The Stories In My Life: Roald Dahl's 'Genesis and Catastrophe' captures the awesome wonder of brute destiny
One of the things readers like about Roald Dahl is the addictive quality of his stories. If it’s a page-turner we are after, an immersive, compelling, headlong plunge down the page, culminating in a gasp-inducing revelation, no better candidate for cerebral provocation than Dahl.
If it’s a page-turner we are after, an immersive, compelling, headlong plunge down the page, culminating in a gasp-inducing revelation, no better candidate for cerebral provocation than Dahl.
There is the extensive range of his emotional intelligence, which can intuit the most sensitive of inner moments while remaining resolutely unsentimental.
He can be empathetic with undemonstrative tenderness but he never loses sight of ruthless reality.
There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
One of the things readers like about Roald Dahl is the addictive quality of his stories. If it’s a page-turner we are after, an immersive, compelling, headlong plunge down the page, culminating in a gasp-inducing revelation, no better candidate for cerebral provocation than Dahl. More, there is the extensive range of his emotional intelligence, which can intuit the most sensitive of inner moments while remaining resolutely unsentimental. He can be empathetic with undemonstrative tenderness but he never loses sight of ruthless reality. This story, which has stayed with me over the years, is signature Dahl. With great brevity it captures the awesome wonder of brute destiny as few other stories do.
In the small Austrian border town of Braunau, a woman has just given birth to a child. She is a stranger to the city, having moved in just a few weeks previously, along with her husband, and taken up residence at the local inn. They have brought just a suitcase and a trunk. The man is an unpleasant alcoholic who works at the small customs office on the border. The wife is a wilting, mournful creature, pitiful in her way, and obviously unhappy. A host of unsavoury rumours about them have started circulating in the tiny city. The wife has only just given birth to a baby boy when the story commences.
The local doctor has helped deliver the baby, along with the innkeeper's wife, and all seems to be well, except for the fact that the patient is obviously a high-strung, nervous wreck, quivering with anxiety. This is her fourth child in four years, it comes out during the compulsive confidences which she shares with the doctor. The tragedy of her life is that none of her children have survived and she grieves over their loss continuously. Little Gustav died, then little Otto died and finally, the angelic little Ida died too. All within a period of eighteen months. She cannot get over her memories of her dead children and blames her fate obsessively. She is also convinced that the child she has just delivered is also destined to die.
Her husband, a boorish drunkard, is given to mocking and belittling each of her children, complaining of their being weaklings, not robust enough, feeble, pathetic specimens and altogether inferior creatures. This is how he has greeted each new-born and this is how he greets the new baby. The doctor does his best to reassure the couple that there is nothing wrong with the baby, that he is a normal child and has every chance of surviving but the mother is unconsoled. Each of her other children had been pronounced normal, she argues, yet each one, no matter how adorable and attractive, was fated to a sudden death. The innkeeper's wife, who brings in the new baby, freshly bathed and swaddled in a white shawl, remarks upon the baby’s prettiness, particularly his long, delicate fingers, as she lays him down beside the fretful mother. At first, the mother cannot bring herself to consign the memories of her dead children to a closure and look at the new baby but, gently counselled by the doctor and the innkeeper's wife, she finally does manage to turn towards the child. This leads to a fresh outcry of lamentation:
‘I have prayed so hard that he will live….’
‘Every day for months I have gone to the church and begged on my knees that this one will be allowed to live.’
‘Yes, Klara, I know.’
‘Three dead children is all that I can stand, don’t you realise that?’
‘He must live, Alois. He must, he must… Oh God be merciful unto him now.’
That is how this story ends. But by now the reader’s pulse is racing. Because of a tiny piece of information that the writer has artfully, almost carelessly, with true Dahl panache, thrown in just a bit before the end. It’s a gut-wrenching revelation:
‘Is this one so very small?’
‘He is a normal child.’
‘He is a little small, perhaps. But the small ones are often a lot tougher than the big ones. Just imagine, Frau Hitler, this time next year he will be almost learning how to walk. Isn’t that a lovely thought?’
She didn’t answer this.
‘And two years from now he will probably be talking his head off and driving you crazy with his chatter. Have you settled on a name for him yet?’
‘I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think my husband said that if it was a boy we were going to call him Adolphus.’
‘That means he would be called Adolf.’
Suddenly, horrifyingly, so much falls in place. The whimsical play of malignant fate that allows a child to live when all his siblings perished. A year down the line he will be learning to walk, two years down the line he will be chattering, and a few decades down the line what? That child will grow up to preside over the greatest genocide of the age, be responsible for the death of millions. And his mother has been praying for mercy for him! Several thousand children, not just three, are going to die by his fiat. Even the delicate fingers — remember, Adolf Hitler was a painter. And the unpleasant, jibing, alcoholic father and the frightened, depressive mother, the sort of family that is a sure recipe for deviance in the offspring. So much unsaid and so much revealed. The questions clamour in our brain — in the imponderable calculus of chance and destiny, why did fate have to spare that particular child? Would it not have been far better if, like his other siblings, he too had died in childhood? But he lived. That millions might die. That’s the chilling Dahl stroke.
I read this story long ago and have never gotten over it. It’s called Genesis and Catastrophe and it’s taken from his collection Kiss, Kiss. Look it up.
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