Adventures in Bookland: The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
This is a review written by two people, or rather, the same one, separated by so many years that he is, to all intents and purposes, two different people. The first is me, now, age 52, married, with three sons; a home owner, a writer, a man set in the tramlines of a life that has barely moved six miles north on the Piccadilly Line through those years.
The second is me, age 6: a child, a boy who loved reading above all other pleasures, a mixed-race child in a ’60s London that was not, at least where we were living, in the least swinging or happening; a boy whose physical boundaries were circumscribed by being a shy child but whose mental scope had widened immeasurably when he discovered, first, reading and then, the local library.
This young me read Babar, all the Babar stories, and loved them. This young me could not see why there should be this barrier of wordlessness between us and animals – why shouldn’t they speak? And, for that matter, why shouldn’t Babar wear a bowler hat and take tea outside a cafe in an unnamed city that bore a striking resemblance to Paris. Nor did it seem odd to me that Babar should be able to get to Paris on foot, when running away from the horrible hunters who had killed his mother. If, God forbid, hunters killed my mother, I’d want to run away too, and preferably to somewhere where a nice, rich old lady would take me in, give me cake, dress me up nicely and teach me to speak properly.
The old me, getting the book from the library to rediscover his childhood, discovered rather how far away that childhood was. The faith in story – even though I am a writer – is not strong enough now to carry me over what seem to adult eyes the glaring gaps in the story. I think my adult eyes are wrong. Why shouldn’t animals talk? They were obviously meant to. Would I really be surprised if, one day, my cat looked up at me, sniffed, and said, ‘You really are an insufferable bore?’ before sitting on a newspaper to absorb the latest news.
No, I wouldn’t be surprised. In some deep sense, I’d think this the return of a natural order, somehow unaccountably lost along the way. But, for my young self, that lost natural order seemed so much closer and the leap, in book form, hardly any leap at all.
There are many reviews from old people decrying Babar for all sorts of reasons. Don’t believe them. They read with old eyes and older minds. Those for whom Babar was written see him, see story, with different eyes and clean minds. We old people bring the accretion of decades to him, when Babar needs to be read fresh, by a child still barely touched by the world. They will read him, and they will love him, and they will be right to do so.