-led tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring reform movement that had allowed for such a novel to be published in the Eastern Bloc country.

The Joke is told from the viewpoints of four characters, whose destinies are intertwined. Foremost among them is Ludvik, a freethinker expelled the Communist Party and university in the 1950s, and then forced to work in the mines for well over a decade.

Though since rehabilitated, Ludvik remains bitter and seizes a chance opportunity to take revenge on a former classmate and friend who led the effort to purge him from the Party. Ludvik’s crime was having written a postcard to his stalwart girlfriend, stating “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” – as a joke.

To the timeless themes of love and lust, Kundera adds the theme of fate, one set in motion by the titular joke that Ludvik had scrawled in haste, forever changing his life. But the cruellest joke of all is played on every one of the novel’s four characters by History, as the utopias they seek – political, spiritual – lead not to paradise but to purgatory.

A love story, from Stalinism to Normalisation

The story, which takes place over a few days, is set early into the so-called Normalisation era that followed the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, but through the narrators’ reflections, covers decades of the country’s history and their own, whether as active participant, collaborator or passive bystander.

For many, it was a time of moral compromise, passivity if not apathy, and escapism. If one accepted or believed in the regime, one could have an easy life, a high standard of living. In The Joke, this is the case especially for Pavel; less so for his (as it turns out, estranged) wife, Helena – who he married not out of love but Party loyalty, and who Ludvik will cruelly seduce.

It was a decade into the Normalisation period when Petr A. Bílek, today a professor at Charles University specializing in modern Czech literature, literary theory, and popular culture, and then a teenager, first read The Joke. Kundera’s book was a revelation for him, he says, and continues to inspire with its timeless themes.

Petr A. Bílek, photo: Ksoukup, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

“If I put aside children’s literature, such as books by Karel May and Jaroslav Fogler, I had my first encounter or first introduction to true literature in grammar school. It was winter, at the family cottage of a schoolmate in the mountains. Among the books in their library was Kundera’s The Joke.

“This was at the end of the 1970s, early in the Normalisation era – and for me, this banned book had the appeal of forbidden fruit. At the same time, I imagined that if it was banned, it must be a totally different kind of book than what I used to.

“I started reading it that night. And the next day, instead of going skiing or to the pub, I read and read. The Joke captivated me. It was quite different, understandably, from the types of books available during Normalisation. But most of all it was different thanks to the brilliant style, the rational construction of the story, and his craft – in the good sense of the word.”

Milan Kundera, who began his literary journey as a Stalinist poet, was long a reform-minded communist, and despite seeing his works banned in Czechoslovakia, and later going into exile in France, never considered himself a “dissident” writer. His writing is “subversive”, he once said, in that it raises questions of moral and social uncertainty – anathema to the ideological faithful of any stripe, be they Communist (like Helena) or Christian (like Kostka, the fourth character, Ludvik’s old friend who tries to be both)...

And then there is Lucie, a simple girl Ludvik met and fell in love with while working in the mines, who brings him flowers every time she visits, but never got into bed. Many years later, Kostka takes under his wing, teaches her religion – and becomes her lover, for which he feels tremendous guilt. In a rare, televised interview from October 1968, in halting French, Kundera described what Lucie meant for Ludvik.

The Joke (1967), photo: Atlantis

“She is a woman who for this hero signifies a sort of myth. For him, this woman was a being outside of history. Because this hero, as all of us, was shocked, confused, deeply moved, terrified, by historic experiences, by history. Unfortunately, we live in history too much. This woman, who is quite simple, lived outside of history. So, she brought a certain relief to the hero, a certain escape.”

As noted, it is through another woman, Helena, that Ludvik seeks to take his revenge on the fanatics that expelled him from university and the Communist Party. But Kundera rejected viewing the novel as essentially political rather than personal, a story at heart about misunderstandings between flawed human beings seeking meaning, love and redemption, through the prisms of their own truths.

“I always thought that I had written a love story. Unfortunately, and particularly abroad, this book is considered a political novel. As far as I’m concerned, that’s completely untrue. Naturally, this love story is totally determined by historical conditions, which are in my opinion totally unique and without precedent. And so, these historical conditions do pose completely new questions.”

All that Kundera tried to achieve, ‘in embryo’ form

Milan Kundera, photo: Youtube / ina.fr 1984

Milan Kundera once wrote that when he looked back on The Joke, decades later, he could see “in embryo” everything he had tried to achieve in later works of fiction: the novel as an investigation into unknown sides to human existence, rather than a form of confession by the author, with whatever socio-political context embedded in the storyline there to cast the human condition in a new light, from an unexplored vantage point; the novel as an exploration of relative truths, none of which the author identifies with either morally or emotionally but tries to understand; the novel as a great intellectual synthesis, born of learning and research into those things upon which the characters’ truths are formed, among them traditions, myths and culture. Petr A. Bílek, Charles University professor of modern Czech literature, again:

“The Joke has stayed with me. This novel is part of the literary canon, and I return to it again and again, because I use is in my lessons. At the same time, after so many years, I appreciate that after the tenth, twelfth or fifteenth reading – and analysing passages countless times – it always has something new to offer, it accents other aspects. It’s a novel that can be interpreted in so many different ways.

“We know that when Kundera’s The Joke was published in 1967, it was taken as a political historical novel, about recent history – about the trauma of the 1950s and overcoming the hangover from the era. That aspect of it undoubtedly remains. But over time, The Joke could be read more as a more general societal novel about complicated circumstances that impact our lives and work. The specific setting of the 1950s plays a role, but it is also a story about something else.”

The absurdity of any certitude

In one of his rare interviews in later years, Milan Kundera once said, ‘We constantly re-write our own biographies and continually give matters new meanings. To re-write history in this sense – indeed, in an Orwellian sense – is not at all inhuman. On the contrary, it is very human.’ He also said that truly great novels are born of historical events that cast people into situations which unmask their flaws and reveal their true character – along with the absurdity of any certitude. Prof Petr A. Bílek again:

“As The Joke is read around the world and remains relevant, I think it’s ever more an existential novel, and the 1950s aspect is rather an interesting ‘museum’ setting. What remains alive in The Joke are the basic themes, like our unwillingness to admit how things really are; the temptation to preserve illusions we invent about ourselves, what we have done and so on. That is an altogether universal theme. I think that’s one of the reasons that you can read this novel, unlike many other books of that era, again and again. It remains a living thing.”

Author: Brian Kenety