“Commonwealth Short Stories”, part 2

This is a continuation from yesterday’s post, which was becoming too long! Today, I’m reviewing stories by Mordecai Richler, Lee Kok Liang, Wilson Harris, Frank Sargeson and Amos Tutuola.

Mordecai Richler (Canada) – The Summer my Grandmother was Supposed to Die

The story is a narrated by a child, and starts with his grandmother being diagnosed with gangrene and a doctor saying “She won’t last a month.” Gradually she lasts longer and longer, and there are some good observations about how the family is prepared to help for weeks or months, but as it turns into years it’s very different. It was closely observed and witty sometimes, but overall it felt like quite a familiar satire of a Jewish family, and the ending was very flat.

Lee Kok Liang (Malaysia) – When the Saints Go Marching

This was really slow-moving at first, with pages of description of a man driving home, feeling a slight throb at his temples, unlocking the gates, driving up the path, turning off the engine, looking at the back of his hand, etc., etc. I found it quite dull, but it gets better as it goes into why the character feels guilty and tortured on the anniversary of independence, and tells how he kissed his sister-in-law on the day independence was proclaimed, driving her to suicide and his wife to mental illness. He is tortured by his own actions as he looks after his wife and never gets the sons he built the large house for. The disastrous consequences of that one moment felt extreme to me, but perhaps in that time and place it really would have happened like that.

Wilson Harris (Guyana) – Kanaima

The story is infused with death throughout. A group of Indians are travelling from their home village which had been destroyed, but everywhere they go they see death before them in the form of Kanaima, the spirit of death and evil. In the village of Tumatumari they can’t escape it either – they’re warned, but are too tired and have to stop. Kanaima comes that night, bringing death but in an unexpected way. Yet after all that ominous build-up, the story ends on a strangely ambiguous note, as the person who apparently plunged into a waterfall is clinging to a vine. “Kanaima alone knew whether she would reach the cliff top.” It’s a great evocation of a nightmarish world of death and the struggle for survival, and I liked that after the apparent inevitability of death there was unexpected hope.

Frank Sargeson (New Zealand) – A Man and His Wife

The language here is plain and unadorned – Sargeson was reacting against “the formal language of the English novelists”. It’s a bit reminiscent of dirty realism, although it was written earlier. The story is of a man during the slump when times were hard. His roommate has split from his wife and is really close to his dog, but then the dog gets run over and he gets a bird, and again he spends all his time with it and lavishes affection on it. He leaves the cage open so the bird can get exercise, and one day he leaves the window open too, saying the bird loves him too much to fly away. It flies away. He goes back to his wife.

I’ve still got the wife, he said. Yes, I said. The wife never let me down, he said. No, I said. It was all I could think of to say.

There’s a real lack of human relationships in the story, and the relationships with the dog and the bird are clearly substitutes. Even the narrator and his roommate don’t communicate really. Very spare and bleak, with some dark humour.

Amos Tutuola (Nigeria) – The Complete Gentleman

Tutuola bases his stories in Yoruba myths and legends, and this story had that feeling, although there were some modern details like petrol drums and bombers. The narrator is following a quest, to find the daughter of the head of the town. He discovers that she went off with someone who looked like a complete gentleman, with the finest clothes and so on. But as the gentleman left the town, he returned the clothes he’d rented from people along the way, and then returning body parts, until eventually all that was left was a skull. It’s a real morality tale, with the morals spelled out in sub-headings for those who missed them, e.g. “Do Not Follow Unknown Man’s Beauty”. I liked the bizarreness of the story, though, and it was well told.

More to follow tomorrow: Randolph Stow, Janet Frame, Andrew Salkey and Ezekiel Mphahlele.

1 thought on ““Commonwealth Short Stories”, part 2

  1. Mordecai Richler is perhaps my favorite author. If you read only one of his novels, try ‘Solomon Gursky Was Here’ — wonderfully poignant and humorous. He was a huge anglophile, splitting his time between Montreal and London for much of his adult life.

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