Short Story Review – Hisham Bustani – Faisaly and Wehdat (trans. Maia Tabet)

When he reached the clubhouse, he was lost in a wave of green men streaming forth on their way to the confrontation.

And

When he reached the clubhouse, he was lost in a sea of blue men, and the blue wave streamed out to the confrontation.

The first two paragraphs of Hisham Bustani’s short story, Faisaly and Wehdat (translated by Maia Tabet) concern a green man waking from a green dream.  He readies himself for the day, drinks two glasses of green milk, and then considers the upcoming confrontation.  Ready or not, it’s coming.

The third and fourth paragraphs concern a blue man waking from a blue dream.  He, too, readies himself for the day, though his milk is blue.  A confrontation approaches.

Soon, green and blue men clash, screaming and stabbing and wounding and killing.  Dying.  They are angry – at one another?  Certainly, but why?  The struggle seems both ancient and recent, and definitely recurring.  It’s a battle without end, and what benefit is there to being the victor?  Blood, of course, runs red, and as the men die they become colourless.

“That is your homeland and don’t you ever forget it,” they would say to him, recounting stories of expulsion, massacre, and betrayal—meaning the Arabs’ betrayal. “The Arabs betrayed us and never bothered to find out what became of us, and now they torment us, just like the Jews, if not worse,” his father had told him one evening. His friend and the neighbor’s son said the same thing.

It’s not really a cyclical confrontation because it just never seems to end.  There’s no pause, no gap.  Brothers die, fathers die, sons die.  The ones who are left make new sons, who also die.  Green or blue, they end up smashed into pulp on the ground.

Bustani juxtaposes a green and a blue man’s experience immediately before the battle, and they are largely the same.  Of course, there are minor exceptions, but the words choices carry more similarities than differences, and it’s made very clear, before the battle begins, that these men are the same except for their colour.  Which, I suppose, matters more than anything.

Toward the end of the story the structure breaks, the viewpoint of the story widens, and we become privy to the real powerbrokers behind the confrontation.

His highness and majesty says: Here is my kindling wood, ready for your fire. I will chop and pile and sort, favoring some over others, until they crowd my door. Such is my kingdom in the likeness of a woodshop.

This is just one.  There are others, and they are archetypal examples (the Englishman, the general, the Jew, the refugee, the bosses).  All have a vested interest in the battle between the blue and the green men continuing – well, forever.

It is easy to imagine Bustani wrote this story angry.  It reads angry.  It’s clear that he sees his people as pawns in other people’s games, and clearer still that, at least for now, it doesn’t seem as though there is an easy way out.  The repetition of the activities of the two differently coloured men really hammers this home, but in a way that adds to the dread of the situation.  It’s a trick, yes, but an effective one.

Later, when the story breaks into a ‘live transmission’ of the dying and the dead, and then a ‘Salvador Dalí painting’ where powerful men discuss powerless men, the tricks expand and well – we’re delving into literary pyrotechnics here.  But the story is able to hold up, and if anything this deepens the impact.   Bustani clearly knows what he is doing, and throwing in stylistic curveballs serves to heighten the fable-like, fantasy elements of the story.  He doesn’t need to be beholden to realism when dealing with highly stylised blue and green men, and so he isn’t – clever choices.

And no, there aren’t any happy endings here.  The blue men and the green men don’t reach a point where they throw down their weapons and embrace one another.  Instead, the story ends on a particularly violent death, which suggests that while the reader may have learned something, the men themselves have not, and that nothing at all will change until they do.  But who is going to tell them?  Not the government, who benefits from conflict.  Not the capitalists, who profit from death.  Not the religious leaders, who stir up feelings from outrage.  Not the generals, who gain recruits from pictures of dismembered limbs and rotting corpses.  Not the writers, too, who are able to draw from an endless well of misery and pain.  Everyone benefits except the blue and the green.

Faisaly and Wehdat is a short story by Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani, and was translated by Maia Tabet.  You can read the story online at Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism & Translation.

Author Hisham Bustani
Title Faisaly and Wehdat
Translator Maia Tabet
Nationality Jordanian
Publisher Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism & Translation

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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Short Story Review – Mathias Énard – The Perfume of the Desert (trans. Charlotte Mandell)

The warmth of desert evening hangs heavy in Mathias Énard’s The Perfume of the Desert (trans. Charlotte Mandell).  It reads very physical – words like ‘sticky’ ‘waft’ ‘jasmine’ ‘trembled’.  The world is alive for Adrian and Salma, two young lovers, or soon-to-be-lovers, who relax, sun-drenched and smell-drenched, in an oasis as the sun sets.

