‘The central European joke contest’

I am a traveller. But I do not appear to be getting anywhere recently. I am in a small town where many of the voices and faces are familiar to me—and occasionally speak my language. Or say things that I can understand. One day when I am in the hotel I hear a joke that, later, during an evening joke contest, no one is able to recall because it is told in a language no one in the town recognises. I stand up to tell the joke as best I can. It is helpful, at least, that there are visual aids in the contest—a picture appears in the centre of the room: two very tall couples and two very large cases, red, on the ground beside the couples, the two couples facing each other. I start to tell the joke but don’t know the language it is told in, so I simply imitate the sound of the telling of it—a bit like the way people speak Finnish in comedies. This seems to go on for a very long time, at least until the humor of expressing the appearance of a joke runs out and there is nothing left but to admit that I don’t know how the joke ends, begins, or even what was in the middle. Of course, I am a bit disappointed by all this—but no one else seems to be disappointed. Indeed, someone in the hotel, someone I know, Barry Ladbrook, pokes his head forward and says, “Go on, Stephen, tell them about how the two couples are actually porn stars!” Then, of course, without even knowing what the joke is, it all makes sense, strangely, especially the part about the luggage. So, I make a second, weak attempt to get the joke out, finally—in Finnish, in my Finnish voice. Still, it doesn’t seem to be working. It is really a kind of torture. However, it is over quickly because the scene in the hotel suddenly changes into a courtroom where a rather sickly, old drunk has been accused of a terrible crime. The old drunk drags himself into the dock to give evidence as I hear people in the court say “No doubt he will give the old excuse…” He looks up out of his pathetic, worn-out face, skin hanging off him so he looks like an apple strudel stuffed into a white shirt and dinner jacket—and says, “What can I tell you, for my sins, that might save me from the fire of perdition? Perhaps, I am your friend, and that may be enough.” It is.

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