The Joke by Milan Kundera
“The Joke is the first novel by Milan Kundera, written in 1967. It was with this thing that European fame of the writer began. Louis Aragon called “Joke” one of the best novels of the XX century.
So here I was, home again after all those years. Standing in the main square (which I had crossed countless times as a child, as a boy, as a young man), I felt no emotion whatsoever; all I could think was that the flat space, with the spire of the town hall (like a soldier in an ancient helmet) rising above the rooftops, looked like a huge parade ground and that the military past of the Moravian town, once a bastion against Magyar and Turk invaders, had engraved an irrevocable ugliness on its face.
During those years, there was nothing to attract me to my hometown; I told myself that I had grown indifferent to it, which seemed natural: I had been away for fifteen years, had almost no friends or acquaintances left here (and wished to avoid the ones I did have), my mother was buried among strangers in a grave I had never tended. But I had been deceiving myself: what I had called indifference was in fact rancor; the reasons for it had escaped me, because here as elsewhere I had had both good and bad experiences, but the rancor was there, and it was this journey that had made me conscious of it: the mission that had brought me here could easily have been accomplished in Prague, after all, but I had suddenly begun to feel an irresistible attraction to the prospect of carrying it out here in my hometown precisely because this was a mission so cynical and low as to mock any suspicion that I was returning out of some maudlin attachment to things past.
I gave the unsightly square a final knowing look and, turning my back on it, set off for the hotel where I had booked a room for the night. The porter handed me a key hanging from a wooden pear and said, “Third floor.” The room was not attractive: a bed along one wall, a small table and chair in the middle, an ostentatious mahogany chest of drawers with mirror next to the bed, and a tiny cracked sink by the door. I put my briefcase down on the table and opened the window: it looked out onto a courtyard and the bare grubby backs of neighboring buildings.
I closed the window, drew the curtains, and went over to the sink, which had two faucets—one blue, the other red; I turned them on; cold water trickled out of both. I looked over at the table, which at least had room for a bottle and two glasses; the trouble was, only one person could sit at it: there was only one chair. I pushed the table up to the bed and tried sitting at it, but the bed was too low and the table too high; besides, the bed sank so much under my weight that it was obviously not only unsatisfactory as a seat but equally unlikely to perform its function as a bed. I pushed it with my fists, then lay down on it, carefully lifting my legs so as not to dirty the blanket. The bed sagged so badly I felt I was in a hammock; it was impossible to imagine anyone else in that bed with me.
I sat down on the chair, stared at the translucent curtains, and began to think. Just then the sound of steps and voices penetrated the room from the corridor; two people, a man and a woman, were having a conversation, and I could understand their every word: it was about a boy named Petr, who had run away from home, and his Aunt Klara, who was a fool and spoiled the boy.
Then a key turned in a lock, a door opened, and the voices went on talking in the next room; I heard the woman sighing (yes, even sighs were audible!) and the man resolving to have a few words with Klara….”