The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales

By Vasily Eroshenko
Translated by Adam Kuplowsky

Reviewed by Roy Chan
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2023)

Vasily Eroshenko. The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales Tr. Adam Kuplowsky. Forward by Jack Zipes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. xlvii + 252 pp. Paperback ($24.99). ISBN-13 9780231557085

It might seem an odd proposition to suggest that solutions to the predicaments of colonial domination, racial injustice, capitalist exploitation, and in general all the myriad forms of human inequity may be found in a set of fairy tales. But this was exactly the ambitious project of Vasily Eroshenko (1890–1952), a writer who became, however briefly, a prominent figure in modern Japanese, Chinese, and world letters. He encapsulated a set of intriguing antinomies: blinded at the age of four, he went on to become an intrepid world traveler, leading a peripatetic life through England, India, Japan, and China. A subject of the Russian empire who was born within a Ukrainian cultural milieu near the border of present-day Ukraine, he primarily composed his stories in Japanese and Esperanto. While committed to the values of a universal humanism, he demonstrated time and again that humans were also the primary architects of unfreedom across race, class, gender, and species. His children’s fables are records of both innocence and cruelty, sketches of the possibility of universal love suffused with tearful melancholia.

That Eroshenko featured most prominently in Japanese and Chinese modern letters rather than that of his homeland (however it is defined between Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union) should serve as a reminder to how pivotal and productive these transnational engagements were in the intertwined development of both national literatures. As translator Adam Kuplowsky notes in his comprehensive and compelling introduction, it is difficult to ascertain the exact process by which Eroshenko composed his stories, and even to pinpoint in which language his stories were originally composed. Eroshenko existed for the Chinese reading public in translation (performed primarily by his champion Lu Xun), and yet the conventional model of translation in proposing a relation between source and target becomes blurry. Eroshenko’s patently exophonous approach to literary composition epitomizes the very project of universalist, international emancipation that he was deeply committed to; in our post-Cold War aversion to grand narratives of emancipation, universality, and humanism, Eroshenko’s wistful and even utterly utopian aspirations may sound odd to our cynical ears. Even childish.

But what distinguishes Eroshenko is that, for all the boldness of his radical hope, he was also tempered by an appreciation of tragedy and loss. Violence and injustice should first be mourned in place of a rush to vengeance. In comments to his story “A Spring Night’s Dream,” Eroshenko noted that he wrote this story “while smiling. However, it is a smile born of sorrow that in this age, in this land, we cannot yet make real a happy smile”[1]; thus do happiness and tragedy co-exist, as do the hopes of the future and inequities of the present also manifest together.

Kuplowsky, a professional translator based in Toronto, has worked from Japanese, Esperanto, and Chinese sources to render a deeply evocative version of Eroshenko that captures both the innocent lyricism of his prose as well as the searing undertones of tragic injustice. I hope Kuplowsky’s work will allow an English-speaking public to appreciate an author who combined both the melancholic sensibilities of Hans Christian Anderson alongside an intriguing anarchist critique of hypocritical authority and domination in all its forms. This translation was a passion project, and Kuplowsky notes that his own Ukrainian heritage factored in his enthusiasm for translating Eroshenko (xli). Honestly, it’s a surprise that it took so long for a definitive English volume to appear, given that his work had long existed in Japanese, Chinese, and Russian.[2] In his introduction to Eroshenko’s life and work, Kuplowsky exhorts us to see parallels between our current world on fire (quite literally) and the global conflagrations from a century before that inspired Eroshenko’s dreams and nightmares (xxxviii-xxxix).

Scholars of modern Chinese literature are most familiar with Eroshenko because he was championed and translated by the Zhou brothers when Eroshenko was forcibly deported from Japan in 1921 due to his frowned upon advocacy for anarchism and socialism. He was brutally beaten, starved, and isolated by Japanese authorities, and subsequently sent on a boat headed toward Vladivostok, then in the midst of the Russian Civil War and under White control. Prevented from crossing over into Bolshevik-controlled territory, he had no choice but to seek safe harbor in Harbin (alongside many Whites escaping the Bolsheviks). The Zhou brothers took up Eroshenko’s cause in the pages of the literary supplement to the paper Chen bao and even put up Eroshenko in their Beijing family home when he arrived there in early 1922. He became a minor media celebrity, a wise, blind Russian seer giving lectures on literature to Chinese students at Peking University. Lu Xun translated Eroshenko’s stories from the Japanese, publishing them first in serial form in Chen bao and then as a full-length volume in 1922. However, while students flocked to hear Eroshenko’s lectures, Eroshenko’s sojourn in China was not without controversy; he generally found life in China dismal and isolating compared to his beloved Japan. He occasionally offered haughty opinions about the inadequacies of Chinese culture that rubbed his readers and listeners the wrong way. A review he wrote of a Chinese student theatrical production that denounced their continuing use of cross-gender performance garnered backlash in the press, and those involved in the production mocked Eroshenko’s visual impairment. In April 1923, Eroshenko left China and would eventually spend the rest of his life in the Soviet Union, where he did his best to avoid the worst of Stalin’s purges. Sinking into obscurity, Eroshenko was involved in education for the blind, as well as doing ethnographic work among the indigenous Chukchi people of Siberia. The last decade of his life was spent ensconced back in his rural hometown of Obukhovka, where he died after a long bout of cancer, virtually forgotten.

After a forward by Jack Zipes, a scholar of German and comparative literature, the bulk of this volume consists of thirteen stories composed in Japan between 1915 and 1921. It then includes four tales and sketches written during his stay in China between 1921-1923. It concludes with an appendix that features some memoiristic vignettes as well as a helpful bibliography of primary sources and secondary scholarship.

