Short Story Review – Casandra Hernández Ríos – Abuelo Castro

 

Ah, so it’s a ghost story, then.  

Casandra Hernández Ríos’s short story, Abuelo Castro, is a remarkably leisurely piece for a three thousand word short story.  She takes her time to let the piece unfold, stinging slightly at the end as the story comes into focus and its purpose is revealed.  I am not entirely convinced, however, that this langorous style is entirely in keeping with the desired effect of the story.

The inside of their abuelos’ house had never made Eduardo uncomfortable, though it was different from his home in the city. The casita was a simple, but spacious with large rooms and sparse furniture. There were three bedrooms with large wardrobes and robust bed frames but were always dark because the rooms had small windows and their curtains were always drawn. Dark gray stones were laid to cover concrete floors in various intentionally broken directions. Spanish style rectangular picture frames of different sizes lined the walls of every room. Inside gilded frames were black-and-white portraits of family members Eduardo had never met. Enclosed in thicker, more detailed wooden marcos were paintings of holy saints, ángeles, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and of “La Última Cena,” all in color.

Eduardo is off to visit his grandparents.  The drive takes a while.  Very often he would fall asleep, including this time, which annoyed his sister, Carmen.  For unknown reasons she never enjoys visiting her grandparents.

After a while they arrive, matters are somewhat still and eerie, and then they listen to a radio station – 

“Change the station, Papá, por favor. Your grandson will have nightmares,” Eduardo’s mother said in a low voice, as she rocked Carmen in her arms to hush her.

“The boy is old enough,” Abuelo Castro said. “Ghost stories don’t scare you, verdad mijo?”

Later, later, Eduardo falls asleep, wakes up, goes outside, and sees his grandfather (abuelo Castro) involved in an odd task.

This is all very fine, I suppose, but what’s missing, for me, is a certain spark of language.  The text reads very slippery – it just as easily could have been written in 1930s Poland or 2040s New York.  Or nowhere, more accurately.  Aside from the language choices, none of the text feels like it is anywhere.  

I do not, to be clear, require from any text the colour of nativity, and in fact would find that offensive unless handled well (this is true of all matters literary).  What I am looking for instead is something concrete, an anchor upon which to locate the text.  Eduardo, perhaps due to his age, is free of personality – but so too are the characters swirling around him like his parents and his sister.  With the exception of his family members slipping into Spanish occasionally they are as colourless as him.  But to what end – what purpose is being served here?  If the story is set in Mexico (and it is), then why are some of the words in Spanish, and not all?  What does this mean?  If the story is presented as being from the Spanish to English (which I guess it must be if they are all Mexicans in Mexico?), are these words, then, actually English in the original?  I appreciate it’s not a translation, but this is confusing to me.

I would have perhaps approached the story more postively if the encroaching creepiness of the ending was foreshadowed to a stronger degree. I like where it went, but I think the getting-there parts of the story (2,500 of 3,000 words) were not sufficiently strong.  It’s a shame, because I try to come at all texts positively and with love in my heart.  The how of something written is perhaps most interesting – and the how here simply isn’t sufficiently interesting.

A story can be written about anything, in any way, at any length.  James Joyce wrote seven hundred pages about a single day – Mathias Énard wrote Zone in a single sentence – Georges Perec wrote a book without the letter – Italo Calvino wrote a book comprised of the beginnings of twenty other books – Raymond Queneau published a book which was the same short story told using ninety-nine different style.  My point is not to compare the author to these great writers (this would be unfair), but to identify that what is exciting, to me, is when a story is told in a way before unseen, using flair or flash or vim or vigor in a new and fascinating manner.  This same story could have been told using bolder language, stronger characterisation, deeper themeing – and how wonderful it might have been.

To compare a story such as this to masterpieces such as those is immensely unfair.  I apologise in advance to Casandra Hernández Ríos for using her story as a springboard to discuss what I admire about literature.  There are the bones of something here – though this might be true of any ordinary story.  The nights need to be darker, the fabrics more vibrant in colour.  The dirt should grit in the mouth, and I would have loved to smell the spices used to cook dinner.  Eduardo, as much as your preceding ten years may have been dull to create the dull boy you are now, I hope perhaps that the next ten are exciting and fulfilling, and that you grow into your own.

Eduardo kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed next to him, still wearing jeans and the knitted sweater his mother had chosen for him, and pulled the covers over his head. He told himself that Hell wasn’t real and that stories on “La Mano Peluda” were just fiction. He tried to clear his head and instead imagined fluffy white sheep jumping over the moon. Eduardo counted the sheep like his father had taught him and when he got to sixty, he fell into a restless sleep.

But anyway a shame, yes.

Abuelo Castro is a short story by American writer Casandra Hernández Ríos

Author Casandra Hernández Ríos
Title Abuelo Castro
Nationality American
Publisher Verdad Magazine

See Also

United States of America

Short Story Review – Ho Sok Fong – Dark as a Boy (trans. Natascha Bruce)

 

He said he was from a human rights group. He said he could help us.

To say that puberty is tough is something of an understatement.  Hormones rage, boys look, girls talk.  Virginity is offered, taken, snatched, stolen, given.  Bodies change and shift.  And it’s not just your peers who notice.

