Take My Bulgarian Joke Book. Please.

“Take My Bulgarian Joke Book. Please.”
(Words from a story by the same name
by Michael Kimmelman, NYT 31 October 2010)

 

Gabrovo, Bulgaria.
The sign leading into town
reads, Welcome and good riddance.

Black-and-white photographs
from the opening day in 1971
of the House of Humor and Satire:
mobs of smiling Gabrovians
jamming the square
outside the new Modernist box
with a metal statue of Don Quixote
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 everyone’s laughing, and that’s the joke.

We were never told
not to tell Zhivkov jokes,
not that anybody ever did.

Ms. Boneva gestured toward a large sculture 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.
After the room empties,
the lights switch off automatically.

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

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 life-long sacrifice to an institution
whose weaknesses she clearly recognized
but that she loved anyway —
as a parent loves a child.

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 and Satire.
He wasn’t being a good Communist,

just a good man.

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Published by

Ray Sharp

Father, poet, triathlete, local public health planner

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