short stories

DEATH IN MIDSUMMER & OTHER STORIES BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Throughout my life I have written hundreds of short stories; some stretching to thousands of words, and some only a paragraph or two. It’s strange that someone who admits to avoiding short fiction, for the most part, would be so drawn to writing it himself. Although I guess it sums up my personality. In any case, it isn’t that I don’t like short stories but, rather, that I think most of them are poor [including my own, most likely]. The masters of the form – Carver, Chekhov et al – show that at its best it is capable of capturing something of the true, and often banal, profundity of human existence in a way that nothing else can. In my writing, I’m somewhat obsessed with the idea of snapshots or moments, of dropping in on someone’s life for only a few minutes or hours, because when I think about my own life that is how I see it: in moments, not as some detailed, linear narrative.

To the list of ‘masters of the form’ I now want to add Yukio Mishima. I’ve long been an admirer of his writing, but had, until now, never sampled his short fiction. It seems impossible to discuss Mishima without referencing his strange personal life and beliefs [I have done so in all my previous reviews of his work]. I do not want to go over all that again in detail, except to say that on the basis of the title, Death in Midsummer, some other reviews I have come across, and the author’s biography, I found myself surprised by how normal, how free of perversity, and shock value these stories are. They are, in the main, domestic, focusing on relationships, specifically marriage, and children. It is a reminder that no matter how odd certain aspects of someone’s life is or was, it does not account for the whole person; Mishima may have been a fanatic, a fascist, a crazy man, but there was clearly a tender and empathetic side to him, involving a deep understanding of ordinary people, otherwise he would never have been able to write these stories.

Having said all that, the most well-known story in the collection, Patriotism, is as unnerving as anything I have ever read. It features a couple, a lieutenant in the army and his wife, who commit ritual suicide, one by disembowelling himself, and the other by stabbing herself in the throat. For the husband his death is about honour. He does not want to attack a group of rebels, whose cause he believes in, and yet he has been asked to do just that. And so instead of following orders he takes his own life. There is something, for me, attractive about this kind of action, this utter, fatal commitment to one’s principles. When I look around me, I get the impression that honour and integrity are in short supply, that most people these days are only really concerned with themselves and what benefits them, and so while I do not want anyone to meet a gruesome death, I admire Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama nevertheless.

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[From Patriotism, a short film directed by Mishima, which is based on the story of the same name]

For any sensitive readers, it is necessary to point out that Mishima does not flinch. In the story, the man’s wife is asked to watch, to bear witness, to the event, and we, as the reader, are put in the same position. So we stay with the lieutenant as he slowly slices open his stomach, as his insides fall out, as he breathes his last breath. It is brilliantly written, but is, still, incredibly unpleasant. Knowing what we know about Mishima [he too committed seppuku], it would be tempting to view Patriotism [especially considering that title] as a form of propaganda, as a kind of love letter to nationalism and ritual suicide. It is undeniably the case that he writes about seppuku in glowing terms. For example, according to Mishima, Shinji “contemplated death with severe brows and firmly closed lips” and “revealed what was perhaps masculine beauty at its most superb.”

However, it is interesting that, while as a standalone story it might be viewed in that way, and considered distasteful, as part of the Death in Midsummer collection it struck me as being primarily about marriage and intimacy, rather than suicide. The two characters have a strong and loving relationship, this is seen not only in the wife agreeing to follow her husband into death [she dies for her husband, not for a cause or principle], but in the way that he asks her to witness his own [which is unusual]. Furthermore, in doing so he trusts that she will follow him, and that she will not attempt to save him once he has commenced the act. In fact, the decision to die provokes even greater intimacy and love between them, and they actually have sex before performing the ritual. If you forget about seppuku for a moment, one can understand the story as an investigation into the idea that mortality gives fresh impetus to life; that they are about to die makes the couple love and cherish and appreciate each other even more.

“Reiko had not kept a diary and was now denied the pleasure of assiduously rereading her record of the happiness of the past few months and consigning each page to the fire as she did so.”

While Patriotism may be the most [in]famous story in this collection – and I did enjoy it, as much as that is possible – it is certainly not the best. That accolade I would give to the title story, which also happens to be the longest. Death in Midsummer begins at the beach, one that is “still unspoiled for sea bathing” and where the sand is “rich and white.” Three children are present with their aunt, while their mother takes a nap back at the hotel. Initially, all seems idyllic, but there is something ominous in the air. First of all, the mother is described as ‘girl-like,” almost suggesting that she ought not to have children yet, a suggestion that is given extra weight by the fact that she is not with them, that she has let them go off with someone else. Even more worrying is the line “it was height of summer and there was anger in the rays of the sun.” Where or at what or who is this anger directed?

