Short Story Review – Stefan Sprenger – Dust

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

There’s a scene in American author John Updike’s novel, Rabbit at Rest, where the protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom switches a light on in his home and reflects that we leave a part of ourselves on everything we touch, even if it’s just the tiniest droplets of oil from our fingertips, even if it’s just the emotional markings from a failed relationship or friendship.  The scene is indicative of Rabbit’s gradual understanding that he, like all people, makes but a small mark on the world, but it’s still a mark; he recognises he is soon to leave the world and these thoughts represent his object-minded and matter-based attempt to place himself within the world he has lived in and observed since he was born.  Rabbit realises that we are, in a sense, to echo Danutė Kalinauskaitė’s story, Just Things, the compilation of the objects we interact with and possess.

Stefan Sprenger’s Dust (trans. Dustin Lovett) inverts this concept.  Instead of a person being the accumulation of their objects, it is in fact the detritus of a physical space that exist in toto due to the goings-on of the people around them.  Dust, believe it or not, acts as a kind of storage device or battery for emotion, becoming charged by the interactions and feelings of individuals in its immediate vicinity.  Strange, but perhaps it bears research:

The emotion discovered in the Burgenfeld dust plunged the group of researchers into embarrassed confusion: they knew that type and composition of this emotion had to be explored.  After all, once a morphogenetic field is tapped, it must be exhausted then and there, or else continue to have influence in unknown ways from that point on.  Nonetheless, they were understandably afraid of what they might find – was it possible that they might discover a new means of precisely measuring all emotion that would render their previous research into human psychology obsolete?

Dust shifts between the story of the (mad?) scientists researching the improbable aspects of dust they seem to have uncovered, Frau H’s excessively dusty studio, and the cliché musician Klubka who irritates his manager as much as everyone else.  Dust is anathema to the mixings of paints and the tuning of strings; it is no accident that Frau H and Klubka, artists both, are affected by and interested in, dust and how best to reduce its effects.

[One of the researchers] cleared her throat, stared into space for a moment, and then said so softly that only those next to her could hear: “It seems that dust is ashamed of people.  For what they do.  How they do it.

Sprenger’s story is an exercise in understanding how the miniature affects the macro, how it can be true that a person may honestly care about an earthquake on the other side of the planet which kills a hundred thousand people, but will forget it the moment they stub their toe and curse in pain.  It’s why, to a huge elephant, a tiny wound can pain, and why, to a human, a small, insignificant looking red mark may be the herald of disease and death.  Smallness or largeness means nothing in terms of effect; to extend this, Sprenger suggests that just as we affect dust we are affected by it.

The researchers discover – hardly a secret – that dust is the accumulation of dirt, muck, skin cells, dandruff, dead insects, crushed rocks, and so on.  Dust is, in short, us, and if not entirely us it’s also a great deal of our ordinary environment mixed together and pulverised.

The third of the story devoted to the scientists is a mad-cap, mad scientist style sequence of increasingly bizarre events.  It’s also the least effective from a narrative viewpoint, but without we would be unable to appreciate the nuances of the remaining two thirds.  Frau H and Klubka’s ruminations on dust and how it affects their lives and livelihoods is interesting in itself – Sprenger is a good writer, and his characters speak well about their situations and passions – but made immensely more interesting when paralleled alongside the scientists.

Klubka is the most endearing character in the story, though he begins – note above – mired in the broadly drawn strokes of his stereotypical construction.  He’s the archetypal musician, moody, melancholic, difficult to deal with, brilliant, poor.  And passionate – and that’s his saving grace.  Sprenger refuses to over-write Klubka’s passion, but the characters fondness and dedication to his craft remains believable and attractive.  More than Frau H, who at times seems to act simply as counterpoint to Klubka; the musician believes, and when he talks at length about the way in which things (dust) intrude upon his craft, he is magnetic.

Dust is a story greater than the sum of its parts, without any excessive weaknesses and quite a few strengths, but it’s an odd story to pin down.  The concept of dust acting as a kind of storage system for the emotions of people around it is proposed, discussed, and then dropped, and though there are tenuous links within Frau H and Klubka’s stories, they remain just that – tenuous.  One wishes Sprenger did more with this striking concept, but on balance the three parts harmonise well and it’s difficult to see how, in a short story, one could better refine the concepts as presented.  Dust is odd by a third, enjoyable and interesting by two thirds, and on the whole, a good read.

