Read The JOKE Online

Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (4 page)

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He asked me what I did all day, and when I told him he said, I can still hear his voice, half joking, half sympathetic, that's no kind of life for someone like you, it's time for a change, he said I should turn over a new leaf, devote more time to
the joys of life.
I told him that was fine with me, joy had always been part of my credo and there was nothing I hated more than today's fashionable cynicism, and he said credos don't mean a thing, people who shout joy from the rooftops are often the saddest of all, oh, how true, I felt like shouting, and then he told me point-blank, no beating around the bush with him, that he'd be by to pick me up the next day at four in front of the radio station, we'd take a drive out into the country. But I'm a married woman, I protested, I can't just run off into the woods with a strange man, and Ludvik responded jokingly that he wasn't a man, he was a scholar, but how sad he looked when he said it, how sad! Seeing him that way made me hot all over, what joy, he wanted me, he wanted me all the more after I reminded him I was married, because it made me more inaccessible, and men desire most what they consider inaccessible, and I drank in all the sadness from his face and realized he was in love with me.

The next day we heard the Vltava murmuring on one side of us, saw the forest rising abruptly on the other, it was all so romantic, I love life to be romantic, I'm sure I behaved like a silly young thing, which may not have been becoming to the mother of a twelve-year-old, but I couldn't help it, I laughed and skipped, pulling him along with me, and when we stopped my heart was pounding, there we stood face to face, and Ludvik bent over slightly and gave me a gentle kiss, I tore myself away from him but then took him by the hand and started running again, I have a little trouble with my heart now and then, it starts beating wildly after the slightest bit of exertion, all I have to do is run up a flight of stairs, so I slowed down a little and got my breath back, and suddenly I heard myself humming the opening two bars of my favorite song,
Oh, brightly shines the sun on our
..., and sensing he recognized it, I began to sing it out loud, without shame, and I felt years, cares, sorrows, thousands of gray scales peeling off me, and then we found a little inn and had some bread and sausage, everything was perfectly ordinary and simple, the surly waiter, the stained tablecloth,

and yet what a wonderful adventure, I said to Ludvik, did you know I was going to Moravia for three days to do a feature on the Ride of the Kings? He asked me where in Moravia, and when I told him he said that was his hometown, another coincidence, it took my breath away, I'll take some time off and go with you, he said.

I was afraid, I thought of Pavel, of the spark of hope he'd kindled in me, I'm not cynical about my marriage, I'm ready to do anything to save it, if only for little Zdena's sake, no, that's not true, mostly for my own sake, for the sake of the past, in memory of my youth, but I didn't have the strength to say no to Ludvik, I just didn't have the strength, and now the die is cast, Zdena is asleep, I'm frightened, at this very moment Ludvik is in Moravia, and tomorrow he'll be waiting for me when my bus pulls in.




Yes; I went wandering. I stopped for a moment on the bridge that spanned the Morava and gazed downstream. How ugly, this Morava (a river so brown it seems to run liquid mud instead of water) and how depressing its bank: a street of five two-story middle-class houses, each standing separately like a freakish orphan; apparently they were the beginnings of a grandiose embankment that never came to anything; two of them were ornamented with ceramic angels and small stucco bas-reliefs now chipped and cracked: the angels had lost their wings, and the bas-reliefs, worn down in places to bare brick, had lost their meaning. Beyond the orphan houses the street petered out into a row of iron pylons and high-tension wires, then grass with a few straggling geese, and finally fields, horizonless fields, fields stretching out into nowhere, fields in which the liquid mud of the Morava is lost to sight.

Towns have a propensity to produce mirror images of each other, and this view (I had known it from childhood, and it had no significance for me at all) suddenly reminded me of Ostrava, that temporary dormitory of a mining town, full of deserted buildings and dirty streets leading into the void. I had walked into an ambush; I stood there on the bridge like a man exposed to machine-gun fire. I couldn't bear to go on looking at that woebegone street of five solitary houses because I couldn't bear to think about Ostrava.

So I turned my back on it and started walking upstream.

I walked along the bank on a narrow path flanked on one side by a thick row of poplars.

To the right of the path a mixture of grass and weeds sloped down to water level, and across the river, on the opposite bank, stood the warehouses, workshops, and courtyards of several small factories; to the left of the path beyond the trees there was a sprawling rubbish heap and, farther on, open fields punctuated by more metal pylons and high-tension wires. I walked that narrow path as though crossing a long footbridge over the waters—and I compare that landscape to a broad expanse of water because I felt the cold go through me; and because I walked the path as if at some point I might plunge off it. I was aware that the ghostly atmosphere of the landscape was merely a metaphor for everything I had tried not to recall after my encounter with Lucie; I seemed to be projecting suppressed memories onto everything I saw around me: onto the desolation of the fields and courtyards and warehouses, onto the murk of the river, and onto the pervasive chill that gave unity to the whole scene. I understood that there was no escaping the memories, that I was surrounded by them.


The events leading to my first major disaster (and, as a direct result of its uncharitable intervention, to Lucie) might well be recounted in a lighthearted and even amusing tone: it all goes back to my fatal predilection for silly jokes and Marketa's fatal inability to understand them. Marketa was the type of woman who takes everything seriously (which made her totally at one with the spirit of the era); her major gift from the fates was an aptitude for credulity. This is not a euphemistic way of saying that she was stupid; no: she was gifted and bright and in any case young enough (nineteen) that her naive trustfulness seemed more charm than defect, accompanied as it was by undeniable physical charms. Everyone at the university liked her, and we all made more or less serious passes at her, which didn't stop us (at least some of us) from poking gentle, nonmalicious fun at her.

