Category: Children's Books

Martin Baltscheit
Die Geschichte vom Fuchs, der den Verstand verlor
[Story of the fox who lost his mind]

Review

‘If you know everything, you can live for a long time’: thus runs the fox’s motto. But don’t we all secretly believe that knowing a lot will offer us a sort of nod-and-a-wink guarantee of living to a ripe old age? The flip side of this belief, however, is somewhat ominous: if we die young, it’s our own fault. Martin Baltscheit recounts the Story of the fox who lost his mind (Die Geschichte vom Fuchs, der den Verstand verlor) with such ingenuity that by the end no one can exclude the possibility that one day they too might suffer the fate of the fox. Yet the fox, too, was once ‘clever’ and ‘handsome’, and knew how to roast hares and chickens for high days and holidays. He told the young foxes how to evade the huntsmen. Was he their idol? — you bet he was! Yes, the fox was strong and clever and lived a life full of adventure. We can also quite justifiably add that this was a fox of exceptional virility. For no one can fail to recognise that this is a story for males — big ones and little ones both. The men can see themselves mirrored here, and the boys get a taste of what may await them in the future. For sooner or later even heroes need a walking frame. Anyway, at some point the fox starts to change: one day he looks like Zorro, the next day he resembles an elegant bearded gent, and the next he’s like a little old granny hunched in her pew.

That Martin Baltscheit is one of Germany’s finest illustrators was made definitively clear by his vivacious drawings for the Jungle Booksof Rudyard Kipling, and by Zarah, a picture book nominated for the 2010 German Children’s Literature Prize — a little stroke of genius on the subject of fear dreamt up by Baltscheit in conjunction with Zoran Drvenkar. Baltscheit is a master of the mechanics of story-telling: he knows how to accelerate a tale or slow it down, how to conjure up surprises or render his effects ambiguous. Thus the fox on the cover looks at the reader with an expression at once amiable and disconcerting. Some hint of danger is clearly called for: after all, this is a predator we’re dealing with.

Baltscheit then plays his trump card, in that he stylises the figure of the fox, rendering him completely flat like the hero of a strip cartoon, and thereby playing around with images in the popular imagination. Each double-page spread is differently worked, and the essence is always conveyed through a a small number of telling details. We see the rabbit gazing uneasily out of his hutch, across which falls the louring shadow of the fox. This strikes an ominous note, whilst also hinting at the dark shadows that will soon descend on the mind of the fox. The fox becomes forgetful; he goes out hunting, but no longer knows why he is hunting. He forgets a friend’s birthday and arrives without a present, or he arrives with a present but it’s no one’s birthday. No longer remembering how to get home, he climbs a tree and settles himself in a bird’s nest. The blackbird returns and asks him ‘Do you live here?’ It all comes back to the fox: no, he tells the blackbird, he didn’t live there — and then we read the sentence: ‘After that, the blackbird didn’t ask anyone again.’

Although short, the story is well developed, and displays trenchant humour, good narrative flow and a subtle whiff of sorrow. Very few illustrators can handle text as well as Baltscheit, and it is especially notable that his texts are not merely explanatory but have a resonance of their own, and thanks to their dramatic nature become part and parcel of the visual image. The fox’s forgetfulness is already suggested by the way that the names of the days of the week tumble higgledy-piggeldy down the page. In the story’s finale, however, Baltscheit brings image and sound into dramatic conjunction when the fox hears the baying of the hounds: he knows they represent danger, but he no longer remembers what they’re called, he can no longer find the right words, he hesitates, he loses time that he needs in order to escape as the marauding pack races noisily towards him.

Is this a children’s book? Yes, it is. Baltscheit bases his illustrations on figures and forms that children know and readily understand. His particular achievement is to thematise the consequences of dementia in a quite charming way by showing graphically yet tenderly how the victim’s world loses all coherence; we remain in possession of the thing itself, but its meaning is lost to us. He shows the development of this process within the specific world of the fox, but of course this process refers not only to the pathology of an individual, but also to that of a whole era in which we seem to have lost that vital connection that creates a meaningful bond between things, and information about things.

For a while the fox retains the ability to retrace his thoughts as if retracing his route along a familiar path; where previously he had rushed along bursting with enthusiasm, he now has to bring each successive step to mind. Then his world dissolves into discrete parts like so many snowflakes, until finally the fox can no longer differentiate at all between himself and the world. Martin Baltscheit creates such a telling blend of sadness and consolation that his story comes to an appropriate close, whilst simultaneously inviting us to revisit it and reconstruct it again and again. His book makes us realise that memory becomes ever dearer to us the more we think about forgetting.
Thomas Linden

By Thomas Linden, 01.03.2011

​Thomas Linden is a journalist (Kölnische Rundschau, WWW.CHOICES.DE) specializing in the areas of literature, theater and film. He also curates exhibitions on photography and picture book illustration.

Translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby