America (The Book) by Jon Stewart, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum (Warner Books, 2004) and Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Stitch (The Overlook Press, 2004)
I am unfamiliar with The Daily Show, but my media affairs advisors inform me that it is a program appearing nightly on the televisual apparatus at eleven o’clock. At that time, I am normally to be found in my nightshirt tucked up with Henry James, so Mr. Jon Stewart, and his brand of humor, were a novelty to me. He and his collaborators on the show have cooked up a highly amusing spoof of a school textbook on the U.S. constitution and its history (with a forward by Thomas Jefferson), although the parodic effect is somewhat undermined by the picture of Mr. Stewart, who looks more like a trial lawyer than an anarchic comedian, dominating the cover. Vanity, no doubt, or the publisher’s belief it would help sales. Whatever – the book is currently number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
What the book mocks are an over-reverent respect for our historical traditions, and highly selective accounts of their evolution dumbed down for universal access. Yet it reveals a strong affection for its subject, and offers plenty of wit amongst the satirical barbs, as well as some real wisdom, such as in a chart showing the Six Ages of Democracy. The jokes come thick and fast; there are plenty of “Discussion Questions” (e.g. “Where do you see democracy 500 years from now? How about 502 years?”) and “Classroom Activities” (e.g. “Found a country”) to keep the readers occupied. Some may find the whole idea subversive, but I found the book hugely entertaining – even instructive – and overall harmless. However, it is riddled with scatological language (and a daring graphic that caused Wal-mart to ban it), which not only subtracts from its satiric effect, but also ensures that it will not make a suitable Christmas present for Aunt Edna – unless, of course, she is a devotee of The Daily Show.
Molvanîa, on the other hand, is much more loyal to the medium it parodies, and thus conceptually more coherent. Bound and presented as one of those vital vade-mecums that you pick up at the last moment (a Jetlag Travel Guide), it also carries on the tradition of Mad Magazine and Monty Python. It pays homage to the format and language of those guides that convince you that those unusual-tasting local dishes are in fact wholesome, and the folk pageants put on for your entertainment are both ancient and authentic. The flyleaf claims the guide offers “all you need to know about getting there, getting around, and safely escaping the forgotten jewel that is Molvanîa”. Thus it offers a comprehensive map of the country (secreted somewhere between the German-Polish border and the Carpathians) and gives advice for all ranges of travelers. For “budget” dining in the capital, Lutenblag, the guide recommends Kisjipja – “run by a married couple (if the arguments in the kitchen are anything to go by)”. And in a typical vignette, it states: “On the Great Plain, mid-winter also has its charm as this is the time the region’s highly sought-after truffle crop is harvested. Visitors can watch as specially trained pigs scour the plains sniffing out the elusive delicacy that, once located, is then dug up using traditional methods like explosives or a small front-end loader.”
The authors keep themselves well out of the picture (I have read that they are Australian), maintaining the façade by providing bios and photographs of typical but imaginary creators of such guidebooks. And the careful selection of photographs – primarily genuine Eastern European shots, it would appear – abetted by some delicious and imaginative captions, is one of the most amusing features of this hilarious work. I was especially intrigued to read about the thermal springs at Drypp. “These unusually acidic springs are particularly renowned for their dermatological effect, curing ailments of the skin by stripping much of it from the body.” What the guide does not mention is the visit by Henry James to Drypp in 1910 in search of a cure for his angina – a fruitless quest, alas, and one strangely overlooked by his many biographers. However, even now, on the Master’s birthday each year, the local peasants celebrate his appearance by slurping enormous quantities of the national drink (“turpz”) from a vast communal Golden Bowl. This was the only significant omission I noted in what is bound to become the definitive (and probably solitary) work on a justifiably maligned country.