CategoryShort Fiction

The Drover’s Wives – Ryan O’Neill

Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer now resident in Australia. His previous book, Their Brilliant Careers (which I haven’t got around to yet), was a set of ‘biographies’ of fictitious Australian writers. The Drover’s Wives also plays around with Australian literary history: inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, O’Neill has reinterpreted a classic Australian short story – ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson – in 101 different ways (two more in the UK edition than the Australian original).

First of all, if you don’t know the source story (as I didn’t previously), it doesn’t matter. Lawson’s 1892 original is reprinted at the front of O’Neill’s book (you can also read it here). It’s the story of an (unnamed) woman living with her children in a remote house in the Bush. Her husband has been away with his sheep for six months. On the day of the story, a snake has hidden under the house. The woman stays up all night, thinking back over her married life and more recent times, waiting for the snake to re-emerge.

The entries in The Drover’s Wives cover a bewildering range of styles and forms. Part of the fun (and this book is a lot of fun to read) lies in not knowing what’s coming up next, but just to give a few chapter titles: ‘Hemingwayesque’, ‘A Real Estate Advertisement’, ‘A 1980s Computer Game’, ‘Wordsearch’ – even a chart of paint swatches on the back cover.

Perhaps it doesn’t do to get too analytical here. The Drover’s Wives effectively lampoons its own criticism, with spoof reviews and essays, and a meandering ‘Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ (“I suppose this is more of a comment than a question”). But I do appreciate how O’Neill brings out different themes in Lawson’s story, and looks at it from different viewpoints – one entry, ‘Biographical’, serves to remind that the story is actually covering quite a short, not necessarily significant, part of its protagonist’s life.

The mood also changes. I was particularly touched by the ‘Backwards’ chapter, which not only retells the story in reverse, but also flips around cause and effect, so that good impossibly comes from bad (“Fond memories she had of the floods receding and repairing the house and dam, and the bushfire that had come and turned all the charred grass green again”). For all the variety of styles, O’Neill often keeps Lawson’s closing image of “sickly daylight” breaking over the bush; after a while, this has an almost incantatory feel when it comes around again.

In short, The Drover’s Wives is highly enjoyable, constantly surprising, and well worth your time.

Special offer

Lightning Books, the publisher, are currently offering a free copy of Their Brilliant Careers if you order The Drover’s Wives from their website. See Scott Pack’s comment on this post for details.

Book details

The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill, Lightning Books, 264 pages, paperback.

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Taeko Kono

It’s August, which means Women in Translation Month (founded by Meytal from Biblibio). My reading for 2019 starts in Japan, with this collection of stories by Taeko Kono (1926-2015), all originally published in the 1960s. Kono’s tales explore the darker undercurrents of their protagonists’ lives and desires. For example, the title story concerns Akiko, who can’t bear the sight of little girls. They remind her of a pupa she once saw in science class.

Akiko dotes on little boys, however. She has a habit of buying expensive boys’ clothes and choosing a friend’s son to give them to, almost on a whim – often to the consternation of the friend in question. Kono’s unflinching eye makes even the smallest interactions in the story disquieting, as the reader tries to piece together where Akiko is coming from.

In ‘Night Journey’, a couple head into town one Saturday evening to look for their friends whom they had invited for dinner. Kono fills in the history of their friendship along the way, while the present-day journey grows ever more charged:

Nobody had ever lived in this half-finished house, Fukuko realized: such places have their own peculiar atmosphere, different from that of an old abandoned house. An abandoned house would be creepy and cold, too frightening to enter. But this one almost seemed to taunt her with its own strange vitality. There was nothing hateful about it, but she felt an urge to scrawl graffiti on the broad doorframe of bare wood, or throw a wooden clog through an empty second-floor window.
(translation by Lucy North)

Past and present develop in parallel, until it becomes uncertain where either the friendship or tonight’s travels will go next. Kono’s stories often end on ambiguous images that linger once the reading is done, refusing to resolve into easy explanations.

