Short Story Review – Simonetta Olivo – Microverses (trans. Sarah Jane Webb)

Oh now, I do like this.  Let me wear my opinion on my sleeve, hold up my affection right here at the start.  I am very fond of stories such as these – clever, twisted, turning, playful with the structure of a story without being tiresome in its trickery.  Take everything I write with a large grain of salt because I am, it appears, congenitally disposed towards like such fictions as this.

We open with the heading “Panic”, and then:

There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. Just like in fairy tales, she had thought, slowing her pace, beautiful and sad. And so unlike today’s desolation: everything looks naked, cold, inanimate.

A woman, nature, mountains, snow.  The beauty of nature.  Yes, yes.  Two paragraphs later, the sky explodes and the world ends.

Another section, also opening with mountains, snow, a woman.  It begins calmly and then a sting at the end – a date far in the future, a reference to robots, and to humanity being dead.

Another section, another repeat.  What’s happening here?  On the cusp of this becoming tiresome, the woman is extracted from these scenarios, revealed to have been logged into some kind of virtual reality or Matrix-like environment.

Very good, very good.  Ha ha, quite the twist you put me through there, Simonetta Olivo!  The woman wants to go back into the simulation and her partner (lover?) puts her back in, though he has misgivings.  Is she losing her self to the simulation?  We don’t know, because we don’t spend enough time with her outside of the snowy mountainous world.  That suggests that yes, she’s losing her identity.

Another section, this time titled ‘Making Universes’.  The snow, again, and mountains, again, but this time written in italics.  This is a shift for us, and it’s unclear what it might mean.

The world tilts, and we are taken out of the simulation to arrive not with the disgruntled man who wants his lover back with him and unhooked from the machine, but the writer herself, the creator of the text, a layer placed upon the other layers. She acknowledges that her task is to create universes, and the story ends.

There’s so much here in so few words.  It’s quite astonishing, particularly given how Olivo refrains from succumbing to overblown terminology or the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to create.  Instead it’s simply there, clear on the page.  I become tired, sometimes, of writers who play games with structure and form also overburdening their text with the weight of the thesauruses they have purchased.

So, what does it mean to participate in a created world, and to create a world?  Olivo doesn’t say, but it’s clear that the woman in the story has given up on the world she properly exists in in order to spend time in a doomed place where humanity is extinct and robots have survived.  And isn’t that, in a way, what a writer does every time they sit down at their desk and conjure up people and places that never existed?  Isn’t it, no matter how closely hewn to the essence of humanity, a rejection of living?  Does a writer truly live in the world, or do they instead consciously separate themselves from it in order to dispassionately observe the world created by others?  I would say yes, emphatically so, and would be surprised to find much resistance.  Writers may not create a utopia in which to devote their intellectual and emotional talents, but they certainly attempt to reflect back to the readers their vision and understanding of the world, and in this reflection we are able to better determine who they are, too.

And we don’t need to like what we see, do we?

Microverses is a short story by Italian writer Simonetta Olivo and was translated by Sarah Jane Webb.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Simonetta Olivo
Title Microverses
Translator Sarah Jane Webb
Nationality Italian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

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I Remember – #980

I remember the wooden gate at the top of the external staircase at our home which had three rusted nails in it, three nails that liked to loosen and protrude every few days and which made closing the gate challenging.  And on top of that, we put up with this hassle for – three years before fixing it?  All we needed was a few new nails and a hammer.  Our ability to become accustomed to minor irritations is astounding.

-28 May 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #979

I remember the British television show, Coupling, which my father absolutely loved.  It started, I think, quite strong, and then fell into a morass of dirty jokes and innuendo which, instead of coming across as subversive and clever instead felt forced and juvenile.

-27 May 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Short Story Review – Vladimir Poleganov – The Feather (trans. Peter Bachev)

My last few letters–five, to be precise–went unanswered and the sixth one . . . well, it was certainly not the response I’d been hoping for or anticipating

Without becoming too overblown about such things, a work of literature is a written act of inclusion and exclusion.  It must be – all texts are.  The author writes and not y in service of their intention and their art.  Clearly, clearly.  The author may be dead, but words must still be chosen, and here we are.