Ho Sok Fong’s short story, Dark as a Boy (trans. Natascha Bruce) navigates the intricacies of female puberty through the unsettling lens of the threat of exploitation endemic to developing countries.  These young girls are forced to deal not only with the permanently tumescent boys in their classes, but also their teachers, and also, it becomes clear, tourists and other foreigners.  They aren’t safe.

And they live in a world where dead girls don’t mean much.

Saw Ai’s sister’s case was mentioned in a tiny square at the bottom of the local paper, but there was no photo and she wasn’t named. My cousin said it was a shame. “I heard she was pretty,” she said. “I want to see how pretty she was.”

Saw Ai dreams of bigger things, grander places.  She wants to escape, and wants to use her body to do so – to be a model.  She’s a vulnerable girl in a vulnerable situation, and unfortunately her parents push her, her teachers threaten her, and it’s all going over her head.  She isn’t bright enough to navigate these waters.  Sharks circle.

When it was Saw Ai’s turn, I could hardly look. Her Europe page was empty. So were the pages for India, South America, North America. All she had managed was Africa. Her class notes were so scattered that they weren’t even full sentences; in some classes, she had only jotted down a couple of lines. We were in high school now, where all the textbooks used the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet. Saw Ai’s Malay and English were terrible, and she never understood what the teachers were saying.

Menace hangs heavy throughout the paragraphs of this story.  Here and there are dropped details of another woman’s murder, or a missing girl.  It’s commonplace and routine.  Saw Ai and her friends do not see lessons or warnings here – they don’t see anything.  It won’t happen to them.  And even when it happens to Saw Ai’s sister, it still won’t happen to them.  It’s always someone else.

“You don’t even know the Western alphabet.”

“So?”

“Top models have to speak English. You have to go to university, and ideally take art and dance classes.” 

That was what the magazines said.

It was a sore point for Saw Ai. She was failing every subject. She said that sooner or later she was going to pack up her schoolbooks with all the old posters and magazines and go to trade them in.

This story is long, and awful, and ever paragraphs promises something terrible.  It’s always girls and it’s always women – Saw Ai and her friends have internalised the fact that they will die in poverty, they might be raped, they won’t be looked after by their parents or teachers, authority figures are there to exploit them, and their bodies have value for a short period when they are young.

Saw Ai is almost, but not quite, an effective product of her environment.  Instead, she shows what it means to be a girl who is pretty enough, but not clever enough, to make her way through a system designed to exploit her.  This isn’t her fault – this particular system shouldn’t exist at all.  But it does, and though she’s attractive enough to gain attention, her other talents are sufficiently small that we know she is destined to become a meal for the hungering predators all around her.

This is a harrowing story.  The menace doesn’t quite arrive, but it’s there, always, circling and present.  Her friend, who narrates the text, knows this, and though she tries to warn Saw Ai, the warnings fall on deaf ears.  It’s too exciting to be watched by boys when you dance.  And, sure, perhaps, it is – but there are others watching, and they are even less positively inclined than a teenage boy.  Imagine that, if you will, and shudder.

Dark as a Boy is a short story by Malaysian writer Ho Sok Fong (trans. Natascha Bruce)

Author Ho Sok Fong
Title Dark as a Boy
Translator Natascha Bruce
Nationality Malaysian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Short Story Review – Paul Bowles – The Hyena

 

A stork flies through the air.  At Khang el Ghar there is a pool of water at the bottom of the ravine.  The stork descends, drinks.  Nearby, a hyena watches.

The stork isn’t foolish – it knows that the hyena is an animal of death, not mercy.  They discuss their respective natures; the hyena assures the stork that it is not interested in feeding.

“You are very lucky [the hyena tells the stork] Men never try to kill you, because they think you are holy.  They call you a saint and a sage.  And yet you seem like neither saint nor sage.”

When the stork asks the hyena why, the hyena admonishes it and suggests he look for Allah.

And so it goes – they discuss religion and the true nature of themselves as beasts.  Eventually, the stork comes to trust the hyena, and soon alights on the ground to discuss matters of great import (magic, Allah, man).  After a while the stork flies away, but hurts itself and is encouraged by the hyena to go to a nearby cave where they hyena lunges at the stork, ravages its neck, and leaves it for ten days, the better to eat as putrid carrion.

The story is told like a fable – it is a fable.  But fables are not always so connected to religion and the gifts that Allah has bestowed upon his creatures.  In this, both the stork and the hyena are cognisant of their natures while thankful to Allah for creating them so.  The stork is thoughtful but naive, whereas the hyena is presented as living entirely in the moment, aware that going to sleep and waking up alive is a luxury not always afforded to those hunted and hated by men.

The hyena is detatched and calm – not quite cold, and certainly not angry.  It exists because it was born and lived.  The hyena believes, it seems truly, in Allah, and praises him multiple times for what he has been given.  There is no anger in the death of the stork, though the hyena is satisfied with his ability to use his intellect to beat his opponent.  In this, he is more subtle and sophisticated than his prey, for all it may be worshipped by men.

A saint and a sage?  Perhaps.  Synonyms for food?  Perhaps.  

