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I was impressed, surprisingly so, with the depth, accessibility and enjoyability of this novel, which Kundera wrote in 1965 and it was published in 1967 (and apparently played a role in the Prague Spring that year).
In the early 1950s Czechoslovakia, Ludvik Jahn, a university student with a great sense of humor, was a strong supporter of the Communist regime after World War II. Attempting to show his girlfriend a bit of charm and a sense of humor over the summer when they are on break from classes, he wrote in a postcard to her: "Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!" The commies had zero sense of humor, expelled him from the "party," kicked him out of the university and forced him, as a dissident, to do two years of hard labor in the mines.
Although he eventually gains decent success in his scientific profession, he harbors a grudge against party members who were responsible for his fall from grace. When he sees an opportunity to exact revenge on Zemanik who led the charge against him, Ludvik seduces Zemanik's wife and the joke may be on him, with the wife a "civilian" casualty.
I love the structure of this, Kundera's first novel, with three narrators. I'm not a big fan of, as in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, his carrying the reader through his writing thought processes about the possibilities as he becomes a part of the novel as "author," not just narrator, which ruins my ability to temporarily suspend disbelief.
For me, this novel was outstanding at revealing the truth of the human condition that "redressibility" of wrongs against us is just not possible, and others, including the perpetrator of the wrong, will have forgotten the misdeed anyway by the time you think you've gotten to the point of revenge. Thus one carries the poison of resentment around, as Oscar Wilde put it, as an "adder in one's breast" to "rise up every night to sow thorns in the garden of one's soul."
For this and other reasons, forgiveness is one major key in life's symphony of peace and joy. "...[T]o live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable, is the same as living in hell." The Joke
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Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?
My mind wandered a lot. I can see why as the Author's Afterword complains the earlier translations (#1-4) edited and streamlined the original. Despite Kundera's protests, it needed revision. It's far too sprawling and disjointed. It turned tedious early on and rarely engaged.
What do you think your next listen will be?
I am taking on a revisit to Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" as a reminder of quality literary fiction.
Did Richmond Hoxie do a good job differentiating all the characters? How?
He tried. He has an avuncular style similar to George Guidall. But for the females, he could not modulate his delivery much. For the protagonist, he sounded too boorish and gruff.
Was The Joke worth the listening time?
A toss-up. While it did give you an insight into Moravian folkways and music, it lacked the detailed impact of, say, how working in a mine would feel for one sentenced to a "black insignia" unarmed contingent of politically suspect comrades in early 1960s Czechoslovakia,
Any additional comments?
This confirms my unease with Milan Kundera's work. While "The Joke" by some is considered a debut (1965-7) second only to "Unforgettable Lightness of Being," I am annoyed by his seemingly slapdash manner of plot. Yes, he weighs in with the philosophical musings early in his career, but this novel frankly merited at least some of the excisions he predictably decries. The 7-part structure is promising but the results are verbose and dull.