Book details

Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, tr. Lucy North with one story tr. Lucy Lower (1996), New Directions, 274 pages, paperback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

Anthology review: Zero Hours on the Boulevard

There have been a few anthologies published recently in response to the current political climate. I reviewed one, Tempest, last month – and today I have another. Zero Hours on the Boulevard (ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans) comes from the Welsh publisher Parthian and is subtitled ‘Tales of Independence and Belonging’. It includes a mixture of English-language originals and translated pieces, often revolving around how individuals may relate to their surroundings (whether old or new). An opening poem in three languages sets the tone: in ‘Lands of Mine’, Hanan Issa writes about being one person from multiple places.

One story that I found particularly affecting is ‘A Birthday Card From the Queen’ by the Maltese writer Clare Azzopardi (tr. Albert Gatt). Old Kelinu spends most of his time making tea, even though he doesn’t like drinking it. He struggles to come to terms with the contemporary world, thinks things were better in days of Empire, and waits patiently for his hundredth birthday when he’ll receive a card from the Queen. The sense is clear that Kelinu is a figure out of time, and his grip on life may be fragile; but there are some piercing moments, such as this, where Kelinu remembers his late wife Maria:

When the tea has cooled he pours it into the sink. He puts a lot of washing-up liquid into the glass and lets the foam rise and rise, then he rinses the glass and rinses away Maria’s face, the white dress gliding across the carpet of a humble church and the hard years that followed. Maria lying in the throes of her illness, heavy as the rain clouds dimming in the light of the room. Nothing remained of Maria’s pear-shaped body, nothing but foam.

Some of the pieces in Zero Hours on the Boulevard concern characters who move (or have moved) to a new place. In ‘When Elephants Fight’, Cameroon-born and Wales-based Eric Ngalle Charles describes his daughter being deeply concerned about what Brexit means for her and asking him where he’s really from. He tells the harrowing tale of what caused him to leave Cameroon, which gives her a new dimension of understanding. ‘The Book of New Words’ by Eluned Gramich sees a German girl start school in England, where she finds the nuances of language rather different from what she’s learned so far. By the time she returns to Germany, her sense of self has shifted. Durre Shahwar‘s ‘Split’ is the short but powerful tale of a woman turned away from the Life in the UK test on a technicality, and Faiza, the invigilator whose mother took that same test in the past. Faiza worries for the woman she glimpses through the Test Centre doors, but is grimly reminded of how little she can do to help.

Other stories in the book revolve around dealing with changes to a familiar place. ‘Mercy’ by Lloyd Markham (an extract from his novel Bad Ideas\Chemicals) takes us to a near-future (or alternative-present) Wales. 19-year-old Louie Jones is trying to jump through the hoops of ‘Careers, Lifestyle & Attitudes’ when he is assigned a work placement at the Mercy Clinic, which leads him to reconsider his relationship with his alcoholic father. This piece is a rush of developments that straddle the borderline between absurd and chillingly plausible. In ‘The Garden’ by Slovak writer Uršul’a Kovalyk (tr. Peter and Julia Sherwood), Ela moves to a new flat in the capital, her modestly-paid job leaving her in a precarious position. She finds the apartment building’s beautiful terraced garden a source of peace, and gets to know Boženska, the old woman who has lived in the building for decades and looks after the garden. The history of the garden comes to stand in for the changing world outside – and, as so many of the stories in this anthology underline, change comes to everywhere and everyone.

Book details

Zero Hours on the Boulevard (2019) ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans, Parthian Books, 248 pages, paperback.

Animalia Paradoxa – Henrietta Rose-Innes

Animalia Paradoxa is one of the first fiction titles from Boiler House Press, a small imprint based at the University of East Anglia. It’s a story collection by Henrietta Rose-Innes, a South African writer whom I first read when her story ‘Sanctuary’ came second in the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award.

