Charlie at 50 / Roald Dahl

Charlie et la Chocolaterie illustrated by Michel Siméon

Voici Charlie.

Bonjour, Charlie! Bonjour, bonjour et re-bonjour.

In 1967 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in France for the first time. As I mentioned in my previous article this was nearly a full year before any British publisher thought it worthy of publication. It came with brand new illustrations by Michel Siméon the man who had provided pictures for Dahl’s first book, James and the Giant Peach.

 

Siméon had a unique take on the book the book, majoring on the fantastical nature of the factory itself. It’s a mixture of ornate baroque flourishes and steam punk engineering. You get the idea from the entrance, with Parisian signage hanging above a corridor that reminded me of the surrealist architecture of Giorgio de Chirico.

Once inside things become even more fabulous. The factory is often seen in wide angle, the visitors dwarfed by Wonka’s spectacular machines. Siméon has gone to some length to create rooms that look as if they might actually work. So we don’t just have pipes and vats, there are gauges, valves, cogs and wheels regulating every part of the chocolate making process.

The boiled sweet boat on its chocolate river even appears to be partly powered by some sort of electrified tram system suspended from the ceiling.

You get a sense that the factory is far more important than any of the people in it – Wonka and Charlie included. The visitors are visibly gobbled up by the towering machines. Augustus Gloop’s memorable journey up the pipe is usually seen through the eyes of the Golden Ticket holders, here we get the perspective of the hungry factory, looking down at the passive consumer as he slips through the vast network of pipes, his indulgent parents an oafish speck below.

Jouffle, bouffi, gourmand, gloutton,

Enorme comme un gros cochon

The Oompa Loompas there, singing their terrible songs while getting on with their arduous work. In this version they aren’t orange skinned, green haired dwarves; they are as they were written by Dahl, a tribe of African Pygmies ‘from the very deepest and darkest part of the jungle where no white man had ever been before.’ Dahl’s biographer Donald Sturrock describes this as a ‘fanciful detail’, but civil rights campaigners at the NAACP viewed it as a ‘terrible dastardly anti-negro book’ and forced Dahl to do what he described as ‘de-negro’ the Oompa-Loompas.

The images here do rather back up the NAACP’s view that the Oompa Loompas were reinforcing a negative stereotype of black people as slaves. They’re depicted undertaking dangerous back breaking work, rowing galleys and scaling huge pipelines. In one scene they are working in the fudge mines whilst chained together, the white visitors passing overhead in their sleek glass elevator.

It needn’t have been this way. Donnald Sturrock had access to Dahl’s first draft, entitled ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’, in which he describes his main character as a ‘small NEGRO boy’. This black Charlie heroically not only survives the tour but foils a plan to rob Wonka’s home whilst encased in chocolate. His quest for justice continues as he defiantly asks the grand chocolatier the question: What has he done with all the children? Here Wonka’s reply is evasive, ‘I run a chocolate factory, you know, not a butcher’s shop.’ I rather wish he’d kept their fates so ambiguous in the final version.


For a book described by its editor Virginie Fowler as a ‘very English fantasy’, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory translates surprisingly well into French (though I’m no expert). The illustrations of the Bucket household have a particularly earthy, Gallic flavour. And of course it helps that the French have such a rich language for describing confectionary. Elisabeth Gaspar’s translation sounds beautiful read out loud too: ‘Charlie et la Chocolaterie’. Sounds good enough to eat.
 
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Back soon with a look at Dahl’s disastrous sequel: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

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