The Joke

The Joke

4.4 15
by Milan Kundera

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Anatole Broyard
As far as I'm concerned, at least in this book, Mr. Kundera, who is generally highly praised, is not writing well. -- New York Times

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

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Chapter One


So here I was, home again after all those years. Standing in the main square (which I had crossed countless times as a child, as a boy, as a young man), I felt no emotion whatsoever; all I could think was that the flat space, with the spire of the town hall (like a soldier in an ancient helmet) rising above the rooftops, looked like a huge parade ground and that the military past of the Moravian town, once a bastion against Magyar and Turk invaders, had engraved an irrevocable ugliness on its face.

During those years, there was nothing to attract me to my hometown; I told myself that I had grown indifferent to it, which seemed natural: I had been away for fifteen years, had almost no friends or acquaintances left here (and wished to avoid the ones I did have), my mother was buried among strangers in a grave I had never tended. But I had been deceiving myselfwhat I had called indifference was in fact rancor; the reasons for it had escaped me, because here as elsewhere I had had both good and bad experiences, but the rancor was there, and it was this journey that had made me conscious of it: the mission that had brought me here could easily have been accomplished in Prague, after all, but I had suddenly begun to feel an irresistible attraction to the prospect of carrying it out here in my hometown precisely because this was a mission so cynical and low as to mock any suspicion that I was returning out of some maudlin attachment to things past.

I gave the unsightly square a final knowing look and, turning my back on it, set off for the hotel where I had booked a room for the night. The porterhanded me a key hanging from a wooden pear and said, 'Third floor." The room was not attractive: a bed along one wall, a small table and chair in the middle, an ostentatious mahogany chest of drawers with mirror next to the bed, and a tiny cracked sink by the door. I put my briefcase down on the table and opened the window: it looked out onto a courtyard and the bare grubby backs of neighboring buildings. I closed the window, drew the curtains, and went over to the sink, which had two faucets--one blue, the other red; I turned them on; cold water trickled out of both. I looked over at the table, which at least had room for a bottle and two glasses; the trouble was, only one person could sit at it: there was only one chair. I pushed the table up to the bed and tried sitting at it, but the bed was too low and the table too high; besides, the bed sank so much under my weight that it was obviously not only unsatisfactory as a seat but equally unlikely to perform its function as a bed. I pushed it with my fists, then lay down on it, carefully lifting my legs so as not to dirty the blanket. The bed sagged so badly I felt I was in a hammock; it was impossible to imagine anyone else in that bed with me.

I sat down on the chair, stared at the translucent curtains, and began to think. Just then the sound of steps and voices penetrated the room from the corridor; two people, a man and a woman, were having a conversation, and I could understand their every word: it was about a boy named Petr, who had run away from home, and his Aunt Klara, who was a fool and spoiled the boy. Then a key turned in a lock, a door opened, and the voices went on talking in the next room; I heard the woman sighing (yes, even sighs were audible!) and the man resolving to have a few words with Klara.

I stood up, my decision firm; I washed my hands in the sink, dried them on the towel, and left the hotel, though I had no clear idea of where to go. All I knew was that if I didn't wish to jeopardize the success of my journey (my long, arduous journey) with this unsuitable hotel room, I would have no choice, much as I disliked it, but to ask a discreet favor of some local acquaintance. I ran through all the old faces from my youth, rejecting each in rum, if only because the confidential nature of the service to be rendered would require me laboriously to bridge the gap, account for my long years of absence--something I had no desire to do. But then I remembered a man here whom Id helped to find a job and who would be only too glad, if I knew him at all, to repay one good turn with another. He was a strange character, at once scrupulously moral and oddly unsettled and unstable, whose wife, as far as I could tell, had divorced him years before for living anywhere and everywhere but with her and their son. I was a little nervous: if he had remarried, it would complicate my request; I walked as fast as I could in the direction of the hospital.

The local hospital is a complex of buildings and pavilions scattered over a large landscaped area; I went into the booth at the gate and asked the guard to connect me with Virology; he shoved the telephone over to the edge, of his desk and said, "02." 1 dialed 02, only to learn that Mr.

Kostka had just left and was on his way out. I sat down on a bench near the gate so as not to miss him, and watched men wandering here and there in blue-and-white-striped hospital gowns. Then I saw him: he was walking along deep in thought, tall, thin, likeably unattractive, yes, it was clearly he.

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John Updike
"A thoughtful, intricate, ambivalent novel with the reach of greatness in it."

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