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Fable Talk

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A wish-granting fairy visits, for fair or foul, small-time citizens in Idiots: Five Fairy Tales and Other Stories, German crime novelist Jakob Arjouni’s take on the fabulist underworld. “Immortality, health, money, love” being out, all else is game. (Only one person tries the “more wishes” thing; that’s out too.)

Idiots is deliberately bourgeois, with see-through signifiers: a man upset at taking the Good Citizens Prize in a project of ethnic rehabilitation called A Bowl of Soup for Hermann; an arts section lead, “The Sole of a Shoe, Twenty Euros—Where the Wealthy Berliner Plays the Parisian,” that’s a spot-on New York Times headline, or its Berlin equivalent. Arjouni tops off the sport by dropping into one story a magazine with the preposterous title True, Beautiful and Good. What would appear in its pages, hobbled by neither derivation nor ridiculousness? The film student can’t watch films anymore (“After watching one he had often sat up at his desk half the night, thinking he was making up such snatches of dialogue as ‘I must be off,’ ‘I’ll wait for you’ “), and the aging writer of pulp western serials wishes for the “right tone and narrative viewpoint” to complete a last, respectability-conferring work. He gets lines like “I promise I’ll try to help you hide the girl in a cupboard.”

The conflation of art and the corporation (“Are we talking about art, sex, and eternity, or are we talking about clauses in a contract?”) makes democratic Arjouni’s premise: “The trouble with idiots is, they’re too idiotic to see their own idiocy.” So democratic, in fact, that only the last story, the Chekhovian “At Peace,” feels like a premonition we could accept. Kanter, a reclusive landowner who takes in the village drunk, suddenly orders his estate demolished and fires the man as “gardener and as private individual.” There aren’t words more devastating than those last three, particularly if one thinks of idiot‘s origin in the Greek for private person, from a concept of “correct” role-playing in a—democratic—regime.

Outsiders can’t win either. Kanter wants to cheat death: “The only bad thing about death is having to leave behind so much that you’ve loved, and I’ve made sure there’s nothing left that I’d mind parting with.” But his last words, whispered, are, “It doesn’t work.” He asks for something that smells of a garden, and he dies before the flowers are brought.