Milan Kundera, The Joke

Information and Questions for reading

small black and white photo of Kundera

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, then Czechoslovakia. He is probably the best-known Czech writer in the world today, although he has been living in France for decades and is evidently writing his most recent work in French. After studying art and then film he taught World Literature in Prague for several years but was “banned” in 1969 (after the famous 1968 invasion of the Warsaw Pact powers put a violent end to the Prague Spring). He left Czechoslovakia for France in 1975, eventually taking up residence in Paris; his Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979, and he became a naturalized French citizen in 1981. He has published a great deal of lyric and long poetry and several plays, but is best known in the West for his novels, beginning with Žert (The Joke) in 1967. His prose is marked by an interest in humiliation, eroticism, and always potentially ironic narrative philosophizing and pontification.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) was Kundera's first big literary hit in the West; it was made into a successful film in 1988 by Philip Kaufman. However, as the author's introduction to our edition tells us, The Joke (1967) was a big success, and it was made into a film in 1968 by Czech New Wave director Jaromil Jireš. (Then, almost immediately, the film was banned and the novel was removed from libraries.)

Last fall (after your humble narrator selected the book), the news that Kundera had denounced someone to the secret police (and that the man he told about then served years in a labor camp, including time in a uranium mine) made an international splash. Kundera denied the reports, and the documents seem to be contradictory. However, Kundera knew the arrested man's friends, so it is not impossible that details of the story went into his first novel.

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic, and it's also the center of Moravia (the two main Czech regions are Bohemia and Moravia). Please note that Kundera’s last name (like all Czech words) should be stressed on the first syllable.

Kundera has been much photographed, and there are lots of images of him out there. As a young man:

young Kundera in Paris | young Kundera | young Kundera with a friend

And some more recent pictures:

Kundera in color | Kundera | Kundera in sepia | Kundera outdoors


Questions for reading:

  1. If you have had a chance to see the movie version, how does it influence your reading? If you haven’t seen it, what do you expect, as you begin to read, from the book’s cover image and title?
  2. Kundera claims in his introduction that The Joke is a love story. Do you agree?
  3. In this, his first novel, Kundera includes quite a bit less professorial discourse than in many of his other writings. What is the effect of the passages in which we read a sort of lecture and absorb its information?
  4. How much does Kundera lead or allow us to sympathize with his characters?
  5. What is the effect of the changes of narrative consciousness, espcially as the changes become more rapid, towards the end of the story?
  6. If you know Dostoevsky's novels, compare the way characters here mirror or contrast with one another.
  7. Consider the significance of the main characters' names: Ludvik Jahn sounds very German; Jaroslav is a pure Czech name (and his son Vladimir and wife Vlasta have Slavic names too); Helena must be a parody of the face that launched a thousand ships; Lucie means "light." (Milan means "dear" or "beloved.")
  8. Kitsch becomes a big theme in Kundera's later work, but we can already see it here: after an era of proud, socialist self-sacrifice, now the Czechs are allowing themselves to purchase all kinds of objects, lamps, household furnishings.
  9. What is your impression of the village where the characters come together, in Kundera's description? If you've ever read Miroslav Krleža's Return of Filip Latinovicz, how does Ludvik's impression of Moravia compare to Filip's (or Krleža's) "nausea" upon returning to the Croatian provinces?
  10. How does art function in the story? How does medicine?
  11. How would you describe gender relations in the story? How are men and women presented, how do they function in the plot?
  12. What do you make of Kundera's birthday (April 1)?
  13. What is the result of the narrative's flickering between truth and repression, love and scorn, past and present, forgetting and recollection? How about the variety of generation gaps?
  14. Is The Joke actually funny? Which joke is the joke?
  15. Where does this novel leave you as you finish reading - what kind of trajectory? Do you find a moral message?

Other books by Kundera:


A few works about Kundera:

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like books by Kundera's near contemporary (botn 1924), Josef Škvorecký, such as The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death (fetchingly titled!). If you know Professor of German Marion Faber, you'll be interested to hear that she knew Škvorecký when she taught at the University of Toronto (lived next for to him?). There are interesting works by the famous dissident, and later politician, Vacláv Havel. Safe Conduct: Photographs by Paul Ickovic offers images of the period.