Roald Dahl’s Magical Chocolate World

The editors of the London Review of Books blog have reminded me–not personally, silly, I don’t know them that well, or rather, at all–that September 13th was Roald Dahl Day. They do so by noting Michael Irwin’s review of George’s Marvelous Medicine (which, sadly, I have not read), one that references in turn, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a book that more than any other, enabled me, and perhaps thousands of other kids to feel that, finally, an adult had understood just how insane chocolate drove us.

I had borrowed the book from a friend’s bookshelf, in the midst of what may be described as my ‘Roald Dahl phase.’ And it wasn’t a phase for me alone; indeed, at that time, it seemed like my entire family–my father, my mother, my brother and I–were caught up in Dahl-mania. We were members of the local British Council Library, which stocked many of his works, and for a few giddy months, it was all Dahl, all the time. My brother and I–thirteen and eleven respectively, I think–read both his adult fiction and his children’s stories. (Some of the former were deliciously raunchy, especially My Uncle Oswald, and once again, for the umpteenth time, I must thank my parents for not being prudes and letting us read what we wanted.)

We all found Dahl’s signature twisted endings and dark humor hugely entertaining, and I chuckled over many, many stories with my parents (for some reason, I remember more discussions with my mother) but still, it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that confirmed Dahl’s status as literary genius in my pre-teen mind. I was dimly aware, even as I read it, that this wasn’t a children’s book like others I read: the seemingly almost-Dickensian descriptions of Charlie and his family’s poverty, the mysterious factory, and the grim fates of Charlies companions–the obese Augustus Gloop, the spoiled Veruca Salt, the quasi-ruminant, gum-chewing, Violet Beauregarde, and the television obsessed Mike Teavee–reminded me that this packed a dark punch, one enough to make me shudder a bit and resolve to not be indolent or bratty. And what about those pygmy-like Oompa-Loompas?

But, as I started off by saying, what made the book really work was that it was about chocolate, wonderful, lovely, dark, sweet, nut-ridden, soft, melting, chocolate, the most precious thing of all. It was always rationed, always scarce, and no gift from family friend, overseas-returned relative or parent was as treasured. (That’s a slight exaggeration, because I was nerdy enough even then to treasure gifts of books as much.) Still, those amazing descriptions of eating chocolate, its aromas, its consistency, all enabled Dahl to deftly, cleverly and finally, magically, create what felt like an almost unimaginable sensual extravaganza: a world populated by chocolate.  Yes, Charlie got to go to heaven for being a good boy, so perhaps there was something disappointingly moralistic about it all, but I was willing to overlook it then, my brain addled by all that cacao and sugar, caught up in its own frenzied imaginings of a world in which ambrosia was not strictly rationed and came one’s way, when and whenever I wanted.

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