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Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (40 page)

BOOK: The JOKE
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where love is still love and pain is pain, where values are not yet devastated; and it seemed to me that inside these songs I was
at home,
that I derive from them, and if I had betrayed this home, I had only made it
all the more
my home (because what voice is more plaintive than the voice of the home we have wronged?); but I was equally aware that this home was not of this world (though what kind of home was it if it wasn't of this world?), that what we were singing and playing were only memories, recollections, an imaginary preservation of something that no longer was, and I felt the ground of this home sinking under my feet, felt myself falling, clarinet in mouth, falling down into the depths of years, the depths of centuries, into the fathomless depths (where love is love and pain is pain), and I told myself with astonishment that my only home was this descent, this searching, eager fall, and I abandoned myself to it and to my sweet vertigo.

Then I looked at Jaroslav to see whether I was alone in my exaltation, and I noticed (his face was illuminated by a light hanging from the linden tree) that he was very pale; he was no longer singing as he played; his lips were tightly clenched; his timorous eyes had become still more fearful; he was playing wrong notes; the hand holding the violin was slowly slipping downward. Suddenly he stopped playing and sat down. "What's wrong?"

I asked; the sweat was running down his brow, and he clutched his left arm near the shoulder. "It hurts," he said. The others hadn't realized that Jaroslav was ill and were still caught up in the spell of the music, now without the first fiddle and clarinet, whose silence gave the cimbalom player a chance to excel, accompanied only by the second fiddle and bass. I immediately went up to the second fiddle (remembering that Jaroslav had introduced him to me as a doctor) and called him over to Jaroslav. Only the cimbalom and bass were playing now, while the second fiddle took Jaroslav's left wrist and held it for a long time, a very long time; then he lifted his eyelids and looked at his eyes; he touched his sweating brow. "The heart?" he asked. "Arm and heart," said Jaroslav, who looked green. By now even the bass had noticed us, propped his instrument against the linden tree, and come over to us, so that the cimbalom player was on his own, entirely unaware of what was going on and thoroughly enjoying his solo. "I'm going to phone the hospital," said the second fiddle. "What is it?" I asked him.

"Very faint pulse. Cold sweat. Certainly a heart attack." "Damn!" I said. "Don't worry, he'll make it," he consoled me, and hurried into the restaurant. The people he had to push his way through were too drunk to notice anything; they were only absorbed in themselves, in their beer, in their boasting, and in their insults, which in the far corner of the garden were leading to a brawl.

Finally the cimbalom fell silent too, and we all stood in a circle around Jaroslav, who looked at me and said it was all because we'd stayed there, that he hadn't wanted to stay, he'd wanted to go out in the fields, especially now that I'd come, especially now that I'd come back to them, how beautiful it would have sounded under the stars. "Don't talk so much," I told him. "What you need now is to be calm." I was thinking that although he probably would make it, as the second fiddle had predicted, it would be a completely different life, a life without passionate devotion, without the strain of playing in the band, a life under the aegis of death, a second half, but a second half played after the game is lost, and I suddenly had the feeling that one's destiny is often complete long before death, and that Jaroslav's destiny had come to its end. Overwhelmed with sorrow, I gently stroked the top of his bald head and the long strands of hair sadly trying to cover it, and I realized with a shock that my trip home, made in the hope of striking at the hated Zemanek, had ended with me holding my stricken friend in my arms (yes, at that moment I saw myself holding him in my arms, holding him and carrying him, big and heavy, as if I were carrying my own obscure guilt, carrying him through the indifferent mob and weeping as I went).

We had stood there with him like this for about ten minutes when the second fiddle reappeared and signaled us to help Jaroslav to his feet; supporting him under the arms, we slowly led him through the noisy, drunken adolescents out into the street, where an ambulance stood waiting, all its lights ablaze.

Completed December 5, 1965

BOOK: The JOKE
8.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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