Friday, 16 November 2012
Blindness in Fiction 3: Ratburger
I have always loved being read to. Recently I have got into the habit of snuggling up with my boys as their Dad reads their bedtime story. We are going through a bit of a David Walliams phase at the moment. I was sceptical at first, after all, celebrities do not always make good writers, but I've been delighted with all his books, and so have my boys. They are inventive and exciting tales which are suffused with a gritty realism which makes them thought-provoking as well as entertaining. We were the first people to borrow Ratburger from the local library and were soon gripped by its appealing mixture of comedy and yuckiness.
As its title suggests, the novel features an evil fast-food seller-cum-pest control operative who turns rats into burgers (and cockroaches into ketchup). He is a horrible character who oozes filth, grease and murderous nastiness. He is also completely blind.
When the novel's heroine, Zoe, first discovers the rat-catcher's secret blindness, which he successfully conceals until chapter 24 (promisingly entitled 'Childburger'), my first reaction was anger. I thought that in a cheap trick borrowed from the horror film genre, Walliams was using blindness as shorthand for evil. There are hardly any blind characters in fiction, and almost none in children's literature. Most children who read Ratburger will never have met or even seen an actual blind person. All they know about blindness is what they learn from books, films and tv. And children's television is not exactly brimming with positive blind role models. So I worried that this association of blindness with evil will plant a seed of suspicion and terror in the minds of children. Blindness will forever be associated with sinister, creepy characters who are out to hurt innocent little girls. Burt's blindness stuck me as a gratuitous slur on the blind, particularly as it is not necessary to the plot. True, his uncanny sense of smell does make it harder for Zoe to hide from him in the warehouse, but he would have had just as much impact had he been sighted.
It would be easy to leave my critique there. But I'm not a fan of the kind of political correctness which demands that disabled people are always presented in a positive light. Of course there are evil blind people just as there are evil sighted ones. And Burt does shatter at least one myth of disability: there is no way that he can be described as a victim. He is neither passive nor self-pitying and has not let his blindness prevent him from pursuing his somewhat unsavoury career. He navigates exclusively through his sense of smell and even drives a van (albeit with sometimes disastrous results). If children are influenced by the images of disability they are exposed to, at least they won't grow up thinking that the disabled are helpless and should be pitied.
Burt is a deeply unattractive character. For me, his most unappealing characteristic is neither his questionable food hygiene nor his violent streak but the fact that he is ashamed of his blindness. He hides his empty eye sockets behind dark glasses and does everything he can to 'pass' as 'normal'. As Zoe points out, he refuses traditional trappings of blindness like a white cane or a dog. Burt hates his own blindness so much that he goes to considerable lengths to hide it. In fact his own self-loathing might well explain why he is so horrible to everyone he meets. By killing off this blind blindness-hater, Walliams is actually doing something remarkably positive for blindness. He is saying that hiding one's difference, being ashamed of one's own physicality is an easy route to misery and self-destruction. Burt does not die because he is blind, but his death is caused at least in part by his unhealthy attitude to his own blindness. By letting this character die in such a gruesome way, I'd like to think that Walliams is implicitly criticising a society whose occulocentrism is such that sight loss becomes something to be ashamed of, denied or hidden. Maybe in a future book, Walliams will give us a character who is proud to be blind. Now that really would be a book I'd like my children to hear..