Roald Dahl was not the educational model that most parents want for their young children. Not only did he write stories about harsh poverty, cruelty, loneliness, alienation and signs of racism, sexism and chauvinism, he also lived an unconventional life and had unconventional thoughts, including an affection for Hitler.
Dahl was born in 1916 in Wales, lost his father when he was 4 years old and spent most of his childhood and youth in rigid boarding schools. He served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, fought in World War II and was seriously wounded when forced to make an emergency landing. He arrived in the United States as an assistant air attache in the British Embassy. In Washington he first met his friend Noel Coward, who wrote in his diary that in all of Dahl’s adult fiction, which was brilliant and imaginative, there was “an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness, and a curiously adolescent emphasis on sex.”
When he moved to Hollywood he met the Disney brothers, and some say that he had a great deal in common with them – for example, an appetite for clandestine and improper sex, and anti-Semitism. Walt Disney allowed him to use his car and put him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In Hollywood Dahl also met, actress Patricia Neal, who would become his wife. Neal and Dahl shared a difficult life, full of sorrow and tragedies, including the death of their daughter Olivia from measles encephalitis at the age of 7 and the serious head injury sustained by their infant son Theo in a traffic accident. Later Neal suffered from a series of cerebral aneurysms and never returned to being the same Hollywood beauty she had been. After 30 years of marriage the couple divorced.
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Dahl was sympathetic to Hitler and Mussolini. In 1983 he told a reporter: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity toward non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
He was disgusted by Zionism and Israel. In 1990, shortly before his death, he said in an interview that he was “certainly anti-Israel” and that he had become anti-Semitic. He also said at the time that certain actions by the Israeli army in Lebanon had been silenced in the press because the newspapers belong to Jews and that there are no non-Jewish publishers anywhere. That was Dahl, too.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the already mythological book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Over the years the book has been translated into 55 languages and over 20 million copies have been sold worldwide. There have been two movie versions: one starring Gene Wilder in the 1970s, and one directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp in 2005.
In Israel the book was first translated in 1977 by Uriel Ofek, with illustrations by Joseph Schindelman, the original illustrator of the book. It was published in the Marganit series by Zmora-Bitan publishers. Now, in honor of the jubilee celebrations, Zmora is publishing the book in a new translation by the revered Ori Balsam, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, who worked together with Dahl and illustrated his books.
Dahl’s books have always sold regularly, in Israel too, and in 2016, at the events celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, Zmora intends to reissue all his books. Some of them will be retranslated.
So are we allowed to love these funny, brilliant and imaginative books? To allow our children to read books – among them “James and the Giant Peach,” “Mathilda,” and “The Witches” – written by a man who doesn’t meet our moral standards?
The return of the Negroes
Dr. Shai Rudin, director of the Levin Kipnis Center for Children’s Literature at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv, who studies literature and gender, reassures us: “Roald Dahl hated everyone, so we don’t hate him. Nothing definitive can be said about him. It can’t be said that he was a total chauvinist when he also wrote ‘Mathilda,’ who is a girl superior to the world of adults. The guy was apparently in some kind of perpetual trauma from the rigid English boarding school where he was educated. There’s a reason why he portrays educators as the antithesis of education.
“He hated teachers and headmasters. For him if they do anything it’s only to teach you how to survive in a violent world, like the monstrous headmistress in ‘Mathilda,’ for example. Even if there’s a good teacher he’s good for the wrong reasons. He’s good because he’s nice, and then the child has an opportunity to rescue him. It’s not that the teacher taught him anything, on the contrary, the child teaches the teacher.”
In today’s politically correct atmosphere it’s hard to imagine anyone writing such books.
“You have to draw a line between Israel and the rest of the world on this subject,” says Rudin. “When we talk about the Israeli market there’s no question that in children’s literature the thinking is what will make the best-seller list and what will suit the Sifriyat Pijama (the Pajama Library), which has espoused the promotion of Jewish values. There is a didactic bon ton here. But we also have our own Roald Dahl. There’s Nurit Zarhi and there’s Yael Ichilov, there are all kinds of works that surprise us and they are as non-didactic as could be.
“‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was scandalous from the start. Already when it was first published in the United States in 1964 it drew harsh criticism because the workers in the chocolate factory, the Oompa Loompa, are Pygmies from Africa, slaves. As a result of the criticism, Dahl changed them and their origin and they became whites, natives of an imaginary country.”
The word “kushim” (negroes) doesn’t scare translator and editor Atara Ofek. “The same thing can be found in ‘Dr. Dolittle,’ which I recently translated, in the chapter about the Negro prince who was a total idiot, and 50 years ago in the United States, with the initial awareness of black rights, there was an outcry and immediately an amended version was published,” she says. “In my translations in the Harpatka (Adventure) series I prefer to stick to the original as much as possible, because these are classics. I left in the stupid Negro in all his glory, of course, and incidentally, I find the word ‘kushi’ charming.”
But the criticism of the book was not limited to the Pygmy slaves, and also related to the fact that the spoiled and arrogant children receive cruel – although quite picturesque - physical punishments. Ofek says that the criticism reminds her of the reservations about Grimms’ fairy tales. “Originally in ‘Cinderella’ they cut off the sister’s big toes, in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ the wolf devoured the grandmother, and in general the fairy-tale heroes do terrible things to one another, but if we emasculate these stories we will miss their entire value, thanks to which they passed from generation to generation.
“Those in the know claim that it’s better not to tell fairy tales, not even adaptations – especially not adaptations – until the age of 5, because prior to that the distinction between good and evil is still unclear. I agree. That’s all the beauty in these fairy tales, they correspond with the human soul in the most intimate way. To emasculate them is to present distorted messages to the child.
“Although we’re not talking now about those fairy tales but about more modern literature, still. Dahl himself was tortured when he was punished in the boarding school, as we know – he knew what he was writing about. I think it’s wrong to spoil classical works, that’s why they’re classics. It’s like jazzing up Beethoven or Bach, which is legitimate but it’s no longer the original work.”
Yael Molchadsky, head of children’s literature at Kinneret Zmora Bitan publishers, feels that genuine literature does not harm children’s souls. “Children are curious to know about life, and they always live with the feeling that people are trying to hide something from them,” she says.
“Astrid Lindgren spoke a lot about the fact that she wanted to give children the truth – that’s why she wasn’t afraid to write about death or about the most difficult subjects that adults are trying to conceal.
“Dahl differs from her, but he does go along with the children. They know to the end that he’s with them, he’s not with the adults and he doesn’t try to protect them and to speak in clean and pure language, and his humor is razor sharp. When you touch difficult or complex subjects but do so by means of good literature, which doesn’t necessarily offer solutions but raises the issues for contemplation, that provides a safe environment in which to be exposed to more complex questions.”
Dahl once said that children know he’s on their side. His mantra was “Get down on your knees to remember what’s it like when the people with power literally loom over you.”