Monday, 2 November 2009

Inkheart: Cornelia Funke

Now that 'Inkheart' has been made into a film, the comparisons with the Harry Potter series have become even more frequent. Which is a little unfair to Cornelia Funke as she does not strike me as someone who is trying to emulate J.K. Rowling. She is ploughing her own unique furrow, one which is steeped in the slightly darker, more fantastical, less patronizing traditions of Germanic folk tales. One of the earliest books I can remember reading again and again for myself was my collection of tales by the Brothers Grimm, so 'Inkheart', for me, is both a return to childhood and a rare chance as an adult to experience a children's writer who understands that young readers can take in a lot of descriptive and complex material, if it is well written.
Funke is clearly obsessed with books and, in the central character of Meggie, offers a compelling insight into how the written word can transport and enrich the lives of the young. Yet it is not just the young who are swept up in the almost mystical worlds of narratives old and new - Meggie's father, Mo, can literally make the images walk out of the pages, while her great aunt Elinor surrounds herself with more books than one person could possibly read in a lifetime.
The notion that a magical kind of reader - a Silvertongue - can read characters out of books, is both charming and terrifying for, amidst all the fairies and the tin soldiers, Capricorn, the evil villain of a little known book called (of course) 'Inkheart' suddenly appears in our world and wreaks havoc on the lives of Meggie and her family. As if it were not enough that she and her father become terrorized by Capricorn, it seems that for every character Mo reads out of a book, someone from this world disappears into the pages. On the night that Capricorn first emerged into 21st century Europe, Meggie's mother, Teresa, vanished.
The narrative, then, takes the form of a quest. Can Mo find another copy of the book and somehow read his wife back out of the pages before Capricorn burns every one to ensure that he stays in a world in which he has found much to enjoy? Not quite every copy: Capricorn has held back one issue of the book for himself in order that Silvertongue can read out the most fearsome character of all, The Shadow who is made from the bones and ashes of all of Capricorn's victims, and who will devour and destroy anybody his master wishes removed.
Anthea Bell's translation of 'Inkheart' barely reads like a translation at all, which I can only assume is down to Funke's skill as a story teller as much as it is down to Bell's talents as a translator. The writing is so vivid that it is like a throwback to an era before television and computer screens began to dominate our lives and, to a degree, stifle our imaginations. 'Inkheart' is a testimony to the fact that the most memorable special effects of all are still the ones produced in the mind of the reader when they are blissfully caught up in the pages of a book as deliciously descriptive and visual as this.

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