If you decide to read Zazie in the Metro, don't be surprised to find yourself thinking a bit like the story's quirky cast of characters: speaking with charmingly wordy phrases (e.g., "Picking up a syphon he purposed to cause its mass to reverberate against Gabriel's skull," rather than, "he hit Gabriel in the head with a bottle."), and forming words using unusual spellings (e.g., "Tsnot true, unkoo" instead of, "It's not true, uncle."). You may even find yourself looking at the world through Zazie's wide eyes, seeing things with the innocence of a child narrated with a vocabulary like Charles Bukowski's.
I pity poor translator Barbara Wright -- author Raymond Queneau's preferred translator, from what I understand -- for what must have been buckets of perspiration shed in what could have only worked as a labor of love. After all, this is a book is more about language and dialogue than it is about anything that could be mistaken for a plot.
The other main source of Zazie in the Metro's charm comes from its unusual roll call of characters. Aside from the always-interesting Zazie, the book offers the quixotic and curious "Unkoo" Gabriel, his dour sometimes foil Gridoux, and even a parrot called Laverdure, whose solitary line -- "Talk, talk, that's all you can do" -- seems to get blurted out only with exceptional timing.
It's easy to understand how this colorful tale inspired a generation of French readers and writers. It is even said to have had a hold on Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of the wonderful and similarly playful film, Amelie.
Compared to all this, the plot of this story hardly seems worth mentioning: young Zazie comes to Paris to visit her uncle, but what she really wants to do is ride on the metro for the first time. Because of a strike, she can't, and she compensates with a string of other adventures.
Up until this point, I know, this does not sound like a three-star review (or three and a half, if that had been possible). I have given Zazie in the Metro what amounts to a so-so rating for reasons I am not too sure how to describe. The best explanation I can come up with is that despite all of the positive points made here, the book just failed to capture me; I never felt like I was part of the story. Somehow, its 157 pages seemed quite a bit longer, and sometimes the action became confused or obscured because of the clever word play. It was like a meal based on ingredients I adore, but which don't quite seem to work well together.
Yes, of course, buy and read Zazie in the Metro. Its place in Europe's literary cannon and the unusual mix of characters and language is enough to make that case. Besides, it's a book that an at least mildly adventurous literate person should know. I'll just hope it will be a bit more of a treat for you than it was for me.