Lemony Snicket, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming

Between us, Aadisht and I wrote only about children’s books in this month’s Left of Cool. This was a complete coincidence for the first three weekends, after which we just went with it. Children’s Day in India is in the middle of November, so it was all quite appropriate. And a McSweeney’s book because they are occasionally gorgeous, and a winter book because it is the loveliest time of the year.

(At the paper’s website, here)

 

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Living in one of the few cities in the country to have real winter has its advantages. Delhi is not quite cold enough yet, but at least we can be reasonably sure it will get there eventually. At around this point every year I start to seek out winter-themed books, for reading under a quilt with mugs of tea or soup within reach.

Many of these books, for obvious reasons, are centred around Christmas. The book that is the subject of this column, is a Christmas story in some ways; it is even subtitled “A Christmas Story”. Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming looks like an typical children’s picture book; the sort that has not much text and a (usually quite harmless) moral. In some ways it is all of these things. And yet this is a book by the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and moreover, one that is published by McSweeney’s. It is unlikely to be a typical anything.

In a tiny village “more or less covered by snow”, one particular house is looked upon with suspicion because of its lack of Christmas decorations. It is in this house that a latke is made.

The latke is a traditional part of Hanukah. It is made (Lisa Brown’s illustrations depict the process in tantalising detail) of grated potato, onion, salt and beaten egg, and fried in olive oil until it becomes crisp. This particular latke, on being put into the hot oil, begins to scream. As the narrator reminds us, “nearly everything in this world is born screaming”.

The latke jumps out of the pan, out of the house, and runs through the town, still screaming. As it passes, it has short conversations with a number of objects. The first is a string of flashing lights, anxious to know why the latke is, with its screaming, overshadowing their cheerful glow. The latke explains that it was put into boiling oil, and goes on to explain the significance of the oil within the Jewish tradition. Yet the lights dismiss it as a kind of hash brown, possibly to be served alongside a Christmas ham. A candy cane, trying to disperse its peppermint smell through the night air, resents the latke’s delicious aroma and compares its story of persecution to that of Mary and Joseph. A Christmas tree sees no reason the latke should not blend traditions and become part of Christmas – it itself is an originally pagan symbol.

What we have here (if it is your traditional picture-book-with-a-moral) is a story about resisting having your identity subsumed by the majority, and by people who presume to dismiss with your statement of who you are. It’s something most children will face on a regular basis (“it’s just a phase”, “you’ll feel different when you’re older”), as will many adults – readers who have chosen not to have children, for example, will know this all too well. Snicket imitates the tone of a children’s book perfectly: “It is very frustrating not to be understood in this world. If you say one thing and keep being told that you mean something else, it can make you want to scream”. Snicket’s latke is the most inspiring potato-based foodstuff in all my experience of children’s literature.

Of course Snicket can’t allow us something so unqualifiedly inspirational. The latke is discovered by a family who do appreciate its worth, and they take it back home. But this heart-warming tale ends with the latke being eaten, a final scream cut short as it enters someone’s mouth.

But is this a Christmas story or not? The red, green and gold cover says so, and the narrator excuses the story’s unreality by claiming that “this is a Christmas story, in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life”. So is it a story about not being a Christmas story, since such a story would naturally foreground the idea of Christmas? It’s a little of all of these, and it is rather good.

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[I'm also thinking about the status of those of us in India who would prefer not to use the label "Hindu". As an atheist, I find it irritating that I am considered Hindu by default, and that I can't legally un-link myself from the religion without joining another one (and Christianity and Islam are, I think, my only choices). But even among people who do adhere to some form of faith, a number of smaller religions that historically separated themselves from Hinduism are now considered under the larger 'Hindu' umbrella. I imagine that if I belonged to one of these groups I would be seriously annoyed.]

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