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Authors: Milan Kundera

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The JOKE (9 page)

BOOK: The JOKE
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Sadness over the sudden realization that there was nothing exceptional about what I had been through, that I had not chosen it out of excess or caprice or an obsessive desire to know and experience everything (the sublime and the despicable), that it had simply become the fundamental and
customary
condition of my existence. That it precisely defined the range of my opportunities, that it accurately depicted the horizon of my love life from then on. That it was an expression not of my freedom (as I might have seen it, say, a year earlier), but of my submission, my limitation, my
condemnation.
And I felt fear. Fear of that bleak horizon, fear of that destiny. I felt my soul shriveling, I felt it retreating, and I was frightened by the thought that it could not escape its encirclement.

7

Sadness over our bleak erotic horizons was something nearly all of us went through.

Bedrich (the author of the peace manifestos) resisted it by withdrawing into his own depths to commune with his mystic God, the erotic complement to this religious turn inward being ritual masturbation. Others exhibited a much greater degree of self-deception, supplementing their cynical whoring expeditions with the most maudlin romanticism: many had their own loves at home and burnished their memory to a brilliant sheen; many believed in Enduring faithfulness and faithful Expectation; many tried to convince themselves in secret that girls they had picked up drunk in some bar burned for them with a holy fire. Stana had two visits from a girl he'd gone with in Prague before he was drafted (but had never taken seriously), and suddenly he turned tender and (true to his impetuous nature) determined on an immediate wedding. He claimed to have thought this plan up just to get the two-day marriage leave, but I could see through his cynical facade. It was early March when the commander actually gave him the forty-eight hours, and Stana went off to Prague for the weekend to get married. I remember this perfectly because the day of Stana's wedding turned out to be a very important day for me as well.

I had been granted a pass, and still upset over the last one, squandered on Lamp-post, I avoided my fellow soldiers and went off on my own. I climbed aboard an ancient narrow-gauge tram that linked outlying neighborhoods of Ostrava and let it carry me away. I got off randomly and changed just as randomly to a tram on a different line; the endless outskirts with their curious mixture of factories and nature, fields and garbage dumps, woods and slag heaps, apartment houses and farmhouses, both attracted and disturbed me in a strange way; again I got

off the tram, but this time I took a long walk, drinking in the peculiar landscape with something akin to passion and trying to grasp what made it what it was, trying to put into words what gave its multiplicity of disparate elements their unity and order; I walked past an idyllic little house covered with ivy and it occurred to me that it belonged there precisely
because
it was so different from the shabby buildings all around it, from the silhouettes of pit headframes and chimneys and furnaces that served as its backdrop; I walked past low-grade temporary housing and saw a house not too far off, a dirty, gray old house, but with its own garden and iron fence and large weeping willow, a real freak in such surroundings—and yet, I said to myself, it belongs there exactly
because
of this. I was disturbed by all these minor
incompatibilities
not only because they struck me as the common denominator of the surrounding area, but because they provided me with an image of my own fate, my own exile in this city; and of course: the projection of my personal history onto the sheer objectiveness of an entire city offered me a certain relief; I understood that I no more belonged there than did the weeping willow and the little ivy-covered house, than did the short streets leading nowhere, streets lined with houses that seemed to come from a different place; I no more belonged there, in that once pleasantly rustic countryside, than did the hideous temporary housing, and I realized that it was
because
I did not belong there that it was my true place, in this appalling city of incompatibilities, this city whose relentless grip chained together things foreign to each other.

I ended up walking down the long street of an ancient village, now one of the nearer suburbs of Ostrava. I stopped in front of a large two-story building with a vertical cinema sign attached to one corner. I speculated idly, as chance passersby are wont to do, on why the sign said only cinema, with no name. I searched all over the outside of the building (which looked singularly unlike a cinema) but found no other sign. What I did find was an alley about five feet wide separating the building from the one next door, and after following it into a courtyard, I saw a one-story wing attached to the back with showcases along the wall for film posters. I went up to them but still found no name; I looked around and saw a little girl behind a wire fence in the neighboring backyard. I asked her what the cinema was called; she gave me a surprised look and said she didn't know. I resigned myself to its anonymity; in this Ostrava exile even cinemas had no names.