You may never get a straightforward answer to that question, but before too long the significance of the title becomes apparent. The aunt and two of the three children die. From this point onwards, Death in Midsummer becomes an investigation into the nature of grief, one that is as honest, as moving, and as beautiful as Tolstoy’s masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilych. As one would expect, the mother blames herself somewhat, especially as the aunt is not alive to shoulder the burden of blame herself; indeed, she likens telling her husband [who did not go on holiday with the rest of the family] about the accident to having to stand before a judge. I found this entirely believable, regardless of whether anyone is actually to blame [and one could argue that they are not in this instance] it is not unusual to feel as though you are guilty of something when a terrible thing happens near you or around you. There is guilt in living, in avoiding trouble or death. Mishima also touches upon the guilt felt by those who survive a tragedy when they notice that they are moving on, as though such a thing ought to not be possible if you really care. Again, the mother thinks in terms of criminals, and compares herself, in getting on with her life, to someone getting away with a crime.

There are almost too many psychological insights and highlights; every paragraph, every sentence almost, contains some touching observation. Such as when the husband receives the news, and he likens it to having been dismissed from his job. Or when he asks for the news to be repeated, even though he knows it will not change the second time around. Or when the wife admits to feeling as though sorrow ought to come with special privileges. Or when Mishima notes that death is an administrative affair, involving certain expected responses and a lot of organising and planning. Or, finally, when he highlights the poverty of human emotions, whereby one’s response is the same, regardless of whether one person dies or ten. I could indulge myself and write a paragraph about each of these things, but I won’t. What I will say is that, as with Patriotism, in less capable and sensitive hands Death in Midsummer could have been melodramatic, even exploitative. It is to the author’s credit that the heart of the tale is not dead children, but that of a grieving couple surviving, staying together.

There are, of course, other stories, but I will not linger over those. I do, however, want to briefly touch upon Mishima’s subtlety as a writer. At the very beginning of this review I mentioned Raymond Carver. His collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of my favourites, and what I most like about it, and the author, is how light his touch was. I sometimes get so tired of reading things where everything is spelled out for you, where the how’s and why’s and what’s are raked over in great detail. Carver didn’t do that, and nor did Mishima here. Indeed, there are two stories that perplexed me until I had put the book down and given them some thought, where what had actually happened wasn’t immediately clear, was ambiguous. I loved having to work a little bit, to engage my mind, to interpret gestures and responses for myself. For example, in Thermos Bottles, Mishima does not outright tell you that the wife had been unfaithful, and yet one thinks that she was because of the way the ‘other man’ talks about the couple’s child, with authority, as though he knows it in a way that he ought not to. I thought that was handled brilliantly, and the same could be said of Three Million Yen. The only one that did not grab my attention was Onnagata, but that perhaps says more about the company it finds itself in than the quality of  the story itself.

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A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH BY DANILO KIS

A Basement in Yekaterinburg

On the 17th of July 1918, the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including Tsar Nicholas II [nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody], were murdered in a basement in Yekaterinburg. There are numerous rumours surrounding the deaths, with perhaps the most lurid being that the princesses had to be finished off with bayonets, as the bullets intended for their flesh had been deflected away by the jewels hidden in their blouses. Although the Russian empire had collapsed with Nicholas’ forced abdication, the deaths of the family put something of a seal upon it, as there was always the threat of an attempt to reinstate the Tsar.

“In light of the approach of counterrevolutionary bands toward the Red capital of the Urals and the possibility of the crowned executioner escaping trial by the people (a plot among the White Guards to try to abduct him and his family was exposed and the compromising documents will be published), the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, resolved to shoot the former Tsar, Nikolai Romanov, who is guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people.” – An announcement from the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.

I often ask myself why I am drawn to books about the Russian Revolution and what followed it [specifically Stalinism]. These two subjects make up a considerable proportion of my reading, and I supplement that reading with just as many documentaries. There is, of course, something quixotic about revolution, certainly a socialist revolution, something attractive about the idea of people fighting for a better and more just world [as they see it]. And so it seems extraordinarily tragic that the Russian Communist revolution, which promised great things, and claimed to oppose tyranny, could succeed, yet ultimately only to lead to the reign of one of the most brutal dictators in history, Joseph Stalin.* It’s like the plot of a particularly bleak Thomas Hardy novel; it is life caning the back of your knees and telling you, ‘don’t ever hope to improve the world, or fight the established order.’