‘Sanctuary’ opens this collection, and it was a pleasure to read again. The narrator describes travelling to a campsite through a series of wire fence gates, and encountering a family staying at a nearby lion sanctuary. In the morning, there has been an accident: it seems the father has been attacked by a lion. But it soon becomes clear to the narrator (and us) that something else has gone on; the story is all the more powerful for what it leaves unsaid. When the narrator leaves with the family, the group passes through those gates again:

I drove through and waited while [the family’s mother] did up the complex metal knot, and then we moved on again, making good our slow, methodical escape. Over and over we did this again, locking ourselves out for good, locking it all away behind us…

At this point, the gates represent much more than a means of traversing a fence: this is leaving behind an old life, never to return.

Several of Rose-Innes’ stories work like this, with something in the environment serving as a metaphor for what’s happening to the protagonist. One of my favourites is ‘The Boulder’, which sees teenage Dan staying with his girlfriend at her parents’ holiday home. Dan feels he doesn’t belong, like the boulder which has fallen down the mountainside and now intrudes upon the lawn. The tension of that feeling builds to a wry conclusion. In ‘The Leopard Trap’, Daniela takes a breather from her marriage by driving out to stay in an unfamiliar farmhouse. She comes across a little enclosure once used by hunters for capturing leopards; her ambivalence about the place comes to reflect how she views her relationship.

Some of the stories in Animalia Paradoxa venture into more fantastical territory. ‘Limerence’ concerns a woman with a condition that induces involuntary feelings of – well, desire, if not quite love. There’s some wonderful imagery in this piece, to match the intense rush of the protagonist’s emotional state. In ‘The Bronze Age’, a man has travelled from Johannesburg to the UK, to spend a week with his son Robbie. They visit a historical site, and the man then finds that Robbie has brought home a flint knife that he feels he needs for protection. In this story, the Bronze Age represents the distance that exists between father and son, adulthood and childhood – Robbie taking part in historical activities when it’s not how his father imagined the day would go; their differing attitudes towards the knife. A closing vision of the Bronze Age itself makes the father realise just how far apart he is from his son.

I found Animalia Paradoxa an evocative and affecting collection of stories. It leaves me keen to read more of Rose-Innes’ work, and to see what else Boiling House Press has in store.

Book details

Animalia Paradoxa (2019) by Henrietta Rose-Innes, Boiler House Press, 228 pages, paperback.

Tempest: an Anthology

Tempest (ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson) is a new anthology from Patrician Press themed around the current ‘tempestuous’ political climate. It brings together fiction, non-fiction and poetry; as I’m more of a fiction reader, I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite stories.

‘The wall’ by Emma Bamford is a good example of how voice can shape a story. It’s narrated by a builder talking to his mates down the pub (“Lord, can’t a man get a bit of peace with his pint of an evening after a hard day’s labour? If I tell you, will you leave me be?”). The story his friends are so keen to hear concerns the time he was invited to America to work on a new border wall, and it didn’t work out quite as anticipated. The homely narrative voice does just enough to push the tale to one side of reality (it’s a voice that doesn’t belong in the situation it’s describing), without losing sight of the seriousness beneath.

Some of the stories in Tempest work as evocative snapshots of a strange new world, and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. ‘The carp whisperer’ by Petra McQueen and Katy Wimhurst takes us to a highly stratified world of water shortages. The protagonist is mistaken for someone who can talk to – and maybe even shapeshift into – carp. All this comes together into a striking final image of rebellion.

Justine Sless’ ‘Tempest on Tyneside’ is another of these strange snapshots. In a country beset by storms and prone to flooding, everyone is still heading to the North East for the football. But first a visitor, Miranda, has to work out the underlying geology and make sure its safe. I think that’s what she is doing, anyway; I must admit, I didn’t grasp everything that’s going on in this story. Still, it doesn’t matter to me, not when there’s such spectacle to fill the mind as the image of hundreds of football supporters on bikes descending on a brightly lit stadium while a storm rages at sea.

‘Fenner’ by Suzy Norman is a poignant tale of trying to move on after loss. It is ten years since the narrator’s musician husband, Ray, died, and now Dewi, a film-maker, wants to make a tribute to him. The narrator accepts Dewi’s request for an interview, but this stirs up old memories and brings change to the old house she shared with Ray. Norman’s writing carefully illuminates the very beginning of a new future for the protagonist.

