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Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (25 page)

BOOK: The JOKE
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"Where are we?" asked Helena.

"There's no decent public place to get a drink in this town," I said. "But I have a small private bar here. Come on in."

"Where are you taking me?" Helena protested, following me into the building.

"It's a genuine Moravian wine bar; haven't you ever been in one?"

"No," said Helena.

On the fourth floor, I unlocked the door to the flat, and we went in.

3

Helena was not in the least taken aback by my leading her into a strange flat, nor did she require any commentary. On the contrary, from the moment she crossed the threshold she seemed determined to proceed from the game of flirtation (which speaks in double entendre and pretends to be a game) to the act that has only a single meaning and believes in the illusion that it is not a game but life itself. She stopped in the middle of Kostka's room to look back at me, and I could read in her eyes that she was waiting for me to go to her, kiss her, and take her in my arms. In that moment she was the Helena I had imagined: defenseless and available.

I went to her; she lifted her face to mine; instead of kissing her, I smiled and rested my fingers on the shoulders of her blue raincoat. She understood and unbuttoned it. I took it out to the entrance hall and hung it up. No, now that everything was ready (my desire and her surrender), I had no intention to rush and in my haste risk missing the slightest nuance of
all
that I wanted to appropriate. I started a trivial conversation; I asked her to sit down, I pointed out all kinds of domestic details, I opened the cupboard containing the bottle of vodka Kostka had shown me, and pretended to be surprised; I twisted off the cap, put two small glasses on the coffee table, and poured some out.

"I'll be drunk," she said.

"We'll both be drunk," I said (knowing very well that I wouldn't get drunk, that I would be careful not to get drunk, because I wanted to keep my memory intact).

She didn't smile; she remained serious; she took a drink and said, "You know, Ludvik, I'd be terribly unhappy if you thought I was just another one of those bored wives longing for adventure. I'm not naive

and I know that you've had many women and that women themselves have taught you not to take them seriously. But I'd be so unhappy ..."

"I'd be unhappy too," I said, "if you were just another bored wife casually pursuing adventure to escape from her husband. If that's all you were, our meeting here would have no meaning for me."

"Really?" said Helena.

"Really, Helena. You're right that I have had many women and that • they have taught me to think nothing of trading one for the next, but meeting you is something different."

"You're not just saying that?"

"No, I'm not. When I first met you, I knew right away that you were the one I'd been waiting for all these years."

"You're not a phrase-monger. You wouldn't talk like that if you didn't mean it."

"Of course not. I don't know how to simulate feelings for women, that's the only thing they've never taught me. So I'm not lying to you, Helena, no matter how incredible it may seem: the first time I met you, I realized I had been waiting for you for years. That I was waiting for you without knowing you. And I knew that now I must have you. That it was inevitable as fate."

"God," said Helena, closing her eyes; her face was flecked with red, perhaps from the alcohol, perhaps from the excitement, and she was now even more the Helena of my dreams: defenseless and at my mercy.

"If only you knew, Ludvik. That's just what I felt too. Right from the start I knew this was no flirtation, that's what frightened me so, because I'm a married woman and I knew that all this with you was truth, that you are my truth and there is nothing I can do about it."

"And you are my truth, Helena," I said.

She sat alone on the divan, her big eyes looking at me unseeingly while I observed her greedily from my chair. I put my hands on her knees and slowly turned up her skirt until her stocking tops and garters appeared on her already ample thighs, evoking something sad and pathetic. Helena sat there, reacting to my touch with neither gesture nor look.

"If only you knew ..."

"Knew what?"

"About me. The way I live. The way I have been living."

"How have you been living?"

She smiled bitterly.

Suddenly I was afraid she was going to have recourse to the banal expedient of all unfaithful wives and begin to denigrate her marriage, thus robbing me of its value at the very moment it was about to become my prey. "For God's sake, don't tell me that you have an unhappy marriage, that your husband doesn't understand you."

'That wasn't what I wanted to say," said Helena, confused by my attack, "though ..."

"Though that's just what you're thinking. Every woman starts to think that way when she's alone with another man, but that's where all the untruthfulness begins, and you want to stay truthful, Helena, don't you? You certainly must have loved your husband; your not a woman who gives herself without love."

"No," said Helena softly.

"What is your husband like, anyway?" I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. "Just a husband."

"How long have you known each other?"

"Thirteen years as man and wife and a few years before that."

"You must have been a student then."

"Yes. It was my first year."

She tried to pull her skirt down, but I caught her hand and stopped her. I asked again:

"What about him? Where did you meet him?"

"In a folk ensemble."

"A folk ensemble? So your husband sang?"

"Yes, we all did."

"And you met in a folk ensemble.... A beautiful backdrop for
love."

"Yes."

"That whole period was beautiful."

"You have good memories of it too?"

"It was the most beautiful period of my life. Was your husband your first love?"

"I don't want to think of my husband just now," she said.

"I want to know you, Helena. I want to know everything about you. The more I know you, the more you'll be mine. Did you have anyone before him?"

She nodded: "Yes."

I felt almost disappointed that Helena had had another man, because the significance of her attachment to Pavel Zemanek was thus diminished. "A true love?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Just silly curiosity."

