Officials at the Gabrovo House of Humor and Satire, a relic of a vanished regime, on more or less the margins of Central Europe, talk wistfully about becoming a more popular destination once again, if only they could come up with the money and a good plan. If only.
Across the former Communist world museums like the House have been repurposed as ironic attractions for tourists often too young to remember much if anything about the Soviet era. Funnily, the House of Humor and Satire isn’t one of these. It lacks irony.
It’s a family attic of oddball art, historical installations, satirical drawings and cartoons. For most of its first two decades it functioned as a cold war crossroad and propaganda tool. The House’s biennial humor festivals — to which artists from the Soviet bloc were allowed to travel, and where they could then mingle with invited Westerners — were conceived by Communist officials to cultivate an image of Bulgaria, and by extension the larger Soviet realm, as open to outsiders.
The House became a sort of window between two worlds. Every other year throughout the 1970s and ’80s a mix of illustrators, writers and cartoonists descended on Gabrovo, which for the length of the festivals hosted the Balkan equivalent of Woody Allen’s comedians’ table at the Carnegie Deli.
In those days busloads of diversion-starved Soviet-bloc tourists waited each morning for the doors to open. A large staff published books and magazines of satire and humor, hosted a film festival, staged plays, brought in writers from Punch and The National Lampoon, handed out literary prizes to international stars like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. The BBC made a documentary about the House. The New Yorker wrote a profile of the town. The place bustled.
But that was then. Now, local industry having died out, the population has thinned, and the House has trouble mustering even the most meager salaries for a skeletal staff. The other morning Ms. Boneva guided several visitors around the galleries, ecstatic to dust off her English. Save for the aging saleswoman behind the souvenir stand in the lobby, complaining to herself about something (perhaps the lack of business), the place was empty and echoing.