Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – The First Cup of Coffee

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

Both of us would have suffered less.

I write this as the #MeToo movement becomes unstoppable in the United States as it topples decrepit old men with too much money and too much privilege.  Today, right now, there’s a possibility that a rapist will end up on the US Supreme Court, which is horrifying to me even though I am not an American.  We can see you, America, see what you are doing.  See what you haven’t done.  See what you are letting happen.

I don’t know where the #metoo movement will go, but I hope that all of the horrible men who cheat, steal, hurt, beat, rape, molest and destroy girls and women will receive their comeuppance.  I hope more strongly that the next generation of boys will grow up thinking such that behaviour is inconceivable in themselves or others.

Enter Martha Bátiz’s short story, The First Cup of Coffee.  It is not the first story to deal with domestic abuse, and it won’t be the last, but for me it came at a time when I was particularly primed to read about the hidden horrors inflicted upon women across the world.  And they are always hidden.  These men aren’t stupid, they know what they are doing; they can control their emotions until they are in the safety of their own home, and they are more than willing to turn their home into a place that is unsafe for the women in their lives.

But first, the plot – Greta has married Tobías, who is wealthy, at the behest, or at least encouragement, of her father.  Greta was fair of face and body but has become fat and ugly with age and wealth and circumstance.  Tobías restricts her movement, her communication, her employment, her access to money, her life.  And he beats her for any provocation, or no provocation, without cause, with cause.  It doesn’t make it right if there’s a reason, does it?

Oh, she fights back in the ways that she can.  She taunts him, she yells.  It isn’t an excuse for his behaviour or, even, a reason, as very often he’ll hit her before and during and after.  It doesn’t really matter if she insults him or not, though it can be somewhat cathartic for her.

“Don’t you want to have kids?” I asked him one day.  Man, did I regret that.  He said if I thought he wasn’t man enough to make me a bunch of kids, he’d show me how wrong I was, and he hit me.  He pulled down his pants and…nothing.  He couldn’t do it, just like on our wedding night.  He hit me so hard he had to take me to the hospital because my head split open.  Look, I’ve got the scar right here.  And no hair grows around it.

The text is matter-of-fact.  It is.  This is what happens and this is how Greta reacted and this is how she tells the story of her life.  Why dress it up?  Tobías himself comes across as a weak man, prone to astonishingly indulgent bouts of self-pity and -loathing.  At times, after abusing Greta, he will take out a gun and shoot himself in the head.  Click.  There’s one bullet, see, and the rest are empty – fate will determine if he should die.  Fate has determined that he will not die just yet, and that Greta’s suffering will continue.

Greta’s story is framed around drinking a cup of coffee, the first that she has ever had.  This follows on from a long bus ride and, we are reasonably certain, Tobías’ death – or at the very least her escape from him.  A new phase of Greta’s life has begun, and through the drinking of the coffee she thinks back on her life and her time with Tobías.

During these past few months I wouldn’t even wait up for Tobías, because I got used to him arriving in the wee hours of the morning.  I stopped worrying about him and asking him to install a phone in the house or buy me a cell phone so he could let me know where he was.  As if the master of the house was going to listen!  Not a chance.

Rather curiously, the beginning of her relationship with Tobías is glossed over in a very few words.  Her father wants it and so it is.  Done.  Arguably, it doesn’t matter, because the terrible and endless present of her abuse became the primary focus of her life.  There was nothing different over the years, not ever, just fighting, yelling, hitting, pain, suffering.  The permutations change but it’s the same, the same, the same.

This is a difficult story to read because Greta accepts her life – at least, up until she doesn’t.  It’s difficult because we’d like to think that, say, if I were in an abusive relationship, I’d recognise it quickly and – be out!  Begone, abuser!  And so our natural empathy for the victim decreases and fades.  If we think that way then we make it their fault, at least a little, don’t we?  And maybe a lot.

Greta’s personality appears more strongly during the framing story around the cup of coffee, representing that she has, finally, broken free from her abuser and can perhaps start to discover the woman she is today.  The other time she truly sparks into being concerns the life and death of her pet.  Here, because it is another life being impacted, Greta surges and says no to Tobías.  And how often do we hear of that, a woman presenting her face to be hit in lieu of a child?  Both too often and not often enough.

This is a strong story.  The clearness of the language means that the story needs to rely on the strength and impact of its plot and characters and here, Bátiz is quite effective.  I knew, because the story was narrated by Greta – and spoken to a nebulous ‘you’, which cleverly inserts the reader into the narrative, making them somewhat complicit in the silence, or not, of Greta’s life story – that she was not going to die, but nonetheless there were times when I worried and wondered if she would make it.

She made it.  At least for now.  But I wonder if the ‘you’ of the story, the reader – do we become complicit if we say nothing?  If we remain silent?  If we fail to listen to these women when they talk and rage and demand justice?

