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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Narrow Cage

Vasily Eroshenko

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To purchase The Narrow Cage

Title: The Narrow Cage
Author: Vasily Eroshenko
Genre: Stories
Written: (1915-23) (Eng. 2023)
Length: 280 pages
Original in: Japanese and Esperanto
Availability: The Narrow Cage - US
The Narrow Cage - UK
The Narrow Cage - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • and Other Modern Fairy Tales
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Adam Kuplowsky
  • With a Foreword by Jack Zipes

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dark but nbicely turned

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Asian Rev. of Books . 3/3/2023 Rick Henry

  From the Reviews:
  • "All told, the collection offers an introduction to the literary talent of an early 20th-century transnational writer, but also to the kind of socio-political anarchism he embraces. His is not the anarchism that leads to chaos and the simple destruction of all we know. His is an anarchism grounded in a universalism that frees humans from oppression." - Rick Henry, Asian Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Vasily Eroshenko was a remarkable figure. Of Ukrainian background, he lived in Japan and China before spending the last decades of his life in the Soviet Union -- and he wrote his well-known tales in Esperanto and Japanese; Lu Xun translated some of them into Chinese (and, as translator Adam Kuplowsky notes in his Introduction, three of the stories included here: "have survived only by way of Lu Xun's meticulous Chinese translation"). He was blind, too, from the age of four.
       The Narrow Cage is a good introduction to the author -- beginning with Kuplowsky's own useful Introduction. which gives some idea of Eroshenko's incredible life-story. The book then is divided into two main sections, the first presenting tales written while Eroshenko was in Japan, between 1915 and 1921, and then tales from his Chinese period, 1921 to 1923. An Appendix then collects several autobiographical pieces, of which 'Some Pages from My School Days' and 'My Expulsion from Japan' are of particular interest, shining also a more personal light on material that Kuplowsky had covered in his Introduction. (The language hurdle presumably has held back the would-be biographers -- at least reading fluency in Japanese, Esperanto, Russian, and Ukrainian (and probably also Chinese, for good measure) would be necessary to do him full justice -- but, my god, what a life, and what a book that eventual biography will make.)
       Eroshenko's fairy tales are quite clear and simple in their writing -- perhaps also reflecting that he was writing in foreign languages -- and to the point. Yet they are not children's tales: direct and dark, they are often emotionally wrenching. In one story he writes: "My dreams were sad and lonely, dark and oppressive as our world. And yet I could not look away", and this would seem to apply to many of the stories themselves.
       Death is common -- one title promises (and delivers) 'Two Little Deaths' (where: "In one of the rooms of the hospital lay a little Rich Boy. He was waiting for Death to come get him"), another recounts the story of 'The Death of the Canary'. 'The Tragedy of the Chick' gives fair warning with its title, but still begins: "The other day a chick fell into the duck-pond and drowned", while a love story between a Firefly and a Goldfish sees each make the greatest sacrifices ("'All that I can give you is my nightmarish life,' said the Firefly") and finds:

     In the evening light the lake gave off a passionate glow. Then the light died, and with it died the Goldfish and the Firefly.
       (Though, in fact, this is one of Eroshenko's happier stories -- though it is also, as the title has, it, only: 'A Spring Night's Dream'.)
       There's poignancy to much of the death here, too, neatly paired with the nearly clinical matter-of-factness of some of what Eroshenko describes, as in 'The Sad Little Fish', where:
     A short while later, the Pastor's Son dissected Little Carp.
     When he removed the heart, he saw that it was broken. He asked his parents as to how this could be, but received no answer.
     How could they know that the fish was too sad ?
     Years went by, and the Pastor's Son grew up to be a famous biologist.
       Typically, there's a sadness to the scenes and settings -- such as when a narrator describes how:
The streets were empty and cold. Colder still was my heart, much colder; and much more empty, my soul -- not that there exists an instrument for measuring such things.
       And things often get worse -- as here, where the cold narrator reports how: "The fire from the stove had gone out, and with it my hopes and dreams".
       Even when there is joy, Eroshenko knows how to bring the readers crashing back down -- not least, in 'An Eagle's Heart', in a scene from a capital-city where everything seems absolutely wonderful, and:
     It was a picture of happiness.
     Only the guillotine, which rose up in the largest square, betrayed a certain sadness. Yet the people gathered round it, singing rousing anthems and waiting for something to happen.
       Unlike the animals, humans generally do not come off well in these stories; indeed, it's not just in the village in 'Little Pine' where: "there was more compassion among plants and animals than among human beings !" This also comes through in the political edge to some of the stories, in these tales from the turbulent 1920s (that also saw Eroshenko deported from Japan for, as Kuplowsky reports, "harboring 'dangerous thoughts'") -- most clearly in the Field-Mouse's comments, in 'The Death of the Canary':
As cruel as that capitalist Cat is, he only ever strips the skin from his prey once, whereas human capitalists are not even satisfied after they have stripped the skin of a laborer ten times or more. Human beings are backward creatures; but the cruelty of their capitalists really is something else.
       The title story finds a Tiger confronting being caged -- the Tiger itself, as well as other creatures. Almost comically, he tries to convince sheep to break free (but the sheep don't go for it: "there being nothing, it seemed to them, more terrifying than freedom"), and a more forceful attempt with a Canary also does not end well. Typically, too, the conclusion is one of utter resignation: "He did not open his eyes again. He no longer had the will to do so".
       The idea of the 'narrow cage' also comes up in 'An Eagle's Heart', in a song that "every eagle mother taught her young since time immemorial", the verses repeated here several times, including:
The earth, it is a narrow cage
A place where slaves go to die --
Do not go down to the valley below
Look not what is there
It is a world for the faint of heart
The foolish world of man --
       It's practically the motto of the collection -- with Eroshenko, however, swooping down (or mired in) and describing that abyss of a valley .....
       Like the best fairy tales do, Eroshenko's mostly have a timeless quality -- with some now seeming particularly relevant, such as the Sparrow's observation, in 'The Death of the Canary':
Don't you know that it is dangerous to speak in terms of facts ? Why, there is a difference between what one says in one's cage and what one says in the world. After all, in the world, there is nothing more variable than a fact. Indeed, facts change all the time.
       Eroshenko's background and biography can easily threaten to overwhelm the stories themselves: aside from his fascinating life-story, the circumstances of their writing, and the different languages he worked in make them fascinating on several different levels, but they are also worthwhile outside of all this context.
       The Narrow Cage is a good introduction to this author and his work -- and one hopes a full-fledged biography will eventually follow, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 February 2023

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The Narrow Cage: Reviews: Vasily Eroshenko: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Vasily Eroshenko (Василь Якович Єрошенко; ヴァスィリー・エロシェンコ) wrote in Esperanto and Japanese. He lived from 1890 to 1952

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© 2023 the complete review

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