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The Joke

by Milan Kundera, translated by David Hamblyn, translated by Oliver Stallybrass
Coward-McCann, 288 pp., $5.95

The Great American Jackpot

by Herbert Gold
Random House, 305 pp., $6.95

The Simultaneous Man

by Ralph Blum
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 238 pp., $5.95

When a first-rate novel comes to us from Communist Europe, we do not want it sterilized and packaged: we want it raw. Last year, the Czechoslovakian author of The Joke wrote from Prague to the London Times Literary Supplement, protesting that his British publisher had “broken up” the novel, cutting at will and forming a mosaic of selected episodes. Kundera did not doubt that the alterations had been made “in good faith that this would improve the sales”; but he pointed out that certain cultural officials in Moscow had made comparable alterations to a play of his, in similar “good faith” that this would help to obtain easy permission to stage it.

Kundera suggested that there was a “mysterious kinship” between the mentalities of a London bookseller and a Moscow official: “The depth of their contempt for art is equally unfathomable.” (By contrast, we may note in Kundera’s letter a certain contempt for the concept of “sales” in the way he insists on calling a publisher a book-seller.) I think Karl Marx might have approved Kundera’s comparison of the straightforward Soviet censorship and the unplanned, unintended censorship of the commercial West. The motives of private and public enterprise may seem very different, but to an artist of Kundera’s type the results of their actions are identical.

All my life long,” wrote Kundera, very boldly, “I have been protesting against the mutilation of works of art in the name of an ideological doctrine as practiced in the socialist countries of Europe.” The art discussed in this novel, as a symbol and as a thing in itself, is Moravian folk music. Kundera wrote a chapter about it, with musical examples. “Goodness me, how boring!” said London. So the British version omitted the chapter altogether. Surprisingly this American version follows suit, although in other respects it is closer to Kundera’s original. Some readers might have wanted to try out those musical examples—if only to help their appreciation of the music of Janácek. But publishers cannot be expected to comply with the requirements of so small a minority, consisting merely of the author and his desired readership.

The story of The Joke is told by four reminiscent narrators, Ludvik the joker and three more earnest citizens: they are all feeling middle-aged in the 1960s. One of them is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s old schoolmate, a fervent lover of Moravian music and the culture and customs which, for him, it represents. For 200 years, he says, the Czech nation almost ceased to exist: the language retreated from the towns to the countryside and became the property of the illiterate, creating a culture of songs, fairy tales, ancient rites and customs. Jaroslav “hears in popular art the sap without which Czech culture would have dried up. He is in love with the sound of its flowing.”

During the Nazi occupation Jaroslav, then a young jazz player, helped to revive the cymbalo bands, the popular feast days, and a strange old pageant called the Ride of the Kings. It was a patriotic duty to repudiate the invaders’ claim that the Czechs “had no right to exist, that they were only Germans who spoke a Slavonic tongue.” Aged fifteen, Jaroslav was chosen as “King.” He rode through his village with his face veiled, between two pages, accompanied by a host of colorful men on horseback carrying sabers. It was a demonstration against the Nazis—“a deputation from the depths of history.”

Jaroslav, in the late 1960s, is remembering this event. He wants his son—a modern boy, a motorcyclist—to accept the role of King in the annual cavalcade. The boy has principled as well as selfish reasons for refusing to gratify his father’s wish: he holds that he has been chosen King simply because he is fils du papa. The boy is ashamed that he is favored above the children of the old bourgeoisie: he has a friend who is “not allowed to study, just because his grandfather ran a building firm.” The boy regards Jaroslav as part of the Establishment: his status relates to the fact that, after the Communist takeover, folk music and folk customs had been officially sponsored and subsidized, according to “Stalin’s famous definition of the New Art—socialist content in national form.”

Jaroslav’s clever friend, Ludvik—the principal character and narrator in the novel—is largely responsible for Jaroslav’s position. In 1948 he had returned to his town from studying in Prague and he had led the folk music group into the Communist Party: they gained national fame, modernizing their repertoire with new, contrived folk songs, like “The Song of Stalin” or “How good it is there are no masters now.” But later Ludvik fell from grace and was excommunicated from the Party because of a silly, youthful joke. It is against this background that middle-aged Ludvik again returns home from Prague, in the late 1960s, now a bitter, disabused man. He plans to play another bad joke—on an old enemy, Pavel, a “Stalinist” trimmer and opportunist. Ludvik aims to seduce Pavel’s wife, heartlessly.