Of course, fun went over badly with Marketa, and even worse with the spirit of the age. It was the first year after February 1948; a new life had begun, a genuinely new and different life, and its features, as I remember them, were rigidly serious. The odd thing was that the seriousness took the form not of a frown but of a smile, yes, what those years said of themselves was that they were the most joyous of years, and anyone who failed to rejoice was immediately suspected of lamenting the victory of the working class or (what was equally sinful) giving way
to inner sorrows.

I had few inner sorrows at that time, and moreover, I had a considerable sense of fun; even so it can't be said that I fully succeeded with regard to the joyousness of the era: my jokes were not serious enough as long as contemporary joy could tolerate neither pranks nor irony, being, as I said, a grave joy that proudly called itself
"the historical
optimism of the victorious class,"
a solemn and ascetic joy, in short, Joy with a capital J.

I remember how we were all organized into "study groups" that met for frequent criticism and self-criticism sessions culminating in formal evaluations of each member. Like every Communist at the time, I had a number of functions (I held an important post in the Students Union), and since I was also quite a good student, I could pretty well count on receiving a positive evaluation. If the public testimonials to my loyalty to the State, my hard work, and my knowledge of Marxism tended to be followed by a phrase along the lines of "harbors traces of individualism," I had no reason to be alarmed: it was customary to include some critical remark in even the most positive evaluations, to censure one person for "lack of interest in revolutionary theory," another for "lack of warmth in personal relations," a third for "lack of caution and vigilance," a fourth for

"lack of respect for women." But the moment a remark like that was not the only factor under consideration (when it was joined by another or when someone came into conflict with a colleague or was under suspicion or attack), those "traces of individualism," that

"lack of respect for women," could sow the seeds of destruction. And each of us carried the first fatal seed with him in the form of his Party record; yes, every one of us.

Sometimes (more in sport than from real concern) I defended myself against the charge of individualism and demanded from the others proof that I was an individualist. For want of concrete evidence they would say, "It's the way you behave." "How do I behave?" "You have a strange kind of smile." "And if I do? That's how I express my joy."

"No, you smile as though you were thinking to yourself."

When the Comrades classified my conduct and my smile as
(another notorious pejorative of the times), I actually came to believe them because I couldn't imagine (I wasn't bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong and I, an individual, might be right. I began to keep tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I had been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.

But which was the real me? Let me be perfectly honest: I was a man of many faces.

And the faces kept multiplying. About a month before summer I began to get close to Marketa (she was finishing her first year, I my second), and like all twenty-year-olds I tried to impress her by donning a mask and pretending to be older (in spirit and experience) than I was: I assumed an air of detachment, of aloofness; I made believe I had an extra layer of skin, invisible and impenetrable. I thought (quite rightly) that by joking I would establish my detachment, and though I had always been good at it, the line I used on Marketa always seemed forced, artificial, and tedious.

Who was the real me? I can only repeat: I was a man of many faces.

At meetings I was earnest, enthusiastic, and committed; among friends, unconstrained and given to teasing; with Marketa, cynical and fitfully witty; and alone (and thinking of Marketa), unsure of myself and as agitated as a schoolboy.

Was that last face the real one?

No. They were all real: I was not a hypocrite, with one real face and several false ones. I had several faces because I was young and didn't know who I was or wanted to be. (I was frightened by the differences between one face and the next; none of them seemed to fit me properly, and I groped my way clumsily among them.)

The psychological and physiological mechanism of love is so complex that at a certain period in his life a young man must concentrate all his energy on coming to grips with it, and in this way he misses the actual content of the love: the woman he loves. (In this he is much like a young violinist who cannot concentrate on the emotional content of a piece until the technique required to play it comes automatically.) Since I have spoken of my schoolboyish agitation over Marketa, I should point out that it stemmed not so much from my being in love as from my awkward lack of self-assurance, which weighed on me and came to rule my thoughts and feelings much more than Marketa herself.

To ease the burden of my embarrassment and awkwardness, I showed off in front of Marketa, disagreeing with her at every

opportunity or just poking fun at her opinions, which was not hard to do because despite her brains (and beauty, which, like all beauty, suggested to those in its presence an illusory inaccessibility) she was a girl of trusting simplicity; she was unable to look behind anything; she could only see the thing itself; she had a remarkable mind for botany, but would often fail to understand a joke told by a fellow student; she let herself be carried away by the enthusiasm of the times, but when confronted with a political deed based on the principle that the end justifies the means, she would be as bewildered as she was by a joke; that was why the Comrades decided she needed to fortify her zeal with concrete knowledge of the strategy and tactics of the revolutionary movement, and sent her during the summer to a two-week Party training course.

That training course did not suit me at all, because those were the two weeks I had planned to spend alone with Marketa in Prague, with an eye to putting our relationship (which until then had consisted of walks, talks, and a few kisses) on a more concrete footing; and since they were the only weeks I had (I was required to spend the next four in a student agricultural brigade and had promised the last two to my mother in Moravia), I reacted with pained jealousy when Marketa, far from sharing my feeling, failed to show the slightest chagrin and even told me she was looking forward to it.

From the training course (it took place at one of the castles of central Bohemia) she sent me a letter that was pure Marketa: full of earnest enthusiasm for everything around her; she liked everything: the early-morning calisthenics, the talks, the discussions, even the songs they sang; she praised the "healthy atmosphere" that reigned there; and diligently she added a few words to the effect that the revolution in the West would not be long in coming.

As far as that goes, I quite agreed with what she said; I too believed in the imminence of a revolution in Western Europe; there was only one thing I could not accept: that she should be so happy when I was missing her so much. So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

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