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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

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Milan Kundera's The Joke is a novel about life under Communism, but also about the twists and turns of life in general, and the randomness and unexpected outcomes to which we're all subject.

The title specifically refers to a brief message the protagonist Ludvik sends to his girlfriend on a postcard and which, though intended as ironic, is interpreted as anti-Communist. Ludvik is brought up before a tribunal and then expelled from the Party, sent to a labor camp, to prison, and made to serve in an army unit made up of convicts and "traitors" such as himself. When he is finally reinstated in society he seeks revenge against Zemanek, the leader of the tribunal that convicted him, by seducing Zemanek's wife, Helena. Ludvik's actions and mentality are contrasted with those of his friends Jaroslav and Kostka, both of whom come in conflict with the regime but react differently than Ludvik does, and have their own interpretations of how to reconcile Communist ideology with their own personal beliefs.

The story takes place in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) over a period of twenty years, from the late forties to the sixties. The ultimate questions posed by the story include universal ones relating to individual responsibility, personal conscience in the face of an unforgiving, authoritarian regime, and whether or not it's possible to reconcile the past—tradition, religion, and the older ways—with modernity and the attempts (misguided ones in this story) to create justice for all through systematic planning and the expulsion of "offenders" like Ludvik from the system. The close of the story depicts a traditional Moravian folk festival called the Ride of the Kings. It serves partly as a metaphor for the continuity of life even in the midst of dictatorship and violent change.

The fact that Ludvik emerges mentally intact, so to speak, in the end and decides to take part in the festival as a musician, is a hopeful sign. The characters in the story have struggled and have learned about themselves and the world that has changed around them. A full understanding of Kundera's complex novel requires some knowledge about the history of the Iron Curtain countries in the years from the end of World War II until 1968 (the year after The Joke was published) when the "Prague Spring" was crushed by the Soviet tanks. Central and Eastern Europe had to wait another two decades before liberation became a reality.

The Joke

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217

First published in Prague as ert in 1967 and then made available to English readers in 1969 in a mutilated, simplified British rendering, The Joke, Milan Kundera’s first novel, is now republished in a translation more faithful to the original Czech text. The novel was initially received with enthusiasm in Czechoslovakia, where, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, it was soon suppressed. Kundera subsequently emigrated to France and has since published Smné lásky (1963; Laughable Loves, 1974), La Vie est ailleurs (first published in French in 1973; Life Is Elsewhere, 1974), The Farewell Party (translated from the Czech manuscript in 1976; Valik na rozlouenou, 1979), and Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli (first published in French in 1979; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980). Despite a tendency by many critics to see Kundera’s work in exclusively political terms, all five of his books share musical forms, a sophisticated and demanding concern for perspective, and an attempt to prove the mysteries of individual existence.

The Joke is a tale of accident, inadvertence, and the perversities of fate. When Ludvik Jahn, a brilliant young university student and Communist Party member, determines to twit his sanguine sweetheart Marketa for abandoning him during the summer in order to attend an indoctrination session on Communist ideology, he sends her a postcard declaring: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” The attempt at rambunctious wit proves a joke only sub specie aeternitatis. The authorities read Ludvik’s correspondence and become incensed at his subversive irony. In a humiliating public ceremony and at the instigation of Pavel Zemanek, a former friend, Ludvik is expelled from both the university and the Communist Party. He leaves Prague and is forced to become a mine laborer in a penal battalion near Ostrava. During rare furloughs from his dismal barracks existence, Ludvik befriends a lonely young woman named Lucie Sebetka. The relationship develops into love, but Lucie runs away when Ludvik becomes sexually demanding.

The Joke focuses on one summer weekend in the present tense when, fifteen years later, Ludvik, now thirty-seven years old, visits the small town in Moravia where he was reared. He has become a scientist in Prague, and his purpose in returning after a very lengthy absence is to wreak belated revenge, to have the last joke on his student prosecutor, Zemanek. Zemanek’s wife Helena, a radio journalist, had become enamored of Ludvik while interviewing him about his research. They plan to tryst in that same Moravian town, where Helena is to report on a local folk ritual, the Ride of the Kings. Ludvik does not reciprocate Helena’s affection, but callously intends to appropriate her body in retribution against her husband.

