- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Faber; Main edition (21 August 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0571166938
- ISBN-13: 978-0571166930
- Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #60,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Joke Paperback – 21 Aug 2000
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"A thoughtful, intricate, ambivalent novel with the reach of greatness in it."--John UpdikeA
The Joke, Milan Kundera's first novel, of which Salman Rushdie wrote '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.'See all Product description
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The book switches from one narrator to another and back again. Here it is not so convincing to me as truly different characters. Different stereotypes and voices, yes. And the book therefore maintains its intellectual drive. But the overall perspective seems to be that of the protagonist Ludvik. Also, the male characters seem to be better developed than the female characters. A high (or low!) point is the almost unbearably exquisite depiction of Ludvik's experience of unrequited young love.
The title of the book is itself interesting to contemplate. There is an explicit joke early in the book that sets the plot (or more like a series of episodes) in motion. But clearly the notion of a joke is meant to apply more broadly in the book. I'm not quite sure the book has a "moral," but if it does, one candidate for that moral would surely be that life -- romantic, political, religious -- is a joke. (And it's on us.)
I read it in French (La plaisanterie) and English side by side - a wonderful way to compare the effect and "feeling" of the two languages, by the way. Later in his life, Kundera, who had managed to emigrate to France after falling out of favor with the post-1968 authorities in his native Czechoslovakia, started to write in French - so that version may even be a little closer to the original author's intent (he personally revised that translation also).
This novel is an absolute masterpiece. With both surgical precision and a painter's eye for all shades of human frailty, Kundera exposes human confusion in the hapless pursuit of happiness, and many of the built-in traps that thwart success in that endeavor. He manages to be kind, wise, and simply honest, in the face of utter baseness and hopelessness. It is an intense exposure of the human predicament, and at the same time it makes you smile. Reading this book was a very incisive experience.
If you read French, I would recommend reading that version side by side, and to also study Alain Finkielkraut's review and analysis of this novel (a chapter in his "Un coeur intelligent").
In its structure "The Joke" is a polyphonic song of lament, recited by people about events from their shared pasts -- the national, collective past of the undiscriminating enthusiasm of youthful ideologues for the new Communist state of 1948; and the particular pasts of Ludvik, two of his old friends (Jaroslav and Kostka), the wife (Helena) of his youthful persecutor (Zemanek), and a strange, damaged woman from his period of societal punishment (Lucie). In the "musicological chapter" we hear Jaroslav's observations about the nature of Moravian folk music, accompanied by bars of musical notation. These illustrate an ancient mode of singing, in which each voice "personalizes" a song by singing in odd keys and awkward, shifting rhythms, as do the voices of lament in "The Joke" (the reader who knows little or nothing of the technical side of music and its notation still gets an interesting historical survey of a millennium's worth of folk-music and its relationship to both older and newer styles of music). Each voice tells part of the story of interlocking lives. The forlorn Lucie is the one person who is not a subject and remains an object throughout, so two versions of her story are told by Ludvik and by Kostka as part of their own stories. Each voice has a different purchase on reality and is driven by a different myth of the self and of things larger than the self, constructs by which individuals justify their actions. In Ludvik's and Helena's cases this exterior justification is their early allegiance to the ideals of socialism, in Jaroslav's his idolization of folk-art as a panacea for all of the woes of modern life, and in Kostka's a commitment to a highly personal Christian God. In each case there are moments when the individual despairs and believes that his "cause" may be nothing but a delusion or a means of avoiding personal responsibility for his own life.
Based on a chance encounter, Ludvik targets Helena in order to revenge himself against her husband, considering her sexual conquest and the cynical manipulation of her emotions to be an exquisite (and, in its details, sadistic) "joke" which will finally satisfy his cravings for revenge. But he sadly discovers that he wounds the wrong person and that even his real target, Zemanek, is no longer the man he once was; now the joke is on Ludvik, and it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. The "polyphonic" fragments of three voices accelerate their tempo in the last chapter, and there is a harmonic resolution of sorts - Ludvik "returns home", as it were, and reconciles with the friend of his youth, Jaroslav, whom he has hitherto identified with the stupidity and smugness of small home-town virtues which he fled long ago. (One of the many ironies in the book is that it was Ludvik who convinced the resistant Jaroslav to become an ardent Communist, and Jaroslav does so because the new State is a sponsor of all the folk arts. A parallel irony is that Kostka, the pious Christian, approves of the Party's expulsion of Ludvik, because he understands the Party as a faith, and no faith can tolerate corrosive skepticism.) In the end it is not clear how or if any of the damaged characters will move forward in their lives; much of the damage has been self-inflicted and based on illusions, which only makes it worse.