Author Stefan Sprenger
Title Dust
Translator Dustin Lovett
Nationality Lichtenstein
Publisher Dalkey Archive Press

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

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Short Story Review – Péter Esterházy – She Loves Me

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy’s short story, She Loves Me (trans. Judith Sollosy, excerpted from a novel of the same name), is concerned with the fractured, broken last days of a dying relationship.  The narrator appears to be an historian, or at the very least is an intellectual of some kind.  He uses great battles as metaphors and, when considering his partner’s ethnic heritage, thinks of metals buried far underground, and the importance of homelands.  The woman is – well, she’s angry – tired of his intellectualism, tired of the fact that his intellect serves only as a mask, and that underneath there is a animal lust and primal nature:

But then, in the heat of an all-out knockdown fight, she finally came clean. ‘I look at you,’ she screeched, ‘and all I see is my cunt! I see you in the shadow of my cunt!’ I don’t like her talking like that. I don’t like her calling the parts of our bodies by their names without due reflection.

He may not “like her talking like that”, but it’s clear that she has discovered that, for him, she is a series of orifices, a device for pleasure.  And she’s had enough.

The narrator, to his discredit, continues intellectualising the matter.  He lists her qualities (“She’s got pronounced views on the battle of Vezekény “, “she’s familiar with the anecdotes about Deák and Imre Nagy’s 1953 reforms”, but these, these are not reasons to stay in a relationship with a  person.  They are the reason you would open a book or listen to a university lecture.  In short, the woman argues for a life of passion and desire, but what she is experiencing is the unpleasant feeling of living in the shade of her partner’s ivory tower.

By writing from the perspective of the man, Esterházy is able to illuminate the often contradictory nature of the misogynist.  What does such a man want?  It’s unclear, even to him.  Yes, he wants her body, and for her to be a body to him.  But he also (professes to) value her mind, even to himself.

I try to place her in some sort of context, stuff her inside some national cliché, but it’s no good, because her real context is my body. Her homeland is not her homeland, my body is. When I look at her, trying to figure her out, it’s not the image of the tablelands of Finland that I see, the abundant, cascading rivers as they surge forward between its lakes, but myself, I always see myself, too, my thighs, which we can safely call muscular, and at times the twitching muscles of my backside, the cheeks of my backside, or my moist lips, my finger.

Ah, there we go.  She is, then, a canvas upon which his intellect, and his penis, can draw.  Lucky him.  But lucky her?  No, and that understanding lies at the crux of the story.  A man such as the narrator can say “she loves me” for as long as he wishes, and while it’s true, there is a good chance that this fact will leave him in a state of stasis, unwilling to alter the status quo much.  He enjoys what he has.  But the problem with that is that while he expects himself to grow and develop as an intellectual, the strong implication is that she is supposed to stay as she is: pliant, willing, devoted.  And it becomes a problem when she breaks free of this because his reasoning leaves him nowhere to go.

She Loves Me is an appealing short story.  The narrator, if you met him over coffee after a University lecture, would be urbane, witty, clever.  A good conversationalist.  Passionate about the Great Ideas and important matters of the world.  He would make a good impression, and you would leave him convinced that you had experienced the dialogue of a very grand man.  And yet, somewhere not too far away, there is a woman, lonely, close to miserable, who is cooking his meals and cleaning his rooms.  And after this story, that woman is not the female from She Loves Me, thankfully.  She has escaped, and good for her.

Author Péter Esterházy
Title She Loves Me
Translator Judith Sollosy
Nationality Hungarian
Publisher Babelmatrix

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

Short Story Review – Mike Ormsby – Mother Tongue

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

Mike Ormsby’s short story, Mother Tongue, is sad story.  It’s not sad for its characters, which are mostly regular people doing ordinary things – a family, an argument between the parents, emigration to greener shores for better opportunities. It’s not sad for its plot, which, although it shows the breakdown of a relationship, isn’t really presented as sad so much as time passing.  No, it’s sad because it represents the ongoing homogenisation of things, this slow, steady shift from the culture we call ours, to the culture we adopt called theirs.  It’s sad because we witness yet another family disintegrate, the pieces melting seamlessly, vanishingly, into the huge melting pot of America.

The story opens in Romania.  The family is Maria, who has a PhD, and Gabriel, who is a lawyer.  The children are Razvan and Tudor, both boys, both curious about the comics the narrator, named Mike, has brought to the house.  Maria disapproves – it’s American style trash.  Gabriel is too incensed that his life has become a series of bribes to judges, that the great promise of post-Ceaușescu Romania hasn’t amounted to much change at all.  The children are fascinated, but Mike knows his place.

