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Jun 24, 2014

Notes on The Zebra Storyteller

Spencer Holst’s “The Zebra Storyteller” was in an anthology I taught years and years ago. It’s a super short flash. I quote it here:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.
That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.
Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle, and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.
“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”
The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why, he’s just fit to be tied.
So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.
The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.
He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.
The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.
One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ’em laugh!”
Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”
The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he’d been thinking about that very thing.
He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.
That is the function of the storyteller.

It’s the kind of story that might be good to start a semester with. A good “first day of class” piece. It begins in a most conventional manner: "once upon a time”. If you're attentive to how the story is told, you'll notice that it's told in the form of a fable: a brief allegorical narrative illustrating a moral lesson or satirizing human beings. The characters of a fable are usually animals who talk and act like people while retaining their animal traits. The oldest known fables are those in the Panchatantra, a collection of fables in Sanskrit, and those attributed to the Greek Aesop, perhaps the most famous of all fabulists. Other important writers of fables include Jean de La Fontaine, whose fables are noted for their sophistication and wit, the Russian poet Ivan Krylov, and the German dramatist and critic Gotthold Lessing, who also wrote a critical essay on the fable. In England the tradition of the fable was continued in the 17th and 18th cent. by John Dryden and John Gay. The use of the fable in the 20th cent. can be seen in James Thurber's Fables for Our Time (1940) and in George Orwell's political allegory, Animal Farm (1945). The American poet Marianne Moore wrote poems quite similar to fables in their use of animals and animal traits to comment on human experience; she also published an excellent translation of The Fables of La Fontaine (1954).
As an attentive reader of fable, you should be looking to see what moral message is being conveyed. What is the story trying to teach me? In this particular fable, despite the conventional story telling mode, the story itself is a bit strange. We're not sure where this writer is leading us, until we get to the end, and even then, we need to think through the implications of that last sentence.
Before we get to that, let's discuss the textual situation first. We have three primary characters in this fable:
The Siamese Cat: The cat who pretends to be a lion and is able to speak Zebraic, the language of the zebras. The cat perpetuates a double pronged fraud. First he uses his command of Zebraic to astonish his prey, who can't believe that a cat could speak their language. Once he's flabbergasted them, he takes advantage of them by preying on them, eating them, just as a lion would do. The cat brags to his friends, reasoning that his ability to hunt zebra makes him a lion. What does this tell you about the cat's character? For one, he's inauthentic, dishonest with the zebras, with his friends, even to himself. He's not content being who he is, is he?
Zebras: I take the Zebra society as one collective character, because with the exception of the storyteller, they all act the same. They behave en masse, as a herd. What are some of their qualities? They're ignorant, they're superstitious, they're unaware, they are not awake to reality, even when then can smell it in the air. They're easily duped. They're creatures of habit. Because they think and act this way, they use faulty logic to explain the problem posed by the cat. What's their conclusion? The ghost of a lion is haunting them, terrorizing their community.
The Storyteller: The hero of our story. What's he like? He has an imagination. He's able to conceive things that are out of the ordinary, unexpected, unanticipated. Initially why does he do this? To invent something silly and interesting that will entertain the other zebras. After all, that's what storytellers do. They provide pleasure. At the time he does this, he has no idea that what he's thinking up could actually come true, or that it will be useful knowledge.
The plot of the story reaches its crisis point when the cat encounters the storyteller. The storyteller reacts differently from the herd. He's not surprised when the cat speaks to him in Zebraic. He's already imagined such a thing in his mind. Because he's not shocked, he's not tricked either, and he is able to detect something the others can't see: the cat's duplicity, phoniness, pretentiousness. He even senses danger and impulsively kills the cat. His imagination has proved most useful to the herd, most practical.
Like any traditional fable, this story has its moral. The last line of the story cues you into it: that the function or purpose of a storyteller is to envision the unexpected, to imagine what could be, not what necessarily what is right now, and to recognize that what can be imagined can become real. The storyteller is not a sorcerer, he doesn't deal in superstition and mystery and false belief. He's an entertainer, and a bit of a wiseman too.
There's an irony at play in this story worth pondering: sometimes when an artist imagines something that isn't true and seemingly worthless, it can arrive at the most practical truths.