By Sofia Jesus

Wang-Fô and his disciple Ling walked slowly through the roads of the Han kingdom, as the old painter would often stop “during the night to watch the stars, and during the day to watch the dragon-flies”.

This is how Marguerite Yourcenar starts the first of ten magical short-stories gathered in her Oriental Tales, a book first published in 1938.

In this collection of adventures — that somehow reminded me of the One Thousand and One Nights — the author leads us through a journey to a mostly legendary past, filled with heroes and anti-heroes in places such as China, Greece, Japan or Eastern Europe.

Inspired sometimes by old tales or legends, and others by an hindu myth or an ancient novel — as Yourcenar tells us in a post-scriptum — these tales from the East grabbed me firstly by the amazing writing style of the author, and secondly by the strangeness of it all.

In Oriental Tales, you will find love craved in a wall from which a mother miraculously fed her baby even after she died there standing; or in the arms of the Lady-from-the-village-where-the-leaves-fall, who tricks the man she loved for 18 years in order to spend his last, old, blinded days by his side.

You will find a surreal, often funny melting pot of gods and creatures from all beliefs, as in the tale where Nymphs are saved by Our Lady of the Swallows.

And you will find heroes like Marko, the man who did not blink when his enemies crucified him or burned his chest to test if he was as dead as he pretended to be; but who could not prevent a smile from appearing in his lips when they brought in women to dance around his supposedly dead body.

The book spoke to me about beauty — in words, in simplicity, in details, in human nature — and about how often one neglects to appreciate it.

But what I also loved about it was that, for me, it acted as an ode to story-telling. As when a man — in The Milk of Death — sitting at a restaurant’s terrace, overlooking the Adriatic, simply asks an old friend to tell him a story: “I need a whiskey and a story in front of the sea. The most beautiful and least plausible of all stories; one that makes me forget about the patriotic and contradictory lies in the few newspapers I just bought in the harbour.”

When was the last time you asked someone to tell you a story?

As another one of Yourcenar’s story-telling characters said — in The Man in Love with the Nereids — illusion may well be the form the most secret realities acquire in the eyes of the common.

Indeed, reality is so rich that fiction may not always sound as much appealing. But when was the last time you gazed at a dragon-fly?


Oriental Tales

Marguerite Yourcenar