“Commonwealth Short Stories”, part 3

Continuing the series, here are my notes on the short stories by Randolph Stow, Janet Frame, Andrew Salkey and Ezekiel Mphahlele.

Randolph Stow (Australia) – Magic

This is based on the ‘sulumwoya’ myth of the Trobriand Islands, where incest between a brother and a sister is the supreme sexual taboo. The introduction says he took the myth and added psychological realism and more description of the setting. But I couldn’t see much evidence of either – it felt like a traditional myth. The lust was heavily foreshadowed from the first scene where the girl drinks coconut water and the brother watches as two trickles “flowed down her body, over the brown breasts, to the waistband of her skirt.” I didn’t find the story particularly surprising or new.

Janet Frame (New Zealand) – Two Sheep and Boy’s Will

Two Sheep is a fable, based on two sheep travelling to the slaughter house. The first sheep knows its fate and the other doesn’t. The first one keeps saying how beautiful everything is, and the second one complains all the time about the heat, the dust, etc. The first one is in denial when he gets to the slaughter house, seeing it as a “pleasant little house” ready for a “seaside holiday”. But then he can deny it no longer, and slumps exhausted in a corner, where he is left for dead by the farmer and escapes.  Then he falls in with another flock, and starts complaining about the heat and dust, and the sheep next to him says how beautiful everything is.

Boy’s Will is a very different story, about a boy, Peter, with a high IQ, who is suffering under the weight of his mother’s and aunt’s expectations. He got interested in storms and began recording them:

“He’ll be a meteorologist”, his mother said, almost destroying his new passion with the weight of her tomorrow.

The pressure makes him rageful, but he finally finds pleasure in the simple act of making a kite and flying it, then patiently repairing it when the wind tears it. I liked both stories in different ways, and was impressed by the wide range of styles used by the same author.

Andrew Salkey (Panama/Jamaica) – Anancy

Salkey uses the traditional Ashanti story of the spider Anancy, but gives it a new form, exploring the fate of the African in the New World (according to the introduction!). Anancy goes on a voyage of self-discovery to the spirit world (symbolising Africa). He fights the ghosts and defeats them, but is finally defeated by his own spirit. Again according to the introduction, it shows the duality of West Indian identity, the West Indian’s inability to defeat the African presence, and they are finally reconciled. To be honest I didn’t get all of that from my first reading, but I can sort of see it now.

Ezekiel Mphahlele (South Africa) – The Living and the Dead

A racist white man, Stoffel Visser, is forced for the first time to see his servant, Jackson, as a human being, when Jackson goes missing. Stoffel speaks to Jackson’s wife, and sees a letter from Jackson’s father with pictures of his family. Finally Jackson turns up, and it turns out he was beaten up and imprisoned for responding to a white man who called him a monkey. Stoffel is forced to confront himself and his views, but quickly becomes angry, and takes refuge in action and duty as an avoidance strategy – “He did not want to think and feel. He wanted to do something.” He concentrates on dispatching a report. “He was a white man, and he must be responsible. To be white and to be responsible were the same thing.” I liked the way the story was constructed, with the initial mystery over Jackson’s disappearance, then the suggestion that Stoffel will have a great epiphany, then the more realistic outcome of restoring normality and avoiding hard questions.

Tomorrow, the final installment of this short story collection: Mavis Gallant, V.S. Naipaul, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Hal Porter and Chinua Achebe.

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