KUNDERA?S NOVEL ?THE JOKE? Essay, Research Paper

With regards to narrative technique, novelists have proved themselves to be a

conservative bunch: several fairly “standard” forms of narration exist,

and authors tend to stick to them. Of course, these options are apparently

fairly varied, ranging from hindsight to omniscience; and passing

through dozens of other permutations… What more could we, the reader, possibly

want? What more could the writer possibly offer? Such traditional

techniques all have the same basic structure: we watch the whole story unfold

through one set of eyes, as if we were seeing it happen, or maybe

recalling events as we saw them. In the real world, however, we

rarely witness entire sequences of events ourselves: we are often told

about what happened, and from what other people tell us we then weave together a

coherent whole. Sometimes the bits don?t even fit together properly. We

have learnt to interpret information presented to us, we enjoy noting the

discrepancies and accounting for them. Yet this is all too often precluded by

the very structure of the novel: we have to sit back and relax. We are, in a

sense, on rails.

Thus it comes as no surprise that Milan Kundera, an author renown for his

interest in the Novel as an art from, has proposed his own personal solution to

this “problem” of inflexible narrative form: multiple narrators. His

first -and maybe most famous- novel, The Joke, has indeed a total of

four story-tellers, each describing events from “their” point of

view, as their lives intertwine and then diverge. The stories both complement

and contradict each other, it is up to us to extrapolate the “truth”

that lies somewhere in-between. Each reader, I suspect, will come away with a

subtly different rendering of the story; their own personalised version.

The Joke starts in a deceptively simple manner, although maybe

somewhat vague. We are immediately “incorporated” into Ludvik Jahn: we

see through his eyes, we read his thoughts. There is nothing apparently unusual

in the narrative technique of Part 1; it is a perfectly normal first-person

narration. Only at the beginning of Part 2, when we are suddenly confronted by a

new narrator, the rambling Helena Zemanek, do we notice the unusual

structure of the novel. This first “narrator switch” also alerts us to

the necessity of having some way of distinguishing between the various

story-tellers: Ludvik?s thoughtful, self-critical style becomes his trademark;

just as Helena?s “verbal diarrhoea” -verbose, colloquial, confusing and

incomplete sentences- becomes hers. Although not yet important (narrators

are not yet “mixed up”), differentiating between the various narrators is vital

if we are to understand Part 7; where the baton is rapidly passed from one

narrator to another. By then, the various narrators? leitmotifs are the

only way for us to distinguish between them.

The actual “relationship” of these various narrators and their narratives is

most clearly seen in the central “flashback” section of the work,

starting with Ludvik in Part 3, and ending with Kostka in Part 6, passing

by Jaroslav and then Ludvik again. It is here that the various narrators

retell the story of Ludvik?s life, or rather, how it mingles with theirs; they

tell us their own subjective interpretations of events. This is

particularly true for the Ludvik-Jaroslav duo, where the two versions complement

each other almost perfectly; one need look no further than the funeral of

Ludvik?s mother for an example of this. Although merely hinted at by the son

himself, who mentions in passing his “mother buried beneath alien

marble”, it is dwelt upon with considerable detail by Jaroslav.

Kostka, on the other hand, serves a different purpose: he contradicts Ludvik

by reiterating the story of Lucie, the love of Ludvik?s life, supposedly

oblivious to the fact that the two ever met. By not giving Lucie a direct

voice in the book (she is rarely even quoted), by having all her thoughts and

actions interpreted, Kundera drives home one of the book?s main points:

that we know everyone as a function of ourselves. Even Zemanek,

Ludvik?s arch-nemesis, the wrongdoer, turns out to be a far nicer person than

the revengeful Ludvik remembers, or can even bear. In the end, Ludvik is forced

to admit that he has Zemanek him all these years because he needed to

hate him, he needed to see him as evil incarnate.

Part 7, a real tour de force, finally shows what this abundance of

viewpoints can achieve when put to its fullest use: a cinematic succession of

cuts, setting a mounting pace and pulling the reader into the story. No

longer are long-past events merely recounted: things are happening “here

and now”. All the main characters are finally in the same place at the same

time, it is time for a climax.

Kundera now uses his “agents” in a new way, bouncing us from one mind

to the next, as if each character were some kind of TV camera, and the author

was a director intent on showing us every facet of the Ride of the Kings.

Often the same event is replayed from several points of view: Ludvik?s

jettisoning of Helena, for example. First we see it through his eyes, the whole

affair seems nothing but a mildly embarrassing chore, “he” even goes as far as

saying that “It was far worse than I had foreseen”. Yet whole experience

is so traumatic, so brutal, for Helena that she refuses to accept

Ludvik?s words and attempts suicide. The way we see events depends on who we

are. Watching history unravel, being unable to control it, is another

theme central to the novel.

Kundera?s use of many narrators, his collation of viewpoints, has brought the

novel closer to reality: it is sometimes bewildering, just as if we were

reading someone?s personal diary, full of implicit references and assumed

knowledge. Presented with testimonies, we must decide what is going on,

who is right and who is wrong; we are necessary for the story.

Not only do the narrators serve the purely functional role of

informants, their different styles, their different outlooks on life,

their different paces, add an extra dimension of interest, they make the prose

somewhat dynamic. An entire novel written “? la Helena” would be

painful to read, but her occasional interludes are undoubtedly very amusing. It

gives the book character, and, above all, it keeps us interested.

Maybe the most surprising effect of all is how legible the end result

is; the alternation of various people telling the story is so well orchestrated

as to be almost seamless, virtually unnoticeable. After a lifetime of reading

single-narrator stories, one would expect that this sudden multiplicity would be

at least apparent to the casual reader. But it is so natural for

us to hear different points of view that we hardly notice; we?re used to



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