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Long shadows of short stories

The sky is a splattered sunset orange. The sun, a blazing hoop of fire, balances itself on the taught line of the horizon and then sinks effortlessly into the sea. The swaying palm leaves make silhouettes and the last of the sailboats are heading, st ill aided by a strong breeze, homewards. The next time I look up the orange of the sky has given way to many shades of pink and below it lies a tranquil sea, still heaving but in a tired, late evening manner, without the vigour that had come roaring out of its heart in the morning and ended as churning white foam at the feet of grizzled old fishermen, waiting there with the dawn. I watch the colours change until everything, the sky and the sea, becomes only shades of blue and a thin crescent appears in the sky as if drawn by a sharp white pencil and the silhouettes turn sharper, darker. When I turn back away it is already too late to read without a light.

But I have already read enough for the evening and there is that uncomfortable residual feeling that the mind is yet to absorb all the nuances, the layers, the insinuations of all I have read. Three New Yorker short stories, more than what I have dared to read in as many years. And clearly, its been my loss.

Exploring several themes

“Gold boy, Emerald girl” by Yiyun Li is a story set in modern Beijing — too many cars, missing the old bicycles — a story of a middle- aged man raised only by a mother and a woman raised only by a father. It starts off innocently as an account of a date arranged by the man’s mother between the two and ends as a story of three “lonely and sad people” who could not make one another less sad but could make “a world that would accommodate their loneliness,” a screaming exploration of several themes: loneliness, old age, companionship, the dreams and fears of childhood, the absence of a parent…..

The second story, originally written in French by J.M.G. Le Clezio is called “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea” speaks to me in my surroundings. It begins with the dream of a young boy, obsessed with Sinbad, to see the wide blue expanse and proceeds to describe every mood, colour and smell that the mighty deep can have, and the human yearning to explore it, know it, befriend it, and the need to fear it, to survive it. The story ends with intriguing musings about the boy’s future: “Perhaps he really did go to America, or to China on a cargo ship that travelled slowly from port to port, from island to island. Dreams that begin like this never have to end.”

And the last story, entitled “Sleep” is poetic and tender. It’s about a man who loves to watch his wife sleep because she is beautiful and because he feels privileged that she can turn off all her defences in his presence. From the time that he moved in with her to the present when she is a grandmother, he has watched her sleep for 25 years, “through the recession, the boom and now through the new recession.” And while he watches, and she sleeps, one can feel the ups and downs of an entire lifetime, the joys, the anxieties of marriage, of children, careers...There is a time bomb tucked away; he has learnt that he has colon cancer, but he has not told her yet…..because the doctor told him that their was a good chance that he would not die, and because she is sleeping.

Taut architecture

Just three short stories and so many worlds open up, so many questions to muse over. That is why these stories work, evidence again of the truth that what is said in a short story is perhaps less important than what has been left out, or only hinted at. The short story relies for its success on a taut architecture , in which there is not a single idea or word which does not add to the tension of the narrative; unlike the novel, there is little place for the luxury of byways. One careless stroke, one aimless paragraph can spoil it all. Jorge Luis Borges, one of the masters of the form in the 20th century, once wrote: “Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.” But the essential has echoes and, in a good short story, these can be heard at quite a distance and most clearly when they resonate against something in our own lives. A good story need not always await momentous events or earth shattering changes: the extraordinary strangeness of ordinary life is rich enough. As Chekhov perhaps best showed, each nondescript man can be a hero in his daily fight; moral ambiguity, doubt, passion and courage are not the preserve of only a few. All a short story needs at its core is a moment; enigmatic, immense, unique.

One of my eternal favourites, short and bittersweet, is Ernest Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story.” It’s all of 633 words and I wish I had the space here to quote it in full. Hemingway tells the story, with autobiographical echoes, about an American soldier’s love for the nurse who looks after him in an Italian wartime hospital, their desire to get married and the 15 letters he gets from her when he is sent back to the front. When the armistice is signed he goes back to America to get a job so that they can get married. She meanwhile meets an Italian major and writes to the American that theirs was “only a boy and girl love” and it was best that they forgot about it. But “the major did not marry her in the spring, or any other time” and our hero contracts gonorrhoea from a sales girl. All the desperation of wartime love, the promise and the sweetness as well as the disappointment of youth, in two printed pages. But Hemingway could better himself. He wrote the shortest story in just six words to win, it is said, a $10 bet. The story, complete in itself, dripping with heartbreak: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”


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