Thursday, August 29, 2013

8 stories from around the world

Story Collection: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry
Editor: Donna Rosenberg

Title: The Black Cat
Author: Edgar Allan Poe

For as long as he can remember, the narrator in Poe's story has preferred the company of animals to men. He marries a woman whom he describes as having a compatible temperament, and she brings several pets into their home, including a black cat named Pluto who becomes his most cherished companion. However, being a Poe story, their harmonious home life isn't meant to last, and the peculiarities that had set the narrator apart from his peers at a young age now take a darker turn. He becomes a violent alcoholic, and though he lashes out at his wife, she remains for the most part in the shadows of this story, mentioned now and then but taking second place to Pluto, who bears the brunt of his cruelty.

What follows is torture, murder, and walled-up bodies. The story is told in a first-person, mentally unhinged narration, a Poe specialty (though this character is unique, not a repeat of other narrators). I love how The Black Cat conveys the perverse joy people take in damning themselves; they know that what they're doing is wrong, but do it for that very reason ("the unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself"). And it's also a tale of domestic violence. The wife, subtly erased, is only mentioned now and then (almost as soon as we've forgotten she exists - until we can't forget any more); in a strange way, as the narrator strikes out at his cat, I also sensed he was striking out at her, where she stood in the shadows.

Title: Day of the Butterfly
Author: Alice Munro

Set among schoolchildren in small town Canada, Day of the Butterfly shows how our natural impulses towards friendship and unselfconscious enjoyment come up against the social roles we're trapped in. In this small school, each student has a place in the pecking order, and the narrator is a girl who might have become the class pariah if there wasn't one already. The story shows her relationship with this pariah, if a relationship is what you can call it. More like a semblance of friendship that dies before it develops into anything. What I also liked about the story was the schoolteacher, with her mix of propriety and insensitivity; she teaches manners to the girls but doesn't demonstrate empathy.

Title: Downtown
Author: Fumiko Hayashi
Translator: Ivan Morris

Ryo is a widow, maybe. She hasn't seen or heard from her husband for several years; all she knows is that he's a POW in the Soviet Union, but not whether he's still alive. She supports herself and her son going door to door and selling tea in Tokyo. One bitterly cold day, she comes to a small shack at a worksite, and shares some conversation with a man who recently returned from the Soviet Union. She finds it comfortable to be around him, and they continue to meet.

In the story, the characters' day-to-day decisions, some of which seem momentous to them, take place amid larger events beyond their control; fate, luck, however you think of it, thwarts them. They might make long-term plans, but in a heartbeat their world will be shaken up. The only thing Ryo can hope to have is resilience. As she sells her tea, what she finds behind any given door may reveal the shape of her life for years to come or just offer her a sweet but short-lived dream.

Title: A Drink in the Passage
Author: Alan Paton

The story is set in 1960 in South Africa, and starts with Edward Simelane, a black man, winning a national sculpture competition after the officials forget to include 'for whites only' in the competition rules. His piece, called African Mother and Child, strikes a chord with many people, and he's allowed to keep the prize as long as he doesn't show up to the ceremony to publicly claim it.

The story centers on his encounter with a white man who, without recognizing Simelane, begins to speak to him about how much he loves the sculpture, which has been displayed in a bookstore. What follows is a pained interaction between Simelane and the white stranger, who tries to make some friendly gestures across a wide gulf created by law, social convention, and prejudice. The impulse towards friendship, and the kinds of feelings stirred by a beautiful work of art, have no real outlet for expression in this society. If the characters do connect with each other it's indirectly, through art and through things they can sense each other feeling but can't bring themselves to say.

Title: The New Year's Sacrifice
Author: Lu Hsün
Translator: (Info not provided)

The central figure in this story is Hsiang Lin's Wife; we don't get to know her name, only that she's a widow and that throughout the story she suffers cruelty and misfortune. The blame of course lands on her shoulders, because the reasoning goes that there must be something wrong with her, something bad or unclean, for these terrible things to happen to her.

Rituals play an important part of the story, including the preparation of the New Year sacrifice. What the story shows beautifully is how rituals allow people to act with cruelty or excuse it; if you observe the proper protocols, you're absolved from blame, no matter how badly you violate another person's humanity. You can carefully conduct your relationships with other people without having to bother with empathy or with anger over injustice; because if bad things happen to people, they must have brought it on themselves, so that's justice right there. Through ritual, you can even designate that certain people be sacrificed, because if they're suffering, maybe you'll be spared the worst misfortunes. People who fall through the cracks stay there; and there's doubt about whether even death can be an escape from misfortune for them, or whether their sorrows on Earth are merely a taste of the suffering awaiting them in the afterlife.

Title: The Other Wife
Author: Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette)
Translator: (Info not provided)

A sharp and delicious tale of a married couple who are very satisfied with themselves and their life together, until they spot the man's ex-wife at a restaurant. The new wife looks at the old wife, notices how relaxed and self-sufficient she seems. And for the first time she regards her husband with doubt. The story seems like an opening act to a longer piece about a marriage, but nothing more needs to be said by the end.

Title: An Outpost of Progress
Author: Joseph Conrad

Two Englishmen are assigned to a remote African trading post. Slowly, everything goes to hell.

Conrad himself took a journey up the Congo, on which he based this story and others (including the novel, Heart of Darkness). One of the insights he shares about the characters in "An Outpost of Progress" is the following:
They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.
Some people hold on to their sense of self in the midst of horrible circumstances or when confronted with situations that they'd never come across in day-to-day life, but Conrad doesn't write about such people here. The Englishmen in the story seem like animals in an experiment, observed as if they were living in a glass bowl. The author makes note of their changing psychological state and their behaviors. Even though we have an idea of what will happen, the story is suspenseful; it's also surprisingly humorous at some points, in a dark way.

Title: Paseo
Author: José Donoso
Translator: Lorraine O'Grady Freeman

A young boy lives with his father and his father's siblings: uncles Gustav and Armand, and Aunt Mathilda. The boy wants motherly affection from his aunt, but while she doesn't neglect him, she also doesn't offer him much warmth. All of the adults in the story are like that: withdrawn and interacting with each other through routine, such as a carefully orchestrated billiard game after dinner. Maybe to them this is sufficient, because they know they love each other - they need not say it or act openly on it; but the boy always feels like an outsider, looking in on their rigid, self-contained world. As for the wider world, it's also closed off to him; he suspects his family's adherence to ritual is their way of preserving stability and warding off anything wild and unpredictable that might unbalance them.

Then one day, the peaceful sterility of the house is disturbed by a persistent stray dog, who follows the aunt and the boy home and finally contrives a way to get into the house. Surprising everyone, Aunt Mathilda begins to look after the dog, helping nurse it to health and then adopting it as her pet. She then begins to take the dog on walks, where she disappears from the house at longer and longer intervals. What do her brothers do? What becomes of them, now that Aunt Mathilda has embraced chaos and all of its possibilities?