Russell Hoban himself of course reacted to this article that he had certainly not written what I had found. But there is such a thing as subconciousness…
An article in an anthology some years ago.
What The Mouse and his Child is also about
”The Mouse and his Child” is the story of two animals that are not like
other animals, who survive against all odds, who are seemingly helpless
and weak – and yet indestructible. Their story is, among other things,
also the story of the Jewish people, from the beginning to the very
end. Consequently, Art Spiegelman´s Maus (1986) is not the first book
where mice have been used to illustrate the history of the children of
Israel; but where Spiegelman holds up his distorting mirror in front of
events from modern history, Russell Hoban´s The Mouse and the Child is
a subtle and ironic, disguised version of a wellknown story of three
thousand years or more.
The history of the Jewish people is so long and varied, that one must
be aware of the risk of constructing parallels and associations where it
might be the question of mere coincidences. Still, the resemblances
between adventures of the manysuffering Mouse and his son and the
history of the Jews are too many to be neglected.
There is in the book a constant contrast between the inanimate toys and
the animals of flesh and blood – they participate in the same actions,
cooperate and help each other, but the mechanical animals, thinking and
feeling as they are, are of course dependant on the living animals;
just as the Jews in the diaspora often were not allowed to participate in
the life of the society on equal rights. The mechanical animals
nevertheless take important initiatives and even solve crucial
strategical tasks in the end of the book, just as the Jews, when let
out of the ghetto, have played an enormous role in modern culture and
science, as well as the economic life of many countries, since they
are,with the words of Richard Pipes, ”a very active people”.
The mechanical animals, we are reminded, do not eat and can not be
eaten, as living animals of flesh and blood do. It may be tempting to
introduce in the discussion the dietary rules, but I think that would
carry us too far away from the real contents of the book, especially
since real toys do not eat and real animals do. The fact of the Mouse
and his child not eating and not beeing eaten is rather one of the more
important way of stressing the otherness of the mechanical toys. More
important is the picture of the father and the son always together,
just as the loyalty within the family has been crucial for the survival of
the Jewish culture.
Unlike Pinocchio and most animated toys in other children´s books, the
Mouse and the Child have, as it has been pointed out by scholars, no
objective of becoming like the living animals – just as the Jews have
stuck to their religion and the teaching of their fathers (which is one
of the more important explanations of why the Jews as a nation have
survived as nation), and assimilation on a larger scale became a fact
only in later times, beginning with the French Revolution.
A cwertain feature of the book is that there is no onesided focusing on the misfortunes only of the mechanical animals. Around them, living animals kill and eat and mistreat other living animals. The mechanical animals are not the only ones suffering and tormented in this cruel world, just as Jews are not the only human beings being unhappy victims of fate. But while many living animals in this book are killed and eaten, the mechanical
animals persist and in the end gather in the muchdesired haven of the doll
house – just as the Jewish people still exists as such, and has not
disappeared in the way many once strong nations are now extinguished.
This is maybe the leitmotif of the book: the ability of the mechanical
animals to survive, against overwhelming odds – just like the Jews as
a people, by means of stubbornness, persistance and pure wits. We know
that it is the fate of toys to be worn out, rust or disintegrate and be
thrown away. The Mouse and his child and some other mechanical toys in
the book nevertheless remain. Although fragile and vulnerable, they are
indestructible, in the same way as the Jewish people .
In the beginning of the book, the Mouse and his son are the victims of
a great accident, the vase that demolishes them, and even after having
been repaired they can not stay were they once were happy to be but are
doomed to wander – they do not remain in the same place, do not move in
circles any more, off they go into the cruel world, just as the Jews
more than once have been forced to leave the promised land after
historic misfortunes. The mechanical mice are carried away by a hawk,
they have to work for the cruel Manny Rat — as a reminder of the
slavery in Egypt or the captivity in Babylon.
Manny Rat represents throughout the book the exploiters and tyrants
that during the millenia have tormented the Jews as well as other peoples.
In the end, he is defeated, his weapons, the teeth, being knocked out, and
still he makes one more, last and horrible attempt to destroy all the
animals, which fortunately and by chance fails; and it is also he, the
arch enemy, who makes the toys selfwinding, actually into perpetuum
mobiles, which gives them almost real life; just like the modern era
both has given Jews greater possibilities than they ever had and, at
the same time, has been the period of the most ghastly destruction, with
worse persecutions than ever and genocide on an incredible scale.
The army of the fierceful shrews with their effective drill and
formidable spears come and go as a comical picture of the great armies
of antiquity, which crushed each other. The illustrations underline the
amusing resemblance between these the smallest of mammals and the
powerful Roman legions.
For a long time, the Mouse and the child stand on the bottom of a pond,
and the reader at this point in the narrative says to himself: well,
here the writer is at an dead end, how will he ever be able to get them
up in the air again? Of course he manages the feat in an elegant way.
And the time the mechanical mice spend away from everything (except the
philosopher Serpentina) is like the life of the Marranos of Spain, who
were forced to disappear as Jews, pretend to be Christians and practice
their real religion in secrecy.
The beginning and the end of the book are bound together by the doll
house. It is the most wonderful thing the little mouse has ever seen,
and he dreams of it all through the book, and in the end it is
conquered from the evil mice, repaired and furnished anew. To make the picture even more clear, the mice encounter not only the first, magnificent
doll house, but to rub the image in, there is a second, smaller doll house,
just as after the destruction of Solomon´s Temple there was a Second
Temple. Like the Temple of Solomon has been rebuilt in modern time in
the form of the state of Israel, the mechanical animals make the doll
hous a new and different place where to live, when it has been
conquered from the rats.
Like there in the story of the Bible is only one god, almighty and
impossible to understand, there is in ”The Mouse and his Child” one
single human being, the Tramp, who repairs the broken toy mice and set
them out on their travel through life; and in the end, he returns and
looks upon what they have achieved when he was absent (as the God from
Sunday School is absent in the lives of most modern Jews or Gentiles)
and says: Be happy. It is another ironic twist that he is a Tramp – an
Ahasverus; who is not a figure from Jewish but from Christian lore.
The chapter where the mechanical animals conquer the wonderful doll
house from the rats is a great piece of fairytale, reminding us both of
Tolkien and of The Wind in the Willows. If we read it carefully, there
is nothing that says that the doll house by any law belongs to either
party, the rats or the toys. The toys take it by superior strategy,
against an enemy with by far superior forces. The rats are thrown out
on a train and carried of too far to be able to return. It is a cruel and
actually not partial picture of what happened in Israel´s War of
Independence (and yet, the book was published in the year of the Six
Day War; but it is reasonable to presuppose that the book was written
before this event).
As a disarming contrast, the most irresistable feature of Jewish
culture in this marvelous book (a ”masterpiece”, as the Swedish critic Jesper Högström wrote as late as May, 1998) is of course the Child´s dream of a real Mother (which he really does not know what it is). When he finds her, she is a little bit pompous, pretentious, and still quite nice.
The Yiddische Mama, object of much concern in many American novels, is in this case not only oneeyed, she is – an elephant. Even a mechanical one. I do not know in what other culture anyone would dare to portray the
madonna and matrona thus. But Groucho Marx would have liked it.