After this joke has misfired, Ludvik recovers a sort of faith in life through Jaroslav’s cymbalo band and the Ride of the Kings—largely because they are now unpopular, unsponsored. In the “liberalization” process associated with Dubcek’s premiership, the old customs have fallen on evil times. In Ludvik’s eyes, there has been a triumph of Youth, of cocksure students, true believers. The Ride of the Kings is pathetic, broken up by scornful motorcyclists; the band’s performance is spoiled by “noisy, drunken adolescents.” Best of all, Pavel has turned against the old music, slick Pavel who had been fashionably folksy in his youth, a Prague city boy posing as a Moravian peasant. So now; for Ludvik, the old culture is pure again, as it was during the war years. As Jaroslav says: “There are certain merits in having one’s back to the wall. We heard the folk songs and we suddenly saw that they were the most essential of essentials.”

Throughout this subtle commentary on recent Czech history we note, in all four narrators, a suspicion of youth and innovation, together with a curious delight in being up against it, hard pressed. This combination of characteristics very familiar to British readers, is perhaps less commonplace in America. A third narrator is another friend of Ludvik’s, a Christian called Kostka. He has consistently made things hard for himself. A communist among Christians, a Christian among communists, he enjoyed best the “heroic” period from 1948 to 1956, “the time of the great collective faith”; “The age that has just passed was a hundred times nearer my heart than the age that seems to be approaching today: an age of ridicule, skepticism, and corrosion, a petty age with the ironic intellectual in the limelight, and behind him the mob of youth—coarse, cynical and bitter, without enthusiasm or ideals, ready to mate or kill on sight.”

Kostka’s mind works on the great analogy between the churches of Christ and the churches of Marx. Whereas the Polish philosopher Kolakowski would stress the failing of these churches, the oppressiveness and anti-individualism, Kostka sees the same qualities and applauds. Kostka seems, sometimes, like a prophet, uttering hard sayings; but he may also be seen as a weak man who needs rules and regulations for himself and for others, a man who perversely enjoys self-criticism and the confession of sins.

The novel is admirably shaped. It begins with a brief account by Ludvik of his arrival in his home town, to play his bad joke. We switch rapidly to the narrative of Helena, the woman he has come to meet. She is in love with Ludvik and glad to make an assignation with him in this town, which she associates with, yes, Moravian folk music (that missing chapter!) and thus with the communist idealism of her youth. She loves the Party and is sorry that her husband, Pavel, has become a revisionist; his attitude toward the Party reflects his attitude toward music—and toward his wife, for he betrays her with young women. So Ludvik, disillusioned ex-Communist, wants to punish Stalinist Pavel by having his wife; but Pavel is now a permissive youth-minded revisionist and can’t be hurt in this way. The author is showing us how and why some Czechs of his generation have loved the Communist Party and resented the impatience of revisionist Youth.

Yet the American publisher presents this dialectical novel merely as a “parable for student disillusionment with the brutal regime in Czechoslovakia today.” That is what the Western world wants to see in a Czech novel. The British publisher removed Helena’s revealing narrative from its prominent introductory position and tucked it further back in the book: it is only because of Kundera’s protest that the American edition has Helena back where she belongs. The British publisher wanted to get on with the (to Western eyes) important part of the story—Ludvik’s reminiscences of his past sufferings under the old “Stalinist” regime.

It is indeed a fascinating story. Ludvik is something of a Schweik and cannot be easily presented as a hero, not without an argument. We note who are the people who punished Ludvik for his cynical joke against the facile optimism of the Party. They are all representatives of bright-eyed Youth—Pavel and fellow students at the university, then the keenly boyish young officer in the army. They are like actors—“adolescents concealing their immature faces behind the mask they thought most appropriate, the hard ascetic revolutionary.” Youth is Ludvik’s bugbear. The cocksure self-righteousness and changeability of the young fill him with suspicion, whether they be Stalinists or revisionists.

