There’s a Martian in Umberto Eco’s The Three Astronauts - with the traditional antennae, to be sure, but also an elephantine trunk and six perpetually outstretched arms like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
You read that right. Not the bit about the trunk or the misleadingly clever reference to art history – no, about Eco, Umberto Eco, semiotician, philosopher, author of The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, and ranked in 2005 by one publication as the world’s second leading intellectual. Oh, and the Martian has pointy web feet, and buggy, staring eyes, and puffs smoke from that trunk when he cries, though in fairness Eco is only a partner in this vision (or he has granted his formidable permission) to the illustrator here, someone named Eugenio Carmi.
Together they have also raised the expectation that children may successfully navigate minimalist watercolor landscapes – of planets and skies and canals – and meanwhile even thrill to the barest representations of separately journeying astronauts – the Russian a red scrap of Leninist newspaper, the American a package of Chiclets, the Chinese an intricate symbol on gold. There are furthermore pieces of maps cut out and reassembled, and a crimson, magnificent bird that looks like it was pilfered from the Audubon Society, and atomic disintegrators apparently extrapolated from military catalogues – all of this smudging and collaging and abstraction in the service of a story which could hardly be more straightforward. These astronauts are rivalrous, terrified, murderous, then finally delighted to introduce the six-handed Martian to the fractious residents of their home planet whence they might continue their galactic explorations together “to found a great republic of space where everybody could live happily ever after.”
Then to celebrate this mutual understanding the Martian is offered a drink of cool Earth water. “He liked this drink a lot,” declared the Martian, “even though it went to his head.” The story is like that, a sobering lesson, though somehow more fun that it has a right. Such liberties, I think, are often a highlight of children’s picture books written – as sort of a holiday maybe – by authors with more serious ambitions.
Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, still children’s book publishing today could generally use a couple more wild things swinging their elbows and tearing down ornaments and stomping on fine bottom lines. If Alice Walker, for example, expresses an interest in writing about the consequences of war for a generation of children more accustomed to absently toggling their munitions on four-inch screens, and blowing themselves to pieces, and starting all over again – if a Pulitzer Prize winning author and poet wants to bring the nightmare of three-quarters of the world a little closer to the fantasies of our remainder, which children’s book editor is going to presume to furnish notes? No, maybe you bite your tongue on this one, take a chance, and maybe you even get in touch with Stefano Vitale (on speed dial since When the Wind Stops) who is only too happy to put down his gem-bedecked palette and accompany Ms. Walker to the dark side - with saturated images of poisoned wells and ambushed families and husks of ruined cities.
Maybe you do a short printing, and hope no one remembers. If so, sorry. Apologies also to whatever current chicken farmer green-lighted John Irving’s A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound (cut up and pasted from A Widow For One Year) which concerns nothing less menacing than those scritchy-scratchy noises inside the walls when you’re trying to go to sleep. A monster with no arms and no legs? A ghost dropping stolen peanuts?
The answer proves conceivably less alarming, though elusive: it’s all one father’s speculation in the end. There are pages of narrative blankness here and gratification delayed; this book isn’t for everyone. But perhaps it’s for someone. Whether we spend twenty dollars on a book, or twenty cents, whether it is something we pick up absently from the library, or blindly online; if it’s the cover of a book which invites us, or the author, or merely the author’s reputation – there’s always a bit of a gamble. For grown-ups - as well as their children. So many tortured sentences have been used to describe the joys and disappointments of parenthood, it’s no wonder by now we have started to regard ourselves as entirely different species. I don’t know what’s more tiresome sometimes – the learning of lessons or the teaching them – but it’s probably worth the price of a ticket to venture wherever we cannot tell the difference between the two.