Apparently inspired by the real-life incident where a girl in Czechoslovakia was arrested for stealing flowers from a cemetery (for her lover), The Joke is a strange and sad little book. It plods through our insignificant lives, especially the lives of men and women caught in an iron-curtained world. Our lives today may seem to be different from theirs, but really all of us are caught in the same meaningless-meaning given by social constructs, the same moments of lust and other primal feelings, and in the end, we are all ludicrously tragic in our loneliness.
There are no lofty emotions, no fairy-tale endings; everything frays when subjected to daily use. The book explores the every-day chipping away of life.
Of course, despite all that we may take away from the book, it would be wise to also remember what Milan Kundera writes in his preface: “Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story!”
And like every love story, we have our hero, Ludvik, ex-Party member who is back in his hometown after 15 years. He has come for a secret assignation with a married woman (Helena) whom he does not love. This is his way of avenging himself against her husband– the man who condemned him.
But as he wanders the town with no nostalgia, he bumps into an old friend- Kostka. Together, they go to a barber and there, as he lies down to get a shave from the woman at the shop- “I began to believe once more that I knew her, that after fifteen years here she was, caressing me again, caressing me with long gentle strokes (i completely forgot that she was washing, not caressing me).” The woman was Lucie Sebetka, a woman he had met when he was in prison.
Fifteen years ago, Ludvik in youthful folly had sent out a postcard to his then-girlfriend, “..(to hurt, shock, and confuse her) [I] wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik“. One can only imagine the result of this transgression in a Stalinist country. Ludvik is promptly sent off to labour camp, betrayed by his Party and especially by Zemanek (Helena’s husband).
His ambitions and career are all a distant dream in the past, the future had suddenly become a period of long time that needed to be served “And I became intimate with time in a way I’d never been before..it was time laid bare, time in and of itself, time at its most basic and primal, and it forced me to call it by its true name“.
His intense feeling of de-personalisation is broken like a spell when he sees Lucie, an extraordinarily ordinary girl walking on the streets of Ostreva. Suddenly, she becomes, his time-filler. He writes, and dreams of her. He scrimps money and time to meet her, and he fuels his expectation of an impending consummation like a careful fire in the face of wintry storms. The brutal and selfish moment of his disappointment consumes him and he is unable to see, until it is too late, that he has lost Lucie.
Until of course that day at the barbershop.
There are more characters with bitter lives. We have here, Helena, who behaves like she was married to the party rather than her husband. She journeys to the old town with her own hopes- “I’m afraid of that awful transformation, so I keep 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 be split down the middle..”
Everyone of them is hurtling into a vaudeville-like ending. Everything becomes an endless whirlpool of tortured souls seeking selfish meaning in their relationships.
And it ends like all our lives, trudging slowly to an inevitable end: “We lived, Lucie and I, in a world of devastation; and because we lacked the ability to commiserate with the things thus devastated, we turned our backs on them, offending both them and ourselves in the process.”