The fable of the donkey in a Byzantine mosaic

Text Matteo Guarnaccia


The heathens represented a more cunning public compared to the current one, able to distinguish ‘facts’ from ‘stories’. The narrative formula of magic realism was innate to their education and this kaleidoscopic, spiritual and cheeky book, is one of the best examples. I have always loved it, even more since when I discovered that the hospital room where I was born in Milan overlooked ‘via Apuleio’ – and a factory of Panettone, but this is another matter.

The juggler Apuleius, a lawyer, a priest and a Platonic philosopher by profession, throws the transformation, madness and funniness balls into air, starting a picaresque initiatory journey towards maturity and spiritual illumination.  Definitely it is an instructive novel, complete with moral annotation, but before achieving the glorious, lysergic ‘conversion’ – the author is a disciple of mystery cults – there’s all the time in the world to enjoy the wide range of deviant behaviour and excess which the protagonist, the handsome Lucius, a young man with an insane passion for women and magic – allows himself. Just like a traditional witch doctor’s apprentice, he meddles with an enchanted ointment which he has stolen from a congregation of witches – one of which has become her hot lover– and instead of turning into a bird to feel the euphoria of flying, he is turned into a donkey.

To become again a man, he will have to eat fresh roses, but he will miss this chance through many chapters. He will have to face amazing adventures on the road as a pack animal, beaten and humiliated, changing numerous places and owners, suffering offenses and scandalous proposals, enjoying unexpected spells and acts of generosity, until he meets face to face the cosmic Isis who saves him from his bestial condition.

The history never loses the connection with the ongoing social chaos in the province of Rome in the 2nd Century AD. The universe of the inexhaustible and charming imperial decline turns out to be much more overabundant than our seemingly permissive contemporaneity. Neither the after-dark  New York of the 80s nor the sparkling Weimar’s Berlin can compete with the horror and the débauche of Caesar’s Rome. Giovenale had foreseen it «Our descendants will not do more nor worse than us (…) since we have already achieved the zenit of every vice».

The fortunate plot of the Latin book will serve as an example for several famous works, from The thousand and one nights to Pinocchio, from Don Quixote to Dream of a midsummer night, from Tom Jones to The Manuscript found in Saragossa. And on top of that, Apuleius give us an adorable bonus track, completely disconnected from Lucius’ troubles: the history of Cupid and Psyche. Such a beautiful woman to make Venus jealous gets married with a mysterious and disquieting man, whose identity is unknown to her and who she can meet only in the dark nights. The mean reveals to be Cupid and this unveiling will produce infinite disasters and emotions.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia