I’ve never taken drugs and never smoked, not even one ciggie, even though I started clubbing age 14 at one of those Sunday afternoon discos for teenagers so popular in Italy back in the 90s. Acid was popular too, but I knew better: I had a clear picture of what can happen to you if you are not in control of your mind. How? Well, thanks to Christiane F., the German girl who started on dope when she was 12, ended up prostituting herself, hit rock-bottom and then decided to write a memoir which was a cult when I was a teenager.
In her book nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. You can see this 11-year-old girl lost in Berlin, and all the details of her miserable life that she shares with you are implanted in your mind forever. That’s what I call the power of the written word. I had the opportunity to be Christiane F., feeling her despair, hitting bottom with her, but staying safely at home. As a teenager, I believed that books told the truth: that was the very reason of their existence, and the prize for any reader brave enough to get to the end. So I assimilated Christiane’s experience and I always said NO to drugs.
Yesterday I read about the new edition of Christiane F.’s memoir, "Zoo Station". It has been reprinted as part of the True Stories series by Zest Books, but all the reviews on Amazon.co.uk are by adult readers who cry scandal about this dumbed-down version. Having read the old translation more than twenty years ago, they find changes in the new one unjustified. First of all, the characters talk like Americans and they’ve lost their ‘Germanity’ – they have lost their authenticity in the name of a more global approach to literature (i.e. anything non-English needs to be made suitable for English-speaking readers; i.e. English-speaking readers are too self-centred to identify with people from other countries or to imagine different locations and habits. Is that really true?). Secondly, the editor added notes to this edition. A YA novel with notes to explain things like “Thrombosis is a coagulation (clumping or curdling) of the blood” or “Kojak was an American television series starring Telly Savalas...”. As if teenagers weren’t clever enough to find the information they need. As if a teenage reader could dump a book because he doesn’t understand a word... and if he does that, what has caused this lack of reading skills? Finally, cuts were made to the strongest scenes, within a book which aims at being a True Story.
I’m really uncomfortable. If literature is not going to tell the truth any more, what will be its role? And who has the right to change the meanings and settings and language of a book in order to favour a passive reader who isn’t able to decode what they read? Is political correcteness a reason for censorship? Are we going to cut Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more understandable for an illiterate (or young) reader, so that illiteracy becomes a value and not something to overcome through reading?
Honestly, if I was still a teenager, I wouldn’t want my intelligence be handled like a lion in a cage, like something to control, to enfeeble, to benumb. And as an adult, I don’t want to pay for a bunch of lies packaged as something which resembles a book but is not a book, it’s just a commodity. So I join Amazon’s reviewers in their protests and say, find the original version if you really want to be Christiane F.