Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Joke - Milan Kundera

'It is impossible to do justice here to the subtleties, comedy and wisdom of this very beautiful novel. The author of The Joke is clearly one of the best to be found anywhere.' Salman Rushdie, Observer

This was what caught my eye as I roamed the aisles of Crossword, picking up random samples in search of fresh names to tutor me on the art of storytelling.

It was written at the back of the cover along with a few other lines of praise, as is expected to be written at the back of any novel which is good enough to get published and respectable enough to still occupy the aisles of a bookstore of another country after more than four decades have passed since its first edition.

A lone copy of this paperback with a simmering white wrapping lay in a neat corner, filled with twenty odd other books, noteworthy and otherwise.

And I brought it home.

I did, because I sensed a kind of truth ringing from the solemnity with which these exact words of praise were etched on the back cover. Perhaps if the person praising had used some other combination of words or some other grammatical or structural means to convey his thoughts on the book, I would have felt indifference ringing from it. And, to my misfortune, as might be true in so many other cases where I do so owing to a serious lack of time and money, I would have put the book back into the rack and moved on without giving it a second glance.

I feel fortunate thinking about all the wisdom that I would have missed being audience to, had something like that happened. Because, I got to read one of the most philosophically sound novels that has been and perhaps will be in print for the greater part of the century that has passed and the ones to come.

All because of two lines printed on its back cover.


And yet while it is the tumultuous events and the non-stereotypical philosophies which the stories’ characters have managed to etch into my brain that are making me search for other-wordly reasons behind my decision to  pick this exact specific book to relish and devour, it is the practical and logical part of me, the part which still remains unscathed from the onslaught of this novel’s slow albeit overpowering and ultimately overwhelming currents that is now shouting at me to reveal to you the more overtly expressive front cover of the book and to ask you a simple question which it has been constantly bugging me with. 

And so I oblige:

There. . . . . .
Now for the question. . . . .
Dare I even ask? Do you even find a need for me to?


I’m sure (I hope), I stand pardoned in advance even as I try to put into words something which is to be asked and answered in subtle silence and nothing else, just as the creators of the ‘for dummies’ series are pardoned for trying to dumb down an art form such as creative writing just for the sake of adding another useless book to their credit. So here goes. . .

How does a book filled with such beautiful philosophies come to be packed in such a-this is the part to which my pardon applies most-Hideously Deceiving cover design?

I mean. . . . . .
Ok. this is as far as my words can point it out for you. I’m sure you’ve got it and for those who haven’t, here’s a look at the front cover again:

Well, like I said, that is my logical side’s say. 

But now, as the emotionally titillating echoes of voices belonging to the other part of my brain, the one which has been scorched to its core by the flow of words filling page after page of this book which seep onto your skin like a calming soothing balm and yet which make you itch and scratch and pain and bleed at places which they so righteously do in such a mild, almost endearing manner that pain becomes a sensation altogether different to observe and feel and blood becomes a fluid altogether different to flow down an open wound and drip onto the ground; that part of my brain which shall always admire the author for tutoring me on beliefs and their habit of encompassing their respective believers into a convincing and persuasive cocoon for lives altogether, making them do things which they may look back at some point in their lives and regret or feel like laughing about or feel like changing owing to the power of hindsight-which is, as most people agree, 20:20; that part of my brain which shall always think of and thank Milan Kundera, the esteemed author of this book, for forging something useful out of the clay that my mind is made up of-which, I believe, is bound to dry up and crack as days pass without the presence of enough hands to sprinkle water on it and to mould it into creditable shapes; in short, that part of my brain which I enjoy using and do use more often than the other, is jumping up and down from its throne inside my head. 

It already knows the answer to the question which my logical part is so stupid enough to put into words and, by doing so, to insult the power of subtlety which The Joke imparts so brilliantly in each and every section of its prose.

The answer is simple, it tells me-the dreaming, vivaciously abstract thinking part.

Simple. . . .


Well, as you will agree, one joke does cost Ludvig heavily at the beginning of the novel and changes his life altogether. So the title of the story is befitting for that reason. That’s an obvious one.

Is that all?

Of course not. Who the fuck do you take Kundera for? Another Chetan Bhagat?


Well it’s a pun.

What is?

All of it. The title, the cover design and the story in itself. A sad one too.

A pun? On what?

On you, for being so serious about the book cover. And also on me, for considering the tale to be more deep-meaninged and more profound than what it really is.

Eh? On you and me?

Yes. You and me but not just us. The pun begins with the characters. The joke is on them, all of them- Ludvig, Helena, Jaroslav, even Kotska. . . . . the joke is on their ideals and morals, the principles which they choose to live by and also on the circumstances which make them introspect into where they stand compared to themselves two decades back. The joke is what life does to you with passage of time. 

The belief systems which we are so hell bent on living year after year even as time corrodes them of their meaning and basic reasonings, even as a time comes when you stop searching for a reason or meaning to actions and simply continue to do things for the sake of sanity rooted on the act of continuance and momentum sans progress. 

Time flies by without making you realize that the amount of loopholes in your set of beliefs, which you ignore just because you want to continue following the same set, have a tendency to grow a hundredfold-especially when left unattended. They even grow in size, beginning with little itsy bitsy cracks on the walls of your safe sound cocoon but ending up becoming craters as huge as the ones bedecking the moon. 

