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.