Borra, Gallant, Gospodinov, Rogers and Tomine

Short Stories in October, November and December

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to a favourite writer and also explored four new-to-me story writers. (I’ve read a longer work by Tomine, not stories.)

Alberto Méndez Borra’s Blind Sunflowers 1988; Trans. Nick Caistor, 2008)

This quartet of tales offers commentary on the Spanish Civil War: “The after-effects of a war which, like many others, came to an end but was never resolved.” (It made it to my stack thanks to a recommendation on Harriet Gilbert’s BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “A Good Read”. Episodes available here.)

Each story could stand alone, but the echoes between the four tales strengthen each of them. At the heart of the volume is the importance of perspective, how one can be prosecuted as a war criminal or flourish as a profiteer, depending on one’s affiliation and compatriots’ success. Being victorious or being defeated: it’s a matter of grave importance and, simultaneously, a matter of no importance.

In this era of “alternative facts”, when politicians campaign for office by declaring that they value truth above facts, stories about the way we assemble our understanding of the world feel relevant and fresh. Here, in Blind Sunflowers, readers participate in the act of sifting and follow along as characters move from defiance to obedience – and back again.

“All the facts that occurred after this are based on an amalgam of disparate, sometimes contradictory, versions, often the product of the hazy memories of witnesses who prefer to forget. We have however also taken account of vague recollections whispered during anguished fantasies. The horror of the truth also has room for this kind of thing, however inaccurate it may be.”

In October, I started to read Mavis Gallant’s In Transit. There are just a couple more collections of Gallant stories for me to enjoy in this reading project. And, as was the case when I read through Munro’s stories, the more of her stories that I read, the more that I want to read. And the more that I feel like I notice and appreciate whenever I pick up a collection. It’s as though I’ve been in training and am now at the point where I can enjoy the process.

Georgi Gospodinov’s And Other Stories (2001; Trans. Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy, 2007)

Several of these stories unfold in transitional spaces, like trains and stations. Even the stories themselves seem transitory, sometimes only a few paragraphs long. There are a few fools and philosophers, lovers who are fondly recalled when years have (or haven’t yet) passed, a couple of Santa Clauses, and a schoolteacher with a map of Bulgaria in the shape of a lion that might attack when his back is turned.

Sometimes a story can cover decades in a couple of pages, sometimes a story can move back in time with a sharp reversal, and sometimes the story folds in on itself, so that time seems to spiral like those paper party horns that you puff on to expand and retract.

Given the title, it’s unsurprising that there are stories within stories, complete with imagined endings and interruptions and un-interruptions. Like this one: “Listening to the story, Christine missed the chance to burst into the lives of a young family pushing a baby carriage, three Gypsy kids waving enthusiastically by a crossing gate, an old lady, and two dogs.” (“Christine Waving from the Train”)

Odd things happen: “The store was closed, of course, and brilliantly lit up, but one of the TVs in the window was working, and what he saw out of the corner of his eye seemed strange and familiar at the same time.” (“The Late Gift”)

But ordinary things happen too: “For a time terrified vagrants said that a man with a cat’s head, or rather an enormous cat with a humanlike body, was wandering about among the garbage cans and in the basements. But nobody took it seriously and the story was soon forgotten.” (“The Eighth Night”)

Twenty-one Stories, from “Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots” to “The White Pants of History”

Linda Rogers’ Crow Jazz (2018)

In children’s lunch boxes, there are “oversized whole-wheat sandwiches” (“Mud Pies”), “activism is chic” (“Lucy Laughed”), and Windsong makes someone “read The Rubaiyat and is teaching[them] how to make paint” (“The Tea Party”): this is west-coast Canada, moneyed eco-mindedness (i.e. fancified hippie-living).

If that’s not colourful enough, there are some fairy-tale and archetypal references, like Red Riding Hood walking her path in the woods (“One More Story”) and some Scottish ancestors who were Vikings, “red-haired, hot-tempered, difficult to anaesthetize” (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”).

And feminism and whimsy brush elbows: there’s a pussyhat (“Shock Therapy”), a “refusal to wear a wife collar and leash and be led” (“One More Story”), and the author’s note says she takes “dictation from her crow friends”. In “Mud Pies” the narrator observes: “Take risks….Great art, great writing and great music don’t come out the same way every time.” There’s more room for personality than polished crafting here, but there’s a playful refreshing note sustained throughout this collection.

Contents: A Blessing, The Ranger, The Tea Party, The Child City, Mud Pies, One More Story, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Her Name, Woolgatherer, Mouse Not a Sixties Scoop, Lipstick Window, Utmost Happiness, Moon Cake and Rude Hour, Shadow Dancing, Bedtime Stories, Nesting, Lucy Laughed, Three Strikes, The Lineup, Shock Therapy, Darling Boy, Deadhead What Goes Around, Blink

Adrian Tomine’s Killing & Dying: Six Stories (2015)

This is the kind of action which takes centre stage in an Adrian Tomine story: “It was depressing to see everyone trapped on the same hamster wheel. Go to work, come home, repeat.”

You, as reader, are removed from the stories in the way that one is always removed, which is glaring here in illustrated stories boxed and panelled, but there’s an additional distance between reader and characters here, because there is often such a buffer zone around the characters that they barely know or recognize themselves.

Nonetheless, these characters are also immediately and wholly relatable, because who has not inhabited that state at one point in time: work, home, repeat. Each story in this collection is unique – in terms of lettering, colour palette, drawing style, panel size and consistency – but there are themes which reverberate between them.

People edge up to their dreams: “I know it’s kind of a silly idea, but do you think it’s something people might buy?” They inflate their realities: “The script I’m writing now is extra brutal ‘cause it’s a prequel, but also kind of a reboot.” (It’s also not a job, only a pitch, but he makes it sound impressive and secure.)  And things are lost. Relationships are lost. People are lost.

This collection won The Story Prize in 2016 (the Spotlight Award) and it would be a fine introduction to Tomine’s work. But be prepared to leave some time between stories to sniffle and slump in your seat.

Contents: A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’, Amber Sweet, Go Owls, Translated from the Japanese, Killing and Dying, Intruders

Which of these would you gravitate towards?