Adrian was discovering Salma, her skin with its gleam of African wood, shiny and dull at once, with its secret perfume, the way you find cardamom seeds hidden between two white cotton sheets which suddenly fill the air with fragrance.  Her sweet languor reminiscent of an autumn date.

Adrian is a touch too educated, it seems, cerebrally attracted to the exoticism of the desert, of the concept of the oasis rather than the place itself, as though he decided to come here because of something he read, not something he felt.  Salma wants to luxuriate in the smells and sights and sounds, while Adrian, nervous, tells a story about Theodosius the Myroblite.  She agrees to listen, lies back, closes her eyes, and lets the words fall over her.  It matters to him, but less to her, exactly what he is saying.

The Perfume of the Desert is a sensual story.  It made me want to eat, to walk at dusk with my wife, to smell food cooking, to have sex.  It’s a story concerned with place without explicitly locating itself geographically – this is a dream or a mirage, the kind of hours a tourist hopes to experience as they browse through brochures or websites online.

Insects throb, we are told.  The sky is endless.  Adrian’s story melts across the paragraphs, lulling Salma to a satisfied sleep.  Sexually satisfied?  We aren’t sure, but possibly.  Breasts, sweat, naked thighs, liquid skin – the eroticism is clear.  Adrian, though described as pompous, has coaxed Salma into succumbing to the gentle caress of his words, his story.

The oasis outlined a very definite border, a precise frontier between earth and sand, fire and water—it unfurled around wells and wove between the low raw-brick houses, the forgotten churches, the mosques raising their minarets like the shafts of date palms; the oasis flowed into lotuses, into slender papyrus with green, pointy stars, into fragile rushes that trembled in the evening breeze; the oasis blossomed from mauve, yellow, pale lily-orange one day to the bold red of Karkadé hibiscus, and smelled by turns of donkey, rubber, death…

The story is located fuzzily in time.  It’s most clearly set at noon, but there are references to the evening, to the afternoon, to the morning.  Time, it seems, blends together at the oasis, and the important part of life becomes what can be touched and smelled and felt and tasted.  Concrete details of thought or intellect are avoided while the skyline, the air, are detailed with close to lascivious dedication.

Adrian’s story of Theodosius blurs into the text, too, reading as skippable for the eye until the fourth to last paragraph of The Perfume of the Desert, when Adrian himself submits and turns his story away from the cerebral and positions it clearly within the physical realm.  Salma, here, relaxes fully and falls asleep, and the flies buzz on.

The Perfume of the Desert is a short story by French writer Mathias Énard, and was translated by Charlotte Mandell.  You can read the story online at Liquides Imaginaires.

Author Mathias Énard
Title The Perfume of the Desert
Translator Charlotte Mandell (Twitter)
Nationality French
Publisher Liquides Imaginaires

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Rupert Dastur – This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night

Last night I was in bed with my boyfriend and because it was warm and we were feeling frisky, we were naked and wrapped in each other’s arms, enjoying the solidity, the weight and the closeness of one another.

This reads young.  Not necessarily in age, but time – this strikes me as a new couple.  When you have less than 400 words to work with (and this story is 360), you have to make it count.  Here, we learn that the relationship is young.  Passions are high, feelings can change quickly, moods swing, and the sex, at least for now, is endless.

A young couple in bed, touching.  And then one of the worst things that can happen, happens – one of them finds a new, strange, hard spot on the other.  The first thought – not explicitly written – is cancer.  Of course it is.  What else have we been conditioned to think of when something new happens to our bodies?  Google search anything about yourself, and invariably the answer is cancer, probably terminal.

Anyway, Rupert Dastur’s  This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night isn’t playing it for laughs, and so I won’t, either.  Instead, the protagonist queries this new spot, alternating between concern and sexual engagement.  It’s clear that they still wish to keep the sexual energy of the night alive, but as the story progresses and the ordinary tasks of turning lights on, checking spots, wondering, take over, the chemistry ebbs.  What has happened to him?  Is this it, then?  Or is it nothing – just a tick.

