Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – A Room on the Abyss

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.

Fox is six, and though he understands that he is “life’s chosen one”, he doesn’t know why or what he is supposed to do.  His father has gone – vanished.  Not dead, not sick, just gone.  He lives at a boarding house where he goes to school.  He has red hair, which he dislikes because the other children tease him, and he can’t read.  His life isn’t miserable as such, but he doesn’t exactly enjoy it very much.  He believes that the day he learns to read is the day he can lose himself in books.

And that, all told, is that.  Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Room on the Abyss is a brief story outlining a young boy’s awakening from his socially and physically awkward “real life”, to the potent and heady wonders of the literary life.  It’s a nice story, a little saggy in the middle, but sweet, and Fox seems like a nice enough boy.  But compared with the other stories in the A Life on Paper collection, it doesn’t quite compare.

Fox’s boarding school contains N’Mambo, a child who may or may not be the King (or Crown Prince) of Tanganyika.  There is also the Turk, who is as strong as a Turk, and something of a bully.  There are Indians with scalped heads who bleed in the corner.  Are these characters real?  Well, the children are.  But perhaps their additional qualities are not.  Fox possesses an active imagination which, combined with his utter assurance that he has been chosen by life (but for what?), means that anyone he comes into contact with must, by definition of Fox’s life, be important and special.

He wonders, argues with himself: c’mon, he’s got nothing to fear, life would warn him if it was going to stop choosing him!  In any case, he’d have to make a lot of mistakes – worse, and bigger ones – for it to stop playing secret favourites.

Later, Fox learns from the Turk how to read a few short sentences, and his life is upended.  He realises that this is why he has been “chosen by life” – it is to read.  Or, rather, unspoken by Fox but implied by his behaviour and strength of imagination, he is supposed to be a writer.  It is clear to the reader (though not yet to him) that he will become a writer as an adult, and in fact his wild imaginings in the schoolyard are his immature attempts to create a coherent narrative to support the actions of his life and the lives around him.

…But today he knows how to read [a yellow book selected from a bookshelf].  He repeats the incredible words to himself: Today I know how to read! So the day does come when eyes are opened and secrets revealed, when order comes to chaos…Fox nods.  How many such dawnings does a life hold?  Can you die without having your fair share, without fathoming the marvellous truth?

And it’s nice, really, to read a story such as this.  Fox is, for all his creativity, a nice boy, and sweet.   Châteaureynaud writes the story with the kind of words that Fox would understand, and his sentence structure remains simplistic throughout.  There is a kind of measured, rhythmic nature to the sentences, and all of the characters’ emotions are well-telegraphed in advance and clearly stepped through – exactly like a story for a child.  As a concept, A Room on the Abyss is successful, but the story itself is about 3 pages too long, and some of the sequences – such as an extended fight scene, or an argument with N’Mambo about him being a King – feel unnecessary and unfocused.  I liked the story, but I wasn’t as impressed or awed as I have felt with most of the other stories from A Life on Paper.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title A Room on the Abyss
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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Short Story Review – Helena Drysdale – Ana, Camil, Niculina, and Me

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.

Have you ever had a friend you haven’t seen in a while, a long time, years perhaps, and then for whatever reason you see them again and they are utterly different?  Perhaps a friend you knew when you were eighteen, when your hair was long, your dreams were huge, and your capacity to accept business, politics, compromise, dullness, was tiny?  The sort of friend who was always up for a drinking session, who would discuss some rebel figure from some war-torn corner of the world, who voted as left as he possibly could?  And then, five years later, ten years later, did you meet him again, easy now that Facebook exists, and find that he is a father, a manager at a company, a quiet person who retires early on Friday and Saturday night, whose idea of “too much to drink” is a second beer after work?  And weren’t you more than a little disappointed that he’d changed so much, even though you were exactly the same?

