Reading ‘The Joke’ was not the most enjoyable way to spend my time. The novel was a massive disappointment, as I generally love Kundera’s work, including ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’. However, ‘The Joke’ did not come anywhere near the bar set by the other two books. It has its good parts and I can see why it is considered to be one of the greatest books in contemporary literature, but I really disliked it and here are the reasons why.
Ludvik Jahn, the main character, is a popular student and an enthusiastic supporter of the newly established Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. After he writes what is supposed to be a political joke on a postcard –“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” – Ludvik loses everything: his position in the Party, his place at the University, and his status in society. After the disruption of his career, Ludvik becomes bitter and angry with everything around him. Thus, we discover that he is a hateful misogynist who lacks any consideration for women and female sexuality. Ludvik thinks of himself as an expert on women’s thoughts, because in his opinion their minds are filled exclusively with love and romance. For example, firstly, he nearly rapes the woman he believes he is in love with, and then, a few years later, he seduces Helena, wife of Pavel Zemanek, who removes Ludvik from the Party, in order to get his revenge.
Furthermore, Milan Kundera himself, through the voices of other characters (including a woman’s voice), makes very general comments about “the way women are”. The book gave me the feeling that women are so different from the other human beings (you know, men) that they have to be categorized and treated as a crowd, rather than as individuals. Milan Kundera (again through the words of his characters) also remarks on the way all women behave. For example, “no woman can be content for ever with puppy love”, says Helena. Only a female character written by a male could possibly make such a statement. It can be argued, on the other hand, that he is trying to tell us something about Helena through the way she expresses herself (maybe show her own misogyny and incapacity to treat herself as an individual). However, this argument is likely to fail when all the characters share the same general views on women. This, very probably, is more symptomatic of the writer’s views than the individuality of the characters.
Moreover, Milan Kundera’s strong suit is not the 1st person narrative. The characters differ in what they say but not in the way they say it. I find it particularly odd that the four characters telling their stories are so similar in expression. Great writers should be able to show the particularities of each character through employing different language patterns, but Milan Kundera fails in this respect.
However, the book is very good in depicting the communist regime with its horrors and lack of humanity. As the title suggests, there are no jokes in communism. One cannot resort to humour because in the eyes of the Party every joke is a weapon against the regime and against the state. This becomes the most important message of the book.