Monday, 19 March 2012

Childhood Corrupted

As a father myself, I'm a big believer in childhood as an age of innocence, a time to explore and discover the world from beneath the shade of a sheltering environment.  Sadly, this is not always the case, and literature frequently throws up examples of less-than-perfect childhoods, ones which make you hope you're not doing the same to your kids.  So, while you ponder today's offerings, I'm off to play with my daughters :)

***** 
And Other Stories is another of my favourite little indie publishers, purveyors of fine translated fiction, and one of their most popular books so far is Juan Pablo Villalobos' Down the Rabbit Hole, translated by Rosalind Harvey.  This very slim volume (which I received as an electronic review copy!) is a three-part story told through the eyes of Tochtli, a young Mexican boy.  Our friend has the usual issues faced by kids - spending as much time on computer games as he can, avoiding his lessons wherever possible, and trying to convince his dad to get him a pygmy hippopotamus.

Wait a minute...

Unlike most kids, Tochtli's dad happens to be a Mexican drug dealer, which (as well as making the hippo thing a real possibility) means that the young boy is witness to a lot more things than most kids will ever have to see.  The further we slip down Villalobos' titular rabbit hole (an apt expression seeing as Tochtli actually means 'rabbit'), the more we find out about Tochtli and his father - and the more disturbing it becomes.  Is it possible to grow up normally in such an unusual environment?

Down the Rabbit Hole is wonderfully narrated by the macho little boy, a character who uses a style of language which is one part arrogance to three parts naivety.  His first words - "Some people say I'm precocious" - tell us that he is living in a cocoon, kept away from the real world.  In some ways, his statement is true, as his casual acceptance of certain unpalatable experiences shows.  For a young boy, he is certainly at ease around guns and corpses...

In other ways though, he is just a boy.  His vocabulary is limited, and he constantly repeats the same four or five adjectives to describe anything from tasty food to third-world hotels.  He is also oblivious to certain activities happening under his nose, such as the reason for the frequent visits of attractive women - and their long disappearances into his father's room.  While he is aware of certain aspects of life, he doesn't really understand them, and the fortress-like environment he is raised in by his paranoid father is not the best one for setting him straight on them.

As a portrait of what happens when a horribly-twisted nurture triumphs over nature, Down the Rabbit Hole is a disturbing masterpiece.  A translation which doesn't read like one, it's compelling, page-turning reading, a book which will only take an hour or so to read, but which will stay with you for a good while longer.  Just don't talk to me about the hippos...


*****
Leaving Mexico, we turn our attention to Japan, a tranquil country where children live happy, carefree lives and would never think about death and...  oh.

Yes kids, it's another one about psychotic minors, this time set in the land of the rising sun.  Yukio Mishima's The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea (translated by John Nathan) is a tense novel set in the Japanese port town of Yokohama, and it is centred upon an unlikely trio of protagonists: Noboru, a thirteen-year-old boy; Fusako, his widowed, but still young and beautiful, mother; and Ryuji, a sailor Fusako meets and falls for.

In the first part of the story, we see the unfolding of the relationship between Ryuji and Fusako, one which Noboru views with mixed emotions.  While unwilling to share his mother, he is fascinated by the sea and has a kind of grudging respect for the weather-worn sailor.  However, when he discovers that Ryuji is just as tedious as he and his friends consider all fathers to be, his opinion changes, and he decides that Ryuji will not do.  It's what happens next which is rather harrowing...

The key issue in The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea is the importance of a strong father figure, and the damage that can be done to a young boy's character when there is no older man around to keep him on the straight and narrow.  It's probably not a viewpoint shared by all today, but Mishima certainly believes that the absence of a father, either through death or neglect, can lead to behavioural problems.  Or, in Noboru's case, an unhealthy interest in his mother's sex life.

This is actually shown more clinically in the character of The Chief, the leader of the gang of boys Noboru hangs out with.  Intellectually advanced for his age, he has an almost pathological hatred towards adults (especially fathers), despising their weakness and their willingness to conform.  He has a strong influence on the impressionable Noboru, and Ryuji's decision to attempt to become a father figure for his lover's son sets tragic events in motion, leading to a sickening denouement...

Typically for Mishima, beautiful writing is matched with horrible, horrible characters, making this novel another of those book which are a joy to read but, at the same time, slightly disturbing.  That's bad enough, but taken together, Down the Rabbit Hole and The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea really do make you think about your role as a parent.  The two books remind us that children are very delicate creatures.  If they are to grow up happy and well adjusted, it's up to the parents to make sure they have the right environment to achieve this.

And if this means no peep-holes into their mother's bedroom and no pygmy hippopotamus for their birthday, that's just the way it will have to be...

7 comments:

  1. I read Sailor who fall from grace 2 years ago and it was one of the most disturbing books I ever read.

    Sometimes with all the good intent and purposes, children of good parents are influenced by unfavourable external environment. There are so much bad things going on out there that we have to trust the children to be sensible enough to know what is good and bad.

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  2. Read & enjoyed? Mishima's book & have the other on my wishlist, as to the theory that you need a strong male figure during your formative years to be a balanced individual, I personally don't hold to it being true. But enough of that I'm off to torture piggy hippos now.

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  3. It has been a while since my last Mishima novel. I remember being taken by the writing but disturbed by the characters and the theme. I never really felt like returning to him.
    I'm very keen on reading Down the Rabbit Hole and since now, finally, there are an amazon Italy and Spain it is far more likely that I'm going to read more Spanish and Italian books.

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  4. I'm glad you liked 'Rabbit Hole'; it was one of my favourite books of last year. Looking forward to seeing what 'And Other Stories' come up with next...

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  5. Jo - It is very disturbing, particularly the second part (and the end - *shudder*). As I indicated in my review, books like this certainly make you think twice about how you raise your kids...

    Gary - I'm not sure you'll find many pygmy hippoes round your way ;)

    Caroline - Mishima is not the most accesible of the famous J-Lit writers, but I find his work worth it all the same. His 'Sea of Fertility' quartet was excellent :)

    As for Spanish- and Italian-language books, it's really time I read more; I'm woefully underread in these areas.

    Mark - It's a great read (if very short!). I actually have an e-copy of the next And Other Stories book for review (out in early April), so I'll be trying to fit that in with my IFFP reading :)

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  6. Wow, this sounds so interesting. I've heard of this book of course but had no idea what it was about.

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  7. Mrs. B. - I take it you mean 'Down the Rabbit Hole'? Interesting is one way to describe it - surreal and disturbing would be closer though ;)

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