(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Set in Communist Czechoslovakia, The Joke relates the serious consequences of a frivolous message that a university student sends his girlfriend by postcard: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.” The Joke is divided into seven parts, with each part narrated in the first person by one of the main characters except for part 7, which is narrated alternately by three characters.

Parts 1 and 2, both brief and set in 1965, show Ludvik Jahn and Helena preparing for their rendezvous in Ludvik’s unnamed Moravian hometown. The rendezvous is the result of an elaborate plot whereby Ludvik plans to take revenge on his enemy Pavel Zemanek by seducing Helena, Zemanek’s wife. Part 3, narrated by Ludvik, shows his motives for seeking revenge, describing the highly politicized school years after the February, 1948, Communist revolution and recounting the story of the notorious postcard. Although a Communist student leader himself, Ludvik sends the joking message to Marketa, his naive girlfriend, when they are separated during the summer of 1949—he with an agricultural brigade, she at an ideological training session. Mocking what Marketa is being taught, Ludvik means simply to shock her as a joke, but the effect is far greater than he intended. The message is intercepted by the Communists, who, led by Zemanek (supposedly a friend), oust Ludvik from the Party and from the university. The Party’s wrath, however, is still not sated. Soon Ludvik is drafted into the military and assigned to a group with black insignia (that is, a penal unit).

Ludvik does his national service at Ostrava, where a typical day consists of work in the coal mines followed by indoctrination, punitive tasks, and bedtime. Provided they behave, the soldier-prisoners are allowed out of the guarded, fenced-in camp one day each month. Usually they go on a wild spree together, but one time when Ludvik is by himself, he meets the shy Lucie Sebetka, a factory worker. They fall in love, and she begins appearing at the camp fence daily with flowers for him. Their relationship provides the emotional support that Ludvik and apparently also Lucie deeply need, but Lucie refuses to have sex with him, even after Ludvik goes to considerable trouble and takes serious risks to arrange their trysts. Finally Ludvik resorts to force, which Lucie resists ferociously and successfully. In frustration, Ludvik screams at her to get out, but Lucie leaves town entirely. Then, realizing what he has lost, Ludvik goes AWOL to find her, gets caught, and has ten months of jail added to his time. When his military service ends, lest more hard time be added, he volunteers for three more years in the...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)