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Once Upon A Time

Non-Fiction Reviews

Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A Time 1

Once upon a time a young giant wearing only a small loin cloth confronted a lost, scantily-dressed woman in the African forest and grunted earnestly: “Me, Tarzan! You, Jane!” That was over sixty years ago in a famous jungle movie. Of course, he spoke in English; but even we children understood he was talking Tarzanish. A terrified Jane didn’t comprehend him, though she guessed his meaning as he pointed to himself and then at her. As eight-year olds we grasped their purport —and import. Even Cheeta, his chimp companion (who turned 75 on 11 April 2007), showed by his squealing and hopping that he got it. That naming of names expresses with poignant humor the pathos of denoting an encounter between human creatures belonging to alien worlds.

The problem facing that young pair from their meeting is translation. It’s usually taken for granted that’s more or less easily solved; that the different meanings belonging to different worlds — of traditional usage, of economy, religion, art, music, magic, and whatever different histories hold — can be sorted out and matched, item by item, as if they somehow could be made to resemble each other. A bit of reflection might suggest it is hardly possible, when words denoting things have ancient roots in lost origins. For everyday purposes we pretend it may be otherwise; still, it remains pretense, since all things are always original and unique; a facsimile or imitation is not sameness. There is no getting another’s “mother tongue.” The usual solution is one of accommodation: you learn another’s speech. Tarzan had to, for his own did not exist; fortunately, he could appropriate the very language that would have been his were he not a wild child bred among dumb, forest beasts. For him it was a learning experience; translation was unnecessary, for every word was new.

Which brings me to my subject. Suppose one’s made a viable, literate translation that succeeds in conveying the narrative or expository sense of an original. What if it turns out that one’s own culture resists it, and refuses to receive it? That one’s culture is defensive, hostile; or what’s worse, aesthetically deaf? And what if a worst case situation has resulted from a shift or change in cultural values, and the rejection of the “transplant,” or translation, suggests that to be the problem? And what if it is not a question of a poor match between the societies of the two languages, either in time, or social development, or literary taste (de gustibus non disputandum est), or gap between economic or political realities, in fact any of the common problems of difference, including the failure of genius to be recognized in its own time? What if refusal to take in the work inplies the problem is the receiver’s, not caused by the work brought over?

I began to think about that when I worked with Grozdana Olujic, a novelist who had recently won success with her fairytales, translated into well over a dozen languages from the 1980s on. I undertook their translation out of curiosity, after visiting Belgrade thinking to make a selection of poets from various regions of what was then Yugoslavia. I saw that her stories were not as simple — or simpleminded! — like much writing for children nowadays. I found that her stories offered something to the adult, such that were one to read them to a child, one’s whole attention would be engaged. Indeed, I thought of the classic works in this genre, the folktales of the brothers Grimm, and collections from Japan, Africa, China, Hungary, Russia, Ireland, and so on, as well as the synthetic fairy­tales of someone like Perrault, Mme. D’Aulnoy, Hans Christian Andersen, or the 20th Century American poet, Carl Sandburg. After Englishing a few of Olujic’s fairytales, I began to look forward to each new piece, as much for the sake of the stories, as for the challenge to say them in American. I thought that here was a writer who must be a success in English!

How naive one is, how presumptuous we “literary ” people are in our ignorance. We think we know what’s fine; what people will regard as good reading, because we consider it excellent! When I had done about five stories, I showed a few to a colleague in my UCLA English Department, a specialist teaching “Children’s Literature.” At 70, he was a great reader and bookman, a man who knows his specialty and travels everywhere, attending conferences devoted to “Kiddy Lit.” After perusing Olujic’s “Red Poppies, ” “The Moonflower,” and “Rose of Mother- of- Pearl,” he handed them back with praise — but shook his head, warning me it might be hard to find a publisher for this kind of work.

