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A Child’s Island of Wonder, as Fascism Rises

THE WILDCAT BEHIND GLASS, by Alki Zei. Translated by Karen Emmerich.


Of all the genres of the past century of children’s literature, one of the most important is what Polonius in “Hamlet,” per his famous parodic list, might have called the pastoral-idyllical-tragical. In it, kids, or their stand-ins, inhabit a lovingly described paradise, or near paradise, somewhere out beyond the city, until their happiness is marred by a threat from the outer, grown-up world. This is the matter of “Charlotte’s Web,” of the Babar books and of such seeming outliers as T.H. White’s “Mistress Masham’s Repose,” where the pastoral setting is an English orphan girl’s stately home, ruined by her evil guardians.

It is also the matter of Alki Zei’s Greek children’s classic “The Wildcat Behind Glass” — set in the 1930s, published in the 1960s but little known in America, and now available in a new translation by Karen Emmerich.

An Aegean island retreat is threatened in this case not by the butcher’s ax but by the rise of a semi-fascist dictatorship — as though the climax of “Charlotte’s Web” involved Charlotte spelling out, high above Wilbur, not “Some Pig!” but “It Can Happen Here!”

The credibility of such books depends on the tangibility of the pastoral idylls they evoke. Here, in her depiction of the island she calls Lamagari, based on Samos, where she grew up, Zei does not disappoint:

The novel is narrated by a young girl named Melia, who summers there with her slightly older sister, Myrto, under the tutelage of their beloved grandfather, with frequent visits from their much-admired story-weaving cousin, Nikos. The wildcat of the title is the pet ornament of the grandfather’s run-down but expansive house — a stuffed cat around which Nikos constructs wild tales of adventure, insisting that it breaks out of its glass case and roams the island when night falls.

In a manner more than a little reminiscent of Genzaburo Yoshino’s Japanese classic “How Do You Live?,” also set in the ’30s, the back and forth between a wise elder and eager-to-learn kids is the backbone of the book: Grandfather teaches the girls about the “ancients,” the classic Greek literature of myth and philosophy.

The sisters banter, barter and squabble while remaining true to each other and their common family. Then slowly, insidiously, the politics of Greece at the time invade the island — via rumors, changing school curriculums, worries about speaking freely, and finally, most memorably, a book burning.

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