forfeiting the funny in Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc
forfeiting the funny in Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc
Eva van Roekel, an anthropologist working within Latin America, spent several years in post-dictatorship Argentina. She examined how humour revealed “internalised ambiguities”, in “complex everyday moral confusions and moral uncertainties”.¹ This analysis was a steep departure from the often perfunctory assessment that humour entrenched social groups as certainties, rather than sensitively navigating social uncertainties. I want to take this perspective and apply it to Svetlana Alexievich’s text, Boys in Zinc, which is a collection of transcripts taken from interviews of men and women who had experienced the moral confusion of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.² The male soldiers interviewed emphasise the presence of humour, as soldiers “never laughed as much” as in Afghanistan.³ I will be adopting van Roekel’s approach for analysing humour, yet always locating it in culturally specific ways, exploring this particular war’s binaries.
Alexievich’s transcripts include vast amounts of humour, though the humour I explore is all ‘skeletal’. Skeletal humour has no ‘flesh’, by which I mean something that elicits comic amusement. The ‘skeleton’ in skeletal humour refers to structural mechanisms that usually create this comic amusement, be that a set-up and punchline, the comedy of slapstick, or any other comic mediums or tropes. These skeletons have been identified contemporaneously or posthumously (to use a tastelessly apt metaphor) within real situations, that are coincidentally structured as humour… they are, however, deeply unfunny. Where has the ‘flesh’ gone?
During this piece, I argue that humour navigates the “moral confusions and moral uncertainties” of war, be that of life and death, hero and war criminal, Soviet truth or an ‘outside reality’. I will examine individual examples of skeletal humour: how their structure is highlighted, why their flesh is missing, and within what binary they situate and explore.
One young doctor described how “some [doctors] laughed” during battlefield operations, before explaining that:
“The way a man dies isn’t anything like in the movies. A man doesn’t die like a Stalinist hero – a bullet hits him in the head, his brains go flying out, and he runs after them – he can run half a kilometre, trying to catch them. It’s crazy, way over the top.4
This humour of the absurd appears here in particularly unfunny ways, because the mechanisms of exaggeration and slapstick comedy are disturbingly real. If this was merely a cartoon, audiences would be laughing wholeheartedly. Death reminiscent of clown-like performance is the antithesis of the “Stalinist hero” death that permeated Soviet narrative. The concept of the morally superior Union was incongruous with the lived experience soldiers then faced. Alexei Yurchak argues that within the Soviet Union most subjects acted within “a seemingly paradoxical coexistence of affinities and alienations, belonging and estrangement, meaningful work and pure formality”.5 While reality is not configured as a binary, it is expressed through compounds of opposites in varying ratios.
In the passage above, the ‘found’ humour in the fabric of a dark reality has clearly haunted him: each clause speaks to the ludicrousness. When the soldier sets up the concept of the “Stalinist hero” from the movies, before describing these ‘over the top’ deaths with some colourful absurdity, there is another mechanism of humour: the contrast, the quick transformation of our expectations. Transformation humour would be categorized by the words of Immanuel Kant: “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”.6 This specific incongruity is not merely the harsh contrast between perceived realities, nor the relief from release of negative expectations, but the discord between the expectation once held and the reality in the present tense. In the example above, the expectation of unrealistic seriousness in death is contrasted with the very real ‘cartoonish’ humour that occurs.
The passage above from the doctor continues, and describes of another death, that “[b]efore you can even leave the bed the boy’s gone. And he was there just a moment ago”. While grief is not amusing, this painful experience mimics the structure of humour. Death is such a meaningful and transformative moment, the most destructive event possible to an individual, and thus there is a strained expectation on the actual process of dying. Here, the expectation is completely unfulfilled, the soldier merely ‘gone’. This ‘death’ of expectation embodies the mechanism of transformation humour. There could not be more contrast with that of the animated death in the previous paragraph, other than that the expectation of heroic death is not heroic at all, underlined by the degrading performance of death.
The humour of the ‘transformation’ will always speak to the liminal, as instant change does not include ‘in between’ values. This liminality creates an instability that pressured the soldiers, who witnessed life and death, consumed Soviet narrative and the witnessing of anti-Soviet sentiment, all the while enduring the dualistic caricatures of ‘Stalinist hero’ and war critic. If they felt ‘in between’, they could not express this. One man confesses his involvement in the war, and he describes:
“We had a ‘library and reading room’ – it was an immense toilet, this incredible dump [… We read the newspapers …] Not a word about us, fuck it… But only yesterday forty of our boys were torn to shreds. Two days earlier I was sitting here in the latrine with one of them and reading these papers, hooting with laughter. Holy shit! Enough to make you stick the barrel in your mouth and blow your brains out, it’s so bloody depressing.”7
Readers today are unlikely to find this very funny, despite the structures of humour. Toilet humour is a common category of comedy, however infantile, and the false grandeur afforded to the “incredible dump” provides a potentially amusing set-up. The humour bridges over many opposites, such as life and death, together and alone, “reading room” and “immense toilet”, “hooting with laughter” and suicide. The most prominent gap, I would argue, is that of Soviet narrative and their frontline experience, which is both deeply upsetting and potentially comic. According to Yurchak, this liminal space would have been carefully maintained to keep both realities intact. It is this tension I suggest as the reason why this soldier presents this story with humour structures. The performative aspect of humour can often be prioritised over the semantic meaning conveyed. Truth can be navigated between humour’s incongruous binaries, acknowledging their absurdity without discarding them.
The culmination of these paradoxical compounds around gaps and silences collide into one profane expulsion: “Holy shit!” This single curse reveals the mounting tensions as a short, pithy, but rather humourless punchline. This collapse of the oppositions destroys the chasm in between, as the skeletal humour becomes impossible to maintain.
