Fables with Fangs
Obviously fitting into the genre of Folklore, this collection of cautionary tales, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary, by David Sedaris, contains modern versions of the medieval bestiary. A bestiary is a compendium of stories about animals, birds and sometimes plants. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes containing each animal’s natural history, an illustration of it and an accompanying moral lesson (for example, The Tortoise and The Hare – slow and steady progress will win, or The Ant and The Grasshopper – hard work is better than idleness, etc.)
The animal fables of La Fontaine
One of the stories in Sedaris’ collection mentions the French writer of fables, Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695). De la Fontaine’s collection of fables, The Fables of De La Fontaine, was published from 1668 to 1694 in 12 volumes, and contains 239 fables, some adapted from the classical “fabulists” (writers of fables) Aesop, Babrius and Phaedrus. In the later books, De la Fontaine recognizes the contribution of the Indian writer of fables, Bidpai (Pilpay), whose fables, produced in the French through translations from Persian, date back to the Indian Panchatantra. De la Fontaine drew on many other sources and French writers, and none of the fables in the collection are of his own invention. His fables are known for their wit, artlessness and insight into the peculiarities of human nature.
Along with other fables, such as those by Aesop, De La Fontaine’s fables have become integrated into children’s literature and into common usage through idioms and metaphors. They include: The Ant and the Grasshopper (original French title: “La cigale et la fourmi”), The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs (“La Poule aux oeufs d’or”), The Tortoise and the Hare (“Le lièvre et la torte”), The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (“Le rat de ville et le rat des champs”), and The wolf who played shepherd/wolf in sheep’s clothing (“Le loup devenu berger”).
Sedaris’ fables with a modern bite
Bearing this in mind, Sedaris walks in the footsteps of giants with this slim volume. Without the sometimes gruesome but always entertaining illustrations by Ian Falconer (the creator of the Olivia children’s books), as befits a bestiary, it would’ve been less enjoyable. The illustrations do give the stories a wicked edge.
The collection consists of 16 fables about the difficulties of modern life and the lessons that go with them. “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk” – the story of the book’s title – is about modern dating, and the lessons are: If you’ve got nothing in common, you’ve got nothing in common – no use trying to fake it. Also, don’t pretend to know something when you don’t. In this case, the squirrel knew nothing about jazz. Many people know nothing about jazz or don’t particularly like it, but would not say so for fear or looking like philistines.
(Left: Illustration for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by Ian Falconer for the story: “Hello Kitty”, p. 130)
Often the stories show that stupidity, vanity, pretentiousness, naïveté and greed will lead you to a bad end, justifiably so. Many of the stories are gruesome and contain sexual references – making this most certainly fables for adults, not children. However, it is very amusing. Sedaris uses suitably black humour to rip to pieces and expose the inner workings (innards!) of all kinds of unlikeable and nasty types of personalities.
One such is the story of the crow that pecks out the lamb’s eyes while its mother is practicing meditation. The mantra of the crow, and its excuse is: “…the code of thieves and charlatans and those who are good to themselves the world over: ‘I have to do what I have to do…’” Heard that line before? It’s a frequent excuse for questionable behaviour.
Above: Illustrations by Ian Falconer in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris
Sophisticated, well observed, and darkly witty, the collection does give food for thought, though I often trotted through the stories at speed just to get to Sedaris’ clever and nicely put closing lines.