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Authors: Milan Kundera

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The JOKE (26 page)

BOOK: The JOKE
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Then he said: "That was a letter written by a Communist in the shadow of the gallows.

Now I shall read you another letter." And he read out the three brief, laughable, horrible lines from my postcard. Then he fell silent, everyone was silent, and I knew I was lost.

The silence was long, and Zemanek, that prodigious stage manager, deliberately allowed it to continue. Only after some moments did he call on me to explain myself. I knew that I would be unable to salvage anything: if none of my arguments had had any effect up to now, how could they possibly have any today, when Zemanek had measured my postcard against the absolute standard of Fucik's torments. Of course, I had no option but to stand up and speak. Once more I explained that the message was meant to be a joke, but I condemned the incongruity and coarseness of this joke, talked about my individualism and intellec-tualism, about my isolation from the people, even uncovered in myself complacency, skepticism, and cynicism, but vowed that in spite of it all, I was still devoted to the Party and was not its enemy. Then there was discussion, and the Comrades accused me of contradicting myself; they asked me how a man who admitted to being a cynic could be devoted to the Party: a fellow student, a woman, reminded me of certain obscene expressions I had used and asked me whether that was the way a Communist spoke; others made abstract remarks on the petty bourgeois mentality and then cited me as a concrete example; and they all agreed that my self-criticism had been superficial and insincere. Then the pigtailed girl sitting at the table next to Zemanek said, "Tell me, how do you think the Comrades tortured by the Gestapo, tortured to death, would have reacted to your words?" (I thought of my father and realized they were all pretending not to know how he had died.) I said nothing. She repeated the question. She forced me to answer. I said: "I don't know." "Think a little harder," she insisted. "You know the answer." What she wanted was for me to pass a harsh sentence on myself through the dead Comrades'

imaginary lips, but instead I felt a wave of fury rush through me, a wave of unforeseen and unexpected fury, and rebelling against the many weeks of self-criticism, I answered,

"They stood between life and death. They weren't petty. If they had read my postcard, they might have laughed."

The girl with the pigtail had offered me a chance to salvage at least something. It was my last opportunity to
understand
the extent of the Comrades' criticism, identify with it, accept it, and on the basis of this identification exact some understanding on their part.

But my unprecedented reply had abruptly excluded me from the sphere of their thinking, I had refused to play the role played at hundreds of meetings, hundreds of disciplinary proceedings, and, before long, at hundreds of court cases: the role of the accused who accuses himself and by the very ardor of his self-accusation (his complete identification with the accusers) begs for mercy.

Again there was silence. Then Zemanek spoke. He said he was unable to find anything humorous in my anti-Party pronouncements. He referred again to Fucik's words and said that in critical situations wavering and skepticism inevitably turned into treachery and the Party was a stronghold which tolerated no traitors within its walls. He said that my response clearly proved I had failed to understand a thing and that not only did I not belong in the Party, but I did not deserve continued expenditure of working-class funds on my studies. He proposed that I be excluded from the Party and expelled from the university. The people in the room all raised their hands, and Zemanek told me I was to surrender my Party card and leave.

I stood up and placed my card on the table in front of Zemanek. Zemanek didn't look at me; he no longer saw me. But I see her now: she is sitting in front of me, drunk, with her face red and her skirt pushed up to her waist. Her heavy legs are bordered at the top by the black of her stretch panties; these are the legs whose opening and closing provide the rhythm that has pulsated through more than a decade of Zemanek's life. On these legs I now placed my palms, and it was as if I had Zemanek's very life in my grasp. I looked at Helena's face, into her eyes, which reacted to my touch by closing slightly.

4

Get undressed, Helena," I said quietly.

As she stood up from the divan, the hem of her skirt slipped back down to her knees. She gazed fixedly into my eyes, and without saying a word (or taking her eyes off me), she began to unbutton her skirt along the side. Thus released, it slid down her legs onto the floor; she stepped out of it with her left foot, with her right passed it up to her hand, and laid it on the chair. She was now standing in her sweater and slip. Then she pulled the sweater over her head and tossed it onto the skirt.

