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The Joke

In response to:

Live Attraction from the May 21, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

D. A. N. Jones, in his thorough and perceptive review of Milan Kundera’s The Joke (NYR, May 21), has done the readers a service which I, as a Czech, very much appreciate. However, he seems to have been somewhat misled by having to rely on a doubtful translation and on very sketchy familiarity with the book’s Czech background.

First of all, The Joke most emphatically does not reflect the Dubcek liberalization which D. A. N. Jones somewhat oddly places in quotes. Kundera finished the manuscript in 1965, well before Dubcek. The period he writes about is that of the decaying authoritarianism of the Novotný years. The liberalization process was a response to the conditions Kundera describes, not a part of them.

Kundera’s book simply cannot be read, as Jones occasionally seems to do, in terms of the common American conception of socialist development. The model of revolutionary enthusiasm undermined by liberal decadence (or, for that matter, its mirror image on the right, Communist tyranny modified by drive for freedom) simply does not fit the realities of the Czech situation. A rather more complex model, applicable with minor variations to all countries where the Communist Party achieved unrestricted monopoly on power, is needed.

That model has three stages, with a historical footnote. The initial stage, following seizure of power, was genuinely one of revolutionary enthusiasm. The new regime did enjoy the support of a significant segment of the population, perhaps as much as 30 percent, and tacit consent of many more. The men responsible for what later came to be termed “deformations” were genuinely dedicated. Though they may not have believed that terror was good, they were convinced that it was necessary, and justified by socialist ideals. This was the stage of official enthusiasm—including, incidentally, the officially directed and sponsored enthusiasm for “folk” art. Behind the facade of triumphant revolution, it was also the stage of mass arrests, purges, and staged trials, but for all that the enthusiasm was still genuine.

D. A. N. Jones shows a feeling for this stage, and so does Kundera. But unlike Kundera, Jones has little feel for the second stage in which Kundera’s novel is set. This stage, lasting roughly from 1958 to the mid-Sixties, was not an age of liberalization, but rather of decadent authoritarianism, an age of disillusion and apathy. Revolutionary enthusiasm had dried up, not because of liberal decadence, but because of its own internal logic. To assure effective control, required by its rigidly defined goals, the revolution had to channel and control enthusiasm. It could not permit spontaneity. It had to make enthusiasm, real enough in the first stage, official and manageable. The revolution died under its own weight, because it sought to use the enthusiasm of its supporters for the imposition of a very specific, very rigid social blueprint. Revolutionary ideals became discredited precisely because they became official, dictated by the regime. The result was the age of apathy which Kundera portrays.

Liberalization, associated with Dubcek and the Czechoslovak spring of 1968, was not a reaction to the revolutionary enthusiasm of the first stage, but precisely to the decay and apathy of the second stage. It did not modify the ideals of socialism, but it did modify radically the repressive apparatus which may have been necessary in the first stage but became deadly in the second. With the relaxing of the allinclusive control apparatus, spontaneity became possible for the first time in twenty years. Anyone who lived through the Czechoslovak spring can testify that it was an era of incredible idealism and enthusiasm. In the development of a socialist country, the stage of liberalization is not a stage of decadence: decadence is characteristic of the dictatorship of the Party which has outlived its revolutionary usefulness.

The footnote to this three-stage development of socialist society is invariably written by tanks. Freedom breathed new life into socialist ideals, but it also threatened the Party’s monopoly on power. Freedom cannot be managed. Faced with a choice, the Czech Party under Dubcek chose freedom and socialism, Moscow chose power. The result is the rule of the colonels which Moscow imposes on country after country as each reaches the third stage of socialist development. It is the stage of authoritarianism as rigid as in the first stage, but this time totally devoid of even token popular support.

The work of Czech authors like Kundera, Skvorecký, Vaculík—as well as the work of Czech film makers—reflects the second stage. The novels which will reflect the era of liberalization simply have not been written, and, once tanks write their footnote, cannot be published. It is the perspective of the second stage which is the key to The Joke. For instance, it is most emphatically not the case that, as Jones writes, “in the ‘liberalization’ process associated with Dubcek’s premiership, the old customs have fallen on evil times.” Quite incidentally, Dubcek was never the Premier, he was the First Secretary of the Party. But most of all, both in fact and in Kundera’s novel, the “old customs” fell on evil times in the age of Novotný, the era of decadent authoritarianism. They had their moment of glory in the age of officially sponsored enthusiasm. But Kundera’s analysis shows precisely that because the revolution made them official, it sapped their vitality and undercut the very ideals—including Moravian folk music—which it tried to establish by fiat. No one can be spontaneous by the numbers, not even about Moravian folk songs. Only with the liberalization process did the ideals of the revolution, whether socialism or folk music, begin to show signs of vitality, but that process did not begin until after the book was written.

Similarly it is grossly inaccurate to say, as Jones does, that the protagonist of the novel is destructive “as his jokes indicate.” The revenge which Jones considers the second “joke” is in fact viciously destructive, but the joke is on the perpetrator. The first “joke,” which made the protagonist an outcast and ruined his life beyond repair, was completely innocuous—writing “Long live Trotsky” on a post card. But the joke of the title may well be nothing the protagonist does, but something that happens. The joke may well be the irony of the revolution which sought to establish socialist ideals by fiat of state might, albeit with the best of intentions, and in the process drained the life from those very ideals until only apathy and force were left—together with the unburied dead.

D. A. N. Jones reports faithfully, but he misinterprets the book when he seeks in it evidence for the decadence of liberalization. It simply is not there, as it was not there in the reality Kundera describes. The decadence is the decadence of the revolution which turns to coercion to establish its ideals—and soon has only coercion left. The literature which reflects it, written for the drawer and published belatedly in the liberalization era, speaks directly of this. It will not please Middle America, because it recognizes the reality of socialist ideals. But it will not please Left America any better, because it sees clearly through the vicious illusions of revolutionism.

Perhaps that is precisely why Czech literature from the Sixties ought to be translated and read. The appearance of Kundera in English—and Jones’s review, for all my disagreement with it—is a significant event. So is the publication of Josef Skvorecký’s Cowards and pending publication of his masterpiece, The Lion Cub. Skvorecký is an author of Solzhenitsyn’s stature, and his work cries out for translation. Some works may defy translation, as Vaculík’s The Hatchet. Still, more and more works are appearing in English, and it may be soon possible to write a definitive review of Czech literature in the Sixties. I hope that the New York Review will bring us such an assessment in the near future.

Erazim V. Kohák

Associate Professor of Philosophy

Boston University

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