Posted inCultures

My Degree in a Book: History

Illustration by Yii-Jen Deng

Fattypuffs and Thinifers by André Maurois

I am very aware that it is going to be difficult for me to explain why a French children’s book with a strange name, written in 1930 and translated into English in 1941, inspired me to study history.  

Yet it is a book that I think truly encapsulates all elements of what the study of history is (perhaps even better than the rather homogenous university curriculum) and ranks alongside Horrible Histories as one of the best entry points to an otherwise seemingly dry subject. 

At any rate, it was a large part of the reason 8-year-old me, obsessed with dinosaurs and all things science, turned into 13-year-old me, obsessed with Romans and all things history. I can assure you this book was a greater part of that transformation than learning about the Industrial Revolution and when the spinning jenny was invented.

As a children’s book, the narrative structure of Fattypuffs and Thinifers is not particularly complicated. It is the classic model of ‘two children disappear into a magical world, stay there for months and fix everything, and then come back to find only a few seconds have passed in the real world’. The main characters are the Double brothers – Terry, who is older and very skinny, and Edmund who is the younger sibling and rather fat. The plot starts off while they are climbing on some rocks and see an escalator going down into the earth, and, upon taking it, arrive at a harbour town, where two ships are about to set off. The two ships, one of which is very long and thin and pitches back and forth, the other of which is short and round, and rolls from side to side, are the first clues as to what sort of world they’re entering. 

Everything in this land under the ground is divided in two, with one ‘thin’ version and one ‘fat’ version. The two brothers quickly discover everyone is either a ‘Thinifer’ or a ‘Fattypuff’, that the two countries are the Kingdom of the Fattypuffs and the Republic of the Thinifers, and that the two groups are irreconcilable – you get the picture, it’s not a complicated set up. If I was writing this as a telegram rather than an article, I’d describe the book as ‘a political Romeo and Juliet story set in Narnia’.

It must also be said at this point that its age really shows, and as much as I love the book for the quality of the writing and the great story, it does use pretty harmful stereotypes. As is predictable for a 1930s moral tale, the Fattypuffs are lazy, cheery and amiable; whereas the Thinifers are hard-working, efficient, mean and unsociable. The Thinifers are in a rush to get everywhere, ‘eat to live, not live to eat’, and live in hilariously gothic blocks of flats; the Fattypuffs travel slowly, eat while they work, and build primarily baroque bungalows, with huge round domes on top.

While in some ways the author André Maurois does try to portray the Fattypuffs as the ‘goodies’ (it’s much easier to like the Fattypuff characters), this does not get past the fact that he uses exaggerated tropes throughout the book, and there is absolutely no nuance to any of the characterisations – the nations are caricatures, and the illustrations are deliberately done in the style of political cartoons.

Terry and Edmund travel to their respective nations, and follow parallel courses of development, both befriending a senior official on the boat ride and being taken on as an assistant. The book is mostly set out in this structure – one chapter on Terry, then the equivalent chapter for Edmund, and the almost ludicrous contrasts between their otherwise similar experiences is what makes this book so entertaining. 

The names are equally funny – King Plumpapuff rules from the capital at Fattyborough, with his advisors Professor Ramfatty and Prince Vorapuff; while President Rugifer resides in Thiniville, with his Chancellor Dulcifer. 

Having set out the framework of the story I can now get on to what makes it even vaguely relevant to a history degree (and spoiler alert, it’s a very tenuous connection). The driver of the plot is the conflict between the two nations over the island in the sea between them, or more importantly, over what to call it. One side wants it to be Thinipuff, the other Fattyfer. The tensions between the two sides escalate throughout, until a diplomatic conference is held on the island, which both Terry and Edmund attend, in a building designed by a human architect, to avoid favouring one side. The inevitable result is that the Thinifers find it too big and the Fattypuffs can’t fit through the doorway.

Eventually the two sides go to war, with the disciplined and ruthless Thinifers triumphing and conquering the Fattypuff Kingdom. However, when the two sides meet each other they become friends, marry, have children together, and eventually form a unified state full of a whole range of body types. The island is renamed Peachblossom. It’s a very nice, happy ending to an otherwise oddly violent book.

