OK, it is time for me to fess up.
Over recent months, I have lost the urge to read. The thrill has gone. Instead of reaching for a book in every spare moment, I have been reaching for, (sigh), my iPod. I don’t know if there is such a thing as reader’s block, but I have it. If there is such a thing as a reader’s muse, I have lost it. This is both a professional and a personal tragedy. It’s pretty hard to do my job if I am not on a constant drip of pre-release titles but that constant supply has suddenly left me with a saccharine taste in my mouth and I just can’t read one more big, important, must-have book. The trouble is, if I am not reading them, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what to do. It feels like someone has taken me over, like identity theft, only I am the perpetrator.
I have however, finally come good. The cure for reader’s malaise? Not Jeffrey Euginedes’ The Marriage Plot, not Murakami’s IQ24, not even Stephen King’s 11.22.63. No, the cure, is the short story collection. Thank goodness I have finally got my reading mojo back.
In the world of fiction, short stories are the perpetual bridesmaids. Every now and again, there is a collection like Nam Le’s The Boat, that hogs the limelight for a little while. Most of the time however, they play support for the main event, the novel. It is a great shame, because a finely crafted, beautifully written, disciplined short story, one in which every word counts, is, I have discovered, the perfect thing for the reader jaded from way too much of a good thing.
Recently, I was given Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West collection. Never heard of him? Either had I. Penkov is a young Bulgarian born writer who now is an assistant professor of English in Texas and an editor of American Literary Review.
Set mainly in Bulgaria, his stories are lovingly crafted pen portraits of a hidden world. Makedonija, about an elderly couple in a nursing home, is one of the most beautiful and poignant depictions of love and war that I have ever read. In fact, I had to read that one twice – once to myself, and then again, out loud, to a friend. East of the West, about a village stradling the border of Serbia and Bulgaria, is funny, sad, insightful with knock-out original imagery and a brilliant end.
Want to know more? Here is what Penkov writes about himself.
When I was a child, I did not much like to read, because I was lazy and preferred to play soccer outside. I did not like to be read to either, because repetition bored me and because my parents were really good story tellers – for years my mother told me about the adventures of two little hippos (brother and sister) who we’d send around the world and get into all sorts of trouble, while my father told me stories about Bulgarian history: khans, tsars, rebels fighting the Turks.
As a college student in the US, I wrote stories of my own, pseudo-American stories influenced by my teenage love of Stephen King, a writer I still admire greatly. It became apparent, very quickly, that the fake American stories I wrote were unconvincing garbage. Taking a class in Western History, I was amazed to find out that the professor was writing his dissertation on janissaries in the Balkans. He asked me if I could translate a Bulgarian text for him. I was mesmerized, the way I’d been as a child, by our own history. How could I have forgotten it? Why was I not writing stories like these, packed with heroism, betrayal, courage and cowardice, freedom and death?
And so I began this book. I wanted people to listen and be moved by our tales, and to show them that Bulgarians are not all car thieves and prostitutes, though there are plenty of those too. As a boy I’d listened to my father and felt calm and safe, and twenty years later I wanted to feel that same way. Writing about Bulgaria was the only way I knew that would get me back to Bulgaria – not just my family, whom I miss greatly, but also our muddy village roads, black fields, blue mountains.
In EAST OF THE WEST we have stories that speak of Bulgaria as it was during the Ottoman years and then as it was during the fights for liberation from the Turks. There are stories that speak of the Balkan Wars, of the chokehold and fall of Communism. There are stories that speak of what became of both Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria when regimes changed. Then finally there are stories that show the reader what’s happening now, while so many young people leave for the West in search of a better life.
The stories in EAST OF THE WEST tackle all these upheavals of history individually, and through individuals, but I believe that when read together the stories complement each other, like pieces in a puzzle adding up to reveal a larger picture.
Today, more than a million Bulgarians live abroad, and I have seen countless parents (my own included) encourage their children to leave, to seek a better life away from home; and I’ve seen Bulgarians change their names, abandon their language, take on new beliefs, new ideologies and identities, forget where they came from. Yes, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun, but history can be forgotten. With this book, I wanted to remember.
While Penkov is a debut author, Rodney Hall’s latest collection comes to us from the pen of a true master.
His newest book, Silence, comes with a cover quote by David Mitchell – “I read Silence in a single day. Brilliant. Brilliant”.
Both men are known for their very fine writing, and yes, Silence is “brilliant. Brilliant”.
I couldn’t possibly, however, read it in a day. Or maybe I could, if I was alone, in a profoundly beautiful place, but I would have to be completely relaxed and completely solitary. And I would have to have the right tea to hand. It is not that the book is too long. In fact, at less than 200 well-spaced pages it is almost the length of a novella. No, the reason I couldn’t complete a reading of this shimmering collection of short stories is that that would leave no time at all to savour, to contemplate and to reflect.
Silence deserves so much more than a day. It deserves being approached completely in the present moment, senses attuned to the sounds, images, and emotions that are evoked by this master story teller. Each of the 20 or more tales deserves your undivided attention, each deserves its own space and time. Each is as satisfying (or in my slump, much more satisfying) than a whole novel.
Rodney Hall has won the Miles Franklin not once but twice. He has been shortlisted another three times. He is a poet, activist, essayist and author. Sadly, and inexplicably, most of his earlier books are very difficult to track down these days. I still remember the palpable excitement of reading Just Relations in the mid 80s. It is currently not stocked in Australia. Last year he wrote a memoir, Popeye Never Told You, which was garnered enormous praise.
At the time he commented (in his answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions) “All my novels aim at one thing, really: to engage the reader, moment by moment in the experience. Vivid and intense experience is of central importance to me. That’s what illuminates us for one another”.
And that is exactly what he does in Silence – he engages us, moment by moment, vividly and intensely, in his imaginary worlds.
The stories in Silence cover continents and ages. They are told from the points of view of rulers and minions, victors and vanquished, even occasionally animals (well, a dreaming bird). The stories are not linked, other than perhaps thematically. Most seem to be about spaces in between, different kinds of emptiness, the gaps between the narrator and the other. Reading Silence is like chasing a rainbow – it illuminates everything but it remains tantalisingly just out of reach.
After I finished reading the stories, sipping at them over a couple of weeks, I saw Hall’s notes and acknowledgements.
“A contributing factor to the silences being explored is that most of these pieces engage with a ‘silent’ partner”.
He then pays tribute for inspiration to Sir Jospeh Banks, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Wolfgang Borchert (who enormously influenced his writing style over the decades – see Ten Terrifying Questions), Gabriel Garcia Marquez amongst others.
“Of course, these tributres do not pretend to be more than echoes, intonations and the structures of reason”.
I would like to re-read Silence , given this new interpretation, but I wonder if it will take away from that first pass at it. I came to the book unprepared, and I was completely overwhelmed by the tapestry of its imagery and the echoes of its stillness. And I still wouldn’t want to read it in a day.
So, blessed with two marvellous short story collections, I am now however up for the big book again.
With thanks and gratitude, Toni Whitmont, reader of novels, and short stories.