Read The JOKE Online

Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (2 page)

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The local hospital is a complex of buildings and pavilions scattered over a large landscaped area; I went into the booth at the gate and asked the guard to connect me with Virology; he shoved the telephone over to the edge of his desk and said, "02." I dialed 02, only to learn that Mr. Kostka had just left and was on his way out. I sat down on a bench near the gate so as not to miss him, and watched men wandering here and there in blue-and-white-striped hospital gowns. Then I saw him: he was walking along deep in thought, tall, thin, likeably unattractive, yes, it was clearly he. I stood up and headed straight towards him, as if meaning to bump into him; first he gave me an irritated look, but then he recognized me and opened his arms. I had the feeling he was pleasantly surprised, and the spontaneity of his welcome delighted me.

I explained that I'd arrived less than an hour before and was here on some unimportant business that would last two or three days; he immediately told me how surprised and gratified he was that my first thought had been to see him. Suddenly I felt bad that I had not come to him disinterestedly, for himself alone, and that my question (I asked him lightly if he had remarried) only appeared to be sincere, though it was actually based on a low calculation. He told me (to my relief) that he was still on his own. I said we had a lot to talk about. He agreed and regretted that he had only a little over an hour before he was due back at the hospital and in the evening he was leaving town. "You mean you don't live here?" I asked in dismay. He assured me that he did, that he had a one-room flat in a new building, but that "it's no good living alone." It turned out that Kostka had a fiancee in another town fifteen miles away, a schoolteacher with a two-room flat of her own. "So you'll be moving in with her eventually?" I asked. He said he was unlikely to find as interesting a job there as the one I had helped him to find and his fiancee would have trouble finding a job here. I began (quite sincerely)

to curse the ineptitude of a bureaucracy unable to arrange for a man and a woman to live together. "Calm down, Ludvik," he said with gentle indulgence. "It's not as bad as all that. Traveling back and forth does cost time and money, but my solitude remains intact and I am free." "Why is your freedom so important to you?" I asked him. "And why is it so important to you?" he countered. "I'm a skirt chaser," I replied. "I don't need freedom for women, I need it for myself," he said, and went on: "Say, how about coming to my place for a while, until I have to leave?" I could not have wished for anything better.

Soon after leaving the hospital grounds, we came to a group of new buildings jutting up fitfully one after the next from an unleveled, dust-laden plot of land (without lawns, paths, or roads) and forming a pitiful scene at the town's edge, where it bordered on the empty flatness of farflung fields. We went in one of the doors and climbed a narrow staircase (the elevator was out of order) to the fourth floor, where I saw Kostka's card. As we walked from the entrance hall into the room, I was greatly pleased: in the corner stood a wide, comfortable divan; the room also had a table, an easy chair, a large collection of books, a record player, and a radio.

I praised the setup and asked about the bathroom. "Nothing luxurious," said Kostka, pleased by my interest. He took me back to the entrance hall and opened the door to a small but pleasant bathroom complete with tub, shower, and sink. "Seeing this nice place of yours gives me an idea," I said. "What are you doing tomorrow afternoon and evening?" "Unfortunately I have to work late tomorrow," he answered apologetically. "I won't be back until seven or so. Are you free in the evening?" "Possibly," I answered,

"but do you think you could lend me the place for the afternoon?"

My question surprised him, but he replied immediately (as if worried I might think him unwilling), "I'd be only too glad to share it with you." Then, deliberately trying not to pry into my plans, he added, "And if you need a place to sleep tonight, you're welcome to stay here. I won't be back until morning. No, not even then. I'll be going straight to the hospital." "No, there's no need. I have a room at the hotel. The thing is, it isn't very pleasant, and tomorrow afternoon I need a pleasant atmosphere. Not just for myself, of course." "Of course," said Kostka, lowering his eyes, "I thought as much." He paused, then added, "I'm glad to be able to do you a favor."

And after another pause: "Providing it really is a favor."

Then we sat down at the table (Kostka had made coffee) and had a short chat (I tested the divan and found to my delight that it was firm and neither sagged nor creaked). Before long Kostka announced that it was time for him to be getting back to the hospital and quickly initiated me into the major mysteries of the household: the faucets in the bathtub needed extra tightening, contrary to generally accepted procedure hot water was available exclusively from the one marked C, the socket for the record player was hidden under the divan, and there was a newly opened bottle of vodka in the cupboard. He gave me two keys on a ring and showed me which was for the door of the building and which for the flat. During a lifetime of sleeping in various beds I had developed a personal cult of keys, and I slipped Kostka's into my pocket with silent glee.

