When I Was Five I Killed Myself is an odd little book. Let me address the little first of all. The book is: 15.2 x 9.6 x 1.4 cm in size. My novel is 19.3 x 13 x 1.3 cm in size. In other words it is two-thirds smaller than the average book not that my book is in any way average other than in size. I did not know that when I ordered it although when I received my copy I felt somewhat let down, about one-third let down if you want to know,
It had a cool title and you always get bonus points for a cool title. There are so many books with lukewarm titles out there. This book is not one of them. It was not simply the title that roped me in, suspicious so-and-so that I am. Oh, no. I read reviews.
The reviewers, clearly a mixed bag of amateurs, all praised the book and considered it a crying shame that it was not better known in the author’s home country. Fine, fine, thought I and then came the clincher: the hero and narrator, an eight year-old boy, was likened to Holden Caulfield. Ah.
I am sure I am not alone in regretting Salinger’s decision to become a recluse but what can one do about it? He can’t have long to go and then hopefully his relatives will see sense unless the bugger burns all the manuscripts he’s supposedly been working on all these years. In the interim the opportunity to read anything with a whiff of Salinger’s genius was worth forking out £2.94 plus £2.75 postage. Although a full-sized book for that price would have been nice.
I said it was an odd book as well as a little book. Well it is. My copy has footnotes. Unusual in itself, yes, but more unusual is the fact that they are in German. The book is in English but the footnotes are in German. Stranger still is the fact that this is a reprint of a novel by an American author, clinical psychologist and professional clown, which was first published in 1981 in a French translation where it became a bestseller and has been read by one in ten of the French population who know how to read. The author was even made a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
If I was to stop my review here you’d be tempted wouldn’t you?
But let me tempt you further.
I have already mentioned that the book is narrated by an eight year-old boy. His name is Burton Rembrandt (Not so dissimilar to Holden Caulfield is it?) who is at the Children’s Trust Residence Centre because of what he did to Jessica and like any author worth his salt the author, one Howard Buten, keeps us in suspense for the best part of the book. The girl is not dead – we learn that much quite early on – but whatever it was he did resulted in her being hospitalised. In the first chapter the author plays a trick on us poor readers and makes us think she’s dead.
When I was five I killed myself.
I was waiting for Popeye who comes after the News. He has large wrists for a person and he is strong to the finish. But the News wouldn’t end.
My dad was watching it. I had my hands over my ears because I am afraid of the News. I don’t enjoy it as television. It has Russians on who will bury us. It has the President of the United States who is bald. It has highlights from this year’s fabulous Autorama where I have been once; it was quite enjoyable as an activity.
A man came on the News. He had something in his hand, a doll, and he held it up. (You could see it wasn’t real because of the sewing.) I took my hands off.
“This was a little girl’s favourite toy,” the man said. “And tonight, because of a senseless accident, she is dead.”
I ran up to my room.
I jumped on my bed.
I stuffed my face into my pillow and pushed it harder and harder until I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I held my breath.
Needless to say he doesn’t kill himself. It does give you an idea how Burt talks. He’s clearly a reasonably smart kid for eight (he is, after all, the spelling champion of his grade), I would even go as far as to call him precocious, but he also gets things terribly wrong. As you would expect. He knows stuff without fully understanding it. His grammar leaves a lot to be desired but at least Buten takes care to make sure Burt makes the same mistakes consistently.
Because he has his unique way of talking it’s not so hard to see why people might draw comparisons between this book and Catcher in the Rye. Apart from the language and the mental health issues we also have the female lead to take account of. Holden dotes on his sister, Phoebe; Burton dotes on a girl at school, Jessica Renton, a girl described as having brown hair and no braids that always has her hands behind her back. At eight, though, this is less about love and more about finding a kindred spirit in this world. Jessica is far less of a stabilising influence on Burt as Phoebe is on her brother as demonstrated by her behaviour during a spelling bee:
“Receive what?” said Jessica. Everybody laughed. Krepnik got real mad. “Receive is the word, young lady. Spell it please.”
“Jessica, maybe you would prefer to go straight to the office and forfeit you right to be in this Spelling B,” said Krepnik. “Is that what you want? Do you think your parents would find that amusing?”
Miss Iris said, “Jessica, either spell the word or you may take an E in the spelling for the whole semester. Is that clear?” She was mad too.
But I thought something. That Jessica is very smart in school and that she would win the Spelling B, and not me. I got very nervous.
“Receive,” said Miss Krepnik.
“Could you use it in a sentence, please?”
“Yes. I like to receive things.”
“Receive,” said Jessica. “M P X L Y H H O. Receive.”
This is an important section. Jessica is not simply a female version of Burt. Oh no. She is Eve to Burt’s Adam. Burt is not really a bad boy. Curiosity often gets the better of him and he gets into trouble, just like other kids, but he is the one who is bullied, not the bully.
The story is told in two strands in overlapping chapters. Burt talks about what’s happening to him day by day in the Children’s Trust Residence Centre and also relates the events that led up to his being sent there. The first chapter is just there to throw everyone off the scent and the book would survive fine without it but since it generates the cool title I guess it had to stay. It’s only a page and a half long so don’t worry about it.
In the Centre Burt’s nemesis is Dr. Nevele:
“Burt, I want us to be pals. Pals that tell each other things. Because I think I can help you figure out what your problems are, and then help you solve them. You’re a sick little boy. The sooner you let me help you the sooner you’ll get better and go home. Help me, ok?”
