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.

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