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Authors: Milan Kundera

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BOOK: The JOKE
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8

FROM that evening I was different inside; I was inhabited again; housekeeping had suddenly been set up within me as in a room, and someone was living there. The clock that for months had hung silent on the wall had suddenly begun to tick. This was significant: time, which until then had flowed like an indifferent stream from nothingness to nothingness (for I had been living in the pause!), without articulation, without measure, had begun to wear its human face again; to mark itself off, measure itself out. I came to live for my passes, and each day was a rung on the ladder to Lucie.

Never in my life have I devoted such thought, such slow concentration, to a woman (though, of course, I've never had so much time for it either). To no other woman have I felt such gratitude.

Gratitude? For what? First and foremost for releasing me from the pathetically limited erotic horizons that surrounded us. True: Stana the newlywed had also found a way out: he had a beloved wife at home in Prague. But Stana was not to be envied. By marrying, he had set his destiny in motion, and the minute he boarded the train back to Ostrava, he lost all control over it.

By establishing an acquaintance with Lucie, I too had set my destiny in motion; but I did not lose sight of it. Though we didn't meet very often, at least our meetings were fairly regular, and I knew she was capable of waiting several weeks and then greeting me as if we'd seen each other the day before.

But Lucie did more than free me from the overall nausea I felt after our bleak erotic adventures. Even if by that time I knew I'd lost my fight and would never be able to do anything about my black insignia, even if I knew it was senseless to alienate myself from people I'd be

living with for two years or more, senseless to trumpet my right to the career I'd chosen for myself (it took me a while to realize how privileged a career it was), my change of attitude was brought about only by reason and will, and therefore could not dry the internal tears I shed over my
lost destiny.
These internal tears Lucie stilled as if by magic.

All I needed was to feel her close to me, feel the warm circumference of her life, a life in which there was no room for questions of cosmopolitanism and internationalism, political vigilance and the class struggle, controversies over the definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat, politics with its strategy and tactics.

These were the concerns (so much a part of the times that their vocabulary will soon be incomprehensible) which had led to my downfall, and yet I could not let go of them. I had all kinds of answers ready for the commissions that called me in and asked me what had made me become a Communist, but what had attracted me to the movement more than anything, dazzled me, was the feeling (real or apparent) of standing near the
wheel
of history.
For in those days we actually did decide the fate of men and events, especially at the universities; in those early years there were very few Communists on the faculty, and the Communists in the student body ran the universities almost single-handed, making decisions on academic staffing, reaching reform, and the curriculum. The intoxication we experienced is commonly known as the intoxication of power, but (with a bit of good will) I could choose less severe words: we were bewitched by history; we were drunk with the thought of jumping on its back and feeling it beneath us; admittedly, in most cases the result was an ugly lust for power, but (as all human affairs are ambiguous) there was still (and especially, perhaps, in us, the young), an altogether idealistic illusion that we were inaugurating a human era in which man (all men) would be neither
outside
history, nor
under the heel of history,
but would create and direct it.

I was convinced that far from the wheel of history there was no life, only vegetation, boredom, exile, Siberia. And suddenly (after six months of Siberia) I'd found a completely new and unexpected opportunity for life: I saw spread before me, hidden beneath history's

soaring wings, a forgotten meadow of everyday life, where a poor, pitiful, but lovable woman was waiting for meā€”Lucie.

What did Lucie know of the great wings of history? When could she have heard their sound? She knew nothing of history, she lived
beneath
it; it held no attraction for her, it was alien to her; she knew nothing of the
great
and
contemporary
concerns; she lived for her
small
and
eternal
concerns. And suddenly I'd been liberated; Lucie had come to take me off to
hex gray paradise,
and the step that such a short time before had seemed so formidable, the one I would take in getting out of history, was suddenly a step toward release. Lucie held me shyly by the elbow, and I let myself be led....

Lucie was my gray usherette. But who was she in more concrete terms?

She was nineteen, though in fact much older, as women tend to be when they've led a hard life and been catapulted headfirst from childhood to adulthood. She said she was from western Bohemia and had finished school before becoming an apprentice. She didn't enjoy talking about home and wouldn't have said anything if I hadn't pressed her. She had been unhappy there. "My parents never liked me," she said, and as proof she told me about how her mother had remarried and her stepfather drank and was cruel to her and how once they'd accused her of hiding some money from them and how they always beat her. When their disagreements reached a certain pitch, Lucie took the first opportunity and left for Ostrava; she had been there a whole year; she had some girlfriends there, but she preferred keeping to herself; her friends went out dancing and brought boys back to the dormitory, and Lucie was against that; she was serious: she preferred going to the movies.

Yes, she thought of herself as "serious" and associated this quality with going to the movies. Her favorites were the war films so prevalent at the time, perhaps because they were exciting, but more likely because the unmitigated suffering in them filled her with feelings of pity and sadness she found uplifting and indicative of the "serious" part of herself she prized so highly.

But it would not be accurate to say that I was attracted to Lucie only by the exoticism of her simplicity. Her simplicity, the gaps in her education, did not prevent her from understanding me. This understanding consisted not in experience or knowledge, or in the ability to argue and advise,, but in the receptiveness with which she listened to me.

I remember one summer day: my leave happened to begin before Lucie's shift was over; I had taken a book along, and I sat down on a garden wall to read; I'd been having trouble keeping up with my reading: there was so little time, and communications with my Prague friends were poor; but I'd packed three small books of poetry into my bag, and I read them over and over for the comfort they brought me: they were poems by Frantisek Halas.

