Dying for attention
Jonas is a bad little boy. At least that’s what his decrepit old grandmother believes. His inner dialog oscillates wildly. It can be highly amusing in one moment and then suddenly turn brutal and downright frightening in the next. Thanks to this stream-of-conscious narrative that grants them direct access to the child’s most intimate thoughts and desires, the reader will be tasked with formulating their own assessment of his true nature. Try to remember however, he’s only a child.
From an early age it seems that the cards have been decidedly stacked against Jonas. He’s been raised without his father in the picture, by a mother who introduces her seemingly revolving door of male love interests to the child as his ‘uncles.’ He believes his dad is a pilot who traverses the globe, “writing postcards in the sky” for him to find, but judging by the comments made by the adults around him, the truth of the situation is likely far more sinister.
The novel opens with Jonas and his pregnant mother escaping to his grandmother’s house in the country after she suffers some damage to her face thanks to one of her suitors. Here they hope to rest, recuperate, and usher in the family’s new arrival without the complications of city life. There’s no TV here. Heck, they don’t even need to wear shoes when they go traversing out and about the land. It should be a relaxing, low-stress time, but Jonas’ demanding old hag of a grandmother takes an instant disliking to him, and almost immediately after their arrival his mother, the only person he feels in anyway truly attached to, picks up a new ‘uncle’ while shopping at the local supermarket. Sadly, it appears that Mom isn’t much of a role model as she can’t seem to break her own pattern of bad behavior.
If you’re feeling sorry for the lad up this point, well maybe you shouldn’t, because it’s clear that Jonas has some serious issues, especially when it comes to animals. He likes to capture flies and then freeze and revive them. He revels in torturing ants. And pigs? Well, read for yourself:
I like pigs. They’ve got such soft tits. We went on a class trip to a farm once, and I played with the sow’s tits. The others didn’t dare. Wusses. They stood and stared. The clueless sow was lying in the muck. On her side. She had big, round tits. She was grunting. Then I pinched her. Pulled. Squeezed. I got two hours’ detention because of that stupid pig.
Still, there’s a very real sense throughout the course of the novel that Jonas doesn’t understand the full extent of his actions and that he behaves in a negative way because that’s exactly what those around him have come to expect and that it’s the only way he knows how to get their attention. He lies. He tortures animals. He packs an air rifle for his vacation to grandma’s house. However, it’s not as if anyone is trying to connect with the boy in any meaningful way to address WHY he continually does these things.
When he meets a local girl around his age and she introduces him to the basic idea of intercourse and the anatomical differences between the sexes Jonas becomes even more confused. And when tragedy eventually strikes in final act, irrespective of his guilt or innocence, judgment will be passed on the youngster. This is based not on the facts of the situation, but instead upon who and what the people closest to him believe him to be. Like every single one of us though, Jonas’s identity is comprised of a twisted, complicated set of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that exist somewhere in-between the realms of good and evil.
Much like James Kelman did in his stunning novel Kieron Smith, Boy, debut author Stephan Valentin successfully transports the reader directly into the mind of a young male child. However where Kelman focused on reminiscing over the wondrous and beautiful pieces of childhood alongside the difficulties that arise from being young, Valentin instead wants us to intensely feel the pain of absence. He forces us to experience what it’s like to be fragile, alone, and desperate for love and attention. More importantly though, he makes us understand just what type of person we create when we withhold these important and necessary elements from a young child’s life.
Enemy of the Ants
By Stephan Valentin
Translated from the German by Moira Kerr