“Commonwealth Short Stories”, part 4

In the final part of this series of posts, I’m reviewing stories by Mavis Gallant, V.S. Naipaul, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Hal Porter and Chinua Achebe.

Mavis Gallant (Canada) – Orphans’ Progress

According to the introduction, Gallant’s work mostly deals with broken families, and this is no exception: two girls are taken into care because their mother is irresponsible. They go to live with relatives, and then at a school run by nuns, until finally they have forgotten where they came from. At the time it seemed normal – it was the only life they knew, and they didn’t feel neglected. But at the end, passing her old home, “Mildred glanced up, and then back at her book. She had no reason to believe she had seen the place, or would ever again.” This story felt as if it could, and perhaps should, have been a novel. There was a lot happening, and I think it was too much for a short story. It relied on caring about the characters, and this would have been easier over a longer form like the novel.

V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad) – Man-man

Everyone used to think Man-man was crazy, but now the narrator is not so sure. Man-man did eccentric things, and was clever too – he got his dog to leave droppings on people’s clothes and then came by later and was given the clothes, and took them away and sold them. When the dog got run over, he became a prophet, claiming to have seen God, and built up a following. Finally he said he would be crucified, and tied himself to a cross and asked people to stone him. They hesitated, and he encouraged them more, and then finally they did start stoning him, and he started cursing and demanding to be let down again. A humorous story, but also with lots to say about the conflict between human aspirations and reality.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya) – A Meeting in the Dark

I’m referring to Ngugi by the name he now uses, although in this book the story is credited to James Ngugi. It’s about a preacher’s son who is about to go off to university, and is facing a conflict between the new and old, African and European. He’s got his girlfriend pregnant and doesn’t know what to do – she’s been circumcised, which is frowned upon by the British authorities and the Church, so he can’t marry her without offending his preacher father and destroying his own chances for career advancement. I liked the setup, but the ending felt too extreme and sudden – it was clear the character was trapped, but killing his girlfriend felt too dramatic and unrealistic. It was a very short story so it probably just needed to be established more. I liked the issues the story dealt with, though – just the ending was a letdown.

Hal Porter (Australia) – Francis Silver

This one is about the destruction of the romantic ideals of youth. The character’s mother always used to tell him stories about her courtship with Francis Silver before she married his father. It was a familiar part of his childhood, always referred to jokingly by both his mother and father. When his mother dies, he takes her store of postcards from Francis and returns them to him. But Francis can’t remember her – the romance is destroyed, and his mother’s fond memories made to seem ridiculous. He’d even planned to give Francis a lock of his mother’s hair that she’d wanted to give him but never did. But he doesn’t give it to him, and instead burns it. Meanwhile he “had made up an outline of lies to satisfy and comfort my father, for whom I felt the truth, as I saw it, to be of the wrong shape.” I love that line, and the subtle sadness of the story and what it says about the importance we place on memories that are often completely wrong.

Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) – The Sacrificial Egg

This is a very short short story, with quite a powerful ending. Like Ngugi’s story, it deals with the conflict of new and old. Julius is a clerk, and has had a Christian education which he thinks “placed him above such superstitious stuff” as the traditional beliefs of his people. But one night he is out late and hears the night spirit and starts running, and steps on an egg at a crossroads. He realises it is a sacrificial egg, put out by someone trying to get rid of misfortune, and that by stepping on it he has taken the misfortune onto himself. He still struggles to convince himself that he doesn’t believe in all that “superstitious stuff”, but it remains a fact that after he stepped on the egg, a smallpox epidemic hit the town and killed the woman he was going to marry, the woman he was visiting that night.