I was surprised. Here was one market in the United States, I had imagined, that doesn’t suffer from the depression in publishing. Thousands of titles a year published for children, lavish picture books, easy reading of all kinds — and here is my expert looking at me with pity! Kindly letting me down, he explained: “You see, my friend, these stories are Classical. They are European: tragic, sad, tender-hearted, sacrificial. Passionate too: about love, about dying for love; they reveal the sublimations of love; they describe the struggle to grow up, to overcome one’s faults and vices — to become adult. In other words, they’re real pieces of real writing coming up out of the oldest fairytale tradition. It will be hard to find a publisher for them in America. Here, take down the names of two or three editors who’re smart and good. Maybe something will come of it.”

I took those names, and also wrote a letter of inquiry to over fifty publishing houses. It described the “classical” quality of my Olujic tales, their refined imagination, their intrinsic power to delight children under 12.

I never expected the poor results that came of my effort. Editors are not even interested in looking at such material. About a dozen firms asked to read a sampling of a half-dozen, and then rejected the texts. Why? The stories were either “too literary,” “too sad,” “too depressing,” “too mysterious,” “too violent,” “too emo­tional,” “too strange.” A few editors, women, found themselves “intrigued by the imaginativeness, but puzzled,” “unable to understand Olujic.” My surprise at such replies should be easy to imagine! I think that before I quit I must have contacted almost every publisher of children’s books in North America, all with the same result. I didn’t know what to think. Yet it had to be pondered.

I began with two slight clues. One publisher who ran a small house in Iowa telephoned to say he proposed to inaugurate two new lines: science fiction/fantasy, and children’s stories. He had done fine printing of poetry, small books in small editions; he had hung on and gained some recognition. He thought he would put out an illustrated edition, and selected one story of Olujic’s (“Rose of Mother- of- Pearl ”) to come first in the new series. He said he was fascinated by her stories (the three I mentioned earlier); they were, he thought, unusual. In what respect? I asked. “They’re full of suffering, difficulties, failure and sadness,” he replied. “In fact they’re full of frustration! I find that interesting for fairytales nowadays.”

Next clue: recently a woman who belonged to the Los Angeles PEN Center, and heard I was translating fairytales, asked me for advice as to my method of working. It seems she knows an Armenian who has shown her a number of traditional Armenian folktales she thinks could make a small children’s book. I explained my way of working, and said something about my rule of fidelity to the original, so far as it was [ontologically] possible. Later, she telephoned and thanked me for my advice, and said she’d sent off a half- dozen to an editor. How did they go? I asked.

“Well, I had to rework my versions.”

“How so?”

“Armenian stories are gloomy, you know, very sad and unhappy. I had to change their endings completely, or they’d never get published! ”

Those clues point in the same direction: America wants a happy ending! Some fairytales do end happily; Italian fairytales are biased towards hopefulness. Some of Olujic’s fairytales even come out happily. So there must be more to the question; especially since the fact that we have had an incredible outpouring of fantasy litera­ture, a consequence perhaps of the success of science fiction in the 1970s; and we also saw the success of fantasy movies, usually the extra-terrestrial epics and sentimental effusions like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the phenomenal hundreds of mil­lions of dollars’ raked in by E.T., not to forget the pseudo-Homeric epic of the Star Wars series. But, are these filmed and televised adventures fairytales for children? Yes, and no. “Yes,” if you think of their storyline; “No,” because of what they can not do for a child — develop the moral and emotional imaginative structures of its psyche, certainly not in the way reading fairytales may support.

According to the long-familiar theory of the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, folktale and fairytale (even comic book heroes) are beneficent ancillaries in the emotional development of children. He believed that like games and play they are creative, anticipatory forms upon which to model the situations reality throws down, enabling a child to experience the challenges, the threats and terrors as well as the pleasures afforded by life, which otherwise would be overwhelming were such passions as hatred and love presented in their true aspects. Experiencing such surrogates in their virtual reality fortifies its emotional capacity; when in later life reality manifests its crushing weight, it may be better borne. Such models offered to imagination are not mere fantasy; in fantastic form the unknowns of the real world are represented in terms appropriate to childhood’s immature resources. They are a kind of poetry: of adventure, of hopes and fears, of dangerous, gigantic monsters, exaggerations of grownups characterized in idealized, if not necessarily ideal forms, in which “evil” and “good” appear as essentials, not mixed-up or entangled by circumstance or the deformed, grotesque materializations of neurosis and madness, which expose themselves plainly to our everyday, adult banal experience.

