‘Maria Concepción’ by Katherine Anne Porter

This astonishing story, set around the time of the Mexican revolution, is one that keeps coming to mind while driving around the peaceful country roads and village markets near our home in Thailand. Porter’s sensuous descriptions are uniquely memorable for the way they evoke landscapes and the characters situated in them. Maria Concepción is a stunning character, a powerful woman trying to adhere to the rules of her village society while longing for a child. Discovering her husband’s infidelity, she murders his mistress and appropriates her infant. Her actions are condoned by the community, which seems to survive only at great cost to individual women. Thanks to the enormous skill of the writer, the conflicts inherent in the patriarchal and colonial setting are not shrill and strident but woven intricately into the fabric of the story, which has the overall impression of a light-filled fresco. In an interview, Porter said that she took no more than an evening to pen a short story, with little further revision. Her extraordinary artistry is evident in this piece.

First published in 1922. Included in Flowering Judas, Penguin Random House, 2014. Available online here. A video interview with the author—from 1973, when she was in her eighties—is here

‘The Lady with the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

Chekhov, like Chopin, is an artist who expresses an exquisite and open-ended vision of the sadness, hope, and folly of our lives. ‘The Lady with the Dog’ is one of my favorite Chekhov stories (tied neck-and-neck with his dog fable ‘Kashtanka’). The tale is one of petty adultery narrated in such a non-judgmental manner that you are drawn towards the characters and into the enduring mysteries of love. Gurov, a chauvinistic and womanizing Moscow banker, is on a summer vacation in Yalta, where he is attracted to Anna, the lady with a little dog, who is visiting from a provincial town. After a swift seduction and several weeks together, they return to their respective unhappily married lives. But the interlude is no summer fling, for each has been touched, for the first time, by love. Meeting in secret, the story ends with the lovers facing with grim resilience the troubles that must lie ahead. The writing is so compassionate towards the characters and their transformation, and to the arc of time itself, that it leaves you not only with a lump in the throat but a sense that so many of us are “birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages.”

First published in 1899. Included in The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, trans. Constance Garnett, Penguin Classics, 2002. Available online here

‘We Didn’t Like Him’ by Akhil Sharma

Sometimes a good story arrives in a style that appears plain and unadorned, devoid of any of the sartorial displays seen in the stories of Nabokov or Hemingway. ‘We Didn’t Like Him’ is a tale of relationships corrupted by social prejudice. Sharma writes clean and sonorous prose, making little use of visual descriptions, focusing on situations that reflect the harsh social attitudes of the narrator and his community. The narrator is an angry misanthrope, and his narrative voice has an authenticity that grows on you with each reading. The story, set in Delhi, is about his relationship with the widely disliked neighborhood bully Manshu, who grows up to become a corrupt priest and then falls prey to misfortune. The narrator’s dislike for Manshu and humanity itself is only tempered at the end of the story, when after several begrudging and angry acts of charity towards Manshu, he finally shows him some respect. All in all, it is a beautifully constructed piece, steeped in the rituals of life and death in a deeply hypocritical religious society.

First published in the New Yorker, May 27, 2013. Available online here

‘Enoch Soames’ by Max Beerbohm

I find it hard to explain why I like Max Beerbohm’s stories so much. The British caricaturist and dandy, author of the classic Oxford satire Zuleika Dobson, though witty, is not as great a short story writer as his fellow-Edwardian satirist Saki, and certainly not as funny or lovable as his contemporary P. G. Wodehouse. My attraction to Beerbohm is probably due to his prose style, for he was a student of Walter Pater, one of the great aesthetes of the Victorian age. Beerbohm’s somewhat frivolous but captivating story ‘Enoch Soames’ is encapsulated within the story itself in these memorable lines:

a riter ov th time, naimd Max Beerbohm, hoo woz stil alive in th twentieth senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld ‘Enoch Soames’—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot labud sattire but not without vallu az showing hou seriusli the yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz took themselvz.

