Book Review: The Joke by Milan Kundera


For the first time, my Around the World for a Good Book selection is for a country that no longer exists.  The Joke: A Novel of Czechoslovakia Today (1967, English translation 1969) is an fact a story of 50 years ago.  Since the author Milan Kundera is Czech and the novel is set in Prague, Moravia, and Bohemia, this book will represent the Czech Republic.  Slovakia will wait for another novel.

The Joke takes place in the 1950’s when the Communist Party ruled behind the Iron Curtain.  The extent of Totalitarianism was that writing a bad joke about Trotsky on a postcard could land one in serious trouble with the dour authorities.  This is what happens to Ludvik Jahn, who as a result of this joke loses his Party membership, is forced out of the university, and ends up serving in a military division for subversives and working in mines.

Talk about an unsympathetic protagonist!  Ludvik meets and falls in love with the innocent young Lucie while he’s in the military camp.  When she wont sleep with him he treats her in a beastly manner, but continues to claim his love for her is deep and to not understand why she leaves him.  Later, Ludvik tries to exact revenge on the Party member who humiliated him by having an affair with this man’s wife in the most vulgar manner.  Towards the end of the novel Ludvik has some small realizations of the errors of his ways, but for the most part this is a story of a downward spiral of selfishness.

A subplot tells of Ludvik’s childhood friend Jaroslav whose goal in life is to preserve the traditional folk ways and music of his Moravian village.  The culminating pages of the novel take place during the Ride of the King festival which tragically has lost it’s original meaning and is now an orchestrated affair for the purposes of the Party.  I liked the parts with Jaroslav and the folk music the most interesting parts of this book.

Favorite Passages

The young can’t help acting; they’re immature but they’re placed in a mature world and have to act as if they were mature.  So they put on whatever masks and disguises appeal to them and can be made to fit — and they act.  – p. 88

We listened to Ludvik, and our surprise was mingled with irritation — irritation at his certainty.  He was behaving the way all Communists behaved at the time.  As if he’d made a secret pact with the future and had the right to act in its name. – p. 134

Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of revivalist folk ventures.  The last supporters.  After all, they provide a noble pretext for getting drunk.  – p. 247

Author Kundera, Milan.
Title The joke. Translated by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass.
Publication Info. New York, Coward-McCann [1969]
Edition [1st American ed.].
Description 288 p. 22 cm.

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