Short Story Review – Andrej Nikolaidis – So Much Time For So Few Things

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 deal with the aftermath of a character’s death as it allows for sufficient narrative force for the story, and motive for the character, for interesting events and emotive occurrences to take place. Bosnian author Andrej Nikolaidis, in his short story, So Much Time For So Few Things takes a different tack. The story is all prologue. The protagonist is a man who works during the day on construction sites, and at night as a guard in a Natural History Museum. At night he sleeps, sometimes. Mostly he just paces between the exhibitions, worrying and smoking. Stanka, his wife, lies dying in hospital. Previously, he would enjoy his time at the Museum, in part because his wife tried her hardest to make the place nice for him. Now, with her in hospital, all he can do is live with the painful awareness that the time he thought was infinite had become limited.

He could never understand people who complained about not having enough time. So much time for so few things ‘n that’s what I have. This thought kept coming back to him all night, like the refrain of a song heard in passing that stays in one’s head, or like an echo in an empty room, whose presence we feel even when it dies away.

Problem is, now that he is having trouble sleeping (though he does – but only when exhausted), and now that he doesn’t have his wife to occupy him at home, he is faced with the dual problem of an infinite amount of time for him, and virtually none for her. One is a gift and the other not, but he can’t quite work out which is which.

Nikolaidis describes the protagonist’s wife, Stanka, with only the broadest of strokes. We learn that she resembled “a girl in the ponderous body of a woman”, but this is likely just the affectionate observation of the happily married. We learn that she tried to make his work comfortable and pretty – but again, this is something “any” wife would do, not explicitly this specific woman. Instead, Stanka remains something of an enigma, a kind of idealised wife figure, blameless and beautiful and distant. And dying.

…ever since Stanka had fallen ill he worked during the day at a building site, so he needed the night for sleeping. He’d go straight from the museum to the building site and from there to the hospital to visit Stanka. It’d been like that for months. A few more days of that routine and one afternoon he’d go from the hospital to the cemetery. He’d plod behind Stanka’s coffin and nothing would matter any more.

The protagonist, on the other hand, becomes gradually more illuminated by Nikolaidis as the text progresses. He sees within his own affliction something of a universal theme, and ruminates upon this. He doesn’t pity himself so much as lament the situation in which he has found himself.

It took so much to survive: there was so much indignity, suffering and injustice ‘n both what others cause to us and what we cause to them. We’re meant to give so much to others, but there’s so little for us.

The three largest paragraphs of the story share a common theme. In the first, which takes near the start of the story, the conflict of the narrator is presented and the desolation in his heart is described. In the second, which follows immediately, Nikolaidis expands his view, commenting on the problems of humanity as a reflection of the problems of his protagonist. This paragraph begins by explaining that life is “indignity, suffering and injustice”, then shows how these ideas are present in his protagonist’s life, and also that of the protagonist’s wife, Stanka. The third paragraph appears near the end and it is, I think, the longest. In it, the protagonist watches a television programme in which a male lion brutally kills a hyena cub – not for food, but as part of the “everlasting hatred between lions and hyenas”. This paragraph is devoted entirely to the killing and subsequent cannibalism of the hyena cub by other, lurking hyenas, and is written in a highly detailed vein. The story, which had been almost entirely devoted to the abstract condition of Man and the internal turmoil of our man, the protagonist, becomes physical, real, detailed, slowed down. Taken together, they represent the crux of the story and also of Nikolaidis’ central idea – life is death, life is dying, death comes when it does, and when it’s here, it’s a misery. These ideas aren’t new or even necessarily sophisticated, but they work well within the confines of the story. The protagonist is hurting, he’s sick at heart and ill-equipped to deal with what is happening to him or to his wife. He laments the choices he has made, but – it must be noted – were these choices bad before she was sick? I would wager that they were not. Were these choices wrong before she was sick? I would wager that they were not. No, it is only when some unforeseen and unforeseeable catastrophe afflicts us that the choices which we previously made in order to determine our lives become bad, wrong, or misguided. While Nikolaidis does not reveal much of the couple’s life before Stanka’s terminal illness, from the hints given it is clear that, while poor and (likely) uneducated, they were happy together. A daughter, injected late into the story, raises doubts that perhaps the couple weren’t good parents, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good lovers. Being poor, possessing limited parenting skills, being unable to plan for the future – these are activities for which the punishment of illness and death is too high.

And yet – obviously that is what comes to us all. Death will arrive. For the protagonist, this fact has been glimpsed through the upcoming death of his wife. He struggles with this, but we can sense already that he doesn’t truly believe it will happen to him – at least not yet. The story ends with the protagonist watching as children enter the Natural History Museum where he works. He lights a cigarette and watches a crane make its arc through the air as the day’s construction begins on a nearby building site. He walks, the city rumbles, people talk, cars make noises. Life goes on, and for now, he is still a part of it all.

 

Author Andrej Nikolaidis
Title So Much Time For So Few Things
Translator Will Firth
Nationality Bosnian
Publisher Transcript

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

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