IN ORDER TO BE HAPPY with a place or a person or a book, some of us need to know where we are and where we stand, while others are perfectly content to float free. Floaters will enjoy Kalila and Dimna more than standers. As an old stander, I felt frustrated by the breezy sketchiness of the information granted us (by Doris Lessing in a friendly introduction and by the author in a brief afterword) concerning what, exactly, the book is. A translation, one gathers, of part of what? Well, one can't say exactly, because it turns out not to be a translation at all, but a collation, reworking, and modernification of various earlier translations of -- of what?

Well, at this point I went to the library (a good place to make a stand) and established to my own satisfaction that "Kalila and Dimna" and the "Fables of Bidpai" and the "Tales of Pilpay" and all the rest are versions of a single original: a very old Sanskrit collection of stories, the Panchatantra, upon which translations and variations have grown and overgrown like vines on an ancident temple in the forests of India. Two hundred versions, over the centuries, in over 50 languages, says my library source; 20 English translations alone in the century 1788-1888, says Lessing. Many of the stories are now familiar -- to Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Christians -- as folktales, and probably many of them started out as folktales; but the panchatantra and its Persian, Arabian, and other recensions are not folkstuff but literature. The book was a "mirror for princes" -- a lively manual of political advice, Machiavellian in its realism and psychological astuteness, making and marking its points by animal fables.

Dull books do not become global millennial best sellers. Our great contemporary animal fable is Orwell's Animal Farm, a worthy continuation of the tradition. The stories are trenchant, funny, charming, cruel. Part of the success of this collection surely lies in the way the tales are presented, an exquisitely tormenting Chinese box technique, which Ramay Wood has preserved. The frame story involves a King and a Wise Man. When we are quite deep into the story of these two, the Wise Man Says, "O King! permit me to illustrate my point with the tale of the Bull and the Lion," and starts telling it. Just as we have got really interested in the fate of the Bull, a jackal says to the Lion, "O Lion, do you remember the story of the Mice that ate the Iron?" and starts telling it, and just as we're really into that one -- and on it goes. The most rigid and determined stander must consent to float free while this ramification of suspense from suspense goes on. It provides a salutary exercise of intellect and spirit for both kings and commoners. Recent practitioners of forms of the Chinese Box narrative technique include Italo Calvino, Gene Wolfe, and Russell Hoban, all masters of sudden corner-turnings, intricate proliferation, and the final (or semifinal) reward -- when the iron, the mice, the lion, the jackal, the bull, the wise man and the king are all brought back rapidly in order in the most brilliantly satisfying fashion. In this, Ramsay Wood follows his originals closely, and slips with skill in and out of stories as closely interfolded as the petals of a rose.

The vitality of the stories and the fascination of the narrative plan kept me going, but the language made the going hard. It is not so much a free-floating style as a mishmash of mannerisms, few of which have any esthetic relation to the matter and some of which are in gross contrast to it. Effects intended to be light and humorous fall dead. A rat named Zirac lives in a town called Mahila in the cell of a monk called Charlie. The Charlie sort of thing may be meant to generalize the reference of the tale by disorienting expectation, but to me it merely cheapens the tone. Translations of the Eastern classics have tended to be stuffy, but there's no need to rush to the other extreme and be twerpy. Edgerton's laborious 1924 reconstruction of the original Panchatantra, intended for scholars, not for the common reader, calls the monk Tuft-Ears, and another monk, whom Wood calls merely "Charlie's friend," appears as Fat-Paunch, with a footnote saying the name really translates as Big Buttocks. All this is a good deal funnier than Charlie, and also reminds one that being rude about the clergy is a very ancient art.

The worst trouble with tone is in the dialogue:

"Come along, Lady Pinfeathers," he menanced gruffly.

"We'll leave Zirac to make himself at home while you and I get some chow ready. I'll hunt for it and you can be the pretty waitress. Heh heh!. . . ."

This kind of stuff goes on for pages. And "he menanced gruffly" is symptomatic of another tendency in Wood's prose, towards the purple pulpish:

"The afternoon sun blazed low in the sky, its light raking across the landscape and scattering all detail into glinting brilliance. A zephyr caressed the iridescent kiang tips, swaying them back and forth, one into another, in brief, shimmering waves."

Seldom have so many present participles achieved so little. Here, for contrast, is a bit from the stuffy old Edgerton version:

"[The lion] laid upon him his right hand, plump, round, and long, and adorned with claws like thunderbolts in place of ornaments, and said courteously, "Peace be with you. . . ."

Now that's how animals talk! Ramsay Wood seems to lack faith in his material, to believe that it needs "bringing up," or "interpreting for the modern reader," as they say. It doesn't. It's good, strong stuff. It tastes a lot better without 7-Up.

The illustrations by Margaret Kilrenny have all the wit and grace one could desire, and their exact and delicate reference to their sources in Eastern art is a delight. Only the two first books of the Panchatantra's five are presented here; if you publish the rest, O Publisher! please let us have more of these lovely drawings.