I live in the heart of Bloomsbury which is home to many squares and monuments. During this last lockdown, the cherry blossom tree in the far right corner of Tavistock Square burst into bloom and covered the park bench in soft, pink petals, while blackbirds trilled away on the boughs. Gandhi sits in the middle of the square, presiding over empty benches, squirrels, cat sized rats, and rough sleepers camping under over-grown bushes. Around its pedestal, are the remains of burnt candles, dying bouquets and prayers scrawled on scraps and once even a plastic yellow daisy was looped over Gandhi’s left ear. Whether this accessory on the contemplative sculpture made it appear comical or poignant, I’m not sure, but it did make me wonder about the symbolism we attach to both sculptures and flowers, and the contrast between the two – the lasting, sometimes controversial legacy and solid structure of one, and the fleeting, almost instantly decaying quality of the other. Inspired by my daily walks, I set out to look for literary monuments and flowers in short stories, and how they are offered either as symbols or to trigger epiphanies.
In ‘Perennial’, flowers are used to give a sense of season and place but also illustrate sorrow and the passage of time. A man is grieving the mysterious disappearance of his wife. After planting tulips –some “salmon, others are a hard yellow, several a purple so deep they’re nearly black” – in her memory, he notices they are being stolen: “Three more flowers are missing. They have been snapped off at their base, their leaves two shrugging shoulders… He leaves their remnants and walks over to the planner he has left open on the lawn table, noting the missing flowers with pencil marks. There is rainwater in her ashtray, a dead bee at its centre.” Grief has dislocated the natural passage of time; the dead bee in ‘her’ ashtray symbolises that nature continues its cycle of life and death. Before the revelation of the missing tulips, the man recalls how during his history lesson.
Last year, he had a student who brought a rose encased in cellophane into his classroom, and she spent the next thirty-five minutes slowly plucking away each layer. She was seated near the back, and he found himself barely able to discuss whatever battle or presidency he was meant to be teaching, so absorbed was he in the flower’s slow disassembling.
In this passage, a flower has a power – a disruptive quality which is capable of interrupting the history of entire nations. Later, he discovers that “two more tulips are gone, broken off at the half-stalk, as if the person were in a hurry”. The author crafts in the symbolism, sentence by sentence until from being ‘real’ tulips, by the end of the story, they have bloomed into having a sacramental, religious significance as “even when they are dying, they are beautiful and unknown”.
First published in Ploughshares 134, Winter 2017-18 and available to read online here
Similarly, in this strange and compelling long, short story about loss, memory, and desire, a bush of red Chinese flowers is associated with light, life, passion and violence. The narrator notices how “the ixora bushes lining my walk home were in full bloom, the little red flowers speckling the chalky stretch of low-hanging cityscape with an insouciant charm.” She had “lost interest in them”, until she remembers how “you taught me how to suck the nectar out of the yellow tube in the middle, and I abused this knowledge so much I caused myself stomach pains for six hours straight.” The flowers are an essential part of the landscape, lending atmosphere to the story but also hinting at potentiality of illumination and reconciliation which the narrator is grasping for: “The tiny flowers cracked open like the sparklers we’d light during the better Chinese New Year’s.”
First published in Puerto del Sol, 2020 and available to read here
In this very short coming-of-age tale, noticing flowers and picking them, and laying them down are an integral part of the action of the protagonist, in as much as the flowers symbolise the loss of innocence. Myop, a ten year old is on a walk when “she found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds.” As she continues, she finds a “wild pink rose. As she picked it to add to her bundle she noticed a raised mound, a ring, around the rose’s root. It was the rotted remains of a noose, a bit of shredding plowline, now blending benignly into the soil.” The story, in its brevity and concise detail leaves the reader feeling as uprooted as Myop herself.
First published in Love and Trouble; The stories of Black Women, New York, Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1973. Also in the Collected Stories, W&N, 2005
In the Indian story ‘Lucid Moments’, it is the absence of flowers that is symbolic, and the author uses flowers to emphasise the need to preserve the identity and history of women which often get obliterated. The narrator, Sujata finds herself in a difficult situation as she sees her dying mother babble in a state of mental delirium, seeking to know the name of her own dead mother. As her mother dies, Sujata is left perturbed by her mother’s dying wish. She hopes to fulfil it by hanging a framed photograph of her dead mother. In an attempt to reclaim the lost history of women in general and of her mother in particular, she declares to her niece, “She is your grandmother… Her name was Sumati.” As Sujata hangs her mother’s picture on the wall she says, “There! It’s done. She doesn’t need any flowers or kumkum. It’s enough she’s here.” The suggestion is that, weighed down throughout her married years by her role as a mother and wife, it is only at death, when she was finally without any symbolic embellishments, that Sumati asserted her identity and is liberated.
