March 25, 2013

"The Judge's Will"

By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
~6000 words

A woman discovers that her husband has made a provision in his will for a long-time mistress.

Unlike the typical wife, Binny accepts her husband's infidelity "as though she had just heard some spicy piece of gossip," sharing the news with her son Yasi, with whom she has an unusually close relationship. When she learns that her husband has ordered Yasi to look after the mistress, she threatens to take him away with her, from the family home in Delhi to her childhood home in Bombay. But Yasi's delicate mood and an illness on the part of the mistress put those plans on hold.

Well-crafted characters form the heart of this story. Particularly noteworthy is the quasi-Oedipal relationship between Binny and Yasi, which prompts Binny to end her one remaining female friendship when the woman comments: "It's all Freud, of course." The coldness between Binny and the judge is nicely complemented by a tender scene at the end. And then there's the mistress, Phul—fool?—delicate and exposed, pushed by her lover into an impossible dependency on his mercurial son and wife.

While the plot of "The Judge's Will" is rather aimless and the language unremarkable, the colorful characters make it worth a read—even as the muddled perspective makes it difficult to identify fully with any of them.


Reader poll: I found "The Judge's Wife" to be ___.

March 18, 2013

"Checking Out"

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
~7300 words

A Nigerian man living in London on an expired visa agrees to an arranged marriage to legalize his immigration status.

At home in Nigeria, Obinze Maduewesi dreams of immigrating to America. After several humiliating denials of his visa application, he accompanies his mother to a conference in London as her "research assistant." When his six-month visa runs out, he resorts to cleaning toilets and moving refrigerators under a usurped U.K. identity. He pays a pair of shady Angolans to arrange his marriage to a British citizen, offering him the promise of permanent legal residence, but on the day of the ceremony his illegal status is discovered, resulting in his arrest and imminent deportation.

The story does a good job of portraying the life of illegal immigrants in the U.K., but I feel that it veers into clichés that should be avoided. Cleaning toilets and moving refrigerators are jobs that almost everyone envisions immigrants carrying out; they feel unoriginal even if they are accurate. Another issue is that Obinze as a character is too virtuous—he has no flaws except possibly overachievement—and his exploitation is too predictable. What is set up as a tragic ending feels more like stale melodrama, unredeemed by the author's competent but unexceptional command of language.

"Checking Out" passes muster as a hard-luck immigrant's tale, but it pales in comparison to Zadie Smith's "The Embassy of Cambodia," which tells a similar story with much greater complexity.


Reader poll: I found "Checking Out" to be ___.

March 11, 2013


By Will Mackin
~3500 words

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan discovers the unexpected benefits of Dutch licorice.

The unnamed first-person narrator is an artillery operator in a unit that receives a new Howitzer liaison: the person charged with plotting the angle of the guns to account for external factors such as wind speed. Levi is from the Netherlands, and his mother sends care packages filled with Dutch candies including a licorice called Kattekoppen. The candies are so vile that no one wants to eat them, but on a search-and-recover mission the narrator engulfs them to mask the smell of rotting flesh.

The strength of the story lies in its attention to detail. The author has an impressive command of military jargon (I would not be surprised to learn that he is a soldier) and a talent for describing the starkness of the setting:
We set out from the dog cages under a full moon, which seemed to cast X-rays rather than light. Thus the dogs' ribs were exposed, as was the darkness below the ice on our steep climb uphill. The steel barrels of the howitzer guns were visible as shadows, and the plywood door of the howitzer camp was illuminated as if it were bone.
The story's weakness is character. The first-person narrator is so unassuming as to be almost secondary. The main character would appear to be Levi, but his primary role seems to be introducing the Kattekoppen. When he makes serious observations—as in his expression of concern over his newborn son—the import is undermined by the narrator's insistence on making fun of his accent:
"It is strange," Levi said. "I have never much worried, but sefferal times a night now I wake up afraid the boy is dead. And I sneak into his room and, like this"—he wet an index finger and held it under his nose—"I check his breeding."
Despite the author's excellent command of military vocabulary and eye to detail, the weak voice of "Kattekoppen" leads to a flatness of language that often feels more like narrative nonfiction or embedded journalism. The symbolism related to Bruegel's paintings (pictured on the postage stamps from the Netherlands) is also a bit overplayed. I much prefer the absurdity of the Kattekoppen image, on which this appropriately titled story squeaks by with a pass.


