Cafe Scheherazade by Arnold Zable
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
We’re living in a post-truth world, so we are told over and over by the media, but my own leitmotif this year has been the idea of multiple truths – two competing viewpoints can be simultaneously valid. I think I always thought/understood this somewhere at the periphery of my consciousness, but now I more properly grasp what it means.
I’ve read two books about storytelling recently. The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall (2013), and a lovely novel by Arnold Zable called Cafe Scheherazade (2001), based on a real cafe in Acland Street, St Kilda. Jewish survivors of the Second World War gather here to tell their tales, in a novel which is a paean to the magic of story itself. There is a reverence, even a fetishisation, in the way Zable describes and performs the act of storytelling.
We remain seated as darkness descends, Zalman and I. We eat our evening meal garnished with fables and tales. We imagine cities, strung across the globe, like pearls upon a silver chain. We see frayed maps etched in the foreheads of the old men who sit at neighbouring tables. Rivulets from distant continents course through their veins.
It is a work of art which gives me that sense of… I am sure there is a more apt word in a different language, but in English the most fitting word I can find is awe. The sense of the enormousness of the world, as well as the interconnectedness of things. It is a pleasant feeling which I often get, strangely enough, at airports – the reason why I so often volunteer to be on airport drop-off or pick-up duty.
I digress. Gottschall, whose book is subtitled How Stories Make Us Human, argues that storytelling is of evolutionary benefit to humans: it allows us to rehearse our responses to potentially dangerous situations in a risk-free manner, as well as disseminate moral values which contribute to a cohesive society. A point which really stuck with me was that we continually construct narrative in order to make sense of our lives and protect our egos, positioning ourselves as the flawed yet ultimately good protagonist at the centre of our life story. People with depression, Gottschall argues, have been less successful at doing this, which is why the “talking cure” is often so effective – it helps people reclaim their life narrative and their role as protagonist. There is so much to debate here, but it is a fascinating – if somewhat disturbing – proposition.
Gottschall and Zable both practise what they preach, and both books (particularly Zable’s) are filled with excellent storytelling. A huge downfall of Cafe Scheherazade is its pointedly masculine outlook, relegating female characters to cardboard cut-outs on the set of the men’s stories. Certainly, some of these set pieces are interestingly and lovingly drawn, but they are two-dimensional: women are either whores or saints, and if they do great things, they do only great things. They are neither complex or contradictory, and they dissolve into nonexistence in the absence of men, who are almost exclusively the storytellers in this novel. The only female storyteller is Masha, proprietor of the cafe; yet even she is in the novel as a lover, the beautiful girl who shares a name with her husband’s first love, and goes on to save him from his despair. She only does good things, whereas her husband Avram does both good and bad things.
And then there is the odd passage of prose which seems straight out of a parody:
His blue eyes are darting about, following the ladies moving past on the street. He glances at the patrons entering the cafe, and surveys the chicken schnitzel that the mini-skirted waitress places by his side. ‘Thank you, my beautiful girl,’ he says, with a wink. ‘Isn’t she a krasavetze, a true beauty?’
I was immediately put in mind of this article I had recently read.
Yet both interpretations are true. Zable’s (and the fictional Yossel’s) perception of the romanticism of the scene – the waitress’s legs and the food and the women on the street as all a part of this landscape of peace which the old survivor can now enjoy – this perception is not invalidated by the feminist reading, which boggles at Zable’s reduction of the waitress, a multifaceted human being with her own share of stories, to an item of clothing below the waist, a silent deliverer of chicken schnitzel. Even the eponymous Scheherazade told stories only to appease a violent, all-powerful and misogynist man.
The unsophisticated depiction of women holds me back from fully immersing myself in this tale about tales, subtly implying as it does that I am excluded from the storytelling act by virtue of my gender. But my enjoyment of the novel is reduced, not erased. Multiple truths.
On that night, under an impassive moon, Laizer discovered parallel universes, hovering side by side, one of beauty, one of ugliness, one permeated by darkness, the other suffused with light. On that night Laizer regained his childhood sense of naivety and awe; and he realised that be learning to manoeuvre between these alternative universes he could generate the change of energy necessary for him to pull through.