The Joke by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1998, 327 p including 5 p Author’s Note. Translated by Michael Henry Heim, the author himself, and Aaron Asher from the Czech Žert, originally published by Československỳ Spisovatel, 1967.

 The Joke cover

Kundera’s first novel endured a peculiar journey- outlined in the Author’s Note – to get to this publication, the fifth English language version of the novel. Kundera was unsatisfied with all previous renderings of The Joke as they contained altered syntax, different divisions, reconstructions, shortenings or omissions. He says he, “once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semi-colons for periods,” but promises us, since he more or less undertook it himself, this will be the last translation.

The novel is a depiction of Czech life in the early to middle period of Soviet influence in the country. Main protagonist Ludvik Jahn provides the viewpoint for the odd numbered Parts – Part Two is narrated by a woman named Helena, Part Four by a man called Jaroslav, Part Five by another, Kostka, and Part Seven by Ludvik, Jaroslav and Helena in separate but intermixed sections.

Told from the perspective of a return to Ludvik’s home town in mid-life, we see the incidents influencing Ludvik’s circumstances from his time as a university student and part-time clarinet player in a cimbalom band, when he was a committed Communist. His life began to unravel when to impress a woman called Marketa he unwisely set down on a postcard the thought, “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” signed, and then sent it. When he was brought before a disciplinary hearing for this transgression, every member of his class voted for him to be punished. Despite his protestations that his action was a joke he was sent to a special Army unit, in effect a punishment battalion, not for training with weapons but set to work in mines. In what free time he was allowed Ludvik struck up a friendship with Lucie, but her reluctance to have sex with him (for which we later learn she had a very good reason,) made the relationship end badly.

Ludvik’s experiences are later given perspective by the thought, “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm and mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.” So, too, is the sheer impossibility of proving yourself innocent in a world that sees evidence of guilt even in denial of the charge, still more in any efforts to prove loyalty.

Within the details of Ludvik’s life and embittered attempts at petty revenge Kundera finds time to touch on the importance of folk culture and traditions to a nation’s sense of itself. “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Czech nation almost ceased to exist. In the nineteenth century it was virtually reborn. Among the old European nations it was a child. True, it also had its own great past, but it was cut off from that past by a gap of two hundred years, when the Czech language retreated to the countryside, the exclusive property of the illiterate. But even in their midst it never ceased to create its own culture. A modest culture, completely hidden from the eyes of Europe. A culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs, proverbs and sayings. The only narrow footbridge across a two-hundred-year gap….. The only fragile stem of an unbroken tradition. That is why the men who at the turn of the nineteenth century began to create a new Czech literature and music grafted them onto this stem…. why the first Czech poets and musicians spent so much time collecting tales and songs.”

Kundera goes on to argue that stripping away the veils of Czech music culture reveals the residue of the Great Moravian Empire, whose borders were swept away a thousand years ago, yet its legacy remains imprinted today in the most ancient stratum of folk songs. “The folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that reserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilization have long since destroyed aboveground,” even preserving classical antiquity for us.

When the state sanctions this culture though, it loses force. “The fact that something like folk music was on the radio constantly should not delude us.” What they play, “is more like opera or operetta, or light music…. A folk instrument band with a conductor, a score, and music stands! What bastardization! … Real folk art is dead.” And it can be abused in other ways. “Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of folk festivals. Once in a while, at least, they have a noble pretext for taking a drink.”

Translated fiction is arguably a necessary endeavour, revealing to others aspects of the world and thought systems of which they otherwise would not be fully aware, a reminder that the ability to read widely – and without restriction – is a blessing.

Consider the alternative. “We lived in a devastated world; and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well.”

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian. Otherwise; repertory (repertoire,) “a slipshod permanent crumpling her hair” (ie, permanent wave; the British usage is perm,) aboveground (above ground,) “‘your not a woman who’” (you’re,) the opening quotation mark (deliberately) missing when a chapter begins with dialogue, Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “head bowed bowed” (only one “bowed” needed,) Mathias’ (Mathias’s.) “There are a number of hypotheses” (there is a number of.) “A group of people were walking after it” (a group of people was walking.)

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