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from the January 2019 issue

A Pun, an Idiom, and an Expletive Walk into a Bar: International Humor

With its postholiday malaise and gloomy chill, January (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) calls for an infusion of lightness, a bit of relief from the relentless grayness of this time of year. Although many readers associate international literature with the most serious of topics—what I refer to as the “long dark weeping night of Eastern Europe” stereotype—there is ample comic material in our archives, and we’ve called on a few examples for this issue.

When we think of translating humor, we may think in terms of capturing jokes, with their interdependent elements of rhythm, meter, sound, and meaning, and the culmination of all in the punchline. The virtually universal response to Jessica Cohen’s tour-de-force rendering of David Grossman’s standup monologue in A Horse Walks into a Bar—“How did you do that??”—suggests the complexity of the task. Illustrating the challenge, Grossman told the New York Times that the old joke that gives the book its title (“horse walks into a bar; bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’”) doesn’t exist in Hebrew, since “long face” is not an idiom in that language; it’s that sort of conundrum—finding equivalents for the apparently untranslatable—that people think of when they marvel at translating humor. Yet that precision of word choice and attention to vocabulary and phrasing animates all successful translation, and is what you’ll find in the pieces presented here.

Although there is much to laugh at in these stories, their comedy lies less in structured jokes or inherently funny contexts than in the painstaking establishment of character and situation, allowing humor to grow organically. Indeed, many of the settings—a dinner party at the boss’s house, a routine flight, an international trade meeting—are serious or neutral landscapes into which unexpected humorous aspects are introduced. And while some of these authors, such as the satirist Empar Moliner and the deadpan Wladimir Kaminer, are known for their comic writing, others (such as the novelist, essayist, poet, and economics professor Fouad Laroui) may surprise with their departures from the sober.

Some of the narratives deploy the slapstick of anxiety dreams. Fouad Laroui’s crime victim, a diplomat waking in Brussels to discover a cat burglar has pinched his pants, hastily improvises at an Oxfam and turns up at a crucial negotiation clad in castoff golf attire of the sort known in the US as “jackass pants.” Another tale of being caught with one’s pants down comes from Iran—a country not usually considered a source of ludic delight—as Behnaz Alipour Gaskari’s protagonist comes home from work, sheds her clothes in the heat, and then locks herself out in her lingerie. 

Often drollness faces off with the mordant acknowledgment of less enchanting elements. Wladimir Kaminer’s “Paris Lost” grounds the fantastic—a Soviet-built “Paris” and “London,” destinations for Party-awarded trips—in the quotidian oppression of Communist restrictions on travel; Empar Molinar’s “Invention of the Aspirin” provides a bored wife with an escape from her marital doldrums, only to find an equally deadening routine. And two stories with government settings—Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain’s graphic novel “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” and Hilda Twongyeirwe’s “Baking the National Cake”—remind us that countries often operate despite bureaucracy, rather than through it. (Lanzac and Blain’s caustic look at ministerial backbiting, ambition, and general incompetence was filmed as Quai d’Orsay, released in the US as The French Minister.)

Business schemes on very different scales and equally divergent levels of success drive Huang Fan’s sardonic tale of real estate sales and Iharilanto Patrick Andriamangatiana’s cheerful fable of eggs and honesty. Marketing strategies drive the action of both tales, and despite the opposite settings of densely urban Taipei and a Malagasy village, the products involved have a surprising amount in common. And in both tales the chickens come home to roost.

Gabriela Wiener and Griet Op de Beeck depict markedly different approaches to the treacherous grounds of romance. The adventurous Wiener catalogs an extensive list of affairs, concluding, “I’ve been unfaithful, first and foremost, to my infidelities.” In contrast, Op de Beeck’s serial monogamist longs to settle down, only to see a promising date derailed by lurking menaces private and public.

And relations between the sexes take another turn in Saša Stanišić’s antic account of a flight from hell. Seated next to an angelic blonde child, the narrator quickly discovers she’s less heavenly than demonic.  When the urchin’s mother and the flight attendant join the fray, it’s clear there’s a bumpy landing ahead.

Brevity being the soul of wit, we’ll end here and leave you to immerse yourself in the rest of the issue.  We wish you a fine year, and one that frequently affords laughter in unexpected places.

© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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