The Great American Jackpot
The Simultaneous Man
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.