Animals exist to make people rich. This wretched and wrong capitalist obsession is gleefully debunked in Roman Schatz’s first children’s book, with illustrator Pertti Jarla’s zany depictions of an animal revolution. Maria Antas interviews the author.
Zoo – eläimellinen tarina (‘The Zoo, a bestial story’, WSOY, 2009) is a children’s book that also appeals to the kind of adults who might love the exploits of John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline in the film Fierce Creatures – this book, like the film, is about attempts to make animals seem more dangerous and attractive to an ever more jaded audience accustomed to the pace of action movies.
Christmas is coming, and a dynamic new Zoo director wants to make an unprofitable zoo into a money spinner. The zoo’s inhabitants, however, refuse to be slaves to the market economy: led by an old Sumatran tiger called Gandhi, the militant mandrill Che, dreaming of revolution, and a bat named Mother Teresa who sees the world upside-down, the animals rise up in a wild, but ultimately non-violent, insurrection. Schatz’s story evokes 20th-century utopians, and the animals’ expressions, as visualised by illustrator Pertti Jarla, awaken the reader’s conscience and our nearly forgotten ability to laugh at the way the world works.
MA: You’ve combined Christmas, satire, and humanity’s most important revolutionary figures from various cultures. What part of the work was challenging, and what was inspiring?
RS: Well, the characters came into being as if of their own accord – it felt like Gandhi, Che, and Mother Teresa were an unstoppable trio, in their own separate ways. So the characters and bringing together satire and Christmas weren’t the challenge. The challenge was writing for children. Children are an absolutely merciless ‘audience’ – they don’t believe in compromise, they sincerely see things in black and white. They either like something, or they don’t.
MA: Why did you choose to use animals as your main characters?
RS: Because animals are much more sympathetic than people, and it’s easier to identify with them.
MA: What about your book makes it a children’s book, and in what ways does it speak to adults – or do you think there’s a meaningful distinction between older and younger readers?
RS: That kind of division is artificial to me. Are The Little Prince and Alice in Wonderland for children or adults? A good story works for readers of all ages, you just have to write it in a way that everyone will be able to read it.
MA: In Finland in the last few years there have been a lot of books that take a critical look at the economics of the past decade and howit has affected us and our concept of society. You yourself have joined the discussion with your novel € (2007), which follows a single coin equipped with a microchip as it crosses Europe, critically and humorously examining its reality-TV adventures as they grow ever stranger. What do you think were the most frightening developments of the market economy and media society in this golden age – which now seems to have arrived at a turning point?
RS: The scariest thing was that people’s lives were made into a product, a project that can either succeed or fail. No one seems to remember that life is meant to be lived, that the value of a life doesn’t depend on how well you run the rat race.
MA: What are your hopes for the first year of the next decade – or, what would the animals in the zoo want to say to us humans? ;-)
RS: For myself, I hope that my book spreads around the world, of course, translated into many languages… The animals’ message to people might be: ‘Listen, you stupid people, you’re just full of yourselves and utterly two-dimensional! You think you’re the ultimate creation and that you can control the climate, nature, and the future. Stop messing around, dare to be animals and relax a little!’
Translated by Lola Rogers
Tags: children's books
Also by Maria Antas
Elina Hirvonen: Kauimpana kuolemasta [Furthest from death] - 30 September 2010
Dear God - 30 September 2006
Hiking through a poetic universe - 30 March 2006
Cosmic and comic - 30 September 2004
Humankind in disguise - 30 September 2002
About the writer
Maria Antas (born 1964) is a Project Manager at FILI (Finnish Literature Exchange), a literary scholar (she has studied the childhood memories of Finland-Swedish authors Tove Jansson, Solveig von Schoultz and Renata Wrede) and former editor-in-chief of the women’s magazine Astra Nova.
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