These dichotomies let truth oscillate from one value to its opposite very quickly. Unlike transformation humour, these changes happen and then reverse repeatedly, creating the danger of collapse. For one grenadier, “the imagination goes silent”, as grotesque situations present repetitively.8 As he comes across a puddle of molten metal, he continues to describe his experience:
“Charred skulls grinning in it – as if a few hours ago they weren’t screaming here, but laughing as they died. But suddenly it’s all normal… simple… You get this acute thrill of excitement at the sight of a dead man: they didn’t get me! It happens so quickly, that kind of transformation… It’s very quick. It happens to everyone.”
Still deeply ‘unfunny’, the grinning skulls are an obvious absurdity, the paradoxically active present tense verb used with an inanimate object of death. However, their laughter during a painful death is also contradictory. Again, there is also the sudden normality of these unimaginable tragedies, before it is quickly reversed again by the socially inappropriate “thrill of excitement”. He expresses this excitement by exclaiming “they didn’t get me!” This is reminiscent of playful humour present in childish games of chase, for example, contrasting playfulness with death.
These conflated transformations are not so much a ‘humour’, yet encapsulate the fluctuations of humour from earlier: the transformations of unheroic death, or “reading room” revelations discovered from the news. These binary humours shift quickly from one state to another almost instantly, in the skulls that laugh instead of scream, in normality and horror. These transformations are “very quick” indeed, causing ‘violent fluctuations’ that threaten to collapse. In another interview, one soldier admits his frustration from these ‘jokes’, when “only yesterday and the day before, [they] seem funny. What’s so funny about it?”9 The skeletal humour is inherently unstable. It might navigate ambiguities without falling into the liminal space, yet these oscillations grow more dangerous, threatening loss of control.
Skeletal humour can also make violence somewhat more palatable, hiding cruelty as ‘a joke’. One nurse admits to mocking soldiers who chose to shoot themselves:
“Boys are being killed, and you want to go home to mama? He’s hurt his knee. He’s snagged his finger. Were you hoping they’d send you back to the Union? Why didn’t you shoot yourself in the temple? If I were you I’d have shot myself in the temple.”10
Perhaps this would have been met with amusement, but it appears unlikely given the sombre context and genuine anger described. This mocking is structured in humorous ways, referencing the patient’s mother to cause humiliation and utilising rhetorical questions which emphasise the patient’s lack of voice. In a context that did not precede suicide, these mechanisms may have been quite funny.
The repeating suggestion of suicide fractures the skeleton’s structure slightly. The cruelty draws our sympathies to the patient and away from the humour against him. In the transcript, the nurse goes on to express remorse at her past mockery. Why would she mock him at all? Perhaps it is an expression of anger that is not fully explainable: the nurse states she has since realised that their self-injury was “a protest, a reluctance to kill”.11 These men were displaying a different kind of agency to that which was normally prescribed and celebrated, at once between complex categories and free of them. I argue that is what caused the nurse’s anger. By creating a humorous skeleton and adopting the structure of mockery, the subjectivity and trivialised performativity of ‘just a joke’ prevents destructive action to these delicate complexities – at least for the joker.
‘Comrade Colonel, where shall we dig?’ ‘From the fence, as far as lunch.’12
Within much skeletal humour, the ‘punchline’ bridges over oppositions so harsh that the humour is lost. In this subsection’s title, the punchline itself is a concrete answer, a direct quote. The ‘gap’ between opposites is present in semantic meaning, however. The first humour is between the linguistic inconsistency between the physical object (fence) and the temporal marker (lunch). In the second humour, the ghostly space between the physically demanding, present tense live verb, digging, stretches to the unspoken reference of what happens after lunch. This is not skeletal humour: humour is found in the gap between inconsistent meanings and hints of death, which may be similar for skeletal humour, yet this artificially constructed device it is likely to cause comic amusement. It is not real, so the imaginary characters of Colonel and Private allow us to suspend our sympathies. Skeletal humour does not have that privilege, when the skeletons are found buried in the fabric of lived experience.
While primarily referring metaphorically to structure and humourlessness, the ‘skeletal’ analogy may be an apt, if not tactless, in an environment of death. I have picked but a few humours from the vast collection in Alexievich’s transcripts. The war has been framed by so many opposing binaries, be it Yurchak’s identified Soviet dichotomies, the binary of life or death, or the classification of heroes or villains. Skeletal humour adopts the structures of humour in order to navigate the coexistence of binaries in existentially unthreatening ways. As another solder relates, “there isn’t just one truth: there are many kinds”.13 The kind of truth in skeletal humour is a lot more palatable.
- Eva van Roekel, “Uncomfortable Laughter: Reflections on Violence, Humour and Immorality in Argentina”, Etnofoor 28, no. 1 (2017): 56, 74.
- Svetlana Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, trans. A. Bromfield (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2017).
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 28.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 28.
- Alexei Yurchak, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More. The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 98.
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. by J. H. Bernard (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005), 135.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 80-1.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 26.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 119.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 172.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 173.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 124.
- Alexievich, Boys in Zinc, 55.
Alexievich, Svetlana. Boys in Zinc. Translated by A. Bromfield. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2015.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by J. H. Bernard. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005.
van Roekel, Eva. “Uncomfortable Laughter: Reflections on Violence, Humour and Immorality in Argentina.” Etnofoor 28, no. 1 (2016): 55-74.
Yurchak, Alexei. Everything was Forever, Until it was No More. The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
About the author…
Emily Upson studies MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology at University College London (UCL). Interests include utilizing humour studies to analyze zones of war, economic abandonment, social (in)justice in political turmoil, and rebuilding processes in postwar society. Enjoys a good joke but is remarkably unfunny. Currently conducting research into uses of humour during a variety of Irish conflicts.