The joke here, my friend, is the fact that when that point in your life comes where you are finally doubt-filled enough to begin the painful process of introspection and self evaluation-which by the way will be by life’s intentional doing and not by some dim-witted fairy tale coincidence-you will suddenly realize that none of it matters. It will pain you nonetheless but the fact will still remain that it was sheer silliness that made you do things in the name of a set of principles or philosophies which you felt to be so pure and sensible and human when you began following them and vowed to adopt them for the rest of your life. 

It could be religion, it could be atheism. It could be communism, it could be capitalism. But some way or the other, the mundane and the oh-so-simple motions of life and its delicate and playful intricacies shall one day corner you into an uncomfortably tight corner of flashing lights where all the holes which you have ignored until now come to haunt you all at once, all with the same mediocrity due to which you may have ignored them till that moment albeit it will be the same mediocrity and simplicity that shall then render you speechless. On that day my friend, at that point of time, with you cornered by your own doubts, you will understand that life has played a big joke on you.  

So its supposed to be funny?

Well it does have its share of sadness. It means to tell you that there is no saying when and where that unavoidable curve-ball will hit your path and wreck your cocoon. So yes, as some would put it, it is depressing. And yet one has to admit, yes it is funny. It is, isn’t it? The fact that we seek the necessity to erect principles to shade us from the ever glowing brightness of a voyeuristic and prying society that allows us onto its greener tracts only if we are up to the part of lubricating its gullet either with a new set of principles which we have to absolutely vow to follow or with a confirmation that there is an existing set of principles which we are already following. A variation here, a deviation there is fine by all, but go against the principles which you have vowed to follow and behold! The blinding wrath of the societal focus of this great human civilization falls on you like a lone halogen bulb emphasizing center stage in a seasoned magician’s act.

You are left with nothing to fend yourself with as the shining light floods into your eyes and a jeering mocking crowd of onlookers sits behind the bulb, with the united intention of making you admit to either of the following:
A) That this was a mere deviation, only just stronger, and that your beliefs your faiths are still the same, or
B) That you are now the believer and the follower of a different set of principles, albeit which are well defined, well known and based on something concrete.

It is only after you have pledged allegiance to either of the above two that the bulb is switched off and the crowd departs. It is only after a thorough confirmation is gained by people that you are hiding behind the same or atleast a similar structure of commonly found principles and beliefs that you are let go. AND WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE FREE PEOPLE. Isn’t that just a little bit funny?

That’s fucked up mate, that’s what it is.

I agree. It is fucked up, but you know what the funniest thing is? You know what the biggest joke of all is?


You already know all of this. Everything is there for you and me and everyone else to see right from the beginning. Its all there in bold italics staring at you like the inescapable face of a hungry tigress. Not just a single line of ambiguity telling you that ‘maybe you are wrong’. No, not that. Sorry, its far clearer than that. You see, the biggest joke that life plays on you is that- it informs you of all the places that you are going to go wrong at, well in advance and as your journey is about to begin life tells you that despite knowing it all, you will continue to ignore it and do exactly as is written for you to do.

No shit. I concur.

Well, that’s what The Joke is.

Hmm. . .

Oh, and there is just one other pun involved.

And what would that be?

The pun on vengeance.


Vengeance, it’s a funny concept. The fury of getting back at someone has the capacity to encompass decades of your existence on earth and yet there is no saying whether the actual act of vengeance, once it is executed, will truly harm the front person in a manner which you want to. For all you know, it may so happen that time has brought such a drastic change of circumstances that the act which you have been, for so many years now, wanting to use as a means to harm is no longer harmful. 

In fact, upon execution, you may even realize that the act has gone completely unnoticed. Or a funnier situation would be, you may realize that it was not this person at all from whom you should have been wanting to exact revenge. Maybe your perception at that time was so filled with rage and perhaps your thoughts so muddled up due to your own torment that you identified the incorrect person as responsible for your misery in the first place and instead concentrated on channelizing your hatred on him, maybe thinking that putting a face on your tormentors would make it easy to bear. 

Mind you, the possibility of these doubts overcoming you is real because when it is that these doubts do come to you, its not just a few days that have gone by since the day you attached the face to your life's villainy, but it’s a few years, a few decades even and in that ocean of time that lies between ‘what was’ and ‘what is’ there is bound to be a hell of a lot of difference of opinion inside your head. 


Exactly. Time does that to you. It shits all over your plans, all over your soul, especially if you have stuck to a set of principles for decades without questioning them. It continues to shit all over you until the moment comes when your nostrils are no longer able to keep the stench from hitting the bottom of your lungs.

Ha ha ha ha!

See, my friend, that’s the joke. Such a saddening fact it is indeed that nothing will change for most even after having read the book. The act of introspection, real and truthful introspection shall come in one’s life only at the point at which it is written in one’s fate to come. Until then, any and every loophole and pothole will look like a wishing well! Even when one knows fully that it is not!

Sad, but funny. Got it.

Philosophies aside, with the exception of a few events which get unduly extended, I found the unfolding of the tale to be very interesting story-wise. 

A special mention of the translation work which I must say is impeccable here (original manuscript is in Slavic) as the author’s thoughts are so singular that it must have taken a heck lot of intelligence and hard work to put together the same form and flow of these thoughts in a different language. The book does cover political themes. I understood, however, at the end that these are a mere exterior to the inner conflicts of emotion which shall always rein on human life, irrespective of which century we are living in.

The Joke shall always be cherished by me as a jewel that I was fortunate enough not to overlook that day at the bookstore. And, like the dozens of others who continue to tighten the harness of tutelage around my idea of a good story and narrative with their excellent literary works, Milan Kundera shall be thanked by me every passing day for what he has done to me.