The Swiss Family Perelman
By S. J.Perelman. Drawings by Hirschfeld. Penguin, 1950, 213 pp.
There are travelers who write and there are writers who travel, and S. J. Perelman falls decidedly in the latter group. A humorist who, from the ‘30s on, wrote for many publications—most notably, the New Yorker—he was known for his unusual, quite wonderful prose. Whatever pleasure he took in his adventures, which he generally described as hilariously miserable, he clearly loved to write about them, and his prose, sentence by sentence, is sardonic, filled with word play, manic, and syntactically splendid.
Like Westward Ha! Around the World in Eighty Clichés, which I reviewed in August, The Swiss Family Perelman is a wild romp of a trip. This time, however, the author isn’t traveling with his artist friend Hirschfeld, he’s off to Siam with his family—wife, son (12), and daughter (10)—and the humor is more pointedly familial, aimed at luggage, mischief, and marital bickering.
Having shipped off almost “everything in sight, including the toilet,” and loaded themselves down with the rest, even the daughter’s cello, the family leaves New York for California. There, before sailing on the President Cleveland—“the largest single object our children had ever been called upon to take apart”—Perelman does a nice job of sending up Hollywood. As they travel on through Hong Kong, Java, New Guinea, Bali, Bangkok, (and more), and finally return home through Europe, the author has a good time sending up pretty much everything else, including tourism itself—the shopping, the overeating, the overspending, the absurd exhaustion of it all.
One of the funniest scenes takes place in the Calcutta airport where the family is
waiting to change planes. Already weighed down with all they’ve brought (that cello!), they’re now further burdened with all they’ve bought, including a mynah bird “with a reasonably fluent vocabulary in Siamese invective,” which manages to nip the nose of the passenger agent.
“Words—at least antiseptic ones—” writes Perelman, “cannot convey what a pyramid of questionnaires, certificates, vouchers, receipts, affidavits, and credentials the switch entailed, what niggling scrutiny of passports, haggling over surcharges, and Talmudic boggling over minutiae like the mynah’s precise weight. Throughout these formalities, the youngsters thought it best to unpack all the seashells they had collected in the Moluccas and display them to bystanders, while the bird, egged on by a crowd of excited porters, manfully strove to dash out his brains against the bars of his cage.”
A more sober thread running through the book concerns the political upheavals in the East that were occurring at the time, and Perelman is unreserved in the barbs he hurls at the Dutch, who he says, were “apparently impervious to world-wide censure of their invasion of the Republic of Indonesia.” But here too, the anti-imperialist author finds humor in mocking the Dutch captains, officials, and tourists he meets, depicting them as bores and boors.
Although Hirschfeld isn’t present on this 25,000 mile family jaunt, his delightful illustrations capture the chaos and zaniness of this improbable journey. And he does full justice to that cello!
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The Swiss Family Perelman