In Youth Is Pleasure
Literature written from the point of view of children poses special problems. There exists a separate type of book — a children's book — for good reason. Because child narrators necessarily possess faculties inferior to those of the writer, they tempt the writer: If you're writing a kid, why not make her precocious?
Two writers from Italy, Stefano Benni and Linda Ferri, have recently written books, for adults, from the point of view of a young girl. In his Italian best seller "Margherita Dolce Vita" (Europa Editions, 228 pages, $14.95), Mr. Benni takes advantage of the child's given naiveté and sensationalism, to create a world of magical realism.
The narrator, young Margherita, begins by saturating the reader with her cute observations. She has her own names for the stars: Althazor, Mab, Babkuk, and Lennon's Cross. "In fact," she says, "I defend the right of anyone — especially an imaginative young girl like me — to call things not only by the names that are found in the dictionary, but also by names found only in the fictionary, names that I make up and choose."
You may want to throw her exasperating fictionary out the window, but you would miss some memorable inventions. Margherita's dog is a "catadogue," not a mixture of dog and cat but "a genuine catalogue of every breed of dog and species of animal (and possibly plant) that has ever lived on planet Earth." Dreamers are "helpless morpheonauts." These neologisms often have latin roots that must translate well, but the translator, Antony Shugaar, still deserves, at the level of the individual word, a great deal of credit.
Mr. Benni's language becomes more fun, alas, when it becomes harder to visualize. The catalogue has a "pterodactyl muzzle, chameleon eyes, waterbuffalo nostrils, German-brewer whiskers, piranha-fish teeth" and "the spotted, speckled coat of a jackalope." Sometimes Margherita's improbabilities achieve an enjoyable sarcasm. Walking through the forest, Margherita and her vampire boyfriend "looked like two young escargot hunters, or two environmental inspectors, or two idiots."In either case, this humor is based on accretion, not synthesis.
As an ethical approach to life, Margherita's assertive, conglomerate personality has limits. She basically believes in fighting boredom: As her parents and their new, intimidating friends descend into a deadly, after-dinner tedium, Margherita intervenes: "So I waited for an opportune pause in the weary chit-chat, and yelled: ‘There's a piece of road-kill outside, a cat as flat as a pancake with its eyes close together, like a flounder!'"
Cynical as she may be, Margherita finally pits herself against a slew of enemies whose chief crime, superficially, is their grim adulthood. Like so many child protagonists, she becomes an avatar of natural happiness, facing an array of anti-environmentalist bores. Mr. Benni's plot weaves a web of conspiracy and unjust oppression reminiscent of Richard Kelly's " Donnie Darko," and much like that film, "Margherita Dolce Vita" ends with inconclusive violence that makes everything that preceded it feel thin.
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Less cute, but still colorful, is Linda Ferri's "Enchantments" (Knopf, 131 pages, $18.95). Like Mr. Benni, Ms. Ferri defines her protagonist through moments of disappointment, when the child is challenged by the adult world. But Ms. Ferri's unnamed narrator is not so sure of where she stands with the adults. "We likedthat understanding and not understanding," says the girl, recalling dirty stories that puzzled her, but which she wanted to hear again and again.
Like Margherita, she has her contrived bursts of confidence. In the Louvre, she decides to become an archaeologist, so she can dig up the white arms of the Venus de Milo. In this book, however, there is a believable parent to rebuke the child: "My father told me that I was a weather vane, and even a popinjay."The narrator decides to stop having ideas. "One time, however, I just couldn't hold myself back."
Like Margherita, she wants to interrupt a boring dinner: "I'm talking to fill the emptiness that is in me and between us, and in the end it comes out: ‘You know, papa, what I'm going to be when I grow up? The best French-Italian cook of pasta and chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream.'"
This kind of wheedling sunshine, as much a performance as a temper tantrum, will be the downfall of any but the most tempered child narrator. Ms. Ferri sometimes captures the child's feelings, as when the narrator reports that, "I'm disappointed, frustrated by my own frustration." And her epiphanies surface, convincingly, from a child's reeling, excitable mind. After realizing that a certain boy may like her, the girl reflects:
It's one of the May evenings in Paris when the day doesn't really want to die and the twilight is glowing and still. I'm sitting on my bed, near the window. I look outside, and in my ecstasy, which I am holding the way the day is holding the light, I see nothing, I hear nothing, I don't exist anymore, I'm not these arms, these legs, this head — all of me is in the frantic beating of my tiny chest.
It is no surprise that Ms. Ferri's translator, John Casey, is an accomplished novelist. These sentences lift themselves off the page. In the elegance of some seemingly awkward ideas — ecstasy held the way the day holds light — Ms. Ferri achieves something similar to but greater than cuteness.
By BENJAMIN LYTAL