On our way out Kostka expressed the hope that his flat would bring me "something really beautiful." "Yes," I said, "it will help me to achieve a beautiful demolition." "Do you think demolition can be beautiful?" said Kostka, and I smiled inwardly, recognizing in his response (delivered mildly, but conceived as a challenge) the Kostka (at once likeable and ridiculous) I had first met more than fifteen years before. I replied, "I know you're a quiet workman on God's eternal construction site and don't like hearing about demolition, but what can I do? Myself, I'm not one of God's bricklayers. Besides, if God's bricklayers built real walls, I doubt we'd be able to demolish them. But instead of walls all I see is stage sets. And stage sets are made to be demolished."

Which brought us back to where (some nine years before) we had parted ways; this time our dispute had a swiftly metaphorical pace: we were well aware of its fundamentals and did not feel the need to reiterate them; all we needed to repeat was that we had not changed, that we were as different as ever. (I must say that it was our differences that endeared Kostka to me and made me enjoy our arguments; I used them as a touchstone of who I was and what I thought.) To leave me in no doubt about himself, he replied, "What you've just said sounds good. But tell me: How can a skeptic like you be so sure he knows how to tell a stage set from a wall? Haven't you ever doubted that the illusions you ridicule are really nothing but illusions? What if you're wrong? What if they were genuine values and you were a demolisher of values?" And then: "A value debased and an illusion unmasked have the same pitiful form; they resemble each other and there is nothing easier than to mistake one for the other."

I walked with Kostka back through town to the hospital, playing with the keys in my pocket and feeling good to be with an old friend willing to argue me over to his truth anytime, anyplace, even here and now on our way across the bumpy ground of a new housing complex. Of course Kostka knew we had all the following evening to look forward to, so he allowed himself to turn from philosophizing to more mundane affairs, wanting to make sure I would wait for him until he came back at seven the next day (he didn't have another set of keys) and asking me whether there was really nothing else I needed. I put my hand up to my face and said, "Just a trip to the barber's," because it felt disagreeably stubbly. "Leave it to me," said Kostka. "I'll see that you get a special shave."

I accepted Kostka's patronage and let him take me to a small barbershop with three large revolving chairs towering before three mirrors. Two of the chairs were occupied by men with heads bent back and faces covered with soap. Two women in white smocks were leaning over them. Kostka went up to one and whispered something in her ear; the woman wiped her razor on a cloth and called to the back of the shop; out came a girl in a white coat who took over the abandoned man, while the woman Kostka had talked to nodded to me and motioned me to the remaining chair. Kostka and I shook hands, and as he left I took my place in the chair, leaning back against the headrest, and since for many years now I had not liked to look at my own face, I avoided the mirror directly opposite me and raised my eyes, letting them wander over the blotchy white ceiling.

I kept my eyes on the ceiling even after I felt the barber's fingers tucking the white cloth into my shirt collar. Then she stepped back, and all I could hear was the sound of the razor sliding up and down the leather strap. I settled into a kind of immobility of agreeable indifference. I felt her wet, slippery fingers smearing soap over my skin, and I mused on how strange and ridiculous it was to be caressed so tenderly by an unknown woman who meant nothing to me and to whom I meant nothing. The barber started to spread the soap with a brush, and it was as if I were no longer sitting there, as if I had sunk into the blotchy white expanse on which my eyes were fixed. Then I imagined (since the mind, even when at rest, never stops playing its games) that I was a defenseless victim entirely at the mercy of the woman who had sharpened the razor. And because my body had dissolved in space and all I could feel was the touch of her fingers on my face, I imagined that the gentle hands holding (turning, stroking) my head did so as if it were unattached to my body, as if it existed independently and the sharp razor waiting on the nearby table were there merely to consummate that beautiful independence.

