Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Milan Kundera has objected to attempts to give his novels narrow political readings. For example, he begins the preface to the 1982 edition of The Joke as follows:When in 1980, during a television panel discussion devoted to my works, someone called The Joke “a major indictment of Stalinism,” I was quick to interject, “Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story!”

Apparently the point of Kundera’s objections is that his novels are not merely political novels, not merely salvos in the Cold War, but much more. In the main tradition of the novel, Kundera is most concerned with the personal destinies of his characters in The Joke.

Yet the personal and the political are never far apart in Kundera. Ludvik’s awful experiences clearly result from doctrinaire Communist overreaction, and the “devastation” suffered by the other main characters (except possibly for Lucie, whose troubles seem to originate with her family) is also linked to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. As Kundera goes on to say in his preface, Ludvik and his friends are victims of “the joke history has played on them”—something of a sick joke, to be sure. The devastation visited on the individual characters has spread over the whole society—much like the blight in Oedipus Rex, a work prominently mentioned in a later Kundera novel, L’Insoutenable legerete de l’etre (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984)—and become cultural. The cultural devastation is specifically manifested in the attack on Christianity, which Kostka finds compatible with true Communism, and the decline of folk culture, as seen in the folk music and the Ride of the Kings and symbolized by Jaroslav’s heart attack. Christianity and folk culture are being replaced by a barren youth culture: Rather than be king, Jaroslav’s son prefers to go to the motorcycle races. Communism has preserved poor Czechoslovakia in body but not in soul.