Celebrated Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s debut novel, The Joke, faced a similar fate as its brilliant film adaptation by Jeromil Jires did – it was banned from all bookstores upon the arrival of the Soviets, after a brief respite during the heady days of the Prague Spring. At its most elemental, this was a deeply political novel that made exquisite use of dry humour, trenchant satire, and sardonic wit in its indictment against the then humourless and iron-handed Communist regime of the country. But, this was also a surprisingly warm and poignant human drama about lost youth, love and life, and consequently was filled with nostalgic and melancholic ruminations. The central protagonist of the book is Ludvik, a cynical and disillusioned man whose life was destroyed on account of an ill-conceived joke he wrote to his girlfriend during his college days. He wasn’t just expelled from the Party and the university, he was also banished to years of hard labour, and thereafter life became a series of sad jokes and bitter ironies for him. Now, the embittered Ludvik plans to exact revenge on his former friend Pavel, who had turned on him instead of helping him during that moment of crisis, by seducing his buxom, lonely and maudlin wife Helena. Ludvik’s brief affair with Lucie, an overtly demure girl with a tragic past, during his labour camp days, formed a heartbreaking subplot of this novel, as did the author’s sentimental detours on the dying Czech folk culture. Interestingly, the novel has been narrated from four different points of view – those of Ludvik, Helena, Jaroslav (a folk musician and an old friend of Ludvik), and Kostka (a conservative whose association with Lucie added layers to Ludvik’s failed romance with her) – which all gradually merged into the greater whole. Though not a flawless book per se, the fluency of the prose and tapestry of rich character delineations made this an immensely rewarding book.
Author: Milan Kundera
Genre: Drama/Political Satire/Romance
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)