Friday, 21 July 2017

'The Witch in the Broom Cupboard' by Pierre Gripari

Pierre Gripari

Something that has made me very happy in the past two weeks is discovering the queer, anarchic stories of Pierre Gripari. ‘The Witch in the Broom Cupboard’ was a chance find in WH Smith – a single copy of this handsome, raspberry pink volume fell into my hand and wouldn’t let go. It’s a collection of Parisian fairy tales from the 1960s and I’d really like to thank Pushkin Press for introducing me to this tiny corner of the world in which witches hang around cafes trying to eat children who hide in cash registers, where guitars have glamorous potatoes for best friends, and rubber dolls wear wooden spectacles so they don’t see too much of the future.

There’s a beautiful afterward in which Gripari describes how the stories came to be. He lived in a populous, multi-cultural bit of Paris called the Rue Broca. Everyone knew he was a writer, even though they’d never seen his books in the shops. He sat in the local café and the local kids knew he was really a witch in disguise, so they demanded he tell them stories. Obligingly he reread all the greats and retold them in the cafe – Andersen, Perrault, the Arabian Nights – and when he ran out he had no choice but to tell the local kids they had to help him make up some new ones. This they did, quite happily, and he poured their very strange ideas and suggestions into his tales.

The results are hysterical. They swerve in directions you’d never expect, zooming off through other lands and dimensions, but always coming back to the neighbourhood around Gobelins Metro station. The cosmic is always grounded, so that, for example, when the sun realizes that the North Star has gone missing, he dons dark glasses and a disguise and goes searching where, but the Rue Broca, calling in on Papa Syeed’s café, to ask if anyone has seen the pig who swallowed a star. (They have: two little girls have hidden the pig in their cellar, where he’s softly glowing pink.)

The craziness and occasional rudeness of it all feel so authentic: these are exactly the kinds of things kids would daringly suggest to a writer as they all racked their brains together for the best ideas.

It’s a clever series of juxtapositions: the abstract and concrete, the cosmic and the mundane, the serious and the silly, the near and faraway. Gripari holds them in tension with casual ease and has us hooked on every word, and every whimsical twist. In a story like the one about the witch in the broom cupboard, we’re both terrified she’s going to appear, but we’re delighted by the cheek of the dreadful song that will summon her.

Puig Rosado’s scratchy drawings really help, I think. They’re pulsating with gleeful life. Everyone’s grinning – even the sharks – and the mermaids have actual boobs. His drawings are of the sort that kids would cover their jotters with when they should be doing sums, and so they’re irresistible.

Fairy tales should always be a bit manic, anarchic and rude, and this really reminds us of that. Here’s a relatively recent cycle of urban folk tales that seem as fresh as anything being made up today. I was cockahoop to discover that the hardback is slightly different. It’s called ‘The Good Little Devil’ and contains twice as many stories and drawings. It’s like getting an extra gift – I had to order it at once.

What’s wonderful for me about these tales set in the streets that lie somewhere between the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Natural History Museum, is that this is my favourite part of Paris. The witch who eats little girls with tomato sauce lives in the Rue Mouffetard, which is the long, sloping street from St Germain down to the museum and the park. Last time we were there we came across a band playing old time numbers in the market place. All the locals had stopped what they were doing and had flocked out of their houses, shops and cafes on Sunday afternoon to dance in the street. Old Nannas were dancing with youths, old swingers with glamorous young women, tramps with nuns. You really wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Sultan dancing with a witch, or a mermaid waltzing with a potato and a guitar.

Sitting in the sunny market that August Sunday we knew that we were in a magical kind of place. The old guy with the accordion, whose cd we bought – he was about the right age to be one of the kids helping Gripari to make up stories. In fact, all those elderly dancers could have been the kids of the Rue Broca, hanging out at Papa Sayeed’s café-grocer – Nadia, Malika, Rashida, Nicolas and Tina. All those dancers were little old people who looked like they’d never felt obliged to grow up.   

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