Book details

Tempest: an Anthology (2019), ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, Patrician Press, 178 pages, paperback.

My favourite books read in 2018

By accident rather than design, I read less in 2018 than I had in quite some time. However, unlike last year, it feels right to do my usual list of twelve favourites. One thing that really stands out to me is what a good year it’s been for short story collections – I have four on my list, more than ever before. 2018 was also the year when I started reviewing for Splice, and you’ll see that reflected in my list, too.

As always, the ranking is not meant to be taken too seriously – I like to have a countdown, but really I’d recommend them all. I haven’t differentiated between old and new books, though as it turns out, most are from this year. The links will take you to my original review of each book.

You can also read my previous favourites posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year. It’ll be the tenth anniversary of this blog, so I have some plans for looking back as well as forward.

12. And the Wind Sees All (2011) by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir (2018)

I read this book only a few days ago and it made such an impression that it went straight on to my end-of-year list. Part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series, And the Wind Sees All is set in an Icelandic fishing village, during a couple of minutes during which Kata, the village choir’s conductor, cycles down the main street. Like the wind, the novel flows in and out of the lives of the villagers Kata cycles past, revealing secrets, losses, fears and joys. The writing is gorgeous.

11. Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (2018)

The English-language debut of Colombian writer García Robayo, Fish Soup collects together two novellas and seven short stories. Among others, we meet a young woman so desperate to escape her current life that she can’t see what it’s doing to herself and others; a businessman forced to confront the emptiness in his life; and a student being taught one thing at school while experiencing something quite different in her life outside the classroom. All is told in a wonderfully sardonic voice.

10. Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash

This is a novel of language, motherhood, and biology, told in the voices of a mother in peace-agreement Ulster; the elderly founder of a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. Perhaps more than any other book I read this year, the shape of Three Dreams is a key part of what it means: it’s structured in a way that reflects DNA, and the full picture of the novel emerges from the interaction of its different strands.

9. Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (2018)

This was a book that had me from the title. A composite of corpses comes to life in US-occupied Baghdad. It starts to avenge the victims who make up its component parts, then finds those disintegrating, so it has to keep on killing to survive… and becomes a walking metaphor for self-perpetuating violence. Saadawi’s novel is powerful, horrific, and drily amusing where it needs to be.

8. The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute (2018)

A collection of stories where the extraordinary intrudes on the everyday – such as a cinema showing the never-ending film of someone’s life, or a mysterious treasure trail leading the narrator to an unknown end point. Melnikas’ stories become richer by reflecting on what this strangeness means for the characters, an approach that was right up my street.

7. The White Book (2016) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)

Another deeply felt book from a favourite contemporary writer. The White Book is structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from snow to swaddling bands, all haunted by the spectre of a sister who died before the narrator was born. Reading Han always feels more intimate than with most other writers; her prose cuts like glass, bypassing conscious thought and going straight to the place where reading blurs into living.

6. T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)

My first experience of Solstad’s work, and it’s like reading on a tightrope. A synopsis would make it seem that nothing much is going on, as Solstad’s protagonist seeks anonymity by becoming a librarian in a small town. But the busyness of Singer’s inner life creates a contrast with his essential loneliness, an abyss for the reader to stare into.

5. The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark

Every time I read Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of why I want to read more. Set in a post-war London boarding house for young women, this is a tale of lost (and sometimes found) opportunity and missed communication. I love the way that Spark twists her characters’ (and reader’s) sense of time and space, the undercurrent of dark wit… No doubt there’s even more to see on a re-read.

4. The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood

Everything that Lucy Wood writes ends up in my list of favourites. I love the way that she evokes a sense of mystery lying beneath the interaction of life and place. The stories in The Sing of the Shore are set in off-season Cornwall, a place where children take over other people’s unoccupied second homes, the sand advances and recedes, and both people and things are transient.

3. The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (1993)

I loved this Norwegian classic about a girl trying to come to terms with her friend’s disappearance. Vesaas’ novel is full of the raw sense of selves and friendships being formed, and examines what it takes to find one’s place in a community or landscape. The prose is beautiful, crystalline and jagged, like the frozen waterfall that gives The Ice Palace its title.

