What’s so good about ‘Purim Night’ is that it’s such a sweet story, and yet it’s set in a dismal place – a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947, populated by war refugees, concentration camp survivors, and former prisoners of war. One of the characters even recounts the deaths of her husband and best friend, her time in concentration camp, her “one rape and many beatings” – and yet I’d still call this story ‘sweet’. I think it’s partly because there’s a glimpse of a beautiful love story in it, an easy but miraculous love, and a surprise for the reader.
It’s also because despite the fact the camp is impoverished and improvised, there’s an unusual sense of warmth in it. These people, celebrating Purim, have survived annihilation, and they are celebrating in the very land this was meant to happen in; their TB hospital was not so long ago a Wehrmacht stable. The ending is difficult; the woman who has lost her husband and best friend is fixated on going to Israel – there, she is sure, she will be saved. The sad naivety of this, her need for this hope, and the awful reality of such dreams today makes for a gruelling moment – which is, I’m sure, exactly what Pearlman intends.
First published in Binocular Vision, Pushkin Press, 2014
Edith Pearlman’s ‘Binocular Vision’ is a perfect little story. An unnamed narrator, a ten-year-old child living with parents and sibling in Connecticut in the late 1950s, borrows her father’s binoculars one December vacation and starts spying on the Simons, the next-door neighbours. Mrs. Simon is at home all day without much to do beyond tidying, running errands, and cooking supper. The most exciting part of Mrs. Simon’s day, and, before long, the narrator’s, is Mr. Simon’s return home from unspecified work. The narrator can’t see their greeting; the door is blocked from her view. But after dinner, the child watches as Mr. Simon reads the newspaper with great deliberation and Mrs. Simon knits and talks and laughs without pause.
School starts again, the narrator has less time to watch the Simons, even loses interest a little. But it still comes as a shock when two policemen knock at the door one February morning to ask that her father, a doctor, accompany them next door. When he returns he explains to his wife and children that Mr. Simon has committed suicide in his car. There follows a revelation that forces the child to reconsider everything she’d thought about the couple. And because Pearlman has kept retrospection to a minimum and aligned us closely with the child’s perspective (it’s a great story for teaching point of view), we are thrown for a loop too.
The narrator sees only what she wants to see, doesn’t see what the story, in retrospect, allows us to recognize: she has confused real lives, presumably rather desperate ones, for a show. She has no television, but she has had the Simons. My students are always ready to condemn the child for her presumption and ignorance. But before we condemn the narrator too quickly, before we judge her for projecting her own expectations on to others, before we conclude that the difference between understanding and seeing is the difference between adults and children, and that this child has seen everything but understood nothing—before doing so, I warn the class, let’s think about ourselves. Let’s remember our experience of reading the text. Let’s be mindful that we too made assumptions and saw only what we wanted to see. We’re adults. Yet we read the story, we saw everything, and we didn’t understand a damn thing.
First published in Boston Globe Magazine, 1993. Collected in Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, Lookout Books, 2011