peteg's blog

Milan Kundera: The Joke

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Again, not one of his best novels. The humour is droll, dry and melancholic, with some "jokes" stretched from the start of the book to the end. These are the jokes that life plays on you, not the ones that make you laugh. Conversely there are flashes of gentle humour, particularly apropos his eternal fascination with the Communist mindset:

You smile as though you were thinking to yourself.

Being his first novel he attempts to do everything within it, and his characteristic authorial interjections are lamentably absent. Indeed, one feels that Kundera's life to that point (the mid 1960s) is a variant of Ludvik's (p170):

... I had begun my own research almost ten years later than my colleagues — I had still been an undergraduate in my thirties. For a few year I had tried desperately hard to bridge this gap but had then realised the futility of devoting the second half of my life to a pathetic chasing after lost years, and so I resigned myself to it. Luckily this resignedness had its compensations: the less I chased after success in my own narrow field, the more I could allow myself the luxury of looking out from this field on to other areas of research, on to man's being and the existence of the world, and could experience the joys, among the sweetest there are, of speculation and reflection. My colleagues, however, knew full well that if such contemplation gives a man personal pleasure then it is of little use for a modern scientific career, which demands that the scientist should burrow zealously in his own field or sub-field like a blind mole and should not lose time lamenting lost horizons. For this reason my colleagues half envied my resignation and half despised me for it, as they gave me to know with gentle irony, calling me the institute's 'philosopher', and sending me journalists and news editors from the broadcasting company.

The book is essentially about change and capriciousness, mutating loyalties and the unknowability of others. He revisits some of these themes in his later (and to my mind, more successful) novels, painting less dire images of how life slips out of control.

The translation of this one has apparently caused him grief over many years. I read the original butchered translation from 1969.