Monthly Archives: February 2006

Horacio Quiroga, "The Dead Man"

A man falls on his own machete and ponders his impending death as it impends.

(from The World of the Short Story)

Still…? Still not two seconds passed: the sun is at exactly the same altitude; the shadows have not advanced one millimeter. Abruptly, the long-term digressions have just been resolved for the man lying there; he is dying.

Interesting, thoughtul and a total downer. Not much in the way of surpises. He’s just curled up with a machete sticking out of him. I mean, he’s in a comfortable position besides that, but yeah. He’s dead meat.

According to the book’s brief bio, Horacio Quiroga (born in Uruguay, lived in Argentina) wrote about death all the time. And his best friend accidentally shot himself. And his father, stepfather and wife killed themselves. Quiroga killed himself, too. All this death writing and actual death presents us with a real chicken/egg scenario. Gotta figure he was a goth in high school.

INXS, “Never Tear Us Apart”

A.E. Sturges, "The Last Loneliness"

The only two survivors of a shipwreck are stranded on a tiny island.

(from Short Story International, #51)

Things are looking grim for Hampshire and Carter: not much fresh water or shelter or hope for rescue. The former leans on his wits, the latter prays. Which one do you think proves most useful in the hopeless situation? What does it matter how at peace you are about your death? Why would a higher power save them from drowning in a wreck just to let them die on a barren island? These are the undercurrent questions conjured up by this sharp, short parable. Works as a desperate litle adventure story, too.

I couldn’t find any mention of this story on the web. But here’s a bit of O Brother, Where Art Thou? which deals with some of the same themes:

Delmar: A miracle! It was a miracle!
Everett: Aw, don’t be ignorant, Delmar. I told you they was gonna flood this valley.

Delmar: That ain’t it!

Pete: We prayed to God and he pitied us!

Everett: It just never fails. Once again you two hayseeds are showin’ how much you want for intellect. There’s a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened.

Pete: That ain’t the tune you were singin’ back there at the gallows!

Everett: Well any human being will cast about in a moment of stress. No, the fact is, they’re flooding this valley so they can hydro-electric up the whole durned state. Yessir, the South is gonna change. Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin’ basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yessir, a veritable age of reason — like the one they had in France — and not a moment too soon.

Mr. Sturges, an Australian born in 1916, is also wanting for significant web presence. I guess this is unrelated to him. This too. Here’s to all the A.E. Sturges of the world.

Adam Arcuragi, “1981 (Or Waving At You As We Part At Light Speed Will Look Like I’m Standing Still)”

Rebecca Chua, "Second Thoughts"

Her wedding’s right around the corner and she doesn’t know why he loves her.

(from Short Story International, #51)

There would be other times when their thoughts would be out of kilter, when he would seem incredibly superficial, or she, unbelievably dull; that was something they would adjust to, with a natural capacity for change. In the end, it would be this, more than the genes that they would bequeath to their children, that would justify their living and their lives.

Cool story about seemingly justified doubt and natural uncertainty. This story beautifully captures body movement, adding another layer to the lovers’ conversations. Mostly, “Second Thoughts” comes from the fiancee’s perspective, but there is one jarring foray into the fiance’s mind, and some writing teachers probably told you it’s a faux pas to do such a thing. Oh but don’t you believe them. It worked okay here, even though you definitely wonder if her fears that her groom is a shallow ad man partly because you don’t see his perspective. Worked only because it happened late enough in the game. And besides, who cares about such writerly concern? This story’s so sharp and true.

Rebecca Chua’s from Singapore, originally. Can’t find much about her on the web.

B.C. Camplight, “Couldn’t You Tell”

Afiena Kamminga, "Moleman"

The mole trapper toils to make a moleskin coat for his long lost old flame.

(from Short Story International, #51)

As he pushed clear of the pebbled beach, he left the cabin,
and the stack of beavertraps and other gear,
to whom it would concern.

How beautiful is that?

I like the matter-of-fact way this story describes the trappings of its title character’s chosen field. To him, this is a living, perhaps a noble one, certainly not a lucrative one. Though he must love his work, there is little hint at it. Just like there is little hint of love for his ex-wife, though he labors so long to win, if not her favor, then her understanding. This is a beautiful, stark story, singular in mood and mindset.
“Moleman” has many memorable images, among them is the word “landtongue,” as in: “…he built a cabin on a small landtongue on the lake.” There are only 20 hits on Google for this word (maybe 21 by the time you read this), and it doesn’t appear in any dictionary I could find. But it’s a cool word, and the definition is inherent.
Afiena Kamminga has even less web presence. She was born in 1944 in the Netherlands. Later she moved to Canada and married a Dane. Here’s to international month.

This issue of Short Story International was published in 1985. I found it at the wonderful Book Trader. I had never heard of SSI, but I’m glad I now have. This is precisely what I’d been searching for: a simple, nicely-sized, pleasantly laid out collection of short fiction gathered from wherever it’s good. According to this site, SSI was around from ’79-’91, and published at least some of the time out of my hometown of Philadelphia (my copy says it came out of Great Neck, NY).

Rilo Kiley, “The Good That Won’t Come Out”

Teet Kallas, "Back to the Rocks"

The new doctor figures it’s time Mats left the sanitarium.

