Read The JOKE Online

Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (5 page)

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Marketa responded to my provocative postcard with a brief and banal note and left the rest of the letters I sent her during the summer unanswered. I was up in the mountains pitching hay with my student brigade, and Marketa's silence overwhelmed me with heavy sadness. I wrote her almost daily letters overflowing with prayerful, mournful infatuation: couldn't we at least see something of each other the last two weeks of the summer? I begged her; I was willing to give up the trip home, the visit to my poor deserted mother; I was willing to go anywhere just to be with Marketa; and it was not merely because I loved her but because she was the only woman on my horizon and the state of boy without girl was intolerable. But Marketa never answered.

I couldn't understand what had happened. I arrived back in Prague in August and managed to catch her at home. We took our usual walk along the Vltava and over to Imperial Meadow (that melancholy island of poplars and deserted playgrounds), and Marketa claimed that nothing had changed between us; she behaved, in fact, as she had before, but precisely that rigidly unwavering
of everything (sameness of kiss, sameness of conversation, sameness of smile) depressed me. When I asked if I could see her the next day, she told me to phone and we would set a time.

I did phone; an unfamiliar woman's voice informed me that Marketa had left Prague.

I was unhappy as only a womanless twenty-year-old can be, a rather shy young man who has known few encounters with physical love, few and fleeting and gauche, and who is constantly preoccupied with it. The days were unbearably long and futile; I was unable to read, I was unable to work, I went to three different films a day, one showing after another, just to kill time, to drown out the screech of the hoot owl issuing from deep inside me. I, whom Marketa regarded (thanks to my own laborious attempts to show off) as a man almost totally blase about women, could not get up the courage to talk to girls walking along the street, girls whose beautiful legs made my heart ache.

And so I was very glad when September came at last, bringing classes and (several days before classes began) my work at the Students Union, where I had an office to myself and all kinds of things to keep me busy. The day after I got back, however, I received a phone call summoning me to the District Party Secretariat. From that moment I remember everything in perfect detail. It was a sunny day, and as I came out of the Students Union building I felt the grief that had plagued me all summer slowly dissipating. I set off with an agreeable feeling of curiosity. I rang the bell and was let in by the chairman of the Party University Committee, a tall thin-faced youth with fair hair and ice-blue eyes. I gave him the standard greeting, "Honor to Labor," but instead of responding he said, "Go straight back. They're waiting for you." In the last room of the Secretariat, three members of the committee awaited me. They told me to sit down. I did, and understood that this was out of the ordinary. These three Comrades, whom I knew well and had always bantered with, wore severe expressions.

Their first question was whether I knew Marketa. I said I did. They asked me whether I had corresponded with her. I said I had. They asked me whether I remembered what I wrote. I said I did not, but immediately the postcard with the provocative text materialized before my eyes and I began to have an inkling of what was going on. Can't you recall anything? they asked. No, I said. Well, then, what did Marketa write to you? I shrugged my shoulders to give the impression that she had written about intimate matters I couldn't possibly discuss in public. Didn't she write anything about the training course?

they asked. Yes, I said. What did she say? That she liked it there, I answered. And? That the talks were good, I answered, and the group spirit. Did she mention that a healthy atmosphere prevailed? Yes, I said, I think she did say something like that. Did she mention that she was discovering the power of optimism? Yes, I said. And you, what do you think of

optimism? they asked. Optimism? I asked. What should I think of it? Do you consider yourself an optimist? they went on. I do, I said timidly. I like a good time, a good laugh, I said, trying to lighten the tone of the interrogation. Even a nihilist can like a good laugh, said one of them. He can laugh at people who suffer. A cynic also can like a good laugh, he went on. Do you think socialism can be built without optimism? asked another of them. No, I said. Then you're opposed to our building socialism, said the third. What do you mean? I protested. Because you think optimism is the opium of the people, they said, pressing their attack. The opium of the people? I protested again. Don't try to dodge the issue. That's what you wrote. Marx called religion the opium of the people, and you think our optimism is opium! That's what you wrote to Marketa. I wonder what our workers, our shock workers, would say if they were to learn that the optimism spurring them on to overfulfill the plan was opium, another added. And the third: For a Trotskyite the optimism that builds socialism can never be more than opium. And you are a Trotskyite.

