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

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

Short Story Review – Luís Romano – Old Isidoro (trans. Jeff Hessney)

Beware the vengeance of a discomforted priest.

Isidoro is a stinking old man, homeless, a beggar, and perhaps evil.  It is said that

at night he turned into a spirit and that during the day he hid in cliffside caves where no one could come near him. Others swore he stole children’s souls on the seventh day after they’d been given birth.

The rumour of his misfortune and turn to evil is that he was excommunicated by a priest.  An old lady gives the story to the narrator, explaining that Isidoro was once rich and fortunate, but things turned sour on the night of his wedding.

What happened?  Well, he was out at midnight, and so was the priest who was to bless the marriage.  In his enthusiasm, he shot a gun into the air which spooked the priest’s mule, who bolted and fell off a cliff, drowning the priest.

But not before he hurled a curse at the man who had frightened his animal.

And so, because priests have power, Isidoro went from riches to rags, literally cursed via the power of Christ.

“The priest’s body disappeared forever, and to this day his malediction still pursues Isidoro, now a tortured soul, forever doing penance in this world of tribulations because of a curse sworn before dawn by a priest, the rightful representative of Jesus Christ on Earth, at the moment of his death, in the times when we on the Island believed in the Devil’s doings and in the power, art, and cunning of that Beast . . . by the sign of the Holy Cross . . . LUCIFER!”

Romano confuses the power of Christ and Lucifer, and clearly has sympathy for Isidoro, who was punished too much for what was, in effect, a tragic accident.  He doesn’t quite go far enough as to expressly write this sympathy into the characters, leavening the criticism of the priest with hints that Isidoro had learned witchcraft in his travels, and perhaps because of this, somewhat deserved his fate.

Is it fair to be punished so?  Does fairness come into the machinations of good and evil?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we are unable to understand completely how an act could be good or ill when seen through the prisms of such elemental forces.  The story itself is not long enough to address these concerns, but they are there, and the lack of judgement over Isidoro’s actions, and criticism of the priest’s, sends a pretty clear message.

This is the first short story I’ve read from Cape Verde, and certainly the first translated from the Santo Antão dialect of the Cabo Verdean language.  The footnotes alone suggest that there are layers to this piece that I am unaware of.  This comes from the May 2020 Words Without Borders magazine, and perhaps now will herald the start of more literature arriving in English?  Time will tell.

Old Isidoro is a short story by Cabo Verdean writer Luís Romano, translated by Jeff Hessney.  

Author Luís Romano
Title Old Isidoro
Translator Jeff Hessney
Nationality Cabo Verdean
Publisher Words Without Borders

 

Short Story Review – Jean Back – European Clouds (trans. Sandra Schmit)

At some point I am going to realise that these stories exist to celebrate or critique the EU, and not necessarily because they possess independent literary merit.  At some point.

Our narrator is off to the supermarket to buy some provisions for a barbecue.  He accidentally locks his keys in his car on the way out, listen to accordion music, hears a racist conversation, then goes home.  This is told in a style that is a mix of onomatopoeia, stream of consciousness, associative thoughts, descriptions.  It’s quick, sharp, short, effective but a bit grating.  The narrator gets on your nerves even though there really isn’t much personality to speak of.  And then there are bits like this –

Two minutes from home with the car. Ordinary, but practical,
that supermarket. Good. It is a clear autumn day. Just like on
9/11 in Manhattan, at eight o’clock in the morning. The sun
had been shining just before. Like now, bright, but not warm.

Yikes, where did that reference come from?  It isn’t brought up again, and nothing in the story itself seems in any way related to 9/11.  I was actually shocked to read it and my mind kind of tumbled over it, tripped.  What’s it doing there?

Out of sheer laziness I stay next to the lamppost, looking and waiting and listening to the man playing the accordion, because I like accordion music, because that kind of music reminds me of René de Bernardi, at the erstwhile dancing club Beim Heuertz: dance parties, thé dansant, smootch slow and English Waltz. And also reminds me of Astor Piazzolla.

Some references are more neatly placed into the text, but as we can see from the above, and the next two quoted paragraphs, what is happening here is the narrator inserting the cosmopolitan nature of the EU into the story.  Back is adding worldliness without putting in the hard work, as these concepts aren’t engaged with, just written down.  I could do it, you could do it – throw in five musicians/writers/cheeses/wine varieties/chemists from around the world.  Five anything.  Are you sophisticated now?  Probably not.  It takes a touch more.  you need to do something with these words.

Don’t do this

What nationality are the clouds? Are they French, when they’re hovering over the Elysée? Spanish, when they’re hanging over Seville? What does a Swiss cloud look like? A Belgian one? Are the clouds
Portuguese when they drift over Dudelange? Luxembourgish,
when they arrive in Porto?

I mean like, maybe they are?  Maybe clouds have a nationality and maybe they are clouds and the idea is a human construct and it is ridiculous to place such an idea on to a non-human aerosol consisting of a visible mass of minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body or similar space (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The above is the kind of thought I would hope a sixteen year old stoner would have, but an eighteen year old stoner would not.  They should have moved on by then to like, how, you know, death affects us all and everyone you can see is a walking corpse.  Man.

Also on today’s barbecue menu: three bottles of Chianti, two
packs of olives from Portugal, one Romanian brandy and at
five o’clock there’s Barça playing against Red Bull Salzburg.
Olé!

Perhaps I am being unfair.  I wouldn’t mind so much if there was more to the story, but the above paragraphs represent about a fifth of the total story.  There’s not much here, so why this?  What is it adding to the discourse of what it means to be European?  It is true, no doubt, that any one country is unable or unwilling to meet the entirety of its citizen’s needs, and that there are significant benefits to free trade and the movement of good, ideas, peoples.  This is something to explore.

