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The New Zealand Herald

Diana Wichtel: Deliciously dismal - moral too


Summer is an excellent time to catch up on one's reading. I wish I could say, dear reader, that I have used the opportunity to peruse - the word "peruse" here means "laze about indolently turning the pages of a trashy magazine or undemanding novel" - nothing but pleasant, uplifting texts. Sadly, this is far from the case.

The depressing truth is that I have been reading the works of Lemony Snicket, a children's writer whose tales will drive you to despair faster than the Auckland transport system - the word "system" here means "unholy shambles and national disgrace" - and which are even odder and more mysterious than the Donna Awatere Huata affair.

Sorry. Lemony Snicket does have a catchy style. And a name that sounds like a slightly alarming pudding. It's a name being mentioned in the same breath as Harry Potter's J.K. Rowling. It is also, of course, a nom de plume. The real writer is American author Daniel Handler, who, from what I've read about him, also sounds like a slightly alarming pudding.

His invention, the enigmatic Snicket, is narrator of the books - there will eventually be 13 - that make up the deliciously dismal publishing phenomenon called A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Tantalising hints about Mr Snicket (lives alone, plays the accordion, "an instrument hated by millions of people") pepper the books. Each has a touching dedication to his mysterious, lost love - "To Beatrice: darling, dearest, dead". Who is Beatrice? Neither Snicket nor Handler is saying.

As well as being a series of ripping yarns, the whole project is a game and a tease, from bad beginning to unhappy end. What child can resist that?

Snicket is a shadowy figure, but a character who reminds you simultaneously of Oscar Wilde and Eeyore can't be all bad. It's his painful duty to relate the story of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny.

Their ineffectual guardian, Mr (wait for it) Poe, places them with a string of unsuitable caregivers. Meanwhile, a distant relative, vile Count Olaf, pursues the children and their fortune. Depressing? These may be the only books that come with a mental health warning: "I will continue to record these tragic events ... You, however, should decide for yourself whether you can possibly endure this miserable story."

In fact, the books are hilarious, riddled with witty allusions - Sunny and Klaus (as in Von Bulow), a snake called the Virginia Wolfsnake, which must never be let near a typewriter.

The 11-year-old is a fan, even if, when she was younger, she could only bring herself to read of the Baudelaires' latest plight during daylight.

What's not to like? Plenty, according to Herald columnist Garth George. George quoted from an article claiming that the books represented a world where "good will not triumph over evil simply by being good, only by being lucky, being cunning or possessing superior fire power". He didn't like the sound of Handler, either.

The next week, George's column included an aggrieved reply from Handler, begging to differ with George's characterisation of his books as "creepy scribblings", and "nothing short of evil".

Handler also suggested, not unreasonably, that George read the books before having a go.

All this sent me back to the books. I have to say I'm with Handler. True, the stories upset even some commentators who have actually read them. This is because, like much great children's literature - Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Margaret Mahy - Lemony Snicket books are defiantly politically incorrect.

"Great books for bored, smart kids who know what's good for them and are tired of it," declared Sarah Morrill, of Book Weekly.

In one book, Count Olaf almost forces Violet to marry him to get his hands on her money. A school in (where else?) America somehow saw this as an endorsement of incest and banned the books.

Another commentator pointed out that the only "good" adults in the books are a judge and a banker, while the villains include a disabled man and "a fat, androgynous person". This, apparently, unfairly stereotypes the disabled and fat, androgynous people. Dear oh dear.

Still, Handler doesn't need me to defend him. He's laughing all the way to a movie deal. And a quick check of internet book sites reveals some satisfied and seemingly unharmed customers.

"The characters are really brave, especially Sunny because she was locked in a bird cage hanging from a tower," reported one young reader. "And she didn't even cry, and she's so young. It's a good thing Klaus reads so many books because he figured out what Count Olaf was going to do to get their fortune."

Handler revealed in an interview that his father escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938. He grew up with stories of what happened to family members left behind. He was never going to write stories where good vanquishes evil just by being good.

And, seen against that background, a world where Mr Poe's apathy allows Count Olaf to persecute the orphans isn't such a distortion of reality.

In The Wide Window the children save themselves from their latest scrape by valiantly sailing a small boat through a hurricane. The book ends with evil unvanquished and doubtful prospects for the Baudelaires.

But they remain good, loving, hopeful and together against the odds. "To have each other in the midst of their unfortunate lives felt like having a sailboat in the middle of a hurricane, and to the Baudelaire orphans this felt very fortunate indeed."

They know they are all in the same boat and must pull together to survive. Not a bad message for children. In fact, if we all understood that simple fact of human existence, there would be a lot less trouble in the world.