Peter K Dearden.
Some books are redolent of your childhood, steeped in long summer days, percolated in the smell of banana, and infused with the sharp sting of skinned knees. For me such books are Proust’s ’Le Temps retrouvÃ©’ , Hobbes ’Leviathan’ and Eric Carle’s classic ’The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. It does us good to return to these childhood classics in our later lives to reminds us of all that we failed to become. And so, with a feeling of profound nostalgia (or neuralgia) I recently opened ’The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ and plunged into its depths.
The book tells, in taut, spare, pithy, phrases, the childhood story of a caterpillar born on the wrong side of the tracks. It is Carle’s genius that allows him to make the social situation of the caterpillar clear, without ever directly referring to the nightmare of a dysfunctional caterpillar family life. The book starts ’ In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf…’. Clearly this egg’s mother did not care, leaving its offspring in an exposed position, obvious even in moonlight, to the hungry eyes of the world. Butterflies lay their eggs most often in clutches hinting, again subtly, that this egg’s siblings have already been eaten in this bird-eat-caterpillar world.
Next the caterpillar begins a constant search to assuage its hunger, clearly a metaphor for its search for love. It is in this section of the book that the savage twist in this tale occurs; the caterpillar happens upon a picnic. The next pages, cropped and holed to emphasize the horror contained within, describe how the caterpillar feasted on forbidden fruits, sausages and the like, while an unseen force, the owners of the picnic, lurk like a hint of God, never seen- but very much felt. The tension rises as we stagger thorough the food eaten, building, as we contemplate the possible outcomes. Will ‘God’ squash the caterpillar with a cry of ‘there’s a bloody caterpillar on my sausage’? Will the caterpillar find maternal love? Will the poor creature escape the twin evils of diabetes and obesity?
It is this that is the key message of the book. A poor start to life, an inappropriate diet, a need to feed! All of this gives rise to a nightmare that only finds resolution when the caterpillar renounces its flesh eating ways and turns to veganism.
The final pages try to recreate this tension, but fails, as the caterpillar pupates and finally hatches as a frankly unrealistic butterfly. This ending, I feel, lets down the reader, I am waiting for Carle’s ’ The Return of The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, to learn of this butterfly’s encounters with sex and death.
The book has is downsides; often it is simplistic; and its treatment of seasonal polyphenisms is disturbingly non-existent. Despite this, this is a cracking read, a real page-turner, an embodiment of all that can be achieved with the modern treatment of insect metamorphosis. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you will not put it down until the end, especially if you are reading it to small people.
My rating *****