The Joke Still Plays


The Joke

Milan Kundera

Harper Perennial, 1994



The Joke is my second foray into Milan Kundera. I read Slowness in 2006, which I gave (according to my book notes) a “so-so” rating, followed by the dictate “must give him another shot.” And so for this project I went back to the beginning with the first novel he published.


In what I take to be a superb translation (I haven’t read the original Czech of course, but the language seems precise), a few—not just one—jokes are discussed, namely Communism, Love, and Religion. In his own introduction to The Joke, Kundera claims his book was/is/and will always be, not a farcical portrayal of Czech Communist rule, but a love story. He’s playing us. A love story? Perhaps, but when he compares the zeal with which Christians guilt-trip their own flock with how the Communist Party does the same to their followers (after all, both fora are social constructs), The Joke cannot be simply read as a passive or accidental belittling of Czech’s ruling party.


“… (we felt participation in the proletarian revolutionary movement to be a matter of, how shall I put it, essence, not a matter of choice; a man either was a revolutionary, in which case he completely merged with the movement into one collective entity, or he wasn’t, and could only hope to be one, and therefore suffered constant guilt over not being one).”  


Where I grew up being Christian was a matter of essence rather than choice, and no doubt the same holds true for dominant religions in locales worldwide—you just are whatever the preachers happen to be. The parallels of these two movements in The Joke—Christianity and Communism—are spot on.


In fact, less than thirty pages after the Christian/Communist comparison, the professorial main character Ludvik fancies himself an apostate who’s been excommunicated, not from Christianity but from the Czech Communist Party. Marx famously quipped that religion is the opiate of the masses; Kundera seems to suggest that blind faith in a political ideology can numb the mind equally.


When Ludvik describes his experience in the penal unit of the military as a “penumbra of depersonalization” the reader is led to infer that the same characterization can be applied to the avidly anti-individualism of Communist rule. For example, on leave from the military Ludvik wanders the streets of a random town, admiring inconsistencies in home life and architecture, and realizes “that I didn’t belong.” Belong to the town, the Communist Party, the military, just didn’t belong, period. These sentiments pepper the novel. How can we not see these facets of The Joke a commentary on socio-political life in Czechoslovakia? The Russians, after all, weren’t too thrilled with the novel. They banned the book and eventually forced Kundera into exile.


(Incidentally, Ludvik’s emotional isolation behind barbed wire recalls that of Raskolnikov’s similar stint in Crime and Punishment, who, like Ludvik does with Lucie, finds comfort and bearing in Sofia (or Sonia). Anguish is tempered by love.)


Here I take the privilege of pulling from a short essay I wrote for the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature—an event that occurred concurrently with my reading of The Joke. I attended a panel discussion on the role of the artist in conflict zones. The dialogue got me thinking of my own projections on Kundera’s role as an author writing under oppressive rule. I quote myself:


“Written in 1962 and published in 1967 in Communist Czechoslovakia, the book got under the skin of Russian authorities who banned the volume and forced Kundera into exile. Knowing the history of the novel and of Kundera’s forced emigration how can I not help but think that Kundera was nothing less than a polemical, political novelist? Yet in his introduction to M. H. Heim’s translation Kundera insists that, despite its fate as a ‘pamphlet against socialism,’ The Joke must be taken for what it was always meant to be: ‘merely a novel.’


“Perhaps I am projecting my own sentiments and images of the role of a Czech novelist under an oppressive Communist regime onto Kundera and his novel. Perhaps The Joke really is just a love story. Maybe. Maybe not. While I am not wholly convinced of Kundera’s position, I am no longer as sure of my own stance.”


It may or may not be a love story, but some of the best material mused on the subject. For example:


“Physical love only rarely merges with spiritual love. What does the spirit actually do when the body unites (in its age-old, universal, immutable motion) with another body? Think of the wonderful ideas it comes up with during those times, proving as they inevitably do its superiority over the never-ending monotony of the life of the body! Think of the scorn it has for the body, which (together with its partner) provides it with the raw material for fantasies a thousand times more carnal than the bodies themselves! Or conversely: think of the joy it takes in disparaging the body by leaving it to its push-pull game and giving free rein to its own wide-ranging thoughts: a particularly challenging chess problem, an unforgettable meal, a new book…”


Lots of jokes discussed in the novel. Which one is the joke? Is this it?


“Do love stories, apart from happening, being, have something to say? For all my skepticism, I had clung to a few superstitions—the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me has a sense beyond itself, means something, that life in its day-to-day events speaks to us about itself, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live in life comprise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. It is all an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t seem to rid myself of the need to decipher my life continually.”


Is this the punch line?


“…most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith; they believe in eternal memory (Of men, things, deeds, peoples) and in rectification (of deed, errors, sins, injustice). Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. All rectification (both vengeance and forgiveness) will be taken over by oblivion. No one will rectify wrongs; all wrongs will be forgotten.”


 That Kundera maintains the novel is “merely a love story” is the funniest joke of all.


Milan Kundera