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Word of the day: fabel (fable)

Each city has its story to tell. The Hague, too, is full of tales. Tales that can be found in the streets. Sometimes they show themselves in the shape of buildings, streets or sculptures. In the heart of The Hague, for instance, there is a huge sculpture in red, green and blue created by Dutch artist Karel Appel (1921-2006). It is right in front of the municipal library on the crossing of the Spui and the Grote Markt. You cannot possibly pass it without noticing it. Sitting in the restaurant of the library (where they serve a great cappuccino by the way) you can watch all Hagenaars and tourists walking by this sculpture while they are telling each other stories. The library itself is a mortuary of stories to be unlocked and revived at will by fond readers or storytellers. 

There are many sculptures in The Hague which have a story to tell, but none fire the imagination as much as Karel Appel’s sculpture. Appel had made the original sculpture out of socalled ‘objets trouvés’ (found objects). It looks made of wood but it is a bronze recreation of the smaller original wooden sculpture from 1993. Though Appel made scores of sculptures, only few of them can be seen in public space. ‘Frog with Umbrella’ from 2001 was one of the first.

In what story do these animals figure and what does it tell the passers-by in the city centre? There are animals, so it must be a fable.

What is a fable? It is a ‘made up story with animals that act as humans’. The word is not originally Germanic but Latin. The word FABEL goes back to ‘fābula’ meaning story or play. It entered the Dutch language as early as 1240 when it was used for the animal stories that the Greek Aesop (c. 620–564 before CE) wrote.

However, before ‘fābula’ became a story, the connected verb ‘fārī’ merely meant to speak. According to my friend Jorge who lives in The Hague but was born in Curaçao, Spanish ‘hablar’ (speak) is a derivation of ‘favelare’. Many Latin words, so he says, many Latin words starting with ‘f’ became ‘h’ in Spanish. Funny, I’ve always suspected Spanish speaking people when they’re in their act of speaking (or should I say ‘orating’) to be tellers, no, spinners of tales. I mean this as a compliment.

Appel’s sculpture can be seen as a tribute to the artistic vision of the Frenchman Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695). His fables have been translated into many languages over the years, but very often in deformed and distorted shapes. The resulting stories have very little to do with the original story and seem to have been made to please an audience of fools. As my friend Rob Scholten, who has translated many of his fables into Dutch, claims, the original poems are not merely stories, they are powerful theatrical tragedies. To prove his point just have a look at this short animation of one of De La Fontaines fables, translated by Rob Scholten and designed by Carlijn van Vlijmen:


In the following fable an ambitious and envious frog wishes to be as big in size as a cow, but all she manages to achieve is that she literally blows herself up. It is a drama in miniature which ends fatally after a majestic dialogue with another frog.

Jean de La Fontaine
La grenouille qui veut se faire aussi grosse que le boeuf
Livre I – Fable 3

Une grenouille vit un boeuf
Qui lui sembla de belle taille.
Elle, qui n’était pas grosse en tout comme un oeuf,
Envieuse, s’étend, et s’enfle et se travaille,
Pour égaler l’animal en grosseur,
Disant: ‘Regardez bien, ma soeur;
Est-ce assez? Dites-moi: N’y suis-je point encore?’
– ‘Nenni’ –‘M’y voici donc?’ –‘Point du tout’. –‘M’y voilà?’
-‘Vous n’en approchez point.’ La chétive pécore
S’enfla si bien qu’elle creva.

Le monde est plein de gens qui ne sont pas plus sages.
Tout bourgeois veut bâtir comme les grands seigneurs ,
Tout prince a des ambassadeurs,
Tout marquis veut avoir des pages.

The Frog Who Wants to be Equally Fat as the Cow

A wee frog sees a cow
Whose waist she admires.
In size no bigger than an egg croaking ‘wow’,
She heaves, stretches, swells and desires
To match the animal in bellyband
Saying: ‘Watch closely, my friend;
Will this do? Tell me: have I yet reached her size?’
– ‘No no’ – ‘Am I there yet?’ – ‘Not by far.’ – ‘Am I close?’
– ‘You’re not there by far.’ Still the clod hopper tries
To swell more until she bursts and explodes.

The world is full of gents fooled by arrogance.
Each burgher wants a castle like a lord,
Each gallant scores of servants
And each prince the hall he can’t afford.

(© Ruud Hisgen, The Hague)


Een kikvors zag eens in de wei
Een os wiens tors hem imponeerde.
Omdat hij zelf ‘t formaat had van een scharrelei,
Rekt hij zich uit en blaast zich op in zijn begeerte
Het dier in omvang naar de kroon te steken
En vraagt: ‘Ben ik er vergeleken
Met hem al haast? Of wint die boerenkinkel?’
‘Je haalt het niet!’ ‘En nu?’ ‘Nog van geen kant.’ ‘Nu wel?’
‘Het lijkt nog nergens naar.’ Het armzalig scharminkel
Zwol op en barstte uit zijn vel.

De wereld is vol lui die naast hun schoenen lopen:
Elke jan-met-de-pet waant zich een grand seigneur,
Elk dwergstaatje heeft zijn ambassadeurs,
Elk jonkertje wil aanzien kopen.

(© Rob Scholten, The Hague)