"Don't watch," she said.

"I want to see you," I said.

"I don't want you to see me undressing."

I went to her. I took her under the armpits, and as I let my hands move down to her hips I felt her soft full body under the silk of her slip, slightly damp with sweat. She leaned up, her lips half open from longtime habit (bad habit) for a kiss. But I didn't want to kiss her, I wanted to look at her and go on looking as long as possible.

"Get undressed, Helena," I said again, and moved away myself to take off my jacket.

"There's too much light," she said.

"That's all right," I said, and hung my jacket over the back of the
chair.

She pulled the slip up over her head and threw it on top of the sweater and skirt; she unfastened the stockings and slid them down her legs one after the other; she didn't throw them; she stepped over to the chair and carefully laid them out; then she thrust out her chest and reached behind her back, and after a few seconds her tightly braced shoulders relaxed and fell forward, and with them fell her brassiere, sliding off her breasts, which, pressed together by her arms, were huddled against each other, big, full, pale, and obviously somewhat heavy.

"Get undressed, Helena," I repeated for the last time. Looking me straight in the eyes, she pulled off the tightly fitting black stretch panties, throwing them on top of the pile. She was naked.

I took careful note of every detail of the scene: I had no interest in finding instant pleasure with a woman
(any
woman); what I wanted was to take possession of one
particular
alien intimate world, and to do so within the course of a single afternoon, within the course of a single act of love in which I was to be not just a man in the throes of lovemaking, but at the same time a man who is guarding and ravaging his fugitive prey and so must be absolutely alert.

Until then I had possessed Helena only with my eyes. Now I still remained at some distance from her while she longed for the warmth of the caresses that would shield her exposed body from the coldness of these eyes. Even from a few steps away I could almost feel the moisture of her lips, the sensual impatience of her tongue. Another second, two, and I went to her. Standing in the middle of the room between two chairs piled with our clothes, we held each other.

She whispered: "Ludvik, Ludvik, Ludvik ..." I led her to the divan. And onto it. "Come, come," she said. "Come to me, come to me."

Physical love only rarely merges with the soul's love. What does the soul actually do when the body unites (in that age-old, universal, immutable motion) with another body?

What a wealth of invention it finds in those moments, thus reaffirming its superiority over the monotony of the corporeal life! How it scorns the body, and uses it (together with its partner) as pretext for insane fantasies a thousand times more carnal than the two coupled bodies! Or conversely: how it belittles the body by leaving it to its pendular to-and-fro while the soul (already wearied by the caprices of the body) turns its thoughts entirely elsewhere: to a game of chess, to recollections of dinner, to a book. ...

There is nothing rare about the merging of the bodies of two strangers. Even the union of souls may occasionally take place. What is a thousand times more rare is the union of the body with its own soul in shared passion....

What, then, was my soul doing while my body was making love to Helena?

My soul had seen a female body. It was indifferent to this body. It knew that the body had meaning for it only as a body that had been seen and loved in just the same way by someone who was not now present; that was why it tried to look at this body through the eyes of the third, the absent one; that was why it tried to become the third one's medium; it saw the naked female body, the bent leg, the curve of belly and breast, but it all took on meaning only when my eyes became the eyes of the absent one; then, suddenly, my soul entered his
alien
gaze and merged with him; not only did it take possession of the bent leg and the curve of belly and breast, it took possession of them in the way they were seen by the absent third.

And not only did my soul become the medium of this absent third, but it ordered my body to become the medium of his body, and then stood back and watched the writhing struggle of two bodies, two connubial bodies, until all at once it commanded my body to be itself again, to intervene in the connubial coitus and destroy it brutally.

A blue vein bulged on Helena's neck, and a convulsion ran through her body; she turned her head to one side, her teeth bit into the pillow.

Then she whispered my name, and her eyes pleaded for a few moments' respite.

