Short Story Review – Stelian Tanase – Zgaiba

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.

Romanian writer Stelian Tanase’s short story, Zgaiba begins strongly but ends in confusion.  It’s successful part concerns a photographer, Vivi, who happens to photograph a dog, Zgaiba, as it is run over.  The unsuccessful part comes from the funeral of the dog, which seems to turn into an overall metaphor for Romania’s difficult relations with Russia.  The first part – wonderful.  The second – confusing.  Is this a case of cultural ignorance on my part?  I can’t help but wonder.

To the story.  The photographer, Vivi, believes he must have “hundreds” of photographs of the dog.  It is a stray, loved by some within the neighbour, tolerated by others, disliked by a few.  In short, an ordinary dog.  But Vivi loved it, perhaps because it was so often the subject of his photography, and when he happens to capture the dog’s death, he is shattered.

Vivi brought the camera to his eyes, pushed the button, tsak.  Once, twice, without stopping.  All stretched out like that, lifeless, Zgaiba was terribly beautiful.  His black head, his sharp ears, powerfully pointed, his proud tail.  The image of a pagan god, old and mysterious.  Stiff as a board, emptied of life in an instant.

He feels responsibility toward the dog – though not for its death – and, after taking several more pictures of it, he prepares the dog for burial.  Here, the story changes and, as mentioned above, becomes, at least for me, somewhat confusing.

The neighbours come out to watch Vivi with the dog.  They comment: negatively, positively.  They make pronouncements – about the State, about Russia, about life, about sex, about death (both for the dog and for Man).  About garbage collection.  About democracy.  About fraud.  About bullets.  Zgaiba is a blank tablet upon which the various neighbours may scrawl whatever they wish.  Tanase  presents these neighbours not as characters as much as the sentences they say, that is, they are presented in the following manner:

Another chimes in: ‘Listen, neighbour, I sing at the church, among other things – from the lectern.  Let’s make him a mass.

Or

”…With our eyes on the flag,” the standard bearer remarks: “The head of the work brigade was leading the column.  We, in overalls under the official tribune, saluting.  We were so proud!”

And so on.  These are less characters than statements.

Which leads to the confusion.  I have attempted to discover what “Zgaiba” means, but outside of a name I remain in the dark.  Thus, I cannot easily understand what the dog is supposed to represent.  Why does the death of this dog spark off such debates?  Certainly, the story exists in part so that these statements can be made, but still, at some stage, Tanase chose a dog, killed it, and named it Zgaiba.  Why?

As readers, we are able to understand why Vivi feels responsible for the dog and considers him a symbol of the neighbourhood, but for the neighbours, the symbolic nature of the dog is less clear.  Why do they use him as a springboard from which to discuss the battle of Stalingrad?  Why comment on the failings of the government via the death of the dog?  Why is Zgaiba used in such a manner?  The neighbours spout platitudes, words of wisdom, curses, laments – why?

I should clarify.  I do not dislike this story.  One half of it is presented well, and both the character of Vivi and Zgaiba are presented clearly and with feeling.  Vivi’s sense of loss following the dog’s death seems subtle and true.  Consider:

Posted on the landing, the tenants were waiting to see what he would do.  They watched him in silence.  Carrying the dog, he passed right by them.  They stood back to give him room.  Vivi chose a place at the back of the courtyard.  Under a lilac.  Near a bush.  Summers, Zgaiba liked to doze there in the shade.  To sleep when the sun beat down too hard.  Vivi had photographed him here sometimes – stretched out, lost to this world – between the garage of the neighbour to the south and the garden wall.

This is sensitive writing, and we can see in it Vivi’s strength and depth of feeling.  Similarly, the crescendo of voices as Zgaiba is finally buried and is draped with a flag has an impact (though I appreciate it would probably be a greater impact if I understood the symbolism of the dog).  And yet, and yet – I feel like I am missing something.  I have brought all that I have to the story, and yet all I see is a dog.  I do not wish to apportion blame to either the writer, Stelian Tanase, or the translator, Jean Harris – both of whom do a fine job.  No, I suspect the error is within me, for I do not know enough about Romania and its contemporary history, so while I understand the loss of the dog and how it is felt by Vivi, I am at a loss to understand why the dog is so important to so many others.

Author Stelian Tanase
Title Zgaiba
Translator Jean Harris
Nationality Romanian
Publisher The Guardian (read the text in full)

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

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