I’m continuing on into March with another indie book, and it struck me as I was reading this one just how valuable independent presses are in bringing neglected authors to a wider reading public. Today’s book is a case in point; the author is a completely new name to me, and his life and work are both fascinating. Interestingly, the publisher is Columbia University Press, responsible for the Russian Library imprint which often features on the Ramblings. However, they also publish more widely and although the author of today’s book hails from Ukraine, he had a fascinating and peripatetic life, as well as producing some inventive and memorable writing. His name is Vasily Eroshenko and the book is “The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales”, translated from the Japanese and Esperanto by Adam Kuplowsky.

The excellent introduction by Kuplowsky explores Eroshenko’s life; born in 1890 he was blinded at the age of 4 due to complications from measles. However, despite difficult times at a school for the blind, he made a career as a violinist in an orchestra of the blind, then travelled to London, Paris, then back to Moscow before leaving for Japan in 1914. Having learned Esperanto early, he had access to a global network of Esperantist, and travelled through many Asian and European countries, always preaching his left wing and anarchist views. I imagine he was not a comfortable guest in many places, particularly against the backdrop of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent unrest in so many countries. However, he continued to work, write and agitate all through his life until his death in 1952 in Obukhivka, his birthplace.

“The Narrow Cage” collects together a range of Eroshenko’s fables and fairytales, some written in Japanese and some in Esperanto. His fables are, of course, grounded in political satire, using animals as stand ins for humans and their terrible actions. So a fish will suffer from religious confusion; a paper lantern will be riddled with jealousy; a captive tiger will attempt to free all of his fellow imprisoned animals; and a scholarly young mouse will suffer from not recognising the dangers of real life. It’s not difficult to deduce the kind of humans and their beliefs being satirised here. However, there are fascinating subtexts to his writing, as Eroshenko obviously cares deeply for the creatures he writes about, and is happy to sling criticism at humans and the mess they make of the planet (prescient for the early 20th century if nothing else!) He decries the human tendency to enslave and use animals as a product for their own ends, and I would say at times he’s edging close to a Buddhist attitude – which may well stem from his time in Japan.

…man has always derived his strength from the oppression of those who are weaker than himself, and having never known true freedom, has always lived in misery. What an unfortunate creature is man! And yet is it not man who claims dominion over every creeping thing? How ironic!

However, his basic viewpoint is one of wanting equality for all living creatures, and in his real life he constantly agitated for this. His fables were obviously an extension of his political activism, a way of trying to point out the stupidity of modern life, of the enslavement of certain parts of humanity by others, and of preaching equality and freedom. But I must say these tales are never dull or dusty; each story is a little gem in its own right, a pleasure to read and often very moving, and even if you don’t want to take on the political message, you can still enjoy each fable simply for the story it tells. And the political message is again a global one, that we are all confined in a narrow cage of some kind, and that narrow cage can indeed be an allegory of life itself.

The CUP volume is a brilliant introduction to Eroshenko’s work, because not only does it contain a good and representative selection of his fictions, it also contains extracts from his autobiographical writings, including a piece about his childhood in the school for the blind, and also a memoir of his expulsion from Japan, an event which obviously affected him greatly. All of these enhance his stories, and added to the introduction give a wonderful all-round portrait of the man and his work.

#ReadIndies was a great way to discover new authors, and I’m so glad that my continued focus on indie presses is continuing to do this. Eroshenko was a fascinating character, a powerful author and lived such an inspiring life with all the odds stacked against him. The tales in this collection are unforgettable, populated as they are with humans and animals trying to navigating a cruel world to ensure they not only survive but also try to create freedom for all. A marvellous read and highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “The Narrow Cage” is published today.