A clear example of this is Vladimir Poleganov’s The Feather (Trans. Peter Bachev), which is a series of letters written by the protagonist to ‘X’.  We are not privy to the responses, and indeed know nothing about X other than the details provided by the unnamed protagonist.  While X does not respond to all of the letters, its clear they do respond to some, and we don’t properly learn their perspective on events, read their words, know their side.

So what, then, do we make of such a text?  It is clearly an exercise of bias, and absolutely must be one-sided.  The letter-writer is not well, it seems, vacillating between affection and disappointment, admonishments and lectures on birds and on memory.  There is an ill-defined ‘they’ referred to which reads to me as medical staff, or caretakers.

I am sorry for that time I called you up at four in the morning, to complain, to talk to . . . someone, really, about how the unknown . . . the unknowable bird’s dark silhouette tortured and terrified me every time I closed my eyes: its blackness, the Feather itself–a single bright spot bringing the vortex of void around it into even sharper relief. Here, it no longer holds power over me. I still see it, perhaps not quite as clearly, in the corner of my eye from time to time, like a diorama of death or a small shadow, a haze, rather, of suppressed desire, but it doesn’t jump out at me anymore, from the depths of my subconscious, indifferent to my frantic attempts to pull myself out of its invisible, murderous tide.

The letter-writer defers explanation, defers telling, and prefers instead to tangle themselves with words far more grandiose than their subject requires.  Why?  Well, because they are avoiding talking about that which truly matters to them, a history between X and themselves which is alluded to but never entirely elucidated.  And why should it be?  I would not lay out my life story in a letter I am writing, because the person receiving it should know.

What this means, then, is that we shift from obsessive detail about birds to lamentations of guilt and exhortations for X to be kinder, be better, be faster at responding, be clearer with their words.  The letter-writer is not well.

In the mid-point of the story the letters attain a higher sense of clarity, become more formal and less epic in scope.  They assume the character of two professors discussing their specialty, sparring gently with their words, leaving enough of a barb in to sting but not cut.

At night, on the other hand, be it due to phosphorus residues or by magic, the graveyard bathes in a light that some may call ghostly, but to me looks more sub-­marine. Whenever I come here after dark, I feel like I’ve just sunk to the bottom of a crisp mountain lake. I look up at the stars, barely visible through the greenish light haze, and all I see is the eyes of some predator, come to hunt at the watering place. I once met an old woman, an augur, negotiating her way across the overgrown alleyways, looking for small bones suitable for divination. It is an art well­-preserved in Avinia and people really believe in it still. I didn’t dare ask her anything, even mundane things like whether it is hard to collect enough bones for a whole session, or what birds carry the brightest futures under their feathers and flesh. I just watched her for a while, her feet dancing between the fragile skeletons, collecting the white letters of tomorrow’s histories.

And then the tone shifts once more, and we wonder if these letters are being written to anyone at all, and might perhaps instead be for the letter-writer themselves, used as an act of cleansing, to explain yourself to yourself.  They become too internal, too intimate, too closely hewn to the endless inner dialogue of a person’s mind.  Why write this, if not to determine what it is, exactly, that is inside your own brain?  We are thinking creatures, but we don’t always know exactly what it is we are thinking about until we can hear ourselves.

I think the use of birds as a way to tie the letters together works, though for me – and this is purely a personal aside – I do not care for birds, so some parts fell flat.  But conceptually it is quite clever.  At times, Poleganov is able to be quite academic in his writing, almost scientific in his literary coldness; and at other times birds are metaphors for life, for death, for travel.  These shifts are bracing and rather effective, but.  But.  Again.  I don’t like birds.

Which makes me the problem here.  Just a touch.

Though I do like the way the story ends with an ‘I’m sorry’.

The Feather is a short story by Bulgarian writer Vladimir Poleganov and was translated by Peter Bachev.  You can read the story at The Brooklyn Rail.

Author Vladimir Poleganov
Title The Feather
Translator Peter Bachev
Nationality Bulgarian
Publisher The Brooklyn Rail

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

I Remember – #976

I remember attempting, by the current count of my failures, Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers.  Four times.  Four times, and four times a-failin’.  My lack of interest in ancient Egyptian history is so strong that I find anything set during that time period extremely difficult to read as my eyes slide off the page.  How I ever managed to finish Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings I will never understand (the cover of the copy I owned compared it favourably to Gravity’s Rainbow.  In no way is this comparison appropriate, and is in fact extremely unkind to Thomas Pynchon).

-24 May 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.