“And what will you do?”

“I will be free,” Aesop replies.

“Free from what?”

He looks surprised, as though the answer should be obvious. “From you, Sprite. From your unreliable books and prescriptive fantasies. From your wanting to confine me and my work to a fixed, unalterable thing. We live in time, Sprite. Don’t you understand? The dream mutates and shifts.”

If one were to take off from Chimamanda Adichie’s warning of the dangers of a single story, Suniti Namjoshi shows us the dangers of a single moral. Perhaps it isn’t even exactly a warning against a singular moral but the impossibility of one.

In her new novel Foxy Aesop: On the Edge, Namjoshi explores the figure of Aesop (of Aesop’s fables fame) and the politics of narratives across history and time. The narrator (who is called “Sprite”, despite her resistance to the name) is located in the 21st century and travels to the 6th century to understand the fables of Aesop, who is a slave on the island of Samos. Here, Aesop is a fabulist for the court of the exploitative Xanthus and later the kinder Jadmon.

The novel takes on Sprite’s perspective as she follows Aesop, asking him questions about the relevance of his fables, the shifting nature of morals and pointing out certain kinds of prejudice that his tales carry. Aesop, on the other hand, wants his freedom, along with Androcles, who is a more cheerful fellow slave. The two of them are on a journey of survival and freedom along with the omniscient Sprite, who acts as a witness, an anthropologist and is on her own quest for knowledge.

The novel raises pertinent philosophical questions and engages with the power of storytelling in its essence. Aesop’s stories keep changing according to audience and perspective and what the context demands at that particular moment. For example, at the end of each story somebody asks him for a moral and while he offers one, Sprite immediately provides another, contrary, one it. There is a sense through which Sprite’s dissenting voice throws up the complexity and nuanced nature of justice and morality. She, however, is in search of more certain answers because of the anxiety to save the world.

What the morals mean

Namjoshi subtly and deftly deals with different forms of oppression throughout the novel. Although the context is not South Asian, she manages to address questions of caste oppression and gender inequality through conversations in a wry, witty style. The contrast between Xanthus and Jadmon is interesting for it reveals the myth of the “benevolent slave owner”.

While Jadmon is significantly kinder, he does not free Aesop for he enjoys his company for most of the novel. As people in power, how willing are we to do the work to set people free especially if it comes at the cost of our own freedom or privilege? Sprite pushes Aesop at several points for answers that are certain, but is often frustrated to find that his fables only provide endless possibilities.

Is morality about what is wrong and right in absolute terms or is it contextual? Does morality depend on who the subject is or is it universal? Every moral in the book is asked as a question, unlike the manner in which morals are taught to us. Aesop offers morals as if they were arguments in court; an act of sophistry.

Forms of feminism

As far as gender politics is concerned, Namjoshi knows exactly how to weave difficult conversations in the lightest and most accessible manner. Since the novel explores time and context heavily, it is difficult to apply the vocabulary of contemporary politics to the fables themselves, but that does not stop Sprite from questioning them. She attempts to explain the sexism in Aesop’s fables through his identity as a slave and the intersections of oppression.

What is refreshing about moments like these in the novel is that no transformation is seen (in the sense that it is impossible to change the past) but there is a rupture to the linearity of narratives. A conversation between Sprite and Aglaia (Jadmon’s wife) occurs on the status of women. Sprite with all her fiery contemporary feminist politics finds herself stupefied with the complexity with which Aglaia lives a traditional life out of self-preservation precisely because she realises what patriarchy is capable of. Through this conversation, Namjoshi also complicates a reformist impulse that a certain form of feminism has, and instead allows for various feminisms to exist across centuries.

A shift in pace

The latter half of the novel deals with an adventure where Sprite, Androcles, Jadmon and Aesop have to plot so that Polycrates does not end up being the ruler and Aesop does not have to face death at Delphi as history has written. It all depends on Sprite’s knowledge of the future of which there are many versions – she is suddenly responsible for Aesop’s lives and the fate of the kingdom.

This part of the novel is slightly more scattered in terms of the plot and the shift in pace comes as a surprise but there are some interesting exchanges about the unreliability of history and narratives. Will Sprite be able to change the narrative about Aesop’s death or has it already been prophesied and written? Foxy Aesop really does keep you on the edge.

The novel takes you finally to an important conversation about Sprite’s anxieties to save the world – answers to the unhappiness, injustice and pain she sees all around. Aesop may or may not have them, and he certainly does not have the answers Sprite expected, but if anything, this conversation ends up being a meditation on the importance of stories, the relevance of fables, the multiple versions of narratives and how it affects and shapes human nature across time.

Can stories in themselves really save the planet or do we need to be reading them differently? What of the responsibility of storytellers and fabulists themselves? Aesop just wanted to be free and travel, perhaps there is a chance he could save the world by telling it like it is. Namjoshi’s simple and quietly powerful Foxy Aesop, teaches you how to read again.

Foxy Aesop: On The Edge, Suniti Namjoshi, Zubaan.