Last month I (coincidentally) read a spate of successful authors’ first books – Agatha Christie’s, Katherine Mansfield’s, A.A. Milne’s – which is always an interesting exercise, and the fourth ‘first book’ I read was The Joke (1967) by Milan Kundera, given to me by my friend Lucy. It could have worked for Reading Presently next year, but it also covered a tricky 1960s gap in A Century of Books. Usually, with translated books, I am keen to mention the translator – but a fascinating Author’s Note at the end of The Joke explains that this fifth translation of the novel (from Czech) is really a combination of translations by David Hamblyn, Oliver Stallybrass, Michael Heim, and Kundera himself. In case you still think Kundera might be a bit of a slacker, he is also responsible for the cover art.
The Joke is broadly about the way in which someone can (or cannot) be an individual within the Communist regime of 1950s Czechoslovakia, and the impact one decision can make on the rest of a person’s life. Although possibly not the only ‘joke’ in the novel (the Wikipedia entry manfully identifies three), the pivotal moment of the novel comes early on. Ludvik is a university professor and member of the Communist party – his somewhat humourless female friend is away on a training course, and they are corresponding…
From the training course (it took place at one of the castles of central Bohemia) she sent me a letter that was pure Marketa: full of earnest enthusiasm for everything around her; she liked everything: the early-morning calisthenics, the talks, the discussions, even the songs they sang; she praised the “healthy atmosphere” that reigned there; and diligently she added a few words to the effect that the revolution in the West would not be long in coming.
As far as that goes, I quite agreed with what she said; I too believed in the imminence of a revolution in Western Europe; there was only one thing I could not accept: that she should be so happy when I was missing her so much. So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.
It turns out the Communist party don’t appreciate a giggle, and Ludvik is ousted from his job, exiled from the party, and sent off to do two years at a military camp. Whilst there he meets, and falls in love with, a mysterious woman named Lucie. At the end of the novel, various different strands (including a few that I haven’t addressed – like Kostka whose Christian faith is taking him away from Communism) coalesce and overlap at an old-fashioned parade, and the multiple viewpoints Kundera has used for different sections all come together and collide, taking short chapters each without indicating whose voice is speaking.
Although Kundera rather overloads The Joke with different perspectives and competing storylines, it is only really Ludvik’s story which stands out; the rest feels like it is stuck on to the sides of his engaging point of view and intriguing experiences. His reflections upon political doctrine, personal affections, and the curious unpredictability of cause-and-effect are all compelling – let’s face it, any novel which can get me even mildly interested in politics has achieved more than the public press has in the past 27 years.
But, although you can see the seeds of his later experimentalism, The Joke is a much more straightforward novel than the one which made me a fan, Immortality. That is hardly surprising for a first novel, and this has that curious combination of putting-too-much-in with a lack of novelistic ambition. If I hadn’t read a couple of his later novels, I wouldn’t have noticed the deficit – this is still a very good novel, and probably more to the taste of a lot of people than his postmodern work – but I have, so I do. I was intrigued by one or two hints of his future work, including this (from a man trying to spot his disguised son in the parade):
My son. The person nearest to me. I stand in front of him, and I don’t even know whether it is he or not. What, then, do I know if I don’t know even that? Of what am I sure in this world if I don’t have even that certainty?
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the catalyst for Identity. I think if I’d read The Joke first, I’d have been impressed but probably not actively sought out more Kundera. As it is, I really appreciated being able to see where he started as a novelist – and how he progressed from there.
Are there any authors whose first novels, read after later ones, have really surprised you?