I wrote this a couple weeks ago, when Milan Kundera was still alive. I’m posting it unedited as tribute. Soon I’ll post another tribute to Kundera.
Few names loom as large in Czech literature as Milan Kundera (pronounced MEE-lahn KOON-dair-ah). At the age of 94, Kundera is undoubtedly the foremost living Czech novelist, although given his ban from Czechoslovakia and his long-term residence in France, he prefers to be known as a French author. From his output, including The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he provides a consistent yet alienating body of work. His novels, internally separated into seven parts, often navigate between viewpoint chapters of characters in a proto-Song of Ice and Fire way, toe the line between fiction and memoir. At points in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera acknowledges that his characters are fictional. Those two novels tackle the horrors of Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, and how characters try to numb themselves to those horrors through destructive sexuality and chauvinism. Kundera is not a comforting writer, but he’s a profoundly instructive one.
Kundera ends The Joke, the story of a Czech man who has his life destroyed by the Soviet regime in Czechoslovakia over an off-handed joke to his girlfriend, with the date of the book’s completion: “Completed December 5, 1965.” In those days, Czech art was booming with the Prague Spring, a rejuvenation of their culture. Less than three years later, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. The Joke, like its subject, was banned.
The Joke is a counterintuitively funny book, in that it’s amusing but not in the way its title would have you believe. A reader would see a book titled Žert (Czech for “joke”) on a shelf, pick it up, and encounter a grim story about Soviet labor camps, virulent misogyny, and the decline of Slavic folk culture under Stalinism. The protagonist, a student named Ludvík, makes a joke to his girlfriend about the Czechoslovak Communist Party, which leads to him being branded a Trotskyist, being forced out of the Party and his university, and spending years in a Soviet labor camp. It’s a profoundly upsetting book, if not quite as bleak and hopeless as it sounds. The Joke is funny, like I said — the premise is absurd and depressing in equal measures, and the denouement includes one of the funniest failed suicide attempts I’ve seen in fiction. But it’s very much the story of a man broken by the U.S.S.R., written by a young man in the dying days of the Prague Spring, before the U.S.S.R. totally decimated Czechoslovakia.
One suspects Kundera is wrestling with his own past here. In his days as a student, Kundera was a militant Stalinist who joined the party in the days after the coup, when Soviet-backed forces took over the Czechoslovak government. He may have turned over a dissident to the regime — we’ll never know. And his early poetry reflects a Stalinist worldview. By the time Kundera wrote The Joke, he clearly had a far more grounded view on the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
In many senses, The Joke is about a failure to forgive one’s self, and how that turns into vengeance. “You are in hell, Ludvík, and I pity you.” Powerful words from someone who turned a dissenter over to the Soviet authorities.
When I was approaching Jaromil Jireš’ (YAH-row-meal YEE-resh) adaptation of The Joke, I was intimidated in the way one sometimes is by the task of watching reinterpretations of one’s favorite books. Fortunately, I realized pretty quickly that Jaromil Jireš, one of the great Czech New Wave directors, was the perfect adapter of Kundera, with the right amount of grounding in Czech folk culture, one of Kundera’s strong suits, and a detachment from material reality and linear time. In many ways, Jireš cleans up and streamlines Kundera’s story, which gets tangential in a charming “debut novel” way. At the same time, he loses some of the power of the novel by cutting numerous major plot beats to keep the book short.
I’ve mostly avoided discussing the plot of The Joke because plot is a vague, non-linear thing in Kundera’s novels. But the bulk of the book’s second half entails Ludvík attempting to get revenge on one of the students who put him in prison by seducing his wife. The plot goes horribly wrong when the woman falls in love with him — it’s properly unsettling and disturbing stuff. Kundera’s exploration of rape culture from the perspective of a misogynist who wants to punish the world with his libido is vital. Yet the movie loses a lot of this. Ludvík’s attempt to rape a young woman, his original bonding with his university girlfriend during a protest in Prague, and his self-loathing relationship with his own virginity form crucial parts of the book. By cutting this, Jireš’ The Joke becomes a more straightforward exploration of a pick-up artist than the unsettling stream of consciousness that constitutes the book.
One of the most important things that’s lost is the mid-book lectures on Moravian musicology. Halfway through, Kundera stops to explain the necessity of Moravian folk music, which is basically contiguous with other Slavic folk culture. In essence, Kundera explores the decline of Slavic folk traditions under Soviet rule. He’s doing anthropology as much as anything else.
The Ride of the Kings, a Moravian tradition is retained, so Jireš gets the jist of it. He knows how to translate Kundera’s jumps through time from literary transitions to cinematic cuts. In the film, Ludvík wanders through the spaces of his hometown where earlier pivotal events occurred, as the movie crosscuts between the past and the present. Jireš understands that this is a story of decline, of two points in a man’s slowly failing life mirroring the rise and fall of Czech culture. It’s the story of slow damnation, where the only reprieve is a woman’s hilarious suicide attempt. If this is Hell, it’s pretty damn funny.