For the love of fables

1 February 2009 | Authors, Reviews

Daniel Katz What do Jesus, Aesop and the writer Daniel Katz all have in common? The key to the mystery lies in the second of the three names: fables are a part of all their works. Jesus spoke famously in (animal) metaphors, and the Greek writer Aesop is regarded as the father of the genre.

Daniel Katz’s 13th book, Berberileijonan rakkaus (‘The love of the Berber lion’, WSOY, 2008), is playfully aware of its ancient roots. In fact, his (post)modern collection of stories is, on every level, a conscious non-Finnish meta-fiction depicting the very process of writing.

Let me explain: the collection consists of twenty-four stories, each involving animals in one way or another. They were all sketched by a writer named Attila Kuf, whose funeral is depicted at the beginning of the book. In addition to Kuf’s writing, the collection includes a foreword and a postscript by Kuf’s friend, Mr Ypsilon, who is asked to complete his friend’s stories by Kuf’s widow. Kuf did not complete a single story, so the endings are all the work of another writer.

In one of the stories, the indecisiveness of Kuf’s narrator is brought to the fore: a publisher fittingly compares the incompleteness of the twenty-four stories to infidelity the size of a horse. It is fitting because, at least on an allegorical level, most of the stories in this collection deal with the woes of relationships.

The incompleteness of the stories also fulfils a philosophical function. After all, the fables originally provided readers with maxims, while the moral of the story was at the end. In the book, Kuf does not view life so simply: perhaps this is the book’s overall ‘moral’. In its wittiness and lightheartedness, Berberileijonan rakkaus certainly lives up to the other function of the fable. It’s hard not to laugh out loud at the trials and tribulations of the neurotic Kuf. In underlining his Jewish roots, Kuf’s self-flagellation (kuf is the Hebrew letter K) is something akin to that found in the novels of Philip Roth and his protagonist Nathan Zuckerman.

Like Roth, Katz (born 1938) also refers to his own authorial personality right from the outset with the letter-surname of Attila Kuf. The title story, ‘The love of the Berber lion’, is also linked to the author, if in a somewhat roundabout way. The lion is an animal common to many fables, but it also appears in the Bible, not least in connection with Daniel.

The subject of animals gives Katz many opportunities for the dark humour and gentle irony common throughout his work. The stories always highlight a sense of humanity towards the animals, even the insects. In the tragicomic story ‘Lord and Lady of the Flies’ Kuf gets a fly drunk, reads him the poem ‘A drunken fly’s buzzing’ by his late friend Karppinen, then inadvertently squashes the fly to death with a book while asking it its opinion of the poem.

This sympathetic humour, wild imagination and profound worldview have been elements of Katz’ work since his first novel Kun isoisä Suomeen hiihti (‘When Grandfather skied to Finland’, 1969). The book has been translated into nine languages, while his novel Saksalainen sikakoira (‘Schweinehund’, 1992), offering an insight into the causes of the Holocaust and the rebirth of fascism, is available in six languages. Katz has not yet been awarded the Finlandia Prize, although his love story Laituri matkalla mereen (‘A jetty to the sea’, 2001; see Books from Finland 1/2002) was shortlisted.

(First published in Books from Finland 4/2008.)

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