You don’t have to read far into the story collection Thief of Lives before John Cheever’s name comes to mind, but after so many years of writing, Kit Reed must be used to that comparison. By now she should be replying: “Yes, but I write as well as that man did and occasionally even better. And besides, he’s dead and I’m alive.” Certainly she has established as good a claim as any to the territory of life. Hers is first-rate storytelling, and her protagonists are admirably tenacious. Middle and upper-middle class, for the most part, they are all attempting to struggle through life (usually middle age and beyond) while maintaining some shred of dignity.
Husbands and wives, parents and children, odd assortments of in-laws and friends: these relationships are her subject matter. Adults are looking back. Children are looking forward. Or vice versa. Everyone is blaming everyone else for everything, and yet finally they all must take responsibility for their own lives. Most of the stories are linked by these relationships and by an accompanying vision of physical entrapment. Whether a submarine, bomb shelter, snow cave, or vacation home, the central image is, in fact, that of the tomb. Death has freed Lazarus of life’s responsibilities, and then, through the unsolicited assistance of Jesus, he is raised up and sent out to resume the struggle. Only now he has more than a hint of mortality and, apparently, few expectations of an afterlife.
Though the stories contain references to God and love, I wouldn’t classify them as “Christian.” The Bible is more a source of literary allusions than of comfort. And though many of the characters are obviously suffering from easily diagnosed abandonment or a variety of similar disorders, psychiatry gets even shorter shrift than religion. Nor do the characters communicate in any fundamental, rational, outspoken way. They are cautious to a fault and timid beyond measure—laughably so. Sadly so. They tap out messages to each other in soundless, emotional codes, exchange platitudes, or do without. But in the end most still manage to triumph in some outwardly quiet way. They summon the vigor to begin again, or, as the narrator of the title story more eloquently puts it, “as Lazarus with tables turned, sit down at their own banquet and [throw] heavily frosted chunks of cake: take that you guys, whoever. And that.”
Having said what I liked about 13 of the stories, I will simply mention that “Winter,” a tale of two spinsters eating their house guest, does not work. And even more irritating for me was “Academic Novel,” a loose itinerary of faculty couplings and uncouplings, which, we are told, is a disguised form of love. Maybe. The tale is funny enough, but it tended to enforce my already healthy prejudices and undercut the solid stories that surround it.
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The concept of a fractured Europe offering a variety of cultures (and literatures) is not totally new to me. Fifteen years ago my then-neighbor, the editor of this journal, expounded on this subject as we drank our Saturday morning coffee. Prophetic on his part, but such a warning hardly qualifies me to pass judgment on Graywolf’s Stories From the New Europe. Nevertheless, I agree with editor Scott Walker’s assessment of “a mass market and communications system that threatens to overwhelm localized customs and concerns.” And I sadly suspect that this threat is far greater to regional literature than that offered by any totalitarian government.
The collection contains 16 stories drawn from the following countries or ethnic divisions: Serbia, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, Lebanon, Iceland, Basque, and Catalonia. I think it safe to assume they represent some of the best writing by the best writers these cultures have to offer. Foreigners make good storytellers. That is a given.
It should not be surprising that the stories coming out of Eastern Europe tend to emphasize “the citizen’s relationship to authority.” Still, I was surprised by this and by the general drabness of life: the heroic act most often described was the simple accomplishment of getting through another day. The subject of a repressed citizenry is also a theme of the Basque and Catalonian writers, but their stories are set apart by a refreshing earthiness. Other tensions considered by most of the writers include the conflict of rural and urban and between provinces and world. And it should be noted that religion often matters as much as politics.
Serbian Danilo Kis’s “Garden, Ashes” reduces the Bible to ten merry pages—”the quintessence of all miracles, all myths and legends, great deeds and terrors, horses, armies and swords, trumpets, drums, howls.” Then it applies its lesson of guilt to the author’s first childhood romance and the crazed confirmation service that followed.
Czechoslovakian Ivan Klima’s “Monday Morning: A Black Market Tale” relates the adventures of a writer under police surveillance attempting to get medical attention for the suicidal son of his sadistic neighbor, a black marketeer. All this is not nearly so grim as it sounds, for Klima manages to portray the state of his country with humor (black-hearted though it may be) and end on a note of life-affirming pathos.
Latvian Regina Ezera’s “Man Needs Dog” shows us an old man with four puppies to sell. Again we are given a thumbnail sketch of an entire society: one where people have forgotten how to barter. A young musician, three giggling girls, an alcoholic with plenty of money, and a young boy with hardly any—each carries off a puppy, and the old man returns home to the companionship of the puppies’ mother. The writing here is thickly textured, dense, and powerful. The moral: “Man must be responsible for his dog, and this is a truth people ought to know.”
Basque Angel Lertxundi’s “This Cold Earth is not Santo Domingo” begins: “By the time they buried me, the tired wrinkles on their faces, their imperceptible, deliberately shed tears, and their soft fleeting sighs had disappeared.” The dead woman describes how she took a lover to revenge herself on her philandering husband, and how her husband then allowed her to die from an untreated illness.
Catalonian Merice Rodoreda’s “The Salamander” also deals with adultery, but it is told in the manner of a folktale. Burned as a witch, the accused woman melts into the shape of a salamander and escapes. Then, returning to her lover’s house, she is discovered beneath the bed by his wife. Persecuted again, the salamander-narrator seeks refuge in a pond “among the thirsty grass roots and willow roots that had drunk there since the beginning of time.” This is an amazing piece, one that comes with the authority that can only be instilled by a truly “timeless” oral tradition.
Lebanese Hanan Al Shaykh’s “The Women’s Swimming Pool” tells of a young Muslim girl’s attempts to travel from the countryside into Lebanon for a first glimpse of the ocean and a bath in the women’s swimming pool. For her companion, she has her tradition-bound grandmother; her burden is the barely stated fact that the other members of her family are dead. A wall of anxiety confronts her, but beyond she glimpses the sea shining “as though pieces of silver paper were resting on it.” Of these Graywolf stories, this one is my favorite. The world described here is tactile, rich to all the senses. You can feel the heat and the rough grit of the stones. And you can feel the protagonist’s terrible frustration. Here is a world of immense sorrow reduced to a handful of pages.
[Thief of Lives, by Kit Reed (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 179 pp., $19.95]
[The Graywolf Annual Nine: Stories From the New Europe, edited by Scott Walker (Saint Paul Graywolf Press) 224 pp., $11.00]