I have been reading the stories in the Summer Fiction Issue of The New Yorker—June 6 & 13, 2016.
I liked the Zadie Smith story "Two Men Arrive in a Village" and, with some reservations, the Ben Lerner story "The Polish Rider." In this post, I will talk a bit about the Zadie Smith story. Next week, I will talk about Ben Lerner's story.
However, I am not going to talk about the Langston Hughes story "Seven People Dancing," which I found was only historically interesting as the recovery of a mss about a dated cultural system. Nor will I talk about the Jonathan Safran Foer piece, for drawn from his new novel Here I Am, which will be out in September, it is not a story—just a lot of loose writing. I thought about commenting on the difference between chapters in novels and short stories, but according to Foer, this is not a chapter, but a composite piece from several hundred pages in his upcoming novel. Not really interesting to me.
Zadie Smith, "Two Men Arrive in a Village"
In the "This Week in Fiction" on-line New Yorker feature, Zadie Smith is asked, as most authors are, about the "source" of her story. Smith said the story had two sources: the Romanian movie "Aferim," which had an archetypal setup of two men going around a country terrorizing people. The other source, she says, was a conversation she had with an old school friend of hers, who had given her a Hungarian fabulist novel to read that he liked—a sort of allegory with characters called "The Grandmother," "The Soldier," etc. She says although she wanted to like it because her friend did, she had trouble getting over the idea of "mythic archetypes."
When she expressed this reservation to her friend, he replied, "Well, your fiction is so obsessively local, but there's another, more universal way of writing that has a different kind of power." Then, Smith says she was annoyed, as most postcolonial writers and critics often are, with the word "universal," perhaps suspecting that it marginalizes third-word countries and privileges Western European thought and values.
However, Smith says her friend's comments got her to thinking how the local and the specific perhaps enable one kind of "engagement" while blocking another, particularly when you are talking about violence, for example, "Oh, that's just what happens in Africa." She began to think that perhaps specific details in fiction allow the reader to hold certain situations at a distance. She wondered: "Is it possible to write a story that happens in many places at many times simultaneously? That implicates everybody." Smith mentions this notion also at a reading of "Two Men Arrive at a Village" she gave March 1, 2016 at Newcomb College, Tulane University," asking, "Is there a way to write a story not just about one person's pain in one particular place, but about pain in general, in all places, at all times, amongst all people?"
The story is quite short—a little over five New Yorker columns, or about 2,000 words. Smith's reading of it, which you can listen to on New Yorker's podcast "The Author's Voice," takes less than 15 minutes. Smith says the story, including the title, all came together at once when she was sitting in a cafe in Calgary, and she wrote it in a few hours—the first time such a thing had ever happened to her.
"Two Men Arrive at a Village" is a fairly straightforward narrative of two men coming to what seems to be an African village, robbing the people, killing a boy, and raping young girls. The narrator identifies herself as one of the villagers in this early sentence in the story: "What we can say with surety is that when these two men arrived in the village we spotted them at once, at the horizon point where the long road that leads to the next village meets the setting sun. And we understood what they meant by coming at this time."
However, since the story is told or written at some point in time after the event occurred, as most stories necessarily are, the narrator, whoever she is, reflects and comments on the significance of the arrival of the two men, seeing it, although a specific event, as indeed, typical or archetypal. In the opening paragraphs she says that the men come sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot or in a car. "But if we look at the largest possible picture, the longest view, we must admit that it is by foot that they have mostly come, and so in this sense, at least, our example is representative. In fact, it has the perfection of parable."
And with this self-conscious, self-reflexive comment, the piece is established not as a description of a particular time when two men arrive at a village, although indeed it does focus on a specific time that the narrator has made a story about, but rather a time, like many other such times and thus typical or representative, i.e. a parable that universalizes such a visit.
Given the parable nature of the story, the two men are presented as two-dimensional stereotypes. The narrator says: "It goes without saying that one of the men is tall, rather handsome—in a vulgar way—a little dim and vicious, while the other man is shorter, weasel-faced, and sly." There is no essential reason that the two men are physically as described, except for the narrator's need to create stereotypes—stereotypes the narrator or reader might be more apt to know from movies than from reality.
The narrator continues to universalize or stereotype the two men, making assumptions about their typicality as srepresentative of human nature in general: "The two men like to arrive in this manner, with a more or less friendly greeting, and this might remind us of the fact that all humans, no matter what they do, like very much to be liked, even if it's only for an hour or so before they are feared or hated."
The story is marked, of course, by the tension felt by the villagers and, of course, the reader, as they and we expect something horrible to happen. And when it does happen--the vicious machete slaying of a fourteen-year-old boy who stands up to the men—" a kind of wildness descends, a bloody chaos, into which all the formal gestures of welcome and food and threat seem instantly to dissolve."
Since the visit takes place at a time when only old men, women, and children are in the village, it is the women who band together against the two men, standing in a linked circle around the young girls. But the narrator sees this as "pointless courage," for one of the men kicks a woman in the groin, breaking up the protective circle, and the narrator, who now experiences the horrible "afterwards" in which to generalize, says, "bloody chaos found no more obstruction to its usual plans."
The next day the chief's wife, who, the narrator says, is more of a chief to the villagers than the chief has ever been, returns to the village. The narrator describes her as a "sly and courageous" woman who believes that such men who have visited the village are like the wind that blows there, anonymous, inhuman forces, who "lose themselves, their names and faces, and can no longer claim merely to bring the whirlwind, they are that wind. This is of course a metaphor. But she lives by it." It is a metaphor that prepares for the story's conclusion.
The chief's wife goes to the girls who have been attacked and finds one who has the courage to tell her story in full, the end of which, the narrator says, is "the most strange." For the short, sly man has told the girl he was an orphan who has suffered as all men do and has seen horror and now wants only to have babies with this girl and live far away from villages and towns. The girl, stunned by the idea, says the young man wanted her to know his name. "He had no shame," she tells the chief's wife. He said he did not want to think that he had passed through my village, through my body, without anybody caring what he was called. It is probably not his real name but he said his name was—"
And at this point, Zadie Smith makes this account a unified short story with this abrupt ending of the chief's wife refusing to hear the man's name.
"But the chief's wife stood up suddenly, left the room, and walked out into the yard."
I have only been able to find a couple of people on line who have said they have read the story, both on the reddit website. One says, "I didn't get the ending. Why did the chief leave" Another says, "I wonder the same. Also what was the connection between the political situation in their country and the arrival of the two men?"
It seems to me that these two questions are typical of readers who try to read this piece as if it were a portion of a novel rather than as the unified short story parable it is. In my opinion, as a reader of short stories, there are two reasons the chief's wife leaves before the young girl can tell her the name of the man who raped her:
In terms of the details of the story, the chief's wife does not want the rape to be personalized, wants the villain to remain that faceless, anonymous horror that he is, wants no possible justification or explanation for the horror of the acts.
And in terms of the nature of the story, Smith wants, to the very end, to have written a story in which horror is universalized, not particularized—a parable of a universal horror, not a realistic story of a particular event.
The reddit reader who asks about the connection between the relationship between the political situation of the country and the two men, just wants the kind of social context that a novel might try to provide—not the bleak universal horror of two faceless men who, one horrible day, like all such horrible days, arrive in a village. It does not need a social or political context, any more than it needs the name of the young man.