It’s a tick, collected probably from a park, a park that he shouldn’t really have been visiting.  A tick is an odd thing to find on someone, but there it is.  This turns the story away from a shared experience of ‘him’ and ‘I’ tackling a potentially significant challenge, to a withdrawn, subdued ‘I’ wondering just where that tick came from.  There’s no easy answer, and, left unwritten, is the sleepless night ahead for the protagonist.  Why was he at that park?

From sex, to concern, to hurt, all in a few paragraphs – it’s a clean and nice example of what flash fiction can do.  Dastur hasn’t overwritten the text (so many of these tiny stories are festooned with unnecessarily complicated words, as though (bad) poetry is being written, and not prose), and I like very much his choice of sliding the dialogue into the text.  To break it up with dialogue marks would have made the story too long and formal, clumsy.

There’s a few word choices here which seem off – just a few.  Talking about sexual energy dissipating seems to be a touch high in terms of register.  Most of the other language is relaxed, intimate, close – ‘dissipated’ is too bookish, too writerly.  The same too with ‘secreting’, which comes a little later.

These are minor quibbles, but we are dealing with so few words here.  The story works, and it works well.  In a couple of hundred words we have playfulness, then (mortal) dread, then shared concern, then distaste, then (emotional) dread to end the piece.  There’s a lot packed in here.  Give it a read.

This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night is a short story by British writer Rupert Dastur.  You can read the story online at Reflex Fiction.

Author Rupert Dastur (Twitter)
Title This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night
Nationality British
Publisher Reflex Fiction

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Laura Besley – The Motherhood Contract

Elspeth feels cheated. No-one warned her that she would no longer recognise herself: physically, mentally, and in every other way too. She looks in the mirror and wonders who that person is with pale skin and massive purple globs under her eyes; lank and greasy hair; and a body that still looks six months pregnant months after birth.

I should admit that I come to this story as someone who is about to have their first child.  My son-or-daughter (we don’t know!) is due to arrive in less than two weeks.  I’m not a woman, so childbirth and breastfeeding are not immediate personal concerns, but I am anxious about the upcoming challenges my wife will face, and I want to be as participatory as I can.

This story echoes so much of the worries that came from the antenatal classes I recently attended, at times word for word.  The sense of true feeling here is strong.  I have heard women – my wife – vocalise the thoughts that Elspeth shares with the reader.  This reads true.

Elspeth comes across as an everywoman which is, somewhat ironically, exactly who she does not want to come across as.  Rather than have everyone’s experience, she wants to be herself, Elspeth, an identity and a person, but instead she is a feeding machine for a baby, endlessly tired, with nothing to say to anyone except endless words about the child.  She’s lost herself.

This is a very short story, less than a thousand words, but it carries a lot of emotional weight.  In it, Elspeth, 22, young, newly entered into a relationship, is giving and has given birth, and her world changes. Of course, of course, she knew it would, she was told it would, but the experiencing of it is something else.  The father is with her, but there is another man, the ‘one that got away’, and she wishes he was the father.  And she at times dislikes the baby.  And she struggles with hating herself.  All things you mustn’t do, but she does them.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that there will be days when she regrets her decision.

What is the measure of a woman? Is it their ability to raise a child when very young?  Elspeth wonders.  She feels inadequate and weak, though she’s trying hard.  Besley’s use of italicised admonitions through the text reinforce this exceptionally well, and she was restrained enough, and clever enough, to avoid ending the piece with one of those sentences.  Instead, they offer criticism of the character and the text, and highlight (one of) the struggles of early parenthood.

This is a strong story.  In attempting to unpack it, I must of course examine my own current life state.  I expect that it resonates strongly because I have been, and am, concerned for my wife, and how she will be when the child is born.  She has over a year away from work, which on the one hand is positive, but on the other – what happens to her adult identity  How can the two of us remember to be lovers, friends, companions, partners?  It’s easy now to say that we will, but what, exactly, will happen?

Eslpeth is a sensitively drawn young woman who is self-aware enough to regret the life she has left without succumbing to the depression of admitting that that life will ever return.  She’s committed to her child, though less committed to herself, and her thoughts, though raw, are about what we would expect from a new mother.  Everything is new and wrong, and she’s working hard to make it right.

The Motherhood Contract is a short story by British writer Laura Besley  You can read the story online at Ellipsis Zine.

Author Laura Besley
Title The Motherhood Contract
Nationality British
Publisher Ellipsis Zine

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – Paternity, Revisited

Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.  

