Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tenacious myths

I was interviewed by the Swedish Radio today. Well, I wasn't really interviewed the way I had expected after the researcher's conversation yesterday when I said what I thought on the matter. Apparently the program leader hadn't listened to her researcher.

The subject was something I have been interviewed about extensively in the past thirty years, in oral and written form, formally and informally, by journalists and undergrad students, and during drinks and table conversations. I say the same thing every time.

The eternal subject is the popularity of Astrid Lindgren's character Karlsson-on-the-roof in Russia.

What I say is that whoever asks is terribly ethnocentric. It is understandable that Swedish people are fascinated that something from their culture is popular abroad, but this Karlsson myth is blown up out of proportion. Yes, he has always been popular. Almost as popular as Alice in Wonderland, Thumbelina, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Little Prince. And dozens of other children's literature characters, homegrown and translated. To say that Karlsson was uniquely popular is to close your eyes on the context. And when people ask why Karlsson and not any other Lindgren character, the simple answer is: because it was available in Russian. Many, many years before Pippi Longstocking.

Another truth is that Karlsson became still more popular after two Russian cartoons were produced, and then two picturebooks based on cartoons. In these, the profound and sad story of the original was boiled down to Tom-and-Jerry-like slapstick. There was nothing left of Astrid Lindgren's text and nothing of Ilon Wikland's original illustrations. So in fact people in Russia don't really know Lindgren's character, but something twice removed. And there has been a lot of merchandise: dolls, candy, towels, mugs. There were funny stories too, some of them quite rude. Journalists interpret these as a sign of exceptional popularity. But stories are told in Russia about almost anything, including popular literary characters. Lots of rude stories about Thumbelina. Lots of rude stories about Pinocchio. Lots of rude stories about Winnie-the-Pooh. Who, by the way, also transformed into a cartoon character – Russian, not Disney – which made him more popular and better known than the original.

And then people say that Karlsson was controversial in Russia – not more controversial than any good children's book is any culture, certainly not more than Karlsson or Pippi were in Sweden. Personally I have always dislikes Karlsson as a character because he is mean, but I still like the books because they say some essential things about being a child. I wonder if the journalist who interviewed me today understands it. The Karlsson books are not about Karlsson, they are about the child who must learn what it means to be a human being. Karlsson is not human (he is in fact an early post-human, with technologically augmented capacities), but the child is. You are not supposed to like Karlsson, you are supposed to hate him. Or make mock of him.

The reason the Karlsson books – not just Karlsson the character - became popular in Russia is that they are great books by a great writer. They joined other great books read by generations of Russian children, which included unacknowledged imitations of Pinocchio, The Wizard of Oz and Dr Dolittle. They happened to be translated in Russia at the time there weren't as many great books for children as there are today.

To ask why Karlsson is popular is like asking why Harry Potter is popular. Especially if it comes to a country where very few great children's books are available.

I didn't have a chance to say all this to the journalist today. She had her own opinion and wasn't listening. So the Karlsson myth will now be perpetuated through yet another medial channel.


Ulla Åkerström said...

So true!

Anonymous said...

I don't know about "so true" comment after the prase "very few great children's books are available" (in Russia?). Even if we are talking about old Soviet days-it's so NOT true.