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
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.
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.
If you're like me, this book will convince you to love Czech folk music before you've even heard it.
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.
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.
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.
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.