Short Story Review – Wiliam Owen Roberts – The Professionals

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.

Many stories have buried within their paragraphs and sentences a key, often small and well-placed, easy to miss for the casual reader. Without recognising this key for what it is the story may become muddied and ill-focused, but with it the meaning is unlocked and the obscure becomes clear. The Professionals, a short story by Wiliam Owen Roberts from the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology, has a key, and its discovery is a requirement to properly understand the piece. The key, for those who are interested, is this sentence: “The anger I understood: not so much the violence.”

The above is without context I know, but bear with me a moment. Let’s rewind: The Professionals opens with the narrator, a psychologist, meeting Mathew, a banker, outside their butcher. Mathew is riding high, he works long hours and he plays hard when he has time off, boozing and womanising. They go out for a drink, but soon the narrator notes, in his professional capacity, that his newfound friend is a little ‘off’, that there’s something not quite right. The nights ends poorly, and then they don’t see each other for a while.

What follows is a litany of Mathew’s fall from grace. He is ousted from his job, divorces his wife, and takes to drinking even greater quantities, if at all possible. The narrator spots him once more but is ignored, and what’s more, Mathew doesn’t seem to remember him until prompted. Later, though, Mathew approaches the narrator for guidance in a professional sense, that is, he wishes to become his patient.

The root of Mathew’s distress, the narrator notes, was this:

Mathew had been a banker and the son of one, but not the sort of banker our fathers used to beg a loan from in their best suits, more the flashy transnational deal. Money ran green in his veins with the taint of copper. Once, on the couch, he recalled dream-diving into clean, clear coins that buoyed him up like they were his best friends.

Money issues, then, but, oh – father issues, too! Mathew is obsessed with Adrian, who received a promotion ahead of him, and he refuses to discuss his new girlfriend, Anna (and at first doesn’t even mention that they are together). The narrator asks questions, but he doesn’t seem to get anywhere. He meets Anna one night and quickly shifts to the defensive under ordinary questioning, hurriedly justifying his profession to her as her two PhD students giggle in the background.

Roberts provides the global financial crises as a backdrop to Mathew’s disintegration, and though he doesn’t use it much, it’s during a paragraph concerning some riots that our “key” sentence appears. Let’s have a look at it again:

The anger I understood: not so much the violence.

Consider. Our narrator is a psychologist who can’t seem to help his patient, who turns everything into father issues (“I decided to do it by the book and go back to the original trauma”), who didn’t even know the man had a girlfriend and can’t pry information out of him, and who also, when faced with the sight of desperate people rioting due to financial catastrophe, can’t understand why they might become violent. Throw in Mathew’s sudden abandonment of the narrator’s services, and an ending which shows that Mathew might be happy but the narrator is not, and the key helps it all make sense.

The narrator is not a very good psychologist, and indeed, it is he who has the larger problem. He doesn’t see people as they really are, and he surrounds himself with the trappings of his profession because he’d rather believe he was right and they were wrong that then unthinkable opposite. The narrator gets things wrong, and he gets things wrong, and he gets things wrong, and in the end, after leaving him, his patient sends a card in which he hopes the narrator has a better year than the one that just finished. He wraps himself up in the righteous, intellectual, holier-than-thou aspects of his profession (in other words: the ugly side of it), and that’s an end to it. Mathew leaves the narrator because he simply isn’t any good at his job – professional without being proficient – and the narrator is too smugly disconnected from the messages he is receiving from the other characters to understand why. In other words, he’s too right to be right.

Roberts mirrors this disconnection by writing the short story in a fragmented, sloppy style that often misses important words in a sentence (conjunctions, mostly, but also pronouns). Consider:

Main course digesting and I’m on my way back from the Gents: hover at his elbow. Up he looks, lost until I let him have the clues – my name, where we last met – and with a click of his fingers and a flick of a grin I’m found. But he still didn’t introduce me to his date. She was in her early thirties and her face was gentle, serene, propped up on palms in an open prayer. Still, we all need a little privacy.

I’d expect this sort of disjointed composition from, say, a drunken character, or one who was suffering from the effects of drugs. Or the kinetic rhapsodies of a stylised ‘crazy’ character. But a psychologist at a dinner? No. Instead of indicating a narcotic imbalance, these types of sentences represent the arrogance and disconnect from how people really are, that the narrator experiences on a regular basis. This is who he is, and it explains very well why he doesn’t ‘get’ Mathew.

But Roberts’ story isn’t a masterpiece, and in a way it’s a shame that it is the opener to the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology. It’s a good story, but I suspect that people opening a collection such as this expect the horse to be galloping right out of the gate. It isn’t, and that’s a shame, but what’s here is solid, and interesting. Just don’t expect to be blown away.

The Professionals by Wiliam Owen Roberts is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press’ anthology, Best European Fiction 2011


Author Wiliam Owen Roberts
Title The Professionals
Translator Gwen Davies
Nationality Welsh
Publisher Dalkey Archive Press

See Also

Other titles under review from the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology include:
United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary – The Heart Fails Without Warning
Turkish: Üldes, Ersan – Professional Behaviour
Swiss: Stefan, Verena – Doe a Deer
Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé – Nela and the Virgins
Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique – Far From Here
Slovenian: Jančar, Drago – The Prophecy
Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir – One Minute: Dumbo’s Death
Russian: Gelasimov, Andre – The Evil Eye
Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan – Goose Chase
Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. – Six Tales
Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga – The Ugliest Woman in the World
Norwegian: Grytten, Frode – Hotel by a Railroad
Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon – Desire
Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen – Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian – Auntie Frosea

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


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