The Joke was Milan Kundera’s first novel. The themes that he would develop to a much greater degree in later works (particularly Life is Elsewhere) are found here in a somewhat protean form: the hopelessly entangled relationships between youth, love, lyricism and revolution, backgrounded by a State veering towards totalitarianism. Ludvik, the protagonist of the story, is a student and dedicated Communist party worker in a Czechoslovakia in the process of being formulated after the 1948 Revolution. Himself often humorous and irreverent, Ludvik attempts to draw the attention of a woman he is wooing by sending her a “joke” designed to shock her too-serious self into laughter – a joke in the form of a polemical statement written upon a postcard:
“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.”
His letter is intercepted by the authorities who fail to see the funny side of things. Branded as a Trotskyite and an enemy of the Revolution, Ludvik is forced to resign from the Party, expelled from the University, and packed off to compulsory army service (with no guarantee of return) in a faraway provincial town. His failed “joke” expands thus to define his entire life, and the rest of the book is a continuation of his story, so defined.
Through an account of the events of Ludvik’s life, Kundera explores a number of important and interrelated themes. At the heart of the story lies the idea of how a combination of youth and idealism can swiftly petrify into a totalitarianism that brooks neither dissent nor – even worse – humour (remember Mark Twain’s words – against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand). So, the initial attraction of the revolution, with its stated communist philosophy, is bewitching and enthralling:
“… what had attracted me to the movement more than anything else, dazzled me, was the feeling (real or apparent) of standing near the wheel of history… inaugurating an era in which man (all men) would be neither outside history, nor under the heel of history, but would create and direct it.”
I am reminded at this point of Yuri Trifonov’s beautiful novel, The Impatient Ones, which is about the Russian social-revolutionary Narodnaya Volya (“Land and Freedom”) movement in the 1870s, that culminated in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. A central refrain of the movement – made up in large numbers of students – was the need to “give history a push, the old nag!” The idea of being in a position in which you can actually give history that push is, as Kundera writes, intoxicating. But in the hands of the youth, it is also dangerous, because:
“Youth is terrible; it is a stage trod by children in buskins and a variety of costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. And history is terrible because it so often ends up a playground for the immature… a playground for easily roused mobs of children whose stimulated passions and simplistic poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.”
Ludvik’s fate is therefore explained by his falling foul of an ideology that claims dominion over history, and must logically, therefore, claim infallibility. As his friend points out to him: “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm or mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.”
This twin sense of both danger and delight presented by such an ideology is aptly summed up by Ludvik’s friend, Jaroslav the musician, when he muses upon Ludvik’s advocacy of a particularly “socialist” form of music that must replace jazz and other such forms in the aftermath of the revolution:
“He had the look all Communists had at the time. As if he’d made a secret pact with the future and had thereby acquired the right to act in its name…. yet his ideas corresponded to our innermost dreams. They elevated us to a historic greatness.”
The sense of infallibility – and therefore, the desire to control – extends to all domains of life, including – and especially – art. The relationship between art, politics and nationhood is the second major theme that pervades the book. The Party man Zemaneck, for example, loves to sing Moravian folk songs because they give him the appearance of being “a man of the people“. Folk art is promoted by the government for just this purpose. But the connections go much deeper than that. Much like Ismail Kadare’s writings, Kundera’s work too exhibits the awareness that art is often the point of contestation – and creation – of our very identity. So Jaroslav, for instance, believes that:
“My love for it dates back to the war. They tried to make us believe we had no right to exist, we were nothing but Czech-speaking Germans. We needed to prove to ourselves that we’d existed before and still did exist. We all made a pilgrimage to the sources… the folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that preserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilizations have long since destroyed aboveground.”