Bettelheim, a European who survived the Nazi extermination camps, aided in part by a combination of his political attitude and psychoanalysis, his medical specialty, perforce deals with illusion, dream, and delusion — and harsh reality. His authority speaks when he declares that folktales and fairytales, offering mystery and terror as well as imaginary happiness are not to be disregarded and discarded as vestiges of earlier stages of human culture. They are not a primitive literary form; on the contrary, they ought to be considered primal, permanent and essential narrations without which the child is deprived of nourishment. They teach life, in short; they are not contemporary modes of learning to cope with adult problems in post-industrial society. They educate; they do not inculcate today’s transient social values, which are inherently arbitrary and at the mercy of whoever or whatever presently rules us. The traditional folktales of the world, oral and written, are not didactic in the manner that philosophers since Plato have wished upon education. Their value remains inestimable.

So, what was one to make of the resistance to the old values permeating the fairytales of my Serbian, Grozdana Olujic? It was too easy to suspect a sinister commonality in their rejection, considering her work was already translated into Turkish, Hindi, Oraya, Russian, Ukranian, Swedish, French, Hungarian, German, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Chinese and Finnish. They are read to children in societies the industrial development of which runs from “backward” to “advanced,” whose political structures range from oppressive to liberal. Why was it so difficult to find an editor anywhere in America who would want to publish them? The books sell in other languages, after all. Is it possible we may be too advanced? Advanced beyond a point of no return, in which humanistic and transcendental values, embodied in wonders and magic and miracles, in the anthropomorphic naming of heavenly phenomena, in telling of lost love or heroic defeat, of stubborn struggle against ignorant crudity and authoritarian nullity, of their defeat by faith, of hope of something better, of the sublimation of tragedy into supernal triumph — themes woven into her writing — cannot be apprehended by American editors of children’s literature? Is it possible she, who once upon a time slipped past Soviet censors, and published her first collection in an edition of 100,000, but was doomed to remain unable to fly over our wall? Are we so hardened into deterministic, behavioralistic, optimistic molds, deafened by notions about “education for life,” that her writing goes unheard? Are we so far from the most ancient wisdom expressed by the knowledge of suffering and redemption through tragedy, from the idea of enlarging our human sympathies through the experience of pathos and longing, are we so swept off by today’s technological marvels, and entranced by visions of power whose shadows loom over us that what has produced our spiritual life since the beginning of humanity — myth, folktale and fairytale — is no longer something we recognize? Is our formation incapable of seeing into the world a child sees in fairytales so that her modest but true work can have no use for us? And is it possible, when in our open, pluralistic, democratic, “high tech” culture there are millions of adherents to irrational mystical cults and fanatic versions of once-familiar religions, both Asiatic and Western, when romance and fantasy and terror, violence, and mystery are so popular among adolescents and adults, that a contemporary embodiment of themes from traditional children’s literature cannot be considered for publication? Is it possible that the immaturity, the infantility — and the shockingly crude productions of animated art characterizing the entertainment media in America, including books — is a consequence of the failure to encourage the imaginative needs of children in the years they are best open to it?

Any number of hypotheses to explain this situation might be proposed, commencing with the positivistic thought of Utopists like Auguste Comte or Jeremy Bentham. One thing’s clear: the obtusity, the stubborn opposition to work rooted in the ancient traditions that are still viable around the world, suggests worse than our morose ignorance of what signifies for children. I conclude it to be a peculiarly American sort of cultural censorship. Surely it seems to be a censorship of the culture of children. That is alarming. Not in that it’s a censorship that refuses to publish what appears to be exotic, but one that in rejecting traditional forms of storytelling for children, rejects not merely what delights many throughout the world, but what’s universal — childhood itself. That gives one pause.


An old woman they called by the name of Tataga lived at the edge of town, out where the street ran into corn fields beneath the bright dome of the sky. How had she built her house? When had she come, and where had she come from? How old was she? What was her true name? No one knew the answers, and anyway no one cared. All the children ran after her, just as their parents and their grandparents before them had run, calling out, “Tataga! Tataga!”

