Milan Kundera, born in 1929, is without question the most famous living Czech-born writer and among the nation’s most gifted thinkers. Although a celebrated poet during the Stalinist era and a lecturer in world literature, Kundera did not start working on his first novel, The Joke, until 1965, when he was thirty-three. While visiting friends in a mining region of Moravia, he heard the story of a girl jailed for stealing flowers from a cemetery to give her boyfriend. Kundera began to imagine what life would be like – at the height of Stalinism – for a girl for whom sexuality and love were tragically discrete; of a man who seduces the wife of his old nemesis out of revenge, thereby turning the act of making love into an act of hate. The politically provocative book was a sensation in Czechoslovakia when finally published in 1967 – a year before Soviet-led tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring reform movement that had allowed for such a novel to be published in the Eastern Bloc country.

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