All nations claim to be rooted in a glorious antiquity, through chains that have often been stretched, frayed and worn, but never broken. The chain of culture is one such: and that is precisely how art becomes involved in the politics of nationhood, and perhaps why “apolitical art” is a contradiction in terms. Through folk music, Jaroslav traces the lineage of present-day Czechoslovakia all the way back to the great, 9th century Moravian Empire – and the grandeur of that Empire is what reflects upon the contemporary nation, glorious in light of its glorious past. This is why Ludvik calls for a break with jazz and a resumption of the folk tradition:
“Jazz is quick to develop and change. Its style is in constant motion. It had traveled a precipitous road from early New Orleans counter-point to swing, bop and beyond. The New Orleans variety had never dreamed of the harmonies used in today’s jazz. Our folk music, in contrast, is a motionless princess from bygone centuries. We have to awaken it. It must merge with the life of today and develop along with it. It must develop like jazz: without ceasing to be itself, without losing its melodic and rhythmic specificity, it must create its own newer phases of style. It isn’t easy. It’s an enormous task. A task that can only be carried out under socialism.
[Why socialism?] The ancient countryside had lived a collective life. Communal rites marked off the village year. Folk art knew no life outside those rites. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others, but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of them modestly disappeared behind their creation.
Capitalism had destroyed this old collective life. And so folk art had lost its foundations, its reason for being, its function. It would be useless trying to resurrect it while social conditions were such that man lived cut off from man, everyone for himself. But socialism would liberate people from their isolation. They would live in a new collectivity, United by a common interest, their private and public lives would merge.”
By now, art has become entirely subordinated to the political project – it is, in fact, no more than one element that sustains the political project, lacking any defining characteristics of its own. From the viewpoint that art partly reflects and partly shapes culture, there is now a pre-determined culture that art must reflect and shape. Perhaps that is why the phrase “totalitarianism” is used for such ideologies – their attempt to exert control over every facet of life.
Much as he does in Life is Elsewhere, Kundera engages with the idea of love as an offshoot of these themes. Thus, Helena is “looking for love, desperately looking for love, a love I can embrace just as I am, with all my old dreams and ideals, because I don’t want my life to split down the middle, I want it to remain whole from beginning to end…“, a love that entails “body and soul, lust and tenderness, grief and frenzied vitality, desire for vulgarity and desire for consolation, desire for the moment of pleasure as well as for eternal possession.” This all-encompassing love must be total (recall Jaromil in Life is Elsewhere telling his fiancee that “either you love me entirely, or you love me not at all – there is nothing in the middle), it must reject anything less than complete, any ambiguity, and it is entirely lyrical. The parallels are striking, and need no explanation.
Yet the message – if one can use that word – of the book seems to be that such philosophies, whether of love or of politics, are ultimately no more than myths, and must suffer the eventual fate of all myths – debunking and replacement. The manner in which the Ludvik-Helena affair plays out bears witness to that, and the eroding popularity of folk music and folk traditions, documented painstakingly and painfully by Jaroslav, over the years, bears witness to that. Myths can exert great power and influence while they last, and indeed history is a series of myths, but they are all temporary. And in the end:
“Their message will never be decoded… because people have no patience to listen to it in an age when the accumulation of messages old and new is such that their voices cancel one another out. Today history is no more than a thin thread of the remembered stretching over an ocean of the forgotten, but time moves on, and an epoch of millennia will come which the inextensible memory of the individual will be unable to encompass; whole centuries and millennia will therefore fall away, centuries of painting and music, centuries of discoveries, of battles, of books, and this will be dire, because man will lose the notion of his self, and his history, unfathomable, unencompassable, will shrivel into a few schematic signs destitute of all sense. Thousands of deaf-and-dumb Rides of Kings will set out with their piteous and incomprehensible messages, and no one will have the time to hear them out.”
And that seems to lead, irrevocably, to utter pessimism. As Ludvik looks back in the aftermath of his affair with Helena, one that turned out entirely opposite to what he expected, one that seems to be a byword for his entire life (one vast, irrevocable joke), he laments:
“I was seized with regret about this day, not only because it had been futile, but also because even its futility would be forgotten…”
Myths then, at the end of the day, fail in their very basic function: they fail to provide any lasting or permanent meaning to life, the meaning that every human being is perpetually seeking but which, like Aeneas’ shore, is always receding, with or without the oars of myth driving the ship of history onwards.
The Joke is dark, pessimistic and devoid of hope, but it is utterly compelling.