The Liquidation of B.D. Novsky  

While I wouldn’t want to speculate as to the reasons behind Danilo Kiš’ interests and inspirations, it is nevertheless the case that his short story collection, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, could have been written with me in mind, in that almost every entry is concerned with revolutionaries, dreamers, murderers, exile, torture, tyranny, Eastern Europe [mostly Russia], Communism, and so on. I do not intend to to write about each story individually, for what I would end up with would be either a review so long that no one would read it in its entirety or a summary review that would not be worth reading at all, and so I will focus on the two most significant [and enjoyable] stories instead.

The longest in the collection is the title story. It is concerned with the mysterious B.D. Novsky, which is only one of many aliases used by Boris Davidovich. Boris was the son of a soldier, David Abramovich, who was one day flogged by his colleagues, either for not taking part in their drinking or for being a Jew or both, and a young girl who nursed the soldier’s wounds. All of the stories in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are presented as a kind of summarised biography, almost like a wikipedia entry, focussing on an important period or periods of each subject’s life. However, in this instance, Kiš charts Boris’ progress from childhood to death, giving it a breadth and depth that some of the others perhaps lack.

It is not necessary to follow in Kiš’ footsteps and give all the [available] details of Boris’ life, except to say that he becomes a career revolutionary and bomb maker [he was, we’re told, obsessed with the idea of making a wallnut sized bomb]. All that is engrossing stuff, but the real meat of the story is in his arrest and interrogation. If you know anything about Russia under Stalin, you will know that it wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence for old revolutionaries to be denounced, arrested, tortured, made to confess to crimes they had not committed, before being murdered. The idea behind this was to eliminate dangerous people; these men [and women] had already proved that they were capable of working to remove a sovereign, and so it makes sense that Stalin would fear or mistrust them.

In his story, Kiš pitches Novsky against Fedukin; it is a battle between two highly capable [one might say great] and strong-willed [there’s an almost amusing scene in which they fight over the wording of the confession] men, one a revolutionary and one an interrogator. Yet despite Fedukin’s best efforts, and most brutal treatment, Novsky will not confess. The reason for this is that he does not fear death so much as he fears that the integrity of his biography will be compromised. Novsky wants his life to have meant something, and so it is paramount that his story not be sullied by lies, or be re-imagined or reframed; as a revolutionary, a patriotic Russian, he does not want to become [for in confessing he would become] an enemy of the State. The problem that Fedukin faces now is, ‘how do you get someone who is more concerned with how they are remembered, than they are scared of pain or death, to confess to a terrible crime?’ It is, for the philosophically minded among us, certainly something to chew on.

Fedukin’s solution is to take Novsky into a room containing a young man, who, he states, will be instantly shot if Novsky does not confess. What is clever about this is that while a man might be reconciled to his own suffering it is perhaps not the case that he is reconciled to the suffering of others. Moreover, it forces Novsky to weigh up whether allowing people to die for him will ruin his reputation, will taint his biography, more than confessing would. For the reader, it is worth considering in a different light, in terms of two questions. Firstly, is preserving the integrity of one’s life, the truth of who you are/were and what you did, more important than someone’s actual existence? We would automatically want to say no, and yet one would have to bear in mind that these people would, in all likelihood, be killed anyway. Secondly, if someone kills in your name, how responsible are you? You do not, of course, pull the trigger yourself, but equally we do not want to accept that it is a morally neutral action to stand by and do nothing to attempt to save someone.

“I wish to live in peace with myself and not with the world.”

I mentioned in an earlier paragraph that each story in this collection is presented as a biography. What elevates A Tomb for Boris Davidovich above most of the others is that biography plays such an important part in it, for what we have is a fictional biography about a man for whom the details of his life, the truth of his existence, was so important. For me, it is this kind of thing that distinguishes great short story writers from ordinary or average ones. Furthermore, I think the title story is the best example here of something that Kiš does frequently throughout the book: which is to present characters and situations that are entirely believable, so that one [or certainly I, anyway] will be putting the names into google in order to check that they were not in fact real people. In this way, his work reminds me of the marvellous German writer W.G Sebald.

Up to the Elbows in Blood

Another notable story is the opener, The Knife with the Rosewood Handle. It is set primarily in the Czech Republic and features Miksha, who is described as a man with potential, someone who could be a kind of master craftsman. In the early stages of the story he is working for Reb Mendel, a Jew, whose chickens are being stolen. In the book’s most memorable, and terrible, scene Miksha captures the culprit, a skunk, and expertly skins it alive. There is, Kiš suggests, a kind of anti-semitism in the act, or certainly an eagerness to make a mockery of Mendel’s faith and belief in ‘the Talmudic prattle about the equality of all God’s creatures.’ The longer we spend with Miksha the more we come to realise that violence defines his existence. For example, once Mendel dismisses him he gets a job slaughtering lambs and is said to spend his time up to his elbows in blood.

