Short Story #41. Faeries of the Nile (Mansoura Ez-Eldin)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the king of spades.

Story: Faeries of the Nile, by Mansoura Ez-Eldin [in The Granta Book of the African Short Story] (translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen)

Comments: Mansoura Ez-Eldin is an Egyptian writer and journalist.  In this story she explores the responses of a woman trapped in a very limited situation: physical poverty, a betraying and abusive husband, the death of their only son.  The “river faeries” sing to the woman, entrance her, seduce her, and she succumbs…  One critic says that it is a story about sexual repression, but I think that it points to much more than just sexual desire.  It is about the woman’s desire for freedom, for self-determination, for a voice.  The story itself gives the woman, Zeenat, no voice: it is told from the points of view of an omniscient narrator, and of the husband.

There are some great phrases: “my wife cried a lot, at her mother’s direction”; “She obeys me as if castigating me with obedience”.

The Guardian’s reviewer found the story “incredibly dated”, and Think Africa Press said it “show[s] a little too strongly the influence of past generations and styles… Faeries of the Nile is a story in the tradition of tiresome magical realism”.  But I agree more with the Goodreads reviewer who calls it “a great piece of imaginative literature” and other more positive reviews.  I would be happy to read more by this author.

Short Story #40. Desirée’s Baby (Kate Chopin)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the queen of hearts.

Story: Desirée’s Baby, by Kate Chopin [available online here]

Comments: Oh wow. This was my first encounter with Kate Chopin, and now I am anxious to read more.  Set in Louisiana in the late nineteenth century, it is a powerful story about racism and prejudice.  There is no need for the author to comment, the story speaks for itself.  Character is built up quickly by this skilful writer – the person of Desirée’s mother, for instance, comes through strongly, though she is given only a few lines.  Prejudice is still widespread in society – we are all, in some way, Armand Aubigny.   And many of us are, in some way, also Desirée.

The ending reminds me of the conclusion of John B. Keane’s play Sive, in which the tragic heroine leaves her home and heads towards the swampy bog.

I’m so glad I’ve encountered this story and this author.

Short Story #39. Street of the House of Wonders (Rachida el-Charni)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the ten of diamonds.

Story: Street of the House of Wonders, by Rachida el-Charni [in The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: The story-line here is fairly simple: a woman’s necklace is grabbed by a thief on the street; she is disillusioned by the bystanders’ response – they don’t help her, refuse to get involved.  It’s a story-line open to many possibilities.  To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed – I would expect more from a story at this level (i.e. included in such an anthology).  The description of the woman fighting the thief really wasn’t really adrenalin-filled.  I found myself wondering “how did he pinch her while holding a knife in one hand and the necklace in the other?”  or “would she really be whispering under her breath, rather than screaming aloud?”  The translation (from Arabic – el-Charni is Tunisian) seemed a bit literal in places, not really lively English.  And the final paragraph is too blatant in its expression of the victim’s opinion of the crowd; something more subtle might have been more effective.

 

Short Story #38. The Veldt (Ray Bradbury)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the nine of hearts.

Story: The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury (available online here)

Comments: A masterly story from a master story-teller.  It’s hard to believe it was written over 50 years ago, in 1950.  It’s about the role of technology, supposed to make our life easier and smoother, being used for evil in the wrong hands.  And those hands are not found in some totalitarian state, but in our own offspring, who use the technology against us… A wonderful read.

Short Story #37. The Mouse (Saki)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the king of hearts.

Story: The Mouse, by Saki (available here)

Comments: This is a very short (1,520 words) and funny story by one of the classic masters of the genre.  A mouse gets trapped in the clothing of a gentleman just before he boards a train – how does he divest himself of it when a lady occupies the same carriage?  The twist comes in the last line.

Take a few minutes to read it.

Short Story #36. Stickfighting Days (Olufemi Terry)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the ace of spades.

Story: Stickfighting Days, by Olufemi Terry [in The Granta Book of the African Short Story]

Comments: This story won the 2010 Caine prize for African writing, one of the judges saying that Sierra Leone-born Terry “presents a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception” (from the Guardian).  It describes the fighting exploits of some boys who live on a dump and scavenge for a living.  It is a story of violence, which initially is controlled by certain implicit – and explicit – rules, but which at the end gets out of control and leads to death.  I don’t enjoy reading about violence, and had to push myself to finish this story.  I found it hard to feel any sympathy for Raul, the protagonist, and one important scene, in which he offers an apology to an opponent for certain tactics he had used in a fight, I found quite unconvincing. The apology seems to spring from values which have up to then not been identified in Raul, and which would be appropriate coming from an Eton or Harrow lad, “I say, old chap, awfully sorry about that…”  I really did not have a clear idea of who Raul is, or of why I should identify with him.

Short Story #35. Sea Oak (George Saunders)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the seven of hearts.

Story: Sea Oak, by George Saunders [online here]

Comments: I liked this story, though it’s not a genre that I would normally appreciate.  Thomas, who works as a stripper, his sister and his cousin, both single mothers of very young kids, poorly educated, unemployed, and “lazy”, and his aunt Bernie, a figure of self-sacrificing goodness, live in a run-down housing complex which is very dangerous for the kids.  Bernie dies suddenly.  And then comes back from the dead, with a message to the others about how to get out of their poverty-trap.  But she is no longer the good, clean-mouthed person that she was in real life… Will the family take her message on board?

Poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor housing, the aspirations – or the lack of them – of people in that situation, are described in an undramatic, realistic way.  This makes the return of Bernie from the dead all the more puzzling – why does Saunders use this format?  What is he trying to tell us through the various paradoxes?

I loved the dialogue, especially that of Min and Jade.

Short Story #32. Gooseberries (Anton Chekhov)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the six of hearts.

Story: Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (available online here)

Comments: According to a dream dictionary, “To see or eat gooseberries in your dream suggests that you are enjoying your time of leisure.”  Is that a universal meaning which Chekhov drew on, or is the dream dictionary basing itself on this story?  In either case, that’s exactly what Nicholai Ivanich does in the tale-within-the-tale here.  He has dreamed all his life of owning a country house with land and all that goes with it, including a gooseberry bush.  And though he starts out as a city-dwelling civil servant, he saves and scrimps and eventually marries a rich widow and makes her too live so frugally that she dies, and then in middle age he is able to buy his longed-for estate, and plant his gooseberry bushes, and act the part of the squire.  Ivan, his brother and the teller of the tale-within-the-tale, visits him when the gooseberries are served at dinner.  Nicholai relishes them, though to Ivan they are bitter.

Ivan tells this tale when he and his travelling companion Bourkin are sheltering from winter rain as unexpected guests at the house of Aliokhin.  He then launches into a tirade about how life should be lived, doing good while one is young and able; about the injustice of poverty and ignorance; about dreams unfulfilled… his idealism does not really inspire or engage his hearers.

So – what are we to think?  Nicholai attains his life’s dream, and is happy, but according to his brother his happiness must be feigned or illusory because the gooseberries are, in fact, sour.  But perhaps to Nicholai they really are sweet?  Whose perception is right?  How can one say that someone else’s perception is illusory (or even that he is lying) simply because it is different to one’s own experience?  And the impassioned speech of Ivan – is it all a refusal of responsibility, this cry “If I were young…” Why does one have to be young to start living the good life?

The most remarkable thing for me in this story is the absence of any explicit reference to a source of morality.  By what standard is Ivan judging what is good?  What is at the basis of his belief system?  Is there some allegedly objective set of norms for guiding human behaviour, or can each one make it up as s/he goes along?

Most of all, perhaps, after reading this story, I really want to go and swim outdoors in the rain!  The description sounded wonderful!

 

Short Story #31. The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Ernest Hemingway)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the nine of spades.

Story: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway (available online here)

Comments: I’ve never been able to get into Hemingway in the past, but I loved this story.   As Harry lies stranded in Africa with a gangrenous leg, awaiting rescue or death, whichever comes first, he reflects on his life, his wasted writing talent, the events that have shaped him, his loves and losses, the violence that he has seen, the beauty and the grossness of the world, the women he has loved or claimed to love… and he talks and quarrels with Helen, his current female companion who is with him and cares for him as they wait for the rescue plane.

The denouement is wonderful.

I definitely want to read this story again.  Some commentaries that I’ve seen have been very harsh on Harry, but I didn’t read it that way.  Of course, we have only Harry’s word for his account of how he has lived his life, how he has treated people, how he has wasted his talent… how do we verify any of what he is saying?  Most interesting.

Short Story #30. Eva is Inside Her Cat (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the two of spades.

Story: Eva is Inside Her Cat, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez  (it can be read online here)

Comments: Marquez, who died earlier this year, is one of those very well-known authors (One Hundred Years of Solitude; Love in the Time of Cholera) whom I’ve never read.  I didn’t know what to expect here, but guessed from the title that it would be no ordinary tale.  And it isn’t.

“Magic realism” is the genre (see any commentary on Marquez for more about this).  “Eva”, the protagonist, is a woman who suffers from both insomnia and a surfeit of beauty.  The story takes place outside of time, so that Eva is both alive and has been dead for three thousand years.  She committed suicide, perhaps… She now is reincarnated in her cat, perhaps…

– There is Eva, an orange, and a tree, reminiscent of Eve, an apple, and a tree in the Genesis story.  Am I supposed to make a connection, with Eva’s extraordinary beauty pointing to the primeval beauty of creation?  But no, because this Eva has inherited her beauty from her ancestors, and Eve was the original mother-figure.  Some kind of re-telling of the Genesis story?

– I am suspicious of a man writing about a woman being “cursed” by being too beautiful.  Would a woman write thus?  Would she not rather write about being cursed by ugliness?  – Or am I supposed to be suspicious of it, and to read it some other way?  I don’t know.

– There are elements of the story that I don’t “get” at all, particularly the significance of “the boy” buried under the tree.  Adam???

– Some commentators suggest that there is a political message in Marquez’ “magic realism”.  If so, I am too far removed from the scene to understand it.

All in all, I am left in a foggy place.  It does not encourage me to pick up any of Marquez’ longer works.