Monday, April 25, 2011

The Joke - (Is On Us) - Milan Kundera

'The Joke' is the first book of Milan Kundera that I read. I had seen a mention in an article where he  had been referred to. So when I saw this book and read the blurbs and it's basic content as given in the back cover, I bought it. Have you ever read a book by a writer for the first time, discovering (from your personal point of view) the writer for the first time, and then wanted to buy and read all the books written by the author then and there? Well , that is what happened to me with 'The Joke' (It's another matter what happened when I read several other of Kundera's books. Well that's for another day). This novel blew me away totally. The novel is told in 7 parts, with the first 6 each being told from a different person's perspective. The 7th part has 3 different perspectives. The time line goes back and forth with these narrations. I have tried to follow a linear order in describing my thoughts about the novel and not as in the book. 

The main characters in this novel are Ludvik, Helena, Kostka and Jaroslav.The main characters in this novel are Jaroslav, Ludvik, Kosta and Helena. Ludvik is the principal who interconnects with all the other characters. When the novel starts Ludvik reminiscences about, his past life as a member of the communist party. He is an opinionated, bit egostic and highly confident youth who has no problems in believing his own immortality and infallibility, though he does not have the infallible belief in the party.The exuberance of youth when every youth thinks that he knows everything and what does not know is not worth knowing. He is also a bit too independent for the communist party's liking, though he tries to conceal it. He has a girl friend, Marketa , who completely believes in the ideology. She goes to a summer work camp organized by the party. Ludvik sends a letter to say ending it with the playful taunt 'Long Live Trotsky'. Marketa  denounces him. Now, Trosky being anathema to the party, they take a serious view of this joke (pun unintended) and ban him from the party. This obviously means that the chances of him completing college or making a life for himself is shot and would be very difficult. Anyway, he is ordered to do work in the coal mines to rid himself of his intellectual arrogance as it were. He meets a strange girl/woman there, Lucie,  with whom he strikes up a relationship. Lucie never speaks much or not at all. The relationship ends abruptly without any resolution and in due course he gets over her. Cut to the present, where Ludvik is now a reasonably successful scientist. 

During the course of his work, one day he meets Helena. She is the wife of one Zamanek. He was the one who was most insistent of expelling Ludvik from the party. Ludkik plans to take revenge on Zamanek by seducing his wife. She too seems receptive to his advances. He asks her to come with him to his native place for a day or 2. She agrees. (The novel starts when Ludvik has actually arrived at his native place and starts to reminiscence  about his past). There he meets Lucie again, but she does not seem to respond to him. He is now less interested in meeting Helena, but wants to go ahead to get his revenge. He also meets Jaraslov who is the narrator of one of the parts. 

Jaraslov is a person rooted in Morovian traditions. He is not into the party and wants to live his life adhering to the age old traditions as much as possible. There is yearly function that is about to happen, to which Jaraslov's son has been chosen. It is a great honor because, a son is chosen based on the parent's worth and Jaraslov feels proud. (He himself had been chosen, when he was a kid, which was actually a honor to Jaraslov 's father). But his son and wife are not interested in this. His son is more into modern things like bikes and his mother too supports him. Jaraslov feels that his wife thinks that he is a weak person, but he knows that he appears weak because he does not want to use his immense strength to hurt others. Jaraslov remembers the old Morovian marriage traditions and the manner in which the marriage is fixed by both the families. These are very interesting parts of the novel.

Helena arrives. Ludvik and Helena have sex. After that, Ludvik tries to get her speak about her husband, make her feel guilty and based on that somehow get his revenge. But it turns out that Helena is about to divorce Zamanek, who has been unfaithful to her. This completely shakes up Ludvik  He starts ruminating on the absurdity of what he has done.

