'This boy is perverse and subversive,' a teacher wrote of the young Tomi Ungerer. It is a verdict has has always tried to live up to, which may be a reason why his art and children's books, widly popular elsewhere, do not entirely please the British
by Sally Vincent The Guardian, Saturday 20 November 1999
Illustration by Tomi Ungerer
Tomi Ungerer has more facets than Elizabeth Taylor's diamond collection. He is Alsatian, a European who has lived most of his adult life in America, and is now an honorary Irishman. Writer, painter, sculptor, designer, illustrator, cartoonist, inventor, surrealist, political activist, espouser of good causes, fund-raiser, patron of arts, practical jokesmith, toy collector, archivist of human absurdity, ferocious moralist and moulder of children's minds.
The direct natural descendant of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Ungerer's books for children have been the mainstay of kiddies' libraries from Calais to Japan for the past 40 years. He has become a sort of post-Holocaust Pied Piper; tricky, scary, devious, uncompromising, subversive, but inevitably benign. The world he creates has no evil, no scapegoats. Evil-doers are merely those who don't yet know any better, innocence is the source of all redemption. And it works, because nothing is unforgivable. The space between right and wrong is full of equivocation and delusion, but it is indelible and no one is ever exiled from the side of the angels. If we understand (as children do before we thump it out of them) that individuality and eccentricity are nothing to be afraid of, Ungerer's imagination might lure us into salvation. It's a bumpy ride but, looking at it his way, the true eccentric is actually the only bugger in step.
Tomi Ungerer didn't have much to do with his own children when they were little. There's a snapshot, somewhere among the detritus of his Irish studio, of himself as a young father, holding a couple of his babies and wearing an expression of such stunned bewilderment you'd think he'd just been dished a mutant Martian and a particularly arcane version of a Rubik's Cube. They seem to have muddled through on a sort of laissez-faire principle in which the familial protection racket worked both ways. The Ungerer offspring were adolescent before they knew what their father did for a living. They thought he was a farmer, which was no word of a lie and gave them no reason to puff themselves up among their peers.
They went to school or not, as they saw fit, and if they wanted to go dressed up as cowboys or IRA terrorists, their father could always be relied on to finesse their costumes and accessories; six-shooter holsters, sawn-off shotguns, whatever. If he ever drank too much and screamed more incontinently than usual at them, he'd always apologise next morning. See what drink does, he'd say, never one to pass up the chance of an object lesson. Once, while motoring through the lanes of County Cork with the three children in the back of the car, he lucked upon the spectacle of a dead cat with its innards spewed across the road. He braked, herded the children out of the car and snapped into Struwwelpeter mode. See that? That is what will happen to you if you don't watch out when you cross the road. None of your namby-pamby green-cross-code theorising for them. He marked his children. Hence nobody got run over, nobody fell off the cliff. Besides, you can be altogether too perfect a parent and selfishly send your kids into the world with nothing to blame you for. Imagine that? His own went fearlessly, which is more than he can say for himself.
Tomi Ungerer is very big on aphorisms. He coins them, collects them, runs them up his flagpole and salutes them. On the fly-leaf of his childhood memoir, recently published in English, he has translated an old Jewish-Alsatian saying, by way of a tone-setter: "Let everyone be what they are/And you will be what you are." Thirteen tinchy little words, idiot-savant in their simplicity, encapsulating the enigma of personal identity and its existential link with interpersonal relationships. In the context of a child's-eye view of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, which never once strays into judgmental realms of hindsight and sophisticated rationality, it probably stands as the most cacophonous plea for a just world ever framed by the human mind. While the child-self remains intact, so do innocence and all good things, regardless of the battering they get. Tomi Ungerer never had any intention of growing up.
He was as buggered-up emotionally as he was ever going to be long before the Nazis jack-booted into Alsace to mind everybody's business. From the Jesuitical point of view, the dreadful had happened and hardened before his first seven years were up. His father died when he was only three, leaving his patrician mamma to soldier on alone under reduced circumstances and with little more than a ferocious sense of her own social superiority to bless herself with. Her grandeur, as it turned out, was not delusional, but the way she shared it with her younger son was not exactly designed like a comfort blanket. So far as Tomi was concerned, she dumped him. For she merely located her little prince in a place where he would be safe from the coarsening influence of guttersnipes and other ordinary mortals, the better to pursue his career as a young gentleman of good family.
