Saturday, October 24, 2015

THE STORYTELLER'S STORY: A Biography of Freddy Flunkerer

Very little is known of Freddy Flunkerer’s life, but Freddy himself was a prolific letter writer and I was able to track some of these down. From them, and a few other firsthand sources of the time, I have been able to piece together a rudimentary biography of the great man:

FREDDY FLUNKERER was born in the (thankfully) now defunct nation of Jolsonburg (pronounced 'YOLE-sun-berg') some time before they started using calendars, making it impossible to pinpoint the exact date of his birth. His father, Frederick, was a well known huntsman, as was his father and his father’s father. So, of course, the expectation was that Freddy would follow in their footsteps and become a huntsman as well.

But Freddy was different from the other men on his family tree. He was a dreamer. He preferred to draw silly pictures and make up games and stories to share with the other children of the village to shooting arrows at harmless animals. Not that he had any sort of moral quibble about his family’s trade, he just wasn’t that big on hunting as a way of life. When you are the kind of person who cannot look at a rabbit without imagining that he’s on his way home to tell his wife what had happened at work that day, it’s hard to shoot rabbits for a living.

His father was, not surprisingly, ashamed by his son’s total lack of aptitude in the field of hunting. Freddy’s mother, on the other hand, felt differently and she encouraged the gentle, imaginative boy to follow his heart’s desire.

From an early age, Freddy had learned to love quiet and solitude. He had a large extended family living in a very small house and, while he naturally loved them all, sometimes it got too noisy and overwhelming for him. So he took to slipping out to be alone in the woods whenever he could get away. On these occasions he would take his trusty book, in which he wrote early versions of some of the stories which he would be telling for the rest of his life.

It was on one of these quests for peace and quiet that he met Helena, a woman who lived alone in the woods and liked it that way. But she appreciated Freddy’s imagination and love of stories, so she would invite him in for a cup of tea, a sandwich, and a story, which Freddy would write down in his little book, which he often called his “collection.”

At the age of sixteen his father, finally fed up with his son’s refusal to take an interest in hunting, kicked him out of the house. Understand, he was not trying to be cruel, but he knew that his son needed to learn a trade to survive and, being unable to teach him the only thing he knew, which was hunting, he was certain the boy would do better on his own. He gave Freddy six gold coins and his old, wide-brimmed hat (which Freddy had always admired) and sent him on his way.

He eventually made it to the Royal City, where the king lived, but by then he had spent all six of his gold coins and had nothing with which to sustain himself. He offered his services at many local businesses, but, as he had no experience, no one wanted to hire him.

A girl, slightly less than one year younger than Freddy, saw him and thought she could be of help. It later transpired that she was Princess Rose, only daughter of the King of Jolsonburg. When asked what he could do, and not wanting to be kicked out again like he had been at every inn, tavern, blacksmithery, flower shoppe and cupcake stand in town, Freddy realized, like a bolt from the blue, that he did have exactly one talent:

“I am a storyteller,” he said out loud for the first time in his life.

Of course, he was then called upon to tell a story. So nervous was he at being put on the spot like this that he quite simply forgot every tale he had ever heard, read or invented. Thinking fast, he made up a story off the top of his head:

A fisherman rowed his boat out to the middle of the sea and cast his nets. The first time he cast his nets, he pulled them back in empty. The second time, they again came back empty. The third time, there was a single, silvery fish caught within.
“Please,” begged the fish, “have mercy on me. I won’t ask you to let me go free. You caught me fair and square. Just give me three days to set my affairs in order, then I will come back to this spot and you can catch me and take me home and sell me or eat me or whatever it is you need to do.” 
The fisherman thought about this briefly and decided that, rare as a talking fish was, a lying fish was probably even rarer. So he agreed and, with the fish’s word that he would return, the fisherman released him. When he told his wife what had happened, she said he was an idiot for falling for such a stupid trick. But he had faith in the fish’s honesty and, after three solid days of mockery and insults from his nearest and dearest, he returned to the spot where he had met the fish…and sure enough, he appeared, just as he said he would.
“Thank you for letting me have time to say goodbye to my family and friends,” said the fish. “I am ready to meet my fate.’”
But the fisherman said, “No, thanks. You didn’t have to come back, but you did. That shows integrity. I wouldn’t dream of punishing you for that. You can go free.”
The fish smiled. “Thank you, friend. Your kindness shall not go unrewarded. Why don’t you cast your nets one last time before you go home?” And with that, and a cheeky flip of his tail, the fish disappeared.
The fisherman cast his nets as the fish had suggested and when he hauled them back in they were so full of fish you’d think the nets would burst from the weight! Dozens, maybe hundreds of fish! And, most incredibly of all, fish which would never spoil!
So that’s how the fisherman’s wife and friends learned why it’s good to have faith in people…even if they are just fish.

It wasn't a masterpiece, but it did the job and Freddy was hired. He lived in the castle from then on, entertaining the king and his court with many wonderful stories, but mostly entertaining the princess. She loved Freddy’s stories and, in time, she fell in love with Freddy as well. Which was handy because Freddy had been in love with her pretty much from day one.

When the King refused to consent to their union, the two young people (Now aged nineteen and eighteen) simply ran away. Between the gold Freddy had been paid to tell stories and the various gold and jewels the princess had in her possession, they were able to live quite comfortably. And, of course, Freddy’s storytelling usually brought in a few coins from the more generous members of his community. They settled in a village as far away as possible from the King (which still wasn’t all that far because of how small the country was, but mass transit was a joke so it felt further away) and changed their names. It was at this point that Freddy took on the surname “Flunkerer” (there is no record of what his birth name was, which might be why it’s been so hard to piece all this together) and Rose became known as Daisy. In fact, they lived in relative peace for many years, marrying and having five children: Charlie, Ragean, Lauren, Dashiell and Frederick Flunkerer II (who hated to be called ‘Freddy Jr.’).

