Tomi Ungerer's Moon Men
Who goes to the moon?
Tomi Ungerer, the children's book author, died last year at 87. He had a childhood during the Second World War, began publishing in the late 1950s, and his final work is still coming out today. Since my son and I discovered his books, several have become favorites, including Crictor (1958), about a snake that becomes a hero to a French village, and Moon Man (1966), about the man on the moon and his visit to Earth.
Moon Man came out three years before the first real moonwalk, when the idea of travel between the Earth and its satellite still contained as much romance as it did scientific possibility. The moon man, whose ghostly body fills the moon's whole bright side, looks down "from his drifting sphere" and is "filled with envy as he watched the earth people dance."
When one day the moon man manages to reach the Earth, he is shocked to find a hostile welcome party, made up mostly of government and military types, who put him in jail.
The remaining story tells of his escape and return to his lunar home. For the moon man, Earth has it pleasures, but they are guarded by a people who will not tolerate the disorder of his unfamiliar presence.
Ungerer, writing in 1966, could still imagine that the Earth and moon were strangers to one another. Maybe it wasn't yet clear how soon the humans would invade the moon. The book lets the earth see itself in the frightened face of the moon man, who may be the lucky one: he visits for a while, but he still has a refuge, a celestial home that had more in common with an unreached heaven than Earth.
In one of Ungerer's last works for children, English title Non Stop (Phaidon, 2020), the moon and the earth have switched places. After an unexplained apocalypse, almost everyone escapes to the moon.
Birds, butterflies, and rats were gone.
Grass and leaves had withered.
Flowers had turned into memories.
Streets and buildings were deserted.
Everyone had gone to the moon.Tomi Ungerer, "Non-stop," 2020
Everyone except for one man named Vasco.1 We do not know why Vasco is the only one left, or what he is supposed to do now. Neither, it appears, does Vasco, who has been reduced to following orders from his "shadow," an intelligent double with ideas of its own, saving him from one disaster after another, always "Just in Time!"2
If Moon Man depicts the moral absurdity of treating the harmless visitor as a hostile alien, Non-Stop extends the absurd to the order and meaning of the world itself. The peril that menaced the outsider, moon man, is now a general condition across Earth. Vasco faces near-certain death, unless he allows himself to be whipped around by order of his shadow. But what does the shadow want? What is life on earth for this last human, other than the comfort of immediate safety?
The shadow directs Vasco to an alien infant, Poco (Italian, "little") whose parent, "Nothing," asked Vasco to rescue him and take him along. Vasco does find Poco, and they survive together, taking refuge in a giant cake in the desert (I told you this book reveled in absurdity), where Vasco, in the "softened light," must say goodbye to his shadow. They stay there for the rest their lives, according to the Epilogue, and "were never bored."
The moon is inconceivable without its shadow. We know the moon because we can see it, but the effect of shadow makes it different, to the unaided eye, than all the other bodies in space. What falls under the shadow of the moon is not really gone. It can be counted upon to reappear. This is what allows the moon man, whose own body follows the moon's phases, to escape Earth. While "full," he is too big to fit into a rogue scientist's rocket back to the moon. He must wait until his "third quarter," when enough of him has disappeared that he is small enough to angle through the door:
In Moon Man, the moon is a safe place that the earthlings cannot reach. But Ungerer wrote Non Stop fifty years after the first moon landing. By then he imagines that the moon has fallen into a permanent shadow, a "mottled black" that results from being "polluted by humanity."
If there is a genuine pessimism that unites the absurdity of Ungerer's latest work Non Stop, then it relates to this shadow without phases or cycles. The moon man has his dark part, too, but he allows for it and waits for it to pass. In Non Stop the shadow is everywhere. Even in confinement, Vasco knows it. Now within the well-lit and very safe birthday cake ("aging there, sheltered in peace") he comes to miss his shadow, his "old friend," and goes outside into the daylight every now and then to greet him.
- The most famous historical "Vasco" was Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer and one of the first Europeans to establish regular contact with the Indian subcontinent.
- The French title, Juste à temps, winks at the book's comic overuse of the phrase "Just in Time." The English title "Non-Stop," is a more straightforward description of the book's pace of events.
Tomi Ungerer, Moon Man. Phaidon, 2009.
omi Ungerer, Non Stop. Phaidon, 2020.