Oth­er­wise Fables

Oscar Man­del
  • Review
September 12, 2014

Unlike any oth­er book that I have reviewed for Jew­ish Book World, when I received Oscar Mandel’s Oth­er­wise Fables, my young kids peered over my shoul­der and asked what I was read­ing. We then took turns read­ing aloud some of the forty-six bite-sized sto­ries that start off this col­lec­tion, a moment as mag­i­cal as the tales them­selves. These Gob­ble-Up Sto­ries” hear­ken back to Aesop, not only in brevi­ty and abun­dant use of talk­ing ani­mals, but also in their abil­i­ty to make you look at the world around you just a lit­tle differently. 

Bel­gian-born Man­del, who has pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished this col­lec­tion in French, titled these sto­ries Gob­ble-Up,” not only because of the plea­sure of con­sum­ing these fables, but… as an eat-or-be-eat­en ref­er­ence to the cru­el world with which, alas, so many fables must cope.” Indeed, while these sto­ries delight­ed my chil­dren and me, they didn’t mince feel­ings or con­se­quence, the way so many Dis­ney-esque sto­ries can. For that, alone, they are a treasure. 

Oth­er­wise Fables also includes two novel­las: Chi-Po and the Sor­cer­er and The His­to­ry of Sigis­mund, Prince of Poland, both of which have been pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished in French and Eng­lish. Of the two, Chi-Po stole my heart. It tells the sto­ry of a boy who wants to be the best artist in Chi­na. The boy finds a men­tor in an odd, mis­chie­vous — and yes, wise — sor­cer­er liv­ing as a her­mit in a cave. Mag­ic, drag­ons, spy­ing birds, Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy, decep­tion, redemp­tion: it’s all there in this tale spun so silk­i­ly that you want it to stretch on for­ev­er, but that fits per­fect­ly in its com­pact package. 

The His­to­ry of Sigis­mund is a stranger tale, based on Pedro Calderon’s 1635 play, La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream). How­ev­er, rather than imprison Sigis­mund in a tow­er as Calderon did, Man­del chains the poor roy­al in a cave where he can rat­tle his shack­les wild­ly in response to the injus­tice. Oth­er dif­fer­ences from the orig­i­nal will be spot­ted by those famil­iar with the tale. For the rest of us, it’s a rol­lick­ing ride through the Pol­ish coun­try­side of the Mid­dle Ages. Like the orig­i­nal sto­ry, col­or­ful char­ac­ters prance in and out of the scenes dra­mat­i­cal­ly, per­haps indica­tive of the story’s the­atri­cal lin­eage. The sto­ry, of course, begs us all to ques­tion whether life might just be all a dream. 

Man­del has mas­tered the art of spin­ning a world with words, a skill honed by decades of learn­ing and think­ing about writ­ing and art. He has taught lit­er­a­ture at Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy for forty years and pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished dozens of works of fic­tion, dra­ma, and trans­la­tion. Oth­er­wise Fables is not a book that will receive atten­tion because it is new or edgy; it is, rather, refresh­ing because it is the type of delight­ful smart work that is age­less. And per­haps that will bring it the recog­ni­tion it deserves.

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