Third chapter of the Cycle de l'Invisible.
These are the letters of a boy of ten addressed to God. They are found by 'Mamie Rose', the Lady in Pink of the title, who visits him in hospital in the pink uniform worn by nurses on the children's ward. The letters describe twelve days in the life of Oscar and are filled with funny, moving characters.
These twelve days may be his last, but thanks to Mamie Rose, who forms a close and affectionate bond with Oscar, they are to become legendary.
« As a child I spent... »
As a child I spent a lot of time in hospitals. Not that I was often ill, but I used to accompany my father who worked as a physiotherapist in pediatric hospitals, homes for patients with cerebral palsy, and centres for the deaf and dumb. My instinct on those first visits was fear: fear of children who were different, fear of the illness that forced them to keep to their impersonal rooms.
'Is it catching?' I asked.
'I wouldn't bring you if you were at risk,' my father answered.
Though barely convinced, I got to know the boys and girls, and over the weeks, they became my friends. The education I received, as I held my father's hand, was an odd one. I grew up in a world where normality was not the norm, where illness was taken for granted and good health was unusual, a world where some patients disappeared, not because they had gone home but because their illness had carried them off.
Death for me quickly became familiar, a neighbour, a figure close at hand that prowled in our midst before it pounced. Contrary to so many children (and adults), it did not take me long to grow out of the belief that I was immortal.
With the ready intelligence of youth, those I met had fully adapted to this new life; in it, they had made their mark, they had their bearings and their pleasures. Far from being a retreat, hospital was somewhere to live. They proved this with a biting humour reflected in Oscar and the Pink Lady. They gave each other nicknames that cocked a snook at illness: Bacon for a child with terrible burns, Einstein for a boy with an abnormally large head. Some of the adults who visited were shocked at this, but it already seemed to me that mockery of this kind was a very healthy sign: what better weapon than jokes with which to confront the ineluctable and show the unbearable who was boss?
I also saw them in pain, sometimes the pain of illness, but above all the pain of loneliness due either to the absence of their parents, or, worse, to the inability of their parents to maintain relations with a sick child. A number of mothers and fathers were overwhelmed by what had happened to their offspring and had lost the ability to hold normal conversations or have fun with them. Some of them actually vanished, crushed by embarrassment, shame and remorse.
My father explained that there was a certain logic to this behaviour even if it was not always justifiable or justified. He overrode my indignation and forced me to see the other side, initiating me unwittingly into my career as a writer - someone who invents different characters, each with his or her own way of seeing the world.
Later as an adult, I again found myself in hospitals, sometimes sharing difficult times with friends and family, sometimes as a patient myself. Like Oscar, I knew what it was to have a fatal illness. Unlike Oscar, my life was saved. However, when I recovered (if, indeed, one ever does recover), I found that getting better was not that important. I even had the idea that there was something indecent about recovery: it is all too easy to forget the ones who don't recover.
This was the starting point for Oscar and the Pink Lady. You could say the book is about the obsession with the acceptance of illness and death as being more important than getting better. I spent years not daring to write this book; I was too aware that I was touching on a taboo subject: the subject of sick children. Did not Dostoevsky say that the death of a child makes it impossible to believe in God?
And yet Oscar writes to God. And yet, in the last letter, Mamie-Rose is not angered but thanks God for having brought Oscar into her life and made her love him. Of course she weeps at what is no more, but she has the strength to be glad about what has been. God is not only the recipient of these letters, He is the main character of the story, although naturally, in His own way, ambiguously, mysteriously. In the opening pages, Oscar does not believe in Him and only writes to Him to please Mamie-Rose.
However, the daily exercise of these letters is good for him, enabling him to distinguish between the essential and the incidental, the spiritual and the material; with every 'PS', he is forced to define what he really wants and forced, too, gradually to open up to other people and to life. Then it would seem that God answers him, although clearly, the child cannot be sure that the messages he receives come from God. Finally, in church, he contemplates the effigy of Christ and shares with Mamie-Rose a moment of mediation on the two kinds of suffering (physical and spritual), and this moment allows him to face the unknown in a different way. And then, one morning, the child thinks he receives a visit, one that teaches him a seminal lesson: 'that first realisation'.
Of course, we can't know any more than Oscar whether God exists and is bothered about us. But, real or imaginary, the child's mediation brings him serenity, love, appetite… it enriches his last days and makes his approaching end bearable. As one of my atheist friends said, 'Even if God is just this favour that man invents for man, that's quite a bit!' God or the best thing about man? Every individual will decide for him- or herself.
Oscar came to life in me from those first words. I now know that he lives for millions of people. I love him. I admire him for his honesty, his courage, his rejection of pathos and the energy that flows from him right to the end - even when he can no longer move, he can still think; I admire the way he grows in wisdom and never loses his generosity of spirit.
This little ten-year-old has become my model. I hope that when my turn comes to face the same situation, I shall show myself worthy of him.
