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Authors: Milan Kundera

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BOOK: The JOKE
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I could tell about numerous other soldiers who shared my fate then, but I want to stick to essentials: Honza, the one I liked best. I remember one of the first conversations we had together; during a break in a pit gallery where we happened to be sitting (chewing on some bread)

side by side, Honza gave me a slap on the knee: "Hey, you there! You deaf and dumb, what makes you tick anyway?" Since I really was deaf and dumb at the time (entirely absorbed by my endless attempts at self-justification), I was hard put to explain (all at once I felt how forced and affected my choice of words must have sounded to him) how I had ended up in the mines and why I actually did not belong there. "Why, you fucking bastard! You mean the rest of us belong here?" I tried to make my position clearer (and choose more natural-sounding words), but Honza, swallowing his last mouthful, interrupted. "You know, if you were as tall as you are stupid, the sun'd burn a hole through your head." Aimed at me, this plebeian mockery suddenly made me ashamed of endlessly dwelling on my lost privileges like a spoiled child, especially since my convictions were based on opposition to privilege.

As time went on, Honza and I became fast friends (Honza respected me for my skill at mental arithmetic; more than once a fast calculation on my part had saved us from being shortchanged on payday). One night he called me an idiot for spending my leaves in camp and dragged me along with the rest of the gang. I'll never forget it. We were a pretty big group, about eight in all, including Stana, Varga, and a former student of applied art by the name of Cenek (Cenek was put in with us because he had insisted on doing cubist paintings at school; now, for an occasional favor, he covered the barracks walls with oversized charcoal drawings of Hussite warriors, complete with flails and maces). We didn't have much choice where to go: the center of Ostrava was off limits, and even in the neighborhoods open to us we were limited to certain places. But that night we were in luck: there was a dance at a nearby hall where none of our restrictions applied. We paid the small entrance fee and surged in. The hall had lots of tables, lots of chairs, but not that many people: ten girls, no more, and about thirty men, half of them soldiers from the local artillery barracks; the minute they saw us, they were on their guard; we could feel their eyes on us, counting heads. We sat down at a long empty table and ordered a bottle of vodka, but the waitress announced sternly that no alcohol was to be served, so Honza ordered eight lemonades; then he collected money from each of us and returned a short while later with three bottles of

rum, which we immediately added to our lemonades under the table. We had to act with utmost circumspection because we knew the artillerymen were watching us and wouldn't hesitate to report us for illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages. Members of the normal military, it must be said, were extremely hostile to us: on the one hand, they looked upon us as suspicious elements, criminals, murderers, and enemies (as the propaganda spy novels put it) ready to cut the throats of their poor innocent families; on the other hand (and probably most important), they envied us for having more money and earning hourly five times more than they did.

That was what made our position so unusual: all we knew was drudgery and fatigue, we had our heads shaved clean every two weeks to rid them of all thoughts of self-esteem, we were the disinherited with nothing more to look forward to in life, but we had money.

Oh, not much; but for a soldier with only two nights free a month it was a fortune: in those few hours (and in those few places not off limits) he could act like a rich man and make up for the chronic frustration of all the other endless days.

Up on the platform a miserable band oompahpahed its way between polka and waltz for the few couples on the floor while we coolly eyed the girls and sipped our drinks, whose alcoholic content soon lifted us far above anyone else in the hall; we were in a fine mood; I could feel a heady conviviality taking hold of me, a sense of companionship I had not experienced since the last time I played with Jaroslav and the other fellows in the cimbalom band. In the meantime, Honza had come up with a plan to whisk as many girls as possible away from the artillerymen. The plan was admirable in its simplicity, and we lost no time putting it into action. Cenek proved most resolute for the job and undertook to entertain us, braggart and ham that he was, by accomplishing his mission with the greatest ostentation: after dancing with a dark-haired, heavily made-up girl, he brought her over to our table and poured a rum lemonade for himself and another for her, saying to her significantly: "Let's drink to it!" The girl nodded, and they clinked glasses. At that moment a runt wearing the two stripes of an artillery noncom walked up to the girl and said to Cenek in the rudest tone he could muster, "She free?" "Why, of course, dear boy," said Cenek. "She's all yours." And while the girl hopped and skipped with the impassioned corporal to the inane rhythm of a polka, Honza was off phoning for a taxi; as soon as it arrived, Cenek went over and stood by the exit; when the girl finished the dance, she told the corporal she had to go to the ladies' room, and a few seconds later we heard the taxi pull away.

