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The Joke Hardcover – June, 1992

4.6 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this new English-language version of Kundera's classic first novel, completely revised by the author to incorporate the most accurate portions of two previous translations plus his own corrections, the narrator Ludvik wonders, "What if History plays jokes?" This politically charged question, coupled with Ludvik's fate as an unintentional dissident, struck a chord in Czech readers; the novel's 1967 publication was a key literary event of the Prague Spring. Looking back on the tense, McCarthy-like atmosphere of the late 1940s, it chronicles the disastrous results of Ludvik's prankish postcard to a girlfriend criticizing the Czech communist regime. He is expelled from the Communist Party, forced to leave the university and join a special army unit with other enemies of the state. Years later, after he has resumed his studies and become a successful scientist, his lingering anger at the man who engineered his expulsion culminates in an act of destructive sexual revenge that serves only to show Ludvik he has never really understood any woman and is indeed the butt of one of history's many cruel jokes. The fresh descriptions and masterful employment of several narrators testify to Kundera's power as a novelist, unmistakable even in this early work.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This fifth English-language version of the ingenious first novel by the best-selling author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being ( LJ 5/1/84) is based on Michael Henry Heim's translation (Harper & Row, 1984), which Kundera originally praised but found wanting after more careful review. The new version replaces words and phrases with more idiomatic or precise substitutes, occasionally recasting whole sentences. As a result, the narrators are better differentiated and the language more alive and natural, particularly in the reflective passages. The story of Ludvik Jahn's misfired joke, which ruins his life by giving him a reputation as an enemy of the state, and his equally misfired attempt at revenge (seduction of the wife of the Party official he holds responsible for his misfortune) is well worth reading--and purchasing--again in this definitive version fully revised by the author.
- Marie Bednar, Pennsylvania State Univ. Libs., University Park
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 317 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins; Rev Sub edition (June 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060190302
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060190309
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 6.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,267,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
After reading several books by Kundera -one of my favorite authors-, I decided to try his first novel, "The Joke". Because it's the first one, its natural that the style would differ from his latest production...however, the author is the same and the style is similar in all of his work, he explores human thoughts and emotions beautifully, maybe not in a such profound way like Dostoievsky or Hesse, but close enough to be in the same league.
If you want a detail of the plot (I personally don't like to do that before reading a book), you will probably find that in other reviews, I'll just said that the story is about a man that lost all of his achievements just for a misunderstanding, a joke that was not well received in a communism society. Kundera explores the thoughts of this man (in several time periods of his life), but also takes other characters and gives them a protagonic level (the story is written in first person, in the view of all of the characters). The book gets more and more interesting as it develops, and the climax is at the end, the last 50 pages are brilliant. A dramatic story with a great end.
Five stars for the way Kundera allow readers to get to know and love his characters.....brilliant narrative, brilliant book.
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Format: Paperback
A joke's a very serious thing."

So said the 18th-century English poet Charles Churchill in "The Ghost". And a silly joke was a very serious thing for Ludvik, the protagonist of Milan Kundera's first novel "The Joke."

Written and set in 1965 Prague and first published in Czechoslovakia in 1967, the novel opens with Ludvik looking back on the joke that changed his life in the early 1950s. Ludvik was a dashing, witty, and popular student. Like most of his friends he was an enthusiastic supporter of the still-fresh Communist regime in post-World War II Czechoslovakia. In a playful mood he writes a postcard to one of the girls in his class during their summer break. Since she seems, according to Ludvik, to be a bit too serious he writes on the postcard "Optimism is the opium of the people! The healthy atmosphere stinks! Long live Trotsky!" His colleagues and fellow young-party leaders did not quite see the humor in the sentiment expressed in the postcard. Ludvik finds himself expelled from the party and college and drafted to that part of the Czech military where alleged subversives form work brigades and spend the next few years working in mines.

Despite the interruption in his career Ludvik has become a successful scientist. But despite his success, his treatment at the hands of his former friends has left him bitter and angry. An opportunity arises when he meets Helena, an old friend now married to Pavel, the friend who led the efforts to purge Ludvik from the party. Ludvik decides to seduce Helena as a means of exacting his revenge. In essence this is the second `joke' of the novel. Although the seduction is successful things do not quite play out the way Ludvik expects, the novel's third joke' and he is left once more to sit and think bitter thoughts.
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Format: Paperback
At the end of the French edition I have there is a short comment of the author about the history of The Joke, including its interdiction in Czechoslovakia and the bad translations it had to go through afterwards. And finally, Kundera seems to feel relieved that now, when everyone forgot about the invasion of his home country, his readers don't see The Joke as a political novel, but simply as a novel.

Indeed, some of the reviewers on this site needed to mention that "one does not have to have a particular political interest to enjoy this book", "The Joke is, frankly, not very political" and I simply wonder why such a fear of the political. No doubt, Kundera is way beyond a simple journalist describing life behind the Iron curtain. But why would a romance or science fiction novel or even a "just novel" be better than a political one?

Take the political out of The Joke and we're left with an absurd novel. An unexplainable and ridiculous trouble over a post card, the hard life of a worker in the coal mines, where he has to stay for unclear reasons, a "stupid" young lady who doesn't seem to understand a man's idea of love and an equally stupid hateful sex affair which pushes another na?ve woman to suicide. Young, modern Miss Brozova, to whom Zemanek's and Ludvik's past were equally blameable, aberrant and indifferent, was thinking the same way.

I have asked someone about the movie made after The Unbearable lightness of being and all I heard was some vague memory of a few hot sex scenes. I have the feeling that both books are reduced to that in the view of many readers and it's a pity. If this is what we are looking for, I would recommend Pascal Bruckner - Bitter Moon: it's brilliant and no trace of politics mixed with sex.
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By A Customer on May 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
Is it "arrogant meanspiritedness", "authorial gracelessness",and "publishing astigmatism" to ask for a reasonable and honest translation? To ask that a translator save his "creative" flights for his own works? I say it is not. I say readers are more likely to be offended at and have a right to be offended at an unfaithful translation (as well as at the Kirkus review above). This is a brilliant book well worth the care Milan Kundera took with it, well worth the care Milan Kundera took with its re-translation.
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