The joke : definitive version

by Milan Kundera

Paper Book, 1992





New York, NY : HarperPerennial, 1993, c1992.


The Joke, Milan Kundera's first novel, gained him a huge following in his own country and launched his worldwide literary reputation. In his foreword Kundera explains why this completely revised translation is the definitive edition of his work. 'It is impossible to do justice here to the subtleties, comedy and wisdom of this very beautiful novel. The author of The Joke is clearly one of the best to be found anywhere.' Salman Rushdie, Observer

User reviews

LibraryThing member lriley
Set in Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring--the main protagonist one Ludvik a young and popular communist university student makes the mistake of sending a postcard to a girl he's smitten with that seems to almost draw down the entire wrath of the system upon his head. Chucked out of the party and forced out of the university he is then blackmarked in his hometown (even by his family) as a kind of pariah and earmarked for a labor batallion working in a coal mine. Many years pass and he runs into another old flame (one that it's too late to rekindle) at just about the same time as his plan for revenge is about to be put into play against his main prosecutor who in his mind not only judged him but also betrayed him. Nothing has ever seemed to work out as he hoped. This time he expects a quite different result--and so he seduces his former friends wife--only to find out after the fact that that marraige has already fallen apart and now not only does he have a woman on his hands that he has no interest in but also one that has fallen hopelessly in love with him. The moral being that people move on in life and that the power to change or rectify the past is limited at best--and can do more harm than good.

Of the Kundera books that I've read I think I like this one the best. As translated by Michael Henry Heim however Kundera was not altogether happy and it has been retranslated more to his liking by another translator. It is an interesting and insightful book that delves into not only the power of tyrranical totalitarian politics but also into philosophical, pyschological and sexual politics. Very fluid in style of prose and also at times quite humorous--I found it a very enjoyable read.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DieFledermaus
Like other Kundera novels, this book is bittersweet - perhaps mostly bitter. It's a despondent love story, a devastating look at Communism and a revenge plot, twisted into memories and multiple narrators. But mostly it's about perverted beliefs and human weaknesses in any age. All of the first person narrators have some religion, be it actual (Kostka's Christianity), political (Helena's Communism) or emotional (Helena's idealized love, Ludvik's hatred and cynicism). The absolutist beliefs never work out like they 'should', and this is most obviously represented by Communism.

The joke refers to one played on a fellow student by Ludvik. A member of the Party, he led a privileged life, studying at the university and attending meetings. Still, his intelligence and sardonic humor needed an outlet - a postcard that he sent to a girl he liked, mocking Marxist theory in two short sentences. This led to his expulsion from the Party and university, and the image he would carry around from that point on was of the entire group raising their hands, casting him out for good. His memory was a condemnation of all other people. Sent to work in the mines, Ludvik never forgot the injustice.

While working there, he fell in love with a young woman named Lucie. Although it was the major love affair of his life, it was full of contradictions. They never had sex, he never knew entire parts of her life and it was always a product of their situation. Still, his depressing life increased the intensity of the relationship. His memories of that affair, as well as his hatred of a former comrade, Zemanek, are dredged up when he returns home.

Helena, a staunch Communist, interacts with Ludvik when he returns to Prague. Unhappily married, her affairs are justified by 'love' while she despises her husband's infidelity, as well as a relationship between a married man and her coworker.

Jaroslav, an old friend of Ludvik's, narrates part of the story. His love of old folk traditions is revealed - although revered in the first flush of Communist power, now they've been abandoned. Ludvik cuts him on seeing him, and he also has to deal with his son, who rejects his passion.

Kostka, another of Ludvik's acquaintances, fills in some more blanks. A devout Christian, he also eagerly accepted Communism and made the two work in his mind. However, higher ups were suspicious so he was sent to the country and embarked on an affair.

Throughout the novel, Ludvik wonders if various events - even his whole life - are just history's jokes. His initial joke led to expulsion, he never knew the truth about Lucie, his revenge went awry and all his energy spent on hatred was wasted since he and Zemanek had both changed. Even his hideous experiences in the camps - was that just a joke, was it forgotten, did the younger generation just classify him and Zemanek together? Ludvik's hatred unbalanced his life and blinded him to many things. The others' beliefs were equally unproductive - Helena's obvious hypocrisy, Jaroslav's disappointed hopes and Kostka betraying his religion with a relationship. Communism was a twisted belief, possibly one of history's hideous jokes.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Muscogulus
This is Kundera's first and, in my opinion, best novel. (Later he became better at aphorisms than stories.) This novel has more beauty in it than all the others combined, and the irony/tragedy is more effective than in the others because it unfolds with the story, catching both the protagonist and the reader off guard.