L'Express - « Death and the little boy: »
Death and the little boy: a hilarious, unhinging and searing metaphysical tale about suffering and cowardice;
a powerful novella that reconciles sceptical materialism with the hope of faith and shows anyone with any doubts that 'illness is like death: it is a fact, not a punishment'. It is a bold card to play, but no fine speech or non-fictional work could convey the message so convincingly. Oscar and the Lady in Pink is essential reading for anyone who has anything to do with a hospital, at whatever remove.
Le Pélerin - « A short masterpiece of supreme simplicity and depth »
A short masterpiece of supreme simplicity and depth, a fable both moving and spiritual in every sense of the word. The little boy's winsome chatter is funny and thought-provoking in equal measure, going straight to the heart of some fundamental questions - happiness, death and the hereafter, for instance.
With his plays performed in thirty-five countries, Schmitt counts as one of the most outstanding authors of his generation. A Damascan experience in the desert one night in 1989 left him with a lasting faith that informs his work. In ten plays and five novels, he has cast a remarkable voice across the world of literary creation, more usually associated with scepticism. 'I don't write to persuade. But I do like making people think by telling a good story.' Saying complex things in simple words, speaking to the heart and investing the world with meaning - these are the hallmarks of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
Questions de Femmes - « A story to win readers' hearts »
Oscar and the Lady in Pink is a story to win readers' hearts and linger in the mind long after the book has been closed. A short, sharp life lesson, full of emotion and humour.
Témoignage Chrétien - « Quite simply, a masterpiece. »
Quite simply, a masterpiece. Funny, tender, caustic, Oscar and the Lady in Pink is a cocktail of hope for anyone confronting illness. A book for everyone, then.
Télé-Matin - France 2 - « Oscar And The Lady In Pink »
Writers sometimes enjoy felicitous moments when, in a few short pages, they are at the peak of their grace, style and themes. This book is a gem that will endure into the mists of time.
Psychologie - « A radiant book. »
A radiant book. A pure moment of tenderness, a hymn to life, a battle won against death.
Notes Bibliographiques - « Book of the Month »
Metaphysical questioning underpins all Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's work. He deals with it in a sparkling prose, luring readers on a journey that is sometimes bizarre, often funny and always stimulating. (…) Overwhelmingly sensitive with no trace of morbidity, these letters go right to the heart of all that is most essential. An emotional masterpiece.
Chosen as " Book of the Month " by the editorial committee.
Sud-Ouest - « A work of remarkable poignancy »
The dialogue between the former woman wrestler and the little boy are full of tenderness and feeling. The words of the dying child, and the energy and perspicacity of his visitor all revolve around the child's questions about God and suffering.
The replies of the 'lady in pink' are astonishingly transparent and sound.
A work of remarkable poignancy.
Isabelle de Montvert-Chaussy
Paris-Normandie - « The art of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt »
The art of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt can be as hard-hitting as a well-aimed cobblestone (…) With Oscar and the Lady in Pink, however, he has chosen the course of searing delicacy. A small marvel that tugs at one's heartstrings.
Echo (Genève) - « A real gem »
A real gem. Unprecedented depth and charm.
La Dernière Heure (Belgique) - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's tender, moving,... »
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's tender, moving, light-hearted, sometimes funny prose brings us twelve days in the lives of Oscar and 'Auntie Pink'. Twelve days that could be the last but which the characters invest with a sense of apprenticeship. Life is speeded up, stripped of everything useless and superfluous, and only love, friendship, fruitful optimism, sincerity and faith in life and in God are left.
A radiant philosophical fairytale that will inspire hope despite the gravity of its subject.
Le Matin (Lausanne) - « Oscar And The Lady In Pink »
Quite simply, a small masterpiece of concision, elegance and feeling.
Health Telegraph, 12 Oct 2005 - « A young person's guide to ill-health »
A thoughtful, and funny, novel about a boy coming to terms with his death could be the ultimate self-help book, writes Cassandra Jardine
The worst thing for a child about being ill in hospital, says Eric-Emanuel Schmitt, is not pain, or even fear, but loneliness. Mothers and fathers tend to give presents and reassurance. Doctors say they can cure. But what a sick child really needs, he says, is to be able to talk about being ill.
Eric-Emanuel Schmitt: encouraging children to voice their fears "Often, psychologists use a puppet to help children talk," says Schmitt, a 44-year-old French philosopher whose touching fable about a 10-year-old with leukaemia, Oscar and the Lady in Pink, is a surprise European publishing sensation.
"The puppet can be honest. The puppet can say, 'I don't want this examination,' or 'I am frightened of this operation.' People tell me that my book is like a puppet: it helps children and adults to talk. I gave it to my father when he was dying and it helped him."
The charm of the book comes from its humour, as well as its philosophical questioning. Oscar, known to his friends as Egghead, knows he is going to die. He knows it from the way the doctors avoid his eye, and from the way they go deaf or change the subject when he asks a question. The only person who is not afraid to speak honestly to him is an elderly hospital visitor - in France they are known as the "ladies in pink" - who encourages him to write a series of letters to God.
