Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – A Citizen Speaks

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.

As for the blight, we call it rust for its color

Disease has struck this unnamed city.  Living things – men, women, animals, trees – are untouched, but dying things, and dead things, and artificial things – they become blighted.  Furniture – ruined.  Statues – splotched and rotting.  Buildings – easing slowly into collapse.

The leprosy spares only living things: a tree will spend ten years unscathed, slowly rising over a path, but let a branch be cut, treated, painted and varnished – that branch will be disease-ridden in a few months.

A Citizen Speaks is a very short story – hardly two pages – but its central theme is very strong.  In it, Châteaureynaud introduces the problem of the disease that attacks dead and dying things very early, and then he explores what would happen when a single individual (in this case, the narrator) is forced to watch his own father begin the rotting process.

This is explored through the rather apt metaphor of a marble statue.  The narrator, enraged that his father is dying, and that the disease exists and has made the world so terrible, stabs at the marble statue with a wooden stick.  Now, in our world, the stick would end up deflected, perhaps broken, and the wielder would probably hurt himself.  The marble statue would, if it could, laugh.  In the world of <i>A Citizen Speaks</i> the marble bursts like a rotten piece of fruit.  Nothing is truly substantial here – the artificial follows the organic in its decay and dissolution.

I examined his wound more closely and saw that there was nothing left to him but a marble husk, the inside of the statue no longer solid but filled with that strange aggregate so like sand in an arena where blood from carnage had long since dried in the sun.

We love flowers because their beauty is so fleeting.  We hate the death of a human because it takes our father, sister, friend, lover, away from us.  Why don’t we hate the flower, or love the human?  It’s not clear.   Châteaureynaud plays with this idea, aligning the inorganic with the organic and showing that our ideas concerning art and architecture would change if they were fleeting.  We can still see Michelangelo’s David today – we can’t eat a single piece of meat or a vegetable from that period, or smell a flower from then.  We may – may – be able to stand in the shade of the same tree as him, but that is virtually the only exception.

Sebald has written that buildings are created with a view to the ruin they will one day become.  Isn’t this true, also, of man?  The photograph of a young child shows the face of the man they will become, and the elderly man they will one day be.  In some ways it can be quite devastating to see an old man or woman as the were when they were young and beautiful.  And yet – we love the ruins of buildings.  Is it because even these ruins have a sense of permanence to them?  There are ruins over a thousand years old as ruins.  The best an old person can expect to be old is a decade or two at most.  And they are hardly valued.  Châteaureynaud forces us to examine our ideas of aging and death by making inanimate objects suffer the very same fate.   

A Citizen Speaks would, I think, benefit from a longer examination of this blight, which is a truly interesting creation.  However, this is a minor issue.  Really, the story as it stands is very good, and self-contained, and finishes well.  But the concept is so interesting one wishes he took it further.  And if that’s the biggest criticism I can think of for the story, then it must be rather good indeed.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title A Citizen Speaks
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

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

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