At some point during their exile, they went back to Freddy’s old home to see his parents. They were both overjoyed to see him again, not to mention to meet their daughter-in-law. From then on, Freddy wrote several letters home to tell his mother about how his life was going and what adorable thing one of his children had said that day and how the stories were coming along.

Yes, through it all, there were always the stories. For the kids, for his wife, for a few coins from the generous people in the village, Freddy could not stop himself from making up stories. But his stories were very different from the others being written in Europe around this time. For instance, in 'The Dragon Nursemaid,' the dragon is a good guy, not a mindless, fire-breathing killing machine. In 'Sir Jimmy and the Helpful Rat,' the beautiful princess is the bad guy and the ugly witches are the good guys. In 'The Golden Apple,' the hero flat out refuses to marry the princess because, even though she's beautiful and rich, she's not a very nice person. He loved to challenge preconceived notions and shake up societal norms whilst (and at the same time) making people smile.

One day, some years after their flight from the castle, Freddy came downstairs early in the morning to find the King sitting in his kitchen. He appeared much older, though not just because of the years that had passed. For a moment, Freddy was worried. But, after a long silence, the King simply said, “Is she happy? With you? With this?” Freddy said she was, because he knew in his heart that it was true. The King simply nodded and left. Neither Freddy nor his wife ever saw him again and from that day on, they never looked over their shoulders in fear again.

It was shortly after the birth of child number four that Daisy Flunkerer gave her husband the idea to write a book of his stories. He agreed that this would be a groovy idea, but made a few fundamental mistakes. Firstly, he insisted on writing the book in Jolsonburgese, the native language of Jolsonburg. This might not seem like a mistake on the face of it, but it was. You see, one of the many ways in which Freddy Flunkerer was out of step with the world in which he lived was that he liked Jolsonburg. Most of the other people who lived there thought it was a dump and particularly hated the language, which was difficult to read, nearly impossible to speak and horrific to translate into English (I can personally attest to that last one). So, even though their eventual annexation by Germany was years in the future, most people still spoke German in Jolsonburg at that time. In fact, most Jolsonburgers didn't even know how to read Jolsonburgese. Which, as it turned out, didn't matter so much because, due to a clerical error on his publisher's behalf, the book was only ever released in Barcelona, and therefore failed to sell a single copy. He wrote another book, an adaptation of an ancient legend of Jolsonburg, but after the failure of his first book, he didn't even try to get it published.

For this reason, many people might consider Flunkerer a failure, but he never saw himself that way. He had a wife and children who loved him and whom he loved very much. His stories made people happy and he never had to struggle to make ends meet or kill himself working to feed his family. Freddy Flunkerer died at a ripe old age a very, very happy and successful man. According to his wife, his last words on this world were “Stories never end.”

As for Jolsonburg, it died shortly after Freddy. The territory had been fought over bitterly for years by both France and Germany. In the end, France won, which is why Germany was forced to take it. The citizens of Jolsonburg were delighted to become German and allow all memory of their former kingdom to be erased from history...and, indeed, that might have been the case but for a remarkable stroke of luck. 

You see, when I'm not writing stories, I work in a bookshop, and I do occasionally find various old books which my colleagues are perfectly happy to throw away for being “damaged,” “unsellable” or “harboring an entire ecosystem of microscopic organisms between the covers.” For some reason, however, my eye was caught by this very, very old tome in terrible condition and written in a language I could not identify. I took the book at once to a friend of mine who is an expert linguist to see if he couldn’t identify it. Looking back, I have no idea why I was so interested in the book, but I certainly am glad that I saw it through to the end.

My friend told me what little he knew of Jolsonburg and Jolsonburgese and concluded that this book, which my coworkers deemed entirely worthless, was one of the only copies in existence of Flunkerer’s Fables. Being an avid devotee of fairy tales, I simply had to know more. So, with the help of my linguist friend, we set about the Herculean task of translating the stories into English. This in itself took over five years (like I said, it’s a terrible language) during which I lost my job, my girlfriend, my apartment, my favorite pair of pants, $8000, sixty pounds and, eventually, my mind.

(My associate never did fully recover from the horrific ordeal and has since resigned his job and is living with a kind aunt in Indianapolis where he now spends all day listening to Barry Manilow records and eating uncooked pasta.)

But when the smoke cleared and I had a sense of reality once again, I had completed my task: The first ever English translation of Flunkerer's Fables. I was finally able to introduce a whole new generation of readers to the wonderful stories of Freddy Flunkerer. Then, to my surprise, shortly after the release of this book, I was contacted by a group called the JHS or Jolsonburg Historical Society; a (very) small group of people dedicated to preserving the history and culture of Jolsonburg...and since Jolsonburg didn't really have much history or culture, that basically just meant Freddy. So impressed were they by my adaptations of his fairy tales, that they gave me a wonderful gift: The only known copy of Freddy's unpublished manuscript for The Epic of Gabria

Both of these books are now available from, Amazon, B& and other fine online retailers. Order your copies today. If not for me, then for Freddy. If not for Freddy, then for yourself. If not for yourself, for the JHS, who stupidly entrusted the priceless manuscript to my care and who I now owe a tremendous amount of money. Honestly, I thought the bag was waterproof or I never would have gotten on that flume ride in the first place.