Those three books played a strange role in my life, strange if only because I am not a great poetry-lover and they were the only books of poetry I ever really cared for. I discovered them just after I'd been expelled from the Party, during the period when Halas's name was coming back into the public eye: the leading ideologue of the time accused the recently deceased poet of morbidity, skepticism, existentialism, of everything that smacked of political anathema in those days. (The book in which he set forth his views on Czech poetry in general and Halas in particular came out in an enormous printing and was required reading in all Czech schools.)

In times of distress man seeks comfort by linking his grief with the grief of others; laughable as it may sound, I confess that the reason I sought out Halas's verse was that I wanted to commune with someone else who had been
excommunicated;
I wanted to find out whether my own mentality had any similarity to the mentality of a recognized apostate; and I wanted to test whether the grief the powerful ideologue had proclaimed pernicious and cankered might not, in consonance with my own, procure for me a kind of joy (for in my situation, I could scarcely have been expected to find joy in joy). Before leaving for Ostrava, I borrowed the three books from a former fellow student, a lover of literature, and then begged until he agreed not to ask for them back.

When Lucie found me at the appointed place with a book in my hand, she asked me what I was reading. I showed her the pages it was open to. "Poetry!" she said in amazement.

"Do you find it strange for

me to be reading poetry?" She shrugged her shoulders and said, "No, why should it be?"

But I think she did, because in all probability she identified poetry with children's books.

We wandered through Ostrava's odd sooty summer, a black summer of coal cars rumbling along overhead cables instead
of
fleecy clouds scudding across the sky. I noticed that Lucie still seemed drawn to the book, and when we found a small grove and sat down, I opened it and asked, "Are you interested?" She nodded.

I'd never recited poetry to anyone before; I've never done it since. I have a highly sensitive mechanism, a circuit breaker of reticence, that keeps me from opening up too far, from revealing my feelings; and reciting verse seems to me more than just talking about my feelings, it is as if I were standing on one leg at the same time; a certain unnatural-ness in the very principle of rhythm and rhyme embarrasses me when I think of indulging in it in anything but solitude.

But Lucie had the magical power (no one after her has ever had it) to bypass the circuit breaker and rid me of the burden of my shyness. In her presence I could dare everything: sincerity, emotion, pathos. And so I recited:

Your body is a slender ear of corn

From which the grain has dropped and won't take root

Your body's like a slender ear of corn

Your body is a skein of silk

With longing written into every fold

Your body's like a skein of silk

Your body is a burnt-out sky

And death dreams under cover in its weave

Your body's like a burnt-out sky

Your body is so silent

Its tears quiver beneath my lids

Your body is so silent

I had my arm on Lucie's shoulder (covered only by the thin material of her flowered dress), I felt it under my fingers, and succumbed to the

suggestion that the lines I was reading (a slow-moving litany) referred to the sorrow of Lucie's body, a quiet, resigned body, condemned to death. Then I read her some more poems, including the one that to this day calls forth her image to me; it ends with the lines:

Fatuous words I don't trust you I trust silence

More than beauty more than anything A festival of understanding
Suddenly I felt Lucie's shoulder shaking under my fingers; she was crying.

What had made her cry? The meaning of the words? The ineffable sadness flowing from the melody of the verse and the timbre of my voice? Had she perhaps been elevated by the hermetic solemnity of the poems and moved to tears by that
elevation?
Or had the lines simply broken through a secret barrier within her and lifted a weight long accumulating there?

I do not know. Lucie held me round the neck like a child, her head pressed against the cloth of the green uniform stretched across my chest, and she cried and cried and cried.

9

MANY times in recent years women of all kinds have reproached me (because I was unable to reciprocate their feelings) with being conceited. This is nonsense, I'm not in the least conceited, but to be frank, it does pain me to think that not since reaching maturity have I been able to establish a true relationship with a woman, that I have never, as they say, been in love with a woman. I'm not sure I know the reasons for this failure, whether they lie in some innate emotional deficiency or in my life history; I don't mean to sound pompous, but the truth remains: the image of that lecture hall with a hundred people raising their hands, giving the order to destroy my life, comes back to me again and again. Those hundred people had no idea that things would one day begin to change, they counted on my being an outcast for life. Not out of a desire for martyrdom but rather out of the malicious obstinacy characteristic of reflection, I have often composed imaginary variations; I have imagined, for example, what it would have been like if instead of expulsion from the Party the verdict had been hanging by the neck. No matter how I construe it, I can't see them doing anything but raising their hands again, especially if the utility of my hanging had been movingly argued in the opening address. Since then, whenever I make new acquaintances, men or women with the potential of becoming friends or lovers, I project them back into that time, that hall, and ask myself whether they would have raised their hands; no one has ever passed the test: every one of them has raised his hand in the same way my former friends and colleagues (willingly or not, out of conviction or fear) raised theirs. You must admit: it's hard to live with people willing to send you to exile or death, it's hard to become intimate with them, it's hard to love them.

Perhaps it was cruel of me to submit the people I met to such merciless scrutiny when it was highly likely they would have led a more or less quiet everyday life in my proximity, beyond good and evil, and never passed through that hall where hands are raised. Say I did it for one purpose only: to elevate myself above everyone else in my moral complacency. But to accuse me of conceit would be quite unjust; I have never voted for anyone's downfall, but I am perfectly aware that this is of questionable merit, since I was deprived of the right to raise my hand. It's true that I've long tried to convince myself that if I had been in their position I wouldn't have acted as they did, but I'm honest enough to laugh at myself: why would I have been the only one not to raise his hand? Am I the one just man? Alas, I found no guarantee I would have acted any better; but how has that affected my relationship with others? The consciousness of my own baseness has done nothing to reconcile me to the baseness of others. Nothing is more repugnant to me than brotherly feelings grounded in the common baseness people see in one another. I have no desire for that slimy brotherhood.

BOOK: The JOKE
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ads

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