The Hyena is a short story by American writer Paul Bowles

Author Paul Bowles
Title The Hyena (from Pages From Cold Point)
Nationality American
Publisher Zenith

See Also

United States of America

Short Story Review – Sophia Nikolaidou – Houses Without Windows (trans. Yannis Goumas)

They were wedded inside of a fortnight

A short, strange story.  Katerina is a spinster at twenty-seven (perish the thought!).  She is attending a dance, and for each person she dances with she makes a note.  Captain Nikolaos Topouzis met her father recently and learned of her; in Budapest, where they meet, they dance a cotillion.

Marriage comes.  Then, children.  Once a year for five years.  Each time the Captain returns from his long and dangerous voyages he stays long enought to ‘put her in the family way’ and then pushes off again.

Time passes.  The children grow.  Katarina engages in lacework – never crochet, which is for housemaids and nannies – and later, embroidery.  The house has no windows, which lets in the sea air.  Katerina doesn’t necessarily brood, but it’s unclear whether she is happy, and unclear still whether this is a requirement for her.  Not everyone needs happiness.

Later, she drips sea water into her eyes, stinging them.  Far away, on a ship in the Black Sea, her husband’s eyes sting.  Later still, his eyesight deteriates and doctors are unable to diagnose a cause.

The story is strange.  There is no indication prior to the ending that there might be some kind of supernatural bond between the two of them, or that sea water can cause later blindness.  None.  It’s the kind of ending that encourages a re-read, more carefully this time, to see what the reader may have missed.  But nothing.  It is, except for that, a reasonably ordinary (and quite short!) short story. 

Is Katarina unhappy?  Does it matter.  She clearly comes into her own after having children.  The clothes she created for herself bulge ‘with the fullness of her flesh’.  She is fertile, we know, but also, it seems, hungry.  And with a husband away for most of the year there is little to be done to sate this hunger.

Nikolaidou’s story raises more questions than it answers.  It in fact answers very little.  Both the Captain and his wife are basically unknowns to us – we learn more about her preference for clothing than we do anything else, and of him we learn nothing beyond his occupation, and that he wanted his wife to live in a house without windows. 

And there it is, perhaps.  The key to the story.  Strangeness begets strangeness, and when a person is forced to live on the cusp of the world, with the elements coming in, or not, as they please, then perhaps an unseemly connection with the sea can be made, and in that space a force of malice is created. 

Houses Without Windows is a short story by Greek writer Sophia Nikolaidou

Author Sophia Nikolaidou
Title Houses Without Windows
Translator Yannis Goumas
Nationality Greek
Publisher Absinthe

Abandoning Books – August 2021

Ah, August.  The month in which I attempt to recalibrate my reading to meet the goals I have set for the year.  I trim, top and tail, in an effort to remove those books I know I will not be finishing this year.  Often it’s on me, sometimes it’s on the book.

Let’s take a look at which books I have determined will not be continuing with me for the remainder of 2021.

Josiah Bancroft – Senlin Ascends

I first read this book in 2019.  It was immediately appealing – a natty, well-dressed, demure, soft-spoken young man takes his wife to the Tower of Babel, a strange and wondrous place where magic and mystery intertwine.  Within a couple of pages she has vanished and he has to begin his trek up the Tower from its lowest floor.  No honeymoon, no pleasure.

The book is fine.  I am reminded, in its early areas, of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.  I am reminded less of it as the book and series progressed, which is something of a positive and more of a negative.  It’s a fine book.  The series is well written and interesting, and the creativity on display is engaging.  The Tower is very strange place with its own remarkable and odd hierarchies and rules.  But the main rub for me, both last time and this time, when I have abandoned it, is that I can’t myself hold on to the central conceit of the series.  Thomas Senlin’s wife vanished so quickly that we hardly learn a thing about her.  We don’t love her the way Senlin does, and thus the motivating factor fades and fades.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Hard to Be a God

An SF Masterworks series novel.  A slog, a slog, a slog.  I spent far too long pushing myself through bad prose, unclear characterisation, and vague motivation.  Nothing more to say.

Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time – Swann’s Way

I have read Proust in its entirety twice through, and deeply, deeply loved it both times.  This time, my head wasn’t in the game.  I have perhaps read 20 pages each month since the year began, which basically means I haven’t given this book the time or attention it deserves.  I’d like for 2022 to solidly read it all once more, but if I am realistic I just don’t have the attention at the moment to attend to Proust and his sentences.

This one is on me.  If you’ve never read Proust, please take the time to do so – but prepared to swallow up six months of your life.  It’s worth it.  It really is.  Even just writing about it now makes me want to devote some time, but – no!  2022, friends.

Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theatre

Every year or so I return to Roth.  For me, he was a formative writer of my 20s and I was, for a long time, more than obsessed.  I have read most of his published novels five or more times, with some (The Human Stain, American Pastoral, The Humbling, The Ghost Writer) pushing ten times.  I love his anger, his outrage, his, to borrow so many critics’ phrase – muscular writing.  But I am not as angry as I was when I was in my twenties, and I am not, yet, at an age where so much of my life is looking back at what I have done.

Sabbath’s Theatre straddles both of these major themes which means, for me, right now, in my late 30s, that I don’t really have the patience for his writing.  I’ll return to him, I’ll come back, but just as his own 30s as a writer wasn’t particularly great, my 30s as a reader of Roth is lacking.

Wiesław Myśliwski – Stone Upon Stone

Sometimes, I just can’t bring myself to read books about agrarian lifestyles.  Extremely, unfairly reductive, but 70 pages in to the novel and that’s all I can see.  I’ll set it aside for another day as I trust both the published (Archipelago Books), and the many folks on Twitter who recommended I read it.

