Posted by: Lizzie Ross | March 18, 2011

Definitely NOT Madeleine

The Blue Danube (1945), Ludwig Bemelmans, 153 pp.

Courtesy Lowry-James Rare Prints & Books

I found this at a charity sale, $1.50 each for all hard-cover books. Thumbing through it, I immediately recognized the art of Madeleine and decided that I had to have it.

It’s an odd story, set in a small German town on the Danube, during WWII. There is very little evidence of the actual war occurring throughout Europe, only the presence of some despicable bureaucrats.

The conflict is between an itinerant family (Anton, his two sisters, and his niece), who return to an island in the middle of the Danube every spring to plant radishes, and the local bureaucrats whom he eventually insults. The Oberassessor and the Gauleiter then try everything to dispossess Anton’s family, but are foiled at every turn.

Part of the humor comes in Bemelmans’ portrayal of the German officials. Here’s the Gauleiter:

He was accomplished with knife and fork and the raising of the arm to the proper salute. He could pound and slap with one or both fists, and the sly, pig eyes were familiar with the sights of a rifle, a gun, or a pistol. Most highly developed were the muscles that pressed his buttocks together when he stood at attention before a superior.

At another point, the Oberassessor describes how he struggles to create poems that seem as if he’d written them with ease and speed:

It’s as if you were constipated. For days you feel a stone in here, and nothing happens. You drag yourself around, you have cramps in your intestines, and you are too upset to sleep. And then suddenly it loosens up and it flows, like beautiful music, easy and free.

OK, so it’s a bit obvious to compare the villain’s poems to feces, but it’s still amusing.

Warning: this is not a book for children, and, despite the comedy, it resolves unhappily. Yet, the characters stand out, even Anton’s very quiet sisters. In one scene, they stand atop a combination see-saw water-pump, and as they go up and down, their black head-scarves flap. From across the river, they look like birds taking wing. It’s a lovely image.

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