Burnt Toast Editorial

Writing that smokes

Category Archive:Book Pick of the Month

A bear, an alien, and two stories of migration. Our book pick for August.

The question of migration and its impact on societies is everywhere in the print and broadcast media. So too on social media. The debate rages today as much, if not more so than it did in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Only this week India and Pakistan have been marking the partition of India on 15th August 1947 when 10-12 million people were displaced from their places of birth to comply with the Radcliffe Line, the boundary drawn up by the British demarcating the two new states. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to the present. Last year’s EU Referendum in the UK brought the subject of migration to the fore of British politics once again and was articulated further afield after the installation of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. Election races in the Netherlands and France had the same effect.

Today we are launching our Book Pick of the Month. Just to get things off to a good start we decided to subvert the one book rule and select two! Why make a rule if you can’t break it?  Our choices for the Book Pick’s first outing are How to be an Alien. A Handbook for Beginners and Advanced Learners by George Mikes and Winnie Ille Pu (The Latin Edition) by A. A. Milne, translated by Alexander Lenard.

At first glance the two books may seem like odd bedfellows but on closer inspection the common factor is the shared experience of migration of the author of one and the translator of the other. ¹

George Mikes and How to be an Alien

George Mikes was born in Hungary in 1912 under the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. Whilst his father had ambitions that George would follow his profession of the law, his son’s interest lay in writing and journalism. After graduating in Budapest in 1933, George gained his first post as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper Reggel (“Morning”), shortly followed by writing a column for Színházi Élet  (“Theatre Life”).

By 1938 he was the London correspondent for Reggel and 8 Órai Ujság (“8 O’Clock Paper”), a post he held until 1940. Despatched to London to cover the Munich Crisis he was only expected to stay for a couple of weeks. In fact he stayed for the rest of his life, becoming a British citizen in 1946.

Mikes’ real talent was as a humourist. In a long career he wrote over 40 books, 35 of them humorous and many post-war British classics. He was recognised as a blender of elements of Hungarian, English and Jewish humour.

His most successful and outright best-selling title was How to be an Alien, first published in 1946, translated into 22 languages and published in 39 countries. In it he portrayed himself as a bumbling alien who describes the habits of the natives in the vast, strange but friendly “country” of London. ² How to be an Alien

Quoted examples of his gentle and wry poking of fun at the British still ring true:

“Continental people have a sex life, British people a hot water bottle”, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms a queue of one”, “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game”, “Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: ‘I say …’ and then keeping silent for three days on end”, and a particular favourite, “Remember: If you go for a walk with a friend in England, don’t say a single word for hours; if you go for a walk with your dog, talk to it all the time.”

To accompany the witticism of Mikes’ observations the book was illustrated by Nicholas Bentley who captured the essence of the author’s comic perspective.

Alexander Lenard and Winnie Ille Pu

In the case of Alexander Lenard, born in Budapest in 1910, the unexpected success of his Latin translation of A. A. Milne’s classic and beloved story of the bear Winnie the Pooh and his friends Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger, threw the spotlight of fame on to an otherwise almost reclusive 50 year-old Hungarian-born doctor who spoke 12 languages, who with his wife Andrietta was resettled in Brazil in 1952 by the International Refugee Organization. One of the few possessions they took with them on their odyssey to find a safe haven was an English language edition of Winnie the Pooh.

Because his Austrian medical degree was not recognised in Brazil, Lenard worked as a nurse in a lead mine, a pharmacist, and a translator at medical conferences. Eventually buying land in the sparsely populated Itajai valley in Southern Brazil the Lenards built a two-room house where he painted, wrote poetry and indulged his passion for Bach. In 1956 Lenard won the equivalent of $2,000 on the Sao Paolo Television Bach Competition. With the winnings more land was purchased and a larger house was built. Winnie Ille Pu

When teaching Latin to the daughter of a local resident who expressed a wish for something interesting to read in the language Lenard began translating Winnie the Pooh. Over a period of seven years he mined the classics for idiomatic expressions used in ancient Rome and its empire. Whereas the original was a children’s book Lenard’s “Pu” was filled with puns and alliteration from centuries of Latin literature.

Not able to find a publisher for his “Pu” Lenard paid a printer in Sao Paolo to publish a print run of 100 copies, sending review copies to foreign publishers. This led to a Swedish publisher printing 2,000 copies of an abridged version which in turn prompted Methuen, A. A. Milne’s publisher, to publish several thousand. Milne’s American publisher Dutton, published “Pu” in 1960 with the result that Lenard’s book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks – a feat unheard of for a foreign language book let alone one written entirely in Latin.

The New York Times writer, Lewis Nicholls described it as ” … the greatest book a dead language has ever known.” The Chicago Tribune exclaimed that “… it does more to attract interest in Latin than Cicero, Caesar and Virgil combined.”

The message from these two Hungarian migrants, writers both, is that we are all someone else’s foreigner. And that includes a funny little bear and an alien.

¹ Strictly speaking Lenard and his wife were refugees.

² As a matter of interest Montesquieu used this satirical literary device in his Lettres Persanes to excoriate and satirise French society especially that of the court of Louis XVI. It was first published in 1721.

Read more about George Mikes here

Read more about Alexander Lenard here

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