Eric Hazan – A People’s History of the French Revolution

Simon Schama or bust.

William H. Gass – The Tunnel

I started this book around the same time as Stone Upon Stone and Proust.  Too many big books at once.  Too much ambition, too many masterpieces pulling for my attention.  I didn’t and haven’t given the novel its due.  One day, one day.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the books I am abandoning are a reflection of me as a reader right now, right here.   With two small children, I have less time to devote to enormous masterpieces, because it’s possible I will put a book down and not pick it up for weeks or months.  And who can do that with The Tunnel or Proust?  Nobody.  Those books deserve better.

At the moment, I am a man of novellas and sporty books.  And fantasy (!).  I need something I can finish quickly and well.

I continue to plug away at a few big books.  Bolaño’s 2666, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.  I just can’t read all of the big books at once.  It’s not fair to them, and it certainly isn’t doing me any good.

Short Story Review – Jane Black – It’ll Find You All the Time

She had tried to make our job easier, laid two plastic shower liners on the floor to try and keep her blood from leaking into the carpet. Maybe it was out of the kindness of her heart. She sat in a chair on top, pulled the trigger with her toe. She had left the door locked. Wanted to be left alone. She also left the overhead fan on high. Maybe she wanted to be comfortable, but it means one thing to me.

The considerate suicide.  Her viscuous self may be all over the room now, but she put down sheets.  Not everyone does.  Not everyone thinks about the clean-up.

It doesn’t matter much.  The narrator, quiet and inward as they work with their partner, Eddie, can taste the woman in the air.  She permeates things.  The stench of death thickens a room.  Our narrator is not, we think, cut out for this job.  But they do it – it pays and there isn’t much to it other than cleaning.  And while cleaning, the narrator notes that “[h]er room is a pomegranate and we have to spend all day picking out the seeds.”

On their way to another job something happens and a part of the suicide victim is transported into a coke can.  A tooth.  The narrator knows it’s there but doesn’t say a thing as Eddie drinks from it.

The two characters seem to like each other. Eddie, at least, is all about the hustle, even if that means thieving (from an employee or a store).  They have become deadened to something while cleaning up the dead and the narrator, at least, is unsettled by this.

A few years ago I started listening to a podcast about a couple who ran a business cleaning up the messy dead.  I didn’t make it far, not because it was particular disturbing, but because they repeatedly boiled down the task to its boring, ordinary, routine constituent parts.  At some point, you aren’t cleaning up a suicide, you are wiping a photo frame and scrubbing a bookshelf.  It’s too plain.  Such matters force you to consider whether death is actually a meaningful act, what significance it might have.  The narrator of It’ll Find You All the Time is wrestling with this as, each week, the magnitude of death fades and it becomes yet another involved cleaning project.

The smell lingers.  Smells linger throughout the story, opening and closing it in fact.  The narrator is attuned to this.  They can’t stop thinking about it, in fact, along with the other primary senses.  There is an impression that their life has been boiled down to what they can sense, which guides what they feel.  There is little time for thought.  Perhaps the enormity of carrying particles of another person’s brain with you is too much to process.  Many showers must be had.

 There is a sense of class injustice here.  The woman who committed suicide was poor, and the people who cleaned her up were poorer still.  The dirty, the dangerous, the violent, the sad occupations – they are the purview of the poor.  The critical jobs, I might add.  No matter how much technology might improve our lives, we need cleaners, and without them we suffer.  Jane Black is aware of this, she touches on it lightly but firmly.  Nobody will be escaping this life soon, unless, well – 

It’ll Find You All the Time is a short story by American writer Jane Black

Author Jane Black
Title It’ll Find You All the Time
Nationality American
Publisher Expat Press

See Also

United States of America

List of female writers under review

Short Story Review – May Armand Blanc – The Last Rendezvous (trans. Brian Stableford)

The French feminist journal, La Fronde, was a groundbreaking publication in that it was both staffed and run by women, but also dared to pay them equally to men in similar role.  From 1897 to 1905 it burned brightly, achieving a print circulation which before then had seemed impossible for a publication written entirely by women.  It didn’t survive, likely because it was too radical: not only was it devoted to the equality of women, it also took further risks, such as dating the newspaper by the French Revolutionary Calendar, the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian. 

One of the contributors to the newspaper was May Armand Blanc, a woman who died young and whose identity remains somewhat shrouded even today.  May Armand Blanc (sometimes May Armand-blanc) published many short stories and novels in her mid to late twenties, before dying at thirty.  Illness tinges these works, though they are not obsessed with sickness.

The collection The Last Rendezvous, published by Snuggly Books, and translated by Brian Stableford, collects many of these short works in a sporty 350-page book.  The first story, also titled The Last Rendezvous, is brief, passionate, and hopeless.  It is the dying embers of love, a love where the woman wants to continue the relationship while knowing the man does not. 

The cruelty of the infinite minutes when she had watched out for him, always having arrived first, appeared to her at that moment as the greatest happiness.  She appealed to him very softly by his name: “Georges!” and suddenly desired to flee without every seeing him again: to flee the determined place to which he was goign to come, the city where they might encounter one another, and the land where he lived – to flee herself, and her cowardly heart, which loved him so much.

