Your friend, Karlsson on the Roof
By Priyangwada Perera
With the latest of Astrid Lindgren’s translations by the genius Vijitha Gunaratne being nominated for the Best Translation, at the State Literary Festival, Karlsson is literally on the Roof. Gunaratne translating from the original in Swedish, Chuti Malli saha Vahalaya Uda Karlsson has captured the hearts of the jury. Having read all of Gunaratne’s translations of Lindgren, this particular one turned out to be a unique experience. Of course, each of his translation is unique but this is all the more special because of the characters we find. On a personal note, being a reader who has preferred Gunaratne’s Sinhala translations over the English version of the original, I do not feel like going back to the English one. Once the Sinhala books are read, they become incomparable. Such is the use of language.
It is amazing how a translator can capture and reproduce Lindgren’s word-magic in an entirely different language. After the all-time favourite Pippi Longstockings, Gunaratne moved on to introduce Emil from Lonnerbergam, Ronia and the beloved Brothers Lionheart to the Lankan Sinhala readers. However, Karlsson is a totally different experience. Being too fascinated and deeply rooted in the idealistic little heroes which Gunaratne has re-created for me from childhood, this in a way was a difficult soup to digest. But that is exactly why Karlsson on the Roof goes a little over the league of even Lindgren herself. All our former heroes are delightful little stars, and are not hard to grasp. Some read it as Karlsson offering a ‘humorous take on loneliness. How far one can agree with that is questionable.
However, when you think about it, you do know it is also about making your best friend in yourself. It is a whole new world of comfort. In the English version Karlsson calls himself ‘a handsome, thoroughly clever, perfectly plump man in his prime.’ In reality, he is the fantastic friend, the fantasy friend of our dear Chuti Malli or Eric. Chuti Malli is the youngest of the three siblings and is often the one left on his own. The blessed entrance of Karlsson is made to our lonely Chuti Malli. But the best part is that we do not really feel that Chuti Malli is lonely. He has a loving family and he even has great friends. But none like Karlsson, who lives on the roof. The best is that Karlsson has a propeller on his back.
He lands like a little helicopter as he pleases. How does it feel to be friends with someone who is a big Knowit-all? That is what Karlsson is. He claims to know everything. Chuti Malli, who is very well behaved, courteous and wise, adores Karlsson who self-proclaims to be ‘the world’s best’ at everything. It actually is a pity to write a review in English without being able to bring out even one solid example to speak of Gunaratne’s rhetorical brilliance. You tend to think from where he comes up with such hilarious names and terms.
Gunaratne rhymes and matches and this annoyingly delightful Karlsson just appears in front of our mind’s eye. Thanks to Karlsson, Chuti Malli’s life takes a new turn for the better. Gunaratne is downright hilarious when the three best episodes of Karlsson dragging Chuti Malli to be sneaking up on people, his favourite pastime of teasing. But the best is dressing up as ghosts and eventually chasing the half-witted robbers. Be warned, you would laugh and laugh. The mere mention brings a smile to my face. It is so dramatic that the best is to read it out loud to someone, in the right tone. That would double the enjoyment. It is no wonder that Chuti Malli forgets his loneliness.
My favourite words that describe Lindgren’s Karlsson would be, “More childish than Mary Poppins and more like a bumblebee than Peter Pan, this strange overconfident man has won the hearts of many.” Yet, I repeat, all this criticism coming for the English version should grow twofold to our own Karlsson and Chuti malli. It is one whole adventure. Everything is an adventure with Karlsson. It is no wonder that Chuti Malli becomes a new self.
It is also a psychological reading of a child. It is deeper than you imagine. This keeps the scope of the novel broad and open. It is up to you, to read it for what you want. My personal preference is to have Chuti Malli be the good boy at all times and let Karlsson remain the amusing outsider. It is so much fun that way and there is no need to idealize Karlsson, the way I do with Pippi, who unlike Karlsson deserves to be an idol. To like him or not, you have to read him. Once you start, you would not want to stop.