However, killing animals is obviously not Kiš’ real focus. He uses it as a way of foreshadowing Miksha’s later behaviour, and as a way of making a point about the brutality of Stalin’s Communism. While working for a rich landowner Miksha becomes involved in revolutionary activity, which results in him murdering an innocent young woman, Hanna Krzyzewska, who had been denounced as a traitor. As previously noted, denunciations were not rare in Communist states, and the result was often the same as it is for Hanna i.e. death. So what we see here is a mirroring of Miksha’s professional life with the political, whereby Hanna is another one of his sacrificial lambs. Moreover, one of the aspects of tyrannical Communistic thinking is the belief in the unimportance of the individual, in the idea that there is nothing sacred about a single life, that it can and will be taken in order to serve the greater good, and this is also Miksha’s attitude, both, one could argue, in terms of Hanna and the animals.

To return to the idea of mirroring, it is also interesting to note that Miksha doesn’t merely kill the skunk, he tortures it, and that he too comes to be tortured towards the end of the story. This is a reminder of another aspect of Stalinism, which was people being brutalised by the very regime they believed in, and worked to bring about. Tellingly, when Miksha moves to Russia he doesn’t find empathy, understanding, and community, he finds cruelty. He was exploited by the bourgeoisie, and made to kill their lambs, and exploited by the Communists, and made to kill Hanna. As with almost every story in the collection, Kiš concludes The Knife with the Rosewood Handle matter-of-factly, with a brief paragraph full of unpleasantness.

You Cannot Hide from History

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[Left: Boris Nikolayevich Rozenfeld: Russian Jew; born 1908 in St. Petersburg; higher education; no party affiliation; engineer of the Mosenergo company; lived in Moscow. Arrested on January 31, 1935. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Prisoner of Byelomoro-Baltisky complex of camps in Karelia. Transported from the camp to Moscow on April 12, 1937. Sentenced to death and executed on July 13, 1937. Rehabilitated in 1990.]

As one begins each story in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich one knows how it will end – with suffering, with torture, with death – because not even fiction can hide from history. There may never have been a Boris Davidovich, but there were, all the same, thousands upon thousands of Boris Davidovich’s. With that in mind, I want to conclude with a quote from a man called Victor Serge, a real man, a real revolutionary, whose life seems as fabled and extraordinary as anyone in this book, and whose fate, by some accounts, was to be another Boris Davidovich.**

“I have outlived three generations of brave men, mistaken as they may have been, to whom I was deeply attached, and whose memory remains dear to me. And here again, I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to live a life devoted wholly to a cause which one believes to be just; a life, that is, where one refuses to separate thought from daily action. The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian Revolution are probably all dead — any exceptions are only by a miracle. All were brave, all sought a principle of life nobler and juster than that of surrender to the bourgeois order; except perhaps for certain young men, disillusioned and crushed before their consciousness had crystallized, all were engaged in movements for progress. I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me; and that this feeling has been for me also the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.”

♥♥♥

* During the peak period of Stalin’s purges his secret police were estimated to have killed 1000 people per day.

** It is suggested by some that Serge was poisoned on Stalin’s orders on 17th November 1947.

FICCIONES BY JORGE LUIS BORGES

I owe the discovery of El Matrero to Harper Lee. Five years ago I was spending the evening with my friend Renaldo Compostella, and, as was often the way, literature was our main topic of conversation. Renaldo, who always, or certainly more than I, kept an eye on forthcoming releases and bookish news, happened to mention the scheduled publication of a new novel by Harper Lee, the American authoress famous for To Kill a Mockingbird. The ensuing discussion was notable not for what we had to say about Lee and her work, but because it led Compostella to bemoaning the lack of specific details concerning the publication of the recently unearthed novel by Jorge Luis Borges. My friend, in so casually dropping this information into the conversation, must have thought that I was aware of such a discovery, but of course I was not. Borges wrote a large number of intelligent, speculative, metaphysical short stories, but he did not, to my knowledge, ever write a novel.

Compostella expressed surprise at my ignorance and asked me if I had ever read Ficciones, a small [roughly 140 pp] volume of the Argentine’s stories, comprising two collections, The Garden of the Forking Paths and Artifices, in which, he said, the novel was first referenced. I replied that naturally I had read it, but that I did not recall any mention of a novel, either within the text itself or within John Sturrock’s introduction. My friend laughed and said that I must have skipped the footnotes. I assured him that I had not skipped anything, and, as I had a hardcover Everyman’s Library edition [Alfred A. Knoff, 1993] in my apartment, I took it down from the bookshelf and handed it to him, with the instruction that he find me the relevant page.

