The Joke by Milan Kundera

This one got passed to me by someone in Korea. My wife is a fan of Kundera. Or was, before I ruined her taste with comic books and Fritz Leiber.

The Joke details several “jokes”, none of which are the haha kind. The first one is a postcard written by Ludvik Jahn when he was a student that caused him to be sentenced to the coal mines. This event propels the plot in so much as the plot is about Ludvik’s quest for revenge fifteen years later. In the ways his plan gets fulfilled and in the ways others react to it provides the rest of the “jokes”.

“When it is postponed, vengeance is transformed into something deceptive, into a personal religion, into a myth that recedes day by day from the people involved, who remain the same in the myth though in reality (the walkway is in constant motion) they long ago became different people: today another Jahn stands before another Zemanek, and the blow that I still owe him can be neither revived nor reconstructed, it is definitely lost.”

Ludvik’s a rather unpleasant and bitter guy, but in him we can see a thwarted hero. His path suggests an anti-bildungsroman where the youth does not mature by overcoming adversity but instead grows cynical when he encounters the injustices of the world. For awhile I was at a bit of a remove while reading it, waiting for it to transcend its “Soviet-style bureaucracies are never good” message.  But by its end The Joke is less about any particular course of action or desire the characters have and more about the way history (and historic events) undermines all our expectations — and discovering redemption despite this. It’s a great book as long as you don’t mind your existentialism mixed with a blend of male chauvinism.

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