Helena Drysdale’s short story, Ana, Camil, Niculina, and Me is a story about exactly the above, though with an obvious feminine slant.  The four (three girls and a boy) of the story were adventurers, wanderers, three of them Romanian, the narrator English, and oh, the fun they had!  But they were young and, after a time, they separated.  Communication was difficult because of the political problems between East and West Europe, and after a while they lost touch.  But then, in the story’s present, which is a little after the fall of Ceauşescu, there is an opportunity to reunite.  The narrator visits Romania and – they all have grey hair now.  They are all married now.  The all have children now.  And it’s disappointing, because did they really overthrow the dictator just to become middle-aged like every other generation before them?

But of course they did.  People have a habit of growing older.  Sad to say, but it’s true, and what’s perhaps most amazing about this is that we are all disappointed in everyone else for growing so old.  But what about us?  Wouldn’t it be a shock if they thought that about me?  But of course, they do.

Helena Drysdale’s story explores the sadness of ageing, but what’s most interesting about her story is that it does so through the prism of Ceauşescu’s fall and Romania’s attempt at rebirthing itself.  Not only are the girls “supposed” to have been the same as they ever were – bright, young, hopeful, dreaming, energetic, beautiful – but so was Romania.  This was the country’s time to shine!  Only it wasn’t, and the disappointment is reflected in the pollution of the cheap cars and the dullness of everyone’s grey hair.   

The story ends with Camil, the sole male from the group, commenting on Romania’s situation.  He says that, even though their children (who – unbelievable – are the same age now as they all were when the story started) have mostly left Romania, for him it was important to stay there because it was the only way to “restore the link with his own past”.  He recognises, however, that this link is,

…like a rope when it’s broken, you re-tie it, and there’s always a knot.  The rope’s never the same again.

And that is a sad indictment of both Romania’s chance of, and failure to achieve, a better future.  It could have been so much more, and we could have stayed young forever.  But we didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Author Helena Drysdale
Title Ana, Camil, Niculina, and Me
Nationality British
Publisher Bucharest Tales

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

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.

Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – The Guardicci Masterpiece

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.

The Guardicci masterpiece is not a painting nor a book, nor a play, or sculpture, or poem, or song.  No, the masterpiece is two eyes, lifelike – more than lifelike, perhaps alive, living even.  And those eyes are embedded within a human mummy, a female, young, perhaps beautiful.

The narrator is thirty-five and lives alone.  He has become accustomed to the bachelor life, though he knows a woman, Delia, with whom he sometimes shares his bed.  He is a translator, which means he works from home, and his house is filled with books and manuscripts.  He has a quite life, not destitute but hardly rich, but he is content.

One day, on a whim, he finds himself inside a store which sells all manner of strange items and objects.  The strangest is a female human mummy.  He is drawn to the mummy first because of its uniqueness and the faint whiff of the illicit, but then because of the mummy’s eyes – the eyes created by Guardicci.

The mummy costs far beyond his means, but the translator buys it anyway.  He is drawn primarily to the beauty of the mummy’s eyes, but also to the inherent sadness of a young girl mummified for the sake of – what?  Art?  Science?  Commerce?

Late one night he is woken by the sound of a beautiful song.  He stumbles about his books in search of the source, to discover that the mummy is singing:

The singing didn’t stop when the mask fell away. Had she noticed a difference? Could she even do so? Nothing led me to believe she could. Her expression hadn’t changed, her gaze was fixed as ever, mysterious as I’d always known it to be. It was just that her thin lips were moving, rounding or flattening to form words that didn’t make any sense to me. What breath, from what oblivion, lent her life? But did I myself even know why I was here in this world? I hadn’t the slightest, but did my best to accept my condition. In her way, this creature shared that condition of being alive. None of the rest was any of my business.

Is she alive, then, or dead?  Dead, surely.  She has no organs, her body is bandaged, her heart no longer beats.  And yet each night she sings, the music wafting eerily through the translator’s small rooms, sometimes early at night and sometimes late, but always she sings.  And then, after a while, she starts to move.

She lived the way a lamp flickers. She was rather more like a battery, in fact, a depleted battery sporadically calling on its last reserves.

