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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 26th, 2004


 

Telling Tales

by Nadine Gordimer

A Philanthropic Party

A review by Kelly Grovier

Assembling the twenty-one stories for this remarkable anthology, Nadine Gordimer must have felt that she had embarked not only on an inspired philanthropic enterprise, but on an intriguing literary experiment. What would happen if one were to approach a score of the world's greatest living writers -- from Gunter Grass to Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag to Kenzaburo Oe -- and invite them to reach into their "lifetime's work as storytellers" and choose a piece of short fiction to donate to a volume whose profits would go exclusively to the prevention and treatment of AIDS? In view of the tragic context of the scheme, let alone her leap-of-faith attitude towards its contents, Gordimer must have realized she risked summoning a volume that was either mirthlessly monotone or else themelessly uncentred -- some of its parts greater than the whole. How delighted she must have been when what began to emerge was something unexpectedly uplifting: a soulful, searching collection which, while organized predictably along the human axes of sex and death, is nevertheless joyful -- even, at times, hilarious.

Telling Tales opens with Arthur Miller's tightly wrought story of sexual awakening, "Bulldog", which follows a taciturn Jewish boy through an unfamiliar neighbourhood in New York, searching for the house where a puppy has been advertised for sale in the local newspaper. Miller's ability to capture the adolescent's mingled feelings of ambivalence and obsession after meeting the smouldering owner of the litter -- a restless housewife thrice the boy's age who succeeds in seducing him -- is at once irresistible and unsettling: "It got sharper", Miller describes their clumsy collision, "until it was almost like the time he touched the live rim of a light socket while trying to remove a broken bulb".

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's gritty tale "Death Constant Beyond Love" glistens with the same unmistakable mixture of magic and the mundane that makes his novels so memorable. His story surrounds the insalubrious instincts of a corrupt and dying politician, Senator Onesimo Sanchez, who is approached while campaigning by "the most beautiful woman in the world" -- Laura Farina, a sultry nineteen-year-old desperate to have her father's dubious past erased. As so often with Marquez, each sinuous sentence unfolds a universe of mystery. "He listened to the speech from his hammock", so we are introduced to Laura's father, Nelson, "amidst the remains of his siesta, under the cool bower of a house of unplaned boards which he had built with the same pharmacist's hands with which he had drawn and quartered his first wife". The story culminates in a surreal sexual stand-off -- a reversal of power roles involving a grubby grope, a chastity belt and a haggle for the key.

Margaret Atwood's poignant tale "The Age of Lead" is perhaps the only story in the anthology even implicitly to engage with the glacial suffering associated with HIV/AIDS. A late-night television documentary on forensic efforts to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the curious death and apparent ritual burial of a nineteenth-century traveller found entombed in ice -- "like those maraschino cherries you used to freeze in ice-cube trays for fancy tropical drinks" -- triggers a slow thawing of frozen feelings in Jane about the death of her childhood friend and erstwhile lover, Vincent.

That such heartbreaking prose can sit unresentfully alongside funny stories, such as "Rejection", Woody Allen's facetious fable of outrageous New York elitism, is among the unexpected strengths of the volume. When three-year-old Mischa Ivanovich's application to "the very best nursery school in Manhattan" is declined, the lifelong repercussions of the calamity are unfolded with such unflinching absurdity as only Allen's imagination is capable of. Mischa's father, Boris, loses his job and all social standing. His mother, Anna, takes to frivolous shopping and random affairs, which, we are told, were "hard to conceal from Boris Ivanovich, since he shared the same bedroom and asked repeatedly who the man next to them was".

Even putting to one side the manifest humanitarian merit of Gordimer's brainchild, Telling Tales is a strong collation of contemporary literary consciousness, which also includes contributions by Chinua Achebe, Hanif Kureishi, Jose Saramago and John Updike. It is an ideal source for short soulful fiction over a hectic holiday season.

Kelly Grovier is a lecturer at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and an editor of Oxford Poetry. He is writing a biography of Newgate Prison.



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