In Paternity, Revisited, the protagonist, Paula, thinks back to a time when she failed to stop to help a dog that had been run over.  It was clearly in distress, it was injured perhaps to dying, and because of an appointment Paula had continued on her way, hurried, rushing, agitated.  An appointment.  She thinks of it, we are told, often, and feels shame.  “Does death by indifference,” Martha Bátiz writes, “have a name, other than murder?”

Paula, who has spent years of her adult life in Canada, has returned to a vaguely identified South American country, perhaps Argentina, perhaps Uruguay, and from the opening we are led to believe that she is here to visit an old flame, a spark dead but perhaps able to be rekindled.  And perhaps not.  Bátiz’s language choices makes it clear that Paula isn’t happy to be back ‘home’, but that she has been forced to for a certain unspecified reason.  We can never escape our past because we take it with us, or more accurately – because it is us.  Without our past we aren’t anything but sinew and white blood cells.  But what Bátiz’s words don’t do is supply a reason or a clear explanation, or at least not at first – we need to untangle this ourselves.

Human beings are made up of 70 per cent water and 30 per cent of their past; what is done to them is indelible.

Paula smells a man’s cologne, and is transported to her eight year old self.  “Adriana!”, he calls, and then much of the story is devoted to Paula, a grown woman, and an older man, an old man, who at first refers to her as ‘baby girl’, and then as it becomes clear he hasn’t earned the right to, protests instead the choices he has made of life.

A romantic lover?  No, though that isn’t clear at the start.  A father-figure, a stand-in for her real father.  Paula, we learn, was twice abandoned, once when her parents were killed/disappeared/tortured (the history was murky, she was young), and then again when this man took her and raised her, for a time, before she was forced to flee the country.  It’s complicated because it’s clear the man was complicit with some horrible activities, party to the affairs of a murderous regime, and that Paula has spent, now, her whole adult life thus far coming to terms with how she was raised, and by whom.

He wants absolution, to be forgiven.  Paula – Adriana he calls her – is a stand-in for everyone, and if she can forgive him, then all of his victims can, too, and he can die at peace.  He does not deserve peace.  Paula sees herself as the spoils of war, a prize or treasure given to a corrupt doctor for following the government’s orders, killing and torturing as needed.  Ah, but if you don’t actually kill, or don’t actually torture, but instead provide ministrations for the injured and weak, are you in fact evil?  Yes, is Paula’s emphatic answer.  Yes, is my answer.  This man is not a good man, though he wishes now that he might be, and might have his adopted daughter back once more.

Paula has returned to her past in order that the perpetrators be made to come to terms with what they have done.  In that, she is sacrificing herself, in a way, confronting her abusive past and causing the flare-up of her mental health (she has been pulling out her hair, she is clearly unstable and prone to excessive emotional outbursts) – because this is not pleasant for her.  But evil must be made to see itself for what is is, and often that means an innocent person must suffer.

Paternity, Revisited considers how innocence comes to terms with the horrible aspects of mankind.  How many murderers have children who have done nothing?  How many soldiers kill and maim and then return home to work and feed their wives and family?  How many generals order the deaths of faraway civilians and then laugh over wine and cheese at an event?  The answer is, of course, all of them, but that does not mean that the families themselves are necessarily bad.  Touched by evil, yes, and in some ways accomplices (I am thinking her particularly of older children and adult family members), but broadly speaking they have fallen into an abyss of horror akin to the victims.

I like the small touches that occur throughout the story.   Bátiz often breaks away from the dialogue to comment on passers-by, dogs, the smell and feel of the park and the city they are in.  These asides provide colour, yes, and a counterpoint to the conversation:

Here they were incapable of stooping to clean up [dog feces], utterly oblivious to what they were doing to their own hometown.  A perfect reflection of what this country is about.  Too bad no one else has realised that the greatness of a nation can also be measured by how many of its people are actually willing to clean up their own shit.

Paula has returned to clean up the mess her adoptive father has made.  She’s a martyr, here, and it wouldn’t be too far wrong to say that, in part, she is attempting to find salvation of her own for the time she let that dog die.  What other reason might she have to confront a dying old man?  Why not just leave him be?  But sometimes we need to be heard, to receive that rarest of all things – closure.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be very sweet, even if it means breaking an elderly man who simply wanted to see his daughter once more.

