Blaming History

So the assignment is "a book that changed my view of politics." Harder than it sounds. I will confess that when I was a younger man, I was far more likely to think of records, as we used to call them, as life-changing, and if pressed, I could probably to this day defend the proposition that The Basement Tapes taught me as much about America as did, say, either John Steinbeck or V.O. Key.

I could name something predictable by Schlesinger or Hofstadter, or one of those seminal works on the 1960s or Watergate that I and most other American liberal males of my generation display on our shelves and in select cases have actually read to completion. But the idea of "life changing" led me to reach into the memory hole for those rare occasions when reading a book so fired my mind that, while I was immersed in it, I could think of nothing else. You know the feeling: You can't wait for work or class to finish so you can plow back into the book; as you near the end, you actually slow down because you don't want it to stop and can't imagine not being able to read it anymore.


It turns out that it's a novel, Milan Kundera's The Joke, that met for me the above criteria: The book is quite political and contains within its pages lessons about how people adapt to the larger political contexts in which they live. These are lessons that were and are more universal than one might assume -- given that Kundera was assaying totalitarian society -- about what can happen when the stirrings of the soul are thwarted by the imperatives of the state.

At the time, I was in graduate school, reading lots of political philosophy and a smattering of political science. I was also more or less alone in New York City. I guess the larger world and the solitary individual's precarious place within it were very much on my mind. I needed both meditative context and comic relief, and The Joke provided them.

You may know the basic story. Ludvik, a young Communist of the late 1940s, becomes besotted with a woman. Where he is laconic and diffident, she is ardent and pure. Rather than spend a summer yielding to his romantic advances, she chooses to go off to some Communist youth camp. She writes him letters, but they fail to express sufficient remorse at being away from his side and instead emphasize the camp's "healthy atmosphere" and her optimism about the future of humankind. So one day, in a fit of pique and hoping to get her goat, Ludvik sends her a postcard, dashing off three thoughtless and imperishably memorable lines: "Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!" The passage remains, to me, one of the funniest things I've ever read.

Naturally, the authorities intercept the card. Ludvik is questioned, expelled, and sent to work in a rural mine. Later in life, he meets a woman who is married to the man who, all those years before, led the effort to purge him from the party. He seduces her, but his act of revenge ends up helping his old accuser instead of hurting him. Ludvik is left to ponder the what ifs, concluding, as it is put on one Web site devoted to exegeses of the author's work, that "since so many people were involved in the injustice of the 1950s (either doling it out or suffering the consequences) ... one must blame history, not humans, for the crimes."


A recent development has, of course, leant a darker coloration to the above words. An unearthed state-police document suggests that Kundera ratted out a young man who was a spy and who, because of Kundera's approach to the police, served 14 years in a prison camp. Kundera issued a vehement denial. Several literary titans -- including Coetzee, Garcia Marquez, Gordimer, Roth -- have signed a letter defending him.

My distress over the allegation is minimal. As Richard Byrne wrote in October on this magazine's Web site: "Of course Kundera was collaborating with communists in 1950! He was a communist!" As Byrne goes on to note, the trickier question is whether, in The Joke and other works, Kundera was trying to grant himself a kind of preemptive absolution. From what I've read about his life, he has never seemed like what you'd call a nice guy.

But I'm an old-school, New Criticism type. Let the text stand on its own, I say. I hope the current revelation doesn't ruin The Joke or his other great early novels for future generations. Kundera gave me the highest level of pleasure and reward reading can give, so I at least owe him that much loyalty.

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