Hence he was farmed out to stultifyingly bourgeois relatives, the head of whose household was an uncle-by-marriage who was as mad as a snake and twice as pernicious. So not only had he lost both parents, not only did he have no friends, but the poor little chap was guilt-tripped to perdition by a religious nutter who believed all depictions of the human form, including drawings of Mickey Mouse, were mockeries of God's image and who would creep into his small nephew's bedroom at dead of night to confiscate and burn any such sinful misrepresentations of the Almighty that had sprung from Tomi's fetid imagination and coloured pencils that day. That he was still drawing Mickey Mice, and whatever else he pleased, when he was eight years old and the Nazis took over, the drama of his childhood reflects a decision to accept himself as 1) a boy who drew things and 2) a very wicked boy.
Restored to his mother's bosom at the family home in Strasbourg, Tomi watched the handsome, well-dressed young Germans come smiling through the streets singing their rousing songs and emitting an aura of joy and confidence, as though the invasion was merely a colourful pageant put on for his delight. He liked the artwork they brought with them. Lovely coloured posters, stickers, postcards and handbills proliferated all over the place. All very art-nouveau, like the poster of the cockerel with a broom up its arse being shunted along in the dust with a pile of French books and a beret bearing the legend "Away With The Gallic Trash". Graphic? Nothing had ever been so graphic.
Everywhere he looked he saw portraits of the new heavenly father. Herr Hitler's compassionate visage, usually captured in tender poses with happy, well-fed children and grateful senior citizens, imprinted itself on his eight-year-old retina. He suffered few qualms about the changes in his life. One day he was a little French-speaking Alsatian, then, hey presto, he was to be a little German-speaking Alsatian. No sweat, he was fluent within months. He liked school. The new German teachers kept them busy as boy scouts. He sometimes thought it was a bit thick that the German soldiers gobbled up everyone's provisions and his mamma was so poor she had to disguise herself as an old, old lady and sell lilacs at the railway station. But he could always cheer himself up singing a jolly Nazi marching song. He still does, come to that. The devil really does have the best tunes.
In the early stages of occupation, it all seemed like something of a joke. When it was forbidden for schoolboys to wear berets any more, the more humorous Alsatian lads would turn up for school wearing something daft on their heads, like their old granny's bonnet. For his first art homework, Tomi was delighted to be asked to draw a Jew. Ever eager to please, he hurried home to ask his mamma's advice as to the subject matter. What, he said, does a Jew look like? Because he didn't know. He had no idea that a goodly proportion of his schoolfriends were Jewish, and if he had known he wouldn't have been aware that they looked any different from anyone else because, well, they didn't.
But mamma marked his card. Draw a man, she said, with a huge nose and pebble spectacles and thick lips and black hair. And so he did. "Un Juif," he wrote beneath his effort. Dr Goebbels couldn't have dreamed up a more splendid portrait.
As adoptees of the fatherland, the Alsatian attitude to their conversion left much to be desired, and the Germans were spurred towards more draconian methods. The list of things verboten in the land of apprenticed Hitlerites grew longer, retaliation for disobedience more sinister. Local people were frogmarched out of town by Germans in suits and never seen again. Anyone heard speaking French would be taken to the nearby concentration camp and locked up with the Russians. Possession of a radio set carried a death sentence. Laughing in the street was, to say the least, unwise.
Still, in their daily homage to the Führer, Alsatian schoolboys said "Ein Liter" in place of Heil Hitler. The lip movement was identical, they reasoned, the insinuation of alcoholic over-indulgence hilarious. It was less amusing when Tomi's mamma was apprehended in full Gallic spate and hauled up before the Gestapo with Tomi in tow. But mamma stood imperiously before the fine officers and spoke as to a bunch of particularly recalcitrant dunces. Of course, the Ungerers spoke French, she said. Whatever would happen after the war was won if the ruling classes couldn't speak French? Who would control France? And all the smart officers heiled Hitler and leapt to sign and countersign extra-special dispensations for the great Ungerer family to converse in French to their hearts' content. "Now you see how stupid they are," she said to Tomi on the way home. And they tuned in to their illegal radio to listen to the coded communications of war. "Albertine's mother has lost her pink slippers, the rabbit will nurse the pig . . ." On pain of death, Tomi inhaled his first whiff of surrealism.
As the war hotted up, life for an Alsatian schoolboy was better than the pictures. The dive-bombers were real, the guns and grenades and bits of bang-making paraphernalia left lying around by a disconcerted army infinitely collectable and useful. When a vast convoy of German tanks came roaring through the countryside, all a boy had to do was raise one small finger skywards, as though pointing out the imminence of allied fighter planes, and he could watch the mighty war machine wobble and stumble and fling itself into ditches. Life was a cabaret.
