Bambi: cute, adorable, vulnerable … or a dark parable of anti-Semitic terror? | Anti semitism

It’s a sweet story about a young deer who finds love and friendship in a forest. But the original story of Bambi, adapted by Disney in 1942, has a much darker start as an existential novel about persecution and anti-Semitism in 1920s Austria.

Now a new translation seeks to reaffirm the rightful place of Felix Salten’s 1923 masterpiece in adult literature and to shed light on how Salten was attempting to warn the world that Jews would be terrorized, dehumanized and murdered in the years to come. Far from being a children’s story, Bambi was in fact a parable about the inhuman treatment and dangerous precariousness of Jews and other minorities in what was then an increasingly fascist world, the new translation will show.

In 1935, the book was banned by the Nazis, who saw it as a political allegory about the treatment of Jews in Europe and burned it as Jewish propaganda. “The darker side of Bambi has always been there, ”said Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and translator of the forthcoming book.

“But what happens to Bambi at the end of the novel has been hidden, to some extent, by the Disney company who took the book back and made it into a pathetic, almost silly film about a prince and a bourgeois family.”

Salten’s novel, Bambi, a life in the woods, is completely different, he says. “It’s a book about surviving in your own home.” From birth, Bambi is constantly threatened by hunters who invade the forest and attack indiscriminately. “They kill any animal they want.”

Handwritten dedication by Felix Salten to his wife Ottilie on a page from the first English edition of Bambi. Photograph: Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

It quickly becomes evident that forest animals live their lives in fear and this constantly puts the reader “on edge”: “All animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also animals that are traitors, that help hunters to kill.

After the murder of Bambi’s mother, so was his beloved cousin Gobo, who had been made to believe that he was special and that the hunters would be “nice” to him. Bambi is slaughtered too, but survives thanks to the old prince, a majestic stag who treats him like a son (and possibly his father). But then, unfortunately, the old prince also dies, leaving Bambi completely helpless. “Bambi isn’t surviving well in the end. He is alone, totally alone… It is a tragic story about the loneliness and loneliness of Jews and other minority groups.

It feels like Bambi and all the other wild animals in the forest are just “born to be killed.” They know they will be cast out – and they know they will die. “The main theme is: you have no choice.”

Cover of The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest, by Felix Salten, in its new translation by Jack Zipes
The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest, by Felix Salten, in its new translation by Jack Zipes. Photography: Alenka Sottler

Salten, who changed his name from Siegmund Salzmann during his teenage years to “stand out” as a Jew in Austrian society, earned his main income as a journalist in Vienna. Zipes thinks he could see the direction in which the political winds were blowing. “I think he foresaw the Holocaust. He had suffered greatly as a child from anti-Semitism and by this time in Austria and Germany Jews were blamed for the loss of WWI. This novel is a call to say: no, that shouldn’t happen.

At one point in the novel, two leaves on a tree explain why they have to fall to the ground and wonder what will happen to them when they do. “These sheets are very serious about some really dark questions humans ask themselves: We don’t know what’s going to happen to us when we die. We don’t know why we have to die.

By writing a story about animals and wildlife, Salten was able to overcome the preconceptions and negative prejudices many of his readers had about Jews and other minorities: “It allowed him to talk about the persecution of Jews too. freely as he wanted. Without being didactic, it might encourage the reader to feel more empathy for oppressed groups – and Bambi might openly question the cruelty of their oppressors. “Many other writers, like George Orwell, have also chosen animals because you have more freedom to tackle issues that might irritate your readers. And you don’t want them to bristle, you want them to say, at the end: it’s a tragedy.

It is important to note that the new translation, which will be published on January 18 by Princeton Press, attempts to convey for the first time in English how certain characters in Salten’s novel have a Viennese “flair” when speaking in German. . “Animals have wonderful ways of speaking, which makes you feel like you are in a Viennese cafe. And you immediately recognize that they don’t talk like animals talk. They are human beings.

In contrast, the original English translation, which was published in 1928, toned down Salten’s anthropomorphism and changed its focus so that it was more likely to be understood as a simple conservation story about animals living in a Forest. It was the version read by Walt Disney, who liked animal stories.

When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Salten managed to escape to Switzerland. By that time he had sold the rights to the film for just $ 1,000 to an American director, who then sold them to Disney: Salten himself never earned a dime from famous animation. Stripped of his Austrian nationality by the Nazis, he spent his last years “alone and desperate” in Zurich and died in 1945, like Bambi, with no safe place to live.

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