This first half of the story is devoted entirely to the growing awareness of the translator that the mummy he has bought is even more than she initially seems.  He never becomes attracted to her physically, but he is certainly enamoured with her as she slowly jerks into life.  We share the translator’s experience of discovering the secrets of the mummified girl as she sings, and then moves, and then interacts with the world once more.  The translator is curious, intelligent, and willing to wait and see what this new phase of his life will bring.

And then the narrator’s lover, Delia, enters the story, and the whole thing falls apart.

It’s really quite amazing how far this story falls, and how quickly.  Delia meets the mummy and a rivalry is formed, and then the story devolves into a series of almost slapstick situations as the mummy and the girlfriend battle it out for the affections of the translator.  He remains aloof from the battle, more concerned with trying to understand the mysteries of the mummy, but the two “girls” fight it out with all the cleverness of an American sitcom.  It’s an exceptionally bizarre change of tone, and one that does not sit well at all when compared with the rest of Châteaureynaud’s fiction.

Perhaps Châteaureynaud can’t do love well.  Or jealousy.  Or the interplay of a man and two women who desire him (one sexually, one – well, we aren’t sure in what way).  But what he can do well is extract the extraordinary from the ordinary, and keep a mystery alive.  It’s when he turns his attention away from these that his fiction becomes unsatisfying.  The Guardicci Masterpiece begins so well, with such a strong initial premise, that it’s all the more terrible when the whole thing falls into catastrophe.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title The Guardicci Masterpiece
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

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

Short Story Review – Eduardo Halfon – Good Women and Bad Women

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.

Eduardo Halfon’s Good Women and Bad Women (translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn) describes an experience all too familiar to young men of a certain age.  Two brothers, young but not as young as their parents thought, find a stash of pornographic magazines, which is in turn found by their mother, who questions them aggressively.  It’s a simple concept done well, though the tension built by the concept of good and bad women never really comes together.

The pieces are in place.  The narrator, probably about 14 of 15, is old enough to be curious about it all without actually knowing how men and women work together physically – or, for that matter, emotionally.  His parent’s bumbling attempts to talk about the magazines are endearing to the reader but confusing to the narrator, who would really rather just be left alone.  We can understand the parent’s concern, particularly because these magazines are not the air-brushed fakery of Playboy or Hustler:

…a much more explicit porn: leather and ropes and chains and double-penetrations and the cucumbers of a gorgeous brunette who, unforgettably, was called Marian the Vegetarian and who it took us a while to understand what she was doing there.

I can’t speak for Guatemala (where Halfon was born), but these days young boys do not discover the charms of naked women through ill-gotten magazines or photographs shared behind the back shed at high school.  No, the Internet exists now, which gives this story the curious feel of a period piece.  It’s a historical relic, even though Halfon himself is still quite young.  A young boy is far more likely to be discovered visiting websites he “shouldn’t” (I will leave that decision up to his respective parents) instead of browsing through magazines stuffed guiltily under his bed once the deed has been done.  Indeed, both in the original Spanish and in Hahn’s translated version, the “seventies curtains” of the dining room are explicitly noted, which indicates, to me at least, that Halfon is aware that his story has passed into history.

Does that, then, mean that “good” and “bad” women no longer exist as they did?  Are all women capable of interacting with vegetables?  Or are they all now good?  Or has the distinction vanished?  Halfon doesn’t provide an answer, and what’s perhaps more frustrating is that he doesn’t really do much with the question.  The narrator’s father attempts to explain, but this is taken care of in a sentence, and doesn’t really illuminate the issue.  Were women able to be catagorised into good women and bad women in the past, but no longer?  Was that sexist or wrong and the way things are now, is that better or desirable?  Or the opposite?  We don’t know, Halfon doesn’t say – and nor does he really provide sufficient material with which the reader can elaborate upon the question.

