Getting away

Picture book review, from Tokyo – It’s the start of the Golden Week holidays in Japan when the entire white-collar working population (and some more) go on vacation. I popped by my local library to find what they had picked for children, and found a picture of a family of capybaras set among some long grass, somewhat near their home. Were they on vacation?

Translated by Makiko Amino as 『カピバラがやってきた』(Kapibara ga yattekita, lit. Here come the capybaras), the title gave little away, but Alfredo Soderguit’s capybaras did not convey the laid back, relaxed atmosphere that these animals normally look when they warm themselves in baths during winter. Eyes wide open. Huddled together and facing outward. They looked very afraid and alert to some unsighted danger.

The book starts off with life on a chicken farm. Chicken life is comfortable. There’s plenty of feed. Things are quiet and low stress. Except when the farmer to pick some chickens, of course.

One fine day, the family of capybaras arrive. The chickens try to chase them away. But when the rodent family stays without explaining much else, the chickens set rules that must be obeyed. No questions asked! The capybaras are told to stay in the water, far far away from the chickens’ feed. When a baby capybara ventures on land and befriends a chick, the chickens make a racket! The capybaras are wild animals! And you’ll never know what they’ll do!

And the capybaras do just that. They scare off a hunting dog from the chick and their baby, and the chickens let them come on land. The chickens teach them their way of life and even let them sleep in their barn.

After the end of the hunting season, the capybaras return to their home. But they still drop by to visit, and eventually… the chickens make their getaway on the backs of the capybaras to a sheep farm elsewhere on the banks of the lake.

Award winning Alfredo Soderguit needs no introduction, and this story needs no explanation. Outsiders seeking temporary refuge. Trusting others and learning to live together.

But there seems to be another underlying current. Getting away from conflict and danger offers temporary respite. The chickens sought a long-term solution – they left their apparently comfortable but perilous dwelling (you never know who’s next!).

I took a while to settle on the title for this post. But when I did, many questions surfaced in my head. Why do we need to get away? Perhaps there’s some monster? Chores? Work? Stress? KPIs?

Returning to the topic of getting away, when we humans make our temporary escape, we do so on our rules. Just recently, vacationers in Japan had reportedly come close to hitting wild boars that were rushing across the road. Wild animals have been sighted more often in built-up areas as human activity has receded, but with people now ready to move en masse across large swathes of the country, are we even aware of those unwritten rules and practices in the natural environment? Do we understand them well enough or even at all? Are we living well together with the rest of the planet? Is there a long-term alternative to our way of life today?

The capybaras made the chickens realize that there could be a better solution. If we learn to live with others and our environment, maybe we will too.

*Review based on the Japanese translation.

『カピバラがやってきた』(Kapibara ga yattekita, lit. Here come the capybaras) translation by Makiko Amino of the original Los carpinchos by Alfredo Soderguit
Publisher: Iwasaki Shoten, 2022

The littlest country

Book review, from Tokyo – A couple of months back, I chanced upon this picture book by the late David McKee translated into Japanese. I felt it was what I needed to read then, a time when tensions everywhere seemed to just escalate. And today I flip it open again, feeling very much same.

Translated by Chihiro Nakagawa into 『せかいでいちばんつよい国』(Sekai de ichiban tsuyoi kuni, lit. The world’s most powerful country) McKee’s The Conquerors (2004) tells a story of the President (“General” in the original) of the most powerful country who waged war on the rest of the world so that they could all live “happily in harmony”.

One by one, countries fell to the world’s largest and most powerful army. Until there was just tiny one. The littlest country. But to leave it unconquered did not sit well with the president. And so he sent an army to conquer it. When they arrived, the people welcomed into their homes! The president even got the largest house in the country, where he wrote home to his wife and son to pass the time.

With nothing to conquer, the soldiers spent their time chatting with the people, playing their games, hearing their stories, laughing to their jokes, learning their songs. But when they started helping out, the emperor sent them home and called for a fresh group of disciplined soldiers. But when these soldiers also grew lax, the emperor headed home, leaving a small contingent behind. As soon as the emperor left, these soldiers quickly changed into their civilian wear to lead normal lives.

The president led a homecoming victory parade on his homecoming, but when his son asked him to sing at bedtime, he sang a song from the littlest country.

It was interesting to see this comical president garbed like Napoleon I in contrast with the French emperor as various versions of Genzaburo Yoshino’s 『君たちはどう生きるか』(translated into English How Do You Live? by Bruno Navasky) was enjoying a sustained resurgence in Japan at the time.