We observe the family through Mike’s eyes.  He can see that there is tension.  Gabriel wishes to leave Romania.  He doesn’t have a specific goal in mind (he suggests Rwanda at one stage), but we can tell that America is on his mind.  Maria is against the idea.  Over the initial dinner, and a subsequent series of snapshot-like scenes which encapsulate the growing disharmony of the family, we come to learn of Gabriel’s growing enchantment with leaving, and then his sudden emigration to America with the two boys.

The story closes with Maria attempting to connect to her sons via Skype, but they don’t care for her Romanian ways or her Romanian language, and through Mike we know that she is losing them.

She is talking to her sons in Romanian.  She looks unhappy, almost bewildered at their inability to keep up.  There is impatience in her voice, as if a truth has finally dawned on her after years of ominous signs; her sons are losing interest in their mother tongue.  They forget words and stumble over phrasing… Worse, they do not seem to care.  Their efforts are stilted and Tudor keeps sliding into English with a New York accent: “Coz, it’s kinda more natural, Mom.”

But it’s not just Maria who is losing her children.  It’s Romania that is losing its identity.  It’s all countries becoming progressively more Americanised.  In some nations, the number “911” works as an emergency number because the children and teenagers have heard it so often in American movies and television programmes that they assume it must be true of their country, too.  Any teenager or person in their twenties in Australia who hears the name “Brad” can easily follow it up with “Pitt” – no further context needed.  The phrase “Why so serious?” conjures Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Ormsby shows us that culture is a fragile thing, that it needs to be protected in order to survive.  America’s culture – whether you think positively or negatively of it – is so enormous, so powerful, that smaller cultures don’t stand a chance.  And I’m not talking about tiny tribes buried in faraway jungles, but entire nations.  It is true that here in Australia, an actor or singer or cultural figure hadn’t really “made it” until they have gone to America and become famous (or not) there.  If they are “just” accomplished in Australia, then they don’t really count.

The character of Maria is a surrogate for the culture of Romania, and in this she functions well.  She cooks the traditional food and she has a strong passion for her language.  The character of Gabriel, her husband, weakens the strength of Maria’s ability to engender sympathy within the reader because he constantly undermines her, but overall the characterisations work.  Effective, too, is Ormsby’s deft touch with the slang and mannerisms of American teenagers (which is what Razvan and Tudor become).  It isn’t overdone and it works to express the idea – they have become like everyone else.  Just about all their Romanian heritage would provide for them once they live in New York is an appealingly exotic name.

So, it’s a sad story.  What does one do to protect their culture?  Militancy doesn’t work.  Education may not work, either – children undoubtably recognise the golden arches before they know their nation’s major literary works, of paintings, or songs.  Ormsby doesn’t provide an answer but its clear, through his narrator, Mike, where his sympathies lie.

Author Mike Ormsby
Title Mother Tongue
Nationality British
Publisher/Book Title Bucharest Tales

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

Short Story Review – Laurent Graff – Delphine’s Illness

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

Delphine marries eight times in her life.  Her first marriage is foolish, a union with a wonderful man with a great career, an excellent personality, and a brilliant future.  But his last name is Martin, and that just won’t do.  It’s not long enough by half, and she’s running out of time.

Years ago, when Delphine was very young and her last name was Handshoewerckerten, a strange thing happened to her.  One day she woke up, and her last name was no longer Handshoewerckerten but Handshoewerckerte.  The “n” had vanished.  On her identification card – gone.  On her official school records – gone.  No more “n”.  Time passes and the “e” falls away, and then the “t”.  She doesn’t know what to do.

Delphine’s parents were at their wits’ end…Who could they turn to? On an off-chance, they took their daughter to a speech therapist, who sent them off promptly to a psychiatrist. They wrote to linguists, to a philologist, a grammarian, a genealogist, and a shaman. All, with the exception of the last, admitted they were powerless. The shaman invited them back. After the tenth session, the bonus one, he suggested a solution: Delphine’s name was bewitched, and she should change it as soon as possible if she didn’t want to drown in anonymity.

And so, as soon as she finds someone she likes, Delphine marries.  The man is great, but, as mentioned above, his last name is Martin.  She assumes, however, that the curse has been broken, and that now, her life will be as normal as everyone else’s.  And then the phone rings, and someone asks for Madame Marti.

She divorces her husband.

