The Joke – Milan Kundera (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #47)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Joke (1967; trans. Michael Henry Heim 1982*)  is the first Milan Kundera I’ve read, as I found his massive intellectual-philosopher reputation intimidating to my tiny brain.  However, I found this, his first novel, very readable so who knows, maybe I will tackle the cumbersomely-titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being at some point?

Ludvik lives in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and is sulking when he sends his girlfriend, Marketa a facetious postcard:

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

Unfortunately, as we who live in the age of twitter know, irony is not always apparent in the written word and the authorities do not appreciate his sentiments. He is thrown out of the Party and sent to a labour camp with other political dissidents.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Ludvik, his friend Jaroslav who is interested in Moravian culture, lecturer Kostka who is Christian in the face of Ludvik’s atheism, and journalist Helena who is used cruelly to facilitate a revenge act.

As Ludvik looks back on his interrupted career and the injustice he has suffered, Kundera offers an incisive commentary on the effect of repressive regimes, but also questions how far all of us can lose sight of ourselves in the face of societal pressures:

“When the Comrades branded my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times) I actually believed them. I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, and that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong, and I, an individual, might be right. I began keeping tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.”

Ludvik attempts to enact a revenge for his treatment, but it does not go as planned. He realises that the man who has become the focus of his anger is only a man, and that the issues are larger than a single person.

“How would I explain I used my hatred to balance out the weight of evil I bore as a youth? How would I explain I considered him the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known? How would I explain I needed to hate him?”

Overall, the sense is of an almost Beckettian absurdity. There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world. Kundera evokes this lightly, so The Joke is not a heavy read, although it considers huge themes. While the politics are particularly relevant to Europe in the last century, the story moves beyond the specific to challenge the role of the individual within structures in which we live, how much agency we have, and what responsibility that brings with it.

“what if history plays jokes? And all at once I realise how powerless I was to revoke my own joke: I myself and my life as a whole had been involved in a joke much more vast (all-embracing) and absolutely irrevocable.”

Kundera has been exiled in France since 1975 after criticising the repressive nature of the then Czech government. The Joke is not self-righteous or overly polemical: it portrays, Kundera writes in the introduction, a man “condemned to triviality”.  While this ironical awareness distanced me from Ludvik somewhat and stopped me totally loving this novel, it also prevents The Joke being pompous, and instead funny, sad, tragic and wise.

To end, an apt song which I hope a book blogger who likes singers called Barry will enjoy even though it’snot Barry singing, and a video that is most definitely of a certain era (it wasn’t all repressive politics in the 1960s kids, there were psychotropic drugs too!):

*It’s worth seeking out a later translation of the novel, as Kundera was unhappy with the first English translations but has authorised the later ones

30 thoughts on “The Joke – Milan Kundera (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #47)

    • I think you’d like this one Karen. My translation was authorised, but Kundera changed his mind later and so I think translations from the 1990s onwards are the best to read. If your copy is around that date, you’re all set 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A very fine review, Madame Bibi. I went through a mini Kundera phase in the late ’80s, largely prompted by on crush on Daniel Day-Lewis in the film adaptation of Unbearable Lightness. The Joke was one of the books I read back then, so it’s great to see it being covered here. I particularly like this: “There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world.” Yes, that’s spot on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui! Is there a Kundera you’d recommend I read next? Is the film of TULOB any good? I’ve a vague memory of Daniel Day-Lewis not being happy with the final version, but I may have imagined that!


      • Oh, I hadn’t realised that DDL was somewhat unhappy with the final version of the film, but you could well be right about that. I would definitely recommend The Unbearable Lightness of Being as a follow-on read, especially now that you’ve developed a taste for Kundera’s style. I don’t think it’s as inaccessible as its reputation might suggest. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I may well be inventing DDL’s feelings about the film! I’ve probably remembered wrongly, my memory is appalling. I’ll certainly try TULOB as a follow-on read, thanks for the recommendation. I shouldn’t be so easily intimidated….


  2. I’d not come across this list before. Thank you for introducing me to it! I hope you get around to Life a User’s Manual which I loved. I’ve not read The Joke but remember struggling a little with The Unbearable Likeness of Being which I read after seeing the film which was both beautiful and heart-wrenching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life A Users Manual is definitely on my radar, I have a copy ready and Kaggsy’s recent Perec reviews have convinced me I need to get to it soon – I’m really looking forward to it 🙂

      That’s good to hear about the film – I think there’s a cheeky upload on YouTube so I will take a look!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha, ha, like Jacqui I had a bit of a crush on Daniel Day-Lewis in the film, although I think I saw it after I read the book. I read that a very impressionable age and so it can be said that it changed my life. The Joke is perhaps better as a satire/political book, it captures perfectly that absurdity of life in a totalitarian state. I’d also recommend his short story collection ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’. I don’t like his later stuff, written in French, that much.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So, Madame B, after the laudably serious and thoughtful tone of your earlier commenters, I can only display my tiny brain’s propensity to focus on the bizarre….Not to mention the subliminal….that very very strange song and version. Weird and rather piffly words, a person with extremely strange hair, plus a lot of orange – ish colours in the background, led me to hope that someone in the White House would sneak into a presidential bedroom and begin to infinitesimally narrow the presidential bed……..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, that’s the first video you’ve included that I had to abandon halfway through – not because of the psychedelic grooviness of it all, though it is undoubtedly a great advert for the 21st century and CGI, but because of the voice. I never could see the attraction of the BeeGees… *runs off before the hordes of fans arrive with pitchforks*

    PS Oh, the book sounds most interesting too – if I can bear any more totalitarian regimes when I finish the Russian challenge, I may be tempted to give this one a whirl…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh dear, I hope you’re not too traumatised! I don’t think you’re alone in that opinion. Even my mother, who is a fan, starts muttering about compressed nasal cavities when they appear on screen 😀

      I think this might be interesting for you after your Russian challenge, but as you say, maybe with a reprieve in between, maybe some Golden Age crime to break it up a bit!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read any of his books, and haven’t even heard of this one. But it sounds good!
    The only books on your list I’ve read that you haven’t yet are Gone With the Wind and The Lord of the Rings. GWtW is good, but Lord of the Rings is wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this is a good place to start with Kundera if you fancy it Naomi, I found it surprisingly readable!

      It’s the size that puts me off with GWTW and LOTR, but they’re on the list so I’ll have to get to them eventually. I hear such good things, I’m sure when I finally do read them I’ll wonder why it took me so long 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh my goodness… I just wrote a long comment about singers called Barry, Kandera and lists of books and it failed! Maybe it’s lurking in cyberspace and will reappear but the guts was: singers called Barry – v.good; Kandera – don’t know; lists of books to read before you fall of the twig – I’m not good at those lists because they invariably include books about outer-space and/or war and my interest runs out right there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That happens to my comments sometimes – I fear it is gone forever! I know what you mean about the lists and I’m torn between baulking at the sci-fi inclusions and feeling it’s good for me to read outside my comfort zone. I’m sure there will be a few DNFs on the list but so far so good….


  8. You’ve got me thinking about the consequences of revolutionaries and authoritarian governments of old and Twitter. It’s bad enough now with Trump abusing it and China blocking it, but the thought it Lenin and Robespierre having it, and monitoring it, doesn’t bear thinking about it. It really would be all cat gifs and lunches, all the time, just to stay alive!

    Liked by 1 person

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