Fuse #8

Monday, May 29, 2006

Review of the Day: The Boy Who Ate Stars


Reviewing children’s books originally published in foreign countries is a somewhat complicated process. You’ve the obvious cultural differences, of course. Then there’s the translation. How much fault or praise do you heap upon the person who has the unenviable job of transferring an author’s vision from one language to another? Finally, there’s the book itself. After all the work that’s gone into it, and after all the time and effort to bring it to the American market, was it worth it in the end? By and large I am very positive on getting more foreign-language overseas literary hits translated and into our American bookstores and libraries. In this year alone we’ve seen amazing titles like, Guus Kuijer’s, “The Book of Everything”, and Sjoerd Kuyper’s, “The Swan’s Child”. Now we’ve a book from Lebanese born French citizen (and one-namer) Kochka entitled, “The Boy Who Ate Stars”. It’s a book with a rather interesting premise, but I’m afraid that something somewhere went awry. Whether it was the writing itself or the translation, Kochka’s book shows a great deal of promise. Here’s hoping perhaps some of her future books will succeed where this one failed.

Twelve-year-old Lucy and her family have just moved into a new apartment. At first, Lucy decides to take on the enormous challenge of meeting and befriending everyone in her new apartment building. Then she meets the residents directly above her and immediately her plans change. One night the apartment above her own is privy to some incredibly loud noises. Lucy’s father charges up the stairs to yell at the residents, then comes back down subdued. It seems that their upstairs neighbors are a single librarian mom, a Russian nanny, and a boy named Matthew. Matthew is autistic, and curious Lucy is unable to get a suitable definition of “autism” out of anyone she knows. As a result, Lucy turns Matthew into a kind of project. She will help him to connect with people outside of himself. At the same time, she’s also trying to teach a lapdog named Francois, who belongs to a couple friends of her parents, to break out of his comfortable, obedient shell. Matthew’s story and the story of Francois are paralleled against one another, showing the progress and breakthroughs of both boy and dog together.

Now, we have two different authors at work here. The original writer, Kochka, and translator, Sarah Adams. Putting the rest of the book entirely aside, I kept finding myself wondering how closely Adams was adhering to the original text. Some of the more awkward sentences may be direct translations. For example, there are a couple phrases along the lines of, “Secretly, I was going to take that dog under my wing so he could learn to fly”. Other times, though, the translation doesn’t seem to quite fit, as when Lucy says that, “I pretended butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth”. More at fault are the moments when odd America slang pops up unexpectedly. When Lucy discovers later in the story that she’ll get to keep Francois while his owners are out of town she erupts with the word, “Wicked!”. Aside from the fact that even in America this word isn’t exactly universal, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the France-based book. Altogether, some of the writing feels like it has a herky-jerky start-and-stop feel to it. There’s no way of telling if that’s the work of Adams or Kochka, though. And after reading through the book carefully, I think the blame rests with Kochka.

A translator can only give you what already exists. So if the narrative itself is uneven, it’s not their fault. In this book, the story often jumps from scene to scene and place to place without much cohesive connection. “We ran into Matthew who was taking a cookie for a walk. It was raining. We were amazed, firstly because it was the kind of weather for staying indoors, and secondly because Matthew was treating the cookie like a king. Under the damp song of the sky, sheltered by an arbor, Marie told us a story. That night Theo couldn’t sleep”. Three distinct events but there isn’t any comfortable transition between them. Add into the odd “damp song of the sky”, which comes entirely out of the blue and the book makes for a more difficult read than it really had to be.

I don’t know much about autism myself, so I can’t say whether or not Kochka’s Matthew is a good or a poor example of the condition. For all I know, Matthew is a perfectly rendered autistic. However, that didn’t keep me from becoming particularly uncomfortable when Kochka would equate Matthew with various animalia. Sometimes parallels would be drawn between a boy that Lucy sees as comfortably wild, and a dog that needs to learn how to be free. Says Lucy, “Of course, Matthew would make the perfect trainer to help Francois find his animal instincts again!”. Later when he’s stroking her hair she says, “Instead of letting me stroke him, this special cat was stroking me”. Further on Lucy writes a definition of the boy. “Matthew: a chameleon with a heart made of modeling clay”. He’s everything EXCEPT a human being to Lucy, and her patronizing attitude towards him was enough to make me particularly uncomfortable.

I think this book had some nice moments and perhaps some judicious editing would have made it a little more palatable. Still, whether it’s the translation or the writing itself, there’s something about, “The Boy Who Ate Stars”, that just don’t feel right. It’s a fine book for what it is, but nothing too extraordinary. I wouldn’t bother buying it for a kid. Autism’s a tricky subject, and this book simply doesn’t convey its complexity. Nice story, but not particularly noteworthy.

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