Archive | January, 2010

The Joke, by Milan Kundera

12 Jan

Read Milan Kundera’s The Joke, expecting nothing delightful.

I chose it because I knew I had to take it upon myself to peruse something that is called literature after a few months of digesting nothing but novels, news pieces, popular science books and political tracts.

One of the other tasks that I have taken upon myself is to read some Chinese literature, since I have begun to feel the acute frustration of not being able to convey the emotional intensity and inspiration of some of the issues I hold close to my heart when I try to write (or speak of) them in Chinese. Being fluent in a language is so important.

I had, initially, the choice between ‘The English Patient’ and some of Milan Kundera’s works. I loved The English Patient as a movie. I loved the pulleys that Kip made for Hana. I loved the complimentary notebook with the little quotes from the book inside. The words flowed like the imagery of sand over a peaceful, jeweled rattlesnake, or the way wind blows through doorways that are unadorned but for a veil of shimmery gauze. It was my first peek into the exotic beauty that existed alongside the peripheries of WWII in the Middle East. I was in junior high, and the movie, the quotes in the notebook, made me dream in milky, sandy textures. There was, however, certainty of sorrow in the story. And one tends so much more to be touched by a book. I did not want to sink too much into words that I knew would be too beautiful, I did not want to read about sorrow before my Finals.

So I chose Milan Kundera, as he seemed less pleasant. Heavy Czech socialist history with some revelations on the human spirit, loose morals in a modern Europe, and a man who lived without too much reflection or a strong sense of social responsibility; these I expected of him. I did not choose The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as my friend Ivan loved it for reasons I disagreed with. The Joke, I reasoned from the title, may be a bit light hearted and thus amuse me for a bit.

Of course I was mistaken. I had expected to merely skim through the book but was transfixed as one is usually transfixed by seeing something unpleasant. My brother, when I was watching a particularly nasty short film at home and commenting on it, asked me if it is so horrible why are you still sitting there? I believe it is because, always thinking the best of things, one tries to wait it out if something more pleasant would occur by and by. I had deployed this optimism with the book ‘Jude the Obscure’ when I was in junior high. By a third of the book I could not understand how things could continually go downhill in this manner when things already seemed to have hit rock bottom, so I cheated and skimmed the end. No doing. It was one of the most abject books I had ever come upon. And only later did I learn that Thomas Hardy was a pessimistic writer. Drat.

The portrayal Milan Kundera had of the protagonist and his associates gave one a sense of general hopelessness and un-enlightenment over humanity. I could not understand how someone (the protagonist) could be so horribly thick. Perhaps Kundera wished to show us how we each, in our minds, created this image of the world that was certain to jar with that of others. It did not help that the previous owner of the book had taken it upon himself to write bad poetry in the margins. So that one was constantly jolted by irreverent, sappy lovelorn phrases meant to convey an atmosphere of artistic melancholy but instead made one want to find the previous owner and step on him.



Never been seen this book before

I accidently crossed this border today. A

nd she remind me by letting my eyes open.

She said she left me not because I am “me”.

From now on, this border would be on my back forever.

KenTsui on Christmas day 98’ w/ nobody


However, the ending (of the book, not the additional footnotes) was rather more uplifting for being, somewhat, of forgiveness and a bit more clarity of mind. So I retract some of the bad things I’ve said of Kundera. I’d like to end here with the poetry Ludvik read to Lucie when they were still very much in love:

by Frantisek Halas


Your body is a slender ear of corn

From which the grain has dropped and won’t take root

Your body’s like a slender ear of corn


Your body is a skein of silk

With longing written into every fold

Your body’s like a skein of silk


Your body is a burnt-out sky

And death dreams under cover in its weave

Your body’s like a burnt-out sky


Your body is so silent

Its tears quiver benath my lids

Your body is so silent


Fatuous words I don’t trust you

I trust silence

More than beauty more than anything

A festival of understanding