Critical Context

With its complex but controlled structure, cast of characters, and symbolism, The Joke is an impressive first novel, reflecting Kundera’s experience as a writer of poetry, plays, criticism, and short stories. Before writing novels, Kundera was also a professor of film studies in Prague—indeed, an inspirer of Czech New Wave cinema—and this experience too can be seen in the cinematographic quality of The Joke, particularly in the final section set against the Ride of the Kings festival. In most of these features, as well as in its humor and irony, The Joke hints of Kundera’s later masterpieces, Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli (1979; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Kundera protested the first English translation of The Joke, which included rearranged and omitted text. For example, a large portion of mate-rial on Moravian folk music, so important to the novel’s symbolism, was cut. (In the liberal Czechoslovakia of 1967, the novel was published uncensored.) American scholar Michael Henry Heim, who also translated The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published a new English translation of The Joke in 1982 that Kundera approved.