As liberation approached in a rain of incendiaries, innocent eyes opened to the hysterical spectacle of an adult power shift that had all the grace and dignity of worms turning. Defeated German soldiers - the young, glowing idealists they had seen march in - were now exhausted and disillusioned and being brutalised on the streets by anyone who felt like kicking someone when they were down. Posters sweeping away Gallic trash were replaced by imitative artefacts, where brooms were taken to Kraut scum. And another poster was created in the Ungerer household by Tomi's big brother, of the great French cultural tank come to repeat the process of crushing the fragile Alsatian identity all over again. Education became as rigorously French as it had been German. Piggies-in-the-middle were expected to knuckle down to a new regime and like it. "This boy," opined Tomi's first French report card, "is perverse and subversive." It was an uncompromising remark, but it had the virtue of accuracy. Tomi Ungerer has tried very hard to live up to his reputation.
West of Calais we've never been particularly enthusiastic about Ungerer's attempts to reach the hearts and minds of our children. We prefer to cocoon our young in a snuggly-bunny, furry-loved-one, time-for-tea fortress of Winnie The Pooh, Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggywinkle. Ungerer's offerings may look pretty with his clever illustrations, his stories are beautifully literate, but the sentiments, my dears, the implications are Not Very Nice. Red Riding Hood's granny, good grief, was a mean-minded old bat the way he tells it. And Red Riding Hood marries the wolf! Not only are his stories weird and scary, they are sinister. They have morals which, if you're not careful, could be construed as political. He might have disguised his characters as octopuses, bats, vultures, piggies, pussycats and snakes, but a vigilant parent can spot the undertow a mile away. These stories are anarchic! In a civilised society we must protect our children from their demons, not encourage confrontation and conciliation, or how else can we teach them right from wrong? If we allow children to trust the dictates of their own hearts, they will disobey and mock the proscriptive rulings of their elders and bet ters. Do we want them to imagine they can befriend robbers and ogres and monsters, and transform them without so much as a by-your-leave or recourse to a proper grown-up policeman? No, we do not. Can there be any excuse for creating and proliferating scenarios where the loner, the misfit, the defiant, the untutored come out on top, the miscreant gets off scot-free and everybody lives happily ever after? No, there cannot.
Next thing you know, the sanctity of the individual will be paramount, racism a distant memory, sexism an old joke, boundaries disappear and the judiciary run by the under-fives. When Uncle Sam takes offence, we know where our loyalties lie, and it isn't with an Alsatian story-telling Johnny Foreigner. We want no truck with a man who won the American DUD award for the worst children's book of 1970, a sacrilegious swipe at mom and apple pie and, for all we know, God, featuring a malevolent tom-kitten who persuades his smothering mother to stop slobbering all over him. Still less with one who has the subversive temerity to come over here and bedeck our Royal Festival Hall with his wretched drawings and sculptures. He might believe that his depictions of women in bondage exposed the evil of sexual exploitation and degradation of women, but to the members of Greater Lon-don Council's women's committee (1985) it was crystal clear that his exhibits were nothing more than filth - it "made them feel sick". So sick did some observers feel, they shook up their revolutionary aerosol paint cans and squirted righteousness all over the beastly things. Ever alert to any threat to our national heritage of sexual purity, tabloid editors took noble stands against the infiltration of European porn and saw to it that Mr Ungerer went back to where he came from with no further patronage from this little island. So there.
No surprise, then, when, three years after this little rout, no British publisher would touch Flix, his new children's book, lest our youth be exposed to notions of racial tolerance. Cats and dogs can jog along together, was the message. Cats and dogs can love each other. Cats and dogs can interbreed. Phew-er! They voted Flix the best book in the world at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. It has been translated into eight languages, but last of all was English.
For a man who has probably clocked up more air miles in his time than a flight attendant, Tomi Ungerer is a remarkably nervous traveller. We are making our way from London to his home on the south-western coast of Ireland. His back has been giving him gyp, apparently, hence he is sporting a pair of very National Health-looking crutches in case the old sciatic nerve flares up and bitches up his leg. Thus equipped, he is incontestably first at the boarding gate, where he spends an uncomfortable half-hour exuding exasperation at the lateness of the flight and the psychosis of passengers who balls everything up for everybody else by overloading themselves with hand-baggage. He's not too happy about my being there, either. He hopes I realise he is a recluse, that he and his wife are very private people, that I must on no account say where they live.