Burt’s not playing. He has, what he would call "a conniption fit" (because that’s what his mother calls his strops), and starts throwing things around the good doctor’s office eventually ending up in the Quiet Room which is where he finds a modicum of peace and begins to write out his story literally on the walls of the room. This is also where he meets his ally, an unconventional first year intern by the name of Rudyard Walton (clearly modelled on Buten himself) who, although he denies to his superiors taking any therapeutic interest him, befriends Burt and gains a level of trust; he also speaks up on the boy’s behalf saying that Burt has no purpose being there but no one is interested in his pleas. At one point Burt steals some letters from Dr. Nevele’s office which includes a copy of a letter from Rudyard to Dr. Nevele:
This child is no more of a threat to society than Orphan Annie. (At least he has irises.) The psychoses you seem bent on finding in his young psyche are no more than signposts that give clear directions to a place you’ve obviously never been to: Yourselfville.
Burton’s been double-crossed, and he’s mad. Wouldn’t you be? He doesn’t know it in his mind (forest of trees) but he feels it in his guts (literally, sometimes), and it was partially this double cross that led to the incident with Jessica Renton, and that continues to lead him into tantrums and silences here where he doesn’t belong and knows it.
He is a human being in kid’s clothing. He has the organs and the feelings of his species, but none of the rights. And he is not alone. This country is stewing itself in the notion that you’re not a person until you reach voting and drinking age. It’s wrong.
You don’t get it, Doctor (with all due respect), and because you don’t get it, you can’t give it. Let him go home. He isn’t crazy, he isn’t even strange. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
So there we have it. The age-old battle of the liberals against the conservatives, innovation versus the tried and tested. Yes, ultimately there is a socio-political subtext to this book. It is about the use and misuse of power. Like all kids Burt is subject to a system, to a world he doesn’t understand. There is no right of appeal. All he can hope to do is serve his sentence and grow up in the process. There’s nothing to stop him rattling his cage now and then and he does. One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “I think what's best about it is that the more you read it, the more you wish you could do something about it.” But that’s the thing, just as Burt is trapped in childhood so are we readers trapped on the other side of the page. All we can do is keep turning those pages. And turn them I did.
Seemingly, this book was originally targeted at the young adult market, but it is clearly an adult book. That said, I was intrigued by the comments made on this French site by children as young as twelve; the Google Translate filter is on. I didn’t find myself feeling any less empathetic for the youngsters in the book simply because of my age. If anything it took me back to a time I too rarely try to remember and, now I think about it, for broadly similar reasons. Burt doesn't want to be a kid anymore. But the way he sees it, being an adult doesn't hold much promise either. I know where he’s coming from.
Although the amateur reviews were all glowing not all the professionals were as kind. One said:
The many grammatical errors, which serve as unsubtle reminders that this is, after all, a child we're dealing with here, are simply lazy shortcuts meant to compensate for the overall tone, which is ultimately too precociously self-aware to be believable. – New York Times
I suspect what this reviewer has failed to do is to buy into the whole thing. You simply have to watch children with a clown to see how they do that. Or, maybe I’m being overly generous. Here’s what another had to say:
Buten writes in a style I have never seen before. He captures the childlike voice quite well, but often I am left wondering whether an eight year old boy would really put sentences together in the way that they are in this book. – Jingle
The thing is I have seen that style before, a book called The Way The Family Got Away by Michael Kimball where the narrator is younger than Burt and nowhere near as bright and that book also received similar love-it or loathe-it reviews. All I can say is that whereas I struggled with that book I did not with When I Was Five I Killed Myself and I suspect that the only way any reader will be able to judge the book is by reading it themselves.
I struggled a bit trying to establish the year in which the book was set. It’s not terribly important but I had a suspicion that it wasn’t set in the eighties when the book was written. On further investigation I discovered that the book has since been turned into a film set in 1962 which would have made John F Kennedy president so I suspect the president in the book is actually Eisenhower (1953-61). The film is in French (Quand j'avais cinq ans, je m'ai tue) but for some reason they change Burt’s name to Gilbert, Gil for short. Why do they do that? It’s also been produced as a play in France. I guess they must have really loved that book. In the interview at the end of this review Buten only talks about it being in the fifties.
The book was first published in the States in 1981 under the not-very-inviting title, Burt, and quietly flopped. It has since been re-released and one can only hope the book-buying public discover it. It is a little gem.
I’ve seen the book compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in which the narrator is a fifteen year-old autistic boy. I’ve also seen Burt described by one reviewer as “an autistic spectrum child” but he is not and all you have to do is read the introduction to Buten’s book Through the Glass Wall where he describes his first encounter with autism to know that he knows the difference.
In that respect the book has more in common with bears comparison with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; McMurphy is not crazy but what he experiences and witnesses of psychiatric ‘care’ makes him mad as hell. Burt does meet an autistic boy called Carl while in the Centre but the whole crux of the book for me hinges on the fact that Burt is normal and it’s his normalcy that gets him in bother. Here I differentiate normalcy from conformity: doing what comes naturally is totally different from doing what is expected. What I’m saying here is that there is an important message to this book and one that should put aside any minor quibbles about the accuracy of Buten’s dialogue-writing skills and listen to that message.
Howard Buten, Ph.D., the author of eight novels published in France, is also a performing artist known as Buffo the clown, who has played opera houses around the world. A clinical psychologist (a ground- breaking researcher in therapies for autistic children) he divides his time between Paris and New York. He is the founding director of the Adam Shelton Centre in Paris, a noted clinic for the treatment of autism, a field in which he has worked since 1974.
If you click here you can listen to a fascinating interview with the author recorded by CBC in Quebec which covers his three separate lives. You'll need to have RealPlayer installed for it to play.