December 10, 2015

A Survey of Russian Humor (and it rhymes!)

A Survey of Russian Humor (and it rhymes!)

There's plenty of talk about how Russia is dark and dismal, its writers pathologically depressed, and the general mood among the populace about as cheery as a Siberian winter. Sure, a place that gets to the minus sixties may not be exactly cheery, but these stereotypes give short shrift to Russian humor. A lot of it is dark, satirical, or language-based, rather than the banana-peel type guffaws an American audience might expect, but in Russia, that’s not just funny – it’s poetry.

Take Nikolai Oleinikov. His poem “The Beetle” is, ironically, as caustic an account of human life as of beetle life – or beetle death, to be precise, as it’s based on a bug awaiting execution by his “vivisectors,” a carefree father and son who appear go to hyperbolic lengths to squish a bug:

An efficient young assistant
boils the scalpel on the heater,
at the same time gently whistling
something from the early Beatles.

Needless to say, when Oleinikov penned the beetle’s swan song in 1934 it was too early for the early Beatles; Anatoly Liberman’s translation in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (PBRP) takes anachronistic liberties that, says the volume’s editor, “Oleinikov would, I believe, have enjoyed.” Meanwhile, the vivisectors approach:

You elitist, sexist mugger,
scoundrel, scholarly and smug!
Read my lips: this little bugger
is a martyr, not a bug.

Though humorous in tone and wording, the poem clearly makes a point about human cruelty. As it was written just as Stalin was coming to power, it would be easy to attribute allegorical meaning to the trapped insect in the thrall of his monumental executors. But to whatever extent the reader takes the poem as such, the humor in the language should not be lost in gruesome interpretation.

Does that mean all humor in the Russian context is by nature ironizing, satirical, even with a touch of brutality? Much has to do with linguistic play, as Velimir Khlebnikov shows in his “Laugh Chant” or “Incantation by Laughter” (1908). We include excerpts of translations from both PBRP and Russian Silver Age Poetry (RSAP) to highlight the variability of its word play.

Christopher Reid’s version in PBRP focuses on manipulating the word “laugh”:

Laugh along, laughmen!
So they laugh their large laughter, they laugh aloud laughishly.
Laugh and be laughed at!
O the laughs of the overlaughed, the laughfest of laughingstocks!
Laugh out uplaughingly the laugh of laughed laughterers!

Paul Schmidt’s interpretation in RSAP brings out the nonsense, Khlebnikov’s trademark poetic move:

Hlaha! Uthlofan, lauflings!
Who laughen with lafe, who hlaehen lewchly,
Hlaha! Ufloflan hlouly!
Hlaha! Hloufish lauflings lafe, hlohan utlaufly! 

And the Russian, whose addition of prefixes and suffixes to the word “smekh” yields laughable gibberish:

О, засмейтесь, смехачи!
Что смеются смехами, что смеянствуют смеяльно,
О, засмейтесь усмеяльно!
О, рассмешищ надсмеяльных — смех усмейных смехачей!

If that doesn’t make the word “laugh” feel like a sticky object, suddenly foreign to your mouth, Khlebnikov (and his translators) fail in their task.

Just as Khlebnikov makes his readers think twice about language, humor can also shift perceptions of stories whose endings we take for granted. Marina Boroditskaya’s 2003 poem in PBRP addresses King Lear’s daughter Cordelia, giving her advice for turning her father’s story into a comedy:

Cordelia, you are a fool! Would it have been
that hard to yield to the old man?
To say to him, ‘I, too, O darling Daddy,
love you more than my life.’ Piece of cake!
...OK, OK, don’t cry. Of course, the author
is quite a character, but next time
make sure to be more stubborn, and resist:
...Like a puppy,
pull him by the leg of his pants with your teeth
into the game, into comedy!

The free verse (vs. iambic pentameter) adds to the shock of what may look like a bastardization of Shakespeare, but in so doing, opens up an alternate reading of Lear. Boroditskaya may intend this as a metaphor for Russia speaking to the West, ridiculing values that don’t translate to a happy ending, or simply as a humorous text-to-text tête-à-tête. The beauty of some poems lies in the many possibilities not only for translation, but for interpretation, too.

What Boroditskaya does for literature, Dmitry Prigov does for history. In “Battle of Kulikovo,” translated in PBRP by Alexandra Berlina, Prigov’s anonymous godlike narrator trivializes the monumental battle that turned the tide of the battle against Mongol power:

So they shall win today, the Russians,
They’re after all good guys the Russians…
They’ve suffered horrors from non-Russians
So they shall win today the Russians

…But then the Tatars do seem nice
To me their names seem rather nice…
Although the Russians have less lice
But still the Tatars are so nice

Now then I’ll let the Tatars win
From here the battle I shall see
So there, the Tatars, they shall win
But on the other hand – I’ll see.

In transforming a history-altering battle into the whim of a fickle deity, and doing so in such simple form, Prigov reduces world history to the level of nursery rhyme – indeed, in the Tatars and Russians on the battlefield, one may see Oleinikov’s hapless beetle awaiting his vivisectors.

The humor of these poems has a dark side. It is their ironic lens on things taken for granted – whether squashing a bug, an everyday word, or famous literary or historical events – that sets them apart. That lens, blended with an incongruous use of language to get the point across, makes for a unique kind of humor. Even if that humor has more in common with a Siberian blizzard than most jokesters might expect.

What can we learn about Russia, now and throughout history, from its poetry? This month we try to find out, with help from The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (released later this month), as reviewed in the November/December issue of Russian Life, and Russian Silver Age Poetry: Texts and Contexts, released earlier this year with Academic Studies Press

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