Joking aside, with Milan Kundera

Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!

This is the postcard greeting of Ludvik, one of the characters in Milan Kundera’s The Joke. As one may easily surmise, this is first ‘joke’ in the novel, presumably even the titular joke that marked Ludvik’s descent into his blinded revenge (Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo comes to mind).

Ludvik, a member of the Czech Communist Party in the university, is obviously a man of humor. Wishing to annoy a girl named Marketa who he believed to be ‘too serious’, he wrote her a postcard that was eventually read by the Czech officials. Unlucky he, Marketa is attending a month-long Party discussion when she received the letter. The following confrontation between Ludvik and the Party members ensued:

Did she write anything about the training session? they asked. Yes, I said. What did she say? That she liked it there, I answered. And?  That the talks were good, I answered, and the group spirit. Did she mention that a healthy atmosphere prevailed? Yes, I said, I think she did say something like that. Did she mention she was discovering the power of optimism? Yes, I said. What do you think of optimism? they asked. Optimism? I asked. Why, nothing special. Do you consider yourself an optimist? they went on. I do, I said uneasily. I like a good time, a good laugh, I said, trying to lighten the tone of the interrogation. A nihilist likes a good laugh, he went on. Do you think socialism can be built without optimism? asked another of them. No, I said. Then you are opposed to our building socialism, said the third. What do you mean? I protested. Because you think optimism is the opium of the people, they said, advancing their attack.

On so the interrogation goes on, and as one with a healthy imagination may easily predict, Ludvik was expelled from the Party group. The story continues, and no one is laughing.

Judging from the two Kundera’s I have read, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which I admit are both good, this seems rather blunt of Kundera. The Joke is somewhat more explicitly political than those two books. Even Wikipedia categorizes it as a satirical account of the post-World War II Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia.

Mind you, the novel is not about Ludvik alone, as it was presented as an intersection of stories by him, Helena (the long-suffering wife of Ludvik’s ‘archenemy’ Pavel, who Ludvik described as a ‘rabid, phrase-mongering communist’), Jaroslav (Ludvik’s Christian friend, who struggles for his faith despite being a dashing member of the Party) and Kostka (a musician of the local cymbalon ensemble who strived to popularize folk songs to the people to no avail). I am impressed by the richness of the narrative, by the different perspectives, to the point that I can no longer grasp what Kundera is trying to say. What is very clear, though, is that Kundera himself is a very confused writer.

Another thing: the book is marked by its penchant for philosophizing, or maybe, for its pedantic dreams, which to some extent is adorable, but at some point is totally ridiculous. Kundera even came to the point of

Just a little joke for you guys

using musical notation to establish a point (something about the difference between types of music in terms of resolution, and how it connotes something about their sense of tentativeness or sureness), which is something I particularly liked.

Despite its political ambiguousness and sentimental overkill, I somehow enjoyed this book. In fact, I would venture to say it was a good one. Heck, even Louis Aragon (once a member of the French Communist Party and one of the respected founders of the Surrealist movement) called this the “most important book of the century.” While I may not subscribed to that (hey, how about Twilight? haha), let us just say Kundera proved his worth on this one.


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