If you're like me, this book will convince you to love Czech folk music before you've even heard it.… (more)
LibraryThing member eas311
a black comedy of life in stalinist eastern europe. i read it twice for school, and enjoyed it both times. but it is so so frustrating, and i wish kundera were a little more fair to his female characters.
LibraryThing member marek2009
A tremendously subtle book about human relationships, politics, history, & very much more. It impressed me profoundly, the best of three Kunderas I have read so far.
LibraryThing member palaverofbirds
Read this book in my spare time during a short stint working in a bookstore and it immediately and I dare say permanently lodged itself into my list of beloved books.

Why this book's rating lies below four stars befuddles me. It's an exciting and provocative tale of the dehumanization of a person by an autocratic state. Fuck 1984 and Brave New World; Kundera saw them all and raised.… (more)
LibraryThing member EadieB
Book Description All too often, this brilliant novel of thwarted love and revenge miscarried has been read for its political implications. Now, a quarter century after The Joke was first published and several years after the collapse of the Soviet-imposed Czechoslovak regime, it becomes easier to put such implications into perspective in favor of valuing the book (and all Kundera 's work) as what it truly is: great, stirring literature that sheds new light on the eternal themes of human existence. The present edition provides English-language readers an important further means toward revaluation of The Joke. For reasons he describes in his Author's Note, Milan Kundera devoted much time to creating (with the assistance of his American publisher-editor) a completely revised translation that reflects his original as closely as any translation possibly can: reflects it in its fidelity not only to the words and syntax but also to the characteristic dictions and tonalities of the novel's narrators. The result is nothing less than the restoration of a classic.

My Review I enjoyed Kundera's writing very much. The story was a good insight into life under Communist Czechoslovakia. Because of a joke, Ludvik is betrayed by his party which leaves him with the feelings of anger, hate and revenge. He has to therefore learn to live his life despite the expectations of his society. By the end of the book, the theme is exposed and we learn that we all have only an illusion of control over our lives--ultimately the joke is on us. I would recommend this book to those who are interested in life under a Communist regime.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jmoncton
I read this book to give me a little sense of place about the Czech Republic before a vacation to Central Europe. I wanted a book that was fun to read but would also give me a sense of setting in Prague. This story is set during the post World War II Communist era in Czechoslovakia. As a joke, the main character, Ludvik, sends a post card to a lover with a statement that is definitely anti-Communist propaganda. However, the censors don't see it as a joke and Ludvig's promising life as a student quickly ends and he spends several years of his life in work camps. Years later, he plots his revenge on his former friend and comrade who was instrumental in his punishment by seducing this man's wife. There are many nested 'jokes' in this story because nothing turns out exactly as it was intended.

This story definitely gives a feeling for the oppression of living under Communist rule, but even more than that, there are several universal themes about revenge, friendship, and human resilience in the face of change. The writing was beautiful and the plot had universal lessons that made me think a lot about my own life.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Fips
This novel has all too often been highlighted for its political implications and its criticism of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to the Prague Spring. Yet the messages and themes of the book go far beyond the specific circumstances in which it was written, and perhaps now, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and Communism in Europe fast fading from our collective memories, these eternal, human elements can be appreciated all the more. This is a story of lost faith, thwarted love, and misdirected revenge all brilliantly interwoven from the perspectives of a number of key protagonists.

The Joke of the novel's title refers in part to the major impulse that drives the main character, Ludvik Jahn. A postcard written satirically at the expense of the regime leads to his fall from grace, yet in his fall he finds happiness, only to lose it and become embittered, seeking vengeance against the system, the society, and the individuals that had robbed him of his place. This might seem ample ammunition for an author of Kundera's calibre, the simple message of resistance to totalitarianism through simple, human means: through resilience, through adultery. Needless to say, the failure of this resistance raises the question as to what the real joke is. Just the postcard? Or man's faith in the system (any system)? Perhaps the humility of life itself? Kundera leaves that to the reader to decide, and this openness contributes to making the novel a pleasure to read.

There is also a film adaptation produced in 1968 from director Jaromil Jires that is well worth a look, though its focus on Ludvik Jahn leaves the book feeling richer and more accurate in its message.

Finally it should be mentioned, as others have pointed out, that this edition marks the fifth and final version of the English translation of Zert, at least as far as Kundera is concerned. It captures not only the language but also the subtle moods and nuances, and even the syntax of the original, all elements askew in earlier revisions of the English translation, so for those with an older version of the work considering a re-read, this edition might also be worth the purchase.
… (more)
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
It is important to understand how The Joke is organized because to just read it without paying attention is like landing in a foreign country and driving without a map. The book is in seven parts, each part being the point of view of a different character until the 7th part. It reads like a musical quartet with Ludvik, Helena, Jaroslav and Kostka all give their perception of "the joke." The story starts with Ludvik returning to his hometown after 15 years and knowing no one. He reminiscences about a joke gone horribly wrong. But when the reader gets to part II the point of view has changed without announcement. Only by paying attention to the table of contents do we know we are now getting someone else's perception of the joke. While there are many jokes throughout the story it is important to note the original joke stems from a postcard Ludvik has written a classmate implying he is a Trotskyite.… (more)


Original language

Page: 0.4644 seconds