“The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales” by Vasily Eroshenko

Vasilii Yaroshenko (Tsune Nakamura 1920; via Wikimedia Commons) Vasilii Yaroshenko (Tsune Nakamura 1920; via Wikimedia Commons)

Vasily Eroshenko was a transnational writer working in the early 20th century, writing in a variety of languages ranging from Japanese and Russian to Esperanto as he moved about Europe and Asia. He was born in Ukraine and lived, among other places, in Russia, England, Japan, Myanmar, India, China, and the Soviet Union. His writings draw heavily from the political situations of these countries, as well as his own life as a blind musician, lecturer, translator, masseuse, and storyteller. 

The Narrow Cage collects fairy tales written during the years he spent in Japan (1914-1916; 1919-1921) and China (1921-1923). His tales share the basics of fairy tales we find from around the world in passing along moral and cultural values, and working as entertainment and often humorously so. But his tales often challenge many of those values and reflect his assessments of power, class structures, and social injustices resulting from colonial oppression, white supremacy, and misogyny. Often, it is enough for Eroshenko to simply demonstrate how destructive and arbitrary power can be and why certain attempts, even the growing socialist and democratic ideals in the Taishō period, are doomed to failure. Among the many questions he asks, one dominates: how can we be free?


The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales, Vasily Eroshenko, Adam Kuplowsky, (trans) (Columbia University Press, March 2023)
The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales, Vasily Eroshenko, Adam Kuplowsky, (trans) (Columbia University Press, March 2023)

The title story, “The Narrow Cage”, presents the near impossibility of achieving this state. A tiger on display in a zoo is doomed to suffer the laughter and ugliness of humans. He bemoans his fate:


There was his narrow cage, the narrow strips of sky between its bars, and all the other narrow cages stretching out round his own, as far as the eye could see … The rows of cages seemed to go on, one after the other, past the walls of the zoo, to the very ends of the earth.


He falls into a dream where he is free to wander aimlessly through the land. His first encounters are with those who are caged as he was and his attempts to free them. He forces a hole through a fence and exhorts a flock of sheep, slaves of man, to escape. They refuse. He stumbles upon a Rajah’s summer palace, where he attempts to free a caged canary and a goldfish in a bowl without success. The palace itself is a cage imprisoning two hundred wives. When the Rajah arrives with a new, suffering bride, the tiger resolves to rescue her. He is shot, but escapes after smashing the Rajah’s head. His attempt to free the bride fails. The rituals that follow present their own kinds of imprisonment. The young wife is to be burned alive along with the remains of the Rajah. Just as she is to be thrown onto the burning pyre, a sepoy army led by a white man ‘rescues’ the wife. When the tiger next encounters the woman, she has been cursed by her gods for abandoning them. She plunges a dagger into her heart.

The tiger wakes to his narrow cage.


The morals in these tales are many. “By a Pond”, for example, shows us that without freedom, we cannot gain experience and knowledge. “The Sad Little Fish” offers hope and the promise of heaven until a young pastor’s son enters, supported by the assertion that God put all life on earth to be used by humans. The destruction of life that follows is a critique of such a god. “The Scholar’s Head” is a critique in multiple directions. A scholar mouse has discovered how to “turn the world around” and thereby save all creatures. Before he can share his discovery, a cat eats him, offering little more than the observation that scholars’ brains don’t taste as good as those of the average mouse. The scholar’s great discovery is in fact absurd. Just as bad is how blind the masses are when they follow the intelligentsia.

Eroshenko does offer some hope in the tales he wrote while in Japan. “Little Pine”, for example, provides the most promising means to achieving the freedom he desires so much: Selfless Love.


In 1921, Eroshenko is expelled from Japan for being too radical. He spends the next two years in China. The three tales and five sketches selected from those he wrote while living there are darker and more personal. He frames “Father Time” with his own situation in Beijing.


My nights are terribly lonely. Alone in my bed, I exert myself to sleep and dream. But while my Beijing sleeps very well indeed, I cannot sleep at all.
      You see, my Beijing is not a place for dreaming beautiful dreams, but a place for forgetting those dreams that I once had many years ago.


As in “The Narrow Cage”, the beautiful dream here is for the destruction of the old gods which will lead to the freedom he so longs for. Here, the gods are destroyed, but the youth squander their freedom, which allows the elderly to rebuild their systems of oppression.


In addition to the fairy tales, The Narrow Cage includes an appendix with several of Eroshenko’s personal essays, including the story of his expulsion from Japan.

All told, the collection offers an introduction to the literary talent of an early 20th-century transnational writer, but also to the kind of socio-political anarchism he embraces. His is not the anarchism that leads to chaos and the simple destruction of all we know. His is an anarchism grounded in a universalism that frees humans from oppression.

Rick Henry was a Professor of English at SUNY—Potsdam where he directed the BFA in Creative Writing.