Archive for June 3rd, 2012

June 3, 2012

Shalom Auslander, Holocaust Tips for Kids and Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown

Last week’s column, on knowing and innocent children.



In George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, much of a plot revolves around something that a young child witnesses but does not understand. Filtering this incident through the child’s perspective means that the text doesn’t yet have to come out and say what’s going on, while making it possible for the reader to work it out. Another story that relies on the difference in awareness between the child narrator and the adult reader is Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”.  This narrator serves an eminently practical purpose – since she doesn’t have the words to explain what’s going on under the blanket, the author could deny any accusations that the story portrayed sex between two women. In 1945, when a charge of obscenity was brought against the story, this was exactly the defence Chughtai used.

And then there are the stories in which the power of the child narrator lies in his or her understanding things too well.

A few years ago, Picador came out with a series of “Picador Shots” in order to promote the short story as a literary form. These “shots” were individual, slim volumes, each containing one short story. They were cheap (less than the price of a magazine), attractive, and showcased the work of a number of exciting authors. Like magazines, they were also apparently meant to be disposable. Yet six years later I still have my copy of Shalom Auslander’s volume. Unlike most of the books in the series, this one contains two very short pieces instead of one longer one; “Holocaust Tips for Kids” and “Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown”.

“Holocaust Tips for Kids” (originally published in the collection Beware of God) begins with a letter from a school, informing parents that children will be learning all about the Holocaust in the following week. The rest of the story consists of notes from a boy, ten years old, who is using what he learns at school to prepare himself in case the Holocaust should happen again.

Auslander brings together historical facts with scraps of information that the child has picked up, to produce something bleakly funny.

“Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306, Hungary in 1349, France again in 1394, Austria in 1421, Lithuania in 1445, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497, and Moravia in 1744.

Some ballpoint pens have replaceable ink cartridges. If you take the cartridge out and put a sewing needle in, you can shoot it out like a Ninja blowgun.”


There’s some wonderful commentary here on how we teach children history (and specifically, in Auslander’s context, how Jewish children are taught to receive their cultural identity). Is it funny that the child doesn’t realise that the Holocaust is in the past, or tragic that he’s assimilated this level of acceptance of violence as a thing that can happen at any point? And as adults who know that awful things aren’t necessarily in the past, has he really misunderstood anything at all?

“Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown” was recently used as a title by another columnist for this paper. Like “Holocaust Tips for Kids” (the two stories work together very well) it deals with children working through big religious issues; in this case, the cast of characters of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comics. On its own, it’s less effective. This is partly because it does very little that Schulz had not already done. Auslander riffs off the religious controversy caused by “The Great Pumpkin”, a deity believed in by Linus, a character who has misunderstood Hallowe’en. He also turns Schulz himself into a deity, the creator who writes and draws the characters every day. (This allows for a wonderful pun, when people who aren’t sure of Schulz’s existence become “chucknostics”). Religious tensions escalate as you’d expect them to; people are injured. The worst thing that happens is that someone is (non-fatally) hit with a baseball bat. Yet the two stories together are surprisingly powerful. Something (and I hate to be so hackneyed as to say it’s “innocence”) has been lost here.


June 3, 2012

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, “La Salle de Départ”

This is the fourth of the five stories on the Caine Prize shortlist.

The nature of the Caine Prize makes it inevitable that we’ve all been talking about/dancing around the idea of Africa as a single literature-producing entity (as far as any place that has ever produced more than one book could ever be such a thing); Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is from Zimbabwe and her story “La Salle de Départ” is set in Senegal. Does that make this the most international story on this shortlist so far?

The story in brief: Fatima’s brother Ibou lives in America but has come to Senegal for a short holiday. Throughout his stay, Fatima has been trying to work up the courage to ask him to take her son to live with him next year. Most of the story takes place during the siblings’ rather fraught ride to the airport; Fatima struggles to understand Ibou’s refusal to take charge of her son, while Ibou in turn finds himself unable to explain his complex feelings about his own identity, and what his Americanisation has done for his relationship with his family.

I think, as Stephen Derwent Partington says here, that a large part of what makes this story interesting is its focus on Fatima, who was left behind and does not exist in two cultures, rather than Ibou, who does. We’ve heard Ibou’s story several times, we know that to be hybrid is a sort of never coming home – many of us know all this first hand. From the beginning Ibou does not come across as insensitive or heartless to me, because I’ve heard his story enough to sympathise with him. In some ways, though he is sympathetic, Ibou is more archetype than person for me.

Fatima is different. Partly because her apparent weakness is deceptive – the hints we get of her life indicate that her divorce was her choice, that she has built up quite a successful business on her own. She may think that her mind is slow, but we’re told that she finished lycée with high marks; high enough for her uncle to offer to pay for her university education. She is, understandably, a little bitter about the fact that this did not happen – women stay at home, men “fly”. But she’s also prone to stereotyping people (her remarks on the ‘loose’ Lebanese women). And her apparent depression is something that could make up a story in itself.

But at the heart of it this is really a story of two people who don’t know how to talk to one another despite (as the text makes clear) having multiple languages at their disposal:

“Je vous en prie,” she began in French and continued in Wolof, “Please.” Her voice was hoarse. “Only you can help him. Please help him to be like you. Do what Uncle Thierno did for you. Look how lucky you are, how successful. The success of one is the success of the whole family. Babacar’s future is the future of us all.” She clutched at him, her long ring scratching his wrist as she grabbed his hands, pulling him around to face her.

He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony.


To me the most obvious manifestation of this is in their differing perspectives over Ibou’s relationship with his partner Ghada. Ghada is Egyptian, and for reasons of class and income is comfortable with her family in ways that Ibou cannot be with his own. He sees her as an intellectual superior – he wishes that she could speak for him as she’d do a better job of explaining his feelings, he parrots her own words about her understanding of religion. It’s obvious that for all his estrangement from his family Ibou wants approval from his sister- when he gushes about his girlfriend he’s also waiting for a response, for Fatima to show interest or excitement over what matters to him.

“Ghada has read the whole Koran,” Ibou said aloud, echoing his long-ago letter. “Religion for her is something she truly practices rather than obeys. It’s something that she interrogates and interacts with, wrestling with its contradictions and inconsistencies, those within her and those within the religion itself. She is not afraid of them you see, she doesn’t deny them, she faces them head on. We can only understand God’s word as it is translated by and through men. God is great but all religions are man-made and are therefore imperfect.”

Fatima held her breath. Were these Ibou’s words or Ghada’s? He sounded like he was reading from a book but his hands were empty. She had never known Ibou to be either religious or philosophical. Not trusting herself to reply, she slipped the foulard off and then expertly rewrapped the thick, starchy material around her head. She lowered her arms and twitched her shoulders so that the heavy gold embroidery bordering her collarbone shifted to the side leaving her left shoulder bare in the preferred style. It was her most expensive boubou, the one she had worn for Maimouna’s fourth child’s baptism. This entire readjustment took almost two whole minutes yet Ibou’s gaze was still fixed on her expectantly. Was she actually supposed to respond to that speech? Her mind churned to no avail.

Finally relenting, Ibou looked away and pulled his red baseball cap further down on his brow and turned his iPod back on, jamming the headphones deep into his ears.


And so these two people cannot help but hurt one another.

I don’t think “La Salle de Départ” is particularly ambitious in what it sets out to do. But it’s a very human story, and one that is generous to its characters. It’s not my favourite of the Caine Prize shortlist, but it certainly deserves to be there.


Other blog posts on this story:

Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
Ayodele Olofintuade