Keith's Reviews > The Joke

The Joke by Milan Kundera
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's review
Mar 11, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction
Read in March, 2008

On Monday at around 3 o'clock in the afternoon I decided I was going to read "The Joke." I don't really know why; it occurred to me out of the blue -- the only thought I'd ever given Kundera before that point was that the titles of his books obviously lived in a world devoid of irony in order to persist in their existence, and that that unironic world was one I wanted no part of. On the other hand, I really liked the title "The Joke" and I'd always liked the font in which it was written. That was about all I needed, so I took the train over to the Strand and picked up their only copy (Shhh -- it was fate!).

Anyway, now it's about 1:30 AM on Wednesday and I just finished the book, so I'm having a Moment. Luckily, the pensive/sad confusion I was left with upon finishing the book had worked itself out in my head even before I'd finished spreading jam on my Post-Reading Biscuit (not an allegory, I actually did just eat a biscuit): "The Joke" is basically about that moment when you realize that the past has just caught up with you/resolved itself/tortured you for far longer than it needed.

It reminds me of this time a few years ago when I started sobbing over old photos of myself as a little kid one night while I was at my parents' house. I sort of ended up burying my head in my mother's lap and she said something shockingly insightful, just about the most shockingly insightful thing she's ever said to me -- that sometimes we feel sad about the past just because we can't get it back, and that's okay. The implication -- which was clear then but I've lost in the re-telling -- was that even the parts of the past that aren't all that significant are overwhelmingly ultimate in their "lost-ness" with the passage of time, and the shock of that can often be kind of crushing, but our reaction to that (in my case, sobbing and snotting all over my mother's lap and afghan) is totally human and completely all right.

It's weird I remember that, because "The Joke" is actually not about inconsequential parts of the past. It's about the earth-shattering bits that shape a person (for better or worse), as well as the slow, creeping dissatisfaction of regret. This is probably what most first novels are about, because why else would a beginning writer finally commit all those words to paper for the first time if they weren't plagued by something they wanted to release, i.e. themselves from i.e. the past?

Right. So probably most first novels are about this, but "The Joke" pretends to be about a lot of other things before that, which is its trick. It relaxes you with detached and dated political analysis and historical references and discussions of music and quirky post-modern unreliable narrators and Wuthering Heights-esque generation-spanning love.

But in the last fifty pages or so it starts twisting and revealing itself, almost clumsily, and by the end you realize it's so freaking obvious! No wonder that for the past two days you've inexplicably been thinking about the sadnesses of your own life and your past relationships and people you know who've died. And no wonder you're sitting up in the middle of the night writing a confessional missive on the internet wankfest that is Goodreads. That's ALL THAT FREAKING BOOK WAS ABOUT! And you can't even tell what part of what you're thinking is something that happened in the book and what part is something that happened to you.

Anyway. The other thing is that there aren't any actual jokes in it. And maybe I was at my most pure when I was seventeen. The End.
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02/01 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Joseph this was brilliant. and no, i'm not british.

Simona all u said is just wonderful..can't wait to get to the last pages,i hope i won't sob about it ending ;)

message 3: by Daniela (new) - added it

Daniela Je Your review just convinced (even more...) to read the book! :)

message 4: by Anne (new)

Anne Love the review, Keith!

message 5: by Taf (new) - rated it 4 stars

Taf Mupfumi Great review, convinced me to read the book.

Malini Your review just threw me back to my own teen angsty ways and idling fancies of youthful adventurings with me always being terribly impatient for it to all start. And then after it finally starts to utter too late "oh but, but wait!" only to have to resign to harken back to memories of youth... "Ah those days of impetuous youth" while still a youth- lol! What Trickery growing up is! In any case. I'm going to read Kundera again and sit idly gleefully by in a cafe and enjoy these harkenings and word readerings. Thanks for the fish.

Isaac Baker Great write-up! "It's weird I remember that, because "The Joke" is actually not about inconsequential parts of the past. It's about the earth-shattering bits that shape a person (for better or worse), as well as the slow, creeping dissatisfaction of regret." - Nailed it.

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