Read The JOKE Online

Authors: Milan Kundera

Tags: #Fiction, #General


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Milan Kundera



ISBN 0-06-099505-X

Originally published in Czechoslovakia by Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel, 1967 under the title

This English Translation copyright © 1982, 1992 by HarperCollins


Author's Note vii






Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena


If it didn't concern me, it would certainly make me laugh: this is the
fifth English-language version
of The Joke.

The first version was published in London in 1969 by Macdonald, in a translation by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass. I remember my amazement when I received the book in Prague; I didn't recognize it at all: the novel was entirely reconstructed; divided into a different number of parts, with chapters shortened or simply omitted. (An odd comparison: between December 1965 and early 1967 the original Czech manuscript was kept from publication in Prague by Communist censorship; I had rejected all the changes they wanted to impose on me, and the novel was finally allowed to appear in April 1967

exactly as I had written it.)

Living in a country occupied by the Russian army, deprived of my passport and so without any possibility of leaving, I found it very difficult to defend myself. I succeeded, nevertheless, in publishing a letter of protest in the
Times Literary Supplement
and even in bringing about the publication in Britain of a revised, complete version, that is, without deletions and with the chapters in their original sequence (Penguin Books, 1970). My satisfaction with this turned out to be only relative: a glance through the book showed me that the translation was still very free; for example, an obviously important matter of punctuation: Helena's monologue, comprising all of Part Two, in which each paragraph is one long "infinite" sentence in my original, had been broken up into many very short sentences. I decided to close the book and to know no more of it.

That Penguin version was actually the third. The second had been published by Coward-McCann in New York a year earlier, not long after the first British edition. It was based on the Hamblyn-Stallybrass translation; in this version the original sequence of parts was respected, but the entire text was systematically curtailed; one need only look at the first two paragraphs: in the complete version of 1970 they consist of twenty-seven lines, in the Coward-McCann edition there are only fifteen. This time all my telegrams of protest from Prague went unanswered. The American publisher was ready to show his sympathy for censored authors in Communist countries, but only on the condition that they submit to his own commercial censorship.

One day I heard that a young American professor of Slavic studies, Michael Henry Heim, had published in a specialized journal a translation of two of the passages that had been deleted from
The Joke.
I was deeply touched by this noble gesture of solidarity with mistreated, humiliated literature. When Knopf, my publisher at the time, refused for reasons obscure to me to work with the translator of my two previous books (who had all my confidence), the translation of my next novel,
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
(1980), was assigned to Heim. And soon after that, when my new editor, Aaron Asher at Harper & Row, proposed (a dozen years after the first three mutilated versions) that
finally appear in a faithful as well as unabridged English-language version, he too approached Heim.

At Aaron's request, I wrote a preface for that new edition of
The Joke:
there I recounted this novel's eventful history in Czechoslovakia and in France, evoked the sad tale of its three earlier English-language versions, and added two paragraphs to convey my exacting concept of the novel and also serve as a message to my new translator:

"When Goethe was working on
Wilhelm Meister,
he allowed his secretary Riemer to read proof for him and strike out a superfluous

word or touch up a phrase here or there, though he would never have entrusted his poetry to him. In Goethe's time prose could not make the aesthetic claims of poetry; perhaps not until the work of Flaubert did prose lose the stigma of aesthetic inferiority. Ever since
Madame Bo-vary,
the art of the novel has been considered equal to the art of poetry, and the novelist (any novelist worthy of the name) endows every word of his prose with the uniqueness of the word in a poem.

"Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art. A novelist whose works are banned in his own country is doubly conscious of the difficulties involved."

When I was sent the manuscript of the new translation, I barely read it; I had a priori confidence in a translator whom I knew as a defender of my novel and thought I could spare myself the laborious job of checking the text in detail. And so in 1982 the fourth English-language version of
The Joke
appeared, first from Harper & Row, then (with identical text) in paperback from Penguin (U.S.) with the words "in a new brilliant translation" on the cover and from King Penguin (U.K.) with "now in the new authorised translation." These words corresponded to what I myself had written in the preface: "now the same professor of literature who ten years ago published the material omitted from the English edition has done the first valid and authentic version of a book that tells of rape and has itself so often been violated."

Nevertheless, I have long been accustomed carefully to review, in manuscript, the translations of my novels, particularly the French but also the Italian, German, and English. I didn't abandon this principle when it came to
The Unbearable Lightness of
on the English-language version of which I spent a great deal of time. When in the autumn of 1990 Aaron proposed the republication
of The Joke
at HarperCollins, I responded, gripped by suspicion: "Yes, of course, but first I want to reread the translation, this time with care."

And so I did. In the beginning there was nothing seriously wrong, and Part Two,

"Helena," was quite good, but from the start of Part Three, I had the increasingly strong impression that what I read was not my text: often the words were remote from what I had written; the syntax differed too; there was inaccuracy in all the reflective passages; irony had been transformed into satire; unusual turns of phrase had been obliterated; the distinctive voices of the characters-narrators had been altered to the extent of altering their personalities (thus Ludvik, that thoughtful, melancholy intellectual, became vulgar and cynical). I was all the more unhappy because I did not believe that it was a matter of incompetence on the translator's part, or of carelessness or ill will: no; in good conscience he produced the kind of translation that one might call
(adaptation to the taste of the time and of the country for which it is intended, to the taste, in the final analysis, of the translator). Is this the current, normal practice? It's possible. But unacceptable. Unacceptable to me.