She marries a man she sponsors from Madagasca, and then immediately abandons him when they arrive back in Paris.  His last name: Randrianampoinimeria.  Long.  She discovers that the initial months and years of marriage are best, because that is when the dissolution of letters slows.

French writer Laurent Graff provides no answer for Delphine’s strange illness.  Instead, he allows Delphine to experience the full terror of her situation, which is stuck firmly in the realm of the unknown and unknowable.  She has no clue why she has been afflicted so – her parents retain their absurdly long name throughout their lives – but what she does know is that to lost her last name is to die.  She unquestioningly knows the truth of this matter.

What’s in a name?  Many authors name their characters something which illuminates (or obscures) their personality traits or destiny.  Authors such as Charles Dickens or Saul Bellow simply revel in the ability to name a character.  What’s in a name for a real, living person?  A John Smith may detest his name; a migrant may dislike that their name is so different to their friends (or people they would like to become friends with).  When I think about myself, I find I quite like the name “Damian” (and am largely indifferent to “Kelleher”), and I wonder if I would have been different if my name had been, say, “Hugh”.  Who can tell?

For Delphine, the idea that a name is something we are inextricably bound up in is given forceful representation.  Her name is her destiny, and the longer, the better.  Her life becomes dependent upon the vagaries of discovering a lengthily named man who will become her husband.  Her life has less freedom than that of another.

Delphine’s Illness is a disturbing story not because it causes worry inside the reader out of fear that “it might happen to me”, but rather because we can’t help but feel sympathetic towards Delphine’s plight.  Graff devotes the largest part of the story to Delphine as a young girl, and the character he writes is a sensitive one, intelligent and curious, and undeserving of such a fate.  And yet that is her fate – her very name is a ticking time bomb and, worse, it’s a bomb that she can see come closer to explosion.  Her life is no longer her own, her freedom is lost.

Author Laurent Graff
Title Delphine’s Illness
Translator Helen Dickinson
Nationality French
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

Short Story Review – Antônio Xerxenesky – Seizing Cervantes

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

I’m a guardian of culture—that’s what I hold teachers to be—and if the plans I found out about are real, something needs to be done.

In mid 2009, Amazon, which had been selling the Kindle and various books for about two years, ran into a rights issue with a few of the books they were offering.  Immediately the books were removed from the website and made unavailable for sale and, more disturbingly, were silently deleted from every Kindle owner who had bought a copy.  So, if you had gone to lunch 50 pages into one of these books, when you returned afterward the book was gone – a book you had paid for.  The books?  George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.  Just like that, something you owned became something you did not own.  Just like that, two books concerned with oppression, censorship, deceit and abuse of authority, had vanished.

Which brings me to Antônio Xerxenesky’s Seizing Cervantes.  Xerxenesky rapidly establishes the setting as being in the future, in Britain, and during a time when the “Skeptic Party” had taken control of the government.  From the outset, Xerxenesky’s tone is casual, almost flippant – certainly not concerned.  His narrator, nameless and cheerful, views the Skeptic Party as a great step forward: they don’t hold much truck with religion, they don’t care for fantasy, they don’t care for games.  They also don’t care, it seems, for fiction.  The narrator hears a rumour from a friend, surely untrue, about Don Quixote:

In this new version of Cervantes’s novel, then, things would be inverted. Thus, Sancho Panza, who had always been seen by critics as representing “reason and clearheadedness,” would be the one to convince Alonso Quixano to set off on adventures. In the memorable windmill scene, Sancho would say: “Look over there, Don Quixote, they’re giants!” only to receive a tsk-tsk in response: “They’re no such thing, Sancho, they’re just windmills. If you want, I can trace the trajectory of each blade, calculate the equation of their motion. Would you like me to? And my name isn’t Quixote, it’s Alonso Quixano.” Poor Sancho, yearning for adventures, frustrated like a woman with an impotent husband. According to the friend who cracked the joke, the government’s goal in making this substitution would be to trim Cervantes’s nine-hundred-page novel, making it far more palatable to high-school students, forced from the age of five by their parents to take medicine to treat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders.

