I was surprised to learn that the novelist Milan Kundera celebrated his 90th birthday on Monday. I had no idea he was still alive. He has taken up residence in that old people’s home that many former luminaries of western culture now occupy — the one with the sign above the door saying ‘Forgotten, but not gone’. In Kundera’s case, his decline into obscurity is probably connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Czech émigré was all the rage in the mid-1980s when he was a critic of his country’s brutal regime. Now that the Soviet Union and its satellite states are a distant memory, he seems less relevant.
I think the time is ripe for a Kundera revival, although not for the obvious reason, which is that communism is back in vogue. I think a good case can be made along those lines — and, indeed, the novelist Ewan Morrison has made it. In a recent essay, Morrison points out that Kundera warned of the dangers of airbrushing inconvenient facts from history in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. We see this today with attempts to gloss over the genocides perpetrated by Stalin and Mao.
In China, for instance, there is only one memorial to the victims of the Great Famine (1959-62), in which up to 43 million people died — a homemade structure, built by a farmer, about the size of a garden shed. As Kundera wrote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
But even more topical than The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Kundera’s first novel, The Joke. Published in 1967, it concerns the fate of a student called Ludvik Jahn, who falls foul of the communist authorities when he makes an inappropriate joke. On a postcard he dashes off to his girlfriend, who is at a Communist party training camp, he writes: ‘Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!’ When this is communicated to party officials back in Prague, he is dismissed from his post at the students’ union, then kicked out of his university.
That, in turn, means he can no longer defer his military service, and he soon finds himself in a special unit of the Czechoslovakian army reserved for young men considered ‘enemies of socialism’. As he’s labouring in a coal mine alongside his fellow ne’er-do-wells, he realises that a silly joke he didn’t give a moment’s thought to has completely changed his life — and not for the better.
A well-wisher sent me a copy of the book last year after I’d lost five positions as a result of making some stupid jokes on Twitter, including my full-time job, and it won’t surprise you to learn that it resonated deeply. During his initial interrogation, Ludvik is told that because he expressed these thoughts on a postcard, where they were publicly visible, they have an ‘objective significance’ that means they cannot be explained away as a momentary lapse in judgment. I was told the same by the people sitting in judgment on me — the fact that I’d said these inappropriate things on Twitter, where other people could see them, meant they were more reflective of who I really am than if I’d put them in a private letter. There are other similarities too: many of the people Ludvik considers friends end up joining the outrage mob; his enemies create a crude caricature of him that quickly acquires the status of immutable reality; the punishment is out of all proportion to the crime, etc.
But it isn’t just me, obviously. Scarcely a week passes without someone suffering a reversal of fortune when it’s discovered they made the wrong sort of joke, even if it was in the distant past. It’s symptomatic of a recent shift in Britain and America, whereby the left has acquired sweeping new powers in the cultural arena, in spite of losing at the ballot box.
What makes Kundera’s book so relevant is that he connects the intolerance of politically incorrect humour to the totalitarian mindset. He points out that we often laugh at inappropriate jokes. Indeed, it’s their tastelessness — the fact that the thoughts and feelings they express are at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy — that makes them so funny. Laughing at these ‘wrong’ jokes is a form of dissent. Little wonder, then, that the Maoist commissars of our era want to punish people for telling them. Milan Kundera’s book may be more than 50 years old, but it could not be more timely.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.