Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405
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.