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Milan Kundera: Zert (The Joke)

As with all good Czech jokes, the title is somewhat ironic in that the joke backfires on its perpetrator. The story is told in the first person by four characters – Ludvik Jahn; Helena Zemanek, whose husband, Pavel, had expelled Ludvik from school some years ago; Jaroslav, Ludvik’s former schoolfriend whose interest is in Czech folk art and fears that the current regime is destroying that art and Ludvik’s old friend, Kostka, a religious man losing his faith. The joke is a postcard Ludvik sent to a girlfriend which read OPTIMISM IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE! THE HEALTHY ATMOSPHERE STINKS! LONG LIVE TROTSKY! and led to his expulsion from the party and university and a spell in the mines. But the other part of the joke is that Ludvik is determined to gain his revenge on Pavel and so has an affair with Helena. The irony is that Pavel wants to get rid of Helena and that she falls in love with Ludvik and attempts suicide when she sees that her love for him is not returned.

Kundera has said (tongue in cheek, no doubt) that the book is not about Stalinism and how people reacted to the situation in Czechoslovakia at that time but, rather, is simply a love story. Most critics, particularly Western ones, have seen it as an indictment of Czech communism and how people – all people – get caught up in it whether they like it or not, losing their art, their religion, their faith in their fellow human beings. And maybe that’s the joke.

Publishing history

First published in Czech by Ceskoslovenský Spisovatel in 1967
First published in English by Coward-McCann in 1969
Translated by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass