The Joke

( 15 )

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060995058
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/1993
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 339,774
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.

Biography

For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."

Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."

During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").

The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.

In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."

Good To Know

Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.

Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."

According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brno, Czechoslovakia
    1. Education:
      Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Ludvik


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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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted September 21, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    When I first read this novel over a decade ago I loved it, but I

    When I first read this novel over a decade ago I loved it, but I don't think I really understood it. My memories of The Joke were of a novel about the oppressions of a communist regime. On rereading it I find that I may have missed the point. Sure communism plays a part in this novel, how could it not? And yes a ridiculous run-in with the communist bureaucracy is the driving force in our protagonist's life. But you could replace communism with pretty much any other ideology and the result would be the same. That's because The Joke is really about the oppressive nature of time. We watch as our characters struggle to reconcile their pasts with the present, and find that they cannot. Kundera is a genius at slowly revealing this theme to us, building up to it throughout the novel, and finally making it clear. What has been torturing these characters is not the oppression of communism, but the inevitable loss of youth, and with it the world. Time passes us all by, and we mourn its passing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2006

    Kundera continues with greatness

    Whats there to say, this book is simply genius. I picked it up shortly after reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and wasn't disappointed. Apart from its polictical stand points, at the core lies an amazing story told from several individuals point of view. And with this core story, Kundera wrapped it in its political blanket and the result, as i began, is genius.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2006

    Kept me up all night!

    This book was recommended to me by one of my professors. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel... read it in less than a week. I usually don't read night and day, but Kundera kept me up all night.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2001

    Kundera is a wonderful author!

    The Joke is one of the best books I have read. How ridiculous Communism was really came alive to me. Kundera's use of multiple points of view is brilliant. A must read.

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