But my soul commanded me to persevere; to drive her from pleasure to pleasure; to change her body's position so that nothing should remain hidden or concealed from the glance of the absent third; no, to grant her no respite, to repeat the convulsion again and again, the convulsion in which she is real and exact, in which she feigns nothing, by which she is engraved in the memory of the absent third like a stamp, a seal, a cipher, a sign. And thus to steal the secret cipher! to steal the royal seal! To rob Pavel Zemanek's secret chamber; to ransack it, make a shambles of it!

I watched Helena's face, flushed and disfigured by a grimace; I put my hand on this face; I put my hand on it as one puts one's hand on an object that can be turned this way or that, crushed or kneaded, and I felt her face accepting my hand on precisely those terms: like a thing eager to be turned and crushed. I turned her head to one side; then to the other; I turned it back and forth several times, and suddenly the motion became a slap; and a second; and a third. Helena began to sob and scream, but it wasn't a scream of pain, it was a scream of excitement, her chin strained up to find me, and I hit her and hit her and hit her; then I saw not only her chin but her breasts straining upward to me, and (arching up over her) I hit her all over her arms and flanks and breasts... .

Everything comes to an end; even this beautiful act of demolition was over at last. She lay diagonally across the divan on her stomach, tired, exhausted. I could see the brown birthmark on her back, and beneath, on her buttocks, the red dappling from my blows.

I stood up and staggered across the room; I opened the door to the bathroom and went in; I turned on the cold water and washed my face, hands, and body. I raised my head and saw myself in the mirror; my face was smiling; when I surprised it thus (smiling), the smile seemed funny to me and I burst out laughing. Then I dried myself off with a towel and sat on the edge of the bathtub. I wanted to be alone for a few seconds, savor the rare delight of sudden solitude, rejoice in my joy.

Yes, I was satisfied; perhaps I was even completely happy. I felt victorious, and as for the ensuing minutes and hours, they were superfluous and had no interest for me.

Then I went back into the room.

Helena was no longer lying on her belly; she had turned onto her side and was looking up at me. "Come to me, darling," she said. Ignoring her invitation, I went over to the chair where my clothes were lying and picked up my shirt.

"Don't get dressed," begged Helena, and stretching an arm out in my direction, she repeated, "Come to me."

I had only one desire: that those ensuing moments should not take place at all, and if they had to, that they should be totally anodyne, insignificant, weightless, lighter than a speck of dust; I wanted to avoid touching her body again, I was horrified at the thought of any show of tenderness, but I was just as horrified at the thought of any tension or dramatics; so I unwillingly renounced my shirt and sat down next to her on the divan. It was horrible: she pushed against me and laid her head on my leg; she kissed me, and soon my leg was wet, but not from her kisses: when she raised her head, I saw her face was covered with tears. Wiping them away, she said, "Don't be angry, darling. Don't be angry if I cry," and she pushed even closer, put her arms around me, and burst into sobs.

"What's the matter?" I said.

She shook her head, saying, "Nothing, silly, nothing at all," and began ardently kissing my face and whole body. "I'm in love," she said, and when I failed to respond, she went on. "Laugh at me if you like, I don't care, I'm in love, in love!" When I still said nothing, she added, "I'm happy." Then she pointed at the table and the unfinished bottle of vodka.

"Pour me a drop of that!"

I didn't feel like pouring any, either for myself or for Helena; I feared that any further consumption of alcohol would lead to a dangerous prolongation of the session (which was splendid, but only if it was finished, behind me).

"Please, darling." She was still pointing at the table. "Don't be angry," she added apologetically. "I'm just happy. I want to be happy. ..."

"You don't need vodka for that," I said.

"Don't be angry. I just feel like it."

There was nothing to do but pour her a glass. "Don't you want any more?" she asked. I shook my head. She tossed it down and said, "Leave it there." I set the bottle and glass down on the floor by the divan.

She was very quick to recover from her fatigue; suddenly she was a little girl wanting to be happy and gay and to let everybody know about it. She obviously felt completely free and natural in her nakedness (all she had on was her wristwatch with the Kremlin miniature dangling

BOOK: The JOKE
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