The last part inter-vines the narratives of Ludvik, Kosta a new character and Jaraslov. Jaraslov comes to know that his wife and son have sent another boy to attend the rural function and thereby undermining him. His wife and son are unapologetic about it. He is devastated. Ludvik meets Kosta, who tells the back story of Lucie. The novel ends with Jaraslov having some sort of sudden attack of stress/strain and Ludvik tending to him.

The novel was initially difficult getting into, due to Kundera's style of narration and the way the novel itself is structured. It was like getting through a penumbra and seeing things clearly. To me, the novel is about a series of jokes, black humor which have serious implications which in turns highlights the absurdity of our existence. The first joke is when Ludvik mentions Trotsky and is banned. The party is so scared of dissenters and subversives that it bans even the least provocation. The absurdity of Ludvik's youthful confidence, his confidence about his intellect and the single sweep in which it is trashed by the party is again a dark joke.
Then Ludvik's attempt at getting revenge on Zamanek. It turns out that Zamanek is having an affair and Helena is to be divorced. She has actually come to Ludvik on a rebound as it were and not because of any great attraction to him which overcomes her scruples. Ludvik finds out that he has not seduced her after all, but she in fact has used him to get even with her husband. Probably the most absurd joke of them all. 
The joke on Jaroslav is the cruelest of them all. Jaroslav is a person who lives in the medieval world. In his own words he’d “feel orphaned without it”. He likes the Moravian baroque music, but is saddened that his son does not like it. The final unkind cut comes, when his son and wife betray him by sending another person to the function. This may not seem like a joke, but when one looks at the absurdity of trying to hold on to old world values, when the others are going elsewhere, it is bound to happen. Jaroslav's wife is not too perturbed, when he comes to know of the truth. For her it is probably a joke.

The common thread among all these things would be the futility and absurdity of people trying to control their own lives completely, (leave alone others). There are too many variable factors which influence our life and being utterly confident of one being in  control of one destiny is indeed the greatest joke. The other common joke is our ego getting punctured by external forces and making us see us for what we are exactly and not as some heightened being. Ludvik is once such person in his youth, he thinks (or knows) that he is better than others. He looks down upon Jaraslov for being too old fashioned. In the party meetings, he is the one who raises some uncomfortable questions, to prove his intellect. He is also intelligent enough to realize that the party does not like it, but tries to conceal it to some extent, tempering his thoughts and not voicing them outright. But the joke is on him, when he is banned for a simple remark. Again, he tries to manipulate things with Helena and only finds himself to in the receiving end. Personally for me this is the best and most rewarding of Kundera's works. Can't recommend it highly enough.

1. The setting of the novel is in the cold war era, Czechoslovakia and goes back and forth in time in the 60's, when Czechoslovakia was basically a vassal, satellite state for the USSR. Events and things mentioned in the novel like the paranoia about the secret police, the exuberance of youth about the revolution etc have to be viewed from that perspective. (the first joke about Trotsky, the impact it has when a person is removed from the party and the hardship it entails have to looked at from that perspective.). 
2. The traditions mentioned about Morovia may need to looked up elsewhere to get an idea about them. The lack of understanding tradition part however does not impede reading of the novel. There is a section about medieval baroque music with mentions of octaves etc. I did not get these parts. It may be enriching to the musically minded, especially those with interest in European music. (I don't even know if this term is correct)
3. I read this novel some 7 years ago. So the names could be slightly different from the Novel.
4. Kundera was accused couple of years ago as being an informer for the secret service during that period. He has denied it and the accusation has not been proved conclusively. Does it take anything from this novel, yes, it does, if the accusation is true, but since it's not proved the novel still holds good. 
5.  I don't remember the translator name now (think the name is some 'Asher'), but the book has a preface by Kundera, where explains the translation history of the novel. The novel apparently has gone multiple translations, but Kundera was apparently not satisfied by them. So he has himself got involved in it and says this book to the definitive translation. If you think of purchasing this novel, look out for the one which the preface.

