Arthur and the Invisibles, Luc Besson (Harpur Collins, 2006){HarpurAudio,2006; Narrator: Jim Dale}

Grade: Ε– Readable in genre, but you could probably do better.  

 In brief:

Arthur and the Invisibles is a reasonable mid-grade reader by French Director Luc Besson that was tied into the children’s films of the same name (though I did not see the movie).  It is a good enough story with excellent visual descriptions that mirror Besson’s vivid cinematography.  The story, however, is not terribly original, and in some places seems to underestimate the intelligence of young readers.  

Setting:

1960’s rural France (albeit a somewhat romanticized and anachronistic one), and the world of the Minimoys (also modern France, but on a smaller scale).

In Depth:

If this tale was written fifty years ago, it would have been remarkable.  As it stands, it is a bit derivative, condescends to its audience and has more than a smattering of Colonial era biases that seems oddly out of step with the modern world. 

The tale opens with ten year old Arthur living with his aged grandmother in a lovely large country house somewhere in France (I can’t remember if it actually says it’s France, but it certainly seems like an idealized and bucolic France of years gone by).  His life is filled with children’s games and joy, save only that his parents are away trying to find work, and his much admired and beloved Grandfather disappeared some years before. His Grandfather, it seems, was a bit of an explorer who travelled through Africa, helping developing tribes have a better life. Amongst the peoples he helped were a race of extremely tall people called the Bogo Matassalai, and their allies, the all-but-microscopic Minamoys.  When Arthur’s charming home is about to be repossessed by a villainous man, Arthur goes in search of his Grandfather’s missing treasure.  Instead finds a series of clues that leads him to the Minamoys and the adventures that follow.

The narrative of this tale was good enough, and in some ways I found the story engaging, yet there were a great number of elements of this story that truly bothered me.  First off, I can’t help but feel that Besson condescends to the young reader, spending a lot of time in the opening of the tale describing Arthur’s games and play. The boy comes off as impossibly naive, and I cannot help but think that a ten year old reading this book would think that this is clearly an adults view of a ten year old’s life. 

This is backed up by the fact that the story is set in the 1960’s seems to be me to add to this.  Rather than create a world that is aimed at modern children, the author seems to spend his time recreating an romanticized world of his own past.  Fine for an adult, but is that what a modern day kid wants? One would have thought that in a post-J.J. Rawlings world (not to mention post-Orson Scott Card) one might have thought that Besson would have had a more sophisticated portrayal of children. 

Additionally, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the no-doubt unintentional racism that filled the tale.  The jolly good European Grandfather had gone off to deepest darkest Africa to help the Bogo Matassalai, and brought all the benefits of the Civilized world to these poor under developed natives.  Along the way, he helped them find the secret and hidden Minamoys… a set of tiny, beautiful, very white fairy sized people who are the center of the adventure.  If this story had been written in 1960 this wouldn’t have bothered me, but it was published in 2006. As a result, it seems a bit… well…

While I do feel there has been a great deal of demonizing of the European Imperialist past over the last thirty years, there is no arguing that there was a great deal of vicious  exploitation and harm that occurred over that period.  To that end, it seems odd in this day and age to romanticize the heroic Grandfather who went out to help the poor starving natives.  Especially when it turns out that the giant and brave Bogo Matassalai are not the ones who will save the day, no sireee… it’s a ten year white boy.  Far better qualified don’t you know? After all, we know that any European child is a better choice than the dark skinned adults who actually know something about the situation they would be entering.

Does the phase “White Man’s Burden” come to anyone, or is it just me?

Imperialist bigotry aside, there are other elements to the story telling that also make very little sense.  In the begging, Arthur discovers the secret hidden kingdom of the Minamoys by following a series of clues his grandfather left for him throughout the house that climax with the arrival of the chief of the Bogo Matassalai and several of his warriors at the home.  Now, this is all fine and good, and makes for an interesting bit of story telling, but I couldn’t help but think that it was a rather convoluted way of delivering the message.  After all, in the story, the Bogo Matassalai arrive at the house of their own volition and on a time schedule already prearranged by his Grandfather some years previously.  That being the case, why leave clues in hidden locations?  Why not just tell the Bogo Matassalai what was going on and ask them to explain it upon their arrival?

I know this is a kid’s book, but I see no reason why one should suppose a ten year old reader would be any less logical than I would in this instance. 

Having said all that, the story does have a certain charm to it.  I would hardly recommend it as a must read to any adult or child, but neither would I object if my son were to pick it up (though I might do a wee little bit of cultural relativistic training with him afterwards).  If its in the library and you can’t find anything better: sure… go ahead and read it.

 Notes about the Audio Edition:

Jim Dale‘s performance in this was perfect. If you enjoy a good performance and true skill shown in reading a book, it may be worth listening to this recording.  His ability pulled me through the somewhat slow beginning of the story and his ability to add tension to a text that was otherwise on rails was remarkable. 

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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