The First Cup of Coffee is a short story written by Martha Bátiz.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Other stories from this collection include:

Author Martha Bátiz (Twitter)
Title The First Cup of Coffee
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

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

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Short Story Review – Basma Abdel Aziz – Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

He was the Autocrat: the sole person in charge of crafting the Public Poli-Strings that structured citizens’ lives, and the only man with full authority over them. 

I am reminded while reading Basma Abdel Aziz’s short story, Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette), of the first hundred or so pages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, which shows, among other things, the last day of dictator Rafael Trujillo and how he ruled himself, and his people, with an iron fist.

The Autocrat, who is the primary character of this story, and who represents, in their mannerisms and actions, the ideal absolute ruler, has imposed upon himself immense measures of self-discipline in order to rule his country in the best way he sees fit.  Through edicts he calls ‘Poli-strings’ he manipulates the ways and mannerisms of the state, from very large changes to, well –

He also deleted words that society no longer needed, like “elect,”

This a serious story communicating through the gentle humour of the horrifically absurd.  Slowly, over time, the Autocrat demands more from his citizens, banning sugar in tea and calling it ‘health tea’, exhorting people to behave, to listen, to read his works, to follow him without question.  And they do – the country is stable.

And then his mother dies.

He didn’t understand how [his mother] could have died without his permission or authorization. Thinking about it wore him down. His eyes became red, and the twitch—which spread from his right eye to the left over the next few days—kept him from sleeping. Then his hand began to twitch when he was holding his pen, and this terrified him the most; he hadn’t written anything for a week. Without the usual decrees, the citizens became terrified too. Some began scouring the newspapers hundreds of times a day, hoping to find a term or Poli-String to set their minds at ease or alleviate their growing anxiety, but it was no use. They felt naked all of a sudden. There had been no warnings, no chance for them to adapt. No Poli-Strings to show them what was right and wrong, nothing to tell them what to do. They fell into a strange void, and the Autocrat suffered doubly.

The Autocrat, it seems, has fallen under the dictatorial sway of constant poli-strings, new rules, and changing requirements as much as anyone else.  He has come to believe in his own infallibility because, for so long, there was never any proof otherwise.  He attempts to combat death by editing the grammar of it away, while at the same time succumbing to the belief that he actually can.  Who is the slave and who the master?

It’s touching, in a way, that the death of his mother it was causes the Autocrat to crack and become mad.  It humanises him, though of course his response is to embed himself further into the reality-bending nightmare he has created.

The story ends as it must, though it is no less satisfying for it.  The Autocrat becomes fully unhinged, and his intense grasp on the nation and its people is proven to be so strong that the country does not, in fact, need him at all in order to continue.  His poli-strings can be, and are, written by another, and instead of celebrating with joy that a dictator has fallen, the country continues to participate in its own self-erasure, and the rest of the world continues to turn, leaving the nation behind, falling, lost.

Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat is a short story by Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz, and was translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.  You can read the story online at World Literature Today.

Author Basma Abdel Aziz
Title Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat
Translator Elisabeth Jaquette
Nationality Egyptian
Publisher World Literature Today

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

Short Story Review – Jiří Kratochvil – The Legend of the Eternal Return (trans. Jeffrey Castle)

Oh, Miss Jahodová, what have you gotten yourself into?  All you want is love, well, really, to be loved, to be wooed, to have a handsome man at your arm.  You have small ambitions, but thus far you have been unable entirely to meet them.  You don’t ask for much.  Nothing, really.  Nothing.

There she is, quiet (we assume), minding her own business (she is in her house, after all, so whatever she does is her business), when a shadow scurries across the carpet. No, not a shadow.  A mouse.

A mouse.

No, unmistakably the Generalissimus, somehow come to life again.  In his ‘hoarse, ragged voice’, he tells her that

he had been reincarnated in this form so that he could write his memoirs, which he had never quite gotten around to doing during what had been a truly thrilling life.

He – Stalin, let’s be clear – wants her to type up his memoirs as he dictates them.  She isn’t much of a typist.  She can’t spell.  She had never even spent any time as a secretary.  Why her?  Well, Miss Jahodová, because you have been asked.  Requested.  Imposed upon.  Demanded.  Coerced?

Somewhat.  They settle into a rhythm.  She’s not too bad at it!  Oh, Miss Jahodová, perhaps you will find love.  One day your life might have purposes.  But – oh no – the mouse notices that Miss Jahodová is the kind of woman (the kind of person, really – we all do it at times and let’s not be too sexist) who becomes flighty both when they are newly in, and newly out, of love.  She gets that itch when single for too long – she can’t concentrate.  Can’t focus.  The mouse checks the memoirs – not good enough!

They come to some friction.  Miss Jahodová, clever, buys a cat to take care of her problem.  The cat, clever, gobbles up the mouse.

And now the cat speaks with the Generalissimus’ voice.

What there is to do, and what she does, and what happens with the cat, will be an exercise left to the reader.  Look, if it isn’t clear from the above, this was a rollicking good story, funny and engaging and serious in its silliness.  I am reminded somewhat of Kundera’s more fabulous excursions (which were sadly rare), and in general of that very Iron-Curtain-ish mix of the serious with the absurd.

