Saturday 18 April 2020

Book Review: The Joke by Milan Kundera (Literary Fiction)

Title: The Joke
Author: Milan Kundera
Faber & Faber
Publication Date: 1992 (1967)
Literary Fiction
Bought Copy


In this new English-language version of Kundera's classic first novel, completely revised by the author to incorporate the most accurate portions of two previous translations plus his own corrections, the narrator Ludvik wonders, "What if History plays jokes?" This politically charged question, coupled with Ludvik's fate as an unintentional dissident, struck a chord in Czech readers; the novel's 1967 publication was a key literary event of the Prague Spring. Looking back on the tense, McCarthy-like atmosphere of the late 1940s, it chronicles the disastrous results of Ludvik's prankish postcard to a girlfriend criticizing the Czech communist regime. He is expelled from the Communist Party, forced to leave the university and join a special army unit with other enemies of the state. Years later, after he has resumed his studies and become a successful scientist, his lingering anger at the man who engineered his expulsion culminates in an act of destructive sexual revenge that serves only to show Ludvik he has never really understood any woman and is indeed the butt of one of history's many cruel jokes. The fresh descriptions and masterful employment of several narrators testify to Kundera's power as a novelist, unmistakable even in this early work. 

The Joke was a classic Kundera narrative--deceptively simple in some ways, yet deep and thought provoking in others. The characters were all beautifully drawn and memorable, and the action was compelling from start to finish. Kundera has an amazing way of getting inside his characters head and showing them in a way that feels so familiar the reader begins to reassess themselves in light of it. This is Kundera's first work, but it stands up really well against his later writings and is, I think, one of the most memorable and accessible of his stories. Recommended to fans and to those new to Kundera.

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