The old woman was never angry at them. Why should she be? She would appear now and then like a wandering flame. She would say never a word, but only give forest fruits to the children. When winter arrived and the town was shut in by snow and ice, the children would leave food at Tataga’s door. Nobody had ever gone inside though. And so it went on, year after year.

Children were fond of Tataga, and Tataga was kind to them. “Tataga! Tataga!” they cried, waving their hands at her, while she smiled at them and shuffied away into the dark forest. What did that deaf-and-dumb woman do in there? The neighbors were always curious about that. And what did she carry in that sack of hers, which was always full? That sack that was always with her, and so this saying came about: They stick together just like Tataga and Tataga’s sack!

She always wore the same dress; she was always bent over; and she always carried her sack when she disappeared into the woods before the morning dew had covered the ground. She would return home only as the evening sky swallowed up the trees. She would light her candle then. Yet no one ever knew what she did all night, because no one was ever allowed inside her house. People were suspicious, and spied on her. Maybe she’s doing witchcraft! The shutters of her house were always closed and locked. And as soon as she turned into the forest, Tataga simply vanished as though it had covered her steps and wrapped her in shadow. Yet, one of the most stubborn trackers noticed the birds and creatures of the woods would eat from her hands and follow after her. No wonder the word went around that she was a sorceress, which made folks more than ever curious.

Whispering to each other, her neighbors wondered, Does she know the language of birds and beasts? Their whispers grew louder everywhere, until the Town Council had to take the matter up and call a meeting. Someone proposed that Tataga should be driven away; but most of the Council voted that down. One of the oldest Councilors, who had heard lots of things during his many years, asked these gossips, “Who actually knows if the stories about Tataga’s witchery are true? Just because she’s followed by animals doesn’t mean she is guilty of wrongdoing. When this town was settled long, long ago, there was a lonely old man who understood the speech of animals — but he also knew where to find medicinal herbs!”

It was nonetheless resolved that Tataga should be watched, and who better could spy on her than two crafty, sharp-eyed young men? Even in the thickest part of the forest Tataga would not elude them!

Yet no sooner had Tataga stepped into the woods than she was gone. Then, after she was home again, her candle would burn to all hours.

Someone suggested, “Perhaps the children might find out what she does? She likes children, and only they can go near her.”

Still, the children refused to spy on Tataga. The people on her street were surprised. Why were the children so loyal to that old woman? True, she gave them nuts and berries; yet there must be more to it than that! Suspicion blazed up and ran about like fire. How had Tataga set the children in thrall to her?

The neighbors tracked the old woman the way ants follow a trail of sugar, until they finally discovered that she would dig up stumps and stick them in her sack. But what did she do with them then? Smoke never came out of her chimney, so there must surely be something else she did. What could it be? Sorcery uses a bat’s wing, a snake’s tooth, an owl’s feather. Perhaps Tataga wasn’t a witch, after all. Then why do wild animals follow her? Why does the forest hide her?

Years and years went by, like the leaves dropping from birch trees.

Did Tataga know she was followed? If so, she kept her secret to herself. So it might forever have remained, had not a terrible winter of fierce storms descended upon the town. Everywhere windows were covered by flowers of ice. The snow was so deep that people could hardly pass along the streets.

The children worried. How is Tataga? What will she get to eat?

The girls and boys clambered through the heaped-up snowdrifts, carrying dishes of food for Tataga. Yet still they worried. Does she take her food in, or are the cats and dogs stealing it? Her windows were blocked by a lacy curtain of ice. No one could tell if there was any life inside.

Then one of the girls found that by pressing a loaf of hot bread against Tataga’s window a clear, round peephole appeared in the pane. The girl looked through and saw people moving here and there. As she peered, she found herself staring into two bright eyes set in a small, round face wrapped in a flowered kerchief. That couldn’t be Tataga! The little girl looked again. Someone nodded to her in a friendly way. The little girl peeped through another window. Am I dreaming? she thought. Tataga has no children. She has always lived alone! Where did those children come from?

