A joke's a very serious thing."
So said the 18th-century English poet Charles Churchill in "The Ghost". And a silly joke was a very serious thing for Ludvik, the protagonist of Milan Kundera's first novel "The Joke."
Written and set in 1965 Prague and first published in Czechoslovakia in 1967, the novel opens with Ludvik looking back on the joke that changed his life in the early 1950s. Ludvik was a dashing, witty, and popular student. 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! The healthy atmosphere stinks! 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, an old friend now married to Pavel, 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.
Written in Czech (before Kundera left for France where he began writing in French) this is one of Kundera's more accessible works. The book is narrated through the voices of four people, Ludvik, Helena, Kostka, who has since become a Christian and absented himself from the commercial and political life of the regime, and Jaroslav whose love of traditional Czech folk music forms a nice counterpoint to life in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Kundera switches seamlessly from one voice to the next even as the changes in voice become more frequent towards the novel's conclusion. Although Ludvik is a bit self-absorbed that self-absorption is not nearly as all-consuming as one sees in the characters in Kundera's more recent efforts.
A word about the translation. There is an old French expression: "translations are like women - if they are beautiful, they are not faithful; if they are faithful they are not beautiful." This edition is designated by the publisher as the `definitive' translation. Kundera has expressed no small amount of dissatisfaction with earlier translations of this work and Kundera spent a lot of time working with the translator to ensure that the voice heard in the English version corresponds to the voice heard in the original Czech. Each reader may have a different opinion as to the beauty of the translated prose (I think it reads very well) but I think that given Kundera's blessing that it is, at the very least, faithful.