… how stories give shape and substance to the world and how they give it meaning and value; how they bring us close to the real world by keeping us at a distance from it; how they hold people together and at the same time keep them apart; how they are both true and not true.
J. E. Chamberlin and Levi Namaseb, “Stories and songs across cultures”, Profession, 2001, p. 25
Illustration inspired by a Turkish banner
A striking number of political prisoners who wrote memoirs –and this may explain why they wrote memoirs– attribute their survival to their ability to “tell stories”: to entertain criminal prisoners by recounting the plots of novels or of films. In the world of the camps and the prisons, where books were scarce and films were rare, a good storyteller was highly prized.
Lev Finkelstein says that he will be “forever grateful to a thief who, on my first prison day, recognized this potential in me, and said, ‘You’ve probably read a lot of books. Tell them to people, and you will be living very well.’ And indeed I was living better than the rest. I had some notoriety, some fame . . . I ran into people who said, ‘You are Levchik-Romanist [Levchik-the-storyteller], I heard about you in Taishet.’
Because of this skill, Finkelstein was invited, twice a day, into the brigadier leader’s hut where he received a mug of hot water. In the quarry where he was then working, “that meant life”. Finkelstein found, he said, that Russian and foreign classics worked best: he had far less success retelling the plots of more recent, Soviet novels.
Anne Appelbaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, London: Allen Lane, 2003, p. 352
Illustration inspired by a popular drawing from Ivory Coast
There is a Singhalese translation of the greater part of the [Játakas], which is exceedingly popular, not on account of the peculiar doctrines of Buddhism contained in it, for these are but incidentally referred to, but from its being a collection of amusing stories which they believe to be unquestionably true. …
Not a few of the fables that pass under the name of Aesop are here to be found; and the schoolboy is little aware, as he reads of the wit of the fox or the cunning of the monkey, that these animals become, in the course of ages, the teacher of the three worlds, Buddha.
Each Jákata begins with the formula “yata-giya-dawasa,” which is the exact equivalent to our own, “in days of yore.” … One tale, after the usual manner of eastern compositions, presents the opportunity for the introduction of several other stories that are only slightly dependent on the principal narrative. The Singhalese will listen the night through to recitations from this work, without any apparent weariness; and a great number of the Játakas are familiar even to the women.
Robert Spence Hardy, A manual of Buddhism, in its modern development. London: Williams & Norgate, 1860, pp. 99-101
Illustration inspired by a jar from Damascus
These are all the matters we need to know. It’s too easy to become sick, because there are always things happening to confuse our minds. We need to have ways of thinking, of keeping things stable, healthy, beautiful. We try for a long life, but lots of things can happen to us. So we keep our thinking in order by these [string] figures and we keep our lives in order with the stories. We have to relate our lives to the stars and the sun, the animals, and to all of nature or else we will go crazy, or get sick.
Words of a Navajo storyteller, recorded by Barre Toelken and included in his book The Dynamics of Folklore, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, p. 96
Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society
[In the island of Bali] the normal way to bring out the dormant saktí [magic power] is to undergo mawintén – the initiation ceremony of priests, magicians, dancers, and actors, to give them luck, beauty, cleverness, and personal charm that enable them to be successful. Story-tellers and singers of epic poems (kekawin) have magic syllables inscribed in their tongues with honey to make their voices sweet. The ceremony is performed by a priest who, after cleansing and purifying the person through a maweda [recitation of mantras accompanied by ritual actions and significant gestures], writes invisible signs over his forehead, eyes, teeth, shoulders, arms, and so forth, with the stem of a flower dipped in holy water.
Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937, p. 340
llustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing
To tell a story is to throw shadows to the fire. In that very instant, everything that the word reveals is consumed by silence. Only those who pray given their entire soul know the meaning of that burning, that fall of the word into the abyss.
Mia Couto, La confesión de la leona, from the Spanish translation by Rosa Martínez-Alfaro, Madrid: Alfaguara, 2016, pág. 79
Illustration based on a Buddhist image.