Book Review on ‘The Joke’ by Milan Kundera

Living in hell…”
The Joke’ was Milan Kundera’s first novel. It was completed in 1965, first published in 1967 and first translated into Ukrainian in 2020.

Milan Kundera was a well-known dissident writer in Czechoslovakia. That was the reason he was inconvenient for the totalitarian government. Unable to withstand the pressure, the writer and his wife moved to France. Kundera was twice off from the Communist Party. After moving, his books were banned, and the writer was deprived of citizenship.

Partly, his texts can be considered as an autobiographical because socialist Czechoslovakia is the historical background of his stories in most cases. ‘A Joke’ is no exception. All the events in the novel unfold in the 40-50’s in the historic region of Moravia.

The main character Ludwig sent a letter to his girlfriend, after which his life turned upside down. There he frivolously wrote, “Optimism is the opium of people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” It was a joke that no one understood. With the help of his former friend Zemanek, he was expelled from the university and sent to correctional work in the Black Battalion. His thoughts were poisoned by an unbearable desire for revenge and existence turned into a real hell.

In the novel, Kundera unfolds his favorite topics: an inner freedom, a bitter truth, a sweet conformism. The author with great satisfaction shows us by the example of Ludwig’s story all the absurdity of ideologies and how they can destroy people`s lives. The writer does it in very accurate and comprehensive way. It is not surprising, because this is the reality in which Kundera had to live. Therefore, this book is vital from a historical point of view –just only knowing the past, we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

In addition, the book is very beneficial for young people. Kundera thinks a lot about this period of our lives. He says, “Youth is terrible: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and a variety of costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand“. He also adds that it is normal to be different and seek yourself, “I was not a hypocrite, with one real face and several false ones. I had several faces because I was young and didn’t know who I was or wanted to be.”

Also the author quite frankly depicts the inner world of the hero and how it changes depending on how he feels. Ludwig suffered from a grudge in his heart for many years. The author explains it in this way, “Because to live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable, is the same as living in hell.”

Milan Kundera is an intellectual author who writes novels covering a variety of psychological, historical and social issues. Moreover, he likes chaotic and dynamic plots. His texts should be read carefully and focused. He does not write light novels. That’s why not everyone likes it. But if you dare to read it, your life will never be the same again. At least, because you’ll become more demanding in choosing a book.

P.S. In Ukrainian literature, we also have authors who have written intellectual novels, as well as Milan Kundera. For example, Victor Domontovych. I highly recommend his books too.

October 15, 2020

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