Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Varian and the Bulgarian

More thoughts on finding another personality through a second language, et al.

When I was working as a secretary at the United Methodist Office for the UN (UMOUN) in the Church Center for the UN, across the street from the UN itself, a job I acquired thanks to my passable French, I decided to avail myself of the Russian classes available at the world institution. I had already studied Russian on and off for about 6 years, but was deeply dissatisfied with my progress, plus I had an ulterior motive: I was thinking about applying to graduate school in either History, Area Studies, or Slavic Languages and Literatures, so I knew it would help me to brush up on my grammar and hopefully learn some new words. As usual, there were students of different levels together in one class (Level 7), so things moved slowly. But it was all worth it for the charming story that we read and listened to in class one day about a low-level Bulgarian office worker, one Vylnarov, who went to Lisbon as an interpreter for a tour group and became something of a celebrity there. The source of his fame: without knowing a word of Portuguese to begin with, he had memorized all the words in the phrasebook:

The guide greeting the newly arrived tour group addressed them in Portuguese:
"How do you feel after the long flight?"
The tourists looked at Vylnarov. He replied, without missing a beat:
"Wonderful, good, not so good, bad, tired, sick."
The guide and the others greeting them noted his clever joke with appreciation. Two beautiful brunettes presented Vylnarov with roses.
"Is this medicine to be taken internally or externally?" Vylnarov asked.
He was rewarded with another burst of laughter. The director of the tour agency was immediately informed that a famous comedian had traveled incognito with the tour group.
....... [then, in the restaurant:]
"What would you like, sir?" the waiter asked respectfully.
This question was familiar to Vylnarov. He answered, without a pause:
"I will have one (two, three, four) steak (schnitzel, roast beef, lamb, chicken, sausage with cabbage)."
The director laughed heartily and raised his glass to the health of his dear guest:
"I wish to welcome the famous Bulgarian humorist," he said.
"I am an engineer (metallurgist, miner, farmer, singer, ballerina, dental technician..."
Laughter and applause drowned out his words.

The story ends on a note of melancholy, however. When poor old Vylnarov comes back to Bulgaria, he feels like just another ordinary working slob again. Around the time that we read that in class I read something on the internet about Varian Fry, the American diplomat responsible for saving numerous European cultural luminaries from the fires of the Holocaust. Like Vylnarov, Fry had been placed in a uniquely wonderful position in his exile (with the difference that he provided the joy not of laughter, but of survival), and when he returned to some desk job in America he felt once again like quite the ordinary, unexciting fellow whom he was, a profoundly depressing experience for him.

I am fascinated by the way that another language, another country, another gender, or another identity of any kind can awaken a sleeping tiger of hidden potentialities in a person: look at Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco and Dead Man, Michael Redgrave in The Captive Heart, Tatsyuda Nakadai in Kagemusha, Kim Novak in Vertigo, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, Gerard Depardieu in The Return of Martin Guerre, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot (and look at Shakespeare's As You Like It, Twelfth Night, etc.), among many others. I've talked with my brother Nick about these films as being "films about acting," and if you go back to the origins of theatre in Dionysian rite, you find that the very source of it was this blurring of identity, this rejoicing in the collapse of the barrier between Self and Other, which is at the crux of these films. The superhero myths also, that is, Batman and Spiderman, not Superman (who as Clark Kent is a tragic hero descending to farce, as discussed in Kill Bill, vol. 2), trace a similar trajectory.

But surely it's unhealthy to seek release or power in escaping from the self? Yes, as unhealthy as deluding oneself that one's "proper self" isn't susceptible to change.


At 8:35 PM, Blogger jimeye said...

Words of wisdom my friend. I have not discovered that other personality out here in Japan but maybe I will. Off to see some of the city, be well.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Small Man said...

You reminded me of this great scene from Lady from Shanghai, which I just found on the Web:

Michael: Love. Do you believe in love at all, Mrs. Bannister?
Elsa: (She takes the wheel.)...I was taught to think about love in Chinese.
Michael: The way a Frenchman thinks about laughter in French?
Elsa: The Chinese say, it is difficult for love to last long. Therefore, one who loves passionately is cured of love, in the end.
Michael: Sure, that's a hard way of thinking.
Elsa: There's more to the proverb: Human nature is eternal. Therefore, one who follows his nature keeps his original nature, in the end.

Even better, I found that apparently it really is Chinese (unlike the Lady herself)--that Website says it comes from a book by Lin Yutang, famous popularizer of Chinese culture in America.

The implication seems to be that following your nature involves acquiring a new identity, or series of identities--following your nature into its desired transformations--but that this progression can lead you back at last to your original nature (similar to the idea vividly dramatized at the end of the same movie, in the hall of mirrors).

At 10:32 PM, Blogger jimeye said...

my new blog address is


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