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Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The JOKE (6 page)

BOOK: The JOKE
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Recalling our fabrication, I felt a faint glimmer of hope even on that black day. Zemanek, who would have the main say in my case, knew

both Marketa and my style of comedy and would understand that the postcard was nothing but a bit of provocation aimed at a girl we all admired and (probably for that very reason) liked to pull down a peg. So at the first opportunity I gave him a full account of my misfortune; he listened attentively, frowning all the while, then said he would see what he could do.

In the meantime, I lived in a state of suspended animation, attending lectures as usual and waiting. I was called before numerous Party commissions, whose job it was to establish whether or not I belonged to a Trotskyite group; I tried to prove that I had no idea what Trotsky stood for; I met my interrogators' glances head-on; I was looking for trust, and the few times I found it, I would carry that glance with me for a long time, nurture it, try patiently to kindle a spark of hope from it.

Marketa continued to avoid me. I realized it was on account of the postcard, and I was too proud and sensitive to ask her for anything. Then one day she herself stopped me in a corridor at the university and said, "There's something I'd like to talk to you about."

So once again, after a few months' break, we took one of our walks; it was autumn by then, we were both wearing long trench coats, yes, very long, down below the knee, as was the style in that time of extreme inelegance; it was drizzling, and the trees on the embankment were leafless and black. Marketa told me how the whole thing had come about: while still at the training course, she had been called in by the Comrades in charge and asked whether she had received any letters there; she said she had. From whom? they asked. She said her mother had written to her. Anyone else? Oh, a friend now and then, she said. Can you tell us his name? they asked. She gave them my name. And what did Comrade Jahn write about? She shrugged her shoulders, not wanting to quote my card.

Did you write to him? they asked. I did, she said. What did you write? they asked. Oh, nothing much, about the training course, that kind of thing. Are you enjoying the course?

they asked her. Oh, yes. I love it, she answered. And did you write that to him? Yes, I did, she answered. And what was his response? they went on. His response? Marketa said, hesitating, he's a little odd, you have to

know him. We do know him, they said, and we would like to know what he wrote. Can you show us his postcard?

"You're not angry with me, are you?" said Marketa. "I had to show it to them."

"You don't have to apologize," I said. "They knew all about it before talking to you; otherwise they wouldn't have called you in."

"I'm not apologizing," she protested, "and I'm not ashamed of having given them the card.

That's not what I meant at all. You're a Party member, and the Party has a right to know exactly who you are and what you think." She had been shocked by what I had written, she told me. After all, everybody knew that Trotsky was the archenemy of everything we stood for, everything we were fighting for.

What could I say? I asked her to tell me what had happened after that.

After that, they read the card and were horrified. They asked her what she thought of it.

She said it was disgraceful. They asked her why she hadn't brought it to them of her own accord. She shrugged her shoulders. They asked her if she knew what it meant to be vigilant, on guard. She hung her head. They asked her if she knew how many enemies the Party had. She said yes, she knew, but she would never have believed that Comrade Jahn .. . They asked her how well she knew me. They asked her what I was like. She said I was a bit odd, I was a staunch Communist all right, but there were times I would come out with things a Communist had no business saying. They asked her to give an example.

She said she couldn't remember anything specific, but that nothing was sacred to me.

They said that was obvious from my postcard. She told them we often argued about things. And she told them again that I said one thing at meetings and another when I was with her. At meetings I was all enthusiasm, while with her I made a joke of everything, made everything seem ridiculous. They asked her if she thought a man like that should be a Party member. She shrugged. They asked her if the Party could build socialism when its members went around proclaiming that optimism was the opium of the people. She said the Party would never build socialism that way. They told her that was enough. And that she not tell me anything for the moment, because they wanted to see what else I would write. She told them she never wanted to see me again. They replied that would be a mistake on her part, and she should keep writing so they could find out more about me.

"And then you showed them my letters?" I asked Marketa, turning bright red at the thought of my sentimental effusions.

"What else could I do?" said Marketa. "But I couldn't go on writing after what had happened. I couldn't write just to trap you. So I sent you one more card and quit. The reason I didn't want to see you is I was forbidden to tell you anything, and I was afraid you'd ask me and I'd have to lie to your face, and I don't like telling lies."

I asked Marketa what had inspired her to see me today.

She told me it was Comrade Zemanek. He had met her in a university corridor the day after the fall term began and taken her into the small office of the Natural Sciences Party Organization. He told her he had heard that I had written her a postcard with some anti-Party statements. He asked her what they were. She told him. He asked her what she thought of them. She said she condemned them. He approved and asked if she was still seeing me. She was embarrassed and tried to evade the question. He told her they had received a highly favorable report on her from the training course and that the Party Organization was counting on her. She said she was glad to hear it. He told her he did not intend to interfere in her private affairs but that as far as he was concerned, people were judged by the company they kept and that I was not the most promising company for her.

For weeks thereafter, she told me, his words kept running around in her head. She had not seen me for several months, so Zemanek's admonition was superfluous; yet it was that very admonition that started her thinking about whether it was not cruel and morally inadmissible to encourage a person to break up a friendship merely because the friend had made a mistake, and therefore whether it had not also been unjust on her part to break up with me in the first place. She went to see the Comrade who had run the training course and asked him whether she was still forbidden to talk to me about the postcard incident, and learning that there was no longer reason for secrecy, she had stopped me and asked for a chance to talk.

She then confided to me all the things that had been worrying, torturing her: yes, she had acted badly in deciding not to see me anymore; no man is completely lost, however great his mistakes. She recalled the Soviet film
Court of Honor
(at that time very popular in Party circles), in which a Soviet medical researcher places his discovery at the disposal of other countries before his own, an act bordering on treason. She had been especially touched by the film's conclusion: though the scientist is in the end condemned by a court of honor consisting of his colleagues, his wife does not desert him; she does her best to infuse in him the strength to atone, for his egregious error.