The narrator’s presence throughout this story is a nice touch, and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.  We are led to believe that this is something of a historical record, a firmly true recounting of facts.  The narrator is not afraid to use “I” statements, and to provide parenthetical asides to add extra information to the story, to bring us close, to make the reader as much a part of the story as the characters.  This technique helps to distance us from Miss Jahodová, who remains as mysteriously interesting as the Stalin-mouse, and serves also to engender the feeling that this narrator may very well have a direct line into a thousand such stories.

I am new to Jiří Kratochvil’s writing, and from this small story I hope to read more.  What a great time.

The Legend of the Eternal Return is a short story by Czech writer Jiří Kratochvil, and was translated by Jeffrey Castle.  You can read the story online at Barricade.

Author Jiří Kratochvil
Title The Legend of the Eternal Return
Translator Jeffrey Castle
Nationality Czech
Publisher Barricade

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

Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – In Transit

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

In Transit is the kind of story that rises and falls on the strength of the protagonist’s voice, her vocal style, the way she communicates. Her method of expression is the story.  Her name is Eulalia and she has lost her son to the border crossing between Mexico and America.  Maybe not to death – maybe not.  It’s a hope to cling to, anyway.

Her son, Andrés, loves (loved?) books, and his eyes shine with he thinks about becoming a gringo.  He’s not built in the same way as Eulalia, or his father, something for which his mother is both grateful for and worried about.  But being different in this way means he is open to dangers, and challenges, and perhaps the potentially limitless opportunity provided by that enchanted place – the United States.  He’s not made for Mexico or menial work, but for America, where anything can happen.

Martha Bátiz is astute enough to avoid identifying what this ‘anything can happen’ is for either the reader or the characters.  Eulalia herself is ambivalent towards the idea of moving to America, except in that it will please her son.  He is everything to her, and so she sells her small plot of land, and they attempt to make the crossing.

They fail.

What are they attempting this for?  It’s unclear.  What does Andrés want, exactly?  Sure, a big screen tv.  Sure, some money.  Eulalia remembers that Andrés ‘promised me a cow’, because she always wanted a cow – these are not big dreams.

They still fail, though.

In the end Andrés, Pepe, and El Bizco managed to get across but they was caught by the Border Patrol.  When they phoned Don Manuel they told him that la migra had sent them back.  “Deported” was the word, I remember.  Now I know what it means, and how much it stings.  But back then I didn’t really get it, except for the money I had paid and lost.

What strikes me most about these sentences is their lack of colour.  Something ‘stinging’ isn’t really much of a description, and Eulalia’s memories aren’t deepened, here, with adjectives or really much in the way of personality or descriptive flair.  This is matter-of-fact writing, plain, a series of statements.  And why – well, because her son is gone.  To let emotion in would be to crack and become raw.  There’s a tiny, small, insignificant spark of personality here in the ‘they was’ – this is language that hasn’t been cleaned up, that has been left uneducated, raw, sloppy.  It works.

Much of the story is memory, situating the present pain with the circumstances that led to Eulalia’s current predicament.  Andrés as a boy, Andrés failing to cross the border once, and then twice.  And then he’s disappeared, gone, maybe dead, maybe not, and Eulalia follows.  This is her present, and here her voice strengthens, becomes ‘her’.

I don’t wanta stay in their country. I see who smiles at us; who lets it show that we disgust them.  Who doesn’t even want to look us in the eye.  I seem them – their teeth and beards and chins, hoping they’ll see me, too. Hoping they’ll listen.  I stare at my güero again.  Wanta beg him.  But he don’t even look at me.  All I’ve got left’s my own voice.  And my boy’s tireless whispers.

Here, her language has broken down quite a bit, become rough.  Eulalia remembers when her son was very young, he would correct her grammar and the grammar of the other adults when they fell into the easy traps of common, low speech, saying ‘is’ instead of ‘are’.  With him vanished and likely dead, she slips back to older patterns of speech, reverting to a time from decades past.

Her head hurts.  The sun beats down.  She has by now been captured more than once at the border.  She hears the voice of her son asking for water.  She can’t get rid of this voice, and is compelled to return again and again to the border where he tried to cross.  To find him.  To help him.  To water his bones?  Possibly.

In Transit was originally written by Martha Bátiz in Spanish and translated by her into English.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Other stories from this collection include:

Author Martha Bátiz (Twitter)
Title In Transit
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

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

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

Note, October 2018 – I have altered the text of this review slightly based on some feedback provided by Hisham Bustani.  In abstract, my sensitivities to some of the generalisations and specifics of Bustani’s short story are less finely tuned than that of a literate Jordanian or Arabic reader.  I missed, or misread, a reference that was clearly intended to be presented in a different manner.  Specifically, the words ‘The Jew’ was replaced with ‘The Israeli’ in the seventh paragraph of my review, not including quotations.

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 power-brokers 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 Israeli, 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.

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.