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 Nigerian 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

 

Short Story Review – Gabriela Babnik – Ida (trans. Rawley Grau)

Ah, the immigration story.

An apartment building, the apartments, I suppose, all crammed together.  Enough so that Ida feels bad for those around her, who can hear her small child screaming.  Enough so that she wakes up at night to hear love-making, and she knows, she knows, that it comes from the black man and his partner above her.  She touches herself.

and sometimes, with the lovemaking, even the windows
would move. They would be carried from one end to the other
and at such moments Ida held on to the bed. With one hand.
With the other she reached down to between her legs, parted
the folds, sank into the soft flesh, and went inside.

In the light of day, though, what is fantasy becomes reality.  She visits the young couple. They have a child, ginger-haired, and they aren’t particularly interested in her discussion points.  Ida wishes to better understand why an African – his word – would come to Slovenia.  Was it for money?  For healthcare?  For money?  For money?  For money?  She can’t help herself, continuously steering the conversation back to that point.  Surely, she reasons, that this is why an African would want to come to Europe.  No other reason.

“It’s obvious you haven’t been through any war,” Ida said.
She didn’t know why she wanted to confront him, why she
persisted.

Muhammed, who comes from Burkina Faso, attempts first to gently dissuade her, but then becomes increasingly frustrated.  Why should he act as the mouthpiece for all Africans, and why should he be forced to admit what isn’t true?  He doesn’t state it outright (he is under no obligation to do so, after all; Ida, for all her masturbation, is a nosy neighbour), but it seems that he is here for love and for adventure.  Fine reasons.

Ida, blaming her menstruation, keeps pushing.  Muhammed is the dominant speaker here but his partner floats in and out of the room, looking after their small child.  At one point Ida touches the boy’s hair and the woman airily observes that they are teaching him to avoid being touched by strangers, especially on his head.  Clever.  Ida understands, and then pushes and pushes.

In the end, the conversation dies.  Ida, the European, is unsatisfied with the black African’s answers.  Ida, the European, makes an offhand comment to the other woman, who knows exactly what she means.  And then Ida, the European, is roundly chastised while Muhammed prays in the other room and then she leaves, defeated.

I suspect the late-night moans will continue from their room, though from now on I expect that Ida will not insert herself into their activities, even if from afar.  Not after that conversation.

Ida is a short story by Slovene writer Gabriela Babnik, translated by Rawley Grau.  

Author Gabriela Babnik
Title Ida
Translator Rawley Grau
Nationality Slovene
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

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

Short Story Review – Myrto Azina Chronides – A European Story (trans. Despina Pirketti)

The pain comes – labour pain. It tears the pelvis apart, my
loins, my uterus a ball of steel.I can feel him throughout my
entire body. He spreads all the way down to my nails. My
head empties and compresses like an accordion exhaling.“I’ll
go get the midwife” he tells me and uses his handkerchief to
wipe the sweat off my face.

Well, this is a fine way to open a collection of European short stories.  It’s mildly – mildly – on the nose, but given the mission of the book (to highlight the works of EUPL winners and have them write about Europe), well, it can be forgiven.  How else would you start a collection like this?

A European Story (trans. Despina Pirketti) by Myrto Azina Chronides is one grand metaphor for the generation after WWII as it grapples with birthing the new Europe.  Pretty explicitly so.

Mum died: a Jewish woman in Auschwitz, a British woman
during the Blitz, a Greek woman in German-occupied Athens
or perhaps a Trümmerfrau in Dresden, who had survived
the horror and perished amidst the ruins of the war, a Polish
woman, a…

The story shifts between a woman giving birth, and the woman’s life and memories prior to childbirth.  The sentences are short and sharp, and so are most of the paragraphs, running rapidly through European history both recent and ancient, connecting like occurrences and comparing events.  It’s a heady mix.

The childbirth sequences are the strongest from a purely narrative perspective.  It made me glad, not for the first time, that it is an experience I am able to avoid.  The narrator show indications of empowerment here; she notes that her partner is fearful of her power as she gives birth – this is an event of great magnitude, and she is the one who is doing it.

The other parts of the story are good, but they rely on overwhelming the reader with references to European history and concepts.  I like this – I love that kind of thing – but as a narrative it’s a bit disjointed.  The effect is to show the gamut of European history, and it works, but how much of this is truly a story?

I’m sinking; I feel that I’m sliding somewhere until I lose
consciousness. Everything around me turns red. I float upon
golden white clouds. Far away, at the edge of the horizon,
upon a distant hill, soldiers by the thousands are hoisting
their flags simultaneously. They’re not war banners. They’re
filled with blue skies and yellow stars: unity, solidarity, harmony. I melt within feelings of utter serenity.

And in the middle of the red meadow, a tree is born. I tentatively approach it: the tree of life carrying an apple. I come
even closer. But it’s not the fruit of Knowledge, I tell myself.
It is the apple offered to Paris, prince of Troy, by Discord, and
instead of “for the fairest” it reads “for the best”. I’m devastated.

I would say, politely, that this story doesn’t stand up on its own.  Contained within this collection it is fine and an appropriate starting point – but it is clearly a commissioned work, and feels like one.  I’m curious about Chronides and her other works, but this one is perhaps a touch too prepaid.

A European Story is a short story by Cypriot writer Myrto Azina Chronides, translated by Despina Pirketti.  

Author Myrto Azina Chronides
Title A European Story
Translator Despina Pirketti
Nationality Cypriot
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

See also the other titles under review:

Short Story Review – Rasha Abbas – How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile (trans. Fatima El-Kalay)

The central metaphor to Rasha Abbas’ short story, How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile (trans. Fatima El-Kalay) is abundantly apparent throughout the text, but you know what?  That’s ok.  Writing as someone who lives in a peaceful, quiet country (Australia), the message being conveyed is foreign to me, completely so – it is not and could not be a lived experience.  Not for me.  But for the narrator?  And the other people in her country?  Oh, yes.

