NEA Literature Fellowships

René Georg Vasicek

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "The Ministry of Laughter"

The woman from the ironworks, Kamila, was assigned to train me. She drove me in a military truck to an isolated cabin in the mountains. It took us eight hours to get there; she was silent for the first four. Then she laughed for no apparent reason. "What's so funny?" I asked.

"You are," she said. "You haven't said a word to me. Are you bashful?"

"Not at all," I protested. "I've been waiting for you to say something to me."

She laughed again, "Do you always wait until spoken to?"

"Yes, I am a great listener," I offered.

"That's an important skill for a Ha-Ha agent," said she, "but not the only one."

"So what exactly does a Ha-Ha agent do?" I asked.

Her smile vanished: "What if I told you that every joke you've ever heard was fabricated by the Ministry of Laughter?"

"I'd say that's ridiculous."

"Is it?" she challenged. "OK, so tell me a joke."

I thought about this long and hard.

"A factory manager reports that someone is stealing from the state. The police send a surveillance team to watch the factory. Every night, they observe a factory worker, always the last to leave, pushing a wheelbarrow covered with a burlap sack. Three nights in a row, police stop and question him, only to discover his wheelbarrow is empty. Things continue to disappear from the factory. The police grow increasingly frustrated. Finally, they tell the factory worker: "Listen, we promise not to press charges if you just tell us what it is you are stealing!' The worker grins and nods his head: "Wheelbarrows.'"  

"That joke was written by Agent Potrobly eighteen years ago. He's retired now."

"I don't believe you," I scoffed. "Why bother? Why would they do it?"

"Why?" Kamila glared at me. "Think about it."

"It makes no sense," I said. "That joke is making fun of the state."

"Of course it is. So you believe it. If the state controls laughter, it controls everything"

Before lapsing into a long silence I muttered, "I just don't think it's possible."


The one-room cabin had no running water. I hiked with a bucket through snowy woods to a nearby stream. Kamila boiled the water on a potbelly stove. She then filled a large iron washbasin and suggested I take a bath. When I offered that she go first, she took off her clothes without shame. On her left buttock: a tattoo, the insignia of an ancient civilization.

In the morning, we descended to a small village in the valley. The inhabitants stared at us as if they had never seen city people before. The storekeeper asked us if we were hunters. To my surprise, Kamila responded that yes, we were hunters. She purchased rope, wire, and duct tape.

That evening Kamila and I drank several beers at the village tavern. Seated around a table in the corner, a group of peasant men laughed hysterically. The eldest was telling a story: "One day God came down to our little mountain village. He knocked on Old Kapesnik's door. Kapesnik answered in his underwear. God said to Kapesnik: "I will grant you one wish. But remember, whatever you ask for, I will give your neighbor twice as much.' Old Kapesnik thought about this long and hard. Finally, he said: "OK, poke one of my eyes out.'"  

Kamila scribbled notes into a small notebook.

I said, "See, that's what I'm talking about. There's no way that joke was manufactured by the Ministry of Laughter."

"You're right," she said. "It wasn't. Every now and then a rogue storyteller emerges. That's why we're here."

The "rogue storyteller" was a man named Pepa Sranda. He soon invited us "city people" to sit at his table, where he told us story after story ... every one of which was set in his small village. Born in 1844, Pepa was ninety-three years old. Listening to him, a thought occurred to me: one day, Pepa will die ... and with him, the nineteenth century.

("The Ministry of Laughter" was originally published in Mid-American Review.)

René Georg Vasicek, the son of Czech defectors, was born in Austria in 1969. He grew up in the pine barrens of Long Island and has lived in New York City since 1995. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Antique Children, Camera Obscura, the Delinquent, Gargoyle, Mid-American Review, Post Road, the Prague Revue, Uncanny Valley, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a 2011 individual artist grant from the Queens Council on the Arts and a 2009 artists' fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He teaches at Hofstra University and Lehman College of the City University of New York, and lives in Astoria, Queens, with his wife and son and dog.

Photo by Maki Hirose

Author's Statement

I am grateful and humbled to receive an NEA creative writing fellowship. Anyone reading this probably already knows how hard this game is. The sacrifices a literary artist must make are unpredictable. The odds are improbable. And yet ... I keep trying. My wife and I live paycheck to paycheck. We have a son in kindergarten, and there's a baby on the way. Everybody I know is struggling. The 21st century is an age of uncertainty. Art is on the backburner. Space and time are contracting. Maybe it was always this way. I don't know. But I do know that this award means I will write more of my strange and peculiar fictions.