Good Women and Bad Women feels like a piece taken from a larger story, a slice of something that, while interesting, only works properly when viewed as part of the larger whole.  The broad strokes of the narrator’s life – his fondness for the Beatles, the “perfect” dining room which is the only room in the house where his mother can smoke, the slight descriptive touches of the house’s rooms which serve to add depth to the story – promise to add up to something, but that something seems to occur a chapter or two later in a book that hasn’t yet been written.  Take the following:

I noticed that my mother, perhaps out of shame, had closed the dining room curtains. Very seventies curtains, white background with large yellow and orange circles. Just like the tablecloth. The chairs were fiberglass: white, oval, modern, their cushions also alternating orange and yellow. On the table there were two silver ashtrays, round and solid, one with an orange rim and the other with a yellow rim. My mother spent a lot of time in that perfectly matched dining room. It was the only place in the house where my father would let her smoke.

Where does it lead? It comes from one of the larger paragraphs in the story, but there’s not much that can be done with.  An image is created – vivid in its own way, suggestive of personality without actually revealing much (an admirable skill) – but dropped and forgotten.

It all adds up to a frustrating experience.  The concept of “good women” and “bad women” isn’t fleshed out enough (by virtue of the character’s ages and lack of further experience) to be wholly satisfying and, again, while this could act as a springboard to something larger, it doesn’t.  That Halfon can write isn’t the discussion.  That he has touched on an interesting concept isn’t the issue, either.  The problem lies in that nothing much is done with it.

Author Eduardo Halfon
Title Good Women and Bad Women
Translator Daniel Hahn
Nationality Guatemalan
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – The Beautiful Coalwoman

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.

The Beautiful Coalwoman is one of the longest stories in Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper, and arguably also the least satisfying.  It is a story of anticipation – our anticipation – and the payoff, when it arrives, is slim.  The story layers mystery on mystery, and then ends abruptly with the death of the protagonist, with both his, and our, questions left unanswered.

The protagonist is a wandering knight.  He is far from home, and during the course of his long years he has participated in many a battle.  He seeks lodging in the house of an old peasant who, as they are swapping stories, tells him of the “coalwoman”, a woman who makes coal on a nearby island to sell to the villagers and other locals.  The old man remembers seeing her when he was young, and at that time she would have been little more than a child.  He says also that the description of her from others indicate that she is still extremely young, and beautiful.

The knight scoffs at these stories – how could she still be young after sixty years? – but he has travelled enough of the world to know that the extraordinary can often exist alongside ordinary, and that sometimes the stories are true.  He goes to investigate and, after some exploration of the island, finds (or, more accurately, is found by) a beautiful young woman, her face and body smudged with coal.

The knight stays on the island for many years, almost without realising that time is passing.  He never finds the woman, but is always found by her, and quite often when they are together they are together as man and wife – and yet he knows they are not.  She also has a habit of disappearing when the conversation touches on unpleasant topics, and very often she speaks in riddles.

The story continues, fleshing out the knight’s time on the island.  He talks with men who visit the island to buy coal.  He wanders.  He searches for the woman, but never finds her.  Finally, when he realises he is old, he attempts to leave the island, but instead dies after the island, which had been experiencing a pleasant autumn, turns suddenly to a vicious winter.  His last actions involve him discovering a cottage and, by the cottage, two enormous oak trees which he has never seen before.  And then he is dead, and the story ends.

But to what purpose?  The coalwoman remains a mystery.  She declares she does not love him, but she is willing to make the world a wasteland for him – and this seems to come to pass.  Gradually, there is no longer any indication of other people or settlements.  Gradually, the concept of time fades from the knight’s mind.  Things change but the impression is that of stasis.  Decay is rife, but so, too, is petrification.

The Beautiful Coalwoman takes a large amount of words to say very little.  It is unclear what, exactly, is happening between the coalwoman and the knight, but in a smaller story these mysteries are acceptable.  Such literary devices weaken when they are extended too long, which is certainly the case here.  Mysteries become frustrations, and intrigue turns stale, when they are stretched passed their welcome.  The story is fourteen pages where it should have been perhaps eight, and consequently the sensation of it, the metaphors used and the strength of the setting, feel flimsy and worn out.