The Art of the Novel,
I repeatedly explain my attitude regarding translation and even assert: "I once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semicolons to periods." Knowing my attitude, readers should have had no reason to doubt the total fidelity of the fourth English-language version of
The Joke,
which I had so warmly approved in my preface. And so I considered myself guilty of having deceived them and notified Aaron that he might have a difficult time ahead of him.

He and I immediately set to work. On enlarged photocopies of the fourth version, I entered word-for-word translations of my original, either in English or in French, wherever I thought it necessary. The changes grew more numerous, and soon I realized that, based on that fourth version, a new, fifth version was taking shape. In Heim's translation there are, of course, a great many faithful renderings and good formulations; these naturally were retained, along with many fine solutions from the Hamblyn-Stallybrass translation. I sent my work in regular installments to Aaron, who created an English-language version from these disparate elements and sent it to me for final correction and approval. We had begun in the spring of 1991, and working without respite, we finished only toward the end of the year.

What more is there to say? Thanks to Aaron Asher for undertaking, without a moment's hesitation, an arduous task that in our commercialized world must seem rather quixotic.

To my readers, a promise: there will not be a sixth English-language version
of The Joke.

February 1992



So here I was, home again after all those years. Standing in the main square (which I had crossed countless times as a child, as a boy, as a young man), I felt no emotion whatsoever; all I could think was that the flat space, with the spire of the town hall (like a soldier in an ancient helmet) rising above the rooftops, looked like a huge parade ground and that the military past of the Moravian town, once a bastion against Magyar and Turk invaders, had engraved an irrevocable ugliness on its face.

During those years, there was nothing to attract me to my hometown; I told myself that I had grown indifferent to it, which seemed natural: I had been away for fifteen years, had almost no friends or acquaintances left here (and wished to avoid the ones I did have), my mother was buried among strangers in a grave I had never tended. But I had been deceiving myself: what I had called indifference was in fact rancor; the reasons for it had escaped me, because here as elsewhere I had had both good and bad experiences, but the rancor was there, and it was this journey that had made me conscious of it: the mission that had brought me here could easily have been accomplished in Prague, after all, but I had suddenly begun to feel an irresistible attraction to the prospect of carrying it out here in my hometown precisely because this was a mission so cynical and low as to mock any suspicion that I was returning out of some maudlin attachment to things past.

I gave the unsightly square a final knowing look and, turning my back on it, set off for the hotel where I had booked a room for the night. The porter handed me a key hanging from a wooden pear and said, "Third floor." The room was not attractive: a bed along one wall, a small table and chair in the middle, an ostentatious mahogany chest of drawers with mirror next to the bed, and a tiny cracked sink by the door. I put my briefcase down on the table and opened the window: it looked out onto a courtyard and the bare grubby backs of neighboring buildings. I closed the window, drew the curtains, and went over to the sink, which had two faucets—one blue, the other red; I turned them on; cold water trickled out of both. I looked over at the table, which at least had room for a bottle and two glasses; the trouble was, only one person could sit at it: there was only one chair. I pushed the table up to the bed and tried sitting at it, but the bed was too low and the table too high; besides, the bed sank so much under my weight that it was obviously not only unsatisfactory as a seat but equally unlikely to perform its function as a bed. I pushed it with my fists, then lay down on it, carefully lifting my legs so as not to dirty the blanket. The bed sagged so badly I felt I was in a hammock; it was impossible to imagine anyone else in that bed with me.

I sat down on the chair, stared at the translucent curtains, and began to think. Just then the sound of steps and voices penetrated the room from the corridor; two people, a man and a woman, were having a conversation, and I could understand their every word: it was about a boy named Petr, who had run away from home, and his Aunt Klara, who was a fool and spoiled the boy. Then a key turned in a lock, a door opened, and the voices went on talking in the next room; I heard the woman sighing (yes, even sighs were audible!) and the man resolving to have a few words with Klara.

I stood up, my decision firm; I washed my hands in the sink, dried them on the towel, and left the hotel, though I had no clear idea of where to go. All I knew was that if I didn't wish to jeopardize the success of my journey (my long, arduous journey) with this unsuitable hotel room, I would have no choice, much as I disliked it, but to ask a discreet favor of some local acquaintance. I ran through all the old faces from my youth, rejecting each in turn, if only because the confidential nature of the service to be rendered would require me laboriously to bridge the gap, account for my long years of absence—something I had no desire to do. But then I remembered a man here whom I'd helped to find a job and who would be only too glad, if I knew him at all, to repay one good turn with another. He was a strange character, at once scrupulously moral and oddly unsettled and unstable, whose wife, as far as I could tell, had divorced him years before for living anywhere and everywhere but with her and their son. I was a little nervous: if he had remarried, it would complicate my request; I walked as fast as I could in the direction of the hospital.

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