Reader poll: I found "Kattekoppen" to be ___.

March 4, 2013

"Summer of '38"

By Colm Tóibín
~6900 words

An elderly woman recalls her affair with a Nationalist soldier during the siege of a Republican stronghold in the Spanish Civil War.

Montse learns from her daughter Ana that a man from the electric company, who is writing a book about the civil war, wishes to meet with her. She is reluctant to do so but relents when he shows up at her doorstep. The man explains that a former general of Franco's, Rudolfo Ramirez, is coming to town for an interview and has asked to see Montse when he arrives. The news triggers a long flashback in which the young Montse has an affair with Ramirez as her village is besieged by the Nationalists. When the town is near surrender, Ramirez disappears and Montse discovers she is pregnant. She marries a local boy named Paco, who raises the child, Rosa, as his own. Montse comes to feel genuine fondness for Paco and has two more daughters by him, including Ana. The final scenes return to the present, where it becomes clear that Montse has never told Rosa that Paco (now deceased) was not her real father. Montse declines to have lunch with Ramirez.

The story is characterized by the type of quiet narrative that has been a staple of Irish literature since at least the time of Joyce's "The Dead": a highly reflective, internal meditation often revolving around a secret love or unfulfilled desire. In this case, it is Monte's muted love for Ramirez, whom she continues to see, long after he is gone, in the eyes of Rosa's three sons. In keeping with the theme of loss, Tóibín employs a classic framing device to embed the main narrative in a distant past that, despite the violence of the war, evokes a certain nostalgia for a lost way of life:
One night, there was a full moon and a clear sky. When the crowd moved to the edge of the water and let the fire die down, neither he nor she moved with them. When he spoke to her, she could not hear him, so he moved closer. She realized that no one had noticed that she had not joined the others by the water. Some of the soldiers there had stripped down and were swimming and splashing. Away from them, close to the dying embers, he touched the back of her hand and then turned it and traced his fingers on the palm.
For the most part, then, the story succeeds on its quiet terms. The characters are well drawn, the tension subdued. The storytelling, however, meanders a bit too much. We are introduced early on to two characters, Ana and the electric company man, who never reappear and thus feel contrived as a means of introducing the main narrative. It is debatable whether even one of them is necessary; we definitely don't need both. Would it not have been more effective to have the flashback triggered by a conversation between Montse and Rosa, given that the latter is the daughter most affected by the secret? As it is, Rosa is introduced very late in the story, and the reader does not have a chance to sympathize with her before learning the news about her father.

Another weakness is language. The understatement that Tóibín aims for in the plot is not reflected in the often clumsy and heavy-handed diction. Below are three examples with suggested deletions, followed by my comments in brackets.
Montse nodded calmly and then looked toward the window, as though distracted by something
[Nodding is calm by default; hence the adverb is redundant (as adverbs often are). "Then" is also redundant when used with "and" (one or the other is all that's required). Finally, there is a problem with the "as though" phrase. Since the narrator is in Montse's perspective here, he/she should know whether she is distracted and not have to speculate. At any rate the whole phrase is unnecessary because the distraction is implied in her looking out the window.]
And if he, who had been so enthusiastic, did not want her, then she was sure, absolutely sure, that no one else would want her, either.   
[A sentence choking beneath commas and unnecessary qualifiers. It feels as if the author is simply trying to fill the page.]
"The war was a long time ago." She was going to say something else and then hesitated. "It was fifty years ago. More."
[The fact that she was going to say something else is implied in the hesitation.]
Finally, it should be noted that the name Rudolfo (as opposed to Rodolfo) is extremely uncommon in Spain and most of the Spanish-speaking world. The American author Rudolfo Anaya is a rare exception. Also, Ramirez carries an accent over the i: Ramírez.

"Summer of '38" is a tender story with compelling characters. Many of my objections amount to quibbles, but the cumulative effect is enough to weigh down an otherwise strong effort.


Reader poll: I found "Summer of '38" to be ___.