By arrangement with the Devil, Enoch Soames, a self-absorbed, absinthe-swilling fin-de-siècle poet whose most successful book sold no more than three copies, is projected to the Round Reading Room in the British Museum precisely a hundred years later (that is, to the afternoon of June 3, 1997), to discover the verdict of posterity. By then, people wear dull uniforms with their identification numbers sewed on, and they use a phonetic spelling (perhaps a nod to Beerbohm’s Café Royal fellow-patron George Bernard Shaw, who proposed one such spelling ‘reform’).  The only reference Soames finds to himself is in a historical survey of late 19th-Century literature, quoted above. Naturally, the Devil comes to collect, but is that the end of Soames? Beerbohm’s narrator points out that anyone visiting the Round Reading Room on that afternoon in the future would be able to confirm, contrary to the historian’s claim, that Soames was far from imaginary. A short story penned by the American magician Teller and published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1997, tells of the events that transpired on a visit to the Round Reading Room on the prescribed date. 

First published in 1916. Included in Seven Men, Heinemann, 1920. Available online here. Teller’s sequel in the Atlantic Monthly is here

‘The Island at Noon’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

As a teenager, I had the good fortune to spend many of my summer holidays in the library of an uncle who owned a substantial collection of Latin American literature in translation. While I greatly enjoyed the colorful company of Amado, Asturias, Lispector, García Márquez, and many others, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar was unknown to me until a decade later, when I read his story ‘The Southern Thruway’ in a class taught by his close friend, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. Cortázar, who seemed like a cosmopolitan kindred spirit, wowed me with the way he spun a story around a traffic jam, creating a stylish and surreal, time-stretching tale of how a sense of community can arise spontaneously and then briefly flourish before being swallowed up by humdrum reality. 

Since then, one story of his that has become something of an obsession for me is ‘The Island at Noon’. It is the tale of Marini, an airline steward on the Rome-Tehran run who becomes obsessed with a Greek island called Xiros that they fly over every other day at noon. Seen from the plane window,the island was small and solitary, and the Aegean Sea surrounded it with an intense blue that exalted the curl of a dazzling and kind of petrified white, which down below would be foam breaking against the reefs and coves.Marini eventually escapes his relentless schedule (of travel and brief trysts with stewardesses) and gets down to Xiros, where after a swim, he climbs up a hill and gazes up into the sky, wondering if he will be able to completely obliterate his past self. It happens to be noon, and flying overhead is his plane, which is now doomed. By the end of the story, a circuit is completed; past and present, death above and life below are finally re-connected. Entranced by this story, I wrote a sequel ‘The Island Hereafter’, published in 2016.

First published in Spanish in Todos los fuegos el fuego, Sudamericana, 1966. First translation in All Fires The Fire, Pantheon, 1973. Available online here. A video, in Spanish and French, of the writer talking about his night walks around Paris is here

‘An Astrologer’s Day’ by R. K. Narayan

R. K. Narayan’s short stories, simple and unpretentious on the surface and full of touches of gentle and absurd humor, reveal a mastery of literary technique that won him worldwide acclaim, placing him among the very greatest exponents of the form. Malgudi, a fictional town brought to life in a most whimsical and playful manner, is featured in many of Narayan’s novels and stories. Its marketplace provides the setting for ‘An Astrologer’s Day’. A man who has fled his distant village sets up shop at noon daily, duping people with astrological predictions based, as one might expect, on shrewd guesswork and a firm grasp of human psychology. One evening, after the other vendors have switched off their makeshift lighting and are packing up, a stranger shows up in the dark and demands a reading. Striking a match to light his cheroot, the stranger begins his consultation, with the astrologer managing to pinpoint astonishingly accurate details of the stranger’s narrow escape from an attempt on his life. The astrologer reassures the stranger, telling him that the fellow who tried to kill him has died. With the forecast done and money in hand, the astrologer returns home and upon retiring to bed, tells his wife that a great weight has been lifted: for years, he lived with the guilty feeling that he had blood on his hands. Yawning, he then falls asleep, while the reader absorbs the ramifications of his newly revealed relationship to the stranger.
The obvious irony in this classic ‘twist in the tail’ ending is that Fate, into which the astrologer so deceitfully claims insight, is what ultimately helps resolve the protagonists’ problematic relationship. Coming at the end of the astrologer’s day, the story’s dénouement draws the reader back to recap the marketplace setting, where as darkness falls, true insights into human relationships arrive in a flash of illumination. All in all, an 1800-word marvel that Maupassant himself may have endorsed.

