|Short stories are more tangly than you might think|
Short stories can be fleeting things, and like intense, exquisite truffles, the flavour of the most recent mouthful often supplants that of the one before. Because of this, and perhaps because of voracious reading appetites, it is a rare thing to be able to discuss in depth a story you have just read with someone who has read it equally recently.
To switch similes: like poems, good short stories demand and reward several readings, and as someone pointed out to me yesterday, re-reading can make a story (simile number 3) open up like a flower, showing you far more than you first saw.
So it is a mind-expanding delight to be co-hosting the short story club at the Word Factory every month. Sophie, also hosting, circulates a copy of our chosen short story by email, and a small group of us – already we have stalwarts, but there are always new faces – gather before the main Word Factory event at Waterstones Piccadilly to discuss this, our most recently savoured short story truffle. So far we have read and talked about stories by Alice Munro, James Salter, Flannery O’Connor, Steven Millhauser, and yesterday Hassan Blasim.
A particular delight in coming together as a group to talk about a short story is being reminded each time that no story is ever read the same way twice. Everyone there has had a unique experience with each of their own readings, and it is enlightening to say the least to hear how fellow readers have interacted with the text.
Hassan Blasim was a timely choice for May, as just a few days ago he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his collection The Iraqi Christ. In the group we discussed the title story, which in just a few pages combines the feel of a parable, elements of the supernatural, and moral ambiguity that had all our mental cogs whirring.
The story is told by Ali, a Muslim Iraqi soldier who recalls Daniel, a Christian in the medical corps nicknamed ‘the Chewgum Christ’. Daniel is both obsessed with radar and a kind of human radar himself. He has premonitions of enemy attacks, which save the lives of many fellow soldiers who follow him ‘frightened as ducklings’. But after the war, when Daniel is caring for his sick and elderly mother, an encounter in a cafe with a suicide bomber forces him to make a horrible choice about life and death, not just his own.
I’ve given the story a voice-overish précis so as not to spoil it for would-be readers, but it was Daniel’s actions and implied decision at the end which really got us talking. There were so many interpretations in the room: religion causes deaths; the suicide bomber, not Daniel, is the ‘Christ’ of the title, despite the latter’s nickname; good people can make bad decisions; or simply, that there is no sense to life.
We pored over the religious allusions, mixed as they are with humour and dark philosophy. We wondered at the matter-of-factness of both revelations and descriptions of horribly intense situations, especially in light of Blasim’s own experiences (see links to interviews here). Sometimes the directness and plainness of language led to speculations about how this translation compares with the original (in Arabic), and beyond that how such a story translates across cultures. For a very short story packed with strangeness and surprise, we agreed that it is emotionally very powerful, and this even despite a seemingly deliberate blankness about the inner states of Daniel the Chewgum Christ.
Whether or not there is a single message to be gleaned from any story, but particularly one with elements of the parable (a topic that came up last month, with Millhauser’s ‘In the Reign of Harad IV’), our discussion highlighted the power of a short story to transport readers, though never to quite the same place.
Next month we will be reading and talking about a story by Zadie Smith, so if you can get to Waterstones Piccadilly and fancy comparing your views with other avid readers, email firstname.lastname@example.org, join the mailing list and join us. It’s free.