The little girl gazed through the first one again, and the tiny, bright creature behind the pane winked happily at her.

Well! Tataga’s house seems to be full of children! The little girl went round to Tataga’s door. It was open. How long before she could make out what was inside — a minute, or was it an eternity? And then the little girl uttered a cry. All about her, everywhere, were girls, hundreds of tiny girls, and wearing many-colored skirts. They were skipping, they were hopping and laughing and singing.

Looking closer, the little girl made out that they were wooden dolls, although not like the ones that came on birthdays. These were special dolls, Tataga’s dolls, and their voices rang like little, silver bells. And their faces surprised her even more — they were all different! One doll’s face looked exactly like her own sister. Another had her best friend’s face. A third looked like her brother, and the face of the fourth doll was … her very own! The little girl gave a shout of amazement, and one of the tiny creatures put a finger to her lips and said, “Ssh! Tataga’s sleeping!”

“So what!” said the little girl loudly. “She can’t ever hear anything when she’s awake!”

“Is that what you think?” said the doll with her sister’s face, and she came nearer. “Tataga does not hear what she doesn’t wish to hear. She never hears grownups. But she hears us very well, and she hears …. ”

“Who are you?” said the little girl, her eyes big and round.

The doll laughed at her.

“Who are we? Can’t you see? We’re Tataga’s children! You mustn’t tell a soul about us. Tataga carves our hands and legs for years, and then gives us your faces because she loves you all — just as she gave them the faces of your parents long ago. Look at that little one by the stove: Who does she look like?”

Squinting, the little girl looked long and hard, yet couldn’t guess who that one might be. Finally she declared, “There’s no girl in our street like that!”

“Look closely at her eyes and her nose!”

“Oh!” the little girl gasped, pressing her hand to her mouth.
“It seems you’ve guessed — it’s Tataga! When she was as small as we are … ,” the doll smiled, warning her visitor it was a secret. “As for the loaf, thank you! Tataga will eat it when she wakes up. But remember, if you want to see us again you must keep this as our most secret secret!”

The little girl tiptoed from Tataga’s house utterly bewildered. It was a brilliant, snowy white day outside. The shrubs and street sparkled with glory; the snowflakes glinted like stars. She breathed the sharp cold air in deeply and promised herself she would tell no one about Tataga’s children. Nevertheless, no sooner was she was once more at home than despite herself, she burst out, “I saw Tataga’s children!”

“You saw what?” asked her mother, her eyes widening with wonder.

The little girl paled and whispered, “I cant tell you.”

“Didn’t you just now say you saw Tataga’s children? And don’t we all know that Tataga has no children? Why are you telling me fibs?”

Her mother frowned and the little girl began to cry. She cried until nightfall. She cried even as she dreamed, saying over and over, “I did not fib! I saw them! I saw Tataga’s children with my very own eyes!”

Her mother signed to her husband that he should go over to Tataga’s house to learn the truth of this affair. The child had never lied before; even if this was just a little tale, it really was too much.

The little girl’s father called on his neighbor, and the pair of grownups, black with suspicion, went softly to Tataga’s. The candle was lighted as always, and as always her door was locked. Her father smashed the lock with one blow; but the door stayed tightly shut, so he knew his axe was needed.

When at last the two men broke in, they froze in their tracks, unable to believe their eyes. The room was full of children. Suddenly they all ran out of the house, and started to rise to the sky. Then Tataga ran out after her flock of children, clapped her hands smartly and, as though that was a sort of signal, they all began to fly.

The little girl’s’ father snatched at some of the children, but they were already too high for him. Over the roof they flew, all of them, all together with Tataga, and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

No one ever saw them again.

Now, when nights are cold and clear, if they look to the west, the children who live on Tataga’s street can see a flock of many-colored stars, with one big, bright star beside them, rising higher and higher above the edge of the sky.

And they know that Tataga and her children are still flying, flying, flying far away from them.

— Grozdana Olujic. Translated from the Serbian by Jascha Kessler with Grozdana Olujic

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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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