by Vasika Udurawane
Flash Fiction International:
Very Short Stories from Around the World
W W Norton & Company (Paperback)
April 2015 (288 pp)
The joy of reading an anthology is that one never knows what to expect. I certainly did not know what to expect when I received a copy of Flash Fiction International, but I ended up enjoying every minute of it.
The book has stories by eighty-six great writers from around the world, one story per writer. I had no clue what flash fiction was at first. However when I read through this wonderful selection of stories and authors I began to appreciate the beauty of the short story in what I take to be its purest and most stripped-to-basics form. Plenty of praise goes out to the editing team for making this selection.
For a start, the title of the book is strong and direct, as are the individual story captions.I was quite surprised to see the work of none other than the master Kafka himself in this collection. It was wonderful to see it here among other contemporary powerhouses of the genre. While it might feel like just a passing moment in time, Kafka’s story, “An Imperial Message” is far more than that. It is written in the present tense about an unidentified ruler and a so-called messenger. The story starts off without hesitation, and the writing is lucid. But as usual, it carries a deeper message all through it. For one, the reader is invited to use his or her imagination while reading the story. Kafka is a painter and the painting he creates is realistic and often feels like a deep canvas where one is belittled by the power of the artist’s brush.
The writer asserts that the reader is merely under the ruler, that the emperor sends his message “to you alone, his pathetic subject”. Although it is still a fierce and startling gesture, it does not depower the reader, as one might fear. Instead it establishes a connection between the unnamed ruler’s strength and the readers themselves.
There are many more stories in this collection and the majority strike a chord in the reader. Right on the trail of Kafka and coincidentally just a few pages after him, we have the story “Shattered” by Shirani Rajapakse from Sri Lanka. The title hits the reader like the single-worded and sometimes monosyllabic title of a horror movie. Now this is not the case at all in terms of genre but the events described are nothing short of horrifying. The writer speaks about war, like many other Lankan writers do, but Shattered puts a unique spin on the theme.
The story describes an account of a bombing through the senses of an innocent victim. Nidisha, the character in the story, starts out by being thrown off her feet due to the explosion and we see the tumbling emotions in her as she feels herself die due to the shockwave and the power of the explosion.
The writer, being a poet at heart as is obvious from her writing, manages to turn the explosion into a gruesome work of art with clever use of words and an expansive vocabulary. At first, Nidisha remains unidentified but we are finally introduced to her from the second paragraph of the story onward.
The first is devoted to what she experiences as soon as the bomb goes off and goes on to describe how “she saw the eardrum roll away along the pavement”. It becomes quite cinematic in this manner for the remainder of the story but it never loses the heart and emotion at the core of the story. Much of this piece has a feeling of disconnection and disorientation through Nidisha’s continued questions to herself. These questions appear as little pieces, not as a complete stream of consciousness, thus making reading the story easier. The real turning-point of the story appears somewhat later—the mention of how Nidisha had connections with the extremist organization that plagued the country for a number of years.
“But what was wrong with that?” asks the writer at the end of the story after contemplating the character’s decision to stay away from her line of work.
Among the strangest stories in the book is that of the woman who walked around town in the nude.
The title might elicit a few laughs. “The Extravagant Behavior of the Naked Woman” is about as clear as it can be, and Mexican author Josefina Estrada weaves quite a masterpiece around this simple title.
The body of the story is concerned about the actions of an apparent naturist, a woman of generous and heavy build who also seems poor. She is not, however, the primary protagonist of the story. Instead the unnamed nudist is the one around whom the main action revolves. She has not a single word in the story and instead the world is shown reacting to her actions, thus setting off a queer chain of sorts.
We get a clear idea of what the little slum town of Santa Maria looks like through the writer’s description. The writer, Estrada, also gives us hints about the naked woman’s size, which incites laughter in the reader. For example, we are told of her “abundant flesh” and that “she’s a woman of vast stature”. By not making the character classically desirable, we can look at her as a humorous figure. However the people in the story clearly do not think so, or at least the younger men don’t, and we laugh at their attitude too. However, overall the story does have a hint as to what the naturist is like in reality. We are told that she might actually be poor and that she has no choice but to endure the kind of judgment cast on her. This is certainly one of the underlying themes of the story, wherein the conclusion adds that the police were even asked to arrest her for her exhibitionism. However all they do is continue “arresting drunks”.
“She was twenty-one, with fair, beautiful skin,” starts Kim Young-ha in “Honor Killing” from South Korea. The title of the piece is quite gritty, despite the fact that the struggle in the story feels quite trivial to most in the end. At first the opening contains a lengthy description of a young receptionist’s facial beauty and details about her job. Indeed, being a receptionist never required brains, but she is also used as an advertising gimmick. The young girl works at a dermatologist’s office and her looks made her perfect for the job. But due to the receptionist’s late-onset acne, the dermatologist feels that his so-called honor and the reputation of his practice are now dead. This is where the title comes in. Of course she is blameless and cannot control her hormones but is brutally attacked by the doctor in the end. He considers her a threat to his practice and ends up getting rid of her completely.
There is not much in the way of literary technique in this tiny piece of writing, other than the all-important use of hyperbole when telling us that she looked “like a splotchy pizza” in the end. The title itself is hyperbolic in nature but incites sorrow and concern in the reader rather than the bleak humor of the storyline. After all, being a skin specialist, he can easily cure her of her condition but instead prefers to berate her. She never considers getting treatment either. Thus both the protagonists end up looking like a pair of fools. A reader can laugh at the ludicrousness and futility of the situation as well as at the doctor’s mood changes. We see, however that his attitude towards her has disastrous consequences. The poor young receptionist decides that suicide is her only way out. The new receptionist’s “skin was so luminous” that it ended up blinding the patients, so says the author. While it is an obvious exaggeration, if taken in context with the story universe it also feels karmic and now the doctor has new problems on his hands.
The antics of “The Light Eater” make for a sorrowful tale of loss and yearning. In Kirsty Logan’s story, the protagonist has been contemplating suicide for a while. We know this by the way she describes the Christmas lights—”candy-bright, mouth-size”—and from the title it is pretty obvious as to what her next course of action is. The unnamed protagonist indeed begins consuming light bulbs but she is the light-eater as opposed to the bulb-eater. From here the story takes on a stranger turn. Logan’s protagonist appears to absorb the light in the bulb, a scientific impossibility but the story does not take a journey on the fantasy side. Instead it feels like a fantastic element within a realistic universe. The author uses a descriptive style while showing us how the events unfold, with the character eating her way through whatever electrical supplies she can find around the house. For one, nobody knows and wants to know, the flavor of a glass bulb but the author adds that it is “sweet and sharp”. We also have the indication that the protagonist goes into a sort of trance when she begins her dangerous mission. One might even feel afraid while reading through and for the good reason that this fantasy element can sometimes detach the reader from reality as well as excite them. In the end she even begins to emit luminescence of her own as she gets “hungrier as the days passed”. In the real world, eating electrical supplies would result in certain death and even in Logan’s alternate reality the consequence is the same.
Her character does indeed end up dying but the death is much more touching than can be expected, with a reference to buried treasure and the significance of the letter “X” in terms of finding her. The closing line adds that she lay down on the sand as “an X, so he could find his way back” in a final memory of her dead lover. One can interpret this light as being a guiding beacon to whomever it is she has lost.
This is but a mere fraction of the delights in this anthology. Like I said before, when reading collection of stories such as this, one never knows what to expect.