The Joke;

I am currently reading another book by Kundera, which gives a satirical account of totalitarianism in the Communist era- and I realized that it is in some senses a personal biography as well:

From W: Kundera was born in 1929 into a middle class family. His father, Ludvík Kundera (1891-1971), once a pupil of the composer Leoš Janáček, was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of the Janáček Music Academy in Brno from 1948 to 1961. Milan learned to play the piano from his father, later going on to study musicology and musical composition. Musicological influences and references can be found throughout his work; he has even gone so far as including notes in the text to make a point.

Kundera belonged to the generation of young Czechs who had had little or no experience of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovak Republic. Their ideology was greatly influenced by the experiences of World War II and the German occupation. Still in his teens, Kundera joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which seized power in 1948.

Kundera completed his secondary school studies in Brno in 1948. He studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague. After two terms, he transferred to the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he first attended lectures in film direction and script writing. In 1950, his studies were briefly interrupted by political interference.

In 1950, he and another writer, Jan Trefulka, were expelled from the party for “anti-party activities”. Trefulka described the incident in his novella Pršelo jim štěstí (Happiness Rained On Them, 1962). Kundera also used the incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his novel Žert (The Joke, 1967).

After graduating in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 Milan Kundera was readmitted into the Party. He was expelled for the second time in 1970. Kundera, along with other reform communist writers such as Pavel Kohout, were partly involved in the 1968 Prague Spring. This brief period of reformist activities was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Kundera remained committed to reforming Czech communism, and argued vehemently in print with fellow Czech writer Václav Havel, saying, essentially, that everyone should remain calm and that “nobody is being locked up for his opinions yet”, and “the significance of the Prague Autumn may ultimately be greater than that of the Prague Spring”. Finally, however, Kundera relinquished his reformist dreams and moved to France in 1975. He taught for a few years in the University of Rennes. He has been a French citizen since 1981.

Will share more about the book soon.

The Joke/Synopsis: The novel takes place during the Czechoslavian transition into a Communist country.

The novel is composed of many jokes which hold strong effect on the characters. The story is told in the four viewpoints of Ludvik Jahn, Helena Zemanek, Kostka, and Jaroslav. Jaroslav’s joke is the transition away from his coveted Moravian folk lifestyle and appreciation. Kostka, who has separated himself from the party due to his Christianity, serves as a counterpoint to Ludvik. Helena serves as Ludvik’s victim and is satirical of the seriousness of party supporters. Ludvik demonstrates the shortcomings of the party and propels the plot in his search for revenge and redemption.

Written and set in 1965 Prague and first published in Czechoslovakia in 1967, the novel opens with Ludvik Jahn looking back on the joke that changed his life in the early 1950s. Ludvik was a dashing, witty, and popular student who supported the Party. Like most of his friends he was an enthusiastic supporter of the still-fresh Communist regime in post-World War II Czechoslovakia. In a playful mood he writes a postcard to one of the girls in his class during their summer break. Since she seems, according to Ludvik, to be a bit too serious he writes on the postcard “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” His colleagues and fellow young-party leaders did not quite see the humor in the sentiment expressed in the postcard. Ludvik finds himself expelled from the party and college and drafted to that part of the Czech military where alleged subversives form work brigades and spend the next few years working in mines.

Despite the interruption in his career Ludvik has become a successful scientist. But despite his success, his treatment at the hands of his former friends has left him bitter and angry. An opportunity arises when he meets Helena, who is married to Pavel Zemanek, the friend who led the efforts to purge Ludvik from the party. Ludvik decides to seduce Helena as a means of exacting his revenge. In essence this is the second `joke’ of the novel. Although the seduction is successful things do not quite play out the way Ludvik expects, the novel’s third joke’ and he is left once more to sit and think bitter thoughts. Ultimately he decides that these sorts of jokes and their bitter repercussions are not the fault of the humans who set them in motion but are really just a matter of historic inevitability. Ultimately then one cannot blame forces that cannot be changed or altered.

I have started on the first few chapters and already it is stunningly well written. It has been pure sweet temptation tearing myself away from the book to do something else- and do something else I must.

Sometimes I find myself trembling a little in the train when reading Kundera. It seems as though his books are one long treatise, each book slowly revealing a portion or hidden secret of a thought. They are somehow connected, like characters in a Cirque du Soleil performance, in mysterious, solemn ways. Then when I look up suddenly, I realize it is my train stop. These times spent in solitary reading, are some of my favourite times in the day. I think I am the sort of person who often craves for quiet time away, yet cannot bear to be away from a social crowd. But how wonderfully Kundera writes about the different faces of his protagonist!

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