All too often, this brilliant novel of thwarted love and revenge miscarried has been read for its political implications. Now, a quarter century after The Joke was first published and several years after the collapse of the Soviet-imposed Czechoslovak regime, it becomes easier to put such implications into perspective in favor of valuing the book (and all Kundera 's work) as what it truly is: great, stirring literature that sheds new light on the eternal themes of human existence.
The present audio edition provides English-language listeners an important further means toward revaluation of The Joke. For reasons he describes in his Author's Note, Milan Kundera devoted much time to creating (with the assistance of his American publisher-editor) a completely revised translation that reflects his original as closely as any translation possibly can: reflects it in its fidelity not only to the words and syntax but also to the characteristic dictions and tonalities of the novel's narrators. The result is nothing less than the restoration of a classic.
©1967 Milan Kundera (P)2012 HarperCollins Publishers
"There is scarcely any passion without struggle." Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
I was impressed, surprisingly so, with the depth, accessibility and enjoyability of this novel, which Kundera wrote in 1965 and it was published in 1967 (and apparently played a role in the Prague Spring that year).
In the early 1950s Czechoslovakia, Ludvik Jahn, a university student with a great sense of humor, was a strong supporter of the Communist regime after World War II. Attempting to show his girlfriend a bit of charm and a sense of humor over the summer when they are on break from classes, he wrote in a postcard to her: "Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!" The commies had zero sense of humor, expelled him from the "party," kicked him out of the university and forced him, as a dissident, to do two years of hard labor in the mines.
Although he eventually gains decent success in his scientific profession, he harbors a grudge against party members who were responsible for his fall from grace. When he sees an opportunity to exact revenge on Zemanik who led the charge against him, Ludvik seduces Zemanik's wife and the joke may be on him, with the wife a "civilian" casualty.
I love the structure of this, Kundera's first novel, with three narrators. I'm not a big fan of, as in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, his carrying the reader through his writing thought processes about the possibilities as he becomes a part of the novel as "author," not just narrator, which ruins my ability to temporarily suspend disbelief.
For me, this novel was outstanding at revealing the truth of the human condition that "redressibility" of wrongs against us is just not possible, and others, including the perpetrator of the wrong, will have forgotten the misdeed anyway by the time you think you've gotten to the point of revenge. Thus one carries the poison of resentment around, as Oscar Wilde put it, as an "adder in one's breast" to "rise up every night to sow thorns in the garden of one's soul."
For this and other reasons, forgiveness is one major key in life's symphony of peace and joy. "...[T]o live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable, is the same as living in hell." The Joke
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