But the Christian Kostka says, in his churchmanly way: “I’m not on your side in your quarrel with the Party, Ludvik, because I know that great things can be done in this world only by a band of men of infinite devotion who humbly lay down their lives for the greater cause.” Kostka holds that Ludvik wants only to demolish things. Ludvik replies: “If God’s masons built real walls, I doubt if our demolitions could harm them. But instead of walls all I can see everywhere is theater curtains, and the demolition of curtains is merely justice.” This book is a living argument, neither communist nor anticommunist, Ludvik is destructive, as his jokes indicate; one of the people he has damaged is a strange girl called Lucie, everyone’s victim, a creature of the woodlands gathering flowers, crying out at men’s approach. Ludvik hurt her, Kostka protected her—but was not he too (the Christian wonders) in his own way exploiting her?

Though the translation is lucid and readable, we cannot be certain that the translators are trustworthy. For instance, in the American edition, they call a man a “Midas,” whereas in the British version they called him a “Mycenas.” “Maecenas” seems to make the best sense—but what did Kundera actually write? Nevertheless, I am very impressed by this rich novel and look forward to seeing the movie, wondering how the director will stress and cut. The Joke is a delicate construction, a perfectly balanced performance. Putting the author at risk, it is as strong as it is delicate. I have pulled out some strands of argument but done no justice to its wit and complexity.

Three other books deal with some of Kundera’s themes—army brutality, country ways, swinging Youth, resistance to communism—and seem rather thin by comparison. Weakest is The Tongues of Men, John Schultz’s uneven collection of eleven disparate and self-indulgent tales. The plots are none too original: a soldier goes absent because of his wife’s infidelity, some alarming pseudo-hipsters hold a squalid party in a family man’s home, a traveling salesman searches for women. Schultz has whipped up a spurious excitement, almost mechanically, with overpoetic prose, newsy sensationalism, bold oaths, and (his best line) a touch of Kafka surrealism. When a tale is surrealist throughout, a modest success may be scored. There is a neat little monologue by a man who lives under other people’s beds—but it concludes thus: “I confess that life is far more comfortable with a man ashamed of suspecting an actuality than life with a man who fears what he suspects…. I will gird my spirit and trek across the city and into the slums. I will prove the extent of my cunning capabilities.” Rather pretentious, surely.

Schultz’s fantasy about the traveling salesman in a town of mad, slippery girls, caught up in a goopy mess of contraceptives and elastic, has an appealing insanity. But the same kind of farcical bawdy crops up, as a distracting parenthesis, in an otherwise naturalistic army tale: a Jewish medical officer has decided to circumcise everybody, and the author has inserted a lengthy roll call of members—“large cocks, small cocks…cocks with waving fungal forests, and just plain worried cocks.” This comic flourish drags the anecdote into fantasy.

Something similar has happened in another army tale, “Morgan.” A mess sergeant and judo black-belt, the villainous Morgan likes running down Korean children in his jeep. Criticized by a sensitive Jewish sergeant, Morgan captures him in the kitchen, assisted by two cooks. “Morgan dipped lard out of an open can and screwed him in the ass. Berens’ humiliation was complete, he got a hard-on and came. Then the cooks took turns.” For unexplained reasons, the sergeant-raping Morgan is neither busted nor jailed. Instead the top sergeant, a Burt Lancaster role, cuts Morgan’s face about with a broken bottle. All this reads rather like butch porn, masquerading as an indignant exposure.

Compare these gratuitous acts with the comparatively mild roughness of Kundera’s soldiers in the punishment squad. The worst thing that happens is that a corporal pours a jug of water over a sleeping man, and when Ludvik protests the other soldiers call him a “Commie”—that is, a prig. Ludvik, not joking now, remarks: “I detest with all my heart fraternal feelings based solely on mutual recognition of a similar baseness, and have no desire for this sad sort of brotherhood.” With Kundera, this kind of small incident has a large significance; in Schultz’s grotesque atrocities there is no point at all.