Like his others, Kundera’s first novel is organized into seven parts. Four characters—Ludvik, Helena, Ludvik’s genial childhood friend Jaroslav, and Kostka, a pensive Christian Communist who lends Ludvik his apartment for the weekend—provide overlapping perspectives on what is happening and on its roots in the past. Ludvik narrates parts 1, 3, and 5, Helena part 2, Jaroslav part 4, and Kostka part 6; the nineteen sections of part 7 interweave the points of view of Ludvik, Jaroslav, and Helena. The kaleidoscopic effect is to magnify the inadequacy of any single account and to dramatize the pathos of misapprehensions, failed intentions, and cross-purposes. Jaroslav is an accomplished fiddler, and the detailed disquisition on folk music contained within his narrative suggests a formal analogy between the structure of the novel and the spirited harmony of the local ensemble in which he plays. Ludvik, its former clarinetist, abandoned the group long ago when he deserted his native Moravia. The narrative design of The Joke, like the exuberant scene in which Ludvik rejoins the ensemble after grim years in Prague and Ostrava, embodies the truth that genuine music of the spheres is a chorus, not an aggregate of soloists.

The novel’s eponymous joke (Ludvik’s postcard to Marketa) begets other jests, and a complex network of cosmic irony occurs. Ludvik decides to play a retaliatory joke on Zemanek by seducing his wife, but the trickster himself is once more tricked when he discovers that Zemanek has been a husband in name only and that he is quite grateful to Ludvik for absolving him of any guilt for running off with a much younger lover. The abducted Helena of Prague now proves an embarrassingly passionate limpet, and Ludvik desperately seeks to rid himself of the woman he had regarded merely as an instrument of his will. Helena’s response, attempted suicide, proves as inept a joke as any of the others. She swallows an entire jar of pills belonging to Jindra, the adolescent sound technician who is infatuated with her, but all that is mortified is her pride, for the pills—laxatives—are merely diarrhetic not deadly. Perpetuating the joke, Jindra vows revenge on Ludvik.

The Joke is a drama about the illusions of control in a universe governed by drift. While mocking the arrogance of ideology, it also makes a mockery of mockery; both the politician and the court jester naïvely believe they can shape the world, whereas in Kundera’s fiction, reality is fundamentally amorphous. Fifteen years after the original incident, Ludvik cannot avenge himself on Zemanek, because Ludvik is no longer Ludvik, Zemanek no longer Zemanek, and even anguish is ephemeral. Similarly, the experience of Jaroslav demonstrates that collective memory is no less deceptive and insubstantial than the individual kind. Jaroslav dedicates his life to the perpetuation of folk culture but finds himself and the vanishing traditions he cherishes derided as antiquated jokes. The Joke concludes with Jaroslav, the only kindhearted character in its cast, performing his beloved Moravian music before bored and boorish restaurant patrons—and suffering a heart attack. Jaroslav has been the principal organizer of the annual Ride of the Kings ceremony, an ancient ritual reenacted despite the fact that its significance has been lost to time. His own son scorns these unintelligible rites and dupes his father into believing he is an active participant when he has in fact sneaked off to the motorcycle races. According to Kundera, entropy makes a mockery both of history—man’s attempts to arrest and comprehend a patterned past—and of man’s faith in his ability to direct what has not yet occurred. Ludvik comes to the plaintive realization that “everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. All rectification (both vengeance and forgiveness) will be taken over by oblivion.”

Kundera’s first novel is sardonically jocular only to the detached perspective of the reader. Ludvik’s original sin is to be a humorist in a world where dogmas are held in earnest and earnestness is dogma. Yet, though ironic detachment is liberating, it is also portrayed as debilitating. Each of the novel’s multiple perspectives is in itself deficient, but the inadequacy of any one point of view is evident only to those who, like the reader, are able to integrate each fragment of the story into a global vision. Formally complex, The Joke demands a reader willing to undertake a project of restoration and reintegration. In its energetic play between the humor of fission and the comedy of fusion, Kundera’s engagingly grim novel tells many a vital truth under the guise of jest.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 126

The Atlantic. CCLI, January, 1983, p. 104.

Donahue, Bruce. “Laughter and Ironic Humor in the Fiction of Milan Kundera,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. XXV (Winter, 1984), pp. 67-76.

Harkins, William E., and Paul I. Trensky, eds. Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, 1980.

Kundera, Milan. Preface to The Joke, 1982. Translated by Michael Henry Heim.

Library Journal. CVII, November 1, 1982, p. 2109.

Lodge, David. “Milan Kundera and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism,” in Critical Quarterly. XXVI (Spring/Summer, 1984), pp. 105-121.

National Review. XXXV, January 21, 1983, p. 59.

The New Republic. CLXXXVIII, February 14, 1983, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 24, 1982, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LIX, February 21, 1983, p. 126.

Newsweek. C, November 8, 1982, p. 87.

Podhoretz, Norman. “An Open Letter to Milan Kundera,” in Commentary. LXXVIII (October, 1984), pp. 34-39.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 10, 1982, p. 66.


Critical Essays