There are many jokes in The Joke, Milan Kundera’s recently re-translated first novel.[1] The most extravagant joke of all is the one Kundera plays on his own characters.

It all starts innocently enough: It is 1948, right after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Ludvick is a student at the University, a Party member, and as “unhappy as any woman-less twenty-year-old can be.” His despair is only intensified by an especially attractive comrade named Marketa. All his efforts to become intimate with the girl are defeated by her extraordinary literal-mindedness and impregnable revolutionary enthusiasm. In an attempt to shock Marketa out of her complacency, Ludvick sends her a postcard, as a joke, on which he writes: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvick.”

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