The Joke – Milan Kundera

(First published 1967; translated from the Czech by various including the author himself)

I read it as part of a set of debut novels by novelists who later became major names in contemporary literature. I have been a fan of Kundera since I read his insightful expositions on the art of novel and on the nature of art in general.

The politics of Communist rule in 1950s Czechoslovakia forms the background of this novel. The protagonist, himself a budding Communist student, is expunged from the party and kicked out of the university to be sent to slave away in the mines run by the military. Why? He unwittingly made a joke, in a letter to his girlfriend, on Communist politics and leaders. Her dedicated and mirthless Communist girlfriend took it to be a sacrilege – a blasphemy of religious proportions – and reported him to the authorities.

The story revolves around his attempts to come to terms with the turn his fate has taken as he languishes in a military camp in a battalion which is supposed to comprise of the most dangerous anti-state elements. But he finds out that dissenters had been put their for petty reasons: for not supporting wholeheartedly and enthusiastically one of the policies of the Communist regime; and another is punished simply as a preemptive measure because his father is an oppositional activist.

When he regains limited freedom after a few years of hard labour at the military camp, writhing in hate for what his life has become, he launches himself on a campaign to take revenge on another of his friends who had him voted out of the university and the party and who in effect authored his subsequent travails. This is where I think the novel becomes somewhat thin, and ends abruptly. His personal philosophy suffers a painful realisation and makes him do something he wasn’t planning.

It’s a good debut novel in that it goes beyond the usual noisy political sloganeering found in novels that deal with highly charged political subject matter, such as Orwell’s 1984, and delves deeper into the mysteries of totalitarian political collective on a psychological level. Jokes – humour and sarcasm – contends Kundera, is a mysterious and powerful dissenting tool, and any power, be it religious or political or something else, which has taken upon itself to reform the whole world in earnest, is greatly threatened by it, and can’t tolerate it.

In the case of the hero of our novel, the Communist regime elevated a pathetic half-serious joke to the same status as of dangerous anti-state activity when, at the military camp, the authorities assigned him to a battalion reserved for top level dissenters – and this for us is the real joke.

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