Perhaps it’s me.  I have a strong distaste for knights, castles, mysterious peasant woman, and the like.  In a contemporary setting, such things appeal – but in medieval Europe?  For whatever reason, no.  I consider that an author generally relies too heavily on the readers sense of wonder for, and understanding of, the time period, and because of this can do away with character development, scene setting, or general atmosphere.  And that is what I think has happened here in The Beautiful Coalwoman, which, to me, depends upon my appreciation of the time period and its inherently mysterious nature (in terms of what is known to science and what is known to the unexplained forces).  I do not appreciate these things, and I want more than a wholly unexplained mystery from a lengthy story such as this.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title The Beautiful Coalwoman
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

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

Short Story Review – Dejana Dimitrijević – The Cover

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.

I used to think that I would get married and have a family. I thought it it would happen naturally, all by itself. When you reached such and such an age you simply got married and then had children. Like a pattern. You just followed it. A stitch here, a stitch there, and you get a blouse. But it seems this isn’t so.

I’ll admit it from the outset – I don’t crochet, haven’t crotched before, and am unlikely to do so in the future.  For the narrator of Dejana Dimitrijević’s The Cover crotchets quite often within her circle of friends.  They make useful things – clothing, caps, blouses, doilies.  Sometimes they make money from selling them, but often not.  The circle is, as can perhaps be expected, more a social circle than anything – they talk, they gossip, they watch television.  And sometimes crocheting occurs.

And yet, and yet.  And yet.  The narrator is different.  Where the others watch a soap opera and see the drama, she sees the gardens and the flowers.  Where the others talk about handsome men and troublesome husbands, the narrator’s closest friend, Smilja, sees only her work.  They are the true crocheters.

The story opens as a diary.  The narrator is upset, though we don’t yet know why.  She wants to set it all down before she forgets (though that will never happen), and so that she can make sense of what has occurred (though that, too, will never happen).  Something has gone wrong.

Things start innocently.  A good third of the story is taken up with introducing the circle of crocheting ladies, and then they vanish from the scene as soon as a competition – the Christmas Crochet Contest – is discovered by Smilja.  She wants to win her own pre-fabricated house; the newspaper within which the competition is announced includes a very strange, very large, crochet pattern.

And so Smilja begins.  The two crochet together, though the narrator never helps Smilja. Instead, she mostly observes.  At first, Smilja is able to bring the gradually expanding work – soon named The Cover – to the narrator’s house, but after a while the narrator must go to Smilja’s place, as The Cover becomes too large.

Time passes.  Christmas passes and then, all of a sudden, Smilja is found dead, The Cover is gone, and any detail of the competition has vanished.  What has happened?  Nobody knows, but the narrator thinks that, instead of the competition resulting in a winner in any meaningful sense, a person who successfully crochets The Cover becomes a part of it and vanishes from the ordinary mortal realm.

Dimitrijević knows, of course, that the art of crocheting is not in and of itself an inherently frightening art.  Her choice to present the story as a kind of diary told after and during the creation of The Cover serves to chronicle Smilja’s growing obsession, and also her slow slipping away from the physical world.  Smilja becomes, not quite incorporeal, but almost, her personality falling away, her physicality becoming slimmer and sleeker and more see-through.  While crocheting is not a particularly frightening concept, obsession certainly is, and what’s more, obsession is surely known by most everyone.  We may not exactly understand Smilja’s fascination with crocheting, but we understand her fascination with having something to be fascinated with.

The Cover ends predictably but satisfyingly nonetheless.  The narrator wishes to follow Smilja to wherever she has gone, and has begun to furiously practice crocheting in order to be able to complete her own version of The Cover.  While this is an expected ending, it works, and plays into the idea that it is the obsession that is important, and not the activity itself.

Author Dejana Dimitrijević
Title The Cover
Translator Alice Copple-Tosić
Nationality Serbian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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