Take My Bulgarian Joke Book. Please.

Views on BG | October 28, 2010, Thursday // 08:16|  views

Students play in the exhibition "Gabrovo Planet." Photo by The New York Times

By Michael Kimmelman

The New York Times

The sign leading into town, faded but still readable in Bulgarian, was as I remembered it. "Welcome and good riddance," it said. Gabrovians, like Borscht Belt comedians or Delaware Republicans, pride themselves on their sense of humor. Before the Wall fell, this hard-luck but endearing city at the foot of the central Balkans was regarded as the Communist capital of humor.


The town's most distinctive cultural landmark remains the House of Humor and Satire, a dour hulk from the early 1970s, now somewhat worse for wear, like so many other neglected remnants of the former Soviet empire.

Black-and-white photographs from the day the House opened in 1971 show a bygone era: mobs of smiling Gabrovians jamming the square outside the building, then a spanking new Modernist box with a metal statue of Don Quixote in front, where apparatchiks wearing plaid leisure suits, wide ties and fake smiles greeted Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's strongman leader.

"There's nothing funny in the picture but everybody's laughing," is how Galina Boneva analyzed the image one recent day. In charge of media affairs for the House, Ms. Boneva, who says with a melancholy mix of pride and resignation that, having dreamed of other lives in other places, she has spent her life here, added, "that's the joke," as if to suggest that some meta-wit inspired Gabrovians to pretend to be uproarious for the purpose of being collectively satirical. This was not an uncommon strategy for coping with life across the Soviet realm, amid the hypocrisies of Communism.

Or maybe Ms. Boneva was kidding.

Laughter is said to be the universal language. But that must be a joke itself. Of all cultural forms, humor — whether written, visual or stand-up — seems the clearest illustration of the greater truth that not everything translates from one society or era to another, even, or perhaps especially, in an age of globalization. True, American sit-coms are as ubiquitous abroad now as Starbucks and Yankees caps, but like all common denominators of the global age, they're a kind of cultural white noise, the background from which different peoples distinguish themselves. Gabrovians, comedically speaking, are a perfect example.

Officials at the House of Humor and Satire, a relic of a vanished regime, on more or less the margins of Central Europe, talk wistfully about becoming a more popular destination once again, if only they could come up with the money and a good plan. If only. Across the former Communist world museums like the House have been repurposed as ironic attractions for tourists often too young to remember much if anything about the Soviet era. Funnily, the House of Humor and Satire isn't one of these. It lacks irony.

Touchingly so.

It's a family attic of oddball art, historical installations, satirical drawings and cartoons. For most of its first two decades it functioned as a cold war crossroad and propaganda tool. The House's biennial humor festivals — to which artists from the Soviet bloc were allowed to travel, and where they could then mingle with invited Westerners — were conceived by Communist officials to cultivate an image of Bulgaria, and by extension the larger Soviet realm, as open to outsiders.

The House became a sort of window between two worlds. Every other year throughout the 1970s and '80s a mix of illustrators, writers and cartoonists descended on Gabrovo, which for the length of the festivals hosted the Balkan equivalent of Woody Allen's comedians' table at the Carnegie Deli.

In those days busloads of diversion-starved Soviet-bloc tourists waited each morning for the doors to open. A large staff published books and magazines of satire and humor, hosted a film festival, staged plays, brought in writers from Punch and The National Lampoon, handed out literary prizes to international stars like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. The BBC made a documentary about the House. The New Yorker wrote a profile of the town. The place bustled.

But that was then. Now, local industry having died out, the population has thinned, and the House has trouble mustering even the most meager salaries for a skeletal staff. The other morning Ms. Boneva guided several visitors around the galleries, ecstatic to dust off her English. Save for the aging saleswoman behind the souvenir stand in the lobby, complaining to herself about something (perhaps the lack of business), the place was empty and echoing.

"It was not an overnight success becoming the humor capital of Bulgaria," Ms. Boneva began her tour. We were clearly in practiced comic hands.

She stood before a tatty display tracing the source of Gabrovian wit to a certain Old Minyo, a 19th-century local of fabled abstemiousness who was said to have carried his shoes on long walks, so as to spare their soles, and who sat in the dark to save candle wax. (Gabrovians find this hysterical.) Old Minyo was at the same time a legendary philanthropist, embodying the city's prideful image as comically cheap and heroically generous.

Gabrovians could afford such largess, once upon a time. Heavy industry transformed the town by the late 19th century into what people here (with a perfectly straight face) called "the Manchester of Bulgaria." By the 1970s local leaders, wanting to capitalize on the annual carnival, a kind of comic Mardi Gras that was the biggest attraction in Gabrovo for outsiders, proposed creating the House of Humor. Tatyana Tsankova, the House's longtime director, recalled one recent afternoon that Communist officials in Sofia instantly "saw this as an ideological opportunity to address the whole world, especially the Western world, and to show that humor could prosper here under Communism, within limits of course."