Monday, April 11, 2011

If This Is A Man - Primo Levi - Remember The Past

'If This Is A Man' is the account of Primo Levi, describing his 11 months imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Now, oppression of Jews was not specific to the Nazis, as is genocide of entire races throughout history. (genocide of native americans, aborigines in Australia and nearby Tamils in Sri Lanka). But what probably differentiates the Nazis from others is that, the Nazi ideology was probably the first and only time when evil came without any mask, showing its true face without hiding behind anything. Lots of genocides, oppressions are supported by some ideology which purport to a common good, due to which some people have to offer (Khamer rouge comes to mind, as well as Rajapakse's defending our own Tamils being put in camps). But Nazi ideology did not quite bother with these things, Jews were sub-human and hence had to be exterminated, period. This is not to compare the various oppressions, but just a thought. Along with Anne Franks diary, this work by Primo Levi is probably the most well known and most influential of the works detailing the holocaust. 
He was part of a group of Italians who were transported to Auschwitz and spent 11 months in the camp from Feb 1944 to Jan 1945. This book describes that period. Levi was around 24 at the period. As he enters the camp, the group notices the infamous motto of the camp 'work makes you free'. It could have been a cruel joke by the Nazis and an euphemism for 'work makes you dead'. The goal of the Nazis is not just to kill the Jews, but to break them first, both in body and spirit, extract the last bit of work from them and then end their misery. The living conditions are kept so horrible, but at the bare minimum level required to keep a human being alive, so that the person can contribute something still to the German cause. The degradation starts from the tattooing of the number assigned to each inmate to the herding of humans literally as animals in tiny bunks, to the meager rations provided to them. German music bands are played while the inmates march off to work and when they assemble for the roll calls. While music is supposed to be divine and soothing, the effect these (otherwise) normal march bands would have had on the inmates is something one can only imagine. As Levi himself states, even years after the experience the sound of that music still instills a sense of fear in him.
The remarkable feature of this book is the tone Levi takes. There is no anger, pity, extreme sorrow, or condemnation of the entire German race given out by the narrator. The tone here is matter of fact and one of almost resignation. These things happened and I am narrating it. It is not just true of the narrator of the book, but also of Levi as he was in the camp. (As levi states in his afterword, he would not accuse the entire German race, since it would mean that there would be no difference between him and the Nazis). Even in the camp, there is not much of anger or sorrow among the inmates. They understand that those emotions are not the ways to survive. As Levi says, the goal of the people is to survive with however much of human dignity as possible. That's why they wash themselves as much as possible, try to walk erect, clean their boots, not just because they are ordered too, but to convince themselves that they are still not destroyed and still retain a semblance of the human spirit. But it is a tough thing to do when you have a constant companion, your shadow almost, which is the ever persistent hunger that is always present with the inmates. You get somewhat free of the cold during the summer, but hunger never leaves you. The food is just enough to keep you alive and strong enough to work that's all. The cold, when it comes is  extremely horrible. So much so that what Levi describes at point almost gags you. The inmates are put in a bunk with a just a bucket to relive themselves. When the bucket is filled, the last person who urinated has to take it out and empty it. The bucket is full to the brim and some of the urine slips down to the feet. In spite of the repulsion it causes, some actually are okay with it because the warmth the urine provides when it falls on the leg. It may sound unbelievable to us, but that was the case in the camp. In fact some of the incidents levi describes could be thought of as a farce, a case of gallows humor even, if it were a account of fiction, but considering the actual facts it is even more terrible. Consider the checks done by the Nazis on inmates suffering from diarrhea. All the affected inmates have to stand in rows and each of them is given a minute to well, excrete into a bucket which is then checked by a guard who decides whether the inmate is cured or not. If persons at the back row, relive themselves before their turn comes, then it is their bad luck and they have to go back to work. It does not sound so much crazy or idiotic as it is indifferent. The Nazis just want some method or way to eliminating Jews, it is almost a matter of throwing a dice.
Indifference is the word one has to use while describing the Nazis. They also do not seem to harbor any rage against the inmates, it's more like they look at them as sub-humans, a species different from their own, which has to be crushed that's all. This does not apply to just the Nazis SS or the party workers, but also the doctors, and other professionals in the camp. Levi describes a meeting of his with a doctor while being interviewed (!) for chemist work in the camp. "It was as if it was happening through the walls of an aquarium, a meeting between 2 different species". One does not need to explain that the doctor obviously saw levi as a sub-human species, which is to be utilized as much as possible, but one which does not require any respect of any sorts. One can even try to comprehend the actions of the ideologues, but surely not all of Germany was part of the Nazi ideology. Lot of them got on the bandwagon once the Nazis got into power, many jumped into it once Germany started winning the wars. Probably the last group of people just enjoyed the power they could wield over another human being, the power to life and death and in some ways they are even more evil than the ideologues. So was the doctor one of them, who knows.
The inmates themselves try their best to survive and retain their dignity as much as possible. There are again some who condemn their own people to get some favors from the authorities. People do not think twice about stealing the others boots, his meager food. The normal rules of morality do not apply here and cannot be judged from the normal societal standards. Some resourceful inmates enter into some sort of dealing with the civilians in the barter of goods. In an ironic way, work is sometimes the only thing that keeps their sanity. They do not have time to think about anything else other than surviving that particular day. No time to think of the past, families lost. That's why when  people fall ill, though it gives some respite from the daily work, it is difficult to handle the idle period because your thinking starts again. A poignant moment is at the very end, just days before the liberation of the camp, when all the Germans have left the camp taking with them the prisoners who are healthy. (Levi was ill and so was not part of it). Levi and 11 others occupy a room. Levi and another person go outside and bring some food and ration it among everyone. Then a person decides that the remaining 9 would each give up a little portion of their food to Levi and the other person. Levi says that it was probably the first genuine human gesture he saw between inmates, in the one year he was there. The camp is finally liberated in Jan 1945 by the Russians. The travel undertook by Levi to return to Italy is recounted in 'The Truce'. Both the books are available as a single bound edition.