For heaven's sake, what ever gave you that idea? I protested. Did you write it or did you not? I may have written something of the kind as a joke, but that was two months ago, I don't remember. We'll be glad to refresh your memory, they said, and read me my postcard aloud: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik. The words sounded so terrifying in the small Party Secretariat office that they frightened me and I felt they had a destructive force I was powerless to counter. Comrades, it was meant to be funny, I said, feeling they couldn't possibly believe me. Do you consider it funny? one of the Comrades asked the other two.

Both shook their heads. You have to know Marketa, I said. We do, they replied. Then don't you see? Marketa takes everything seriously. We've always poked a little fun at her, tried to shock her. Interesting, replied one of the Comrades. Your other letters give no sign that you fail to take Marketa seriously. You mean you've read all my letters to Marketa? So the reason you make fun of Marketa, said another one, is that she takes everything seriously. Tell us now, what is it she takes seriously? Things like the Party, optimism, discipline, right? Are those the things

that make you laugh? Try to understand, Comrades, I said, I don't even remember writing it, I must have dashed it off, it was just a few sentences, a joke, I didn't give it a second thought. If I'd meant anything bad by it, I wouldn't have sent it to a Party training course!

How you wrote it is immaterial. Whether you wrote it quickly or slowly, in your lap or at a desk, you could only have written what was inside you. That and nothing else. Perhaps if you'd thought things through, you might not have written it. As it is, you wrote what you really felt. As it is, we know who you are. We know you have two faces—one for the Party, another for everyone else. I had run out of arguments and kept reiterating the old ones: that it was all in fun, that the words were meaningless and that there was nothing behind them but the state of my emotions, and so on. I failed completely. They said I had written my sentences on an open postcard, there for everyone to see, that my words had an
significance that could not be explained away by the state of my emotions.

Then they asked me how much Trotsky I had read. None, I said. They asked me who had lent me the books. No one, I said. They asked me what Trotskyites I had met with. None, I said. They told me they were relieving me of my post in the Students Union, effective immediately, and asked me to give them the keys to my office. I took them out of my pocket and handed them over. Then they said that the Party level at which my case would be handled was that of my own Organization at the university's Natural Sciences Division. They stood up and looked past me. I said "Honor to Labor" and left.

Later I remembered I had a lot of things at the Students Union office. My desk drawer had socks in it as well as personal papers, and in a cabinet, alongside the files, was a half-eaten rum cake from my mother's oven. I had just given up my keys at the Party Secretariat, but the downstairs porter knew me and gave me the house key, which hung with all the others on a wooden board; I remember everything down to the last detail: the key was attached by strong cord to a small wood tag with the number of my office painted on it in white; I unlocked the door and sat down at my desk; I opened the drawer and took out my things; I was slow and absentminded; in that short period of relative calm I was trying to come to grips with what had happened to me and what I ought to do about it.

It wasn't long before the door opened and in came the three Comrades from the Secretariat. This time they were far from cold and reserved. This time their voices were loud and agitated. Especially that of the shortest of the three, the official in charge of Party cadres. How did I get there? he snapped at me. What right did I have to be there?

Did I want him to have the police haul me off? What was I doing rummaging around in the desk? I told him I'd come for the rum cake and the socks. He said I had no right whatsoever to be there even if I had a whole file cabinet full of socks. Then he went to the desk and looked through the contents paper by paper, notebook by notebook. Since these were in fact my personal belongings, he finally allowed me to put them into a suitcase while he looked on. I stuck them in with my dirty, crumpled socks, and managed to squeeze in the rum cake, by wrapping it in the greasy paper that had caught the crumbs during its stay in the cabinet. He followed my every move. I left the room with my bag, and he told me not to show my face there again.