I drifted back (for no particular reason) to the showcases and noticed only then that the day's feature, that the show of the day, as announced by a poster and two stills, was the Soviet film
Court of Honor,
whose heroine Marketa had alluded to when she took it upon herself to play the angel of mercy in my life, the film whose harsher aspects the Comrades had alluded to during the Party proceedings against me; it had caused me enough grief, and I had hoped never to hear of it again; but no, not even here in Ostrava could I escape its pointing finger.... Still, if we don't like a pointing finger, we can turn our back on it. I did, and headed for the alleyway to the street.

And it was then I first set eyes on Lucie.

She was coming in my direction, in the direction of the courtyard; why didn't I simply walk past her? was it because I was merely drifting aimlessly? or because the unusual late-afternoon lighting in the courtyard held me back? or was it something in the way she looked? But her appearance was utterly ordinary. True, later it was this very
ordinariness
that touched and attracted me, but how was it she caught my eye and stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw her? hadn't I seen enough ordinary girls in the streets of Ostrava? or was her ordinariness so extraordinary? I don't know. I only know I stood and looked at her: she took her time, walking slowly to the showcases, stopped in front of the
Court of Honor
stills, then turned towards the entrance and went through the open door into the lobby. Yes, it must have been Lucie's singular slowness that fascinated me, a slowness radiating a resigned consciousness that there was nowhere to hurry to and that it was useless to reach impatiently toward anything. Yes, maybe it really was that melancholy slowness that made me follow her as she went up to the box office, took out some change, bought a ticket, glanced into the auditorium, then turned around and came back out into the courtyard.

I couldn't take my eyes off her. She stood with her back to me, looking out past the courtyard to where a group of cottages and gardens, each enclosed by its own picket fence, crept up a hill until the

edge of a quarry cut them off (I'll never forget that courtyard; I remember its every detail, I remember the wire fence separating it from the backyard where the little girl sat staring out into space, I remember that the steps where she sat were flanked by a low wall with two empty flowerpots and a gray washtub on it, I remember the smoky sun edging its way down over the quarry.)

It was ten to six, which meant the show wouldn't begin for ten minutes. Lucie turned and walked slowly across the courtyard and out into the street; I followed her, the scene of ravaged rural Ostrava behind me gave way to an urban setting. Fifty steps away was a pleasant little square, neatly kept up, with a tiny park and benches in front of a redbrick building with a pseudo-Gothic clock tower. I followed Lucie: she sat down on a bench; her slowness never left her for an instant; she seemed almost to be
sitting slowly;
she didn't look around, didn't let her eyes wander; she sat the way we sit when waiting for the outcome of a surgical operation, waiting for something that so engages us it drives us inwards, away from our surroundings; it must have been that inward concentration that allowed me to hover over her, look her up and down, without her noticing me.

A great deal has been said about love at first sight; I am perfectly aware of love's retrospective tendency to make a legend of itself, turn its beginnings into myth; so I don't want to assert that it was
love;
but I have no doubt there was a kind of clairvoyance at work: I immediately felt, sensed, grasped the essence of Lucie's being or, to be more precise, the essence of what she was later to become for me; Lucie had revealed herself to me the way
religious truth
reveals itself.

I looked at her; I saw a slipshod permanent crumpling her hair into a shapeless mass of curls; I saw a brown overcoat, pitifully threadbare and a bit too short; I saw a face both unobtrusively attractive and attractively unobtrusive; I sensed in this young woman tranquillity, simplicity, and modesty, and I felt that these were qualities I needed; moreover, it seemed to me that we were very much akin: all I had to do was to go up and start talking to her and she would smile as if a long-lost brother had suddenly appeared before her.

Then Lucie raised her head; she looked at the clock tower (even this slight movement is fixed in my memory, the movement of a girl who has no watch and instinctively sits facing a clock). She stood up and started back to the cinema; I wanted to go up to her; I lacked not the courage but the words; my heart was full, but my head was empty of even a single syllable; so I merely followed her into the small lobby. All at once a handful of people rushed in and made a beeline for the box office. I stepped ahead of them and bought a ticket for the detested film.

