Michael Honig's brilliant satirical novel, The Senility of Vladimir P, finds Vladimir Putin spending his final days in the throes of dementia at a dacha outside Moscow. Honig picks 10 of his favorite satires.
Satire … Oh, where do I start? The Romans did it. The Greeks did it. Who can doubt but that our earliest ancestors did it, prancing around a campfire lampooning some pompous hunter who decided he’d show everyone he could kill a mastodon by himself and succeeded so well that it fell on top of him.
You can aim it at governments, you can aim it at institutions. You can aim it at bureaucracies, businesses, special interests, religions and of course at individuals. Any place where hypocrisy and vice lurk – and where don’t they lurk? At its best, it’s like a blazing arrow that explodes into some hidden, stinking corner of humanity and scourges it with cleansing fire.
The best 10? Anyone who tried that would expose themselves to satire. Here are 10 that I think are pretty good. You can probably think of ten more, or a hundred, or a thousand …
1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Satire comes in all shapes and sizes, but I’m a novelist, so let’s go back to the book that is arguably the world’s first novel. And guess what? It’s a satire! Societies in transition offer rich pickings for the satirist: creaking traditions upheld by self-righteous buffoons, opportunists on the make, nostalgia for cruelties fondly reimagined as kindnesses. In the early seventeenth century, the medieval worldview of Old Spain is crumbling, and with a mighty kick up the backside Cervantes helps it on its way.
2. The House of God by Samuel Shem
As a medical student, I was given this book by a well-meaning (or possibly satanically mischievous) relative who happened to be a nurse. My God! It was like being brought to the wall of fire that is TRUTH and having one’s eyes held open by a pair of red hot toothpicks. Extreme situations bring out the extremes of human foibles, and few situations are more extreme than the first years of being a doctor. Set in a lightly disguised Boston hospital of high repute, Shem’s novel dives deep into the agony of absurdity.
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Speaking of extreme situations … Apparently the original title for Heller’s excruciatingly brilliant war satire was Catch-11. Catch-11? What was he thinking? Catch-22 … it rolls off the tongue, into your mind, and takes up residence there for the rest of your life with its dark horrors of war made only darker by the rational irrationality (or is it irrational rationality?) to which the men of 256th squadron are driven.
4. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek
Another satire forged from the experience of mass ranks of men hacking each other to death, Hasek’s opus dates from the world war preceding Heller’s. While Heller’s main character, Yossarian, struggles to outwit the system that puts him in harm’s way – knowing full well that he can’t – Hasek’s hero, Svejk, responds to the same blind, deaf, dumb brutality of the military machine with displays of incompetence and idiocy so profound that they amount to genius, laying bare the futility of this conflict, of all conflicts.
5. Anything by Terry Pratchett
Don’t go looking for a book by that title. I mean any thing by Terry Pratchett. Often adolescent in humour, yes, and not exactly Joycean in style, Pratchett’s work fizzes with originality and razor sharp allegory, taking aim at the ludicrous hypocrisies and conventions that we all somehow contrive to take seriously. If unfamiliar with the canon, try Going Postal or Small Gods. Or any thing else.
6. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Orwell introduced his Aesopian masterpiece to his publisher as "a little squib that might amuse you," but the publishing fraternity of the 1940s was not amused. The history of how the book bounced from one politically hostile publisher to another before the Cold War made its anti-Stalinist message acceptable is itself the stuff of satire. All of thirty-thousand words, and proof that in the right hands, the power of the punch is in inverse proportion to the length of the book. Animal Farm … Bow down ye satirists and tremble in the presence of greatness.
7. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Fantastical, magical, allegorical, Bulgakov’s satire on Stalinist tyranny, written from inside the Soviet Union, remained unpublished for almost thirty years after his death. Featuring a star-studded cast of Satan, Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ, and the elite of literary Moscow, the corrupt, brutal, grasping nomenklatura of Stalin’s regime peer out from behind the barest of veils.
8. The King David Report by Stefan Heym
An authoritarian regime that rewrites history to suit its own purposes? Surely not! East German dissident Stefan Heym managed to skewer his government’s habit of inventing the past by imagining a biblical predecessor, Ethan the Scribe, being paid to clean up the bloody record of King David and make him seem as noble and heroic as … well, King David. That story about Absalom just happening to get caught in a tree and then just happening to be found by David’s most trusted general who then just happened to kill him against the express wishes of David, who wouldn’t have harmed a hair on the head of his beloved son? It really did happen like that. Honest.
9. Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
If you don’t know who this book, the most recent on my list, is about, take one look at the brilliantly conceived cover. Underneath the laughs is a powerful critique of demagoguery and our collective vulnerability to leaders who appeal with simplistic solutions to our baser instincts. Not that we’re vulnerable to that kind of thing nowadays. By the way, have you heard the news? Donald Trump has been nominated as Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, while six weeks ago, on the other side of the pond, the UK was persuaded to leave the European Union by a blond clown chanting ‘Take back control.’
10. Blackadder Goes Forth by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton
I know I said I was a novelist, but I’m big enough to admit that practitioners of the less noble arts do occasionally manage to produce a decent satire (although probably more by luck than intent). I therefore doff my hat to the playwrights, screenwriters, poets and songsters of satire by nominating for my final selection the fourth series of the legendary television program, Blackadder. While the first three series, set at various times from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, all drew laughs from poking fun at hierarchy and custom, the final one, pitching Edmund Blackadder and his much-kicked sidekick Baldrik into the trenches of the first world war, morphs into a satire on class and privilege that is close enough in time to speak to our own world. There may be less of hereditary class behind today’s privilege, and more of extreme wealth, but the results are just as grotesque.