CHILDREN OR SOVIETS OR BOTH: THE BOOKS THAT HAVE MADE ME LAUGH By Madeleine LaRue
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.
But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.
Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.