The Great American Jackpot, Herbert Gold’s long novel about mad young Californians, is not so sprightly as it’s meant to be. The tone is one of discovery, novelty, surprise; yet even a foreign reader may feel that he knows all this—and aren’t the slang and the costumes a bit faded? Surely “uptight” and “groovy” have gone with “square” and “with-it”? Sometimes it’s witty though. A nice young student, living out his fantasies, holds up a bank, then goes to a girl for help. “Narrowly she studied him to make sure he was hip, not just crazy; in, not odd.” It’s a nice distinction. Anyway she betrays him to her amusingly sadistic lover, and thus to the police.

She is influenced by feminist thinking: “A1 could rob a bank, but Milly could not. When a girl does a thing like that, everybody thinks she’s kind of odd, crazy, lesbian, peculiar. It’s not fair.” So she gets A1 arrested. Fantasying in the police car, with motorcycle escort, A1 imagines himself to be an honored visitor, an African prime minister: “They’re treating me so good, I’ll give up being one of the emergent unaligned states. I’ll be a gallant ally with missile bases, planning for free elections at some time in the very near future, as soon as we get the army well organized.” Meanwhile, the policeman, who sees himself as a social worker, is asking A1: “What did you hope to gain? Didn’t you realize how anti-social conduct gets you no place unless you got good connections?” Pared down to the wisecracks, this lengthy novel might have been as neat as Waugh’s.

The bright young people’s heads are stuffed with fancy clothes and big ideas: they seek a conformity of deviance. Another of Ludvik’s meditations is relevant:

Youth is a terrible thing. It’s a stage peopled by supposedly innocent children, who stride around on stilts and in the most varied costumes, pronouncing speeches they’ve earnestly memorized and only half understood…. They’re placed in a mature world and have to act as if they were mature. So they put on whatever masks and disguises appeal to them and can be made to fit.

In The Great American Jackpot, though, the older people seem equally immature, no less naïve than the young. Judges, policemen, lawyers are all idiots or role-players, unable to communicate except in the reductive abstractions of psychology and sociology. Even Al’s teacher, a witty and scholarly mulatto, likes to make absurd speeches at Black Muslim rallies. But it’s only an act; there is no sincerity. In Kundera’s Europe, a genuine argument is enacted; in Gold’s California there is merely play-acting.

The most powerful and accomplished of the three American books is Ralph Blum’s novel about cold-war science, The Simultaneous Man. It deals with Russian and American scientists competing to transfer one man’s memory into another man’s head. Ralph Blum has been a subject for medical experimentation and knows something about the US Army’s Chemical and Biological Warfare laboratories. He has studied at the University of Leningrad and can translate Russian poems into good English. With these unusual advantages, he is enabled to “blind us with science,” as the phrase goes. Technical data and scraps of useless information—like the numberplates of NKVD cars in Leningrad—are craftily employed to suspend disbelief, with rather the same technique as in Len Deighton’s spy romances. But when we consider the way Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination can leap from Hitler’s Berlin to an Israeli prison or an American Nazi headquarters without any detail irrelevant to the moral purpose of his story, Blum’s sleight of hand seems less impressive.

But perhaps it ought not to be judged by “literary” standards. Perhaps it is a fictionalized warning about real possibilities. The story is about an American scientist who feeds his own memory and personality into the emptied skull of a black convict, a victim supplied by the Government. The black man then “defects” to Moscow and contrives to acquire the white man as his own subject for experiment. The scientists are all charming and sophisticated, very sad about what they are doing, and they keep having to forgive themselves; they make sick jokes, shake their heads sadly, and bite off the ends of cigars. Somehow or other they can’t stop what they’re doing, and the reader is expected to feel respect for their agonizing burden of responsibility. So the whole thing could almost be read as a rather self-indulgent metaphor for the involvement of American intellectuals in the Vietnam war. It does, however, suggest something about the Soviet and capitalist worlds which Kundera has not touched upon: the similarities of their state bureaucracies. Kundera might have written: “The depth of their contempt for human life is equally unfathomable.”

Letters

The Joke August 13, 1970

The Joke August 13, 1970

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