Eroshenko’s fables are populated by both humans and non-human animals; very often, the animals highlight the hypocrisies of humans’ claim to reason and freedom. In the story that perhaps garnered the most attention of Chinese writers of the 1920s, “The Narrow Cage” portrays an imprisoned tiger struggling to break free of his human captors alongside his sympathy for an Indian widow condemned to the ritual sacrifice of sati.[3] The narrow cage symbolizes all manner of invisible human laws, rituals, and customs that impinge on natural freedom. In “A Spring Night’s Dream,” the capture and then eventual mutilation and murder of a goldfish and firefly by humans and fairies alike highlight how aesthetic appreciation quickly slips into the violence of appropriation.[4] In the harrowing “For the Sake of Mankind,” an arrogant scientist gleefully experiments on humans and animals under the pretext of contributing to humanity at large. This tale reminds one of Ivan Karamazov’s refusal to accept a “ticket” to salvation that requires the suffering inflicted on innocent children in return for universal happiness. Eroshenko’s appreciation for the human capacity of self-deception ensures that his stories rarely ever strike a pedantic tone; he is no hopeless idealist, and his tales feature a deep sensitivity to the contradictions of experience and how they challenge simplistic maxims.

Kuplowsky’s rendering captures the lyrical magic of Eroshenko’s voice: the language is simple and direct, never overwrought or fussy. Kuplowsky often features syntactic parallelism that heightens the fable-like quality of the stories. Without hesitation, he renders the unabashed, but rarely maudlin, sentimentality of Eroshenko’s prose. That an authorial voice can evince both irony and sincerity in comparable measure is a testament to the singularity of Eroshenko’s voice, and Kuplowsky should earn praise for capturing it so well.

Kuplowsky notes the various national and ethnic identities that claimed Eroshenko. He grew up in a culturally Ukrainian community in Obukhovka. His father, however, was a “loyal subject of the tsar” (xvi). Later, Eroshenko was educated in a school for the blind in Moscow. Lu Xun admired what he viewed as Eroshenko’s “Russian spirit of vast wilderness,” which embodied a universal quality unconstrained by national borders.[5] This bespeaks a common perception of Russian culture, and especially its literature, that it embraces humanist values, although this was always a complicated proposition given how such culture developed in tandem with Russian imperialist ventures. Eroshenko proudly displayed his Ukrainian culture by often wearing the traditional embroidered blouse known as a rubashka and playing the balalaika for his friends. He existed at the intersection of different national callings and from within a multiplicity of languages. But we cannot ignore Eroshenko’s genuine belief in a universalist humanism that would transcend what he viewed as ultimately arbitrary distinctions between race, class, and nations. This was exemplified by his romantic anarchist commitments and his enthusiastic participation in the Esperanto movement. As he remarked in 1922, “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” (xvii). Moreover, Eroshenko engaged in a critique of humanism’s own presumption of domination over animal life, thus pointing to an expanded ethics of care beyond human species.

It may seem wistful to offer the hope of universalism when nations and peoples are continually threatened with genocidal extinction under the guise of “great” civilizational amalgamation. But Eroshenko did believe in an absolute horizon of universal emancipation. His name was initially transliterated in Chinese as Ailuoxianke 埃羅先珂, but one newspaper happened to accidentally render his name as 愛羅先珂, the first character replaced with the character meaning “love.” Lu Xun noticed the error but decided to adopt it in his subsequent usage.[6] For him, this was a fitting moniker. For Eroshenko, maintaining the possibility of universal love even in the face of brute domination and tragic heartbreak remained an ethical cornerstone.

Does an ethics of universal love coupled with a refrain of nationalist revenge seem like a fairy tale? From the standpoint of current events, the answer must be a resounding yes. But we must then consider what it means to ponder the truth of a fairy tale. Like a smile born of sorrow, it suggests elusive hopes. But a fairy tale may also signal something deeper: an insistence on love in the face of violence, on hope against despair, a commitment to making the world a freer and just place for those who come after us. A fairy tale, then, is not meant to accurately portray the world as it is, but rather suggests the human commitments we should undertake in face of such a fallen world. This, I think, constituted the truth of Eroshenko’s dreams.

Roy Chan
University of Oregon


[1] Quoted in Lu Xun 魯迅, “Translator’s Afterword to ‘A Spring Night’s Dream’” 《春夜的夢》譯者附記 Chen bao fukan (Oct. 22, 1921).

[2] A selected volume of Eroshenko’s stories appeared in Russian in 1977 through Roman Belousov’s translation.

[3] This story forms the basis of Andrew F. Jones’s discussion of Lu Xun’s relationship with Vasily Eroshenko. See Jones, Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 147-173. He features an English rendering of Lu Xun’s translation as an appendix (175-187).

[4] I have recently discussed this tale: Chan, “Love’s Dream: The Speculative Vision of Vasilii Eroshenko in Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature,” in Sophia Mehrbrey and Hannah Steurer, eds., Animal Dreams in Aesthetic Media: Comparative Perspectives (Paderborn: Brill-Fink, 2023): 157-176.

[5] Lu Xun 魯迅, “’Translator’s Afterword to ‘The Narrow Cage’”《狭的笼》译者附记, in Lu Xun quan ji 鲁迅全集 (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2005), 10: 217.

[6] Lu Xun, “Translator’s Afterword to “A Spring Night’s Dream,’” Chen bao fukan (Oct. 22, 1921).