Monday, 6 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 7: Imaginary countries

 Read the previous posts, 1   2    3   4   5   6

There was no Narnia in my childhood, but there were other imaginary countries. There was no Oz, but there was the Magic Country, which was Oz plagiarism written in the times when copyright laws did not affect the Soviet Union. So there was the little girl from Kansas, Elly, and her little dog Toto, blown into the faraway country with a yellow brick road, where they meet the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion and Goodwin the Great and Terrible. There were many sequels too, that didn't follow Baum.

It was a general practice to pinch foreign children's books and rewrite them with or without acknowledgment. There was, for instance, the tremendously popular book about a kind doctor who can speak animal language. Does it ring a bell? Or the best-loved of all Russian children's book figures, a naughty boy carved from a piece of wood.

Genuinly Soviet, though, was The Land of Crooked Mirrors (but even there, argueably, the main idea was borrowed from Lewis Carroll). A girl passes through a mirror and meets her reflection. They step inside a book of fairy tales and into a land ruled by a stupid king and his cruel ministers. Because the girl is a true Soviet citizen, she leads a rebellion and overthrows the dictatorship. Her mirror twin is both a good companion and an example of her worst traits. This book, written in 1950, was unbelievably subversive, and I cannot imagine how it could have been published because its satire of the Soviet regime is transparent. But, as in many similar cases, it was served as a representation of the corrupt capitalist world. I didn't care about the political implications, it was just a great adventure.

But of all the imaginary countries, one was the unquestionable favourite, and it was meta-imaginary. Conduit and Schwambrania is about two boys in pre-1917 Russia who invent a country of their own, called Schwambrania, to get away from their uneventful reality. Reality finally catches up with them: world war, revolution and the Bolshevik coup-d'etat in which they lose everything they once had and didn't value. The last is my clever critical comment. The pathos of the book was that imaginary countries weren't necessary when the glorious Communist future was just around the corner. Although this aspect troubled me when I was a child because I knew the other side of truth, the appeal of the book was the joy of imagination. Therefore I could dismiss the happy miserable ending and instead enjoy the school-domestic-naughty boy story spiced with maps, history chronicles, court gossip and around-the-world voyages in Schwambrania. All my own imaginary countries – and I had several – and my friends' and classmates' imaginary countries had Schwambrania as a model. Playing your imaginary country was the most natural thing. I had maps, newspapers, dictionaries, chronicles, war archives and love letters. I had countries populated by animals, toys and musketeers, depending on what I happened to be reading. They all co-existed happily in the same universe. Occasionally, they had visitors from my best friend's countries.

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