But listing items and attaching a nationality isn’t doing that.  There isn’t enough here for this story.  The clouds aren’t impressed, man – they’re crying.

European Clouds is a short story by Luxembourger writer Jean Back, translated by Sandra Schmit.  

Author Jean Back
Title European Clouds
Translator Sandra Schmit
Nationality Luxembourger
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

Short Story Review – Rubem Fonseca – Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers)

We’ve all been there.  Long day, work that won’t stay at the office, briefcase or bag bulging with papers, reports, briefs.  Things to do.  Maybe you have a wife, maybe you don’t.  Maybe children, maybe not.  Maybe a maid who can serve a meal French style, maybe your maid can only copy the English.  I don’t know.

And maybe you relax by taking the car out late in the night and perfectly executing a hit and run.

Rubem Fonseca’s short story, Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers), is pleasingly banal until it becomes something else entirely.  Fonseca plays it straight, outlining an ordinary evening for our middle-aged narrator, who seems pleasant enough, though he is worn down from work and the needs of his family.  Relatable, I suppose.

The usual house sounds: my daughter in her room practicing voice modulation, quadraphonic music from my son’s room.  “Why don’t you put down that suitcase?” my wife asked.  “Take off those clothes, have a nice glass of whiskey.  You’ve got to learn to relax.”

The evening is built, piece by piece, across two very ordinary pages.  The narrator lets slip no hints as to his later adventure, and isn’t even all that glum or miserable about his life.  A son who asks for money during the coffee course – sure.  A daughter who asks for money during the liqueur course – sure.  These are middle-class issues, but nothing out of the ordinary.

A couple of hundred words later and the narrative shifts.  Details increase and time slows down.  Fonseca takes his time here, luxuriating in the description of the car hitting a woman out running.

I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg – a perfect hit.  I heard the impact break the large bones, veered rapidly to the left, shot narrowly past one of the trees, and, tires squealing, skidded back onto the asphalt… I could see that the woman’s broken body had come to rest, covered with blood, on top of the low wall in front of a house.”

Here is a man who takes pride in his work.  Contrast with the quoted paragraph above.  The “usual” house sounds versus the “perfect hit”.  It’s clear as to which part of his life he takes seriously, or where he becomes most alive.  Few people in the world, he muses, “could match my skill driving such a car”.

It’s a fine opening story.  Short enough to keep the reader going, but there’s a lot here.  How this will compare with the remaining stories is something we will find out together, but I leave you with this, a quote from the front cover of the book:

Each of Fonseca’s books is not only a worthwhile journey; it is also, in some way, a necessary one.

From our very own Thomas Pynchon.

Night Drive is a short story by Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford E. Landers.  

Author Rubem Fonseca
Title Night Drive (from The Taker and Other Stories)
Translator Clifford E. Landers
Nationality Brazilian
Publisher Open Letter Books

 

Short Story Review – Najwa Binshatwan – The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain)

An enticing concept for a short story can romance me to go just about anywhere the author pleases.  Najwa Binshatwan’s story, The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain), sees a group of mental hospital patients, all old men, as they grapple with the sea near their hospital having suddenly vanished – gone to Malta.

Okay, from there you can take me anywhere and I’m happy to go.

Why, one individual wonders, would the sea have gone to Malta?  It has no relatives there.  Another person marvels at the garbage hidden underneath the water, the wreckages and dead bodies and discard junk.  We were swimming in that?

“Now that the sea’s run away, what we couldn’t see before is now in broad daylight,” added another.
“Dead fish, migrant bodies, and all sorts of garbage. Before, the surface was swollen with jellyfish, sea turtles, and boats abandoned by those who’d decided to travel by foot instead.”

And

“Of course it drowned, a painful death. Just look at all the migrant bodies that filled it up, and still there was no drainage system installed. Just look at all that trash and sewage.”

There’s a lot to like here.  The narrative is played straight but the people speaking are clearly bonkers.  Has the sea truly vanished, or are they just held back by a sign which admonishes them not to swim in the water?  The sea is “Under maintenance”, which sends the patients into paroxysms of confusion.  What they fail to realise is that signs can be moved from their original place, the classic ‘do not move from here’ written on every cleaner’s wet floor sign – where is here?  Where is the sea?

For me, the story is at its weakest when Binshatwan describes ordinary scenes, such as the below –

Angered, one of the men stomped against the floor, making the stale bowl of spaghetti by the door jump.  Cockroaches scurried out to seize the caked dregs of noodles and sauce that spilled out of the airborne bowl.

This reads clumsy.  The use of “Angered” takes away my own ability to interpret the man’s actions, and bowls don’t jump.  “airborne” doesn’t fit to my ear, and the whole section reads like an unedited first draft.  The flow just isn’t there.  Not so with dialogue, which is excellent; equally pleasing is the description of the vanished sea and the exposed sea-bed.

Through all of the patient’s hijinks and japes there is a strong undercurrent of violence and death.  Everyone is having such a good time (including the dear reader) that you don’t, at first, notice just how many body parts are on display, how many dead, how much violence.  The story floats on blood and flesh but my, aren’t we laughing?

And then everyone dies from a terrorist’s bomb.

With appreciation from M Lynx Qualey for providing the copy of ArabLit.

The Government Sea is a short story by Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain.  

Author Najwa Binshatwan
Title The Government Sea
Translator Sawad Hussain
Nationality Libyan
Publisher Arablit Quarterly