"So you've decided not to leave me," I said.

"Yes," said Marketa, taking my hand.

"But tell me, Marketa, do you really think I've committed a great crime?"

"Yes, I do," said Marketa.

"And do you think I have the right to remain in the Party? Yes or no?"

"No, Ludvik, I don't."

I knew that if I joined the game Marketa had thrown herself into, and which she appeared to be living wholeheartedly on the emotional side, I would gain everything that I had sought in vain for months: powered by a Salvationist passion as a steamboat is powered by steam, she was all ready to give herself to me. On one condition, of course: that her Salvationist urge be fully satisfied; for that to happen, it was necessary that the object of salvation (alas, I in person) would have to agree to acknowledge his deep, his very deep guilt. And that I could not do. I was minutes away from the long-desired goal of her body, but I could not take it at that price; I could not agree to my guilt and accept an intolerable verdict; I could not stand to hear anyone supposedly close to me acknowledge that guilt and that verdict.

I did not give in to Marketa, I refused her help, and I lost her; but is it true that I felt innocent? Of course, I kept assuring myself of the farcical nature of the whole affair, but even as I did so (and here we come to what now, with hindsight, I find most upsetting and most revealing) I began to see the three sentences on the postcard through the eyes of my interrogators; I myself began to feel outraged by my words and to fear that something serious did in fact lurk behind their comedy, to know

that I never really had been one with the body of the Party, that I had never been a true proletarian revolutionary, that I had "gone over to the revolutionaries" on the basis of a
simple
(!) decision (we felt participation in the proletarian revolutionary movement to be, so to speak, not a matter of
choice
but a matter of
essence,
a man either was a revolutionary, in which case he completely merged with the movement into one collective entity, or he was not, and could only
want
to be one; in that case, he would always consider himself guilty of not being one).

Looking back on my state of mind at the time, I am reminded by analogy of the enormous power of Christianity to convince the believer of his fundamental and never-ending guilt; I also stood (we all stood) before the Revolution and its Party with permanently bowed head, and so I gradually became reconciled to the idea that my words, though genuinely intended as a joke, were still a matter of guilt, and a self-critical investigation started up in my head: I told myself that it was no accident those thoughts had occurred to me, that the Comrades had long been reproaching me (undoubtedly with reason) for "traces of individualism" and "intellectual tendencies"; I told myself that I had taken to preening myself on my education, my university status, and my future as a member of the intelligentsia, that my father, a worker who died during the war in a concentration camp, would never have understood my cynicism; I reproached myself for letting his working-man's mentality die in me; I reproached myself on every possible score and in the end came to accept the necessity for some kind of punishment; I resisted one thing and one thing only: expulsion from the Party and the concomitant designation of
enemy;
to live as the branded enemy of everything I had stood for since early childhood and still clung to seemed to me a cause for despair.

Such was the self-criticism, and at the same time suppliant plea, I recited a hundred times to myself and at least ten times to various committees and commissions and finally to the plenary meeting in the lecture hall of the Natural Sciences Division, at which Zemanek delivered the opening address on me and my errors (effective, brilliant, unforgettable), recommending in the name of the Organization that I be expelled from the Party. The discussion following my self-critical statement went against me: no one spoke on my behalf, and finally

everyone present (and there were about a hundred of them, including my teachers and my closest friends), yes, every last one of them raised his hand to approve my expulsion not only from the Party but (and this I had not expected) from the university as well.

That night, I took the train home, but home brought me no comfort, because for days I was unable to work up the courage to tell my mother, who took great pride in my studies, what had happened. But the day after my arrival, Jaroslav, a school friend who had played in the cimbalom band with me, dropped by and was delighted to find me at home: it turned out he was getting married in two days and immediately asked me to be his best man. I couldn't refuse an old friend, and so I found myself celebrating my downfall with a wedding ceremony.

On top of it all, Jaroslav was a dyed-in-the-wool Moravian patriot and a folklore expert, and he availed himself of his own wedding to satisfy his ethnographic passions by arranging the festivities around a structure of old popular customs: regional dress, a cimbalom band, a "patriarch" and his flowery speeches, the rite of carrying the bride over the threshold, songs, and any number of details to fill up the day, all reconstructed more from textbooks of ethnography than from living memory. But one curious thing caught my attention: friend Jaroslav, the new head of a flourishing song and dance ensemble, clung to all the old customs but (presumably mindful of his career and obedient to atheist slogans) gave the church a wide berth, even though a traditional wedding was unthinkable without a priest and God's blessing; he had the "patriarch" give all the ritual speeches, but purged them of all biblical motifs, even though it was precisely on these motifs that the imagery of the old nuptial speeches was based. The sorrow that kept me from joining the drunken wedding party had sensitized me to the chloroform seeping into the clear waters of these folk rituals, and when Jaroslav asked me (as a sentimental reminder of the days when I had played in the band with him) to grab a clarinet and sit in with the other players, I refused. I suddenly saw myself playing in the last two May Day parades with Prague-born Zemanek at my side singing and dancing and waving his arms.

I was unable to take the clarinet, and all this folkloric din filled me with disgust, disgust, disgust....

5

Having lost the right to continue my studies, I also lost the right to defer military service and was certain to be called up that coming autumn. To fill the time, I signed up for two long work brigades: one, repairing roads near Gottwaldov; the other, towards the end of summer, helping with seasonal labor at a fruit-processing plant; but autumn finally came, and one morning (after a sleepless night on the train) I reported to a camp in an ugly, unfamiliar suburb of Ostrava.

BOOK: The JOKE
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