Compostella opened the slim volume and, as is often the case when you pass someone a book, flicked through it, seemingly distracted from the matter at hand. Indeed, he was keen to talk about the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which he called a particular favourite. Compostella’s opinion was that it was about ‘Godlessness and playing God,’ which, despite my desire that he find the footnote in relation to Borges’ novel, piqued my interest. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius involves Borges’ search for, or investigation into, a number of books that outline every aspect of an imaginary planet or civilisation, including their language, customs, psychology, and so on. It seems to me that the story is about many things, about language and how it directs thought, about the possibilities of human imagination, about mirrors and how different cultures are a distorted reflection of your own.

My friend conceded all of these ideas, but pointed out that prior to the invention of Tlön the only person responsible for the creation of a planet or civilisation was God; that if human beings start to create planets etc then God is unnecessary, because he becomes just another man. I was of course very interested in all of this, but, being aware that it was getting late, I had to draw his attention back to Borges’ novel. Compostella again flicked through Ficciones and came to a stop somewhere in the centre, in the middle of the story The Library of Babel. He turned one particular page, page 63, over and back numerous times. It is not here, he told me, by which he meant the footnote, which, he assured me, was present in his own first edition copy of Ficciones, but was evidently absent from mine. At this point I considered it a fine joke at my expense, and bundled my friend out of the door.

However, about an hour later my telephone started to ring. It was Renaldo Compostella. He told me that he had just arrived home, that he had dug out his copy of Ficciones, and had indeed found the footnote. Your copy, he said, must be subject to a printing error, or perhaps, as a later edition, the footnote had been expunged for reasons we can only guess at. I asked him to read to me the footnote, which, it turned out, was very short: ‘Very soon I hope to complete and publish my own novel.’ Although this information, this promise or tease, was certainly interesting, my excitement was tempered by the lack of concrete information. I reminded Compostella that Borges was a writer who consistently imagined unwritten books, often even outlining their plot, like in the story The Approach of Al-Mu’tasim. I also pointed out that part of his appeal is that he did not draw clear lines between fact and fiction, that one was never sure in his stories what was true and what was not, because nearly everything he wrote appeared plausible.

Moreover, Borges, so often described as an impersonal author, was actually the most personal, in that he almost always used himself and details about his own life as part of his fiction. So, it did not seem too much of a stretch to suppose that the novel he refers to is itself a fiction, an imaginary novel, and that the suggestion of its existence was part of a [not out-of-character] labyrinthian game he was playing. However, my friend replied that for years he had thought this too, but reminded me that it had recently been announced that the novel had been unearthed, and it was currently being readied for publication through Penguin in the UK and US. Well, this changed everything, of course. I asked him how I could find out more, and he said that if I googled Borges and El Matrero I was bound to turn up numerous articles, as the discovery was a big deal in literary circles. At this, I thanked Compostella and hung up the phone and switched on my computer.

After googling the recommended terms I was introduced to various articles, including pieces in the Guardian, The Independent, Le Monde and El País. However, according to the articles that were returned by my search El Matrero was not written by Jorge Luis Borges, but by Pierre Menard, a previously unpublished protégé of the Argentine’s. At first glance, this suggested that my friend had jumped the gun, and was not perhaps in full possession of the facts, yet, being a fan of Borges’ work, and having read all of his collections numerous times, I was aware that the name Pierre Menard features in Ficciones as the author of Don Quixote. The story, called, in Spanish, Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, appears to be about a fictional French writer who re-writes Don Quixote word-for-word. The central idea being that this newer version, Menard’s, is richer than the original because it can be viewed in terms of more recent world events, by which we mean more recent than 1602, of course.

In light of these articles, I was forced to ask myself, did Pierre Menard actually exist? Certainly, while one would assume that he did not, as Borges claimed, re-write Don Quixote, this naturally does not mean that, if he did exist, for surely he is dead now, he did not write the recently unearthed El Matrero. And yet if he did write the novel, why exactly is this a cause for excitement? It is worth noting that the story in Ficciones featuring Pierre Menard is, at least partly, concerned with authorship and plagiarism, is about who, if anyone, owns a work. So one might wonder, as indeed does Caroline Hurst in the Guardian, whether Pierre Menard is simply a pseudonym for Borges himself, that Borges wrote the novel – El Matrero – as Menard, as one of his own fictional authors. Yet other commentators reject this idea, claiming, perhaps rightly, that as the footnote does not specify a title, or suggest a plot or theme, the novel referred to in Ficciones is not El Matrero.

Even after a more extensive internet search I could not turn up any information relating to a writer called Pierre Menard, except in reference to the Borges’ story that has already been discussed. Therefore, I decided to reread The Library of Babel, which, as already noted, Renaldo Compostella claimed contained the footnote that first makes mention of a novel by Jorge Luis Borges. The Library of Babel, or La biblioteca de Babel, imagines the universe as a vast library, which houses every possible book, featuring every possible permutation of letters, and which, as a result, will contain many volumes of pure gibberish but also every possible piece of information, including that relating to the future and to your own life.

