[Columbia University Press; 2023]

Tr. from the Japanese and Esperanto by Adam Kuplowsky

Vasily Eroshenko led a resilient, borderless life. His stories, which routinely critique the structures of power and violence built into modern societies, are projections of his utterly unique worldview, told using universal, timeless characters and settings.

Born in a small town in Ukraine, Eroshenko was blinded at the age of four. He proved precocious throughout his schooling, including attending the Moscow School for the Blind. Even as he began adulthood focusing on the violin, he developed politically, learning Esperanto and moving to Japan, where there was supposed to be more respect for the blind, with support from the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA). Through this quest for belonging, his blindness ignited his developing personal ideology, which ignored national borders, superficial capabilities, or even species. A part of his own lore, it emphasized treating every living thing equally. The other major symbol of this emphasis was his passion for a universal language.

He took this worldly experience and attempted to witness and empathize with everything. One of Eroshenko’s speeches from 1922 is quoted in the The Narrow Cage’s introduction: “Keep always in your mind that my country is the world, humanity is my nation and my beloved tongue is Esperanto. Remember this thing and you will have the key to all my philosophy in all my writing and speeches.”

Humanity may be his nation, yet his tone weighs heavily toward bleak misanthropy. In “The Sad Little Fish,” one of the few humans in the book is a destructive boy whose repeated disregard for other living beings, let alone polite norms, shatters a preacher fish’s spiritual mores: “As for myself, I have stopped going to church. And I do not care to pray to a god who has decreed that all things should serve to nourish and entertain the human race, nor do I believe that such a god even exists.” “The Martyr” portrays another encounter between animal and human, this time with a mosquito. While earnestly pursuing answers to its big spiritual and natural queries like a pre-Socratic optimist, the mosquito repeatedly runs into cynical, classist social barriers:

The mosquito remarks, “Surely we can agree that our hearts are one and the same.”

“Dear no!” cried the Honey-bee. “For if we are born in different places, then it stands to reason that we ought to have different hearts.”

“But I thought that we belonged to a common family,” said the Mosquito.

“A common what!” cried the Honey-bee. “Why, that would doubtless be an honor for you. But for me, it would be an imposition.”

The story then concludes with a priest reacting to the mosquito how most would, by swatting at it, thus “ending the life of the most loving creature there ever was.”

In the eponymous story, “The Narrow Cage,” Eroshenko acknowledges how easy it is to accept and even embrace the familiar confines of modern society—and how demoralizing this attitude can be for those seeking to escape them. The protagonist, Tiger, attempts to free a herd of sheep from their pen, but they refuse to escape. He begins throwing the sheep out to encourage their freedom, but they run back in, bleating in protest along the way. A couple pages later, Tiger encounters a “Canary [that] could not think of anything more terrifying than freedom.” And in the end, spoiler alert, Tiger becomes aware that he has been daydreaming in a literal cage, captive in a zoo, with onlookers cheering and jeering. Tiger, determined to at least free himself, repeatedly throws himself at the iron bars—but to no avail. Now fully aware of his caged existence yet unable to free others, unable to free himself, he loses the will to exist at all: “He did not open his eyes again. He did not have the will to do so.”

But beneath the shroud, Eroshenko’s clever characters and fairy tale stylings lend his existential and political textures an innocence and earnestness that disarm cynicism. The subjects are universally recognizable—tigers and lanterns, cats and canaries—and they’re all depicted as emotional and intellectual peers: The waves are described as charming but fickle, where jealousy abounds; frogs hold poetry readings; a “wise professor” sparrow stops by “the canary cage to extol the virtues of socialism to the captive birds inside,” so long as word doesn’t get out that they’re speaking “in terms of facts,” which could get them in trouble. The book retrains your mind to respect these commonplace critters as endearing peers trapped in recognizable circumstances. By the end, they do not read as whimsical or absurd characters. They are simply living beings.

This earnestness is also highlighted by Eroshenko’s fairy tale qualities. His stylistic tendencies just from one story, “Two Little Deaths,” include lush sensory details, simple dichotomies (“lay a little Rich Boy . . .” “a little Poor Boy smiled at him . . .”) and repetition in writing, both at a granular level (it’s never just “canaries,” it’s always “yellow canaries”) and at the structural level.  One paragraph walks through the Rich Boy’s surroundings in the hospital, including a “big Saint Bernard,” “a pair of yellow canaries,” and “a pretty vase of flowers,” then the next paragraph walks through the Poor Boy’s surroundings in the hospital, where there is “no Saint Bernard . . .  no pair of yellow canaries . . .  and no pretty vase of flowers.” These tendencies make the stories easier to follow, while also highlighting the themes of the story. Here, one character’s privileges are seen more starkly in direct comparison to another character suffering without them.

Meanwhile, all of these characters, whether human or otherwise, are connected in their subjection to both nature’s and humanity’s whims. The seasons change, storms rage, mosquitos are squashed, and terrains unknown and familiar are explored. Even though humans have introduced economic, spiritual, and social structures to make sense of these whims, any such attempts that fall short of treating all living beings as equals will include forms of privilege and suppression. Eroshenko ultimately evokes the increasingly apparent fact that unless humans work together, in conjunction with the natural world and all of its complexities, even the oppressors are in control of very little amid the overwhelming forces of the natural world.

Justin Stephani is a writer and editor living in Milwaukee.

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