The next to score was old Ambroz from the Second Company, who found himself a woman both too old and shabby (which hadn't prevented four artillerymen from desperately hovering over her); ten minutes later, Ambroz, the woman, and Varga (who was sure no girl would go with him) climbed into a cab and sped off to meet Cenek in a bar at the other end of Ostrava. Before long two more of our group had persuaded another girl to go with them, and that left only Stana, Honza, and me. By now the artillerymen were eyeing us more and more ominously because the connection between our diminishing numbers and the disappearance of the three women from their lair had finally begun to dawn on them. We tried to look innocent, but it was clear a fight was brewing.

"How about one more taxi and an honorable retreat," I said, looking wistfully at a blonde I had managed to dance with once early in the evening without plucking up the courage to suggest we leave together; I had hoped to have another chance later on, but the artillerymen had guarded her so zealously that I never got near her again. "Nothing else we can do," said Honza, starting off to the phone. But as he walked across the floor, the artillerymen all stood up from their tables and moved quickly to surround him. The fight now seemed imminent, and Stana and I had no choice but to get up from our table and make our way over to our threatened companion. For a while the group of artillerymen simply stood there in ominous silence, but suddenly one drunken noncom (he probably had his own bottle under the table) launched into a long tirade about how his father had been unemployed under capitalism and it made him sick to stand by and watch these bourgeois brats with their black insignia lord it over them, it made him sick, so if his comrades didn't hold him back, he might just give that bastard (meaning Honza) a good sock in the jaw. At the first pause in the noncom's tirade Honza inquired civilly what the Comrades from the artillery wanted of him. We want you out of here, and on the double, they said, to which Honza replied that that was exactly what we wanted and would they please let him call a taxi. By this point the noncom looked ready to have a fit: the bastards, he screamed in a high-pitched voice, the fucking bastards! We break our asses, we work like slaves for nothing, and these capitalists, these foreign agents, these dirty shitheads ride around in taxis! Not this time! I'll strangle them first with my bare hands!

Soon everyone had joined in, civilians and soldiers alike, along with the employees of the dance hall, who were trying hard to avoid an incident. Then I caught sight of my blonde; she had been left alone at her table and (indifferent to the argument) was making her way to the ladies' room. I detached myself from the crowd as inconspicuously as I could and followed her into the vestibule, where the cloakroom and toilets were; I felt like a beginning swimmer who had been thrown in the deep end, and shy or not, I had to act; I rummaged around in my pocket, pulled out several crumpled hundred-crown notes, and said to her, "How about coming with us? You'll have a better time." She looked down at the money and shrugged her shoulders. I told her I'd wait outside; she nodded, disappeared into the ladies' room, and soon came outside with her coat on; she smiled at me and said she could tell right off I wasn't like the rest of them. It made me feel good; I took her arm and led her across the street and around the corner, where we watched the entrance to the hall (it was lit by a solitary streetlamp) and waited for Honza and Stana to come out. The blonde asked me if I was a student, and when I said I was, she told me she'd had some money stolen from her the day before in the factory cloakroom, and since it belonged to the factory, she was terribly afraid they'd take her to court: could I lend her a hundred crowns? I reached into my pocket and gave her two of the crumpled banknotes.

Before long out came Honza and Stana with their caps and coats on. But the moment I whistled to them, three other soldiers (capless and coatless) rushed out of the hall on their heels. All I could hear was the menacing intonation of their questions, but I didn't need words to guess their meaning: it was my blonde they were after. Then one of them lunged at Honza, and the fight was on. Stana had only one to deal with, Honza two; they were just about to pin him to the ground when I ran up and laid into one of them.