This funny, simple story of war and conquest with underlying messages of inclusiveness and pacifism left me hoping that if only the powerful and more of us were a bit more like that littlest country, the world might be that bit more open and peaceful.

*Review based on the Japanese translation.

Title: 『せかいでいちばんつよい国』(Sekai de ichiban tsuyoi kuni, lit. The world’s most powerful country) translation by Chihiro Nakagawa, original by David McKee
Publisher: Mitsumura Educational Co., Ltd., 2005

Systems of our own making

Book review, from Tokyo – Our modern society is a web of systems. Communications networks, law and enforcement, finance and payments, sewage, gas, electricity. Modern human society runs on these. Alliances, ideologies, capitalism, and the different political systems are also of our own making. But not everyone goes by the same rules. If someone made them, then someone else can change them. But when only one person makes all the decisions, it is called a dictatorship.

Translated by Lawrence Schimel into English based on Equipo Plantel’s Spanish title first published in 1977, This is a Dictatorship (Book Island, 2021) reminds us that there are those who rule with an iron fist today, inciting fear and terror. Mikel Casal’s blocky bold illustrations for the 2015 version portray a beady-eyed, moustached, bald dictator who calls all the shots in his country. (For more on the illustrations, read this interview on Picturebook Makers.) The few people close to him grow wealthier for their pretenses while the masses stay poor, discontented and silent for fear of persecution. We are told that dictatorships end with the death of the tyrant or when he is kicked out by the masses. This we know does not happen if there is succession nor will it be a peaceful transition in the latter situation.

Using a limited colour palette, Casal’s pictures seem to transport the reader back a few decades to the time when dictatorships were easily recognizable. But the end notes warn us that many methods may be used to subvert democratic functions even in apparently democratic societies. Gerrymandering, politicizing public organizations, public accounts lacking transparency, subverting human rights and speech are just some examples that come to mind.

For the apparent, we only have to look to instances of civilian oppression for examples. Sometimes, however even without overtly terrorizing, the constant flex of military muscle can threaten and unravel the mental fabric of a free autonomous territory or even a neighbouring sovereign nation. Of course, other methods could involve wielding the legal machinery to take down and silence opposing voices, often with reputational and financially crippling consequences.

When the world grapples with a breach of sovereignty, we are reminded that peace and democracy were never givens. Of course, the same goes for a dictatorship. Systems of our own making require much work to uphold and maintain. Without that they can become very shaky, very quickly. That one feels sufficiently threatened or within their capacity to change the rules, though, seems to indicate that the rest have not talked to or heard them enough. Conflict will always involve at least two sides, and ideologies are often in opposition to one another.

But shouldn’t it be obvious to everyone, including politicians and capitalists, that our collective sustenance depends on how well we share and use our world’s resources together, not money nor how imaginary lines or cultural groupings delineate and divide us? Or have we all been sold on the myth of eternal economic growth on limited resources? Why haven’t we taken a break from the cycle of production-consumption to think about new systems for humanity? Perhaps one answer lies in the direction of the political systems we have devised and under which we are governed.

Title: This is a Dictatorship by Equipo Plantel, illustrated by Mikel Casal, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Publisher: Book Island, 2021

Dial ‘T’ for ‘tales’

Book review, from Tokyo – When operators worked the switchboards, and letters and telegrams made way for payphones, accountant and travelling salesman Signor Bianchi Varese calls home each night to tell his daughter a bedtime story over the duration of a single coin.

Doesn’t the idea alone fill your heart with warmth and love? Award-winning Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales (Enchanted Lion, 2020) certainly kept me company over the last week before bed.

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious. Other times amazing and wonderful. A country of butter men who travelled in fridges. Soldiers celebrating at the ring of cannons made from melted down church bells. Elevators to space (and back). Magical carousels. While I half-admit to being a buttery citizen, I also marvelled at how living seven different lives at the same time could seem both absurd and true.

And then there were some that were just inspiring. Like the brave young crayfish who strode forward despite naysayers all around. And the road to nowhere that bore treasures only to the first one who dared to venture. Just a handful of pickings to open those doors to your dreams.

First published in Italian in 1962 as Favole al telefono., this edition published 100 years since Rodari’s birth combines Antony Shugaar’s playful, lively English with Valerio Vidali’s colourful, imaginative illustrations. The cover of the 1965 English translation bearing the same title reveals how times and styles have changed, while the allure of his stories certainly haven’t. Each told over just a few pages, I’m sure I will find the space and time to reread time and again.

Title: Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali,
translated from Italian by Antony Shugaar
Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books, 2020