Okay, so I may be overcompensating for the two novellas now, as this wonderful snip from Simic is even shorter than the Hempel. But I think this is an example of literature at its purest. It is also, in the way I read it, one of the greatest pieces of immigrant writing ever I’ve read. Or rather, a story about the immigrant experience, about the psychological influences of being a stranger in a foreign land, trying to make a life for yourself. It is also, in another way, simply about growing up and finding the world outside the home more alluring than the one your family has built for you. The story is funny and grotesque and has a distinct Borgesian flavour. By including this (and the next one) I am also coming dangerously close to the debate about what is a short story and what is a prose poem? Simic is a poet, there’s no doubt about that, and you can find this story in the anthology of prose poetry Penguin put out a few years ago – I also abhor this debate, and I think it robs us all of valuable reading time. But I think of stories as something with some definable characteristics. Does it have a beginning, middle, and an end? Is there a central tension? If the answer is yes, then it’s a story. (It may also, I should say, be a poem – but it’s definitely a short story). Simic has all of these things in his gypsy allegory. It is also a story that once read, which you can do in about fifteen seconds flat, it can become as long and wide as a Russian novel in your mind. You carry it with you wherever you go.
Originally published in The World Doesn’t End, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1996. Available to read on Poetry International, here