He dismisses it as a foolish fancy, but then he discovers the briefcase of a government official at a cafe:

…I came across plans for what was called “progressive literary alteration.” To my astonishment, there was a subchapter titled “Don Quixote,” which might very well have been called “Seizing Cervantes.” The plan involved gradually rewriting the novel (all of the available editions were virtual) over the years, so that no one would notice and collective memories would forget the details. Implausible? That’s what I thought, at first, but then I remembered how rare it was to find paper editions in the UK…

The central conceit of Seizing Cervantes becomes clear.  Effectively, the story is an extrapolation of the increasing importance of digital items over their physical counterparts.  Without wanting to sound too grand, today’s “modern world” has seen a shift away from physical objects to digital in such a way that our understanding of possession and ownership have shifted, perhaps irrevocably, and perhaps for the bad and perhaps for the good.  I can, legally, purchase a purely digital copy of a music album, a film, a television programme, a video game.  I can, if I wish to infringe copyright, acquire the same music album, film, television programme or video game for free.  Both options are a few clicks away.  Both are easy to complete.  On Youtube, for example, you might search for a music clip, and the first hit in the search is a copyright infringing copy, and the second hit a legally viewable copy.  Or it could be the other way around, or any number of other permutations (most searches come up with hundreds, if not thousands of hits).

My point with all this is that the concept of ownership has shifted, but so too has the medium for delivery.  If I, say, wish to play an early version of World of Warcraft instead of the current, I cannot.  Similarly, if, say, a book I have purchased on Amazon Kindle has an update I must update – the choice for me has been removed.  I must remain current and corrected and the same as everyone else who owns a copy of whatever digital item it happens to be.  On the other hand, if I had bought an Inverted Jenny stamp in 1918, a physical item which cannot be modified without my consent after its purchase, I would now own a stamp worth almost a million dollars.  Would I want a “seamless”, “integrated” update to the latest version?  Of course not!

Xerxenesky’s story is, in effect, an argument against the mutability of digital possessions, and how they aren’t really ours, even after we “own” them.  As the story progresses the narrator learns of the plot – ideologically based, soundly argued, reasonably stated and completely plausible in execution, but horrible, evil and wrong – to gradually change the text of Don Quixote from what it was, to something more aligned with the philosophy of the Skeptic Party.  If the only copies of a novel were digital, and these copies could be silently modified at will, then who would notice as sentences slowly changed and characters shift from this to that?  The game of Chinese whispers works even when people know they are playing it – and works better when they don’t.  It’s no accident that, as Xerxenesky writes,

The government continued to use this medium because paper had become much more secure than digitized text. It wasn’t exposed on the Web, so if there were some emergency, some breach of confidentiality, copies were simply burned. Printed texts are infinitely more difficult to share.

For all that, Seizing Cervantes is not painted as a doom and gloom story. The narrator, as mentioned above, is casual and cheerful and, though he finds the government’s plans reprehensible, he retains his amiable mien.  This helps the impact of the story, which is easily (and obviously) explicable in today’s terminology and technological situation.  Xerxenesky avoids harranging the reader and instead chooses to charm them, slipping in jokes, allusions and clever examples of what this brave new digital world could offer, as shown in the description below of a computer program designed to analyse literary texts:

This excerpt was proof, the computer program argued, that Ulysses did not tell about a Jew wandering around Dublin, reconstructing Homer’s odyssey, but was actually a novel about a deadly virus known as metempsychosis that affected people’s consciousness, wiping out their forms of communication, preventing them from using commas or periods or putting together a coherent thought. Ulysses should therefore be considered one of the most creative works of twentieth-century science fiction, along with Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

This is clever, and fun, and it assists in taking away a lot of the sting of the story’s message.  Indeed, Xerxenesky’s general tone helps avoid the problem of becoming a strident “issues” story – a surefire way to become irrelevant, unread and unnecessary.

Seizing Cervantes tackles a very serious problem by placing it in an unserious situation – the far away future, and exaggerated for effect.  It’s a great technique, and one that science fiction writers have used for decades to help draw attention to current day issues.  The story reminds one of Stanisław Lem’s writing in its tone, and humour, and intellect.  In short, there’s a lot here to like, both from a concerned political nature, but also from a literary standpoint.  If you ever wished to persuade a friend as to the problems of the “digital age” but weren’t sure how to – here’s your story.  If you ever wanted to introduce your friend to an accessible, entertaining and intellectually stimulating Brazilian writer, well – here’s your story.

Author Antônio Xerxenesky
Title Seizing Cervantes
Translator Kim M Hastings
Nationality Brazilian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

I Remember – #768

I remember reading the first four Harry Potter books in Maryborough, with my younger brother, when we both still lived with our parents and were, I think, in high school.  I was a book ahead, and we would both lie in the dark green lounge chairs set in the back of the living room, our legs dangling over the arm rests as we read and discussed the books.

-28 October 2016

This post is part of the I Remember series.