What makes Fattypuffs and Thinifers so good for history, and so different to most children’s books, is its entertaining and light way of presenting high politics, war and, of course, social strife. This makes me sound like a total nerd, which, of course, I am, but these three themes are crucial to most of history, and yet have the capacity to be so boring.

Reading this book was the first time I saw war as something more than the childish view of ‘fun with guns’, or as the clash of total good and irredeemable bad, but as something that actually has complicated, long-term effects. The fact that both sides are portrayed equally throughout, both with virtues and vices, means it’s impossible to ‘support’ one side, especially knowing that Terry and Edmund are at risk.

Similarly, it teaches that being ‘better’ at war, or more efficient at violence does not mean you win in the long-term, or that you are the better person. Typical children’s books equate the mightiest warrior with the moral high ground, and it is rare to see your favourite characters lose a battle, let alone the war as a whole. Moreover, the fact that military victory does not necessarily mean the success of your ideology is a surprisingly nuanced, but nonetheless important, point that crops up often throughout history. Essentially, this book presents war to children in a much better way than the usual goodie-versus-baddie model, and shows it in a more complicated light, and one that is more easily applicable to actual history.

The diplomatic conference, while being one of the funniest scenes in the book, also has important themes to it. It gets you to empathise with the concerns of both sides – to understand what their priorities are, why they feel so strongly, what they are angry about, and how the issue can be solved. Though the issue itself is a bit ridiculous, this only serves to better outline how international conflicts are at once overwhelmingly complex and ludicrously simple.  

Not to get political, but it’s easy to equate the Thinipuff/Fattyfer debate with contemporary issues like the North Macedonia naming dispute, or the Northern Ireland border, or even why Taiwan and China refuse to recognise each other. These issues in theory should be simple, but when you really try to understand the positions of both sides it rapidly becomes impossible to resolve.

The resolution of the book, with the difficult but ultimately successful integration of the two peoples into one society, is of course a common theme in history, from the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to guard against the Viking threat, to the integration of the Yangtze River civilisation by the early Chinese dynasties, the bridging of the previously impenetrable Indian north-south divide by Ashoka, or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While obviously very utopian and idealistic, I do feel the need to re-emphasise that this is a children’s book. Fattypuffs and Thinifers introduced me to the hope and the possibility of an end to conflict, and made me think about what might be the best means to go about that. So, that would not be a top-down imposed unification, but one led from the bottom, by organic social connections between the two peoples and the courage not to seek revenge.

On a much lighter note, it has a great map in the middle of the book, and ever since then I always turn to the map sections of history books first. Geography plays such a major role in history, and it’s almost impossible to understand any conflict or region without knowing the layout. For example, though the Republic of the Thinifers and the Kingdom of the Fattypuffs do meet, the only land bridge between them is over a (virtually) impassable desert. I would hate to over-analyse (I’m not, after all, an English student), but surely this physical separation was put into the story by Maurois to emphasise and explain their great opposition to each other. We all know that the best way to break down stereotypes is through experience, and so the lack of contact between the two capitals (one is in the bottom left corner, the other in the bottom right, about as far away from each other as you could get) is probably a contributing reason for their hostility and prejudices towards each other.

For me, Fattypuffs and Thinifers is a book that will never get dull, because there will always be something more in it to reflect on. That, after all, is the nature of old-timey moral tales: they weren’t just intended to make children think, but for the adult reading it to them, too. The frame of the story is very standard, the eventual happy ending almost entirely predictable. Yet everything in the middle is far from boring. You read Terry’s chapter and are converted to the Thinifer cause, and yet mid-way through Edmund’s you find yourself questioning that stance, and then confirming it, and then rejecting it, as you progress through the book. The themes it deals with are complex and very relevant to most areas of history and indeed to current affairs, yet are presented in a funny and lighthearted way. It does of course have problems, as do all books of that age, but I cannot stop myself from returning to the book every now and then, and wondering what it will make me think of next.