Wild Boy By Jill Dawson

The slaves of solitude

Myths are stories we cannot do without: stories whose figurative sense exceeds their realities. Several have to do with wild children. Among these is the boy left (with his throat cut) in the forests of the Aveyron and captured there in 1798, aged about 11, after seven or eight years beyond the pale of humankind. He was taken to Paris and given into the care of Dr Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, who treated him, humanely enough, as an object of social and scientific interest. François Truffaut's film of this relationship, L'Enfant sauvage (1971), though moving, seems almost innocent in its hopefulness and beauty. Truffaut ends just as Victor (so named by Itard) seems to be mastering language.

Jill Dawson's version in this novel is less hopeful, more problematic. She sites the story firmly in its post-revolutionary age and although, using Itard's account, she does address the large questions the boy posed to that generation steeped in Rousseau, she adds a painful understanding of her own. Modern authorities have concluded that the child was autistic. Dawson, her own child similarly afflicted, retells Victor's story accordingly. She is a good instance of a writer reverting to a myth for the better understanding of a present trouble.

Three of the novel's characters reflect on Victor. They are Dr Itard; Madame Guerin, the housekeeper, who later took on his whole care; and the father who abandoned him. Dawson tries a fourth voice, Victor's own. That attempt to say what the child himself has no words for is the least successful. The other three are more persuasive in their uneasiness. Mme Guerin and Victor's father have both tried to manage what Dawson wishes us to recognise as an autistic child. Itard, notably insecure, feels for Victor as though he were an alter ego.

Dawson risks, by reducing the myth to a medical basis, reducing its power. But for the most part, perhaps because of the very nature of autism, that loss of power does not occur and the myth is, if anything, generalised into something very discomforting. Distributed through the three characters who reflect on Victor is a desperate need to be loved. That is what they find so hard: Victor will not or cannot reciprocate, however they demonstrate their love. There are moments of terrible poignancy when it seems as though he might, but he remains apart.

Confronting Victor (as the later case of Caspar Hauser), theologians were keen to know: was there any inherent disposition towards belief in God in the natural state? There is a more important question here. Is there any inherent disposition to love? It seems humankind cannot bear not to be loved.

David Constantine's books include 'Caspar Hauser: a poem in nine cantos' (Bloodaxe)

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