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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "From whence a perfect joke must spring
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...
Published on 5 Dec 2005 by Leonard Fleisig

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I don't like
I did not find this book well written or fun. I think this book is overrated and this is the reason I gave it a go. Unless you grew up in 60's communist Central Europe, then it is a tough read.
Published 15 months ago by Adam


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5.0 out of 5 stars A nostalgic (?) look back to mid-century Czechoslovakia, 19 Feb 2013
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This review is from: The Joke (Paperback)
I came to this very late: 'The joke' was Kundera's first novel, published in (what was then) Czechoslovakia in 1967, and having gone through 4 or 5 English translations before settling on this, the definitive English translation (according to Kundera's own note at the end of the book). I feel it's a good introduction to Kundera's work for those who haven't read any of his other books; and after all, this is where it all started...

The Joke alternates between the perspectives of different characters: Ludvik (who feels the central figure); Helena, Jaroslav and Kostka. And I would also add: Lucie, although it is through the voice of others that we hear her voice, but it is a very distinctive voice indeed.

The joke in question occurs at the beginning; it has to do with Ludvik's playful and meant-to-be-funny remarks on Trotskyism on a postcard sent to a girlfriend. Within the tight, repressive, paranoid and (of course) humourless restraints of the Czechoslovakia communist regime, this postcard is taken as proof that Ludvik has strayed from the party's orthodoxy; he is seen as a 'cynic' and a 'skeptic', thus potentially dangerous for the party that needs pure, unthinking followers. So his studies are forcefully interrupted & he is sent to the army which then leads to prison. Once in isolation and having lost everything that meant anything to him, Ludvik is led through a journey which comes to doubt meaning itself and where he comes to doubt his own intentions and underlying beliefs when 'joking'. Was what he had written, after all, funny? Funny to whose ears? This leads to some interesting thinking regarding the seriousness of jokes- let's not forget Freud's own book on Jokes- and also regarding, ultimately, the absurdity of life's turns, the sense of inevitability but also of randomness that comes to penetrate Ludvik's life to the point where he almost completely loses sight of what (if anything) matters to him.

What comes to matter, eventually, is revenge. But in the process of his (failed) effort to get revenge against those who seemed to believe they had all the answers but who, as he sees it, destroyed his life, Ludvik comes to realise that it is here, in the process of revenge, where the greatest absurdity and meaninglessness occurs. Crucially, the greatest humiliation can occur too just because revenge can force us to face the true meaning of forgetting, of time passing. But in the process of Ludvik's efforts at revenge the reader has the pleasure to finally laugh with some relief at what is a real (if tragic and grotesque) joke. I leave you to discover that one yourselves...

A beautiful book, well worth returning to. It's particularly good to read this from a distance, now that life in the 50s and 60s Eastern European Communist regimes feels so far behind us (although it was not that long ago). Made me think about the passage of time and the crushing role of forgetting within it. What once seemed, at the time Kundera writes about, essential and true, seems so very distant now that we almost forget the whys and hows of that time. We can also easily forget the reality and inevitability that everything at the time meant to the people living through that period. And I suppose that's a thought to hold on to about our own lives too.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Kundera's wonderful debut, 15 Sep 2011
By 
AK (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Joke (Paperback)
The Joke, Kundera's first novel (from 1965), is a very rich, multifaceted and mature piece of work that is likely to appeal on many levels and warrant many a rereading. The basic story of several people's lives in post WW2 Czechoslovakia, all revolving around the protagonist - Ludvik Jahn - is told from the various people's point of view in separate sections, finishing with the final one, where they start interchanging each other in each subchapter. The method was not new (Wilke's The Moonstone used a similar storytelling method more than 100 years earlier) but works very well with this book, adding a richness that would be hard to achieve if the story was told only from the protagonist's point of view.

The Joke - something Ludvik plays on a fling during his student years - has bitter consequences for his later life, and all his subsequent actions are to some extent influenced by that one moment in time. The book, though, tells much more than just one man's story. In fact, one learns a lot about the atmosphere prevailing in the Czech Republic (and more broadly in Eastern Europe) at the time, the energy of the early years, the slow decline and the later disillusionment and questioning. In that it may not be quite as insightful as Koestler's Darkness at Noon but it is very good nevertheless, plus it deals with the 'common man', as opposed to a hard core party member.

Where I think the author succeeds particularly well, is in actually portraying real people, each with a developed and realistic personality, all with their fears and foibles. The book is likely to lead to some introspection in the reader and while this is certainly another of the book's qualities, beware that it is not strictly speaking a happy book.