(from Stories from the New Europe)

I’m not sure why the young doctor came to that idea, but I guess he was right because now ol’ Mats can return to his dilapidated shack full of rabbit poop. But hey, there are plenty of rocks to sculpt. Interesting story, but damn if I get it.
Well, there wasn’t even a competition up until this point, but we have a new frontrunner in the Battle of the Most Unfortunately Named Author. Teet Kallas. I mean really. Mr. Kallas is from Estonia.

* * *

Look, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, my favorite songwriter, wrote a poem.
While I’m puttin up links, here‘s a recent cover story I did for Philadelphia City Paper.

Mirah, “Cold Cold Water”

Altaf Fatima, "Do You Suppose It’s The East Wind"

A Muslim girl takes Hindu lessons from a Hindi boy.

(from An Epic Unwritten)

A cool little story of almost courtship, with a light shadow cast by the girl’s gradual enlightment. The differences between Muslims and Hindis were always apparent to her, but the borders are drawn simultaneously broad and thin when these two characters get together. Partion must have been a crazy confusing time for children. Fatima treats everybody with care and respect, without getting all after school special on us.
The back of my book says this: “[Altaf Fatima] is counted among the second generation of women Urdu writers.”

The Mountain Goats, “Masher”

Milan Kundera, "The Hitchhiking Game"

A couple on a road trip plays like they’re strangers.

(from The World of the Short Story, 20th Century Collection)

Her role? What was her role? It was a role out of trashy literature. The hitchhiker stopped the car not to get a ride, but to seduce the man who was driving the car. She was an artful seductress, cleverly knowing how to use her charms. The girl slipped into this silly, romantic part with an ease that astonished her and held her spellbound.

So damn excellent. The matter-of-fact way Kundera explains the accidental truths his characters are revealing is wonderfully, smartly astute. He’s got such wise insight into stuff we know but rarely acknowledge so plainly. And it’s because of this that Kundera’s decision not to name his characters (“girl” and “young man”) is given a free pass. I generally can’t abide by such agressive everyman preaching, but, hell, the glove fits.

Read it here. Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia. He lives in France. Team Slovakia beat Team USA in men’s Olympic ice hockey today, so maybe I shoulda read a Slovakian author. Suggestions?

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, “How Long Do I Have To Wait For You”

S.Y. Agnon, "Knots Upon Knots"

Carrying things around on the day of the craftsmen’s convention.

(from A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories, I think)

Even I was invited to the craftsmen’s convention. Since they had invited me I said, I’ll go. I gathered my overnight things and wrapped them in paper and took along several copies of my new book, for several of those who had requested copies of my book were sure to be at the convention, and by giving it to them I would not have to bother with the mails. It would have been good had I put my belongings in a satchel, except that a satchel is useful only as long as it carries your belongings. Once empty, it is simply a load to be carried.

Read the whole thing here. It’s short and great. Do it now. Ignore the sad little typos.
This is a simple story of a guy with too much to carry, or maybe he just lacks the skills and forethought to go about carrying things properly, or to adapt to such a situation when it arises.
But, less to the point, it’s about social obligation and interaction. That first line hints at volumes about this man’s standing and social graces. And suddenly the simple story turns 3D. At the end you figure the guy should A) really keep up with his social obligations better, to not walk on people, to always be mindful of their kindnesses and B) get a backback.
(I’ve got this one, but I don’t recommend it, for a couple reasons.)
Shmuel Yosef Agnon was a Ukrainian-born (well, sort of) Israeli writer who wrote, at least some of the time in Hebrew. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. Read more here, for starters.

This story came recommended by my closest literary confidant, in response to my declaring a preference for more recently written literature. That this story was so excellent proves nothing! But one should take note the moments when somebody is so into a piece of writing that she will read it to you. Chances are it’s good stuff.

Angel Lertxundi, "This Cold Earth Is Not Santo Domingo"

A dead desperate housewife blames her dickhead husband for her early death and unhappy life.

(from Stories from the New Europe)

Cool, bitter little story. Some sentences were so long, and full of connectors and commas, that they continued even as their paragraphs of origin ended and new ones began. Yet it was neither annoying nor confusing. Not even gimmicky. It felt like the weird dreamy afterlife the narrator was newly experiencing.
This was translated from the Basque language by Michael E. Morris. I found it in the the Graywolf Annual Nine, which cam eout in 1992 and was edited by Scott Walker. Here it is on Amazon. Here‘s a page about the author, except it calls him Anjel Lertxundi. And it’s not in English.

Ali Imam Naqvi, "The Vultures of the Parsi Cemetery"

Unsettling times at the cemetery, when the vultures they rely on to devour the corpses fail to show up.

(From An Epic Unwritten)

What a crazy, dark story. It’s grim and gross, but also kinda edgy and funny. The two main characters — whose job it is to put the bodies where the vultures can find them — are recognizeable Rosencrantzy/Estragon types. They do their grotesque jobs, they contemplate death (however shallowly), they scratch their heads. We, the readers, are unbelittled by their existences. We are them. The author’s choice to repeat a small passage was excellent. The second time around we are much better prepared for the situation. Hormoz and Pheroze, of course, are not.
I wish I had a link to the story for you. Couldn’t find it online. This collection was translated from the Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon. I found the book at the Book Trader in Philadelphia.