She knows it is over, she knows her time with him is done, but she clings to the last remaining hour as though frenzied.  This is beyond reason or passion, and in her last efforts to hold on to Georges he discovers in her something distasteful, even ugly.  They have agreed to meet on a cold night in Paris, him begrudgingly, her desparate.  It is immediately clear that in his mind, an hour really meant a couple of minutes, and in her mind, it meant forever.  The writing is dark in tone, and there is an undercurrent of menance, as though the whole interaction was balancing on a knife’s edge.  At any moment violence could appear, unlikely from him, but possible from Catherine – if she can’t have him, no-one can.

He kissed her softly.  Then she lifted her veil and gave him profound kisses that wanted to devour the flesh and drink the soul of that being, in the desolate fury of the impossible.

This is a short piece – a couple of pages.  Georges is distant and unknowable, with none of Catherine’s thoughts or exclamations helping to explain why she loves him so.  Perhaps he is a cypher, a blank slate filled in by her desire to love someone.  Perhaps not.  We don’t know.  What we see is the end of something, and it is sad and miserable and pathetic.

The Last Rendezvous is a short story by French writer May Armand Blanc

Author May Armand Blanc
Title The Last Rendezvous
Translator Brian Stableford
Nationality French
Publisher Snuggly Books

Short Story Review – Akiyuki Nosaka – The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

 

August 1945.  A sardine whale swims near the Izu Islands in search of a mate.  He is a big whale, too big in fact – for his species, the female is big and the male is not.  He is an aberrant whale, though he is, we can tell, reasonably friendly and polite.

He swims.  We know what he does not, which is that 1945 in Japanese waters is a portentous time.  The first half of Nosaka’s short story, The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine, concerns itself primarily with conveying the idyllic, though somewhat lonely, existence of this whale.  He wants a mate, but he’s also pretty happy to eat sardines and enjoy the sun.  But we know that this is not a good time to be in the water.

Soon, he spies a Japanese submarine, which he mistakes for a large female sardine whale.  He’s enamoured with it, and attempts to get close.  The Japanese soldiers inside are quite worried, and also irritated, as they know they are in danger from the Americans, and the last thing they need is a whale harassing them.  

Here, the story shifts, and we go back and from the perspective of the whale to the soldiers, both with sufficient authorial distance that the whole story retains a cool, calm poise as matters escalate and violence appears. Americans enter the equation, aggressive, active, powerful, mighty, and the Japanese soldiers panic and determine they will fight.

But the submarine had no intentions of doing any such thing.  Having discussed the matter, the crew had decided to fight against America until the bitter end, and were now feverishly making preparations, putting on fresh underwear and writing farewell notes to their loved ones.

But the whale is in the way.  It nudges up against the submarine.  Its heart is full of love.  Here, finally, is a mate worthy of his largeness.

The whale became frantic with worry and swam hysterically around his beloved, but the gathered ships mistook him for the submarine and threw out a depth charge.  Shocked by the loud explosion he swam off, but they gave chase.

Soon, parts of the whale are blown away by depth charges and the waters turn red.  The Americans believe this is their victory – the submarine is destroyed and the red, bloody water has become like this from the dead and dying Japanese.  The Japanese soldiers cannot believe their luck, and acknowledge that the whale had helped them.  The day ends with the submarine floating on a clouded red sea.

What to make of all this?  The absurdity of both love and war are on display, but there isn’t quite enough meat here to delve too deeply into these concepts (apologies to the whale).  Perhaps better would have been also to understand more from the Americans, but as it stands the dispassionate narration acts more as a barrier than an entry-point.  It is absurd to enter the mind of a whale, and I will admit to detesting works that purport to come from inside the consciousness of an animal (Kafka aside), but by staying so far away from the true emotions and thoughts of what is happening we’re left with a rather cold scene.  But perhaps that is what violence is, or at least it’s aftermath – quiet, red, regretful.

The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine is a short story by Japanese writer Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.  

Author Akiyuki Nosaka
Title The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine
Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori
Nationality Japanese
Publisher Pushkin Press

Short Story Review – Akinwumi Isola – The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) (trans. the writer)

Those elderly men and women were skeptical about the new faith, which they only heard about, since they could neither read nor write. They would stand embarrassingly mute whenever hymns were sung from the hymnals or whenever common prayers were read from the prayerbook, in call-and-response fashion. Some of them succeeded in learning the Lord’s Prayer by heart, although they did not believe in it because they knew, by tradition, that they had many fathers, not just one, in heaven.

The Yoruba people are transitioning from their old ways and religion to the new, which is to say, to Christianity.  The older generation are unsure and overall nonplussed, while the children consider Christianity intriguing because it’s festivities are different, revolve around different days and times, and serve different foods.

To us, the main difference between Christian and traditional religious festivals was in the type of food served. At traditional festivals, the smooth pounded yam with delicious vegetable stew and bush meat was paramount. Yam flour paste with ground-bean stew and mutton was also served. At Christian festivals, however, the queen of food was rice, especially white rice with chicken. We children loved rice, because it was not our staple diet. It came only at Christian festivals and was never served during traditional religious festivals. Never.

