Wunderkinder

The genius child has become a stable trope of contemporary literature. I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but this unlikely figure – the prepubescent, usually male child whose mental gifts exceed those of almost every surrounding adult and who is overarmed with an encyclopedic breadth of factual knowledge – has become a commonplace. We now expect one or two books a year in which he stars.

But the genre somewhat rankles. It takes as its premise a character who could not truly exist: a boy of ten or eleven who possesses both factual and scientific knowledge, not to mention a vocabulary, that would not belong to an actual child prodigy, or even many well-educated adults. If such a boy did exist, he would do so at the far edge of human possibility; it is rare that fiction about the far edge is more compelling than fiction about the strange, crowded, humdrum center. Fiction about a child genius is a kind of magical realism.

The phenomenon of the child genius has the aspect of an arms race: they keep getting smarter. Once you did not have to be a genius to qualify as the narrator of a novel. Take Scout Finch, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: she is bright, but within reason; she has a plausible precocity. A more recent example is Briony Tallis, from Ian McEwan’s Atonement. She’s quite a sharp little thing, but her ragged use of high vocabulary is fiercely true to life, and the novel’s ramifying plot takes into account the dark edge of smarts; like any tool, they may be used for bad as well as good. Child narrators have always been bright, but that makes sense; bright children are more observant and capable of empathy, and thus are more interesting narrators, and (as in the case of Scout Finch) they frequently resemble earlier incarnations of their creators.

In a book narrated by a child-genius events are not what matter: it is not a book about what happens so much as it is a book about what the narrator knows; about the great globes of his learning and his fertile mind. The state of his genius must be taken at face value; the reader has to be interested in the narrator’s lists, in his zeal for factual collection.

But a different sort of child narrator can be found in recent literature, and he is a far more interesting one, because he is the more true to life, and therefore the much more difficult for an adult writer to create.

Agu, the nine- or ten-year-old narrator of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, from 2005, endures the corrosive traumatic life of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. He is a bright boy; he imagines one day being a doctor. But he is not unrealistically smart; his cleverness earns him little in the Boschian hell of the war he must fight. His brain makes logical connections but does so within the crude system of cost and benefit he has been given.

I am not wanting to fight today because I am not liking the gun shooting and the knife chopping and the people running. I am not liking to hear people scream or to be looking at blood. I am not liking any of these thing. So I am asking to myself, why am I fighting? Why can I not just be saying no? Then I am remembering how one boy is refusing to fight and Commandant is just telling us to jump on his chest, so we are jumping on his chest until it is only blood that is coming out of his mouth.

Like the West African patois Iweala gives his narrator to tell the story, the sequence of thought here feels authentic. Agu is more observant and patient and thoughtful than most of the other boys around him, but not overweeningly so; he has no mental heroics in him. He is a boy; he does as he is told. And his mind works like a boy’s, albeit a boy cast into an extreme counterreality.

György Dragomán’s terrific novel The White King, translated from the Hungarian and published in the U.S. in 2008, similarly employs its narrator – the bright eleven-year-old Djata – to report on the atrocity and absurdity of an atrocious, absurd situation: in this case an unnamed Central European country clearly meant as a stand-in for Ceauşescu’s Romania. The voice with which Djata speaks is as stylized as Agu’s:

By then we’d been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to go away for only a week to a research station by the sea on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he told me how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see. ‘But no matter,’ he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me too, so I could have a look for myself, why, he just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea.

Agu’s odd verb conjugations and collapsing verb tenses are here replaced by a careering rush of run-on sentences. (The above passage contains just two full stops.) Both Iweala and Dragomán produce literary effects without sacrificing the reality of their narrators or the terror of the worlds in which they must live; neither Agu nor Djata has an implausible intelligence that acts as a soft, easy cushion for his suffering.

I don’t know if either Iweala or Dragomán read it beforehand, but they both work under the shadow of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, one of the most remarkable and terrifying novels to come out of World War II. (Iweala, in his use of patois, clearly drew as well from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy.) Prefiguring the annihilated landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Kosinski, whose fictional world is all the more horrible because it actually existed, follows around a young unnamed boy whose parents have been killed and who must fend for himself in a country emptied of even basic values. Having avoided the camps, he must now avoid the German patrols. The boy narrates his tale in spare, journalistic prose, as his consciousness slowly absorbs the nightmare amorality around him.

At one point he stays in a village. ‘One day word came to the village that several trains with Jews had passed at night.’ The villagers go to have a look; unstated is their hope that a passing trainload of Jewish prisoners means a trove of dropped valuables. Instead they find a young man who either was thrown from the train or somehow managed to escape; bones are broken throughout his body.

One of the women crept forward, grabbed the worn shoes on his feet, and tore them off. The boy moved, groaned, and coughed up more blood. . . . Two men grabbed him by the legs and turned him over. He was dead. They took off his jacket, shirt, and shorts and carried him to the middle of the track. He was left there and the German patrol car could not miss him.

The writing is clear and unmuddled by anything a child would not notice or would not think; the horror and the art are in what a child cannot compute and cannot put into words.

The central figures of The Painted Bird and The White King and Beasts of No Nation all endure a sequence of physical and spiritual violence; the books are carnivals of horror; they have this much in common. (I should mention that Iweala is a good friend of mine; but that’s not why I like his book.) But what is also common to each novel, aside from a great literary power, is a child whose experiences, as extreme as they are, feel authentic, and whose mind feels authentically childlike. Agu and Djata act as pure lenses to record the worlds around them; they themselves do not supply the material of that world.

(For a wonderfully rendered child narrator in a less extreme situation, look to Wells Tower’s fine story, ‘Leopard’, printed originally in The New Yorker.)

It is an incredibly difficult literary feat to construct a plausible, working child, regardless of the environment in which the writer places him, and that is what makes the accomplishment so compelling. Giving that child a preternatural genius is a shortcut to the reader’s attention. Not much is interesting about a fictional character who could exist only in fiction.

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~ by mackenz on July 7, 2009.

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