The Joke

The Joke

by Milan Kundera

For reasons he describes in his Author's Note, Milan Kundera devoted much time to creating (with the assistance of his American publisher-editor) a completely revised translation that reflects his original as closely as any translation possibly can: reflects it in its fidelity not only to the words and syntax but also to the characteristic dictions and tonalities of the novel's narrators.

The result is nothing than the restoration of a classic.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 4.00
  • Pages: 371
  • Publish Date: 1992 by Faber and Faber

Read the Book "The Joke" Online

Luckily, the pensive/sad confusion I was left with upon finishing the book had worked itself out in my head even before I'd finished spreading jam on my Post-Reading Biscuit (not an allegory, I actually did just eat a biscuit): "The Joke" is basically about that moment when you realize that the past has just caught up with you/resolved itself/tortured you for far longer than it needed. I sort of ended up burying my head in my mother's lap and she said something shockingly insightful, just about the most shockingly insightful thing she's ever said to me -- that sometimes we feel sad about the past just because we can't get it back, and that's okay. The implication -- which was clear then but I've lost in the re-telling -- was that even the parts of the past that aren't all that significant are overwhelmingly ultimate in their "lost-ness" with the passage of time, and the shock of that can often be kind of crushing, but our reaction to that (in my case, sobbing and snotting all over my mother's lap and afghan) is totally human and completely all right. So probably most first novels are about this, but "The Joke" pretends to be about a lot of other things before that, which is its trick.

The Set Up Milan Kundera wrote this, his first, novel in his early 30's. Kundera observes and describes a character's behaviour rather than dwelling directly on their psychology. Kundera sets the characters off on their journey, then follows them with his camera. The title derives from a postcard the protagonist, Ludvik, writes to Marketa, the target of his affection, while she is studying Marxism in a Czech summer school in the early 60's: "Optimism is the opium of the people! Ludvik's postcard is an attempt to play a silly joke on Marketa. Whether or not society had similar problems under Communism and Capitalism, Kundera describes a rigidity and humourlessness that affects both individuals and the state. Each part is narrated by one of the major characters, three men, and one woman (Helena). After publication, a Czech critic observed that there was a mathematical structure to the novel (that wasn't apparent to Kundera himself). Thus, the coiling and uncoiling of the joke (and its aftermath) is reflected in the structure of the novel. The Punch Line Apart from the joke, as Kundera states, the novel is a love story. When we see the situation from the other side(s), we learn that Ludvik might equally have been the victim of a cosmic joke. However, these traces and tendencies go further than Communist society, hence the broader ambitions Kundera had for his novel. Ludvik comments on "the incredible human capacity for transforming reality into a likeness of desires or ideals..." He describes the women in his life as angels and goddesses. All I'd been able to perceive (in my youthful egocentricity) was those aspects of her being touching directly on me (my loneliness, my captivity, my desire for tenderness and affection); she had never been anything more to me than a function of my situation, everything she was in her own right, had escaped me entirely." Ultimately, Lucie reveals to Ludvik and via him to all men how much of their love is mere "vain pursuit".

You dont make something funny, funny is already in air in form of unhappy husbands (it wont be funny to kids who know little about marriage), someone just discovers a way to poke at it. Almost all humor is invoked by the fact that we are almost always trying hard to put up an act in one way or other; when something happens which reminds us of the reason we are putting the act, laughter becomes one of many possible responses. A non-vegetarian joke get you at sexual impulses that you wont tell others about, the motion fails people slipping, falling down etc are funny to people who are themselves most afraid of looking silly, it is people themselves spending time on their own appearances (and thus always with heavy makeup on) that make fun of how others look, the people who get George Carlins humor do so because they are themselves putting up happily with a people that they dont think are ideal. Now the thing is biggest acts humanity puts up with are five nationalism, religion, political belief systems, property, and marriage. Dont get me wrong, Im not saying one should do away with institutions but just that they kill individuality which is where hope for humanity lies just look at the idea that requirements of 30 odd different students can be met in a single class by a single teacher at the same time! Personally, I believe, institutions should rather be like music instruments with different kind of notes joining together to create music, for now, they are more like trying to make all buttons create same sound. It goes without saying that people with power over or interests in institutions dont like humor. "And I was horrified at the thought that things conceived in error are just as real as things conceived with good reason and of necessity." Of course, the ones who punished him were themselves putting up an act: "They stood between life and death. If they had read my postcard, they might have laughed." And: "I could see nothing but actors, their faces covered by masks of cretinous virility and arrogant brutishness; I found no extenuation in the thought that the masks hid another (more human) face, since the real horror seemed to lie in the fact that the faces beneath the masks were fiercely devoted to the inhumanity and coarseness of the masks." The biggest comedian in the story though is fate who makes a joke of several people in the book thus providing a common theme to all stories. Quotes: "it's not your enemies who condemn you to solitude, it's your friends" "When it is postponed, vengeance is transformed into something deceptive, into a personal religion, into a myth that recedes day by day from the people involved, who remain the same in the myth though in reality (the walkway is in constant motion) they long ago became different people." "I merely squeezed the bottle in my palm and said to myself I'm holding my death in my hand, and I was enthralled by so much opportunity, it was like going step by step to an abyss, not to jump into it, just to look down." "Because being brave in solitude, without witnesses, without the reward of others' approbation, face to face with himself, that took great pride and strength." "If we looked back, we'd end up like Lot's wife." "dog's yelp can't reach heaven." "it occurred to me that when we were buying clothes in the summer we had forgotten that summer would end and cold weather come."

He revises the French translations of all his books; these therefore are not considered translations but original works.