The artillerymen had assumed they'd be numerically superior, and as soon as the sides were equal, they lost their momentum; when one of them folded under Stana's fist, we took advantage of their confusion and beat a hasty retreat.

The blonde was waiting obediently for us around the corner. When Honza and Stana saw her, they went wild with joy, saying that I was the greatest, and tried to hug me, and for the first time in as long as I could remember I felt genuinely and hilariously happy.

Honza pulled a full bottle of rum from under his coat (how he'd managed to keep it intact through the fight was beyond me) and swung it above his head. We were in uproarious spirits, except we had nowhere to go: we'd been thrown out of one place, the rest were off limits, and our ranting rivals had cut off our taxi supply and might at any moment threaten our very existence with a newly mounted campaign. We set off quickly down a narrow alley between some houses; after a short distance the houses gave way to a wall on one side, a fence on the other; up against the fence stood a hay wagon, and a little farther, a farm machine with a metal seat. "A throne," I said, and Honza sat the blonde on the seat, which was a few feet off the ground. The bottle passed from hand to hand; all four of us drank from it; the blonde soon became voluble and threw a challenge at Honza,

"I bet you won't lend me a hundred crowns," whereupon Honza slipped her a hundred-crown note and she opened her coat, hitched up her skirt, and pulled down her panties.

She took my hand and pulled me towards her, but I was scared and broke away from her, pushing Stana toward her instead; Stana showed no hesitation whatever and entered resolutely between her legs. They lasted
less
than twenty seconds together; I wanted to give Honza precedence (partly because I was trying to play the host, partly because I was still scared), but this time the girl was more determined and pulled me against her hard, and when, aroused by her caresses, I was finally ready to oblige her, she whispered tenderly in my ear, "I only came along because of you, silly," and began to sigh, and all at once I genuinely felt she was a nice girl, in love with me and worthy of my love, and she went on sighing, and I went at it with abandon, but suddenly Honza came out with some obscenity, and I realized I wasn't in love with her, so I pulled away from her abruptly, without finishing, and she looked up at me almost frightened and said,

"Hey, what's going on?" but by then Honza had taken my place, and the sighs started again.

We didn't get back to camp until nearly two in the morning. At half past four we were up for the voluntary Sunday shift that earned the commander a bonus and us our biweekly Saturday passes. We were sleepy, the alcohol was still in us, and although we moved like zombies through the semi-darkness of the pit gallery, I recalled our evening with pleasure.

Our next leave two weeks later didn't measure up at all; Honza had his pass revoked for some incident, and I went out with two men from another company whom I knew only slightly. We immediately set our sights on a sure thing—a woman whose monstrous height had earned her the nickname Lamp-post. She was ugly, but what could we do?

The circle of women at our disposal was severely limited, especially by constraints of time. The necessity of taking full advantage of every leave (so short and so hard to come by) invariably made the men prefer the accessible to the tolerable. By comparing notes, they gradually put together a pool (a pitiful pool) of more or less accessible (and, of course, barely tolerable) women and made it available for general use.

Lamp-post was part of this pool; not that I minded; when the other two joked on and on about how unbelievably tall she was, about how we'd have to find some bricks to stand on when the time came, I found myself in a curious way enjoying this gross and tedious humor: it intensified my raging lust for a woman; any woman; the less individualized, the less personalized, the better; any woman
whatsoever.

But even though I'd had quite a bit to drink, my burning desire subsided the moment I laid eyes on her. It all seemed disgusting and pointless, and because neither Honza nor Stana nor anyone I liked had been there, I woke up the next morning with a hangover so fierce that the doubts it spawned retroactively included the events of the previous leave.

Had I perhaps felt the stirrings of some moral principle? Nonsense; it was revulsion, pure and simple. But why revulsion, when a few short hours before I had been consumed by desire for a woman and the fury of that desire was intimately bound up with my indifference about who the woman would be? Was I perhaps more delicate than the others? Did I have an aversion to prostitutes? Nonsense: I was gripped by sadness.

BOOK: The JOKE
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