The narrator has had poor eyesight for as long as she can remember.  Early on, she receives new glasses, and now she can see the city as it is.  As it is, which is to say – bombed streets, ruined buildings, missiles and helicopters overhead.  They were always there, but not for her.  She lived a more pleasant life before attaining clarity.

A few days later I received my new glasses. Things were undoubtedly better, but it was too late to see the city. Instead, all I got to see were very lucid scenes of red missiles, flaring in the night, heading to some unknown place, fired from the bottom of the mountain that overlooked our elevated window. Or the sight of military helicopters slowly hovering in the early morning, on their way to other neighborhoods.

This is, politely, a violent place.  Somewhere that is utterly foreign to me.

On the way, there was a police officer joking with a local child. He pointed his rifle at him and asked him which football team he supported. The boy exposed his belly in defiance before the rifle, proud of his preferred team, even though it apparently didn’t go down well with the policeman.

Ah, my Western sense of what is ordinary and right are in trouble!  Abbas is able to reframe the conflict in Syria to be new to the narrator via the mechanism of the new glasses, which then allows it to be explained to a foreign reader.  Not that she is obliged to do this, of course; writers from far-off countries to myself are under no obligation to serve as teachers or educators.  But it is appreciated nonetheless.

There is a lot crammed into these short pages.  An aside about a butcher’s son, who babbles and burns pictures of the President and gives presents to children, and who may have been vanished along with his father – this is great, evocative, interesting writing.  It contrasts neatly with the more matter-of-fact appreciation of violence and destruction from the narrator, as she finally sees her city for what it is.

 He loved wild birds, and would catch them and place them in cages, and forcefully give them as gifts to the local children.

The ending is very neat indeed.  Swimming in a pool with a friend she has made, the narrator wonders to herself at how miserable it must be to have always seen clearly.  And there’s something to that, there’s something to being forced into an awakening about what is familiar and known.  We must reassess, we must see things with new eyes, and it is hurts us, so be it.  If it helps us, so be it.  Seeing the world afresh each day is an impossibility to which we must at least attempt.  And how wonderful if we can do it once or twice a month?  Revelatory.

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

How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile is a short story by Syrian writer Rasha Abbas, translated by Fatima El-Kalay.  

Author Rasha Abbas
Title How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile
Translator Fatima El-Kalay
Nationality Syrian
Publisher Arablit Quarterly

 

Short Story Review – Clelia Farris – Holes (trans. Rachel Cordasco)

It’s nice to have holes. I like having holes. Knowledge is the world falling into a hole. The human being has evolved because it has holes. Alice found Wonderland at the bottom of a hole.

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time, too much time in fact, reading bad fantasy books instead of, well, anything else.  I’m talking DragonLance, Terry Goodkind, and endless, endless Fighting Fantasy books.  None of them hold up today (Goodkind is a wannabe fascist), though I have something of a fondness for the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever (though can someone please explain why all of these series seem to come out of D&D adventures?  What does this say about them, and us for reading them?)

Anyway something I didn’t do much was read science fiction.  I tried.  I read some Asimov, and I liked the stories about robots.  I read some of Greg Egan’s short stories, and they were good.  Mind opening.  Perhaps that’s why – I wasn’t ready to be challenged?

Science fiction is – or can be – about challenging preconceived notions, putting ideas and ideals into relief to see what might happen when taken to an extreme, or when explored to its fullest.  It offers an extension of where we are now via where we could end up, and perhaps whether we do or do not is reliant on the stories we are able to tell ourselves.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive.  Or too grand.  Space operas exist, of course, and they often woefully rotten junk.  Or just plain old grand adventures, which is fine, but not really what I’m talking about here.

Holes by Clelia Farris, is an ideas story.  Specifically, the ideas of nurturing, womanhood, being a mother.  It’s contained within the prism of a robotic/machine-like egg which seeks to create holes in itself, holes to encourage understanding.  And, unfortunately, pain.

This time, the pain is piercing, ferocious. Incandescent awls hammer my body from the inside, hooks soaked in acid widen the nicks, tear the skin to shreds, small drills from the tip thin as a strand of baby hair slip into the smooth albumen of my egg and emerge from the other side after leaving me a hole of infinitesimal diameter. They’re called pores, and they bloom like little spring flowers over every centimeter of my body.

The pain was not what ‘the server’ wanted, but overall she’s – cough cough, sorry sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself – fine with it.  The pain is worth it.  It’s no accident, I think, that the paragraphs in the story become longer, the sentences more elaborate, as the egg is pierced.  There are fewer sentences which begin with “I”.  The narration is more complex, and more pleasing to the ear.

De Sade Inc. contacts me to offer their services: What is full, with us becomes empty. Do you want to tear off the mask?

Clever, clever, clever.

I think short stories are a fine medium within which to explore the confines of a single idea.  I do.  I wonder if, perhaps, this short story is a touch too short.  For me, anyway, I was left without enough context to really sink my teeth into the ideas presented.

I’m intrigued by Farris.  I think this idea was successfully explored, but at the same time, for me, I wanted a bit more meat with my egg.  A bad metaphor, but you know what I mean.  The ending, when it arrives, is pretty obvious, but it’s a nice touch and works well.  This is a complete and coherent piece, and that, while perhaps seeming like simply damning with faint praise, really isn’t.  I’ve read DragonLance, remember?

Holes is a short story by Italian writer Clelia Farris, translated by Rachel Cordasco.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Clelia Farris
Title Holes
Translator Rachel Cordasco
Nationality Italian
Publisher World Literature Today

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