Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Borribles

by Michael de Larribeiti (1976)

I became aware of de Larribeiti's Borribles trilogy when I saw that China Mieville called it an influential favorite.  Borribles are children who leave home and never come back.  As they become self-sufficient and street smart thier ears become pointy and they cease to age.  They live exclusively in abandoned buildings and steal for a living.  They despise adults, material wealth, and the police (called the "Woolies").  They are fiercely independent and frown on the idea of leaders, but also have a strong code of honor usually cited in the form of quotes from a book of proverbs.

Borribles have to earn thier names by completing or participating in some sort of notable adventure, and some older (as it were) Borribles actually possess more than one name.  The telling of name-stories is highly valued.

The first book involves the discovery that the Borrible's rivals, the Rumbles (a play on the at-the-time popular children's TV show "The Wombles"), a race of child-size mole or hedgehog-type things, who live in 'Rumbledon,' (Wimbledon) have been making incursions into the Borrible's London territories (Battersea, in this case).  Multi-named and famous Borrible Knocker decides to assemble a 'magnificent eight' elite squad of Borribles to strike out to Rumbledon and slay the Rumble 'High Command' (of which there are also eight).  These eight are given names correlating to the High Command member they are supposed to slay.

The trek to Rumbledom is a gritty journey across London, featuring real locations (see this Flickr set of Borrible locations, right down to particular houses!).  As such its a lovely valentine to both London and to cities in general, from hoity-toity neighborhoods to industrial scraglands.  The Borribles, in turn, are revealed to be city creatures born and bred - and are in turn made ineasy in open places such as parks, or underground - where one 'tribe' of Borribles called the Wendles live.  The Wendles live on the borders with Rumble territory and are as a result barely considered Borribles at all, living as they do in the sewers, being fiercely warlike, and doing such un-Borrible things as having a chief.

There's a flippant disregard for authority running throughout which gives The Borribles its deeper appeal.  Although all Borribles are technically children, they curse, drink beer, and wreak creative and violent deaths upon thier enemies.  Still, make no mistake, the Borribles possess a very strong moral compass, one which is tested as the book draws to a close.

Keeping in mind this is a young adult book (no doubt part of the cause for relatively recent republication), I want to recommend The Borribles to adult readers generally because of the above-stated reasons, but the Rumbles/Wombles gag (A) was totally lost on me because I'm American and not British, and (B) seems to have aged poorly to begin with. This recurring joke constantly threatens to undermine the story's credibility, even though it forms the clearest intention of de Larribeiti's intentions: slaying lame-ass commerical children's television with his rough-edged Borribles.

Followed-up by the far superior The Borribles Go for Broke.


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