"It is not a religious book," says Schmitt. "The point of writing to God is that it helps him sort out what is important." To God, he can confide his anger about the parents who sit by his bedside reading instruction leaflets for toys, but can't face their own grief. He can tell God about his wish to be closer to Peggy Blue, a girl with a heart condition. And he can tell God that he is not so much afraid of the unknown as he is of "losing the things I do know".
Through voicing his thoughts, Oscar matures. He learns to see illness as a fact, not a punishment or an accident. He discovers that physical pain is unavoidable, but that he can choose whether to "let the thought of dying ruin his life". He comes to see doctors as no more than fallible "repairmen". And, as he gets weaker, he learns to appreciate each day and to use the time he has. The inevitable end is sad, but also uplifting because Schmitt writes with a lack of sentimentality that comes from first-hand experience of what it is like to be a child in hospital.
When he was eight, his father, a paediatric physiotherapist, began taking his bookish son with him on Saturdays to meet the children in hospital. There, he encountered a world where "normality was not the norm", where good health was unusual and patients disappeared. "My first instinct was fear: 'Is it catching?' But after three or four weeks, I found I could have normal relationships with the children in hospital, that I could laugh and joke and play with them."
After so much exposure to mortality, he became preoccupied by death as a teenager. Aged 17, he developed malaria on a visit to Africa and spent months in hospital. "I could read the fear in my father's eyes," he says, and it shook him.
His third formative experience of hospital came in his twenties when he visited friends who were dying of Aids. "I realised that what they needed from me was entertainment, so I became like Sheherezade, telling a new story each day." In Oscar and the Lady in Pink he has combined that story-telling skill with the elegant questioning that he learnt from his studies of 18th-century French philosophers, chiefly Diderot and Voltaire.
The book has been a runaway success in France and Germany, selling well over a million copies and inviting comparisons with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince. So many doctors have bought copies by the dozen that the French Academy of Medicine created a special prize for the book and Schmitt has had to fight off film offers (he thinks that it would distract from the thoughts to see Oscar played by an actor).
No one is more astonished than Schmitt. "I didn't even know that Oscar would be read by children until three weeks after publication, when I was in a bookshop and a boy came up to me and said he loved it and asked me to sign his copy."
When adults stop him in the street, they usually thank him for making them realise that they were afraid of illness and death. When children write to him, they say that, even if they have not been ill themselves, the book has helped them speak about their parents and about solitude, hope, mystery.
Such reactions only confirm his feeling that contemporary attitudes to illness and death are strange. "We are wrong to consider them accidents. Everyone is convinced that you can live for ever, that death is a stupid accident. We are more fragile because we don't share the fact that we are fragile."
His philosophical approach may have helped others face facts, but can he accept his own mortality? "I don't know what I will be like at dying," he says. "But I shall have Oscar to guide me."
Heart and Home - « I've just read "Oscar and the Lady in Pink" »
I've just read "Oscar and the Lady in Pink" by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Oscar is a ten-year-old boy who is living in a hospital because he has leukaemia and the doctors can't cure him. He makes friends with an old lady in pink he calls Granny Rose, who comes to the hospital to play with the sick children. She used to be a lady wrestler, and he likes listening to her stories about all the strange opponents she used to fight. Granny Rose encourages him to get to know the other children like Peggy Blue in the hospital and also suggests he write a letter to God every night, because it would make him feel better and less lonely. Every day was like a decade for him, so each night he could write about what he'd done during each day/decade. He runs away to Granny Rose's house for Christmas and she helps him make it up wwith his parents who'd been terribly awkward with him because he was going to die.
I really liked the book because Oscar was so funny and brave and made the most of his life before it ended. But it was also very sad - my mum cried by page 10. I would recommend this book to children over eight.
The Sunday Business Post (EIRE) - « The death of a young child ... »
The death of a young child seems like an odd place to look for humour. Not so for the book we called "funny, heartbreaking and uplifting" on its initial publication. Young Oscar is ten, and is in hospital, deeply aware of what no one will admit to him - that he is dying of cancer.
So he writes a letter to God, encouraged by Granny Rose, one of the "ladies in pink" who visits sick children at the hospital. Altough he's not even sure if he believes in God, he perseveres, composing a series of letters over 12 days, with each one an imagined decade in his life. Oscar's views of death and life are heartwarming and eye-opening, rather than saccharine. A beautiful book.
Leicester Mercury - « Message of hope lifts Oscar's moving story »
Oscar is only 10 years old. He has cancer and lives in hospital. He knows he is dying, but neither his parents nor any of the adults who visit him will admit this.
Granny Rose is the oldest of the ladies in pink who visit Oscar and his fellow patients. She suggests a game: each of the next 12 days is a decade of the future he imagines for himself.
One day is the equivalent of 10 years, and each day Oscar writes to God telling him about this future life- as a teenager, a a married 20-something, his mid-life crisis, and so on. He even gets to be 100.
Inevitably, Oscar dies, at which point Granny Rose to God herself.Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is the author of many best-selling novels and plays and is one of the most-read French language authors in the world.This translation, from the original French, is delightful little gem of a book -humorous, touching, painfully honest and with a message we can all usefully take on board.