May 14, 2009


Clarence Cochran, a Human Boy. By William Loizeaux. Pictures by Anne Wilsdorf. Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.

A Rat’s Tale. By Tor Seidler. Pictures by Fred Marcellino. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $9.95.

     Franz Kafka was never like this. William Loizeaux has turned Kafka’s famed story, Metamorphosis, on its head, changing the very adult and surrealistic tale into a weirdly amusing story for children. For Clarence Cochran, a Human Boy, begins – in language that closely parallels Kafka’s – with an unexpected and never-explained transformation between cockroach and human. But this time, it is the insect that becomes a tiny person, not (as in Kafka) the person becoming a giant bug. Clarence and his very, very extended family live in the Gilmartins’ home, and after Clarence wakes up shaped like a boy (wearing modesty-protecting boxer shorts), the cockroach physician, Dr. Blatt, notes, “Patient presents with pallid exoskeleton, possibly molting; emaciated thorax; amputated cerci, tarsi, and antennae; pronotum and spiracles nonexistent.” Even if Clarence understood all that – not all the words make sense to him – the transformation itself remains inexplicable. Clarence finds himself encountering prejudice and visceral hatred from some fellow cockroaches (assuming they are still his “fellows”), and he finds his senses and his behavior tremendously changed: “He didn’t feel like sliding into a dark, dank, narrow space.…He saw colors in a way he never had before, great patches of them, and details, too!” And he sees the Gilmartins – mother Kathryn, father Larry and daughter Mimi – and they see the roaches scattering rapidly out of the light in their kitchen in the middle of the night. And of course the Gilmartins decide to do the only sensible thing: hire an exterminator. And now Clarence finds himself in the unlikely role of potential hero, because maybe, just maybe, he can find a way to prevent his relatives and friends from being wiped out. But that requires crossing the very substantial gulf between human beings and cockroaches… Well, Clarence goes through many adventures, eventually makes a friend of Mimi, and then finds a way – entirely on his own – to save the cockroaches, by devising a truce between the insects and the Gilmartins. Oh boy, what a fantasy that is, as anyone who has ever experienced a cockroach infestation will immediately know! But the wonderful thing about Loizeaux’ book – and the humorously appealing pictures with which Anne Wilsdorf illustrates it – is that it sort of humanizes cockroaches while in no way denying their real-world habits (such as a fondness for darkness and rotting food). Clarence eventually comes to terms with his transformation – as for Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, it proves irreversible and remains unexplained, although Clarence does get a happy ending that is denied to Kafka’s protagonist. And the Gilmartins come to terms, literally, with the cockroaches (through a written agreement, no less). Real world? No! Delightful world? Yes!

     And speaking of things unappealing to humans, how about sewer rats? And wharf rats? And wild rats in general? Actually, rats have become more socially acceptable, at least in fiction, since the release of the Pixar film Ratatouille in 2007. But Tor Seidler’s A Rat’s Tale long predates that – it was originally published in 1986, when rats were deemed anything but cuddly. Yet even then, Seidler managed to make these creatures into the wonderful inhabitants of an adventure-filled fairy-tale world that intersects with the human one only peripherally (and usually not to the rats’ benefit). Fred Marcellino’s wonderful pencil drawings help brings the rats and their world vividly to life, and Seidler’s story seems even more appealing in its new paperback edition than it did in the past – the Ratatouille influence, no doubt. Seidler imagines a stratified rat society in which the hero, a sewer rat named Montague Mad-Rat the Younger, is looked down upon by the rats living in spacious accommodations (empty crates and such) along the wharves. Then Montague rescues one of the wharf residents, Isabel Moberly-Rat, and a sort of wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance ensues (an entirely chaste one, of course). Much else happens in A Rat’s Tale as well. There is a constant threat of humans trying to spread rat poison – when one rat, Randal, is exposed to it, “the doctor, a general ratitioner, applied a poultice to the poisoned tail. After giving the young rat a piece of a pill pilfered from a pharmacy, the doctor ushered the rest of them out of the sickroom. ‘It may keep the infection from spreading, it may not,’ whispered the doctor, who was never quite sure which pills were for what.” Then there are adventures with pack rats, and Montague’s artistic ability – he paints seashells that his aunt brings him – proves important in a campaign to save the rats of the wharves from being destroyed by humans. Humans are not all bad – some actually do business with the rats – and there is sometimes cooperation with mice, pigeons and other creatures. And Montague becomes a hero – “Montague the Magnificent,” a rat politician calls him (yes, the rats have politicos). There is sorrow in Montague’s tale, too, as in any good fairy tale, but all ends peacefully and with promise for the future – and human readers, who will surely not recognize real-world wild rats in any of A Rat’s Tale, will just as surely be delighted by what happens to Seidler’s unreal creations.

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