First published in 1966. Included in Malgudi Days, Penguin Books, 2006. Available online here

‘Sunrise, Sunset’ by Edwidge Danticat

The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat is one of the outstanding voices of contemporary American fiction, and over the years she has won numerous international awards. The title of her short story ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ is the name of a charming little game played by Carole, the grandmother in a Haitian-American family in Miami: “Carole likes to entertain Jude with whatever children’s songs and peekaboo games she can still remember, including one she calls Solèy Leve, Solèy Kouche—Sunrise, Sunset—which she used to play with her children. She drapes a black sheet over her grandson’s playpen and pronounces it ‘sunset,’ then takes the sheet off and calls it ‘sunrise.’ Her grandson does not seem to mind when she gets confused and reverses the order.” 
Gathered together to celebrate new life at a christening, it is impending death that casts its shadow like a black sheet over Carole’s family, for she has been exhibiting the symptoms of dementia. The story revolves around Carole’s relationship with Jeanne, her daughter, who has post-partum depression, with each woman struggling to keep their footing in the midst of life changes. Carole wishes Jeanne would understand that she can’t afford to be sad. “Where would the family be if Carole had stayed sad when she arrived in this country? Sometimes you just have to shake the devil off you, whatever that devil is. Even if you don’t feel like living for yourself, you have to start living for your child…” There are flashbacks to Carole and her husband Victor’s life in Haiti, and the homesickness she felt in Miami when Victor left for work each day. “She was so lonely and homesick that she kept kissing her babies’ faces, as if their cheeks were plots of land in the country she’d left behind.” The relationships among multiple family members unfold like the petals of a flower, until a frightening moment involving the baby Jude that culminates in heartbreak. The tenderness that marks our finer moments and the impetus towards survival against all odds are themes that pervade Danticat’s beautiful writing.

First published in the New Yorker, September 18, 2017. Available online here

‘A Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

‘A Hunger Artist’ was the only short story that Kafka deemed worthy of preservation, though history proved him wrong. The opening plunges the reader deep into the Kafka’s world: “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” The narrator’s observations are factually true, for public displays of starvation by Giovanni Succi and others were popular sideshows in the 19th Century. One of the great ironists of literature, Kafka turns the caged performer fasting in a freakshow into an artist. The spectators, children among them, initially marvel at his skill, while butchers stand guard to make sure he doesn’t break the rules. However, the public, being fickle, eventually loses interest and the artist joins a traveling circus, where his cage is soon ignored in favor of the animal attractions. The artist nevertheless continues with his craft, breaking all known fasting records while lying in the corner of his cage. He explains, in his defense, that he only fasted because he couldn’t find the food he liked. His corpse is at last discarded and replaced by a well-fed panther which attracts far more attention.
This story is a parable of the artist turning his struggle for spiritual sustenance into a spectacle that feeds the public’s savage hunger for entertainment. Even if he is lucky enough to be noticed for a while, the artist will be misunderstood, and in any case, it is only a matter of time. Walking in Kafka’s footsteps in Prague a few years ago, with exhibits of relentless brutality and renewed authoritarianism only a finger-tap away, I found it nevertheless reassuring to imagine him stepping beside me with his long, loping gait, a gentle ascetic racked by prophetic visions. 

First published in 1922. Included in a translation by Willa and Edwin Muir in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, Schocken Books, 1988. Available online here

‘The Strange Story of the World’ by Chigozie Obioma

The young Nigerian novelist Chigozie Obioma has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. ‘The Strange Story of the World’ is a recent short story of his set in Nigeria that distills melodrama from family history and concocts a savory tragicomedy out of the melodrama. With themes reminiscent of Nigeria’s Nollywood movies, it is a son’s retrospective look at a father who loses his job, savings and status. The father is utterly devastated: “Papa’s view of lack became extreme. Poverty was the unblemished evil, an impenetrable darkness opposed to order. A person who becomes host to this evil spirit had only one option: to root it out and cast it into the outer dark.” When the father is wounded in a fight, his wife allows the doctor to seduce her in exchange for blood, and in turn she is banished from the house, taking the narrator’s younger brother with her. It is only when the father comes home with a goat one day, hoping to perform a magic ritual with it, that the family’s fortunes turn, entirely by accident.
Melodramas of the daytime soap variety revolve around exaggerated dramatic situations, a sensational plot, and stereotypical characters. A brilliant storyteller, Obioma takes some of these materials and embeds them in a realistic and well-developed setting that reflects the values and superstitions of the society, with a narrative voice that uses an easily-digestible Nigerian English that I find captivating. The story title itself is from a musical refrain that runs through the piece. The situations involving the father are cleverly foregrounded so as to deepen the exploration of his character and relationships. The world is indeed strange, the characters’ culture seems to say: you may lose badly before you gain, and there will be sacrifices and magic. Although I am not thrilled by its happy ending, the writing is of that engaging and apparently effortless quality that will continue to win the author many readers worldwide. 

