The Cloak of Dreams: Chinese Fairy Tales by Bela Balázs was released in September and a review copy recently arrived on my desk. We'll start with the product description from the publisher:
A man is changed into a flea and must bring his future parents together in order to become human again. A woman convinces a river god to cure her sick son, but the remedy has mixed consequences. A young man must choose whether to be close to his wife's soul or body. And two deaf mutes transcend their physical existence in the garden of dreams. Strange and fantastical, these fairy tales of Béla Balázs (1884-1949), Hungarian writer, film critic, and famous librettist of Bluebeard's Castle, reflect his profound interest in friendship, alienation, and Taoist philosophy. Translated and introduced by Jack Zipes, one of the world's leading authorities on fairy tales, The Cloak of Dreams brings together sixteen of Balázs's unique and haunting stories.
Written in 1921, these fairy tales were originally published with twenty images drawn in the Chinese style by painter Mariette Lydis, and this new edition includes a selection of Lydis's brilliant illustrations. Together, the tales and pictures accentuate the motifs and themes that run throughout Balázs's work: wandering protagonists, mysterious woods and mountains, solitude, and magical transformation. His fairy tales express our deepest desires and the hope that, even in the midst of tragedy, we can transcend our difficulties and forge our own destinies.
Unusual, wondrous fairy tales that examine the world's cruelties and twists of fate, The Cloak of Dreams will entertain, startle, and intrigue.
In other words, this is a collection of original fairy tales written by Bela Balázs, not retellings of other tales. The tales are an interesting peephole into Balázs's world, one influenced by two world wars and the European strife surrounding the war periods, especially for a Hungarian Jew who felt isolated and alone due to his heritage--one that was not emphasized by his family or its teachings but nevertheless informed his place in European society.
The translation of the tales as well as the introduction are by the indefatigable Jack Zipes. He adeptly discusses Balázs personal history as well as his interest in fairy tales that led him to write his own personal ones. Balázs concurrent interest in Taoist philosophy also explains his desire to write fairy tales with a Chinese flavor, one that is supported by the accompanying illustrations. Zipes explains that this was not unusual at the time for other authors such as Herman Hesse and Hugo von Hafmannsthal were persuing similar connections and interests.
From the introduction, an abbreviated quotes from Balázs about fairy tales:
The fairy tale does not yearn, does not look outside itself. It does not go in one direction and does now want to get to the root of anything. It remains introspective and plays kaleidoscopically with what's there. The fairy tale does not have any limits, and consequently, it is also not without limits. It does not want to understand anything, and consequently, there is nothing that it doesn't understand.... The common people do not claim the novel or novella; they only have anecdotes, fairy tales, and legends.
Personally, I found Zipes' introduction--roughly a third of this slim volume--the most interesting part of the book. Zipes provides a fascinating story of a complicated man, buffeted by his place in history, benefitting and suffering from the tumultuous times in which he lived. The sixteen tales are interesting after reading the introduction, but are not very entertaining within themselves. They were not intended to be so this is not a criticism. They are artifacts of a man's search for peace and meaning through usage of the fairy tale's inherent form. If this interests you, the book will be enjoyable and educational. If you are searching for light fairy tale reading, this may not be your first choice. However, the introduction and history lesson provided within is worth the price of admission alone.
I have a slew of new books--nonfiction more than fiction--to review that have been sent to me from various publishers, so stay tuned over the next few weeks.