Horace Gregory
The Wicked Reptile as Hero

New York Herald Tribune Books / January 24, 1932

From the Russian by K.Chukovsky. Translated by Babette Deutsch, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincett Company, $1,50

The wicked crocodile is the real hero of this book. He walks the streets (very Russian streets indeed) in fine clothes, smokes cigarettes, talks Turkish, and swaggers with such freedom that people run away from him in evident alarm.

There is another hero, but he is only a foil for the crododile’s unusual gift of unblemished depravity. He is a brave little boy called Vanya Vassilchikov who undertakes a reform of the crocodile’s man-eating habits. Vanya effects the release of a policeman and a dog from the crocodiles capacious insides. One might think that such severe measures of reproof would utterly destroy even the hardest of creations. Not at all. The crocodile, like Johan’s whale, if anything, is tremendously relieved. What is more, the policeman and the dog are quiet unharmed; they are restored in perfect condition, upright and smiling.

This episode by no means ends the crocodile’s adventures. He returns to Africa and calls together a conclave of lions, tigers, monkeys and many others for the purpose of freeing the animals held as prisoners in city parks and zoos. The project is successful and again Vanya arrives as mediator.

So much for the story which is told in full page pen and ink drawings and rapidly running jingles and rhymes. The drawings are quiet unlike the usual product designed for American children. Nor are they typically Russian. They seem to spring from the particular Germanic tradition that followed Wilhelm Busch, the brilliant originator of Max and Moritz. Like most great humorists, Busch was a savage critic of humanity. Even in his gayest mood, there was an undercurrent of satire directed against human cruelty. One always pitied his animals. So in these crocodile pictures there is something of a like balance struck between morality and humour. The grotesque mannerisms of the crocodile are made effective by means of the Busch technique. The crocodile in civilan clothes, high stiff collar, cigarette and all, is a cross between a good fellow and a downright monster. He invites our sympathy, our tear and most important of all, our respect.

When we see the crocodile leading the army of beasts, he is a general indeed. The bears, elephants, lions, even monkeys come off far better than human beings. The people are stupid. Vanya, the brave little boy, might well grow into another statue of civic virtue in a city hall park. As for the rest, including the grinning policeman, they are pale, wavering creatures, hardly fit for the occasional affection that we bestw upon them.

Children from four to six will enjoy our friend, the crocodile, will forgive him his sins and perhaps, embrace the reptilian attitudes. The staccato jingles, translated by Miss Deutsch, will serve to glorify the picture.