Posts Tagged ‘short story’

‘The Commandant’s Desk’

November 23, 2009

‘The Commandant’s Desk’ is one of the “new and unpublished writings on war and peace” in Armageddon in Retrospect, Vonnegut’s first posthumous publication (a second, Look at the Birdie, has since been released). In many ways it is not a typical Vonnegut story – that honour falls to ‘Great Day’, with its mix of folksy narrative voice and time travel. It is certainly science fiction in that it presents us with the aftermath of a war between Russia and America, but there is nothing futuristic about it and it seems likely it is based (as most of the writing in this book is) on Vonnegut’s experiences in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In the story American troops liberate / occupy (take your pick) a small town in Czechoslovakia which had previously been held by the Russians. The story is told form the perspective of a Czech carpenter who has experience of both the First (“I lost my left leg as an Austrian infantryman in 1916”) and Second (“three deep nicks near the iron tip, for the three German officers whose car I sent down a mountainside one night in 1943”) World Wars. To the narrator, the arrival of the Americans is a blessing:

“Now praise God, I was seeing Americans again…Knowing this day was coming had kept me alive.”

In expectation, he has hoarded a bottle of Scotch under the floorboards to celebrate their arrival. However, when the American commander, Major Evans, enters his shop he finds himself treated with contempt. When Evans discovers the narrator can speak English, he comments, “Good for you, Pop.”

“He made me feel like a small dog who had cleverly – for a small dog – fetched him a rubber ball.”

He refuses to shake the narrator’s hand, and when offered whatever he needs from the shop, he assumes the narrator is simply afraid rather than grateful. Evans is contrasted with Captain Donini, whose manner is much more conciliatory. The difference is plain – Evans has experienced years of conflict and Donini hasn’t:

“It was hard to imagine him on a battlefield and it was hard to imagine the major anywhere else.”

Evans spots a desk that the narrator had been making for the Russian commandant:

“I’d designed it as a private satire on the Russian commandant’s bad taste and hypocrisy about symbols of wealth.”

Evans, however, also finds the “hideous piece of furniture” appealing and intends to take it for his office, once the hammer and sickle has been replaced by an eagle. Vonnegut’s point is clear – only the symbols change.

The attitude of Evans is echoed in that of the American soldiers. They are not as bad as the Russians or Nazis, needing to get drunk before their worst behaviour and embarrassed when women or old men stand up to them, but they regard the townspeople as little better than enemies and soon the town has “the atmosphere of a prison.” Eventually the narrator and his daughter drink the whisky while he reminisces about the time when her mother was alive and she was a “young pretty and carefree girl.”

In another story the Major might have been a sympathetic character. We discover that he lost his family in the war, and that he is so numbed by the fighting he wishes he had been killed, and only longs to be transferred to Leningrad where pockets of resistance still hold out. Vonnegut, however, does not let him off so lightly:

“So what are you trying to tell us – that we are all doing penance for the death of the major’s family?”

The narrator has also suffered but his voice remains rational and considered throughout, though a twist at the end shows that all are eventually corrupted by war.

It is not clear when this story was written, but it obviously has a lot to say to contemporary America despite it rather 1950s style World War Three setting. As is often the case with Vonnegut his incomprehension and cynicism fight it out, and neither one is the victor.

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‘The Child’

November 2, 2009

first person

Reviewing collections of short stories is a difficult art. You may love one, then find the next rather dull. The more similarities, the easier to discuss, but doesn’t that make the collection as a whole less interesting? Above all, you will be unlikely to be able to examine any of the stories in detail. So instead of attempting a review of Ali Smith’s latest collection, I intend to simply discuss one of the stories, ‘The Child’. It is, of course, my favourite, but it also highlights one of the advantages the short story can have over the novel: the ability to develop the surreal.

The story begins in a deliberately ordinary manner:

“I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff.”

Notice the emphasis on routine and the intentionally vague “stuff” – too banal to merit further description. However, this is simply to provide a credible background to the first unusual event, the appearance of a child in the narrator’s shopping trolley. Here Smith’s descriptive powers come into full force on the basis that the more unlikely something is, the more the reader needs to picture it – and, as this story rests entirely on the child, we are treated to an extensive portrait:

“The child in it was blond and curly-haired, very fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel on a Christmas card or a child out of an old-fashioned English children’s book…”

Interestingly, though the description is intended to make us believe in the child’s existence, it relies heavily on the mythological and fictional. It also presents us with an ideal child, “embarrassingly beautiful” – though “a little crusty round the nose,” a touch of verisimilitude which actually makes it more adorable. Like any rational person, the narrator takes the child to Customer Services, but unfortunately no child has been reported lost, and the woman behind the desk automatically assumes the child is the narrator’s, as do a succession of customers. It is not so much no-one believes the narrator, as they do not hear her – the picture of her with the child creates the automatic assumption she is the mother, and any protestations are put down to the fact she is having a ‘bad day’. When the child starts to cry a woman hands him to the narrator and he stops:

“I had never felt so powerful in all my life.”

This is the first sign of any attraction to owning the child. Whether partly for this reason, or simply because she is bowing to the opinion of those around, the narrator takes the child to her car.

It is at this point the story moves from the unlikely to the surreal, and from the simply interesting to the exceptional: The child suddenly speaks:

“You’re a really rubbish driver…I could do better than that and I can’t even drive.”

The child speaks in a “charming” voice, but what it has to say is less so: a litany of racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks that would make the Daily Mail blush. The narrator’s reaction?

“I was enchanted.”

So much so that when she realises the child is hungry she immediately begins to breastfeed, and plan “how to ensure the child’s later enrolment in one of the area’s better secondary schools,” one of the story’s funniest lines. This despite the fact that we know the narrator is a Guardian reader. The contentment does not last, however, as the child proceeds to tell a series of politically incorrect jokes, and the narrator eventually (in fairy tale fashion) abandons him in the woods.

This story is funny, surprising (even shocking) and thought-provoking. It has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and children, and society’s assumptions in that area. The non-PC child might represent the more right-wing views that can come with family; the fear of producing a child alien to your own sensibilities; or the link between child-rearing and the disempowerment of women (many of his remarks and jokes are sexist).

And, no, she doesn’t leave the child in the woods. Of course, she worries and goes back for him, and then…well, when it comes to short stories, I think you have to discover the denouement for yourself.

‘The Child’ can be found in The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith.