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Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews

Telling Tales: A Collection of Short Stories

Nadine Gordimer, Ed.
Bloomsbury, Allen & Unwin (January 2005) 303 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 7430 8

reviewed by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! There are short stories, and there are tall stories and, as Alan Bennet once pointed out, there are also tall writers who stand head-and-shoulders above the others. All of the writers in Telling Tales are tall writers, and seldom does a collection of short stories include as many well-known names as are gathered here. Some tell tall stories, too, but all tell their tales briefly, enjoyably and with admirable skill.

Jose Saramago tells a tall tale in his myth of "The Centaur," and it is so simply and beautifully told that the emotion I felt at its ending took me completely by surprise. Arthur Miller tells a realistic doggy tale in "Bulldog," which is tale-telling of quite a different kind. And Salman Rushdie, in "The Firebird's Nest," offers a beguiling blend of myth and reality, ancient and modern, a clash of American and Indian values, beliefs and expectations, with an unexpected twist at the end of the tale.

Novelist Peter De Vries once said that a novel should have "a beginning, a muddle and an end." But short stories writers can be much more daring than that and may, as this collection shows, get away with anything but the "muddle." Paul Theroux and Michel Tournier both offer beginnings of a sort. Theroux's expectant couple inhabit a near-future world but seem destined for a strange and gruesome end. Tournier's two narrators, however, are ever present. They are unexpected chroniclers at a time when a most famous beginning is taking place and, as he puts it, "the ass is a poet, a literary sort, a chatterbox. The ox, for his part, says nothing. He is meditative, taciturn, a ruminant. He says nothing but he thinks plenty."

There are all kinds of ends in Telling Tales, too. Coffins with strange and unpredictable cargoes in Es'kia Mphahlele's "Down the Quiet Street." The unfolding of a young man's steps towards his single, deadly, moment of glory in Amos Oz's tale. A Japanese funeral ceremony in Knzaburo Oe's curious story. And John Updike's realistic account of a man's unanticipated, intermittent involvement in the final months of a dying woman's life. Others, too, deal with life and death but are all middle (and definitely not muddle), in that they are told by individual, unique voices expressing immediate and personal responses to the world in which they find themselves.

In all the many voices in these stories, authors and their characters express thoughts, ideas, disparate ways of looking at life and death, and different ways of dealing with living and dying. Christa Wolfe's "voice" meditates extensively on the colour blue; Claudio Magris's speaker argues plausibly for the pleasures and satisfactions which accompany "the modesty, the lightness of 'having been,'" as opposed to "the presumption, the weight, the squalor, the dismay of being!" For this speaker, "Every epilogue is happy, because it is an epilogue." It is an interesting point of view but not one shared, for instance, by Njabulo Ndebele's grieving mother who, having finally negotiated the personal and political minefields of getting her dead child's body returned to her after a shooting accident, ends with the thought that "all the trying events had prepared for us new beginnings. Shall we not prevail?"

Short stories, according to the prevailing view of publishers, are not popular. Why ever not? There is something uniquely satisfying about a well-written, well constructed short story. And Telling Tales is full of such satisfactions. Perhaps some authors, like Margaret Attwood and Nadine Gordimer, are regarded by their publishers as exceptions to the rule. Their short-story writing skills are well know, and the tales they tell here are, as usual, gripping and thought provoking. But there are many other familiar names, too, and many not-so-familiar names, each demonstrating their special ability to hold entertain and stir their readers. Together they offer glimpses of other worlds, other cultures, other ways of living, surviving, viewing the world: a taste of what we ourselves might have experienced had we been born at a different time, or in a different place.

Kofi Annan proposed and launched this book at the United Nations. All of the profits from the publication and sales of Telling Tales around the world will be donated to Treatment Action Campaign (TAC),"a non-profit organization whose funds are used for the treatment and support of people suffering from HIV and AIDS, and for the prevention of the disease, in the world's most afflicted region, South Africa." Further information about TAC can be found at www.tac.org.za.

 

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