If Compostella was to be believed, it would indeed make sense that it is here that Borges would mention the novel that he had apparently been working on, as it would, naturally, also exist within the library of Babel. However, the veracity of the information contained within the footnote now seemed even more doubtful. In the footnote, as passed on to me by Compostella, Borges mentions a novel that he hopes to complete and publish, but ‘hopes to complete’ only suggests that he has started it, when in fact he may not have put even one word down on paper. I may hope to complete a marathon, without ever taking part in the race. Furthermore, the library would of course still contain a copy of his novel, regardless of whether he had started it or not, because it contains copies of all books, past present and future.

Weary of mentally going round in circles without any real progress I put the matter out of mind, and vowed to wait for the publication of Pierre Menard’s work, El Matrero, hoping that this would make everything clear.

*

Postscript. Some months after the night described above, the novel El Matrero by Pierre Menard was published to rapturous acclaim, being voted the book of the year in many publications, newspapers, magazines. The critical praise was so intense that the public caught on, and Menard’s book was the year’s biggest seller. Indeed, Menard’s reputation became such that it was almost universally agreed that it was he, and not Borges, who had written Ficciones, The Aleph and so on, because only someone as talented as Menard could possibly have composed those stories. Jorge Luis Borges, ran popular opinion, was merely a pseudonym for, a creation of, Pierre Menard, whose life has become the subject of endless speculation.

RED CAVALRY BY ISAAC BABEL

It took me quite a long time to realise that I’m a bit odd. Seriously, for ages I thought I was perfectly normal. Then, a minor epiphany. I was in my room with this girl, who just wanted to get it on, had been impatiently waiting, I later learned, to get in on with me for a couple of hours, and I was rambling on about some Hungarian novel I was reading and trying to convince her of how great the production on Cam’ron’s Oh Boy is when she said to me: ‘you’re really eccentric.’ ‘Bollocks I am,’ I replied. She looked at me affectionately, but with a disbelieving smirk. ‘Don’t you want to kiss me?’ she asked. ‘Sure, why not,’ I said. And we did get it on in the end. But by being the first person ever to say it to my face it brought home to me that, while I’m so wrapped up in myself and my peculiar preoccupations, my behaviour might strike other people as unusual. Like the time I let a spider live in my room because when I went to kill it it appeared to flinch.; or when I decided to walk home from another town, a journey that took me roughly 5 hours, in the wind and rain, because I didn’t want to wait ten minutes for the next bus. Anyway, most of the time I am just that, just eccentric, but sometimes it morphs into something more heavy duty.

All this is a way of working up to a confession that I’ve been feeling pretty weird lately. Not depressed, just kind of disconnected. It’s as though no one can touch me, nothing can draw a genuine reaction from me; I feel as though I am living behind glass. Everything becomes difficult at these times, everything becomes a chore, even the briefest interaction [although I’m good at faking, at being able to cover my tracks]. This isn’t a new state of affairs; I periodically have these episodes. It’ll pass; it always does. I mention it because my response to this, my second reading of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, was, in a sense, inauthentic; and that bothers me. That’s not to say that Red Cavalry isn’t a moving reading experience. It is. As acknowledged, I’ve read it before and it damn near killed me on that occasion. But I do wonder if perhaps my choosing to read it again now was a cynical tactic to try and shock myself out of my current mood. I don’t like that; I am aware of my guilt in using these terrible events, whether fictional or not, as a kind of electric shock therapy.

I feel like the best, most honest, thing I can do, then, is to write about my first reading. I can vividly recall my response to the opening story in this collection when I started it a couple of years ago. My initial reaction was a kind of relief, and excitement. I knew immediately that Babel was a great writer. It was one image, the description of the sun as like a severed head that did it. That still gives me a literary hard-on. However, that admiration soon turned to apprehension as I reached the end of the short tale. A description of the details of this story, in anything other than Babel’s words, would, I think, fall short. But, to avoid quoting large sections of the text [and these stories are, on average, only a couple of pages in length anyway], I’ll say briefly that it involves a man bunking down in a room with a few others. During the night he is woken by a woman, who tells him that he has been kicking her dad in his sleep. Her dad, it turns out, is dead; has been hacked to pieces. It’s the fact that the girl is so concerned about her dead father, about the sanctity of his body, that slays you. He is the best father in the world, where would I find another father like this, she says. Jesus Christ. And you might be shouting at the screen right now: stop spoiling it, you prick. But I don’t need to worry about spoilers, in this instance, because these stories don’t rely on twists and turns; indeed, there’s a horrible inevitability to them, a brutal matter-of-factness [despite the superior prose].

