1965, Books, Fiction

The Joke (1965) by Milan Kundera

I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being (and watched the movie) in university and loved it. But I’ve never read Kundera since. I saw this book in a local lawn library and picked it up, knowing nothing about it. I see why it’s interpreted as a political novel but I tend to agree with the blurb on the back that it’s not exactly that.

The older I get, the less tolerance I have for unlikeable characters. And, well, Ludvik is certainly an unlikeable character. Fortunately, we have the perspectives of other characters so that we know Ludvik isn’t an author surrogate and that his perspective isn’t necessarily true. But since the story is the story of Ludvik’s redemption (or attempted redemption), it still makes the book a little less pleasant. I understand I’m being contradictory: Ludvik needs to be an asshole for this to work. But, given that his perspective is the perspective we encounter the most, it can be a trying read, at times. Though Jaroslav has his bad qualities too, I remember enjoying his main section so much more than any of Ludvik’s. (It also helps that I was learning about Moravian music.)

I do think the novel is pretty well constructed, especially how the perspectives come together in the climax almost like the final movement of a symphony. That’s probably the highlight of the novel for me.
I find myself wishing the novel took a different turn, but it’s one that would change the novel so much as it would be unrecognizable. Or maybe I just wish Ludvik’s redemption weren’t so easy, or that he thought about it differently. When Kostka reveals to us what really happened with Lucie, I thought we might be heading one direction. But then I slowly came to realize that, whether or not we’re supposed to take Kostka’s version of Lucie’s story at face value, Ludvik won’t, because he’s Ludvik. And, for me, at this age, in this time…well, I want more consequences for him, even if they are just emotional consequences.

So I think it’s a well-crafted novel. And there are layers, which is always good. (Layered interpretations of the title, and both the reading of it as a political novel and the reading of it as a story that could take place anywhere.) But I just don’t like Ludvik and I feel like his redemption (specifically for his plan with Helena, not with the rest of his life) just feels like not enough for me. Will his behaviour in the last section – which is a spoiler, hence why I’m not more specific – really save this man from being this cruel in the future? I’m skeptical.

7/10

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