Monday, October 04, 2010

Book Notes: Stalin Ate Mt Homework by Alexei Sayle

While some childhood memoir books use extravagant writing to tease out every possibility from a relatively mundane plot - Alexei Sayle's Stalin Ate My Homework, does the exact opposite. Without flowery prose or many deliberate 'jokes', he tells the story of his early years in an understated, almost matter-of-fact voice. It's this which makes the book so compelling, because while the story being told is so bizarre, so endearing, and so profoundly unusual that it might be ripe for hyperbole, and adjective straining comparisons; it is told as if it were all completely normal! This is in fact what makes the book so funny.

While the realisation that his family were a little different grows on the young Sayle through the course of the book, he still manages to astonish the reader with the childlike sense that being raised by committed communists with unfettered admiration for Stalin was just another part of growing up. Spending his holidays enjoying the perks of Union conferences, or travelling on delegations to parts of the Eastern Bloc, were all just aspects of what it meant to be brought up by parents whose life-purpose was ideological and whose ideology informed every decision, from what to buy to what to watch on television, to what to read. It clearly had an effect on Sayle which contributed to making him an odd character! In one entertaining passage Sayle discusses why he was never able to really enjoy hobbies like other boys who built airfix models or went train-spotting:
I kept trying and trying, but perhaps I just didn't have that collectors impulse or maybe it was simply that my hobby, and my family's hobby was the elimination of private property via the violent expropriation of landowners, industrialists, railroad magnates and shipowners; organisation of labour on publicly owned land, in factories and workshops - with competition among the workers abolished, and the centralisation of money and credit in the hands of the state through a national bank, and the suppression of all private banks and bankers. So writing numbers down in a book was likely to have a hard time competing with that. (p132)
Alexei's father, Joe Sayle appears in the narrative as almost saint-like, dependable, warm, principled and loving. His mother, Molly on the other hand is positively incendiary! While she obsesses over her only child, she yells, shouts, intimidates, interferes with everything while swearing like a trooper - through much of the book. Some of the funniest scenes in the book describe Molly hurling abuse at the capitalist propaganda (ie BBC TV), and the whole family tuning into the Queen's Speech simply in order to generate these high-volume denunciations!

The book concludes with Alexei both irritating his parents, by siding with Mao (different groups, different meetings, different newspapers, different doctrine) against the Russians; and being irritated by his parents when they start attending all the same parties and clubs as him!

Alexie Sayle's memoir is highly readable, almost unbelievable, hugely entertaining, and quite revealing. I did enjoy the way in which he sought, at times, to paint himself in the worst possible light! It's quite unlike anything else I have read - at times funny, constantly surprising, and utterly intriguing. It is also crying out for a follow-up book, in which we might finally discover what sense he made of the ideological indoctrination of his childhood. Apparently, Molly Sayle called the book a 'pack of lies' to which he responded that as a typical Stalinist she was alwasy wanting to re-rite history, airbrushing out its inconveniences!

A clip of Sayle reading from his book is on YouTube here:

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