The Long Path To Wisdom by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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The Long Path To Wisdom by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An insight into a Burma that probably no longer exists via its folk tales. The collection is broad and therefore necessarily simply told and there are echoes of western fairy stories and morality tales in many of them…but there’s none of Sendker’s usual lyrical sensibility.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2018
Publisher: Polygon
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846974656

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On my travels around the world, I have a tendency to end up in any bookshop that is selling English-language books, and while I buy as many second-hand escapist tales as the next person, what I'm really looking for is the 'local' – the cookbook maybe, the maps definitely, but above all: the folk tales. If I ever get to Burma, I won't need to hunt, I can read before I go.

Somewhere along the line in our western tradition 'folk tales' became 'fairy tales'. This wouldn't have mattered quite so much if we'd stuck with "faerie" meaning the otherworld that is not necessarily a good place from the human perspective, rather than simultaneously transmuting faeries into fairies…all spangles and pink tutus and all round saccharine sweet goodness. Somewhere along the line western fairy tales lost their power. They were always stories for children, but they were stories of power and evil and morals and 'happy ever after' had very little to do with any of those things. Somewhere along the line we bought into a 'happy ever after' version.

The thing that struck me most forcibly about this collection of Burmese folk stories, is not the similarities with the western versions that Sendker points out in his introduction, but the amount of death. The thing that struck me most was how often good does not prevail. The heroes and heroines do not live happily ever after: they tend to die brutally, unjustly. I can't help wondering how well this works as a morality tale template. "Be this good" it seems to say "and it won't really work out for you: not in this lifetime anyway." And maybe that's the point. In the Burmese tradition, there will be other lifetimes, and in that context a good death possibly counts for more than a good life.

Even so, by the end of the book I really was hoping that at least one of the good guys would ride off into the sunset to live out his years.

I admit I came to the collection because of Sendker's name and because I loved his Burmese novels The Art of Hearing Heartbeats and A Well-tempered Heart. This collection is very different. The novels are Burma as seen by a romantic German outsider – lyrical, mystical, beautiful, but romantic…in the sense of 'unreal'. The folk tales are just as unreal in one sense, but they are Burma as seen by her own people down the ages. For all the magic that naturally occurs in such tales from every tradition, they are rooted in the everyday, in the power of kings and princes and the (not surprising) powerlessness of princesses – who have a tendency to turn out to be sneaky and clever, but don't always get their way; they are rooted also in the poverty of the people who live in the villages and who aspire to riches.

There is none of the lyricism of Sendker's own work here. The tales are told simply – only the 'facts' of the story, the narrative, being shared. I can see that this was a way in which they could be kept short and many more of them included in the volume, and for that I salute the authors and editors…but I also wonder about how the tales are actually told in their homeland. Are they this bare in their narrative, or are they spun out as yarns, embellished and expanded? Many of the stories are told over a mere three or four pages. Would we tell the tale of Robin Hood so shortly, or that of Cinderella? I mix the comparators deliberately, because – as in the western tradition – the tales are mixture of pure morality tales: fiction spun into hearsay, and legend: the origins of the stars and the gods or saints.

As Sendker points out in his introduction, some of these stories will feel very familiar. The Little Snail is close cousin to the Robert the Bruce's spider. The role of wise old owl or wily fox is often played by the hare in these stories – not the fool of our hare and tortoise tale, but a respected judge of what is right. Animals feature heavily, always with the ability to talk to humans which is taken as a given and nothing to be remarked upon. I like that. It is at one with a transmigration philosophy that there should be no difference between humans and other animals – and that being so, of course they can speak to each other. At the same time, it places the tales very much in the realm of the child-like suspension of disbelief.

Only: there is one tale that centres entirely on this willingness to believe the veracity of a tale which leads the listeners into a double-bind. The moral of The Best Storyteller seems to be 'never trust the storyteller', which might be an odd message to be giving to the children you're seeking to educate through stories. Odd, but true.

Sendker prefaces the stories with his Burma to put the collection in context. That in itself is a Burma that no longer exists. The country continues its struggles and this isn't the place to comment upon them, but in reading this book we probably need to remember that it is akin to reading Hans Christian Anderson, or the Brothers Grimm… ancient tales retold for a point in time. Many of them reminded me mostly of The Just So stories.

There's many an echo of our own tales in here and it's worth reading and thinking about on that level alone.

For those new to Sendker we heartily recommend the novels: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats and A Well-Tempered Heart – for an understanding of where the country is today check out The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Freedom by Peter Popham. We've also enjoyed Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker.

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