Anything for a laugh: Literary pranksters and their exploits (Column: Bookends)

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Among the many paradoxes of the human condition is that, despite time itself playing tricks on us, a large part of the world dedicates a special day for pranks — say, April Fools’ Day, the favoured choice across the West as well as India and Lebanon, among others. This “custom” may have its reasons, among which is our fascination with a cultural archetype called the Trickster.

Originating in religion and mythology, a Trickster freely disobeys rules and conventional behaviour. Be it a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman or anthropomorphic animal, they are clever and capable, mock authority, impulsive, keen on new ideas and experiences, may promote chaos — and are not deterred by being caught out or punished.

Found in religious traditions and folklore worldwide, some of the best-known are Hermes and Odysseus (Greek mythology), Loki (Norse), Krishna and the sage Narada (Hindu religion), Anansi (various African and Caribbean traditions), Puss in Boots, Brer Rabbit (American folklore), and the Coyote (several Native American traditions).

Tricksters are of various types — the Con Man, the Fox, the Hustler, the Lovable Rogue, the Shapeshifter and more, but since it is April Fools’ Day, let’s focus on the Pranksters.

At the simplest, these are men, women or animals who love practical jokes more than their friends, but are never selective about their targets, and hence a constant annoyance for all who know them — and many who don’t. They are, however, tolerated for the amusement they provide, as well their ability to pull something out of their hats at crucial moments.

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Among one of the most prominent is that “shrewd and knavish sprite”, “that merry wanderer of the night”. Puck (or Robin Goodfellow), from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, plays a prominent part, creating the drama by breaking up one of the pair of runaway lovers lost in the enchanted forest, but also replacing one of the amateur drama performers’ head with that of a donkey to create further mayhem.

Then Brer Rabbit — in his original form in the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris and the more familiar adaptation by Enid Blyton — successfully fends of a range of predatory animals as well as the odd human or two.

Proving the female of the species can be more deadly than the male is one of P.G. Wodehouse’s finest but most underutilised characters — Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham. The alluring, red-headed cousin once removed of that celebrated raconteur Mr Mulliner and a former fiancee of Bertie Wooster, she appears in only four stories.

In three — “Something Squishy”, “The Awful Gladness of the Mater”, “The Passing of Ambrose” (all in “Mr Mulliner Speaking”) — her suitors of the time face some harrowing moments in their bid to impress her — from being identified as the owner of a snake, being mistaken for a high-society burglar and tasked with taking two children around London.

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In “Mr Potter Takes A Rest Cure” (in “Blandings Castle and Elsewhere”), she adroitly uses an American publisher (without his knowledge) taking a holiday at her home to fend off the attentions of a pushy young politician courting her.

Captain (actually Flying Officer) W.E. Johns’ pilot hero James Bigglesworth, or “Biggles” as we better know him, isn’t beyond the prank to get even with those who have ditched him or bothered his friends during his World War I service.

Let down by his friend Wilks (Wilkinson of the 287 Squadron), Biggles concocts an elaborate revenge involving humbugs (the sweet) and sending his kit to the Germans (“Humbugs” in “Biggles of the 266 Squadron”). Then when his cousin Algy is chewed by a martinet at a nearby unit for aerial stunts, Biggles goes there and displays some atrocious flying. As, on landing, he gets an earful from the same officer — a Captain — he coolly takes of his flying jacket to show his (borrowed) uniform of a Colonel. Read “Reprisals” in the same book to know what happened after this.

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Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” has Begemot (or Behemoth). A member of Woland’s (the Devil) entourage, he is a large black cat who can speak, walk on two legs, transform into a human briefly and likes chess, vodka, pistols, obnoxious sarcasm and mayhem — which he does in both his forms. In one of the book’s most uproarious scenes, he teams up with fellow acolyte Fagotto/Korovyev to trash a top supermarket and then a restaurant for the Russian literary elite.

Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter series are too well-known.

And then there are examples from real life — “Prince of Practical Jokers” Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936), who in 1910 fooled the Royal Navy into taking him and a group of his friends, including Virginia Woolf, onto its most advanced warship HMS Dreadnought, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, who even while working on the atomic bomb during World War II, cracked safes with abandon and left mocking messages in them.

They deserve a separate piece — but those keen can read Martyn Downer’s “The Sultan of Zanzibar: The Bizarre World and Spectacular Hoaxes of Horace De Vere Cole” and Feynman’s autobiography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman”.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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