Camp Concentration by Disch and Otto by Tom Ungerer
A pair made in a sort of hell, I guess, birthday books read back to back.
I don’t understand why Otto
is badly written, when the author is obviously capable of writing good text in English. If you want to write some sort of nightmare for children – even worse, a nightmare that really happened – one has to be very careful, I imagine and this isn’t. It uses badly cliched English that is inappropriate for any readership, let alone kids. He describes the bombing of his German town thus: ‘Among the ruins and the fires lay innocent victims.’ What on earth does that mean? That some of the civilians bombed in German towns weren’t innocent victims? Does he mean anybody killed by these bombs were innocent victims? One could conceive of an argument along the lines of all the innocent victims being in concentrations camps, after all – two words ignored by this children’s book. Then there is the general dilemma of writing about such a topic for children: I am uneasy about his treatment, really uneasy about picking such a theme and coming up with a happy ending. Finally, the language is stilted, quite unattractive to read. I don’t understand why a child would want to read it.
Nor, as an adult, would I consider giving it to a child. ‘Mummy why did Oskar let those men take his friend away? Why didn’t his mother help? Why didn’t….If somebody wanted to take my friend away, would you stop them, Mummy?’ ‘Well, no, I wouldn’t, Oskar. It’s better just to watch when that happens and be glad it isn’t happening to you’. Honestly. The more I think about this book, the more I am really unhappy about it.
The pictures are nice.
Unfortunately Camp Concentration has no pictures.
It does, however, avoid avoiding the words concentration camp. One can only assume, knowing that Disch considers himself too clever for words – no, not too clever for words, his books are full of his cleverness, little jokes for his friends and so on, exactly the sort of thing I object to when reading clever dicks – one can only assume that moving the word order is a play on his own camp ways as they are expressed in this book, much as it may have other rationales as well. It was explained to me after I finished reading this – and I must confess that my reading became cursory after a while – that I had missed all the clues. Was I supposed to know there were clues and that I was reading a mystery book? If I was supposed to realise this, it was badly communicated to me. If I wasn’t supposed to realise it, we are left with a denouement which is rather like one of those who-dun-its where the author cheats.
There are always flashes of good writing in Disch’s work, but the point is, SO WHAT? There are probably a thousand people on goodreads, and tens of thousands of bloggers out there who produce such flashes, or, amazingly, keep it up. I think Disch is lazy, but because he has such tickets on his cleverness, he doesn’t think that matters. I beg to differ. But then, to be fair, I don’t think cleverness is nearly sufficient to produce a good piece of writing. Not nearly.
It is interesting to consider that we have here two examples of genre writing, both of which consistently fall down in the writing department. Picture books need good pictures and good text is only ever ‘nice if you can get it’. Science fiction is full of examples of authors who have great ideas but who can’t write. Six year olds probably don’t care and nor do science fiction buffs. Unfortunately I am neither.