The Joke

The Joke

by Milan Kundera


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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 edition provides English-language readers 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060995058
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/13/2013
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 203,177
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.


Paris, France

Date of Birth:

April 1, 1929

Place of Birth:

Brno, Czechoslovakia


Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


So here I was, home again after all those years. Standing in the main square (which I had crossed countless times as a child, as a boy, as a young man), I felt no emotion whatsoever; all I could think was that the flat space, with the spire of the town hall (like a soldier in an ancient helmet) rising above the rooftops, looked like a huge parade ground and that the military past of the Moravian town, once a bastion against Magyar and Turk invaders, had engraved an irrevocable ugliness on its face.

During those years, there was nothing to attract me to my hometown; I told myself that I had grown indifferent to it, which seemed natural: I had been away for fifteen years, had almost no friends or acquaintances left here (and wished to avoid the ones I did have), my mother was buried among strangers in a grave I had never tended. But I had been deceiving myselfwhat I had called indifference was in fact rancor; the reasons for it had escaped me, because here as elsewhere I had had both good and bad experiences, but the rancor was there, and it was this journey that had made me conscious of it: the mission that had brought me here could easily have been accomplished in Prague, after all, but I had suddenly begun to feel an irresistible attraction to the prospect of carrying it out here in my hometown precisely because this was a mission so cynical and low as to mock any suspicion that I was returning out of some maudlin attachment to things past.

I gave the unsightly square a final knowing look and, turning my back on it, set off for the hotel where I had booked a room for the night. The porterhanded me a key hanging from a wooden pear and said, 'Third floor." The room was not attractive: a bed along one wall, a small table and chair in the middle, an ostentatious mahogany chest of drawers with mirror next to the bed, and a tiny cracked sink by the door. I put my briefcase down on the table and opened the window: it looked out onto a courtyard and the bare grubby backs of neighboring buildings. I closed the window, drew the curtains, and went over to the sink, which had two faucets--one blue, the other red; I turned them on; cold water trickled out of both. I looked over at the table, which at least had room for a bottle and two glasses; the trouble was, only one person could sit at it: there was only one chair. I pushed the table up to the bed and tried sitting at it, but the bed was too low and the table too high; besides, the bed sank so much under my weight that it was obviously not only unsatisfactory as a seat but equally unlikely to perform its function as a bed. I pushed it with my fists, then lay down on it, carefully lifting my legs so as not to dirty the blanket. The bed sagged so badly I felt I was in a hammock; it was impossible to imagine anyone else in that bed with me.

I sat down on the chair, stared at the translucent curtains, and began to think. Just then the sound of steps and voices penetrated the room from the corridor; two people, a man and a woman, were having a conversation, and I could understand their every word: it was about a boy named Petr, who had run away from home, and his Aunt Klara, who was a fool and spoiled the boy. Then a key turned in a lock, a door opened, and the voices went on talking in the next room; I heard the woman sighing (yes, even sighs were audible!) and the man resolving to have a few words with Klara.

I stood up, my decision firm; I washed my hands in the sink, dried them on the towel, and left the hotel, though I had no clear idea of where to go. All I knew was that if I didn't wish to jeopardize the success of my journey (my long, arduous journey) with this unsuitable hotel room, I would have no choice, much as I disliked it, but to ask a discreet favor of some local acquaintance. I ran through all the old faces from my youth, rejecting each in rum, if only because the confidential nature of the service to be rendered would require me laboriously to bridge the gap, account for my long years of absence--something I had no desire to do. But then I remembered a man here whom Id helped to find a job and who would be only too glad, if I knew him at all, to repay one good turn with another. He was a strange character, at once scrupulously moral and oddly unsettled and unstable, whose wife, as far as I could tell, had divorced him years before for living anywhere and everywhere but with her and their son. I was a little nervous: if he had remarried, it would complicate my request; I walked as fast as I could in the direction of the hospital.

The local hospital is a complex of buildings and pavilions scattered over a large landscaped area; I went into the booth at the gate and asked the guard to connect me with Virology; he shoved the telephone over to the edge, of his desk and said, "02." 1 dialed 02, only to learn that Mr.

