Monday, June 21, 2010

11. "Gli Enigmi dello Spettro" by Jambhaladatta

Year of first publication: ?
Genre: collection of tales
Country: India

In English: The Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa and Chandra Rajan

This is one of the most famous collections of Hindu novellas, or so my introduction by Maria Luisa Gnoato says, because I must admit that I’m ignorant on the subject. I came across this book while I was looking for something different (a book by R.K. Narayan about Hindu mythology). The collection in Sanskrit is called Vetalapancavismati which means Twenty five tales of Baital. There are several recensions of the text, which is quite old itself, and mine is the one by Jambhaladatta, who collected the tales sometime before the 16th century.
The legendary King Vikram (probably Vikramditya, who lived in the 1st century BC and established a calendar still popularly used in India) promises a sorcerer that he will capture a vetala (or Baital), a vampire spirit who hangs from a tree and inhabits dead bodies. King Vikram tries to do so, but whenever he catches the spirit, it starts telling a story with a riddle at the end. If the king answers correctly to the riddle, the vetala would run back to his tree. Of course, the king s not able to keep silent and the cycle goes on twenty four times, until at the twenty-fifth story the king is stumped. King Vikram is therefore able to bring the vetala to the sorcerer, but there’s a surprise.
The riddles are of the sort “who was right and who was wrong?” and require a reflection on the dharma moral principles. I must admit that I was stunned by some of the answers to the riddles and I don’t know if this is quite blasphemous but I don’t understand and don’t like this dharma thing one bit. Of course, these tales would require a knowledge of classic Indian literature and Hindu philosophy to give a decent opinion, so I just "threw in" an impression.
According to the introduction to the English recension, this collection of tales within a frame story is “the germ which culminated in the Arabian Nights, and which inspired the Golden Ass of Apuleius, Boccacio's Decameron, the Pentamerone, and all that class of facetious fictitious literature”. As a matter of fact, the introduction to my book says that one of the tales, the tenth, is also found in Boccaccio’s Decameron (it’s about a girl who escapes danger with the help of her incredible sincerity) and another one inspired Goethe, who wrote a ballad called Paria which can loosely be traced back to the eighth tale of this collection.

1 comment:

  1. Some books have specific audience and you must know something to be able to understand it.