(Blondie prepared me for a lot in life, but not Moravian culture.)
‘Today history is no more than a thin thread of the remember stretching over an ocean of the forgotten, but times moves on, and an epoch of millennia will come which the inextensible memory of the individual will be unable to encompass; whole centuries and millennia will therefore fall away….”
The Joke is a sort of political revenge story. Although like most of Kundera’s novels, the story revolves around several key characters, the standout one is Ludvik Jahn. Ludvik is a popular and successful student under the communist regime who foolishly writes a joke on a postcard (‘Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long like Trotsky!’). The party fails to see the humour and he is forced to work in the mines after being thrown out of the party. Ludvik, after a few years, ends up with a good life but he remains bitter towards his former students, especially Pavel, who was instrumental in expelling Ludvik from the Party. To get revenge for an act that occurred a lifetime ago, Ludvik seeks to seduce Pavel’s wife: Helena. Helena is by far the most sympathetic character. She is a largely innocent victim of Ludvik’s machinations and the literal butt of the biggest joke in the book. She is seduced by Ludvik and unloved by her husband. It’s easy to dislike Ludivk and everything that he does in his pursuit of revenge, especially his approach to sex, but it is also hard not to see most of our own impulses and paranoias in Ludvik and his actions. He serves as Kundera’s warning to us all about cosmic humour. The central plot reminded me a lot of Voltaire’s line:
‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.’
The most interesting part of The Joke for me was actually Kundera’s stuff on history and folklore. The secondary plot focus on the Ride of the Kings and Moravian culture. Here, I think Kundera excels and is in his element as he weaves lighthearted philosophising in between the ‘love’ story. The technical discussions about Moravian music can be a little difficult to follow, especially for someone whose musical knowledge is limited to 1980s pop music. (Blondie prepared me for a lot in life, but not Moravian culture.)
Overall, The Joke is an interesting novel and it is easy to see how many of the themes in this story merged with his other books to form the foundation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is perhaps because I started my Kundera journey with his chef-d’œuvre that I don’t quite appreciate the nuance of his earlier works.
“They are gazing at God’s windows. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored: he is happy”
Slowness takes place on two midsummer evenings, two hundred years apart. The plot focuses on five characters, including the author himself who appears at the start. (I do have to confess, although it is a little ‘post-y’, I do like it when authors include themselves into the novels.) Set in a chateau, the story traces the seductive dance between Madame T. and the Chevalier in the eighteenth century and two stories of seduction in the present involving Berck (a dancer), Vincent (a friend of the author) and two women they meet at the chateau. It is less a novel really and more of a philosophical essay, one that explores the relationship between speed, memory and love. One simple (but interesting) discussion explores the fact that we walk slowly if we want to remember something but if we want to forget what has just happened we tend to quicken our pace:
‘There is a secret one between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting… the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory, the degree of speech is directly proportional to the intensity of fogetting’.
These narratives are underpinned by Kundera’s exploration of speed, history and memory which all serve as a warning to the reader to avoid the modern pressures to be hasty in modern life and to embrace slowness.
The other major theme in Kundera’s novel is the concept of the ‘dancer.’ All politicians have a dancer in them, we are told, because they seek glory not power; they desire to ‘take over the stage so as to beam forth his self’ rather than actually enact ideas. (It is hard not to see a bit of a ‘dancer’ in Boris Johnson.) To dominate the stage, politicians need to make sure no one else is on the stage by ensuring their opponents are seen as morally inferior.
Slowness is one of Kundera’s shortest novels, but it is also one of his most detailed and dense stories. It is written in a style that transcends and complicates time, which can be a little confusing in places but there is something immensely sweet about Slowness.
I love Kundera, but I do not like this story. Set in a spa town in Czechoslovakia, it centres around sex and love. Not uncommon in a Kundera story, but there is a much darker and misogynist tone than normal in this story.
Klima is a famous musician with a remarkably beautiful wife (Kamila). However he is prone to having numerous affairs, and one such affair ended with Klima impregnating a nurse at the spa (Ruzena). The story focuses on Klima’s attempts to convince Ruzena to get an abortion, an act that requires permission from the Board. In order to convince Ruzena to get an abortion, Klima has to promise her that he will leave his wife for her, which he has no intention of doing as he is greatly in love with Kamila (who has decided to visit the spa in order to catch Klima out). This is pretty standard stuff for Kundera.
But the two secondary plots are more extreme than normal. The gynaecologist at the spa helps couples who are struggling to have children. He doesn’t help by normal medical practices: he impregnates the women without their knowledge so that the vast majority of children at the local school share a considerable physical resemblance to the gynaecologist… Horrific.
Yet that’s not even the worse bit. One character Jakub visits the spa before he leaves the country. He wants to thank the gynaecologist for giving him a suicide pill to use if his days as a political exile got too dark. He carries this pill with him everywhere, concealed in a loose handkerchief. Whilst he is at the spa he sleeps with the daughter of the man he betrayed years ago by pretending that he was his best friend. In the restaurant, Ruzena the pregnant nurse leaves a tube of her anxiety pills on the table. Jakub and his “friend’s” daughter sit down to eat at the table she has vacated and Jakub sees the pills. He notes that they are the same colour and shape as his suicide pill, so (naturally) he puts the pill into the tube. When the nurse comes back and picks up her pills, he doesn’t tell her that she now has a suicide pill in the mix. For the rest of the novel, he has countless chances to tell her that her life is at risk but in the end he decides to drive away and flee the country, comforting himself with the thought that he’ll never know whether he is a murderer or not. Ruzena, who is rather naturally anxious about everything that is going on at the spa, takes the suicide pill by accident and dies a quick but painful death. This conveniently solves Klima’s quandary and Ruzena’s death is glossed over by the other characters in a callous fashion.
Kunder’s treatment of women has often been problematic, to say the least. A lot of time it seems that the misogyny is less Kundera’s and more his characters’. That is to say, that Kundera paints a character that is misogynistic, one who is indicative of how a lot of men think. But this story treats women as wholly expendable. The misogyny is not an insight into a character’s psyche (and by extension society’s) but is just gratuitous.
My Kundera journey is nearly complete. I now only have one more novel of his to read: Life Is Elsewhere.