Monday, February 14, 2011

Toy Story

An ordinary piece of personal hauntology. I rediscovered this book on a trip home last year, and flicking through it I had one of those rare moments of recollection – not of the book itself, but rather of how I saw it as a small child.

Il mondo dei giocattoli (‘The World of Toys’) originally belonged to my sister, as far as we have been able to piece together, but seeing as she was nearly eight years old by the time it was published, the pre-literate pen marks on the first page must have been mine.

I find the scribbling over words as opposed to pictures fascinating in children, an early step in the understanding and mastering of those signs. However I don’t remember any of that, but rather how captivating, unsettling and deeply strange the illustrations by Guido Bertello were to me at the time. I remembered some of them so well upon rediscovering the book, I must have pored over them again and again all those years ago.

There were scary pictures.

Wonderful pictures that seemed to come to life in front of my eyes (I swear I could see those cars moving).

And pictures full of mystery and foreboding.

I also remember – at least I think I do – those blocks of texts as pictures, meaning nothing to me but still visually interesting and quite possibly magical. The memory of unknowing is very hard to manufacture: you can’t just look at the Latin alphabet as an adult and pretend you can’t see letters in it, even if the words are in a language you don’t understand. You could look by analogy at an entirely foreign script but then you’d still know how language works, the kinds of things it can mean, how it cannot jump from the page and directly influence the physical world. Whereas perhaps pre-literate children are all secret gnostics – I wonder about that sometimes.

So anyway what I did last year was read the book for the first time and no, it wasn’t magical. Quite uninspiring, actually, and hardly the kind of narrative that would captivate a child. The narrator and an unspecified group of children (including ‘you’) find themselves on a foreign planet inhabited solely by toys. Some peculiarly becalmed and disjointed adventures ensue as the party explores this world and its several communities – the animals, the dolls, the trains and so forth – each encounter giving the narrator an opportunity to educate the reader on the history of the toy in question. Did you know that the earliest clay horses on record date back to over 4,000 years ago? That sort of thing, followed by very generic descriptions of children having fun, notoriously one of the hardest things to do well in literature, and likely to pale in comparison with the actual memory of one’s own childhood play.

I don’t have many toys from back then, none in fact outside of a wooden train set on wheels. However I do remember some from a few years later, and I was surprised to spot them some time ago in the background of an old photograph. This one.

The best enlargement I can manage is rather grainy but it will have to do.

The crane, the ambulance, the traffic light – I loved them dearly, played with them constantly. Oh, and one more.

The garage! It had a little petrol pump, with a nozzle and a number display and everything. Is it a stage you go through when a toy has to be as exact a replica as possible, before you move on to more abstract forms? I look at our youngest now, manoeuvring cars on the floor or a wall, his cheek pressed against the surface so that he can watch it up close and it will seem real. I remember this.

I liked dolls, too, but mostly what I liked about them was the minute detail of the accessories. I had a little caravan (or was it my sister’s?) that you could open and inside it had furniture and everything. Il mondo dei giocattoli mentions dollhouses and makes the point that they also served the purpose of educating the future ladies of the house as to the proper place of things, of the order that they themselves would some day be in charge of safeguarding. And perhaps in that exactness of toys there is an element of control, the desire of mastery over the physical world and other beings.


My family and I saw an exhibition in Rome many years ago on the funerary furnishings of Crepereia Tryphaena, an aristocrat who died at the age of 20 and was buried alongside an ivory doll with jointed legs and arms, a proper ancient Barbie.

It was the custom at the time for upper class women to sacrifice their doll to Venus before their wedding, as if to relinquish their childhood and control over the puppet-self. Crepereia didn’t have time to go through with that particular self-effacing ritual, and being buried with the doll at once signalled and crystallised her person status – still a child – at the time of her death.


Nowadays you can go on collecting toys well into adulthood but their meaning shifts somewhat. They are no longer objects of play, or if they are – for instance in the case of indoor plane or Scalextric enthusiasts – it’s serious play, with trophies and rules and competitions and governing bodies, because adult play in order to be socially acceptable must be highly normated, or have financial incentives (if you’re a collector), or resemble work (if you’re a builder of scale models).

Which is not to say that adult play is joyless, or that childhood play isn’t serious. But there is a mystery in the latter, a strangeness that is so very hard to recapture, and that I can or think that I can recall a glimpse, the flavour of it, looking at the illustrations of Il mondo dei giocattoli: where what I see aren’t just toys – resembling things, standing for things, at various levels of abstraction – but also something that is animated, that I can control and yet controls me. At first you just push the miniaturised car, your cheek firmly against the ground, but soon the car starts pulling you, to the places where it simply must go, obeying rules that are outside of you both. Thus the image from Il mondo dei giocattoli that has been seared in my memory all these years, more than any other.

A smiling Harlequin hovering above a green ‘Mondial Car’, neither of them just supposed to sit there, both purportedly needing human hands to be brought to life, yet don’t they also contain their own stories – the fast car, the cheeky puppet? And so perhaps the ghost in the toy is the servo-mechanism that guides our fictions and binds our imaginations, the invisible pattern of all childhood play, everywhere. Perhaps we know from a tender age that we play as much as we are played with.


In the two previous posts on the latest Toy Story I chose not to go into the detail of the incinerator sequence, but I think we’re safely past the spoiler stage now, and I want to comment briefly on what makes it so unusual and why it may be relevant.

In the sequence, having miraculously escaped a garbage shredder, Woody and his companions find themselves facing death by fire, their predicament seemingly hopeless. But that is not the unlikely part. Indeed, eventual safety comes by means of the kind of deus-ex-machina device that a child could readily come up with, and likely would. No, the reason why we find ourselves wrong-footed here is that we are allowed to contemplate for so long the annihilation of our heroes, and they their own. It’s like one of those impossibly long falling scenes (indeed, it is a falling scene). It violates the laws of genre, making you look around the theatre to see how others are reacting. When you turn back to the screen, you find that the characters themselves have ceased to seek a way out, resolving instead to hold hands as they descend resignedly into the fiery maelstrom. And I’d submit that this violates also the rules of play, where you’re allowed to evoke death, but not to sustain its gaze. They stare at each other, and into the camera, at the void.

For a whole fifty seconds, a cinematic eternity, enough to allow the tiniest doubt to creep in that it may all go wrong after all, the way a children’s movie is not supposed to, and a childhood game never could.

Maria Rumi. Il mondo dei giocattoli. Milano: Mondadori, 1969.