(Author: Milan Kundera) + (Year: 1967) + (Goodreads)
(Around the World: Czech Republic)
One of my all-time favourite books is Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. So when I went to the Czech republic, I wanted to get a new Kundera book along my plan of buying books from the countries I visit. I had heard about The Joke from several people, so I told myself “Why not?”. Well… I shouldn’t have.
This book represented everything I could possibly hate about Kundera. I had heard before that he has many misogynistic tones in his books, something that didn’t strike me as hard in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but it did so in The Joke. In fact, I had an extremely hard time finishing this book because of the terrible representation of human emotions, interpersonal feelings and the role of women in them.
In The Joke, women are nothing more than playthings. The only thing they do is serve a purpose. They are not beings on their own but only in relation to what men need from them. The characters themselves admit it at certain points, but it was not my impression that while the author does self-mock, he also criticizes this open misogyny. I don’t think that Kundera actually disagrees with his characters. He might realize that the roles he attributes to women are wrong, but I don’t think he has any other way of thinking, and that is clearly visible in the entire book.
This fact bothered me so deeply that I could focus on little else outside of it.
Throughout the entire book, I was deeply disturbed and disgusted by the fact that this is how some men see and treat women. This indifference, this humiliation, it was so scary – if we are to accept the world as seen through Kundera, it would be a sad world indeed. And the most terrifying part of it all is that this type of behaviour is not only real, but also very common. I noticed even more of the exactly same attitude toward women, while I was reading the book, in the world around me.
Indifference was also what was killing the characters in the book. Helena was tortured by the indifference of her lovers, Ludvik – by the indifference of the other people to his sorrows and need for revenge, Jaroslav – by the indifference of the modern world to his beloved traditions and folklore.
I believe that we all shudder at the idea of indifference. Anger is passion, same as love. It means that a person cares, one way or another. But indifference… that is altogether different and scarier. It means that to someone, or to a group of people, or even to the whole world, something that you care about, or worse yet, your entire being, is something of no importance and no consequence. And there is nothing at all to do to fight indifference. A cold and indifferent heart can hardly be shaken by any desperate action.
There was one character that I found more tolerable than the entire bunch – Kostka. He was the only character that was not entirely closed off into his own world and wanted to give and not just get. There was also one quote from Kostka that made me think long and hard until I ended up agreeing:
“I can understand you, but that doesn’t alter the fact that such general rancor against people is terrifying and sinful. Because to live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable , is the same as living in hell. You are living in hell, Ludvik, and I pity you.”