Read The JOKE Online

Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (3 page)

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I'm not ashamed of the way I am, I can't be anything but what I've always been, until I was eighteen all I knew was the well-ordered flat of a well-ordered bourgeois clan and schoolwork, schoolwork, I was as isolated from real life as I could be, and when I arrived in Prague in

forty-nine it was like a miracle, I was so happy, I'll never forget it, and that's why I can never erase Pavel from my heart, even though I don't love him anymore, even though he's hurt me, no, I can't, Pavel is my youth, Prague, the university, the dormitory, and most of all the Fucik Song and Dance Ensemble, nowadays no one knows what it meant to us, that's where I met Pavel, he sang tenor, I sang alto, we gave hundreds of concerts and demonstrations, we sang Soviet songs and our own socialist-construction songs and of course folk songs, we liked those the best, I fell so in love with Moravian folk songs they became the leitmotif of my existence.

As for how I fell in love with Pavel, I could never tell anyone today, it was like a fairy tale, the anniversary of the Liberation, a big demonstration in Old Town Square, our ensemble was there too, we went everywhere together, a handful of people among tens of thousands, and up on the rostrum sat all kinds of important statesmen, Czech and foreign, and there were all kinds of speeches and applause, and then Togliatti himself went up to the microphone and said a few words in Italian, and the whole square responded as usual by shouting and clapping and chanting slogans. Pavel happened to be standing next to me in the crush, and I heard him shouting something of his own into the general hubbub, something different, and when I looked over at his lips, I realized he was singing, or rather screaming, a song, he was trying to get us to hear him and join him, he was singing an Italian revolutionary song that was in our repertory and very popular at the time:
Avanti popolo, a la riscossa, bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa. . .

That was Pavel all over, he was never satisfied with reaching the mind alone, he had to get at the emotions, wasn't it wonderful, I thought, saluting the leader of the Italian workers' movement in a Prague square with an Italian revolutionary song, I wanted more than anything for Togliatti to be moved the way I was, so I joined in with Pavel as loud as I could, and others joined us and others and others, until finally the whole ensemble was singing, but the shouting was terribly loud and we were no more than a handful, there were fifty of us to at least fifty thousand of them, the odds were overwhelming, but we fought a desperate fight, for the whole first stanza we thought we wouldn't make it and our singing would go unheard, but then a miracle occurred, little by little more voices broke into song, people began to realize what was going on, and the song rose up slowly out of the pandemonium in the square like a butterfly emerging from an enormous rumbling chrysalis. And finally that butterfly, that song, or at least the last few bars, flew up to the rostrum, and we gazed eagerly at the face of the graying Italian, and we were happy when we thought we saw him respond to the song with a wave of the hand, and I was certain, even though I was too far away to tell, I was certain I saw tears in his eyes.

And in the midst of all the enthusiasm and emotion, I don't know how it happened, I suddenly seized Pavel's hand, and he seized mine, and when the square was quiet again and another speaker stepped up to the microphone, I was afraid he'd let go, but he didn't, we held hands all the way to the end of the demonstration and didn't let go even afterwards, the crowds broke up, and we spent several hours together roaming through Prague in all its spring finery.

Seven years later, when little Zdena was five, I'll never forget it, he told me
we didn't
marry for love, we married out of Party discipline,
I know he said it in the heat of an argument, I know it was a lie, Pavel married me for love, he didn't change until later, but still what a terrible thing to say, wasn't he the one who was always telling everybody that love was different nowadays, a support in battle rather than an escape from the world, that was how it was for us anyway, we didn't even take the time to eat, after two dry rolls at the Youth League office we might not meet again all day, I'd wait up for Pavel until midnight when he came home from those endless, six-hour, eight-hour meetings, in my free time I copied out the talks he gave at all sorts of conferences and political training sessions, he attached a great deal of importance to them, only I know how much the success of his political appearances meant to him, he never tired of repeating that the new man differed from the old insofar as he had abolished the distinction between public and private life, and now, years later, he complains about how back then the Comrades never left his private life alone.