Paternity, Revisited was written Martha Bátiz.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Author Martha Bátiz
Titles Paternity, Revisited
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Mazin Saleem – My Wipes

‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ no longer touched the sides, even it missed the point. There was no more gap between pretence and reality. Before, the point had been that everyone breaks from the spell. Here the Emperor was clothed even when she wasn’t. It’s impossible for the readers of My Wipes to see the naked truth, because there isn’t any. They aren’t lying. They believe that your book is good. They can’t be saved.

Let me start by stating the obvious – taste is subjective, your masterpiece is my failure, my fond writer is your untalented hack.  Sure.  Right.  Okay – but is that really true?  How possible is it to devise a canon which can be, more or less, admired and appreciated?  We shall ignore for a moment (unfairly) the thousands of years of academic careers dedicated to determining, undermining, creating and recreating a canon – be it Western or otherwise.  Let’s stick to the casual reader, the dedicated reader, you and me.

I don’t much like the books of John Updike.  I did, when I was younger, but as my reading tastes broadened I lost my interest in exploring (male) middle-class America’s obsession with sex and, to a lesser extent, material comfort.  I think his Rabbit books will hold, but thousands of other pages can be left forgotten.  But I can see what he is trying to achieve, and I think that he does.  He writes well what he writes, well, ok – Okay.

Alice Munro, too.  I can see why she won the Nobel, and I think it’s deserving enough, but as a writer she isn’t for me.  I prefer greater stylistic flair and a stronger breakdown of narrative and the interaction between author, text, reader, characters.  But again, I can appreciate what she writes and think she is definitely world-class.

So all of this preface is to say that Mazin Saleem’s My Wipes is a clever and funny take on this problem.  It’s a farce, a faeces-ridden farce, and expresses in its absurdity the challenge of the modern literary world, when people jostle with one another to claim this text or that writer as ‘luminous’ ‘enthralling’ ‘irresistible’ ‘compelling’.  You know the words, the skip across the brain because they are, ultimately, meaningless.  There’s no meat to them, just loose flapping skin.  If every review throws up the same tired adjective then perhaps that says more about the reading public than it does about the writers who must oh-so-tediously be described as the voice of their generation.

My Wipes explores (and there’s another tired word) the uneasy relationship between the reader and the acclaimed masterpiece.  In it, the narrator attends a book launch for a book which has been hailed as a masterpiece.  All around him, smiling faces, engaged listeners.  The genius of the author!  It’s astonishing to see in person, isn’t it?

But the narrator isn’t convinced.  He opens the book and can’t quite believe what he sees when he opens it.  On the left page, a colour copy of used toilet paper. On the right page, a description of it, thoughts while producing it, random asides.  Notes.  He has real trouble understanding this, and looks around and the other people.  Their eyes are shining, they are enthralled – how?  Why?  What’s going on?

It’s a clever way to dissect the situation in which everyone but you has stars in their eyes for a genius you just cannot see.  Self-doubt is a possibility, of course, but also righteous indignation at the foolishness of others.  The narrator goes through both experiences.

The use of faeces is quite inspired, and is thematically rich while keeping the tone light.  This is a fun story to read, and it’s funny.

Whereas you’d gone with single ply, I use Charmin Luxury. Whereas you did a standard, going-through-the-motions pressing, I gouge and scrape, I reuse the tissues as palimpsest, and as for my at stool thoughts, I actually use a proof-reader? Know it’s less faeces not fewer. Don’t let the POV shift inexplicably from me to my rectum. Make sure there are no dangling participles, run-on sentences. Being on the loo might feel passive, but artists know that it’s not and doesn’t warrant passive voice. And I wouldn’t even think of using colour copies and not the original sheets, with mere summaries of their faint smells. Does ‘show not tell’ not mean anything to you hacks?

And it is, of course, an attempt to unpack the act of writing itself, to understand how writing goes from the initial thought to the finished, printed page, and what makes it through and what does not.  Why was this author selected?  Why was that story accepted?  Why does a writer abandon this attempt but not that?

Reading through the prism of shit works exceptionally well, and the sting at the end solidifies the watery mass into a fibrous delight.  Oh dear, now I’m doing it too.

My Wipes is a short story by writer Mazin Saleem.  You can read the story online at Minor Literatures.

Author Mazin Saleem
Title My Wipes
Nationality Uncertain – He is based in London
Publisher Minor Literatures

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.