The Story of Gulliver

CATEGORY: Books For Children

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First published: 2010

Print ISBN: 9781782692072

Price: £7.99

The Story of Gulliver

CATEGORY: Books For Children

In the autumn of 2010 I was invited to give a talk in Turin, to students of the Scuola Holden, the creative writing school set up there by Alessandro Baricco. During the course of my visit, one of the directors of the school, Marta Trucco, told me about a project they had rececently undertaken: a series of books called Save the Story. The idea had been Alessandro Baricco’s, and it was quite simple: to commission a number of writers from Italy (Umberto Eco, Stefano Benni) and elsewhere (Dave Eggers, Ali Smith) to re-tell one of their favourite works of classic literature as a children’s story.

Behind the project was the slightly elegaic feeling that some of the greatest, most primal and archetypal stories in world literature were in danger of slipping out of the collective memory. Baricco’s idea was that these narratives could be re-invented as bedtime stories, each one of which could be read aloud, over a period of a week or so, to children of perhaps eight or nine.

I was delighted to take part in the project, and even more delighted that no one had already bagged one of my favourite works from the eighteenth century: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I set to work and wrote my version in the first few weeks of 2011.

Gulliver’s Travels is unusual among the classics of English-language literature in that it already has a second life as a children’s book. I was given one of these abridgements myself when I was about ten years old,  but only managed to read the first few pages. I knew there was an intriguing story to be found in there somewhere, about a mariner who gets shipwrecked in a land of giants and a land of little people, but no attempt had been made to make Swift’s language more accessible for children: at the time I found it unreadably dry and difficult.

A few years later, in my late teens, I was beginning to develop a taste for eighteenth-century literature, especially anything in a comic or satirical vein. That was when I read Gulliver’s Travels properly for the first time, and realised, of course, that it was one of the greatest satires not just of its time, but of any era.

For my re-telling, I was determined to keep all four sections of the narrative: many children’s versions of Gulliver only retain the first and second, but the third (mainly concerned with the flying island of Laputa) is hilarious, and the fourth (Gulliver’s visit to the land of the Yahoos and the talking horses) is where you find the book’s dark, merciless heart. And since Swift leaves us with such a sense of profound and aching ambiguity about where humankind should be placed on the spectrum between animalistic savagery and sublime rationality, I felt it right that my version should end not with a statement, but with a question.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Sara Oddi before she supplied her illustrations, but I think they are wonderful: a perfect match between text and image.

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