If you are looking for a mature piece of writing (quite a feat for a debut) on life (in CZ as well as more generally), you will be amply rewarded here. A summer / beach type read, or a chicken soup for the soul, this is not.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind-expanding., 12 Feb 1997
By A Customer
My reading "The Joke" opened my eyes to an entirely different style of prose than I have ever experienced before. Kundera has more respect for his characters than any American novelist I have ever read. Rather than creating characters to tell the world about himself, I felt that Kundera revealed these characters' lives to tell us all something about the world. The best book I read in 1996 due to its complexity of story yet ease of reading, its engaging characters, and its honest depiction of people who learn to live thier lives despite the expectations of their society. The feelings experienced by these people - alienation, betrayal, revenge, and, in the end, a kind of defiant acceptance - are experiences most of us in late 20th century America can relate to.
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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great novel of the 20th century, 22 Mar 2002
This review is from: The Joke (Paperback)
This, as the first of Kundera's novels, is one of his more 'solid' works. It is more overtly political and plot based than some of his other work (for example 'Slowness'). He seems to have recently returned to this style with 'Intimacy' - another brilliant novel of his. This novel is emotionally engaging and very gripping. It works around a combination of juxtapositions of different narratives executed very beautifully. This is a great novel, which will introduce you gently to Kundera's more complex later work, or will please you, if you are already a fan, with its more satisfying narrative.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars what Kundera might've been, 19 Mar 1999
By A Customer
Before he slowly became completely self-absorbed and deluded himself into thinking that he had something new to say, culminating in the awful Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera wrote The Joke, a beautifully written, painfully sad novel about an "innocent" joke that almost ruins a young man's life. It is one of the most brilliant and scathing indictments of communism I've ever read. And unlike Kundera's later works, it's a real story, where the "point" is made _through_ the story and not _over_ it. To put it bluntly, Kundera's ego doesn't steal the show. Too bad it could only happen once. A wonderful book.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I don't like, 2 April 2013
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This review is from: The Joke (Paperback)
I did not find this book well written or fun. I think this book is overrated and this is the reason I gave it a go. Unless you grew up in 60's communist Central Europe, then it is a tough read.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark and engrossing tale, 3 April 2012
By 
jacr100 "jacr100" (UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Joke (Paperback)
Ostensibly this is a tale that depicts the fall from grace of Ludvik Jahn, who is excommunicated from the communist party for making a frivolous joke on a postcard to a girlfriend. The reason for his joke was his frustrated sexual desire. The ramifications of "The Joke" and the continued shadow of his sexual frustration are the pillars of Kundera's first novel.

Ludvik is the main narrator and the first half of the book is given over to his views on the communist party, those who betrayed him and his long period of servitude in the mines - where the authorities aim to re-educate him. It is during these years in the mines that he meets Lucie. She stirs within him feelings of love, until sexual frustration rears its head again, with their relationship reaching a tumultuous crescendo with an attempted rape. Lucie flees and isn't seen again for many years, while Ludvik is left to ruminate on his error.

The second half of the novel is handed over to multiple narrators - all of whom are intertwined with Ludvik's story. He seduces Helena, the wife of the man who sentenced him all those years ago - in Ludvik's mind this is a great plot of revenge - though in reality Helena is virtually estranged from her husband. Once again the hero is frustrated by sex. We meet an old colleague who tells Ludvik about how he knows Lucie, about her past of multiple rape and domestic beatings - bringing into sharp contrast Ludvik's handling of her. Of course, his colleague managed to do the one thing Ludvik couldn't, which was to have sexual relations with Lucie.

It is the rape that makes you re-evaluate the character of Ludvik. Your sympathies are with Ludvik initially as he rails against his treatment by the communist authorities, but with the rape and subsequent petty plans for revenge, you realize that actually Ludvik is one of the most unlikeable characters in the novel.

Kundera was famously unhappy with the treatment of this book and its various translations - I cannot surmise if I have read a version he was happy with (although it says "Now in the Authorised |Translation") but I can say that this is a fascinating book by one of the heavyweights of European literature that offers a complex and insightful peek behind the iron curtain.

STYLE: 8/10

STRUCTURE: 7/10

ORIGINALITY: 8/10

DEPTH: 8/10

UNPUTDOWNABILITY: 7/10
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful About Life Under Communism, 18 Mar 1999
By A Customer
I learned more from this book about life under Communism than from pages and pages of political science text at college. Kundera brilliantly depicts the frustration and futility of negotiating private and public personas as is necessary in a Communist regime. I would recommend this to anyone interested in acquiring a personal understanding of life under Communism.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "Joke" is a metaphor for the Communist system in E. Eur., 3 Dec 1998
By A Customer
Kundera's work "The Joke" is an intricate metaphor which describes the impact of the communist system in east central Europe. Kundera describes how communism actually robs E. Europe of its culture by imposing a rigid uniformity which is actually intended to eliminate culture and nationalism in these satellites. By eliminating culture the Soviet Union will not have to contend with dissent. Ultimately, the Czechs and other eastern Europeans will see the communist system for what it is - oppressive- and will rebel. Emotion will replace blind devotion to ideology and Czech culture will prevail.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spell-Binding, 24 Aug 1998
By A Customer
This is perhaps not Kundera's most developed work; however, the entire situation and issues explored are engaging. You can't put it down. It reads in one sitting
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The Joke
The Joke by Milan Kundera (Paperback - 21 Aug 1992)
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