Milan Kundera – The Joke – The intolerance to irony is the mark of totalitarianism

I think the name of the novel, The Joke, is carefully chosen. The Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novel hits the right nail on the head: to my mind, one of the easiest ways to test whether a political regime is moving towards totalitarianism is to pay attention to the degree of intolerance to irony. An authoritarian and repressive regime develops a chronic phobia to irony. Because humor is, after all, a solid guarantee for the independent thinking and spirituality and, therefore, any form of totalitarianism seeks to repress it.

Kundera’s book is worth reading, nevertheless. It is worth reading not just to have an idea about the similarities between different forms of communism, specific of different countries in Eastern and Central Europe (in my case between Romania and Czechoslovakia) or about the changes within the communist system over a generation (the ’60s meant something else than the ’40s). The Joke is worth reading, among other things, for the exemplary way in which illustrates the idea of dependency of one person on a certain context of living.

We are different in different contexts of life. Under different circumstances or when living among other people we transform ourselves. We think we know well a person. And, in the end, we discover that we don’t know anything about him/her. Because we only can have a vague idea of what that man/woman represents; we know that person in a single narrative context. Even when a big love is at stake, the possibility of knowing a person remains dependent on a certain context. When the context has changed, the person has transformed into a stranger to us. From this perspective, relevant in Kundera’s book is the love stories between Ludvik and Lucia and between Kostka and Lucia.

The weird Kostka meant a lot to her; he knew her better and he knew better how to love her: she trusted him completely; not me, him; … And yet, in order to make love to her (and I desperately wanted her body) suffice it was to understand her, to love her not only for her feelings directed towards me, but for those things that had nothing to do with me. … Kostka, nevertheless, knew Lucia and he knew, of course, a lot of things about her. And yet, there was one thing he missed. And this thing was the essential one. … and if she kept secret this thing from Kostka, if she kept secret from Kostka our six months of pure love, full of tenderness and sweetness, it means that he don’t know her either.