We are told from the time we are children that there are magic words in this world—those words without which doors will remain closed, gifts undelivered, and candy or cookies left in someone else’s hand.
The magic words, of course, are please and thank you.
But there are other magic words which, even if we do learn them as children, we often outgrow them, whether by chance or by design, as we move into adulthood.
Those words, first uttered in The Magician’s Elephant by Leo Matienne, a “small policeman with a very large mustache, ” are What if? Why not? and Could it possibly be?
Leo Matienne’s questions are not often warmly received, most especially when a police captain and his lieutenants are scrambling to figure what to do with an elephant which has, in a most inopportune way, literally crashed into their little village. Rather than simply asking what should be done about the elephant, Leo Matienne asked other questions, like where she came from, and why, and what if there were more elephants or other animals, and what if “everything was to be irrevocably, undeniably changed by the elephant’s arrival?”
Most of the time, Leo Matienne’s questions were the sort that had no answer. And being confronted by such unanswerable questions can be, at times, a maddening prospect. Just ask Leo Matienne’s wife, Gloria, who was all too familiar with his What if‘s. “Oh, don’t start, ” said his wife when he uttered “What if.”
“Please don’t start.”
It was the What if? Why not? Could it possibly be? of Leo Matienne that led him with Peter Augustus Duchene into the streets that night to find the magician, and Madame LaVaughn, and the elephant herself. Which led them in turn to find a singing beggar and his dog, and a laughing, bent-up sculptor, and ultimately, the thing they needed the elephant for: to reunite Peter with his sister Adele.
Salman Rushdie has been quoted as saying “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” If you believe Kate DiCamillo and her delightful character in Leo Matienne, then you can add to that list asking questions.
Leo Matienne had the soul of a poet, and because of this, he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers. (p. 34)
One could say that asking questions with no answers is a waste of time, even for a poet. But Leo Matienne, you see, understood something about questions.
We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” (p. 143)
Leo Matienne understood that questions can become for us the very magic we need not only to name the unnameable, but to shape and change the world.
“Magic is always impossible, ” said the magician. “It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it is magic.” (p. 154)
Magic, if you believe the poet-policeman, begins with the simplest (and most difficult) of questions.
This week we wrap up our book club discussion of The Magician’s Elephant, that we’ve been reading together this month. Have you been reading along? Perhaps you would share your observations about asking questions in the comments below. When has asking “what if” been like the magic words that opened a locked door for you?
Get another take on The Magician’s Elephant in What If Natural Selection is Wrong