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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 70
Year: 2001
Author: Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Editora
Title: El río de los sueños: Aproximaciones críticas a la obra de Ana María Shua

Personified Animals

La batalla entre los cocodrilos y los elefantes, the first children’s book Shua published, features personified animals embroiled in a dispute over access to a particular spot in a river. The elephant newcomers want to bathe and relax, while the resident crocodiles resent the uninvited newcomers who are noisy and scare away the fish, the crocodiles’ food. Their contention over a spot in the river compares to an argument over a spot on the sofa, a place at the table, a window seat at a cafe. The newcomers and the residents demand what they deem theirs by self-determined right. With the conflict established, Shua then illustrates how the two groups manage to reach their own accord with regard to the river’s usage after a series of failed talks, unfinished battles, extended legal process, and misguided attempt at territorial division. Meddling in the crocodile-elephant dispute are a judicial stork, a solomonic hippopotamus and a story-telling giraffe whose narration seems to copy word for word what the reader has just read—”seems to” because Shua only gives the first sentence of the giraffe’s story (her own first sentence verbatim) while summarizing the rest up to the point where the giraffe begins narrating again and again and again.

This animal conflict is quite unlike those presented in traditional stories such as the fight between the lion and the ox or that between the owls and the crows. In these, the animals struggle for supremacy, often encouraged by either fawners who tell them what they want to hear, or by those desirous of personal gain or revenge. Once the battle begins it does not end until the conquest or the death of the opponent. Shua’s tale is much less violent, with the battles interrupted before any real damage occurs. Those who intercede do so to settle the dispute. During an interlude in the main action, the elephants and the crocodiles work in harmony, their quarrel set aside so they can arrive at a common end, the completion of a dam across the river. During a second interlude they sit together on the riverbank to listen to the giraffe’s story. Their acts of cooperation and acceptance belie their quarrelsome stance. At the same time they remind the reader of the words with which Shua begins her story: “los cocodrilos y los elefantes, por lo general, no son enemigos” (9). Moreover they point to the story’s conclusion, wherein both groups share the river, a settlement to their dispute.

Traditional Indo-European based stories created around animals are often humorous. Readers laugh derisively at the conceited, such as the fast rabbit, overcome by its own vanity. They laugh at the gullible, such as Henny Penny, because the readers “know the truth” and feel superior. They laugh when the hated snake or wolf is tricked by a clever fox or an industrious pig. In all cases, the laughter stems from or is directed to the type. This is not the case in La batalla entre los elefantes y los cocodrilos. In this tale, Shua’s humor comes from 1) carefully chosen words giving wonderful sounds: “[El hipopótamo] metiéndose sin miedo en medio de la lucha, les propuso su proyecto a los que peleaban” (24); 2) strategic, yet sparse, use of superlatives and dimunutives: “Al principio, todos escucharon interesadísimos, porque no hay nada más lindo que un cuento en el que uno mismo es el personaje principal” (39), and “Y [los elefantes] hubieran salido disparando patitas para que te quiero, cada uno por su lado, si un bramido de la elefanta guía no los hubiera detenido” (32); 3) asides which offer non-essential detail, and shift the focus from the principals, as in “Los únicos que estaban contentos eran los peces, porque los cocodrilos estaban tan ocupados que no podían perder tiempo buscándolos para comérselos” (19); and 4) repetition, both actual and implied, which gives the story its structure. In all cases the humor is more subtle than outright. Even the battle scenes that could be drawn out into a written form of slapstick never are; however, Alicia Charré’s line drawings, which elaborate upon the text more than illustrate it, do make the reader think the text is funnier than its words indicate. As an example, a drawing on page fifteen shows a young elephant whose trunk lies clamped between the jaws of a determined crocodile. The elephant’s eyes squint in pain, its ears extend to their full width, and its front legs are raised into an open V-shape, as if hands outstretched calling for help. The text from which the drawing derives states: “el cocodrilito charlatán ya le había mordido la trompa a un elefante bebé” (15). Shua never describes the baby elephant’s reaction but instead moves on to its mother’s retaliation, which, in turn, leads to an exhausting free-for-all, limited to one paragraph of text and void of superfluous detail.

The structure of La batalla entre los elefantes y los cocodrilos conforms to the narrative patterns of traditional tales not only through repetition but through its manipulation of three episodes. By illustrating three wishes, the performance of three tasks, or the reaction of three people to a specific incident or scene, the traditional tale stresses difference and gives more importance to the first and third examples, and often presents the second in abbreviated form or as mirror to the first. Shua’s three episodes are one and the same, with the same elements in the same order, shown in the following schematic:6

1. Prologue (description of crocodiles and elephants)>encounter between groups at river>confrontation over river use>conflict meddler (the stork and the hippopotamus)>temporary conclusion (divide river)>interlude (dam building)

2. Prologue (effects of dam building)>encounter (same)>confrontation (no water vs. too much) conflict>meddler (giraffe)>temporary conclusion (lie of hunters approach)>interlude (discovery of giraffe’s identity; preparing to hear tale)

3. Prologue (same as Shua’s)>(reference to several repeated narrations of the same story the reader has read to this point, with assumed encounters>confrontations>conflicts>meddlers up to the point where the giraffe begins to narrate)>conclusion (sharing river)

If any of these episodes is the weakest, it would be the third, in that it tells the reader about the narrations instead of letting the reader experience them. The summation speeds the telling and allows Shua to have the characters quickly resolve the story, because as the giraffe states, she cannot finish her tale until the crocodiles and elephants settle their dispute.

What we have then in the story’s third part is a narrative joke. Are readers aware they have not only read about the telling but also have imagined it? Are the readers aware how much in control the author is at this point? Are they aware that like the crocodiles and the elephants, they too are being manipulated (Shua herself uses the wordmanipular)? Are they aware that they too are laughing, not at the giraffe, but at Shua’s narrative voice? That they are being included as Shua jokes about her very authorship, when she attributes the book to the giraffe, “la verdadera autora” (43), who was earlier described as all-seeing, extremely famous, and a liar whose truths are even cast in doubt?