2. Mothers (2018) by Chris Power

Stories of family and relationships, travel and searching – each illuminating and resonating with the others. Three stories following the same character’s journey through life form the backbone of Power’s collection. In between, there’s a frustrated stand-up comedian, a couple walking in Exmoor who find their relationship tougher terrain, a chess-like game of flirtation in Paris, and more. I can’t wait to see what Power writes next.

1. Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018)

A novel about a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years, trying to find her own sort of normality. The protagonist’s sense of self is challenged, and the reader is also challenged to empathise with her. Convenience Store Woman is a vivid character study that builds to the most powerful ending I’ve read all year. I won’t forget this book for a long, long time.

Fish Soup – Margarita García Robayo

Here’s one last book for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months and Women in Translation Month. It’s the English-language debut of Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo: a compendium of short fiction translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Edinburgh-based Charco Press, who specialise in Latin American literature. It’s a wonderfully sardonic set of stories.

Fish Soup is bookended by two novellas. In the first, Waiting for a Hurricane, a young woman longs to leave her home by the sea for… well, something more (“you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead,” she reflects). The narrator embarks on a series of relationships which she hopes will facilitate an escape (for example, she takes a job as an air hostess, then becomes involved with the Captain), but doesn’t appreciate what impact all this is having on her family, her lovers, and herself.

The closing Sexual Education is previously unpublished. It’s narrated by a student at a Catholic school who is part of a group taking a new abstinence class in place of standard sex education. However, what she’s being taught in class is rather different from what’s going on among her social group. For example, one girl is being persuaded by an older boy that a certain sexual position is not sinful, but actually allowed by the catechism. The narrator isn’t fooled:

The darkest mysteries – the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Grail – all became much clearer after being doctored by some con man who wanted something in return: a bag of coins, divine grace, Karina’s ass. It was all the same.

As so often in García Robayo’s stories, this bitter humour sits alongside something much darker. If Waiting for the Hurricane is the story of someone who refuses to see what she’s doing to herself and the world around her, the protagonist of Sexual Education is forced to question herself deeply.

Between the two novellas in Fish Soup is a collection of seven short stories with the overall title Worse Things. These pieces frequently feature protagonists who are distanced from life in some way; the stories then often lead to a point of change (or at least reflection). So, for example, in ‘You Are Here’, news of an accident at the airport and an awkward conversation with a young woman at his hotel give a businessman cause to face up to the emptiness in his life. In ‘Better Than Me’, an academic tries to persuade his estranged daughter to let him visit her; it’s a case of closely examining his life to find what might enable him to speak to her. In ‘Like a Pariah’, a woman with cancer has retreated to an old country house to convalesce, but her relationships with others may prove as difficult to handle (if not more so) than any illness.

There’s a lot to like in Fish Soup, and a distinctive voice to explore. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it.

Book details

Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe (2018), Charco Press, 212 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The Last Day – Jaroslavas Melnikas

From my point of view, it’s been a good year for new story collections. Now, admittedly, I’ve only read three, but all have been superb. First, there was Mothers by Chris Power, then, more recently, Lucy Wood’s The Sing of the Shore. My third collection is the latest Lithuanian title from Noir Press, and the English-language debut by Ukrainian-Lithuanian writer Jaroslavas Melnikas.

Across these eight stories, Melnikas’ protagonists will typically be nondescript individuals to whom something extraordinary happens, and they’ll have cause to reflect on what this means for their life. For example, the narrator of ‘On the Road’ receives a call from someone telling him to go to a certain place. When he arrives, there’s someone with directions to another place, where our man receives further directions, and so on, and so on. Food and lodgings are provided wherever the protagonist goes, by strangers who have been asked (by persons unknown) to help him. This guy may not know where he’s going or why, but he likes it:

Though my life is no longer my own, I feel I’m doing something important here. Everything that happens is important. And to be honest, it’s none of my business what it’s all about. I can sense the importance of it. Something inside me has lit up.

