November 18, 2010
You can tell at a glance that the late Reinhold Jung’s Bambert's Book of Missing Stories is something out of the ordinary for a children’s chapter book. Maybe it’s the suitably evocative illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark, done expressly for this edition of Anthea Bell’s 2002 translation from the original German (though it’s hard, now, to imagine it without them). Or perhaps it’s the title, a clue that this is a book about a book—a book about itself, in a way.
In it, Bambert, a disabled, very small man who lives as a recluse in an attic apartment in an unnamed European (presumably German) city, takes his mind off his painful existence by writing stories—stories that no one else ever reads. Eventually, he ties ten stories to separate tea-light hot-air balloons and releases them out his window, hoping they will drift to far-off places and be enjoyed by people there. He includes with each a request that the finder mail the story back to him, with the details of where and whom it’s being returned from. He also sends off an eleventh balloon, this one carrying blank sheets of paper—the final story in what will be Bambert’s book, he feels, must somehow write itself before returning home.
At first there are no responses, and Bambert becomes depressed, but finally the stories do start to come back. And as he opens them, and replaces each story’s generic location and background with ones specific to the places where each was found, we are told the stories, one by one. (There’s a twist to how and why the foreign-stamped letters are returning to Bambert, but I won’t spoil it here.)
The individual stories make use of many tropes from classic European folk tales and fables, so that while every story is completely original, it feels strangely familiar to the reader, reminiscent of everything from the Grimm tales to The Little Prince. They do not shy away from dark subjects, either; Bambert’s (and Jung’s) intent, we soon realize, is to grapple with the world’s evils—repression, injustice, cruelty, war, and even genocide come up, and not always in merely allegorical ways. As a result, they have a placid force; collectively, the stories seem to stand for art’s power to help us deal with, and sometimes heal, the pains and wounds life hands us.
This makes for a heavy book to be reading at bedtime to young kids, of course, and you’ll want to be prepared—and maybe to prepare them—for the grim realities described in some of the tales. (It’s not a bad idea to read it yourself quickly first; since it’s an engrossing 100-page read in fairly large type, it won’t feel onerous.) My six-year-old, while interested in the book’s concept, wasn’t as engaged as he usually is by chapter books, I think partially because he was a bit spooked by the stories’ increasing darkness. (I should add that the book ends on a satisfyingly happy note about a sad thing; it does, in the end, convey a positive message.)
But for kids a little older, nine to twelve or so—especially those who may be starting to consider difficult questions, like why bad things happen to good people—Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories will be a revelation, I think, unlike any children’s book they’ve read. Moving and thoughtful, and haunting in the very best sense of the word, it’s beautifully accomplished, and an excellent bridge for kids who are becoming interested in serious adult fiction.
[Cover image courtesy of Trafalgar Square Publishing.]