We went together for nearly two years, and I was getting a little impatient, and no wonder, no woman can be content forever with

puppy love, Pavel was perfectly content, he enjoyed the convenient lack of commitment, every man has a selfish streak in him, it's up to the woman to stand up for herself and her mission as a woman, unfortunately Pavel was less attuned to the problem than the rest of our ensemble, especially a few of the girls I was close to, and they had a talk with the others, and the upshot of it all was that they called Pavel before the committee, I have no idea what they said to him there, we've never discussed the matter, but they must have been tough on him, morals were pretty strict in those days, people really overdid it, but maybe it's better to overdo morality than immorality the way we do now. Pavel kept out of my way for a long time, I thought I'd ruined everything, I was desperate, I was ready to commit suicide, but then he came back, oh, how my knees trembled, he asked me to forgive him and gave me a locket with a picture of the Kremlin on it, his most treasured possession, I never take it off, it's more than just a reminder of Pavel, much more, and I cried tears of joy, and two weeks later we were married, and the whole ensemble came to the wedding, sang and danced for almost twenty-four hours, and I told Pavel that if we ever betrayed each other it would be tantamount to betraying everyone at the wedding, betraying everyone at the demonstration in Old Town Square, betraying Togliatti, it makes me laugh when I look back on everything we ultimately


Let's see, what shall I wear tomorrow, the pink sweater, the blue raincoat, they show off my figure best, I'm not as slim as I used to be, but then again I've got something to make up for the wrinkles, something none of the young girls have, the charm of a life lived to the hilt, that's what draws Jindra to me, the poor boy, I can still see the disappointment in his face when I told him I'd be taking the plane and he'd have to go by himself, he's happy for every minute he can spend with me and show off his nineteen-year-old virility, he'd have broken all speed records just to impress me, oh, he's not much to look at, but he's good with the equipment and an excellent driver, the reporters like taking him along on minor assignments, and why not, it's nice to know there's someone around who likes me, I haven't been particularly popular at the radio station these past few years, people call me a bitch, a fanatic, a dogmatist, a Party bloodhound, and I don't know what else, but they'll never make me ashamed of loving the Party and sacrificing all my spare time to it. What else do I have to live for? Pavel has other women, I don't even bother to check on them anymore, little Zdena worships him, for ten years now my work has been hopelessly routine, features, interviews, broadcasts about fulfilled plans and model barns and milkmaids, that and the equally hopeless situation at home, it's only the Party that's never done me any harm, and I've never harmed the Party, not even in the days when almost everyone was ready to desert it, in fifty-six when there was all that talk about Stalin's crimes, and people went wild and began rejecting everything, saying our papers were a pack of lies, nationalized stores didn't work, culture was in decline, farms should never have been collectivized, the Soviet Union had no freedom, and the worst part of it all was that even

Communists went around talking like that, and at their own meetings, Pavel too, and again they all applauded him, Pavel was always being applauded, it began when he was a child, he was an only child, his mother took his picture to bed with her, her prodigy, child prodigy but adult mediocrity, he doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, but he can't live without applause, it's his alcohol and nicotine, how thrilled he was at the new chance to pull at people's heartstrings, he spoke about those awful judicial murders with such emotion that people all but wept, I could tell how much he enjoyed his indignation, and I hated him.

Luckily the Party gave the squawkers a good rap on the knuckles, and when they calmed down Pavel calmed down too, he didn't want to risk his cushy lectureship in Marxism at the university, but something did remain behind, a germ of apathy, mistrust, misgiving, a germ that reproduced in silence, in secret, I didn't know how to counter it, I just clung to the Party more tightly than ever, the Party is almost like a living being, I can tell it all my most intimate thoughts now that I have nothing to say to Pavel, or anyone else for that matter, the others don't like me either, it all came out when we had to take care of that awful business, one of my colleagues at the station, a married man, was having an affair with a girl in the technical department, single, irresponsible, and cynical, and in desperation his wife turned to our Party committee for help, we spent hours going over the case, we interviewed the wife, the girl, various witnesses from work, we tried to get a clear, well-rounded picture of things and be scrupulously fair, the man was given a reprimand by the Party, the girl a warning, and both had to promise the committee to stop seeing each other. Unfortunately, words are merely words, they agreed to split up only to keep us quiet and in fact went on seeing each other on the sly, but the truth will out, we soon found out about it, and I took a firm stand, I proposed that the man be expelled from the Party for having deliberately deceived and misled it, after all, what kind of Communist could he be if he lied to the Party, I hate lies, but my proposal was defeated, and the man got off with another reprimand, at least the girl had to leave the station.