(translation by Marija Marcinkute)

The narrator has left his wife and daughter to go on his strange odyssey, and the story examines what it is to step away from one’s existing life. In the case of this character, he has effectively moved into a parallel world – but there are consequences for both him and those left behind, which he will have to confront eventually.

In ‘It Never Ends’, the long story that closes the book, Volodia also steps away from his everyday life, though in a rather different way. He finds an old cinema showing a strangely compelling film about a woman called Liz. This film runs constantly, 24 hours a day, but Volodia can’t find out anything about it, nor about who runs the cinema. Still, he’ll go there all hours to find out what’s happening to Liz; and he notices other regulars, particularly a young woman referred to only as “the scarecrow”, with whom he embarks on an ambiguous relationship, bonding over their mutual obsession with Liz’s story.‘It Never Ends’ twists the magic of the movies into something more sinister:

Ordinary life, which was easy to understand with its decent laws, seemed suddenly banal. I’m not saying it was entirely comfortable, in that poorly-lit auditorium, standing next to the little scarecrow who kept pulling on her already too-long nose. It was far from comfortable. Everything was opaque, strange, and my nerves were as tense as a string. I no longer understood who I was or what, to be honest, I was doing there.

I must admit I’m uncomfortable with the characterisation of the scarecrow in this story: both she and Volodia clearly have deep holes in their lives, but it feels as though she’s only really there to help him heal. Even so, ‘It Never Ends’ left me with the dizzying feeling of having my imagination cast into new shapes.

Although many of Melnikas’ stories touch on the fantastical, ‘Would You Forgive Me?’ applies his typical approach to a more down-to-earth situation. The narrator of this piece shoots a man who climbs through his bedroom window one night, and the intruder dies. The protagonist’s wife, Liuba, immediately brands her husband a murderer; the story is his attempt to come to terms with what has happened: “What kind of person was I? What was I supposed to have done then?” Melnikas traces how, over time, the event changes meaning for Liuba and the narrator.

The tales in The Last Day tend to focus on individuals or small groups of characters, but the title story has implications for the whole world. Books are published listing everyone’s time and date of death, with apparently complete accuracy. So, what does it mean for life if you know exactly when you and your loved ones will die? Melnikas offers a number of thoughts on what people broadly might choose to do – such as grand ‘leaving parties’, or children getting picked on because they’re going to die young. But his main focus is on one family, and their changing experiences of life and death:

The most interesting thing was that we never spoke about the topic again, and nothing changed, nothing at all; we even had quarrels about trifles, like before. Only, occasionally, I would remember that if we trusted that damn Book of Fates, time was ticking… It was a nightmare; you knew the hour of your death exactly and couldn’t do anything about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Last Day; its combination of reflection and light unreality was right up my street. If that’s also your kind of thing, take a look at this book.

Book details

The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2018), Noir Press, 175 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Reading Borges: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

This story takes the form of an article about one Pierre Menard, a novelist who sought to re-create Don Quixote word for word – not by merely copying the text, but by getting himself into such a state of mind as to write the Quixote exactly as Cervantes would have written it. Menard succeeded, and Borges’ anonymous narrator has great praise for his Quixote, in comparison to Cervantes’ original. In one of my favourite parts of ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator compares (identical) passages from the two Quixote texts, finding a depth and richness in Menard’s rendition absent from Cervantes’, thanks to the different contexts of their composition.

I found this story delightfully absurd, but it’s a particular pleasure to consider the multiple layers of authorship and interpretation within it: Cervantes, Menard, the narrator, then Borges (and then the reader, of course). For example, Menard may have his aspirations, but it’s the narrator who gives him legitimacy by judging Menard’s project successful. Yet, from the reader’s viewpoint (or mine, at least), there’s no difference between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’ so Menard comes across as somewhat of a Quixote figure himself, with delusions of grandeur. Or maybe it’s the narrator who is a Quixote figure for his opinion of Menard. Layers of interpretation…

Read my other posts on Borges’ stories.

Book details

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. James E. Irby (1962), in Labyrinths (1964 edn), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

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