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.