No sign of nerves, crutches or crippledom at Cork airport. There's a spring in Ungerer's step and he hauls a fair tonnage of luggage off the carousel with one easy movement, pointing out the foresight and wit with which he painted it all bright yellow for swift- recognition purposes. Out in the soft Irish rain he bandies words with taxi-drivers, his accent having suddenly metamorphosed from Heidi's daddy to lilting brogue. We must now journey to the back of the back of beyond, to Recluse-ville on sea, to the very last point of Ireland before you get to America, to a magical land where magnetic force-fields fling the sensitive to the ground and you get struck by lightning on a regular basis, where the full moon brings manifestations of things for which there are no words . . .
How wonderful it is to be home. See how they've painted the houses all the colours of the rainbow. How well they look with the sun on them! Then, as though resuming a previous conversation, he talks about the time he took up residence in a Hamburg whore-house that specialises in sado-masochistic practices. They gave him a nice blue room and carte-blanche to replicate the tools and accoutrements of this fascinating trade in his sketch pad. The dominatrix is a very special kind of lady, someone with a real calling, what you might call a vocation. Like a nurse, she has to know exactly what she's doing. Precisely how deep to make the cut you rub the salt in, how many volts a man of such-and-such a weight can take, exactly how tight to pull the ligature. That's an interesting job you have, commented our driver, slowing down to a more decorous pace. He doesn't get crack like this on every trip.
Who are the customers in this accommodating German bordello, I ask, for want of a more original remark. Oh, he says, the usual bunch, you know, politicians, psychiatrists, tycoons, all those fellows for whom punishment was never quite corporal enough. Great fodder for blackmail, he adds, laughing like a wolf. There are more things, the driver sighs, in the heaven and the earth . . . So there are. This cues the one about the very special Pentel, mislaid on a train going through Long Island, which mysteriously transmigrated itself back home to Ireland and sat there, neat as a pin, on his desk-top, waiting to be reunited. Then the one about the poltergeist he shared a New York apartment with. It was a noisy sod to start with. Nobody else had put up with it for more than a week. But they got along just fine in the end. You just have to accept the presence, you know, have a bit of respect. You're never alone with a ghost. Like when you have to to dine out alone, you can always invite a dead friend to join you. Someone to talk to . . .
The Ungerer homestead is so impossibly idyllic it makes you laugh out loud. The green here is as green as green gets, with horses on it; the sea is a thrashing, diamanté inlay and the sky goes all the way over, playing infinite tricks with light and shade. If you ever dreamed of a farmhouse, this is it in every particular. Hens as big and shiny as television sets prepare your breakfast and the sheepdogs wag their tails from the neck down.
Mrs Ungerer - she who must be kept out of this on pain of death - is startlingly beautiful without being remotely aware of that fact. I'd heard she plays the piano. She says she is a shepherd. He, slapping his forehead with the flat of his hand, cries "Holy shit!" He left the herring on the table in their apartment in Strasbourg, where it will fester and stink for the next two months. She faintly shrugs. What he'd meant to do, he says, was put it under the back seat of the car belonging to the kind friend who volunteered to drive him to the airport. Only he got all twitchy about travelling and forgot it. Some jokes, he explains, are destined to backfire, particularly his.
He can, and will, enumerate them all, every daft and dangerous ruse he has concocted in the long duration of the survival of his seven-year-old self. He would, he insists, struggling to bring in a bit of maturity, have telephoned the kind friend in a couple of days to point out the source of the unpleasantness in his car. Would have, really would have.
While he's been away, the mail has mounted fully three feet high in his studio, living proof of an ongoing relationship with the world of grown-ups. He regards this stack with modest satisfaction and roots about for something of interest. Some Alsatian children have sent him a collection of their collages, several of which display an Ungerer-like preoccupation with bizarre juxtaposition and sinister implication. Good, he says. He will write to them. Return the compliment, as it were.
This workroom clearly doubles for the inside of his head. He is at pains to point out that he built it himself, every last shelf, cupboard, nook and cranny, on the basis of temporary existence. Everything can be changed in a trice by the simple expedient of removing the odd nail or giving it a thump. The place is teeming with the imperative objects of his amusement and enlightenment, things that have beckoned him and called to him, things he brings home.
