14.7.10

 

 

 

 

 

Every children’s story that works at all begins with a simple opposition of good and evil, of straightforward innocence and envious corruption. While the good hero or heroine has to be particularized, with flaws and idiosyncrasies, the evil force is, oddly, the more powerful the less distinct it is; because villainy is itself so interesting, there’s no great need to particularize the villain. In few works of children’s literature is the creation of dull and faceless evil as effective as it is in the Babar saga. “Page 2 of ‘Babar’ ” is a code word among certain parents for the entire issue of what it is right to expose our children to. (It’s actually the sixth numbered page in the book, and the fourth page in the story, but it seems to register as page 2, being the second element after the introduction of the elephant nursery idyll.) It is there that Babar’s mother, with her little elephant on her back, is murdered, with casual brutality, by a squat white hunter. The pro-page-twoers think that without the incident the story is robbed of motive and pathos; the anti-page-twoers think that it’s just too hard, too early, and too brutal, so they turn the story into one of a little elephant who merely wanders into Paris—not such a bad premise.

 

 

 

 

 

Far more than an allegory of colonialism, the “Babar” books are a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life. “Truly it is not easy to bring up a family,” Babar sighs at one point, and it is true. The city lives on the edge of a desert, and animals wander in and out at will, and then wander out again to make cities of their own. The civilizing principle is energetic but essentially comical, solid-looking on the outside but fragile in its foundations, reducible to rubble by rhinoceroses. Even the elephants, for all their learning and sailor suits, can be turned into slaves through a bad twist of fate. The unruliness of natural life is countered by the beautiful symmetries of classical style and the absurd orderliness of domestic life—but we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are ever really safe. Death is a rifle shot and a poisoned mushroom away. The only security, the de Brunhoff books propose, lies in our commitment to those graceful winged elephants that, in Babar’s dream, at the end of “Babar the King,” chase away misfortune. Love and Happiness, who are at the heart of the American vision, are, in Babar’s dream, mere tiny camp followers. The larger winged elephants, which are at the forefront of this French vision of civilized life, are instead Intelligence, Patience, Learning, and Courage. “Let’s work hard and cheerfully and we’ll continue to be happy,” the Old Lady tells the elephants, and, though we know that the hunter is still in the woods, it is hard to know what more to add.

 

 

 

Adam Gopnik

in “Freeing The Elephants”

© The New Yorker, September 22, 2008 aqui

 

 

 

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