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Purple (and Violet) Prose

Greta Von Gerbil & Her Really Large Lexicon
by Blair Reeve (words) and Chris Stapp (pictures) (Anapest Press, Hong Kong)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

greta-von-gerbilweb2This is the second recent conjoint publication by Reeve and Stapp; all to do with esoteric, arcane and obscure vocabulary – sesquipedalian, anyone – and so much more besides. Before I write further, I must stress that the book is an equal partnership between words and images and that one cannot thrive without the other.

This slim tome is a cogent symbiosis of the two: Stapp’s colourful, exaggerated designs well complement Reeve’s colourful, exaggerated lexicon, as purveyed via the voice of Greta; who incidentally dresses as lavishly as her harlequin declarations. Thus, she

took pleasure in garments of violet and purple.

Once again, as with the initial publication of Hogart the Hedgehog Turns Nink (2015), Reeve and Stapp are deliberately crafting something rather more than a kid’s pictorial storybook. For not only is the vocabulary deliberately too abstruse for most young children to be able to pronounce, let alone comprehend, but the ironies within the text may also pass them by somewhat: Greta Von Gerbil is a kid’s tale built more for adults. The authors are confronting reader prejudices that dictate that big bright pictures, cartoon and caricature-like, must mean a ‘children’s book’: this is far from the case in this publication.

It is a deconstruction of preconceptions as to what a more mature audience ‘should’ read. To double negate, not that this book cannot be read and enjoyed as a kid’s escapist fantasy tale too, even if its text largely will assail young ears to no avail – via Reeve’s credo that the language reserved for kids’ books should not be ‘dumbed down.’

Greta Von Gerbil is also a deconstruction of the power and pedantry contained in the usage and ownership of the English language by those most able to maintain this double-P ethos: namely, fluent, ‘native’ speakers, who will always befuddle, belittle and bewilder non-native proponents of the tongue. As in Hong Kong SAR, for example, where the authors reside (remembering that Reeve is a Kiwi expatriate.) A manifest irony is that a Cantonese-fluent local populace will buy this book to read to their younger generations in the rather mistaken purchase that anything written in English has to be good for them, because English-speakers continue to rule the roost, and to crow so! Yes, even in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Given that the prime exponent of incredible vocabulary, Greta the gerbil, is also a gentle soul and wields her words as a form of survival mechanism in a hostile environment, her sheer mastery of English is a prime challenge for those for whom English remains indecipherable, incomprehensible, involute; in other words the generally silent majority. Such is this challenge that the amassed rodents try very hard – in vain – to better Greta, to show her up, to defeat her linguistic prowess. The message is clear: native owners of English rule. Non-native non-owners are all too often left in the wake of the English language Hydra, so much so that they are further bewitched by the prolix nonsense words delivered later in the story. Yet, by the finish of this thin, hardcover rhyming verse-fest, one of these non-native speakers, Sophie McGopher, accepts Greta’s ultimate prowess and demurely relinquishes this challenge that the annoyed Seamus McHamster – the mastermind behind the earlier purloining of lexis from Greta’s thesaurus in an attempt to beat and defeat her – had put her up to.

There is far more here, however, than merely a further droll digest of vainglorious English language prattle and gobbledygook winning the day. For me, knowing Hong Kong very well and living there off and on in any given year, Reeve’s performance-orientated words and the stylized artwork throughout also convey its convoluted rat-race, whereby several people – politicians especially – are out to dominate and overrule one another; where one-upmanship and subjugation are rife and freedom of expression is under severe threat from both Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong) and mainland PR China sources, often in league one with the other. Greta the Gerbil, then, is an ironic portrayal of living in this competitive, somewhat rapacious society, where just about anything is seen as a threat these days and where there is currently a competition to see who will be the next Chief Executive. Thus we have lyric details such as the following:

– hard-bitten streets

– scampering race

  • years of careering through mazes and cages

for scraps and the peanuts of granular wages.

More than such Swiftian societal synopsis, I also see the book as a depiction of Blair Reeve’s own personal-poetic passage in Hong Kong: he is different, he is a performance-oriented troubadour-poet, who does not attempt to snugly fit into the comfortable English-language-dominant middle-class poetry niches extant there. Reeve is himself rather like Greta von Gerbil in several ways: an existential outsider, who employs different coping mechanisms and poetic techniques and who – as noted – just does not always segue smoothly into these comfortable cadres. Like Greta, he is well aware of

my taste for ungainly

expressions that tickle and tackle the mind.

And employs

tonal conviction

and accurate fusion of unusual diction

Reeve himself, then, is a challenge personified to establishment literati edifices in Hong Kong and this book is both his – and Stapp’s – slap in the face to ignorance, nepotism, cabal. The fact that Greta wins, albeit very graciously, yet still remains rather isolated from the masses, is his own victory over the ingrained cliché posing of their question,

Do we really want posers like that in our towns?

So,

In my own disjointed way

I would also venture to say,

that when Greta has her day

it’s not really English that conquers

  • for we well learn that its bonkers –

but that there are factions in Honkers.

In other words, literally, and now even more than ever, Hong Kong needs its own freewheeling folk to stand up for independence, difference, autonomy across all facets of living, even if they have to – rather bizarrely – utilize one ex-colonial ruler’s tortuous verbal verbiage to offset the newer colonizing kids in town; as regimented and reigned over by such populist politicos as Seamus McHamster. [Please feel free to select any other names from the vine of your own local vermin.]

I look forward to the next installment of these Orwellian sagas…