Akinwumi Isola’s The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) was translated by the author from Yoruba into English.  I can’t speak for the Yoruba language, but much of this story reads clumsy, as though written by someone unskilled in English.  The story revolves around a white, educated, important man visiting the town only to become frustrated at the lack of subtlety of expression displayed by the children, who are knew to English, and knew to Christianity.  The narrator mimics the cadence of the children, using punctuation usually reserved for dialogue within the narrative.  It’s off-putting though thematically sound.  For example –

As he spoke on, the whiteman became increasingly inspired. He had almost forgotten that he was addressing junior primary school pupils in Africa!

This is a matter of taste, but it kept me from properly connecting with the story.  The use of exclamation marks, and to a lesser extent, question marks, served to continuously disrupt my engagement with the text.

Nonetheless the story picks up when, after setting the scene of a people oscillating between two religious and, consequently, two cultures, the newly arrived evangelist attempts to indoctrinate the children further into Christianity.

“Good! But after terrible tribulations, his enemies conspired against him and crucified him! They crucified him! Even then, when Jesus was crucified . . .”

He stretched out his hand to us again, asking us to complete the sentence.

We were now completely confused! We had no rules of grammar to guide us. So we quickly remembered the very last example he himself gave us: ” . . . we lived with him.” And so we naturally shouted: ” . . . we crucified with him.”

The whiteman opened his mouth and couldn’t close it. He could not find words to express his surprise. At last he said “No!” very emphatically. “You don’t say that in English!”

Our headmaster and other teachers became very uncomfortable indeed. They were looking at us threateningly, but what could we do?

The first half of the story describes the food and customs of the Yoruba people, with the second half being much like the above.  The increasingly exasperated Christian becomes harsh and condescending with his words while the children, understandably bewildered, try their best.

But to what end?

Unfortunately, there’s no sting at the end to justify this elaborate back and forth.  The story, boiled down, describes a people, and then has a white Christian become frustrated with young heathens who are trying their best.  I am, perhaps, missing something here, but what I am able to glean from the text suggests a slight story, one that is perhaps instructive in the nature of cultural and religious conflict, but overall fairly limited in its reach.  It feels pedagogic, as though it exists to educate others rather than possess any real literary merits of its own.  The story reads as though it should be read by primary school students in Nigera to help them better understand the cultural and religious transition pains suffered by their parents, their grandparents, their dead.

The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) is a short story by Nigerian writer Akinwumi Isola, translated by the writer.  

Author Akinwumi Isola
Title The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English)
Translator Akinwumi Isola
Nationality Nigerian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Interview – Bogdan Suceavă

This interview was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2011.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

You may also be interested in my review of Suceavă’s novel, Coming From an Off-Key Time.

Damian Kelleher: Your novel Coming From an Off-Key Time was published in January by Northwestern University Press. You’ve mentioned before that this novel is the best thing you have ever written and will ever write. Why? What is it about this novel that makes it more important than your other works?

Bogdan Suceavă: Perhaps because I am still under the strong impression that in Romania in 1990-1996 I witnessed the first years in the devolution of a society. I was a freshman at the University of Bucharest when the anti-Communist revolution from 1989 broke out. My years as an undergraduate student happened to start about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the beginning of a great period of change. From the outside it looked like Romania was going through a thorough transformation of the whole society from a one-party government to a democratic society where the political leaders are elected in office by free elections, but actually, from our perspective in Bucharest, it was a very unstable environment.

Romania was without a Constitution between December 22, 1989, and December 8, 1991. In all this time there were serious riots in which workers’ unions either supported the provisional government or fought against it, switching allegiance as their interests dictated best at the time. Not only that, in March 1990 there were inter-ethnic clashes in central Transylvania between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians that threatened the whole society. This was before the civil war broke in Bosnia, so it wasn’t really clear how tragic these events can turn.

DK: How did the political situation in Romania affect you directly?

BS: I saw most of these societal transformations from the streets of Bucharest. I have seen a bloody revolution and I have seen riots. I had high hopes and I failed to find myself a place in that new world. Most probably I will never see something like this again and I can only hope that nobody in Europe will have to witness such a sea of uncertainty. That’s why I felt that turning these experiences into literature could be my best contribution.

I felt the urge to depict in a novel this world as it was falling apart while appearing to the outside world that it was transforming into a stable haven. But it was actually a world without rules, dominated by beliefs in tribal gods and by instincts, where the Orthodox Church played a complicated role, and in many cases encouraged religious extremism. It’s a world where medieval models remained very powerful.

These issues are not specific to Romania alone. Remember how Serbian extremists fought for Kosovo Polje in their pursuit of a medieval idea, and how Hungarian extremists fought for an ideal Hungary that would have, in their minds, the boundaries of a long lost medieval kingdom. In Romania there is also a strong temptation towards some models of medieval glory.

DK: So you used these unsettled feelings as the basis for your novel?

BS: Yes, that was my literary motivation. That feeling of having lost something from long ago inspired quite a few scenes in Coming from an Off-Key Time, since these temptations and ideas resurfaced in the Romanian society after the fall of Communism. I dreamt for years of writing a novel that captured in a relatively short tale (perhaps about 200 pages) the whole local flavor of Bucharest, the colorful world that operates with inconsistent logic and vacuous rules, an eclectic atmosphere where the bohemian youth mixed with old apparatchiks, where fake scholars confuse concepts and ideas, where politicians and religious figures are despicable, and all of them together generate a bizarre political diorama. I can write other stories, but Coming from an Off-Key Time is the novel where I aimed to capture the logic of the world I grew up in.