First published in Intrusions and Other Stories, Penguin India, 1993
‘Sunflowers’, a Swedish story, focusses on a mother’s illness. Told from a child’s point of view, every aspect of sunflowers is essential to the narrative structure of the story, in as much as they are symbolic of what is happening in a family’s life as they try to cope with the mother’s deteriorating health. The father plants thousands of sunflowers in the field opposite the house and when they are in full bloom they look “like an army of mute individuals”, and are “so high” that even passers-by from the village, as the narrator tells her mother, “are talking about them”. Sunflowers are a delight for the senses – both the taste and sight, as the narrator’s father points out: “In the right quantity it’s a superb herb,… sweet and salty in just the right combination.” Throughout there are allusions to the life-giving force of sunflowers. In the hope that that will revitalise her mother the narrator cuts three of them for her to see, “so that she’d get a sense of how it must look down by the lake. Like in a fairy tale or a painting by Van Gogh. More beautiful than Van Gogh.” But her mother protests, as if to say she has accepted her illness and her life can’t be prolonged by anything and says, “Sunflowers don’t want to be put in a vase”, suggesting that her spirit can’t be contained. Out in the fields, in a vase, and also a bunch, or “their stalks wrapped in wet kitchen roll”, the author provides visuals of sunflowers at their best – in art, photographs, alive in the sunshine at noon and drooping in the afternoon heat. The end of the story brings an unexpected twist, but the lasting image is that of a glowing sunflower field, set in the wider landscape of things, with “mute life under the surface…”
First published in Swedish in Höga berg, djupa dalar (High Mountains, Deep Valleys), 2015. Available to read on Thresholds here
Throughout ‘Kew Gardens’, which has been described as a modernist short story, the narrator returns to the very English flowerbed, focusing on a snail as it moves through the flowers offering a ground-level perspective of the world on a hot, July day. The story relays the unfolding of a moment or a series of moments, rather than a grand, unified narrative or plot. Flowers and shrubs and the garden are essential features in this story, but they are not named, and despite the precise descriptions they are not easily identifiable:
From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red, blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour.
The narrative shifts from the flower bed to the couples walking past in turn, four couples – a husband and wife, an old and a younger man, two women, a courting couple, none of whom have much communication between them. Are the unnamed flowers supposed to signify something or are they just there as ‘real’ flowers in the environment of the story? Woolf remains elusive about this.
First published privately in 1919, and collected in Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press, 1921. Later collected in A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, 1944. Now available in an illustrated edition from Kew Publishing, 2016, The Mark on the Wall and Other Stories, Oxford, and Selected Stories, Penguin Classics
‘Forest Life’, an Argentinian short story, is an ode to the pine forest and flora and fauna where Wutrich and his daughter, Mabel live. When their home is threatened, Mabel is under pressure to marry a Japanese man, Saikoti, who grows flowers in greenhouses on the plains, a day’s drive from the mountains where she and her father live. Wutrich moves into a nearby eldercare facility, where he longingly reminisces about the life and environment he has lost: “Four hundred and fifty thousand pines, he said. We transported them on horseback. And then, all these years… All those pines up there, he said, growing so slowly you wouldn’t even notice it.” Mabel herself finds, in her new home amongst other Japanese immigrants, her eyes becoming “lost in that ground with a single tree”. Over the course of the story, a subdued relationship develops between Mabel and Sakoiti. They come to recognise that their union was only possible because they were both displaced, through deforestation and immigration, to live in a new environment. Falco uses precise descriptions of the landscape to reflect his characters internal experiences. Flowers and trees – nature’s profound beauty, cyclical deterioration and rejuvenation, and rootedness – mirror the character’s interior lives, their memories, and aspirations. He examines the stillness of human existence, its stoicism and how minute details and private inner worlds connected to nature, reveal a sophisticated philosophical way of living and being.
First published in English in A Perfect Cemetery, Charco Press, 2021
‘The Garland’ is set in the frenzied days of Partition in Pakistan. A Muslim mob in Lahore attacks the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, a famous Hindu architect and philanthropist, pelting ‘him’ with sticks, bricks and stones. One man smears the statue with coal tar and another is shot by police as he places a garland of shoes around the monument’s neck. The satire closes with the injured man being rushed off, “to be bandaged at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital”, founded by the very same Ganga Ram whose image he had been wrecking. Manto allows the reader a quick apprehension of an ironic truth, but the characters remain unconscious.