Meanwhile she had gone in; in the nearly empty auditorium numbered tickets lost all significance, and we sat where we pleased; I turned into Lucie's row and took the seat next to her. At that moment a fanfare from a worn record blared out into the hall, the lights dimmed, and the advertisements appeared on the screen.

Lucie must have realized that the soldier with black insignia had not sat next to her by chance; she must have been aware of me the whole time, must have felt my proximity, ail the more, perhaps, because I concentrated entirely on her; to what was happening on the screen, I paid no attention (what a ridiculous revenge: I enjoyed letting the film so often quoted at me by my moral guardians unreel before me unheeded).

Finally the film was over, the lights came on, and the tiny audience stood up and stretched. Lucie stood up too; she took the folded brown overcoat from her lap and put one arm in the sleeve. I quickly put on my cap to hide my clean-shaven skull, and without a word helped her into the other sleeve. She looked up at me briefly, mutely, and gave me a slight nod, but I couldn't tell whether to interpret it as a sign of thanks or as a purely instinctive gesture. Then she inched her way out of the row. I immediately threw on my green coat (it was too long on me and probably not very becoming) and went after her.

We were still inside the auditorium when I first spoke to her.

Those two hours of sitting next to her, thinking of her, must have put me on her wavelength: suddenly I was able to talk to her as if I knew her well; I did not begin the conversation with a joke or a paradox, as had been my custom, I was entirely natural—surprising myself, since in the presence of young women, I had always staggered under the weight of my masks.

I asked her where she lived, what she did, whether she went to the movies a lot. I told her that I worked in the mines, that it was hard work, that I didn't have much time off. She said that she worked in a factory and lived in a dormitory, that she had to be in by eleven, that she went to the movies a lot because she didn't like going to dances. I told her I'd be glad to go to the movies with her anytime she was free. She said she'd rather go alone. I asked her if it was because she felt sad. She said it was. I told her I wasn't particularly cheerful either.

Nothing brings people together more quickly (though often spuriously and deceitfully) than shared melancholy; this atmosphere of quiet understanding, which puts all manner of fears and inhibitions to sleep and is easily comprehended by the refined and vulgar, the erudite and unlettered, is the most simple route to rapport, yet extremely rare: for one has to lay aside cultivated restraints, cultivated gestures and facial expressions, and be simple; how I managed to do it (suddenly, with no preparation), I who'd always fumbled blindly behind my false faces, I do not know; I do not know, but it was like an unexpected gift, a miraculous liberation.

We told each other the most ordinary things about ourselves; our confessions were short and to the point. When we reached the dormitory, we stood outside for a while under a streetlamp that bathed Lucie in light, and I looked at her brown coat and stroked her, not her cheeks or her hair, but the ragged material of this touching garment.

I still remember the streetlamp swaying and the girls laughing raucously as they passed us on their way into the dormitory; I remember looking up at Lucie's building, at the bare gray wall and windows without ledges; and I remember Lucie's face, which (unlike the faces of other girls I'd known in similar situations) was calm, almost blank, rather like the face of a schoolgirl standing at the blackboard humbly (without artifice or guile) reciting what she knows, seeking neither high marks nor high praise.

We agreed I'd send a postcard to let her know when I had my next leave and could see her. We said good night (without kissing or touching), and I walked away. After a few steps I turned and saw her standing in the doorway, not unlocking the door, just standing there

watching me; only then, when I was a little way off, did she drop her reserve and allow her eyes (so timid before) to fix me in a long stare. Then she lifted her arm like someone who has never waved, who doesn't know how to wave, who only knows that when one person leaves, the other person waves, and did her awkward best to make the gesture. I stopped and waved back, and we stood there looking at each other. Then I started off again, stopped once more (Lucie's hand was still going), and went on, starting and stopping, until finally I turned the corner and we vanished from each other's sight.

BOOK: The JOKE
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