Sunday, July 1, 2007

Breakfast with Roald Dahl

[first posted in on May 23, 2007]

Every school morning my son has breakfast and listens to a book on tape. This week we have Roald Dahl's MATILDA out from the public library. We've previously listened to THE WITCHES and Budza has seen the Johnny Depp version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

MATILDA is more than usually nasty, even for Dahl. It's a weird book, because at the heart is a fierce love of books, and the special relationship not just between reader and book, but between librarian and readers, and between readers. But the portrait of the family, ay yi yi. It makes the Dursleys from Harry Potter look like a family you'd like to live next to.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was a hugely important book to me when I was ten. We were living in Manila, and I first read it on a sleepover at my friend Eleanor's house. I devoured it like a Wonka chocolate bar, and begged for a copy and ended up getting two for Christmas, one from my parents and one from my aunties back in the States. Dahl reined in the misanthropy better in CCF; Wonka and the wonders of the factory carry us along. But here in MATILDA the acid drips from every page.

When we moved to Bangkok when I was in seventh grade, I started reading some of my father's books: Agatha Christie short stories and the like, and I somehow got my hands on a copy of Dahl's adult short stories. "Lamb to the Slaughter" (a woman clubs her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the lamb and serves it to a detective, who can't imagine what blunt instrument the murder weapon was...) made a deep impression, but I put the book away and turned instead to Hercule Poirot.

I think Dahl's misanthropy is more painful and shocking to grown ups than it is for kids. As adults, the acid is directed at US and our failings.

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