First published in 1948 and collected in Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, Penguin Global, 2009
A comparable Indian story also about the early days of Partition is RK Narayan’s dark comedy Lawley Road (1943), the central premise of which is whom a monument should commemorate. In the fictional town of Malgudi, a series of bureaucratic absurdities around colonial symbols illustrate the legacy of colonialism and the confusion and crisis of identity after Independence. The Chairman of the Municipal Council decides to remove the sculpture of Sir Frederick Lawley, “with breeches, wig and white waistcoat and that hard determined look”, from the Lawley Extension, after it has been renamed Gandhi Nagar, even though “people had got so used to it that they never bothered to ask whose it was or even to look up. It was generally used by the birds as a perch.” The twenty-foot statue, “with the firmness of a mountain”, is blasted off its molten lead pedestal “with a few sticks of dynamite.” However, it is soon discovered there had been a mistake: Sir Lawley, whose statue had been uninstalled, had always been a friend to Malgudi, not to be confused with another Sir Lawley, a ruthless tyrant. The government orders the Chairman to reinstate the monument. The effect is tragicomic: the reader is always aware that the squabbles, typical of human nature, are of no consequence against the backdrop of violence and dislocation of Partition, which was occurring at the same time.
First published in 1943 and collected in Lawley Road, Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1969. Now available in Malgudi Days, Penguin Classics
‘The Artificial Nigger’ is also located in a shifting political landscape, but in the US. The two main characters move through an unsettling experience culminating in the sighting of a statue leading them to an awareness of sorts. In a rural town of Georgia, Mr Head and his grandson, Nelson prepare for a trip to Atlanta. They argue about whether or not Nelson will recognise “a nigger”. After a stressful day in the city, Mr Head and Nelson see a plaster figurine of a black, lawn jockey on a lawn. This is their moment of reckoning. Mr Head says, “An artificial nigger!” which the boy repeats, in the “exact same tone.” Mr Head explains the statue is there because “they ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.” The statue elicits an emotional response from the old man and his grandson and they reach an understanding of their familial bond and “all the mystery of existence”, but, as the reader appreciates, they remain unaware of their racist attitude and their wider connection to humanity.
First published in A Good Man is Hard to Find, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1955
In ‘Propaganda by Monuments’, Vladislavic bring into focus a similar dilemma, but in the context of apartheid. Told from two points of view, the story contemplates the fate of discarded statues: what would happen if they were exported to another country, and how it would affect the identity of the sender and recipient. In contrast to the parochial setting of the other stories, Vladislavic’s is an international drama between South Africa and Russia. In Pretoria, one of the protagonists, Khumalo, has a brainwave when he reads a newspaper advertisement: Moscow City Council is giving away ‘surplus’ statues of Lenin. Khumalo reflects that apartheid has ended and his café now needs “a change of clothes”. He writes to Moscow asking if he could be gifted, or purchase, a “spare statue” for his renamed “V.I. Lenin Bar and Grill”. In Moscow, Grekov, a bored translator in the Administration of Everyday Services, receives the letter and sets out looking for the unwanted statues, in the “scrap heap… of history”. He tries but fails to imagine what will take the place of Lenin’s statues in the squares, and reflects “how soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history”. This casual observation made flippantly by Grekov is in fact a profound realisation: the reader recognises that ordinary citizens are disinterested in history because it makes them feel nervous, insecure and irrelevant. When Khumalo receives Grekov’s response, he drives through a white neighbourhood, and stops to examine the monument of J.G. Strijdom, an Afrikaaner, and proponent of apartheid. Khumalo sees the sun shining through the statue’s “finely veined bronze ears”, and understands “how, but not necessarily why, the impossible came to pass”. Khumalo has comprehended less than he realises, and a broader and deeper understanding of historical consequences is the reader’s alone.
Published in Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories, David Phillip, 1996
The effect of another type of missed realisation is examined in Carol Shields’ short story ‘Hinterland’. Here the fleeting nature of an existential experience of beauty is explored; the present is poised as a moment with potential, but it passes without acknowledgement and the result is distance and dissatisfaction between the characters. A couple takes an excursion to the Cluny Museum in Paris where Meg notices the painting of a sculpture, “a particular gilded Virgin”. She says that the portrait will be the single object she will remember from their trip. However, her husband, Roy says he missed it, and he returns on his own to the Museum to view it. Standing in front of the painting, he reflects on its “crude approximations, but is nonetheless moved at the way a human life drains towards one revealing scene”. A fire alarm prompts him to leave the Museum in a panic. Later this incident is the only thing he recollects, while Meg reminisces on the expensive long distance telephone call she made to her daughter. Neither of them will think of the painting, and their “remembrance of specific events” will become “worn smooth and treacherous as the stone steps of ancient buildings.” The recognition is only for the reader, while the characters stay trapped in their limited understanding.
Published in The Orange Fish and Other Stories, 1989, and the Collected Stories, Fourth Estate, 2004