DK: A key theme in much of your writing is the ability of the characters and, often, the narrator, to laugh at the society around them and their place within it. How important is laughter in literature to you?

BS: Laughing about everything is a very Romanian attitude, perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Romanian world. Most of the people born and educated in Romania have a sixth sense for detecting and elaborating on the ridiculous side of every matter. If we are looking for the literary expression of this attitude, I must say here that the master of us all is the late 19th-century comedy writer Ion Luca Caragiale, whose plays targeted the highly corrupted Romanian political class from the first period of the Kingdom. However, this inclination does not annihilate a fatalist feeling and a pessimistic slant that could be related to latent depression. In several of my works, laughter marks the point where the logic of a society fails, where a culture expresses its serious internal contradictions.

DK: You are now based in the United States, and have been there for a number of years. Has being removed from Romania deepened your appreciation of your country? Are you able to see the state of Romania better now that you are apart from it?

BS: I think that my choice to live in the United States since 1996 meant a lot for my literary work and the consequences have been more complex than I originally thought. I grew up in a world where I had been taught in elementary school and in high school a series of lies, most of them about local history, but not limited just to the remote past. I am talking here about the education system from the communist Romania, thus it’s about the common ground of deliberate misinformation that most people in my generation were forced to take as truth while we were growing up.

We were told and taught impressive lies. They were included in our social sciences and our history and literature textbooks. Additionally, there were many lies by omission. After a few years in the U.S., when I had access to more information, to better libraries and various library databases, I started to read more and more European history. Two of the occurrences concerned me more than the others: (1) the theory that the Romanian nation lived and developed continuously in the geographic territory from around the Carpathian mountains for two thousand years, and (2) Romania’s involvement in World War II, when the Romanian army fought with its full strength on the side of Nazi Germany between the summer of 1941 and August 23, 1944. After this date, Romania switched sides and fought against Nazi Germany until May 1945.

When I was in junior high elementary school, in the 1980s, the first claim was unquestionable and was the fundamental axiom of who we were as Romanians and what we had to do in life. If one grows up with the idea that she/he has to continue a two-thousand-year-old destiny, the government can manipulate and expect any effort from that person. The Romanian government expected work without proper pay, a lot of effort and sacrifices—because all sacrifices are for the good of the nation, aren’t they?

Teaching the new generations to view the world through this two-thousand-year perspective was a key piece in the national communist propaganda and I needed a lot of reading, research, and reflection to take it out of my mind. This vision and its use in education and propaganda made Romanian communism different from Soviet communism or the other versions of the ideology applied in Central and Eastern Europe. My personal cure was long and difficult, it required a lot of effort and was only possible because I had access to information I couldn’t locate in Romania. Thus, it really mattered that I was in the U.S. I read a lot of medieval sources and I had to do some serious library research to convince myself that I had been systematically lied to in school when I grew up.

The second lie mentioned above was even more dangerous, since most of what we learned in school included the Romanian fight against the Nazis. In reality, Romania had a very singular place in World War II. It was the largest neighbour of USSR to harbor a tradition of extreme right-wing ideas, which meant that all it needed was a spark to start a very dangerous fire, a freeway to serial murder based upon ideological grounds—and the international political context from around World War II provided that spark. The Romanian culture in the 1930s was a potential mass murdering machine, relying on the strength of the legend that the Romanian nation has lived for two-thousand years—surrounded by Carpathians and that all the ethnic minorities including Hungarians, Slavs, Jews, or Gypsy, are threatening the Romanian tribe. We were taught that Romania could not develop properly because it was being suffocated by foreigners. This vision was fed by a few writers and artists that helped the extreme right to develop their message.

When Stalin gave an ultimatum in 1940 that Romania should leave the geographical territory that today includes most of the Republic of Moldova, the motivation for crimes was set in place and it was like the fire was set. One year later, Romania joined Nazi Germany in a surprise attack against the USSR. Romania annexed a part of Ukraine, created a new province called Transnistria, and killed a large number of innocent civilians while expanding to the East.

Growing up in the 1980s under Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania, I had never heard a word in school about all these tragedies generated by the Romanian army. Later, when I was in the U.S. studying mathematics in graduate school, I felt that I needed to explain somehow the springs that loaded this medieval machinery implanted in our heads by the Communist education system.

DK: This provided the background for writing Coming from an Off-Key Time?

BS: Yes. I am perfectly aware that I will not make everybody happy with what I say here. But Romanian culture, as well as many other cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, has many intricate innate springs that trigger a medieval way of viewing our neighbour as an enemy. If one is different, then he’s the enemy—this is how the machinery works. Such a state of mind is a perfect ground for crime. With Coming from an Off-Key Time, which is a novel written originally for a Romanian audience, I aimed at our minds: I planned a comedy that would expose us as we are, with all our tribal instincts and our inclination toward placing the tribal interest above any other values, in particular above the value for human life. What I am saying is that I don’t think I could have written this book if I lived in Romania. The awakening took a while and I believe that distance played a part in it. Without this distance, I don’t think I could have written my novel.