On the main table, a glass dome houses a stuffed rattlesnake who keeps company with a couple of oriental deities, both carved from ivory and one strapped to a miniature stake. Cat-headed puppets dangle their legs from the bookcases and a Barbie doll hangs from her neck. There's a female shop-window dummy looming in a corner, with scarlet sink-plungers for nipples; and a large pair of turquoise nylon knickers, with dusty floral appliqués, are stretched flat on their presentation card and affixed to the wall like some kind of totem to the tragedy of feminine allure. A sculpture of a giant's testicles with a tongue where its penis would be is waiting to be cast in pink glass. He calls it Plastic Surgery. It's all you need, he says by way of explanation. How we'll all end up. "I have to put my anger somewhere," he replies when I say how much I hate it.
People are always asking him this boring question, he says, about how he reconciles his erotic or so-called pornographic efforts with the general tenor of his artwork and the innocence of his children's books. In point of fact, he is proud of being banned in America and hounded out of Britain. It's like being given a medal for badness. Meanwhile, he summons an enigmatic dignity and replies to his critics: "I have a left hand and I have a right hand." Especially for me, he adds that he thinks it's funny. Don't I think it's funny? I say I'll work on it.
When I give the issue a bit of a brood, I realise I've never known anyone who can draw - including myself - who hasn't indulged their facility with gross images of the worst things they can think up, otherwise what's the point of having a wicked streak? The difference between Ungerer and most people is that he's not ashamed of his. If I strain every liberal nerve, I have to admit there is something quite humorous about a man with his willie locked into a contraption like a 10-point milking machine with a strapping wench giving him a blow job at every outlet. I mean, it does say something for the status quo, sex-wise.
His problem, if he has one, is that he is a victim of the double-think. He believes nothing because everything he thinks suggests a doubt. On his pin-board, there is a copy of the American Declaration Of Independence, illustrated by Ralph Steadman. It is, he says, a most beautiful document. He keeps it to remind him of good things. But then again, it says men are born equal. And he knows they're not. They die equal. Life is a vacation between two deaths. The present is a single memory vibrating between the past and the future. Life is very, very painful. He struggles through his own allotted span by making up little mottoes for himself. Don't hope, cope. Expect the unexpected. No hope, no fear. He is a wild exaggeration, an over-reactor, a neurotic worry-guts, an allergic freak who goes nuts when the moon is full. A lunatic? Yes.
This is how he explains himself: "I am an artist," he says. "I like my workshop, I like my anvil, I like my lathe, I like my tools, I like my pencil, I like my paper." And these are what he doesn't like. "I don't like pedagogues, I don't like architects, I don't like psychiatrists, I don't like photographers, I don't like opera-lovers." But not all. Not all, no. He is, he says, built on a tripod consisting of pragmatism, discipline and enthusiasm. He likes the sound of this, momentarily. Yes, and inside is good will. A pyramid of these things, but not too sharp or he won't be able to sit on it, ha-ha. Except he doubts his good will. It isn't invariably that reliable when he double-thinks himself. So it's made of doubt. Doubt and, um, paradox. Like being such a forgiving soul. He never, never bears a grudge. Not once he's honed his axe and taken his revenge. Then, forgiveness. He forgives the Germans, he forgives Hitler, he forgave the arsehole publisher who withheld his royalties after he'd smashed up his stall at the Frankfurt book fair. The grudge quite disappeared; it only took eight years.
"I am going to brag," he announces. And he roams his workshop looking for something to brag about. He is horribly afraid he isn't going to find what he's looking for, but he does. These are his medals, the outward and visible symbols of his adult success. Here is his Légion d'Honneur, his Commandeur aux Arts et Lettres, here is his German Bundesverdienst Kreuz ("That's a whacker!"), and this, this is the medal he got last year, the Hans Christian Andersen award, which is like the Nobel prize for children's literature. The Queen of Denmark gave it to him. It's not gold or anything, but it's a nice medal, a very nice medal indeed. He points out that he got the whacker Bundesverdienst cross for fund- raising, on account of that's what he does really, really brilliantly. It's easy. You ask bankers for money and they give it to you. All you have to do is tell them what it's for, be quick about it and don't bore anybody to death. "Every success is a mine in the mind," he sighs. "You must be careful not to step on your success and blow yourself up." So what he's going to do is this: when the photographer comes, he's going to put on a black cape, cram his face into a stocking mask and pin his medals all over his front. And that will be him, exactly as he wishes to be seen.
• Tomi: A Childhood Under The Nazis, an illustrated memoir by Tomi Ungerer, is published by Roberts Rinehart and distributed by Airlift Book Company; as are several newly translated children's books, including The Three Robbers, Moon Man, Mellops Go Spelunking, No Kiss for Mother and Flix.