BEF 2011/29 – The Clown [Finland]
A prisoner arrives at a Soviet hard-labour camp and is asked the length of his sentence. “Twenty five years,” he replies. “For what?” he is asked. “For nothing.” “Impossible, for nothing you get ten years.”
That and many more such jokes came from a time and place in which one might expect laughter to be a forgotten human reaction, just another victim to the engineers of utopia. Censored press, an omnipresent and seemingly omniscient police, a brutal intolerance of the smallest sign of dissidence: such an environment leads one to imagine a cruel and cold world of hushed words and smothered joy. But with even a rudimentary knowledge of Communist Russia one knows this is simply not the case – the arts, such as they were under the Bolsheviks, were too valuable a tool to be suppressed altogether. Instead, they would be controlled. Like rivers that threaten to flood, the arts (in particular the nascent cinematic arts) are dammed, their flow carefully checked and guided, their force used to propel the Communist cause; as with all other social phenomena they are institutionalised and subordinated to an insatiable ideology.
Finnish writer Anita Konkka’s story ‘The Clown’ is the story of just such a red-nosed entertainer, red-nosed but white-hearted, who, years after her retirement has been asked to writer her memoirs. The subject of this story – humour in Soviet Russia (and, more broadly, the intersection of politics and comedy) – is a broad and complicated one the full and deserved treatment of which lies beyond the purview of this critic and the scope of his article. I hope that you will permit me to continue, however, to make a few general observations and do me the courtesy, though I have no right to ask it, of remaining for the entirety of the act.
Albertina Vinniyeva recounts her start in the clowning business:
I was the only woman in the clown course and probably the worst student in the history of the school, but because of my father’s position, I wasn’t kicked out. For my graduate thesis, I only barely managed to throw together the required Marxist study on how class distinctions are enacted in the art of clowning. I didn’t mind the subject matter: clowning has always been a proletariat art, by and for the oppressed.
She is sent to the Murmansk area as a “third-class circus clown,” but soon chafes at the leash the circus director ties to her.
I had to be a red-nosed, stupid, fat clown, which wasn’t really my style, because I was more the small, thin, sad Pierrot type. The director of the circus said that the people didn’t understand elitist French-type comedy, however.
In Moscow the circus patron’s tastes ran true to Albetina’s dictum of clowning as a proletariat art.
…I was playing the part of a workman who’s afraid of his boss, so afraid he ends up doing everything backwards…The audience laughed until their sides ached, not only the children, but also the adults, when they saw me making all of the same mistakes they themselves were afraid to be caught making at work.
This is insidious and menacing satire delivered with all of the force and subtlety of a wounded bear, it is agitprop under the big top. Albertina soon tires of this and defects to Italy where she can be the clown she always wanted to be, the “sad Pierrot type,” and where she is received well.
As a man who remembers going to the circus as a child and seeing nothing more in the lion-taming than courage, buffoonery in the clowning, benevolent (if a little mysterious) guidance from the ringmaster, a circus with ideological motives seems more than passing sad. Were they not doing these things simply because they could? because they delighted? because they thrilled? What ideals does the trapeze arc shape if not the feeling of flying like a bird? Circus tents are traditionally striped pavilions which unmistakably convey to a child the wonders of what must go on inside. Remove the white naivete of such a view and you are left with the red wash of Communist theatres in which the audience is themselves the spectacle at which they laugh.
Iain Lauchlan has suggested in his paper ‘Laughter in the Dark: Humour under Stalin‘ that unlike Nazi Fascism – which, due to its tight organization and control was supremely capable and operated with a machine-like efficiency – Soviet Communism stumbled and fumbled and groped its blind way forward, a fact that, wildly devastating as it was, rendered the regime embarrassingly inept and a target for ridicule. Bumbling it may have been, but it was thorough: the irony of Marxist-inspired clowning is in its absurdity and its inevitability. Konkka’s story, for aught little else, has shown me that. Fascism aestheticizes politics, writes Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ and Communism politicizes art.
‘The Clown’ is translated from Finnish by A. D. Haun
This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. There will appear on this website just such a review until the entire book is done.