And did they take it out on me for that, they made me look like a monster, a beast, it was a regular smear campaign, they started poking

about in my private life, and that was my Achilles' heel, no woman can live without feelings, she wouldn't be a woman if she did, so why deny it? Since I didn't have love at home, I sought it elsewhere, not that I found any, but they laid into me at a public meeting, called me a hypocrite, trying to pillory others for breaking up marriages, trying to expel, dismiss, destroy, when I myself was unfaithful to my husband at every opportunity, that was how they put it at the meeting, but behind my back they were even more vicious, they said I was a nun in public and a whore in private, as if they couldn't see that the only reason I was so hard on others was that I knew what an unhappy marriage meant, it wasn't hate that made me do what I did, it was love, love of love, love of their house and home, love of their children, I wanted to help them, I too have a child, a home, and I tremble for them!

Though maybe they're right, maybe I am just a bitter old witch and people should be free to do as they please and no one has the right to go sticking his nose into their private lives, maybe this world we've thought up is wrong and I really am a dirty commissar and won't mind my own business, but that's what I'm like and I can only act as I feel, it's too late now, I've always believed that man is one and indivisible and that only the petty bourgeois divides him hypocritically into public self and private self, such is my credo, I've always lived by it, and that time was no exception.

As for my being bitter, I'm willing to admit I hate those young girls, those little bitches, so sure of themselves and their youth and so lacking in solidarity with older women, they'll be thirty some day, too, and thirty-five, and forty, and don't try to tell me she loved him, what does she know about love, she'll sleep with any man the first night, no inhibitions, no sense of shame, I'm mortified when they compare me to girls like her just because I, a married woman, have had a few affairs with other men, the difference is I was always looking for love, and if I made a mistake, if I didn't find it, I'd turn away in horror and look elsewhere, even though it would have been much simpler to forget my girlish dreams of love, forget them and cross the border into the realm of that monstrous freedom where shame, inhibitions, and morals have ceased to exist, that vile, monstrous freedom where everything is

permitted, where deep inside all you need to understand is the throb of sex, that beast.

And I know, too, that if I crossed that border, I would stop being myself, I'd be somebody else, I don't know who, and I'm terrified of that awful transformation, so I keep looking for love, desperately looking for love, a love I can embrace just as I am, with all my old dreams and ideals, because I don't want my life to split down the middle, I want it to remain whole from beginning to end, that's why I was so fascinated when I met you, Ludvik, oh Ludvik ...


It was really awfully funny the first time I went to his office, he didn't even make much of an impression on me, I got right down to business, telling him about my concept of the radio broadcast and explaining what information I needed from him for it, but when he started talking to me I suddenly felt confused, tongue-tied, inarticulate, and when he noticed how uncomfortable I was he immediately switched to more general topics, asked whether I was married, whether I had any children, where I spent my vacation, and he also told me how young I looked, how pretty, it was nice of him, he wanted to get me over my stage fright, when I think of all the braggarts I meet, never let you get a word in edgeways and can't hold a candle to Ludvik, Pavel would have talked about himself the whole time, but it was really funny, I spent a full hour with him and didn't know any more about his institute than when I came, back home I quickly put something down on paper, but it just wasn't right, maybe I was glad, it gave me an excuse to phone him and ask if he wouldn't mind reading over what I'd written. We met at a cafe, my pitiful story was four pages long, he read it through, gave me a gallant smile, and said it was excellent, he'd made it clear from the start he was interested in me more as a woman than as a reporter, I wasn't sure whether to feel flattered or insulted, but he was so nice to me, and we understood each other, he wasn't one of those intellectual types I dislike, he had a rich life behind him, he'd even worked in the mines, that's the kind of person I really liked, I told him, but the thing that excited me most was he was from Moravia, he'd even played in a cimbalom band, I couldn't believe my ears, it was like hearing the leitmotiv of my life again, seeing my youth return from the shadows, my heart and soul went out to him.

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