MAY 28, 2015
BOOKS ABOUT CHILDREN tend to stem from memory rather than immediate experience. This is not necessarily a drawback — for most of us, it’s a blessing that our scribblings from a younger age never see wider distribution. With rare exceptions, such as Barbara Newhall Follett’s The House Without Windows, published when she was 12, a child is not always the best equipped to write about a child’s mind. Instead, adults who write child protagonists must do justice to a world they can no longer physically access — not an uncommon challenge for a writer, but pitfalls abound. Some writers can bring out the child in themselves, while others write children as half-finished adults. Still others accept that they sit at an untranslatable divide, and use the voice of a child not to speak about childhood but to comment obliquely on the constraints and hypocrisies of the adult world.
Ticket to Childhood, by Vietnamese author Nguyen Nhat Anh, takes this last path. At one level, the book is a meditation on childhood with a thin autobiographical veneer. This is not really a book about children, however. Despite its packaging, this is not a book strictly for children, either. Nguyen’s children are court jesters, able to question the norms of the adult world in ways that adults cannot. The middle-aged narrator of the story shifts between his current life and the hazy yesteryear of his childhood, a past filled with today’s accoutrements: his children eat instant noodles and send improbably romantic messages to each other via cellphone.
In this past that looks suspiciously like the present, our eight-year-old protagonist, Little Mui, has developed a profound boredom with life. Between the tyranny of teachers who demand rote memorization and unreasonable parents who will not let him get into fights, the boy can find no respite. And so he organizes his three best friends into small rebellions against adult convention. The band of revolutionaries play house, with the “parents” scolding the “children” for doing their homework dutifully. They shake language upside down, reinventing their own names and the names and uses of objects around them. They play-act the grown-up world, and put adults on trial for perceived transgressions. None of these changes have long-lasting effects. Every time that the group’s newly invented rules leak into the rest of their lives, they are punished by adults and their behavior returns to normal. But decades later, each of the four still fondly remembers their childhood eccentricitie.
In his native Vietnam, Nguyen is a well-known, prolific writer who has published many works of fiction for children and adults over the past 30 years. Ticket to Childhood was both a popular and a critical success when it was published in Vietnam in 2008. The book won the 2010 S.E.A. (Southeast Asian) Write Award for Vietnam, administered annually in Bangkok by Thai royalty to a single author in each of 10 countries that constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since then, the book has been translated into Thai, Japanese, and Korean. Translated by William Naythons, this is the book’s first English edition.
Somewhat like Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ticket to Childhood sits firmly between genres. The book has aspects that might appeal to children, but alongside descriptions of childhood games, the author delves into philosophy inscrutable to children. On the back flap of the Vietnamese edition of the book, the author asserts that “I did not write this book for children. I wrote it for those who used to be children.” His style has a thoughtful charm that shines through even in English translation. The hijinks of the four children ring true — in my case reminding me of school in India where, as an adolescent, I decided that the colonial overlords had never actually left India. Their ghosts still ran the school system, with a toxic mix of tyranny, overwork, and ennui.
But what I remember as a child of eight was finding enchantment in unlikely places and objects; seeking escapes in the imagination that went far beyond daily life. Nguyen’s preteen protagonists are fixated upon the adult world to an exaggerated degree, and here is where the hand of the writer becomes visible. The children in Ticket to Childhood seek escape, but never let their imaginations take them beyond the world delineated by adults. Their boredom with life, as well, seems more characteristic of adults. At eight, one does not know enough of the world to be so despairing about the safe shackles of routine. But the adult who wrote and the adults who read the story know those shackles all too well. The world we see through the eyes of these children, long past, seems not to be processed by a child’s consciousness, but by an adult’s.
This is a nice narrative device, again reminiscent of Le Petit Prince, and Nguyen does it well — telling the truth about the adult world by approaching it at a slant. Moving swiftly back and forth between a child’s perspective and adult philosophy can lead to abrupt shifts in tone, however, and the book is sometimes uneven. It contains beautifully meditative lines such as “The soul at birth is like a lake whose surface is unruffled until life skips the first pebble of sorrow across it.” But one such poetic aside ends with the line, “Great, [and now] I can change the subject to something lighter.” Following the escapades of the children and their confusions about the adult world, the author offers pointed comments such as “One man’s boring rut is another man’s domestic harmony.” But even as these children try to rebel against what they see as irrational constraints, the book sometimes breaks its own spell with jocular, clichéd lines such as “Kids do the darnedest things.”
Not knowing Vietnamese myself, I cannot comment on how the English differs in tone from the original book, but it must have been a challenging book to translate in any case. When a piece is meant to work at multiple levels, with the plot underlaid by a subtle critique of society (the author winking at the reader via oblique linguistic cues and shared cultural references), it can be next to impossible to convey each layer for a different cultural and linguistic audience. Despite that, much of the book’s complexity still comes through.
The book’s title phrase — “ticket to childhood” — is borrowed from a poem by the Russian poet Robert Rozhdestvensky, a poem that speaks of the poet’s desire to return to the haven of childhood. Rozhdestvensky’s own childhood was far from idyllic. When he was nine, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, plunging that country into World War II. He spent most of the war in an orphanage, and most of his career as a poet playing it politically safe. The poem that Nguyen’s book is named after is filled with a melancholic longing. When Rozhdestvensky speaks of wanting a “ticket to childhood,” he is describing not just a time that lies out of reach, but also a world that has been destroyed.
I can only speculate about what resonance this poem would carry with Nguyen Nhat Anh’s intended audience. Nguyen’s own childhood overlapped with the Vietnam War, another moment in history that one would not necessarily want to revisit. Is this a subtle layer of the book that I cannot catch in English — the reason, perhaps, that Nguyen goes no further back in time than cellphones can reach? I can only guess. Even as Nguyen gives us a ticket to his past, I am left with questions about which past (or present) he wants us to see.