February 28, 2015KR BlogEnthusiamsReading

Gut-Wrenching Moments and Moments of Sweetness in Chekov’s Kashtanka and HBO’s Jonah From Tonga

My friend Cecilia has a name for the type of art that is primarily tragic and yet ends well: the hard-won happy ending. Many of my favorite works start off with gut-wrenching situations that eventually give way to sweetness. In these two pieces, painful separations give way to tender reunions.

The title character of Chekov’s story “Kashtanka” is a dog, and the story is told from her point of view. Chekov must have been a dog in his past life, because he communicates her thoughts in a way that feels right on. Early in the story, Kashtanka becomes separated from her owner, an alcoholic carpenter, while accompanying him around town:

Kashtanka ran up and down and did not find her master, and meanwhile it had got dark…. Big, fluffy snowflakes were falling and painting white the pavement, the horses’ backs and the cabmen’s caps, and the darker the evening grew the whiter were all these objects…. When it got quite dark, Kashtanka was overcome with despair and horror. She huddled up in an entrance and began whining piteously. The long day’s journeying with Luka Alexandritch had exhausted her, her ears and paws were freezing, and, what was more, she was terribly hungry.

Fortunately, Kashtanka is taken in by a man who is not only a clown, but also a clown who performs with trained animals. She settles into a mostly pleasant life of learning tricks alongside a cat, a gray gander, and a sow. After a month, she’s almost completely forgotten Alexandritch, though in her dreams she sees “countenances attractive, pleasant, but incomprehensible,” and:

it seemed to her that she had somewhere, at some time, seen them and loved them…. And as she dropped asleep, she always felt that those figures smelt of glue, shavings, and varnish.

As it turns out, her former owner and his son are in the audience of her first circus show. They recognize her and call to her from the stands, and Kashtanka runs to them. The crowd passes her “from hand to hand” until she reaches Alexandritch. Following them home, she

looked at their backs, and it seemed to her that she had been following them for ages, and was glad that there had not been a break for a minute in her life.

The title character of Jonah From Tonga — a hyperactive, agressive, foul-mouthed teen desperate for attention — is actually quite self-aware. Constantly in trouble for messing around in school, Jonah just wants to entertain his teachers and friends. Having a philosophy makes Jonah more credible, and less of a punk. Chris Lilley, who created, wrote, and starred in the series, imbues Jonah’s antics with pathos, for Jonah’s mother passed away when he was young, leaving him to be raised by a short-tempered father who rules Jonah with threats of whippings.

In Episode 4, Jonah gets sent to juvenile detention for stealing what he believed to be a solid-gold bowling ball, which he hoped to sell to bring his musically talented brother to Los Angeles. In detention, Jonah is pleased to discover a female guard named Therese who puts up with his adolescent humor. She indulges him, listening to his jokes and laughing at the ones that are actually funny. This is Jonah’s description of Therese to the show’s mockumentary-style camera:

She’s my favorite guard here. She likes to talk to me and laughs at me. She’s the best. She’s one of my best friends in the whole place. She’s got the same name as my mum, Theresa. That’s why I like her the most.

Episode 5 starts auspiciously — Jonah’s acclimating to juvie extremely well — but two emotional moments tug at the viewer’s heartstrings. The first is when Father’s Day brings the teens’ fathers to the facility. Unfortunately, all of the interactions between Jonah and his dad end with Rocky screaming and lunging at Jonah, like a Homer Simpson seriously intending to strangle Bart. “You’re supposed to love me” Jonah petulantly reminds his father at one point, but he uses his sly-dog, mocking voice to say it.

Toward the end of the episode, Therese breaks the news to Jonah that she’s being transferred to another facility. Jonah has a meltdown, shouting “I don’t want you to go. I think you should stay here. Don’t leave, Miss. If you go, you’re a fucking bitch.” He knocks over a ping pong table and has to be wrestled to the ground by a guard. The next morning, his family is told in the center’s parking lot that Jonah’s hearing has been cancelled due to the fight. Jonah’s in isolation, lying on the bed with his blue hoodie up.

Suddenly we hear people singing. Jonah’s family is outside the facility singing “Eternal Flame” (“Close your eyes,/ give me your hand, darling.”) Jonah goes crazy, grasping the window’s bars, jumping up and down, and shouting “That’s my family!” That’s my dad! And my Auntie Grace! And my brothers! And my fat sister! I can hear you! I’m up here! Dad! Auntie Grace! I’m up here! I can hear you!”

His happiness is all the more powerful for the depths he’d plunged to earlier in the episode. In the same way, Kashtanka’s reunion with her family is all the more affecting for the time she spent out on her own.