"So your first real love was your husband?"

She nodded. "But that was long ago."

"What did he look like?" I asked quietly.

"Why do you want to know?"

"I want you to be mine with everything in you, everything in this head ..." I stroked her hair.

If there is anything that prevents a woman from telling a lover about her husband, it is rarely nobility, tact, or genuine modesty, but simply the fear of irritating the lover. Once the lover dispels that fear, the woman is grateful to him, feels freer, but above all: she has something to talk about, because topics of conversation are not infinite, and for a woman her husband is the most gratifying topic, since it is the only one on which she feels sure of herself, the only one on which she is an
expert,
and we know that everyone is happy to seem an expert and takes pride in it. So as soon as I assured Helena it wouldn't upset me, she started talking with complete freedom about Pavel Zemanek and got so carried away by her memories that she didn't add a single shadow to her portrait, telling me how she'd fallen in love with him (the straight-backed fair-haired youth), how she'd looked up to him when he became the ensemble's political officer, how she and all the girls she knew admired him (he had a marvelous way with words!), and how their love story had merged harmoniously with the whole period, in defense of which she made some remarks (how were we to know that Stalin had ordered loyal Communists to be shot?), not, perhaps, because she wished to
divert
the conversation to the political theme, but because she felt herself personally involved in this theme. The way she defended the period of her youth and the way she identified herself with it (as if it had been her
home,
a home she'd since lost) seemed almost like a brief manifesto, as if she were saying: take me, and without any conditions save one: that you let me remain as I am, even with my
conviction.
Making so much of conviction in a situation where body, not conviction, is the real issue is abnormal enough to reveal that it is precisely conviction that makes the woman in question neurotic: either she fears being suspected of having no conviction whatsoever and so hastily exhibits one, or (as is more likely in Helena's case) she harbors secret doubts about her conviction and hopes to regain her certainty by staking something of indisputable value in her eyes: the act of love (perhaps in the cowardly unconscious confidence that her lover will be more concerned with making love than arguing about conviction). I did not find Helena's manifesto disagreeable; it brought me closer to the crux of my passion.

"Do you see this?" She pointed to a small silver pendant attached to her watch by a short chain. I leaned over to have a look, and Helena explained that the carving was meant to represent the Kremlin. "I got it from Pavel," and then she told me the whole story, that many years ago a lovesick Russian girl had given it to a Russian boy named Sasha, who had gone off to the big war, and that the end of the war had brought him all the way to Prague, which he protected from destruction, but which brought destruction down on him. The Red Army had set up a small hospital on the top floor of the spacious villa where Pavel lived with his parents, and there the mortally wounded Lieutenant Sasha spent the last days of his life. Pavel became friends with him and stayed by his side for days on end. Just before he died, Sasha gave Pavel as a keepsake the Kremlin pendant, which he had worn on a string around his neck throughout the war. Pavel kept this gift as his most cherished memento. Once, when they were engaged, Helena and Pavel had quarreled and were thinking of breaking up, but then Pavel had come over and given her that cheap ornament (and most cherished keepsake) as a peace offering, and from then on Helena had never taken it off, seeing in it a kind of message (I asked her what kind of message, and she answered, "a message of joy"), a baton to be carried all the way to the finish line.

She sat across from me (with her skirt turned up and her garters attached to fashionable black stretch panties), her face still flushed (with alcohol and perhaps the emotion of the moment), but in that instant her features faded behind the image of someone else: Helena's tale of the thrice-tendered pendant had abruptly brought before me, in . its entirety, the person of Pavel Zemanek.

Not for a second did I believe in Sasha, the Red Army man; and even if he had existed, his real existence would have vanished behind the grand gesture by which Pavel Zemanek had transformed him into a character in his own personal legend, a sacred statue, a tool to induce emotion, a sentimental argument, a religious artifact that his wife (clearly more constant than he) would venerate (zealously, defiantly) as long as she lived.

I had the feeling that Pavel Zemanek's heart (his viciously exhibitionistic heart) was here, was present; and all at once I was in the midst of that scene of fifteen years ago: the lecture hall of the Natural Sciences Division; Zemanek is sitting at a long table on a dais in the front of the hall, flanked by a fat, round-faced, pigtailed girl in an ugly sweater and a young man representing the District Committee. Behind the dais there is a large blackboard and to its left a framed portrait of Julius Fucik. Opposite the long table rise the benches where, like everyone else, I have taken a seat, I who now, fifteen years later, am looking at Zemanek through the eyes of that time, watching him as he announces that

"the case of Comrade Jahn" is open for discussion, I see him as he says: "I shall read the letters of two Communists." After these words he had paused slightly, picked up a slim volume, run his fingers through his long, wavy hair, and begun to read in an ingratiating, almost tender voice.

" 'Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over . ..'" I recognized Fucik's
Notes from the Gallows.
"

'I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me. .. .'"

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

" 'Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved....'" The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky's sublime drawing to their memories of the living face. Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: " 'And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions.... He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them.. . .'" Fucik's handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: " 'They can take our lives, can't they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we've longed for and fought for and I now die for?'" After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

BOOK: The JOKE
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