Tuesday, November 22

Babar and Zephir

by Jean de Brunhoff
translated from the French by Merle S. Haas
Random House  1937

Babar's little monkey friend goes home for summer vacation. All hell breaks loose.

It is the end of the school year and time for Babar the elephant to bid his monkey friend Zephir farewell for the summer. His friends wave goodbye to him as his train passes them by the river, and it is impossible to wonder if Zephir isn't partially relived to be leaving his colonial oppressors behind him.

Arriving at Monkeyville, Zephir throws himself into his mother's arms though he cannot help but marvel at how capitalist his old home town has become. Though he puts on a happy face for his family Zephir secretly wonders if he wasn't better off back in Celesteville.

Arriving at his home Zephir climbs the rope ladder to his home and instantly realizes that Monkeyville is inaccessible and discriminatory toward the obese, like his friend Babar. While entertaining his younger sibling, Zephir catches the smells of his mother cooking bananas and chocolate, her French cuisine another colonial influence in their lives.

Zephir wakes in the middle of the night to the realization that he has made a mistake, that he should never have come home. Unable to sleep he sits and stares blankly into the darkness until dawn when he receives word from an early bird that a package has arrived for him at the train station. His hope that it is a piano, but this conceals the fact that he secretly wishes for a piano crate in which he can ship himself someplace else. Anyplace by Monkeyville.

The next morning he discovers the package from his friend Babar contains a small boat. This only confirms that he is not the only one who believes he should escape from the suffocating jungle of his youth. Nearby, Princess Isabelle takes note of Zephir's ambition and realizes that this might be time for escape as well.

Taking the boat out for its maiden voyage Zephir goes fishing in the hopes of catching a decent meal when his line ensnares a sea harpy named Eleanore. Believing briefly that he is in an fairy tale Zephir insists the sea harpy will grant him any wish for setting her free. Eleanore promises to return the favor any way she can though, honestly, how could she? If she had any power at all she would have avoided getting caught in the first place.

When Zephir arrives back on shore Monkeyville is jumping with news that Princess Isabelle has gone missing. The little monkey is not surprised. At this moment he conceives of a scheme by which he, too, can escape. He spreads a rumor among the younger monkeys that a green cloud has taken Isabelle and hidden her somewhere in Monkeyville. This sends the adult monkey's frantically searching all over the land while Zephir returns to his boat to check on a hunch.

On the water, Zephir calls out to Eleanore the sea harpy who confirms that Isabelle has indeed made her escape. She agrees to lead Zephir to the cage of an old water witch who is known for harboring runaways.

The water witch explains that Isabelle showed up to trade some of her royal jewels for passage to another land but was lured away by Polomoche, a monster who collects orphans and strays for his own amusements. Many who go with Polomoche are never heard from again. Despite being sympathetic for her need to escape Zephir is a monkey of the world and knows Iasbelle is in over her head and must be rescued.

Arriving at Polomoche's private island he is alarmed at the number of stone piles surrounding the land. They resemble nothing short of burial cairns, sending a chill up Zephir's spine as he thinks of all the missing children beneath them. Zephir knows that if he is to succeed he must keep his wits about him.

Sneaking into Polomoche's stone home at the top of the island, Zephir's fears are confirmed when he sees Polomoche entertaining a number of his friends with his latest find, Isabelle. The Princess cries, for now she knows that the amusement he promised was for her to "entertain" his guests in a most vile and humiliating manner. Polomoche whispers that if she doesn't come to her senses she'll soon find herself literally between some rocks and a hard place.

Zephir enters and startles Polomoche and his company with an offer to entertain them in Isabelle's place. As one runaway is as good as the next, they agree, and Zephir sets about distracting them by telling tales of things he has seen during his days in Clelesteville. Of course, Zephir embellishes his tales, adding layers of debauchery and immorality enough to whet their appetites. During this time Isabelle hides herself away, unsure of what to do next.

Clever monkey that he is, Zephir next gets up and plays the clown. Singing and dancing he seems so innocent and pure, arousing dark thoughts among Polomoche and his friends. Then, unseen to them all, Zephir delivers a potent drug to their beverages which cause them to act giddy and gay until they pass out. This, of course, is neither shown or mentioned in the text, but clearly this is what happened.

Once back to Zephir's boat he offers the Princess the choice to either return home or escape with him. He is disappointed when she says she wants to return home, but is encouraged by her promise to see that he is rewarded handsomely. With enough money Zephir could legitimately travel without it looking like he was running away himself. They are greeted at the shores of Monkeyville like returning heroes. Zephir smiles through it all, though deep down he despises cheap idolatry in all its forms.

At a ceremony in his honor Zephir is given his reward: Princess Isabelle is his to marry when they are of age and ready. Zephir visibly sags in disappointment and Isabelle is too smitten and simpleminded to even notice. Even back at home Zephir cannot bring himself to admit his disappointment to his family and goes along with the charade of happiness that he is home safe and sound, a hero of Monkeyville.

The rest of his summer drags on, an endless cascade of days full of mind-numbing boredom. He vows that when he returns to school in Celesteville he will find a job or some other excuse to prevent him from ever returning home during school breaks. Princess Isabelle will just have to find some other monkey to marry. Colonial oppression never looked so good.

===

This, of course, is not the actual summary of Babar and Zephir. This lesser-known and often out-of-print book in the Babar series is, I found, truly bizarre. Perhaps all the Babar books were a little it strange, but Zephir's tale seems exceptionally so. In choosing to "read the pictures" the way a child might, I found it interesting that I could access such a dark undercurrent. I wasn't trying to find darkness, I was simply looking for ways to build on what was there, scene by scene.

In the text, Zephir does return home for the summer, gets a boat as a gift, and rescues the Princess from an evil monster who has abducted her for his own amusement. The fact that it's monkeys and monsters (and mermaids) might add a layer of separation from the anxiety of child abduction, but that story thread is clearly there. It seems so innocent at first, and so simply child-like, that you can almost forget what is really going on. It's just a cute story about a commoner rescuing a princess in the end, right? Just like any fairy tale.

But the story is also lacking in quality. Something I noticed was that de Brunhoff often would describe or explain the pictures, including details that added nothing to the story. On a page where Zephir is thanking his mermaid friend for helping him find Polomoche's island we get this paragraph:

After a good crossing, Eleonore and Zephir land without being seen by the Gogottes. The country looks bleak. They are now silently taking leave of each other. Zephir holds his friend's little hand in his own.

Do we need to know it was a good sea crossing? Would we have expected something else without being told? They land without being seen tells, again, rather than shows but the place looks deserted to begin with. The landscape itself may be considered bleak because of a lack of vegetation, but unexplained is the connection a reader must make (if they can) that the rocks of the surrounding hillside are the actual victims of Polomoche who, we've been told, turned them into stone. Finally, Zephir and Eleanore's farewell sounds like someone describing a silent movie to a blind person.

Written in 1937 it would be easy to forgive Babar and Zephir for its transgressions. Last reprinted in 2002, I found the book still readily available in my local library. For fans of Babar himself the title is misleading – he is merely a speck in the book's first illustration and never returns again – and for that alone the book is probably least enjoyed in the series. As a stand-alone title I find this one sags a bit.

Unless you make up your own story for the pictures, you know, the way some kids do.

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