DK: In Coming From an Off-Key Time there is a character who was turned into a cat by a secret KGB weapon and is now one of the most effective Romanian Intelligence Service spy. You have written that to understand the humour of the cat is to understand Bucharest. Talk about that.

BS: Before and after 1989, the Romanian secret services conducted extended surveillance on its citizens on a large scale. It’s something that even today the Romanian society has not recovered from its effects. In Bucharest, today, it seems like every week there is another “Watergate” scandal in which we find out about new recordings leaked from the secret service to the mass media. I don’t think there are too many places in this universe where one is watched over the shoulder so much, and where privacy is violated so often.

In my novel I needed to depict this situation in a comic way. It’s an old trick to give an animal human characteristics to generates humor; it’s mentioned in detail in Henri Bergson’t Theory of Laughter. No other animal would better fit the description of a spy that follows one everywhere but a cat. It’s a very dedicated cat, full of patriotic feelings, who reflects all that education from under Ceauşescu, all the machinery of the spying process.

DK: The protagonist of Coming from an Off-Key Time is a tragic figure. His end is at once comic and cruel, and there are echoes of Christ’s death in his passing. Was your intention to compare the Romanian government—who roundly ignored the protagonist even as he gained favour with the public—to the Roman government from two-thousand years ago?

BS: In the novel, Vespasian Moisa is put under trial by a rival sect, not by the government. As he is recovering after the torture, the cat tries to recruit him to serve as informant for the secret services. That yields an implicit analogy between the Roman government from two-thousand years ago and the contemporary Romanian government. Actually, I played a lot with the potential of double level of reading, and I am happy that you noticed it. There are such subtle parallels hidden in the text.

DK: The novel is written in a number of different styles, ranging from the archaic to the modern. What influenced your decision in this area, and how much of this do you feel was transferred (or lost) in translation?

BS: I tried to bring forth in this text the whole Bucharest, that whole mixture of the real and imaginary world, partly grounded in the authentic tradition, partly based on made up claims and political theories, as I have explained above. To create the self-contained environment that the novel needed I had to combine all this rich material in one single substance. The first thirty pages or so are meant to serve as an introduction, where all these divergent pieces of cultural heritage are combined into one single style, delivered by one single voice. The good news is that Alistair Ian Blyth, the translator, is an outstanding specialist in Romanian language and culture and knew very well what he was doing. It is my hope that most of the tongue-in-the-cheek phrases, assisted by the brief but comprehensive notes at the end of the book, retain their meaning. We received great help from the editorial team at Northwestern University Press when we prepared the notes at the end of the book, and while working on this editorial presentation we had in mind English-speaking audiences. We wanted to inform and entertain in the same time. The translator and the copyeditor worked together with myself, which was a great experience. That’s why I hope the novel succeeds for an English-speaking audience: this work stands a fair chance to be completely understood.

DK: You say the novel was written first and foremost for a Romanian audience. Given that English-speaking people in the West are at least somewhat familiar with Communism and its ill-effects, how much can a reader expect to understand in your work? Do they run the risk of losing too much of the meaning?

BS: It may be interesting to see that some English-speaking readers would like to read exactly works that explore this reality. Take for example M.A. Orthofer’s comment for Complete Review, where he wrote that this novel “is an excellent example of what a foreign reader might hope for in a specifically ‘contemporary Romanian novel’: inward-looking (in contrast to so much of the current Eastern European fiction that is fixated on comparisons to the west) and, though modern, strongly rooted in local tradition (literary as well as otherwise).” I loved reading this comment. It’s true that it depends a lot on whether the reader is willing to bed forward and accept a viewpoint developed from another literary tradition. I have already had the chance to discuss with students who read this book at several North American universities (Columbia University or University of Texas at Dallas) and to visit departments with strong programs in Romanian studies (as for example the program at Arizona State University), which has given me a positive feeling about Coming From an Off-Key Time‘s potential to be understood.

DK: Finally, you have mentioned authors from the past such as Jaroslav Hašek and Karel Čapek as being important unknowns to American readers, as well as contemporary writers such as Filip Florian, Lucian Dan Teodorovici and Alta Ifland. I would add to those names Mircea Cărtărescu and Anca Cristofovici as great writers waiting to be discovered in English. Who is writing in Romanian right now that the American reader should get excited about?

BS: I should add here that essential readings for anyone interested in Eastern Europe are the Soviet authors Ilya Ilf and Evgeni Petrov. The most important Romanian author today is Norman Manea, whose novel Hooligan’s Return received several international distinctions. One of my favourite authors is Radu Aldulescu, whose realistic novels express a special sense of tragic. I like very much the social fables and profound metaphors used by Florina Ilis, Petru Cimpoeșu, Liviu Bîrsan and Petre Barbu. Perhaps the most lucid observer of the Romanian world is Răzvan Petrescu, and I’d like to see more of his works translated outside Romania. A very interesting novel of the first wave of the exiles after 1990 was written by Radu Jorgensen over a decade ago, while the author was still living in Sweden. A very original writer with an excellent dramatic instinct is Răzvan Rădulescu, who wrote the scripts of excellent movies like The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu and The Paper Will Be Blue. There is a lot of good quality Romanian prose that still awaits to be discovered by the interested audience outside Romania. Perhaps the new culture of the book, the one generated by the new technological advancements, will allow some space for literature in translation. I am hopeful we’ll find a way toward that.