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[Red Cavalry by Kazimir Malévichy – 1930]

I intended, when I came to write a review of this, to spend some time discussing Lenin, the Cossacks, the Reds and the Whites, but I’ve realised that none of that stuff is necessary. For those that are interested in that kind of thing, Isaac Babel was present during the conflicts he writes about [he was a commander in Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army], and the people who pass through and the incidents [in the broadest sense] he describes or namechecks are real. Yet, to make a big deal of that side of things means one is in danger of giving the impression that these stories will only appeal to a small readership – Russian historians, or whatever – and that is not the case. There’s a universality on display here. This could be any war, really; any battle. And the miserable nature of war, the awful ways that people are capable of behaving towards each other are not specific to any time or era or particular incident. I say awful things, by the way, because there is very little to cheer you up here, there really isn’t any positivity. In, say, War & Peace there are those moments, those moments of camaraderie for example, that might warm your heart. You’ll be looking for a long time if you try finding those in Red Cavalry.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that generally speaking I find short stories unsatisfactory. Babel, to a large extent, side-steps those aspects of short stories that I struggle with. These stories work as snapshots, as parts of a broader picture. It’s like someone taking a huge painting and cutting it up into smaller pieces, and showing them to you piece by piece, thereby drawing your eye to the little details you might have missed. I liked that. It appeals to me far more than 20-30 stories that are all about completely different things, themes, events shoved together in one volume.  There is some continuity of characters too; and that helps to unify the work.

I want to touch on one last thing before I finish. My review of Babel’s Collected Stories is one line, this one:

‘Prose to die for. Literally.’

That strikes me as just shitty sloganeering now, but what I meant by it is Isaac Babel, who did not, or would not, write about the events he witnessed in such a way as to glorify the Russian people and the Russian government, who would not always uncritically toe the party line, was eventually arrested, tortured and killed by his own people [I read somewhere that it was actually due to his having an affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov, but that seems odd to me]. According to Nathalie Babel Brown:

“…his trial took place on January 26, 1940, in one of Lavrenti Beria’s private chambers. It lasted about twenty minutes. The sentence had been prepared in advance and without ambiguity: death by firing squad, to be carried out immediately. Babel had been convicted of ‘active participation in an anti-Soviet Trotskyite organization,’ and of ‘being a member of a terrorist conspiracy, as well as spying for the French and Austrian governments.’ Babel’s last recorded words in the proceedings were, ‘I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others… I am asking for only one thing — let me finish my work.’ He was shot the next day and his body was thrown into a communal grave.”

I guess that puts things in perspective.

THE BURNING PLAIN [EL LLANO EN LLAMAS] BY JUAN RULFO

The Burning Plain is, on the face of it, a collection of short stories. As with Babel’s Red Cavalry [which was perhaps an influence on the work], however, it feels more like a novel wherein each chapter is concerned with a different character and situation; there is a very clear thread linking each story, which is the plains of the title. The setting of the stories is a constant, and this consistency of place reminded me of Ivo Andric’s great novel The Bridge on the Drina. I’ve heard people complain about short stories, saying that it is frustrating to have to accustom yourself to new characters, new themes, new settings, every couple of pages, and Rulfo’s work pretty much negates those concerns; while there is no crossover of characters one feels with each new story almost as though one has merely moved a couple of doors down, not moved into another world completely. Rulfo’s stories have a unified vision; they are trying to tell you something about what life was like for the people who lived in rural Mexico, not about the lives of disparate people with a host of different backgrounds, ideas, and approaches to the world.

It is probably fair to warn you that this unified vision is that life on the plains is near-unparalleled misery. This is perhaps the most grim collection I have ever read. Nearly every story features despair, desperation, death, murder, and extreme poverty. Three stories stood out for me, and by giving a brief description of each of them you’ll get some idea of what you’re getting yourself into if you read the book. In the first, a bunch of plainsmen wander, almost deliriously, around the desolate plains, grumbling, mumbling and gabbling to themselves about their situation. They’ve been given this land, and yet the land is worthless; nothing grows there, there is no rain, no life, no hope. I was reminded of King Lear but most strongly of Beckett and his physically and mentally oppressed characters who we always meet already knee-deep in some absurd situation from which they cannot escape, like being unable to get out of bed, or off the floor, or being buried up to the neck.

The second story I want to mention also reminded me of Beckett; it features a man, a father, carrying his dying son on his back. He is attempting to get him to a place where he can receive medical treatment. The absurdity of this situation is that he can’t put the boy down, for if he did he wouldn’t have the strength to raise him back up to his previous position. The heart of this darkly humorous tale, the bit that jabs at your funny bone and your heart simultaneously, is that the father no longer likes his son, who is a murderer and a robber. So, there you have it: an old man dragging his exhausted body on, while carrying his violent but dying son on his back, as, as he tells it, his last act of fatherly affection and responsibility. I mean, fucking hell.