Yes, this is an important work and needs to be read by more. But it is also one of those works, which make you think, why was there a situation in the first place that led a book like this to be written. Why did Levi and millions others have to undergo such cruelty. The inadequacy of works to alleviate suffering again comes to the fore here. Primo Levi wrote his entire life about the holocaust, but he probably could never be reconciled with it and apparently depressed near the end of his life. Like wounds that may heal, but become scars which keep reminding the person of what happened, time did not diminish the pain he felt. To add to this was the revisionist theories that were/are being put forward which trivialized the entire thing. 

It becomes more depressing when one thinks that this is neither the first time nor the last time such a book could be written. This book in that sense does not just reflect the experience of the Jews and Levi. You could replace the Jews with other racial, ethnics groups and could get several other accounts which may differ in detail, but at the core are the same. Just think of the genocide in Bosina, Darfur and Sri Lanka, the conflict in Palestine (a cruel irony where the oppressor has become the oppressed).

One need not look for an Utopia where everyone is treated as brothers and sisters, which is practically impossible. Yes, most of us are also not in a position to formulate policies. But the least one could do is to remove all preconceived notions, the stereotypes we have in mind about an racial/ethnic/geographic group of people and be as open as possible so that one approaches a person as an individual irrespective of his race, country, sexual orientation and not as part or representative of a group. And to use one's own judgement instead of being a part of the herd and letting others judge for us. The distance from such stereotyping to racial bigotry or any bigotry in any form is very small and avoiding that, would be the least we can do for all victims of such bigotry. And let's not forget, one could as easily become a victim of such bigotry.  But considering the polarization that has been happening in the last decade and racial profiling that is gaining ground in most places, once is left with the feeling that we are condemned to repeat the mistakes that we keep making.