As soon as I was away from the Comrades of the District Secretariat and from the invincible logic of their interrogation, I felt I was innocent, that there was nothing so terrible in what I had written on the postcard, and that the best thing to do would be to talk to someone well acquainted with Marketa, someone I could confide in, someone who would tell me the whole business was ridiculous. I looked up a fellow student, a Communist, and when I'd told him the story from beginning to end, he said that the Secretariat was bigoted and humorless and that he, knowing Marketa, had a clear idea of what it was all about. In any case, the man for me to see was Zemanek, who was going to become Party Chairman at Natural Sciences and knew both Marketa and me very well.


had no idea Zemanek had been chosen Party Chairman, and it seemed a stroke of luck: not only did I in fact know him well, I was confident he would be sympathetic if for no other reason than my Moravian origins. For Zemanek loved singing Moravian folk songs; at the time it was very fashionable to sing folk songs, and to do so not like schoolchildren but in a rough voice with arm thrust upwards, that is, in the guise of a
man of the people
whose mother had brought him into the world under a cimbalom during a village dance.

Being the only genuine Moravian in the Natural Sciences Division had won me certain privileges: on every special occasion, at meetings, celebrations, on the First of May, I was always asked to take up my clarinet and join two or three other amateurs from among my fellow students in a makeshift Moravian band. So we had marched (clarinet, fiddle, and bass) in the May Day parade for the past two years, and Zemanek, who was good-looking and liked to be the center of attention, put on a borrowed folk costume and joined us, dancing, waving his arms in the air, and singing. Though he was born and bred in Prague and had never set foot in Moravia, he enjoyed playing the village swain, and I couldn't help liking him. I was glad that the music of my small homeland, from time immemorial a paradise of folk art, was so popular, so loved.

Another advantage was that Zemanek knew Marketa. The three of us were often together on various occasions during our student days; once (there was a large group of us) I made up a story about some dwarf tribes living in the Czech mountains, documenting it with quotes from an alleged scholarly paper devoted to the subject. Marketa was astonished that she had never heard of them. That was no surprise,

I said. Bourgeois scholarship had deliberately concealed their existence, because they were bought and sold as slaves by capitalists.

But somebody ought to bring it out into the open! cried Marketa. Why doesn't somebody write about it? It would make a really strong case against capitalism!

Perhaps the reason no one writes about it, I said pensively, is that the whole thing is rather delicate: the male dwarfs had extraordinary sexual capacities, which was why they were so much in demand and why our Republic secretly exported them for hard currency, especially to France, where they were hired by aging capitalist ladies as servants, though obviously used for different purposes altogether.

The others stifled their laughter, which was prompted not so much by the wittiness of my invention as by Marketa's attentive expression, her passion for supporting (or opposing) the issue at hand; they bit their lips to keep from spoiling Marketa's pleasure at learning something new, and some of them (Zemanek, in particular) joined in and endorsed my account of the dwarfs.

When Marketa asked what they looked like, I remember Zemanek telling her with a straight face that Professor Cechura, whom Marketa and the assembled company had the honor of seeing regularly on the lecture hall podium, was of dwarf descent, possibly on both sides, but certainly on one. Zemanek claimed to have it from Cechura's assistant, who had once spent a summer in the same hotel as the professor and his wife and could vouch for the fact that between them they were not quite ten feet tall. One morning he had gone into their room not realizing they were still asleep, and he was amazed to find them lying not side by side but head to foot: Professor Cechura curled up in the lower half of the bed and Mrs. Cechura in the upper.

Yes, I confirmed: it is absolutely clear that both Cechura and his wife are of dwarf extraction. Sleeping head to foot is an atavistic custom of all dwarfs of that region, and in olden days they built their huts on long rectangular plots rather than circular or square ones, because not only husband and wife but entire clans slept in long chains, one below the other.

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