The third story is the one that touched me most personally, for reasons I’m not really going to get into but which relates to the intense affinity I feel for women and particularly those who find themselves in, what we’ll call, a bad situation. Here we have a young girl, whose father had given her a cow. The plains flood and the girl’s brother and father suspect that the cow might have been washed away. That would be sad enough, y’know, a girl and her cow and all that, especially if Michael Jackson’s Ben makes you sob, but the real heartbreaking aspect of this situation is that her family predict that without the cow, without the small amount of money it would bring in, the girl will turn to prostitution in order to make a living, like her sisters did. Goddamn. Rulfo concludes this story:

“She’s right here at my side, in her pink dress, looking at the river from the top of the ravine, unable to stop crying. Streams of dirty water run down her face as though the river were inside her[…]Her two little breasts bob up and down, continually, as if they had suddenly begun to swell, bringing her ever closer to perdition.”

And that little quote is a neat way of showcasing his skill, not just with situations and plots, but his talent as a prose-writer. Rulfo was a very fine stylist, an excellent writer of prose. I wrote earlier about how this collection reminds me of Isaac Babel [it reminds me too, very strongly, of Cormac McCarthy], and it was Babel’s ability to impress me with his prose and stab at my heart with his anecdotes that makes Red Cavalry one of the greatest short story collections. The Burning Plain is another. We’re talking the best of the best here, folks.

–♦–

SOME EXTRA WAFFLE AND BULLSHIT

The book titled The Burning Plain is no longer in print. It has been replaced by a new title and a new translation. Indeed, I chose to read the book again primarily because a couple of weeks ago I just happened to come across this more recent translation and I wanted to suck it and see. Well, I sucked and it, er, tasted both good and bad. It’s strange because generally speaking I thought the prose was better, and yet there are occasional phrases or sentences that are incredibly clumsy [I remember one that contained a had had had!!]. Having read the introduction the translators prided themselves on their work being more accurate than the previous, as they always do, so perhaps the clumsiness is to be found in Rulfo too. Who knows.

I find the vagaries of translation incredibly frustrating, and it’s something I try not to think about too much as I’d probably lose my fucking mind. Some time ago I bought a collection of Akutagawa’s stories called Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, primarily because of the cover:

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I knew it was translated by Jay Rubin, whose translations I can’t bear, but I figured the cover meant it was worth giving him another go. Anyway, a couple of stories in and I couldn’t take it any longer,and so I threw it down and have not picked it back up since. Recently I decided I wanted to read some more Akutagawa, so I started scouting for different translations. As I did so I came across this comparison, which is two different takes on the same line from one of Akutagawa’s stories:

De Wolf: …the presence in that same pillow of a centaur quite escaped his notice.

JAY RUBIN has it: That even such a pillow might hold a god half-horse, he remained unaware.

And, well, I dunno. What can you say about that? I mean, God Half Horse? Thing is, I’m sure Rubin would say that in the text the Japanese word used by Akutagawa isn’t equivalent to centaur, but, for me, it is the translators job to make sure that your English makes sense, while retaining the essence of the original. I have never felt as though Rubin does this; it’s almost as though he always deliberately chooses the naffest, most banal word or expression available to him. So what if the word in Japanese isn’t directly translatable as centaur, the point is that he should have enough of a feel for English and respect for his source material to make more successful decisions regarding word choices etc, i.e. that even if god half horse [fml] is more accurate you ought to be aware of how horrendous that sounds in English and work harder to come up with something else. And, yeah, you might say: cut him some slack, perhaps Akutagawa couldn’t string a coherent sentence together either [I’ve chosen not to mention, so far, how that line I quoted doesn’t even make sense, the word order being almost impossibly ugly and confusing]. And, uh, yeah maybe, but in that case it’s some coincidence that Rubin seems to gravitate towards writers that couldn’t, like, write.

In any case, in terms of the collection, and translation, under review here the missteps, boom moments, etc are never so glaring and for that we should be thankful. In the main the new translation is readable, smooth, and maintains a Latin American atmosphere [which isn’t easy when one is dealing with something that is meant to represent the speech of uneducated working class people, and where occasional slang is necessary]. The biggest misstep for me is the title, The Plain in Flames, which, yes, more closely resembles the original El Llano en llamas, but, in English, is clunky and less poetic.

Finally, this edition [the one I read over the weekend] reintroduces 2 stories cut from The Burning Plain. There are 17 in total.