Then the touching stopped, and when I heard the barber step back and actually pick up the razor, I said to myself (since the mind had not stopped playing its games) that I had to see what she looked like, this keeper (uplifter) of my head, my tender assassin. I looked down from the ceiling into the mirror. I was astounded: the game I was playing had suddenly, uncannily taken a turn towards reality; the woman leaning over me in the mirror—it seemed to me that I knew her.

She was holding my earlobe with one hand and carefully scraping the soap off my face with the other; I watched her, and the likeness that had so astonished me a minute before began slowly to dissolve and disappear. She leaned down over the basin, slid two fingers along the razor to remove the foam, straightened up again, and gave the chair a gentle turn; again our eyes met for an instant, and again it seemed to me that it was she! True, the face was somewhat different, an older sister's face: grayed, faded, slightly sunken; but then, I hadn't seen her for fifteen years! During that period, time had superimposed a mask on her true face, but fortunately the mask came with two holes that allowed her real eyes, her true eyes, to shine through, and they were just as I had known them.

Then the trail became muddied again: a new customer came in and sat down behind me to wait his turn; he struck up a conversation with my barber, going on about the fine summer we were having and the swimming pool they were building outside of town; when she responded (I paid more attention to her intonation than to her words, which were of no significance), I was certain that I didn't recognize the voice; it sounded detached, devoid of anxiety, almost coarse; it was the voice of a stranger.

By that time she was washing off my face, pressing it between her palms, and (in spite of the voice) I began to believe once more that this was she, that after fifteen years I was once more feeling her hands on my face caressing me with long gentle strokes (I had completely forgotten she was washing, not caressing me). Her stranger's voice babbled away to the talkative customer, but I refused to believe it; I wanted to believe her hands, to recognize her by her hands; I wanted the degree of kindness in her touch to determine whether it was she and whether she recognized me.

She took a towel and dried my face. The talkative customer was laughing loudly at one of his own jokes, and I noticed that my barber was not laughing, that she probably hadn't been listening to what he'd said. That disturbed me because I took it as proof that she had recognized me and was secretly shaken. I decided to speak to her as soon as I got out of the chair. She pulled the cloth from my neck. I stood up. I dug into my breast pocket for a five-crown note. I waited for our eyes to meet so I could call her by her name (the customer was still going on about something), but she kept her head turned indifferently away from me, taking the money so briskly and impersonally that I suddenly felt like a madman fallen prey to his own hallucinations and could not find the courage to say anything to her.

I left the barbershop feeling oddly frustrated; all I knew was that I knew nothing and that it was a great
to be uncertain of recognizing a face I had once so dearly loved.

I hurried back to the hotel (on the way I caught a glimpse of an old friend, Jaroslav, first fiddle of a local cimbalom band, but avoided his eyes as if fleeing his loud, insistent music) and phoned Kostka; he was still at the hospital.

"That barber you got to shave me—is her name Lucie Sebetka?" "She goes under a different name now, but that's who she is. Where

do you know her from?" asked Kostka. "Oh, it's been a very long time," I answered, and not even thinking

about dinner, I left the hotel again (it was getting dark) and set off to wander through the town.




Tonight I'm going to bed early, I may not fall asleep, but I'm going to bed early, Pavel left for Bratislava this afternoon, I'll fly to Brno early tomorrow morning and go the rest of the way by bus, little Zdena will have to be on her own for two days, she won't mind, she doesn't care much for our company anyway, at least not mine, she worships Pavel, Pavel is the first man in her life, he knows how to handle her, he knows how to handle all women, knew how to handle me, still does, this week he was his old self again, stroking my face and promising to stop off for me in Moravia on his way back from Bratislava, he said it was time we started talking things over, he must have realized we couldn't go on like this, I hope he wants it to be the way it was before, but why did he have to wait until now, now that I've met Ludvik? Oh, the pain of it all, but no, I mustn't give in to sadness,
let sadness never be linked with my name,
these words from Fucik are my motto, even when they tortured him, even in the shadow of the gallows Fucik was never sad, and what do I care if joy is out of fashion nowadays, maybe I'm just an idiot, but they're idiots too with their fashionable skepticism, why shouldn't I trade my idiocy for theirs, I don't want to split my life down the middle, I want it to be one from beginning to end, that's why I like Ludvik so much, because when I'm with him I don't have to alter my ideals and tastes, he's so normal, straightforward, cheerful, definite about everything, that's what I love, that's what I've always loved.

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