How symbols become symbols, or what keeping atoms in harmony has to do with language acquisition.
BY MARIA POPOVA
A LITTLE OVER TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after they published their first two children's books, Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi published the ecological parable The Gnomes of Gnù. Like in the earlier works, The Gnomes of Gnù carries a heavy-handed message, in this case that we should work on cleaning up the earth. But unlike The Bomb and the General and The Three Astronauts, The Gnomes of Gnù lacks a clear protagonist that undergoes some kind of change meant to represent the change we should all make to improve the world. There is a protagonist, the Space Explorer (called SE throughout), but he functions simply as a lens that focuses on all of the ecological horrors that plague the earth: smog, oil spills, deforestation, not to mention drug abuse and automobile accidents, not quite ecological, but still a problem. He's willing to then be the messenger of change, but not through any conviction, simply because, why not? As a result, the book isn't that compelling, which is perhaps why it is so scarce. Only five libraries hold the English edition worldwide according to WorldCat.
"ONCE UPON A TIME there was on Earth -- and perhaps there still is -- a powerful Emperor, whose greatest desire was to discover a new land." His ministers have to inform him that all of the land on Earth has been discovered, and that space exploration is the future of discovery. So he sends out a Space Explorer, SE, to find a beautiful planet to which they can bring civilization.
After combing "the immensity of space for a long time," finding only barren rocks and spitting volcanoes, SE finally finds an inhabited planet: Gnù.
The gnomes of Gnù come out to meet SE, and SE tells them he's discovered them. They say that they discovered him, but they won't quibble over the matter, "otherwise we'll spoil our day." SE says he's come to bring them civilization. The gnomes ask what civilization is.
"'Civilization,' SE answered, 'is a whole lot of wonderful things that Earth people have invented, and my Emperor is willing to give it all to you free of charge.'"
The gnomes require more of a definition than this, so SE pulls out "his megalactic megatelescope and trained it on our planet."
That's where, somewhat embarrassed, SE has to admit that Earth has smog, oil spills--"'You mean your ocean is full of shit?' the second gnome asked, and all the others laughed, because when somebody says 'shit' on Gnù, the other gnomes can't help laughing.'"--, litter, deforestation, traffic jams, automobile crashes, disease from smoking, intravenous drug abuse, and motorcycle accidents. The gnomes are understandably not interested in receiving civilization.
"'Listen, Mr. Discoverer, I've just had a great idea. Why don't my people go down to Earth and discover you?'" The gnomes can then teach everyone to take care of meadows, gardens, trees, to collect litter and end pollution, and to walk instead of drive.
SE just says, "'All right then..I'll go home and talk about it with the Emperor.'"
At home, the ministers aren't going to let the gnomes come without the proper papers. Then one of them trips on chewing gum and is grievously injured, thus changing the subject.
"For the moment our story ends here. We're only sorry we can't add that everybody lived happily ever after." Let's just hope we can do on our own what the gnomes would have taught us.
TO READ THE GNOMES OF GNÙ in its entirety, you can view it as a Flickr set here. To answer your question, yes, the book actually uses the word "shit."
"ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS EARTH.
"And once upon a time there was Mars."
The people of Earth want to explore Mars. They send up rockets that fall back to the ground. Then they send up rockets that go out into space. Then they send up a dog in a rocket, "but the dogs couldn't talk, and the only message they sent was 'bow wow.'" So they finally send up a man.
"One fine morning three rockets took off from three different places on Earth," an American, a Russian, and a Chinese. They all want to be the first person to set foot on Mars, and none of them liked one another.
"Since all three of them were very smart, they landed on Mars at almost the same time." They get out to explore the alien landscape, but "They looked at each other distrustfully. And each kept his distance."
Then in the dead of night, afraid and alone, they each utter their word for "Mommy," which sounds almost the same in each of their languages. So they realize they're all feeling the same thing, and choose to camp together, singing songs and learning about one another.
First thing in the morning, a Martian shows up, and he's so scary looking that all three humans band together, and point their "atomic disintegrators" at him, ready to kill him. He, for his part, finds the humans to be "horrible creatures."
Then a baby bird falls from its nest, and the astronauts and the Martian all pause, and shed a tear for such a heartbreaking sight. The Martian picks up the bird and tries to shelter it, and the humans realize he's feeling the same thing they are, and they go over and shake his hands and all of them decide to return to Earth together.
"And so the visitors realized that on Earth, and on other planets, too, each one has his ways, and it's simply a matter of reaching an understanding."
WHILE THE SUBJECT IN THE THREE ASTRONAUTS feels somewhat dated, its message is not, which is why the Family Opera Initiative is currently developing an opera based on the book. A composer from each of the three countries--America, Russia, and China--is composing music, with words by American poet Nikki Giovanni. (They're looking for donations, so do click through.)
In my post on The Bomb and the General, I went into some depth raising the question, what does Eco's text say about Eco's concept of children's literature, without offering any kind of answer. It's not often that you get an answer from the artist himself, but Eugenio Carmi sat for an interview in conjunction with the opera, which provides insight into the way in which the book was created, and how he and Eco thought about children's literature.