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Three Modern Fables To Capture Your Imagination

by Gish Jen
Jan 3, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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Waiting for the Barbarians Diaries of Adam and Eve

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Fiction, say some, reveals truths that reality obscures. This is true of all sorts of fiction, of course, but nowhere is it more apparent than in works cut wholly of the imagination. Are you sick of the world of endless information? Are facts and factoids adding up to less and less truth everyday?

Perhaps it is time for something fabulous — by which I mean not something great to wear to your next party, but something fable-like in its imaginative insight into the human condition.


Michael Kohlhaas: A Tale from an Old Chronicle

By Heinrich von Kleist, paperback 104 pages, Mondial, list price: $13.85

For example, how about Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist? This gripping 19th century novella about a German man whose horses have been unjustly maltreated, feels thrillingly modern as an ordinary, stubborn man demands justice from a system stacked against him. Greatly beloved of Kafka, who viewed this story, with "true reverence," Michael Kohlhaas speaks not only of the implacability of power, but also of the mania of heroism and — as the aggrieved man raises an army against his oppressors — the morality of insurrection. Is the protagonist a holy man or a terrorist? To read this book is to think hard about figures from John Brown to Julian Assange. It is a true masterpiece, provocative and moving.


Waiting for the Barbarians

By J. M. Coetzee, paperback 192 pages, Penguin, list price: $15

Equally rewarding is Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee. This haunting love story involves the plump magistrate of a town at the edge of an empire braced for invasion. Standing helplessly by as Empire officials torture so-called "barbarians," the magistrate takes in a blinded and crippled "barbarian" girl — not for sexual gratification, as you might guess, but for something yet deeper as, ritualistically and confusedly, he tends to her wounds, washing her and rubbing her with almond oil. You could certainly read this as a parable about guilt and complicity in the Apartheid South Africa in which Coetzee was writing, and it is. But Waiting for the Barbarians is more than that: Rich with portraits of cruelty, fear, tenderness, and turmoil, the novel asks some profoundly troubling questions. "What will become of us without barbarians?" for example — an excellent question in an anti-immigrant age. And who are the barbarians, exactly? — a question we well might ask, too, in this era of the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.


Diaries of Adam and Eve

By Mark Twain, paperback 192 pages, Oneworld Classics, list price: $11.95

And finally, for a change of pace, I recommend Mark Twain's effervescent Diaries of Adam and Eve. If ever you have wondered about the human capacity to make things anew, wonder no more. In recasting the story of the Garden of Eden with unfailing wit and delicious bravado, Twain does more than entertain; he testifies to the great human ability to reinvent, re-conceive, and reanimate even the most graven of narratives. "This new creature with long hair is a good deal in the way" begins this book; Adam and Eve, in this telling, do not exactly seem a match made in heaven. And yet, years later, by her graveside, Adam comes movingly to write: "wheresoever she was, there was Eden." Love and laughter spring eternal, it seems; and if you think that the economy will never pick up and that we are looking at the end of Western Civilization as we know it, well, not to forget: we have been through a Fall before — and what's more, have lived to tell the tale.


Gish Jen is the author of Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and Who's Irish? Her latest novel is World and Town.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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