First published in Granta, November 28, 2019. Available online here

‘Hop-Frog’ by Edgar Allan Poe

The first time I read ‘Hop-Frog’ was in a collection of Poe’s complete works. It was a hardback with a yellow paper cover, and my older brother, a teenager at the time, had neatly inscribed his name on the frontispiece in green ink. The inventor of the genre of detective fiction, and an early exponent of science fiction and horror, Poe was also a formidable poet and literary critic. Knowing that most short stories could be read at a single sitting, he aimed to control the reader’s attention and emotions by focusing on a single effect or impression, including only those events and situations in the story that contributed to the totality of that effect. This deliberative, rational method is evident in the tale of the court jester Hop-Frog. A ‘cripple’ and ‘dwarf’ kidnapped from a remote province, Hop-Frog is forced to amuse a dissolute king. When Hop-Frog’s companion the fellow-midget Trippetta is brutally humiliated by His Majesty during the preparations for a masquerade, Hop-Frog takes revenge by inventing a diversion called ‘The Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs’. Trust Poe, along with his detached narrator, to fill in the gory details in an impeccable manner. I am so glad my family considered this riveting story suitable material for young children!

First published in 1849. Included in numerous collections. Available online here

‘A Handful of Dates’ by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies

The Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih is famous for his novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’, which received worldwide acclaim when it first appeared in English in 1969.  A counter-narrative to ‘Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ (and involving a reverse Kurtz-like journey from Africa to Europe), this book on my shelf is widely regarded as being among the finest Arab novels of the 20th Century. 
‘A Handful of Dates’ is a compact short story by Salih, set in a Sudanese village sketched with a few brushstrokes: a mosque, a river, a wood full of acacia trees, and fields with date palms. The boy who lives there adores his grandfather, regarding him as the embodiment of virtue. Their lives seem idyllic, until, while discussing their neighbor Masood, the grandfather explains that most of the fields with date palms that once belonged to Masood are now his. During the date harvest, the boy realizes that his beloved grandfather is not the person he thought he was. In a culture where usury is frowned upon, the grandfather has reduced Masood into a laborer indebted to him, forcing Masood to pay off his debt by tilling the land that he once owned. Simple in its elements, focused in its effect, ‘A Handful of Dates’ is a quiet coming-of-age story that gets at the costs of destroying the traditional decencies that hold a community together. 

First published in 1964. Included in a translation by Denys Johnson-Davies in The Wedding of Zein, Penguin Random House NYRB Classics, 2011. Available online here

‘The Bridge of Dreams’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, translated by Howard Hibbett

The writings of Junichiro Tanizaki are exquisite though tinged with perversion and cruelty. His novel ‘The Makioka Sisters’, the story of the decline of an Osaka family at the onset of World War II, is among the great novels of the 20th Century. 
Tanizaki’s ‘The Bridge of Dreams’ draws its title and theme from the final chapter of Lady Murasaki’s 11th Century classic ‘The Tale of Genji’, which Tanizaki translated into modern Japanese. The setting, reflecting the author’s nostalgia for ancient Japan, is a traditional Kyoto home called Heron’s Nest. “There were only some eight rooms, including the maids’ room and the smaller entrance hall; but the kitchen was a spacious one big enough for an average restaurant, and there was an artesian well next to the sink.” There is also a pavilion, and a tea-house, and beautiful walkways lined with carved statues and pillars, and the garden itself is idyllic, accessed via an old stone bridge over a stream that may or may not be the subject of an ancient poem, for everything is poetic about this place. Tadasu resides in this nest with his father and mother Chinu, the memory of her bosom still stirring him after all these years. When he is five, his mother dies, and his father marries a woman who is required to take the name Chinu and resemble her in every way possible, including taking the boy to her breast. Later, when Tadasu is in high school, the new Chinu becomes pregnant and bears a child, which the father spirits away immediately to a village, while Tadasu helps relieve Chinu’s milk-heavy breasts … and so it goes, even after the father dies and Tadasu marries the gardener’s daughter. Written in an imaginative style and full of perverse sensuality and ambiguity, this story of maternal obsession told by an unreliable narrator is an enduring work of literature. 

First published in 1959. Included in a translation by Howard Hibbett in Seven Japanese Tales, Vintage, 1996