by Dino Buzzati
Age Range 7 up
Written and illustrated by Dino Buzzati in 1945 and only translated to English as recently as 2003, The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily is a swiftly-told treasure box of a tale that should be more widely known. It tells the tale of a Bear-King Leander whose son is taken by men and the subsequent invasion he and the Bears orchestrate. While Leander’s motives throughout are a melancholic quest in finding his beloved son, the dramatic tension in the book arises as we learn of the motives other bears develop as they become accustomed to the luxuries of modern life.
Perhaps most surprising to many readers about the time and place of its publishing, 1945 and Italy respectively, is how contemporary most all of the moral views expressed are still now in 2016; this was after all a mere one year prior to the publishing of Tintin in the Congo, and almost a decade after Enid Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs, and three years after the final that particular long-running series (there were seven Blyton Golliwog books in total). Ultimately, this was a time where some writers for children were making near-disastrous moral choices in their stories, seemingly swept up in the pervading views of the time.
I came upon The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily in the same way perhaps many modern readers of the 2003 English translation did, and that is via Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket who went on the record stating it as his favourite book of all time. Though Daniel Handler is a writer who I enjoy seeing in talks with Neil Gaiman, and his A Series of Unfortunate Events series are on my to-read list, I am in no ways an avid reader of his. It was merely upon reading his inspired account of the book that I took an interest, and that interest was bolstered after reading the opening section of the book in which Buzzati presents a summary of the books characters including such colourful premonitory portraits as:
The Bear Dandelion. Gifted with rare powers of observation, he can discover things which people more learned than he fail to recognise. One fine day he will become a kind of amateur detective. He is a worthy beast, and one can have complete confidence in him.
Or then this:
The Werewolf. A third monster (Marmoset the Cat and the Sea Serpent having been the first and second respectively). It is possible that he may not appear in our story. In fact, as far as we know he has never appeared anywhere, but one never knows. He might suddenly appear from one moment to the next, and then how foolish we should look for not having mentioned him.
There are fourteen such portraits before the book commences, and it is but one of a number of conventions in this book that are entirely unconventional. Another being the incredible illustrations done by Buzzati himself; each with a caption that tells you what is about to happen, something, that in any other novel might have entirely frustrated me, yet here carries a whimsical storytelling charm. The book, in its very structure, reads as though listening to a storyteller.Praise should certainly go to Frances Lobb who did a stunning job on the translation, and I say this as a preface to the books most striking unconventional convention, namely the poems.
The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily alternates between narrative verse and poetry, and the results are stunning to behold.
The poetry does perhaps the opposite of what I might have predicted it would which would be to slow the story down. Instead whenever the poems kick in, the narrative changes gears and picks up pace. One such place where this technique, I thought had a terrific effect, was when the Bears invade the citadel of Sicily.
They light the long fuse and the great cannon roars
And swift as an arrow a gallant bear soars
And riding astride on the cannonballs back
Look as as much at his ease as if riding a hack
Now see the dreaded catapult,
Another bear within the spoon.
Will the brave creature get a jolt?
Will they not send him off too soon?
Like a great bird he cleaves the sky,
Then down the vaulted heaven he drops,
To land as cool as you or I
Among the fortress’ chimney tops.
The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily is an antique delight with real heart and moments of genuine magic and adventure. There are universal politics in the subtext as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1945. Materialism, war, racism, colonialism are all discussed here with no holds barred. In its slim 143 page count, Buzzati delights his readers with an astonishing fantasy yarn with themes that resonate. This should be a classic and as a bedtime story, it would intrigue children.
The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati
A for Anthropomorphic Bears