Ms. Tsankova, who, it was impossible not to notice, rarely smiles, had spread out boxes of chocolates and cookies in her office, the way Communist officials used to do for guests. "During the first years there were many anti-NATO cartoons, but there also were strict rules about being fair," she said. "We were never even told not to tell Zhivkov jokes."

Perhaps for comic effect, she then paused.

"Not that anybody ever did."

Importantly, for abstract and religious artists in the Soviet sphere, meaning those who declined to toe the official line, the House was also one of the few Communist institutions that agreed to exhibit and collect their work. A crucifixion given an ironic title passed as satire. Tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs, often of the quasi-dissident variety, came more or less surreptitiously into the House's possession in this fashion.

In a long, white-stone gallery, like the fraying vestibule of some provincial Soviet opera house, a small selection of these works now cram the walls beneath buzzing fluorescents: several dozen images of Buddhas, biblical scenes, grim prostitutes on the Rue St.-Denis, gloomy landscapes, frowning clowns and angular abstractions, all given ridiculous or ironical titles. A sadder group of pictures is hard to envision.

Elsewhere the House tells an even shaggier-dog story: There are copies of ancient and medieval religious frescoes to provide evidence that since the Roman era artists have always had a sly, satirical streak. There's a gallery of African art too, for no apparently logical reason except that some generous local collector donated it.

Ms. Boneva gestured toward a large sculpture of a cat, the House's unofficial mascot. (To save money on heat, so the Gabrovo joke goes, Gabrovians cut off their cats' tails. That way they can shut their doors more quickly whenever the cats go in or out of the house.) Fifty cents inserted into a donation box beside the sculpture makes the cat cluck like a chicken. A couple of minutes after the room empties, the lights switch off automatically.

"To save on the electric bill," Ms. Boneva confessed.

It happens that I had visited the House of Humor and Satire before, as a young man during the early 1980s. My parents, loyal Communists, stopped here one sunny summer day on the way to the Black Sea. Our host, a Bulgarian friend of my father's (Bulgaria's Walter Cronkite was how he was always described to Americans like us), had earlier paused along the highway from Sofia to let us stretch our legs, whereupon my father, getting out of the car and squinting skyward through the plumes of car exhaust, declared, "The sky really is bluer here."

"Here," I recall him saying, as in here in the Communist heartland. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that's what he said. That phrase stuck with me as a testament to blind faith, political or otherwise, and I also remember, upon arriving back then at the House of Humor and Satire, being taken around by a guide who, it turns out, might well have been the younger Ms. Boneva. My father roared at the ramshackle assortment of what seemed to a skeptic like me to be patently humorless paintings and political cartoons, including ones of an American flag drenched in oil, as if in blood, and of Henry Kissinger as an American eagle dropping bombs from his talons.

My takeaway message: that the House of Humor crudely exemplified cold war politics and the sort of misbegotten dreams that could cause a clever, humane American physician with a scientist's penchant for logic in ordinary circumstances to laugh at what seemed unfunny. A selfless and self-sacrificing man, I might add, known for his sense of humor, who deeply loved his country while remaining a hopeless romantic when it came to socialism.

But history, like memory and the effectiveness of satire, turns out to change with age along with one's perspective, a realization born of time that is partly what inspired me to return to Gabrovo after so many years and check out the House. Like much of life behind the Iron Curtain two decades after the Wall fell, it comes across differently on second glance, more sympathetically, not so simply, in this case precisely because it has been stuck in amber.

By which I mean that in a climate of blinkered, polarized politics, especially to a young smart-alecky New Yorker, the museum could appear to be a crude instrument of cold war propaganda. But in the more fractured reality of a global age, and from a less cocksure perspective, it came to seem special. It seemed a local oddity, something actually to be treasured all the more for its flaws and as an anachronism, in the way we treasure roadside diners over fast-food chains or musty books over iPads and Droids.

We cherish these things because they remind us of our own weaknesses. Driving on that same highway from Sofia the other morning, this time with the daughter and grandson of my dead father's dead friend, I heard myself unconsciously exclaiming from the back seat, probably at about the spot where my father stepped out to praise the blue sky, how incredibly beautiful the countryside was, which it really is. It's one of Europe's undiscovered corners. Then at the House of Humor, not wanting to disappoint Ms. Boneva, I heard myself laughing, exactly as he had done.

I almost wanted to cry.

I laughed out of politeness and slight embarrassment at the earnestness of the exhibitions. I laughed because I felt touched by Ms. Boneva's devotion, her lifelong sacrifice to an institution whose weaknesses she clearly recognized but that she loved anyway — as a parent can love a child, I thought. And I laughed because the world is precious and heartbreaking for being complicated.

My father may well have had the same reaction when he visited. He was probably surprised by the unexpected beauty on the highway. He wanted to be nice when he got to the House of Humor. He wasn't being a good Communist, just a good man.

So it really wasn't he who had been blinded by ideology, I realized.

I was. And driving out of Gabrovo ("Goodbye and good riddance"), I only wished he were still around so I could tell him so.

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Tags: Gabrovians, Gabrovo, House of Humor and Satire, Bulgaria


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