Ági and Laco Kalina – Farewell Speech – JARO ROZSÍVAL

Bratislava, 8th June 2015

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Dear friends, we have gathered here today to say good-bye but also welcome, to our close friends who have returned to Bratislava after many years. Although Bratislava wasn’t their birthplace, for many years it had been their home and in a way, they have never left. During their years of exile Laco [Ján] and Agneša Kalina shared all our hardship and joy even though they lived so far away. Actually, the 500 kilometres between Bratislava and Munich isn’t really a huge distance but the new world where they found themselves after leaving their country in 1978 half voluntarily, half involuntarily, worked in a very different way to our “real-existing socialist” one.

While Laco Kalina didn’t live to see the fall of the undemocratic regime east of the Danube, Agneša Kalinová not only embraced it with great enthusiasm but, in her journalistic work, was actively involved in helping it to take root in this country. However, one thing we have sorely missed since the early days of democracy in 1989 is the wit and satirical take on events from her husband, Ján Ladislav Kalina, whose one hundredth birthday we marked not so long ago.

The fact that Laco and Ági Kalina have found their final resting place here, at this cemetery, next to Julo Satinský[1], is very significant, and for this we are greatly obliged to Ján Budaj.[2] In 1965, when Agneša Kalinová returned from a trip to the US, Julo Satinský participated in a big welcome that Laco organized for his wife. This is how Julo recalls the event in a letter to his wife[3]:

Milan Lasica gave a solemn speech analyzing international political affairs; I sang Lensky’s aria in howling wind; the Tatra Revue orchestra played Yankee Doodle and colleagues from Kultúrny život[4] sang a patriotic song. Ágika kept laughing in that Armstrong laugh of hers, every now and then shedding a tear.“

Let me add that Julo recalls that the welcome took place at the airport in Bratislava. But Ági, whose memory, even in her last years, was much sharper than that of the much younger Satinský, had to correct his version of events: in fact, her flight from Prague had been cancelled because of fog and she had to take a train to Bratislava instead, so the welcome had to be held at the railway station. Fans of Slovak culture present at this event will now unveil a banner from the occasion, which has been faithfully hoarded for fifty years.

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A pun on the anti-Vietnam war protest banners “Amis Go Home” L-R: Jaro Rozsival, Julia and Miriam Sherwood (c) Pravda

Our beloved Ági lived her seven varied lives at full blast. In one of her last interviews, asked whether she had had a beautiful life, she said:

„My life was eventful, interesting, sometimes beautiful. There were many bad things but I was lucky enough to have survived. That’s what it’s always about – you have to get over those bad things. I don’t believe that the bad is also good for you. Evil will always be evil.   But you have to face up to it, realize what’s going on and then try and deal with it.“

And when asked “Is there anything in your life that you regret?” she replied:

“No, I don’t regret anything. As Edith Piaf sang.“

Ján Ladislav Kalina, author of, among many others, the immortal publication One Thousand and One Jokes, which landed him in prison, even though officially he was charged with listening to a record with songs that 14 million people[5] listened to at the time, also lived an eventful and fascinating life. Sadly, it was cut short prematurely by insidious disease. However, his legacy is still relevant to us today: it was his irony as well as self-irony that helped to keep up the spirits of disappointed working people. The following account of his first encounter with Jan Werich[6] demonstrates that his humorous perspective was based on solid foundations:

“My first memory of Werich goes back to antediluvian times. It was 1930 and a bunch of 18-year- olds in their final year at a Prešov gymnázium were about to stage a play. The previous summer the local radio had broadcast a show by Osvobozené divadlo from Prague. Hearing the transmission of the play “Dynamite Island” was, without exaggeration, a turning point in my life. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for a week. We decided to put on this play and this is how it came about that in the autumn of 1930 the final-year students in Prešov staged “Vest Pocket Revue”, without even realizing that they were actually pioneers in introducing its authors, Voskovec and Werich, to Slovakia. In later years, infected by the humour virus with which this student farce was brimming, I myself ventured onto the slippery slope of topical tomfoolery with all the pitfalls and consequences it entailed, including the realization that satire is a kind of humour with serious career ramifications. Although some people claimed this was overstatement, my own experience has taught me that – unfortunately – it was an understatement.”

Wrote Laco Kalina. The man who was his inspiration, Jan Werich, wrote him a letter dated 15 May 1975, which included the following confession:

“I own dozens of books, in English, filled with catalogued jokes and anecdotes of every kind. I’ve been going through them in search of gags I could adapt, use, i.e. comedy material. All of them were – if you’ll excuse my language – crap. Your book 1000 +1 Jokes is an exception, the only one in the world as far as I know. And I’m not saying this to flatter you, this is a fact. And the fact that you paid for it by serving time is the best joke, albeit rather unjust and unpleasant for you, but thank God, one that didn’t prove tragic. The power of illiterate people sometimes grows taller than poplars, those haughty trees that turn hollow with age.“

In any case, we continue to be grateful to Laco Kalina for having imported into our country the ineradicable virus of satire, which has in recent years seemed rather vulnerable to effective treatment by those anti-satire drugs, Ignorance and Arrogance. The fact that the bard of Slovak satire never lost his sense of humour even at the very end, is apparent from this final sentence of his farewell letter to his dearest and nearest:

“Agica, please take the coffee pot off the stove to make sure it doesn’t boil over and you, Julinka, wind up the grandfather clock every 10 days, so that life goes on as usual.”

And so, dear Laco and dear Ági, it is now time for me to welcome you by quoting your memorable phrase: Rest/Eavesdrop in Peace![7] – But please don’t forget us, just like we will never forget you. After all, now you can rest assured that you won’t get locked up for listening to Karel Kryl’s songs. These days people with influential contacts in the “highest places” no longer end up behind bars.

[1] Julo Satinský (1941-2002) was a popular Slovak comedian, who performed with a friend, Milan Lasica; Laco gave the pair their first break at Tatra Revue in the early 1960s.

[2] Jan Budaj is the former deputy mayor of Bratislava and a friend of Julia’s, who has made the burial in Bratislava possible.

[3]  In 2013, Satinský’s daughter published his letters to his wife in book form.

[4] The paper on which Ági worked for many years

[5] 14 million was at that time the entire population of Czechoslovakia

[6] Jan Werich (1905-1980) was a legendary figure of Czech humour, founder of the Liberated Theatre (Osvobozené divadlo) in Prague, and Laco’s lifetime idol.

[7] A pun on the similarity between two Slovak verbs that are identical except for one letter: to rest (odpočívaj) and to eavesdrop (odpočúvaj), which Laco used as the title for his prison memoirs.

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