THE TALES OF PATRICK MERLA. Available Press. 103 pp. Paperback, $3.95.
ORIENTAL TALES. By Marguerite Yourcenar. Translated from the French by Alberto Manguel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 147 pp. $12.95.
AS JOHN ASHBERY has observed, Patrick Merla has written "enchanting stories for wise children, young ones and old ones." Since Merla's tales are clearly about the quest for wisdom, perhaps Ashbery means to suggest that wisdom can only be understood by the wise, that preaching to the converted is the only viable option. Certainly I count myself as a convert to these nine stories, some just two pages long, others nearly 20, all woven out of motifs of light and music.
Often a Merla tale begins with a vice -- pride, cruelty, greed -- that is exercised with stubborn willfulness. Next a terrible fate befalls the vicious man or woman, who must then set out in quest of atonement. After much suffering (and isolation), the voyager is forgiven and learns the error of his or her ways.
For instance, in "The Proud Princess" the haughty, beautiful, accomplished Surat rejects a king's suit and offer of love by throwing at his emissary a sack and saying, "Take these trinkets to your Ugly High King! Tell him they are all the heart I have to give."
Her words are turned into a terrible curse. Her heart is torn out of her chest and she is forced to sell the trinkets, one by one, in a dusty marketplace, where her beauty, which might attract sympathy, is hidden under black veils. And lest she attempt to soften hearts with words, she is struck mute. At last she, in all her afflictions, takes pity on a beggar still more miserable than she, and this act of uncharacteristic charity leads her to redemption.
Christian mysticism, although never explicitly mentioned, haunts this book, but it is fused with Indian pantheism, especially the sense that what appears to be terrible can conceal the divine. Moreover, the bogs and hags and great serpents of Celtic literature, the singing harps and living tapestries and enchanted forests, all appear in these pages with no trace or irony or even self-consciousness. Indeed, the most striking quality of these beautiful bardic stories is their authenticity; they might well have been written in some less skeptical century. I could say they scarcely seem to have been "written" at all, for their art lies in the power of oral literature to hypnotize us. One symbol melts into another, a pedal-point of suspense is released into a neat resolution, while even the characters' identities metamorphose in quietly satisfying ways -- the ways of someone who has told his stories out loud again and again.
MARGUERITE YOURCENAR's Oriental Tales, by contrast, has a higher finish, a franker delight in turns of phrase, many of them ravishing. If Merla draws the tribe around the campfire, Yourcenar spins a yarn before the fireplace. Indeed, several of her stories begin with someone talking to another. Andrey stops into Old Stevan's shop and tells him of the death of Marko; "Tell me another story, old friend," Philip Mild entreats at the beginning of another tale.
In a third, a French engineer tells a tale to a Greek archeologist and an Egyptian pasha aboard a ship moored off a Balkan coast. If these framing devices have an old-fashioned, 19th-century realism about them, they are there merely to lend credibility to the passionate, always extraordinary anecdotes that follow. For instance, a heroic Serb named Marko attempts to escape death by feigning the insensibility of a drowned man. He gives no sign of life when nails are driven into his hands and feet nor when burning coals are laid on his chest, but when a lovely dancing girl swirls above him, he's forced to smile. The narrator ends with this observation: "Look: evening is falling; one could almost imagine on the beach at Kotor the small group of executioners working to the glimmer of their burning coals, the dancing young girl, and the young man who could not resist beauty."
Magic, a commonplace in Merla's stories, also appears in Yourcenar's, as in her "How Wang-Fo Was Saved." The Chinese Emperor, whose life has been spoiled because reality has never lived up to the beauty of Wang-Fo's paintings, condemns the artist to death. But before the execution is carried out, the painter is ordered to complete an unfinished sketch from his youth. So great is Wang-Fo's skill that the scene of a skiff on a lake becomes real and the artist and his disciple are able to row away to safety in the imaginary ship -- a mysterious parable of the power of art to destroy some people and to save others.
Yourcenar's "Milk of Death," the tale of a woman who, though buried alive inside a wall, is still able, even after her death, to breasteed her infant through a chink between two stones, reminds us of Merla's tales, where family love is always the purest and strongest bond between people. By contrast, her "Aphrodissia, the Widow" is remote from Merla's world. Whereas he never writes of blind sexual passion, this emotion, joined to a pagan and ecstatic apprehension of physical beauty, is Yourcenar's forte. Memoirs of Hadrian is the locus classicus of this tendency, but even here, in "The Man Who Loved the Nereids," we read, "Just as there is no love without a dazzling of the heart, there is no true voluptuousness without the startling wonder of beauty." The wonder of beauty, as the Chinese Emperor knew, can exact its price. A man becomes so enamored of the Nereids that he loses his senses and turns into a holy fool; Aphrodissia is so sick with love for the violent, handsome Kostis (who has murdered her husband) that she ends up plunging, dazed with grief and love, into an abyss. Similarly, in another story the head of the goddess Kali is mistakenly joined to the body of a prostitute. Driven by lust, this new half-divine creature embraces and kills everyone she encounters -- the reverse of Merla's serene mergers of the human with the divine.
Whereas Merla acknowledges evil but redeems it through repentance, grace and wisdom, Yourcenar (who despite the title, Oriental Tales, is immersed in Greek paganism) celebrates passion -- exalting, debasing passion -- and explores its tragic glamour. Both writers are writing here for "wise children," but Yourcenar's readers are more troubled by ungovernable longings.