Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Winkie: The Book of the Century

(Photographs of 'Winkie', a rare 'Blinka Rolling-Eyed Bear' from 1921. As you can see, he is rather an odd-looking bear, not the handsome sort who befriended Edith, the Lonely Doll, and yet Winkie will win the heart of any one who reads his story.)

When I was in my teens, my best friend's mother urged me to keep abreast of the current bestsellers, telling her daughter and myself that we always should be aware of the current 'top 10' listed in the serious newspapers both in Europe and the States. A bit of a jetsetter herself, she always was concerned with her image in the 'right circles' and felt that it was vital to have a good arsenal of 'party talk' consisting of intelligent opinions on current events, popular books and the latest musical hits. Needless to say, my own philosophy veers to the other extreme, to the point of not knowing or caring what is popular or fashionable either in politics or in the arts.

I therefore never heard of 'Winkie' until I saw the actual book in a stack of books intended as 'summer reading'. I do not know if it is a bestseller or not, but it certainly should be. I must confess that I found the idea of a teddy bear terrorist intriguing. I opened the book, intending only to read a few pages. I did not put it down again until I had devoured it from cover to cover.

Clifford Chase, the author of 'Winkie' is a genius. The book is beautifully written and is an inspirational, heartbreaking, hilarious, lyrical, philosophical, even political tour de force. It manages to deal with every important philosophical question in the tale of a teddy bear who 'comes to life' or rather slowly comes to recognise the nature of his own existence in a life that spans almost a century.

The influence of environment and family on character and gender definition are among the subjects explored in this unique, unforgettable book. The innocence of childhood and 'coming of age' moments in the lives of humans and bear alike are described with sensitive, poetic brilliance. The absurdity of current definitions of 'terrorism' and Homeland Security are exposed ruthlessly, yet this work is far more than social satire or 'political fantasy'. The prose is almost blindingly beautiful at times. Its treatment of philosophical issues is deft and thought provoking.

'Winkie' is a book that can be equated with such classics as 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan' in its power and scope. The only real difference is Chase's willingness to use blunt Anglo-Saxon terms and expletives at certain points in the narrative. I have to admit that obscenities and coarse expletives never are 'gratuitous' in this book. They serve to underscore the absurdity of the bear's predicament, and are quite hilarious in the context in which they appear.

It is almost impossible to convey the reality of this book adequately in any description because it encompasses so much.

Here is the description of the moment when the chief of police finds the alleged 'terrorist' in the form of a small antique teddy bear:

'The chief of police had been tracking the mad bomber for seventeen years now... Descriptions of the suspect had been scarce and contradictory, but a baby-size madman was hardly what he'd expected. Could be a master of disguise, he mused, maybe wore masks, walked around on stils or something to seem taller; maybe they were trained for that, in the Near East, the Far East, Africa, wherever terrorists were bred...'

Throughout the bizarre tale of the teddy bear's trial in an American court and his own reminiscences, the nature of being and reality are explored by a writer with the amazing talent of a virtuoso. The nature of pain and pleasure, of life and death, love, loss and abandonment are experienced and examined by a teddy bear from the point of view of one who has been both a passive witness and an active participant in the pageant of existence.

It is when Winkie is in prison that he begins to reminisce about his own past, and to recognise moments that were pivotal in terms of defining his hopes, disappointments and dreams. One such moment occurred when his last owner, a boy named Cliff, left him on a shelf in the bedroom when the family took refuge from a hurricane in the safety of a windowless corridor. As the bedroom window shook and rattled, Winkie pondered his own place in the universe:

'A child had to live and a child had to grow and in growing he had to leave things behind, just as Winkie always had been left behind -- and how could he think this time he wouldn't be?

'Betrayal and wind and blackness and rain and rattle. Stupid, stupid, stupid for dreaming it wouldn't be so with Cliff just like all the other times, this time which was also surely the last time and therefore final. Winkie was alone -- stupid bear alone, stuffing and cloth alone, stupid hidden thoughts alone and fading to nothing in the storm -- and that was what had to be and only a stupid bear would ever think it could be otherwise...

'But even if he was to be left alone, even if that was what had to be, the bear had hoped at least -- hoped at least -- hoped at least ... He couldn't grasp it -- not then in the terrible room, not now, years later, in his cell -- just what it was he had longed for, what he had hoped might not be lost this last time, nor why that unnameable whatever, if indeed it wasn't lost, would somehow save this boy from what must surely be the fate of all humanity, and maybe of every other creature, too, nor why he felt that saving Cliff, whatever 'saving' was, could somehow also save himself, too.

'Neither cruelty chosen nor innocence flown, neither lies believed nor wishes smashed, not rage returned, not knowledge lost, neither sadness borne nor shame endured. No, none of these had he meant to save the boy from, but something bigger --- what? -- nothing less than the Way of the World itself, and he had hoped against all reason and experience that maybe this one time it would not have to be the Way of the World after all.'

Like all good fairytales, despite the heartbreak and betrayal, despite all his trials and tribulations, the story of Winkie ends on a note of hope when his best friend shows him how to navigate the dangerous chaos of traffic in Cairo to cross the road safely.

'You just have to let them know you exist,' she tells him.

In a sense, this is the philosophy that rests at the very foundation of the book. The autobiographical nature of the book forms a counterpoint to the rather bizarre adventures of the teddy bear. Throughout, there is an undeniable sense of utter realism to the tale. Clifford Chase possesses the gift of empathy as well as an exceptional ability to capture the essence of human (and ursine) experiences in words.

Part One of the book begins with a quote from Bruno Shultz: 'The books we read in childhood don't exist anymore; they sailed off with the wind, leaving bare skeletons behind. Whoever still has in him the memory and marrow of childhood should rewrite these books as he experienced him.'

Clifford Chase has accomplished this incredible feat. In 'Winkie', he has managed to encapsulate all the magic and terror of childhood in a tale of 'becoming' no less real because it happens to be the story of a teddy bear. It is this, apart from the delightful skill of the writer in crafting this story, that designates this book as a future classic.

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