The Czech novelist Milan Kundera was in his late thirties when he published his first novel, The Joke, in Prague in 1967. The book traces the fortunes and amours of a young student, Ludvik, after his exasperatingly patriotic girlfriend decides to show the authorities a postcard he had written her as a joke: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.” As a result of this whimsy, Ludvik finds himself expelled from the Communist Party and the university, and is eventually conscripted to work in the mines for several years.

The appearance of Kundera’s acerbically political novel coincided with—indeed, it was only possible in—the short-lived liberalization of Czech society that has come to be known as the Prague Spring. The Joke went through three large printings in quick succession and instantly...


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