Kostka had just left and was on his way out. I sat down on a bench near the gate so as not to miss him, and watched men wandering here and there in blue-and-white-striped hospital gowns. Then I saw him: he was walking along deep in thought, tall, thin, likeably unattractive, yes, it was clearly he.

Table of Contents

Author's Note vii
Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena

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Joke 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
eas311 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a black comedy of life in stalinist eastern europe. i read it twice for school, and enjoyed it both times. but it is so so frustrating, and i wish kundera were a little more fair to his female characters.
DieFledermaus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like other Kundera novels, this book is bittersweet - perhaps mostly bitter. It's a despondent love story, a devastating look at Communism and a revenge plot, twisted into memories and multiple narrators. But mostly it's about perverted beliefs and human weaknesses in any age. All of the first person narrators have some religion, be it actual (Kostka's Christianity), political (Helena's Communism) or emotional (Helena's idealized love, Ludvik's hatred and cynicism). The absolutist beliefs never work out like they 'should', and this is most obviously represented by Communism.The joke refers to one played on a fellow student by Ludvik. A member of the Party, he led a privileged life, studying at the university and attending meetings. Still, his intelligence and sardonic humor needed an outlet - a postcard that he sent to a girl he liked, mocking Marxist theory in two short sentences. This led to his expulsion from the Party and university, and the image he would carry around from that point on was of the entire group raising their hands, casting him out for good. His memory was a condemnation of all other people. Sent to work in the mines, Ludvik never forgot the injustice. While working there, he fell in love with a young woman named Lucie. Although it was the major love affair of his life, it was full of contradictions. They never had sex, he never knew entire parts of her life and it was always a product of their situation. Still, his depressing life increased the intensity of the relationship. His memories of that affair, as well as his hatred of a former comrade, Zemanek, are dredged up when he returns home.Helena, a staunch Communist, interacts with Ludvik when he returns to Prague. Unhappily married, her affairs are justified by 'love' while she despises her husband's infidelity, as well as a relationship between a married man and her coworker. Jaroslav, an old friend of Ludvik's, narrates part of the story. His love of old folk traditions is revealed - although revered in the first flush of Communist power, now they've been abandoned. Ludvik cuts him on seeing him, and he also has to deal with his son, who rejects his passion.Kostka, another of Ludvik's acquaintances, fills in some more blanks. A devout Christian, he also eagerly accepted Communism and made the two work in his mind. However, higher ups were suspicious so he was sent to the country and embarked on an affair.Throughout the novel, Ludvik wonders if various events - even his whole life - are just history's jokes. His initial joke led to expulsion, he never knew the truth about Lucie, his revenge went awry and all his energy spent on hatred was wasted since he and Zemanek had both changed. Even his hideous experiences in the camps - was that just a joke, was it forgotten, did the younger generation just classify him and Zemanek together? Ludvik's hatred unbalanced his life and blinded him to many things. The others' beliefs were equally unproductive - Helena's obvious hypocrisy, Jaroslav's disappointed hopes and Kostka betraying his religion with a relationship. Communism was a twisted belief, possibly one of history's hideous jokes.
CR-Buell More than 1 year ago
When I first read this novel over a decade ago I loved it, but I don't think I really understood it. My memories of The Joke were of a novel about the oppressions of a communist regime. On rereading it I find that I may have missed the point. Sure communism plays a part in this novel, how could it not? And yes a ridiculous run-in with the communist bureaucracy is the driving force in our protagonist's life. But you could replace communism with pretty much any other ideology and the result would be the same. That's because The Joke is really about the oppressive nature of time. We watch as our characters struggle to reconcile their pasts with the present, and find that they cannot. Kundera is a genius at slowly revealing this theme to us, building up to it throughout the novel, and finally making it clear. What has been torturing these characters is not the oppression of communism, but the inevitable loss of youth, and with it the world. Time passes us all by, and we mourn its passing.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Whats there to say, this book is simply genius. I picked it up shortly after reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and wasn't disappointed. Apart from its polictical stand points, at the core lies an amazing story told from several individuals point of view. And with this core story, Kundera wrapped it in its political blanket and the result, as i began, is genius.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended to me by one of my professors. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel... read it in less than a week. I usually don't read night and day, but Kundera kept me up all night.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Joke is one of the best books I have read. How ridiculous Communism was really came alive to me. Kundera's use of multiple points of view is brilliant. A must read.