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.

Short Story Review – Olga Grjasnowa – The Legal Haziness of a Marriage (trans. Eva Bacon)

This is something of a prologue to a larger novel, one that has not, I believe, been translated into English.  I suppose writing about a prologue – and about a female Azerbaijani writer – has value simply because of the rarity of the combination.  And so, here we are.

What to make of a woman who has done something utterly distasteful but suffered punishment entirely out of whack with what she has done?  Sympathy, I suppose.  But it’s hard.

Leyla is involved in illegal street racing in Baku.  It’s a pastime of the idle rich children of the monied political class and corrupt businessmen.   Supposedly, the fact that pedestrians might be run over and killed is all part of the thrill.  And Leyla loves it.  It is, she thinks, the “last remaining option for rebellion”, which is a frankly reprehensible way of looking at a dangerous and thoughtless activity.

However:

The presidential family frowned upon street racing. It was among the few offenses that couldn’t be smoothed out with money. The young drivers—none of the arrested had been older than twenty-six—were usually held at the police station, and the officers took turns giving them beatings. A common, even harmless, practice in this area of the world.

[The prison guard’s] right hand slowly wandered up Leyla’s thigh, lingered on her crotch, found its way into her underwear and there did its damage with slow determination. It only retreated to wipe off the snot that Leyla spit into his face. He might have even enjoyed Leyla’s unyielding disdain. When he was done, he hit her a few times with such force that she lost consciousness. She would wake up later with the taste of blood in her mouth and a hand on her breast.

It’s too much.  It’s too much.  She doesn’t deserve sexual assault as punishment for what she has done.  And, unfortunately, as the only woman detained, she bears the brunt of male attention.

Leyla’s thoughts fade in and out of the present as she is assaulted and beaten, coming to rest often on her history as a ballerina.  Those days are gone.  Grjasnowa creates an interesting comparison of the physical duress under which a ballerina-in-training and a prisoner suffer.

And yet and yet and yet.  I am sympathetic to Leyla.  I am.  She should not have to suffer like that.  But I am of course in moral opposition to what she has done and the enjoyment she has derived from it.  The violent games of the idle rich do not interest me, and if anything I support the state’s ability to round them up and teach them a lesson via fine and/or imprisonment.

But not the sexual violence lesson.  Or the physical violence lesson.

And I suppose this is the point.  I’m in an uncomfortable situation.  I would like to believe I have a strong moral compass, but here I am conflicted.  The easy answer is to say – stop the violence, stop the sexual assault, clean up the streets and give the kids something to do.

Really easy to type.  Really easy.

The Legal Haziness of a Marriage is a short story by Azerbaijani writer Olga Grjasnowa, translated by Eva Bacon.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Olga Grjasnowa
Title The Legal Haziness of a Marriage
Translator Eva Bacon
Nationality Azerbaijani
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

Short Story Review – Empar Moliner – In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More (trans. Novia Pagone)

I work alone, and I don’t keep secrets from myself.

Empar, probable homebody, is on the search for a man who will take her to the Ebro River Delta, a place where ‘boyfriends tend to take their girlfriends’.

By the third sentence of this story she’s off to a dating agency to see what they might be able to do for her.  Why can’t she find someone on her own?  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

“What don’t you like about your personality?” she ventures. “I like everything,” I tell her. And it’s the truth. When she asks me about my life goals, I declare that I don’t have any. “How important is sex to you in a stable relationship?” she wants to know. If I say five, will that look bad?, I wonder. In the end, I rate it a four, but only because I’m feeling romantic this year.

Empar, or rather, the character in the story named Empar, is an entertaining and funny woman.  Her inner self makes jokes and pokes fun at who she is and what she’s trying to achieve, though outwardly she comes across as a touch awkward and uncertain.

She seems here, at this dating agency, less to find a match, and more to understand the kinds of questions a dating agency would ask in order for her to better know the milieu that is contemporary dating.  It’s all so much to think about, so much to plan for.

The idea that we can boil down a potential partner to a series of questions and answers is absurd, of course, but it is an appealing concept nonetheless.  But how can it possibly be true if we find it difficult to boil ourselves down in such a manner?  We don’t know ourselves well enough to condense our personality on to a single page, and yet here Empar is attempting to recreate a full man from a series of yes/no.

Empar, the character, recognises this absurdity, and she loves it.  And then Empar, the writer, finishes the story with a fine comic twist, and away we go, off to write an email to a fascinating woman.

In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More is a short story by Spanish (Catalan) writer Empar Moliner and was translated by Novia Pagone.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Empar Moliner
Title In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More
Translator Novia Pagone
Nationality Spanish (Catalan)
Publisher World Literature Today

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

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.