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.
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