There are elements of an authorial self-portrait here, as one might expect from a first novel. To begin with the obvious, Ludvik is Kundera's age and has passed through the same national history and a similar personal history (as a student Kundera was expelled from the Party in 1950 for six years; readmitted, he was expelled again in 1970). Furthermore, Ludvik's and Jaroslav's characters contain something of Kundera's own early musical training. More autobiographically telling are the oblique references to Kundera's long poem celebrating Julius Fucik, a work which fit well with the regime's peculiar and intense cult of Fucik as an exemplary national hero of the resistance against the Germans during the Protectorate and a model for Communist youth, who are to be elevated and instructed by Fucik's "Reportage: Notes from the Gallows". On this note (poetry and Kundera's evaluation of it), the highlighted term "the lyrical age", a recurring idea in his work, makes its appearance. This phrase, which Kundera uses critically and almost with contempt or perhaps contempt mixed with regret, is meant to stand for each man's period of immaturity, in which he assumes postures and attitudes to impress the world, while all the time he is in a state of inner confusion and uncertainty about how to behave as an adult. The lyrical age is the age of imposture and narcissism. And the term has a double meaning, referring not only to individual psychology, but to the psychology of an era, specifically the years following the Communist take-over of the state in 1948. This was the lyrical age of Czechoslovakian Communism, which happened to coincide with the last vicious burst of Stalinism; it should be remembered that the participants in the Stalinist drama were motivated as much by a "collective joy" associated with the "construction of socialism and the new man and the new woman" as they were by fear of political trials and the penal system. In Kundera's case this was a period when he wrote lyrical poetry imbued with these political attitudes, especially his poem idealizing Fucik. Kundera obviously rues this phase of his own youth and, now a master of prose, gives us an unflattering alternative reading of Fucik's life. In this sense "The Joke" is an attempt to redress the excesses and impostures of Kundera's own youth.
(If the reader wishes to explore what Kundera means by "the lyrical age" -- and he means a great deal by it; it is something like a ramifying leitmotif in his work -- he can find more details in the author's own words in Kundera's "The Art of the Novel" and in an interview published in Antonin J. Liehm's "The Politics of Culture". The idea is also examined by Peter Steiner in his book "The Deserts of Bohemia". In his essay on the Slansky show-trial Steiner also supplies information that, for non-Czech readers, illuminates the pathetic character Alexej in "The Joke", who could well be based on Ludvik Frejka's son. Frejka was a former high-ranking economics official who was condemned to death for espionage and sabotage in this parody of a trial in 1952. And Frejka's son Tomas vilified him in the pages of the Party paper, "Rude Pravo" -- like Alexej, who bears a burden of socialist shame over his deposed father and writes a public letter denouncing him.)
Although it contains satirical elements (its portraits of Zemanek and Helena, its depiction of authority figures in the army), it would be a mistake to call "The Joke" a work of satire. Kundera considers his novels to be primarily what might be called "existential meditations". Much of the meditation is on people in a situation which is characterized by the inevitability of extreme politics as a background condition which permeates everything, including all human relations. This particular situation appears almost inescapable to Czechs (and Slovaks), especially to Czech writers during the period from 1938 to 1990. The dates of the book's composition and publication (1967) are very important in assessing Kundera's relationship with other writers and intellectuals who participated in the Prague Spring (1968) and were hammered down in various ways after the failure of the movement to establish "socialism with a human face." Kundera, like Ludvik, was still arguing for the maintenance of a reformed Communist state which would rationally carry out social and economic programs while allowing individuals civil liberties - this proved to be a pipe-dream. His recognition of the unviability of this idea is indicated by his self-exile to France in 1975. Another disturbing meditation, central to Kundera's way of thinking, is on the fluidity and "lightness" of the self, represented here by the masked alterations of identity that take place in the Moravian ritual "Ride of the Kings". The dissolving self is a subject fit for its own essay; and a subject notably treated by Karel Capek in his trilogy "Three Novels".
Now to the most important matter, the literary qualities of the work. Kundera is a thoroughly professional writer with literary goals and standards that he has set for himself (again, these are explicitly stated in "The Art of the Novel"). Since he has chosen to tell his story - or construct his existential meditation -- through the minds and words of four different characters, how well has he established the individuality of their voices? It can be said that three of the voices - Helen's, Jaroslav's and Kostka's - have something in common. Each of these characters is arguing with himself or herself within a system of ideas that is almost axiomatic, and they take their arguments to a logical extreme. At the same time they are questioning their relationship with their most cherished idea in order to evaluate the worthiness of their own lives (i.e., "Have I chosen to live a certain way correctly, or even wisely?"). Helen's choice is for the Party and its notion of society, even to the extent that her first love and marriage were based on their acceptability within this framework. Jaroslav's is for folk-art, based on a belief that it will save him (and others) by reconnecting them with a long and diffuse group identity (the village; the nation; the culture). Kostka's commitment is to God, apprehended through a highly personalized form of Christianity. Each believes he or she will be saved by his adherence to the chosen ideal. Ludvik, however, has fallen from grace, and, with that, from certainty; he no longer believes in belief, in the notion that such broader commitments are necessary or desirable, because they are a reservoir of self-deceit and self-justification rather than ideas which can withstand rigorous criticism. And so his voice stands out from each of the others, although it can be pointed out that he too becomes obsessive in the pursuit of revenge - his "myth" is purely personal, and it has been thoroughly formed and deformed by politics.
On a final note, the present reviewer's reading is based on the Faber and Faber edition of 2000, which is the only English edition that is "fully authorized and approved" by Kundera. In this edition's "Afterword" Kundera explains both the sources of the work's translation (Michael Henry Heim, other translators, and one key editor are involved) and the reasons why he felt the earlier four translations were unworthy or absolutely misleading. Don't skip the Afterword, since it is a miniature essay on the art of translation itself (and, in an oddly ironical way, a commentary on the "bad joke" which Kundera feels the English-language publishing industry has played on him, especially with this work). While in comparison to numerous other good novels this book merits five stars, I give it four because there are other novels by Kundera which I esteem more highly.