The short story is the sushi of the literary genre: bite-sized chunks of fiction that are easily digested, and also, I think, often underrated. They occupy the halfway ground between poetry and full-length fiction; they can linger in the mind longer than a novel, and deliver the emotional punch of a poem.
Comma Press has assembled, translated and published a collection of short stories that both lingers and delivers. The Book of Gaza has been less assembled, more smuggled. The Editor’s Introduction describes handwritten manuscripts spirited over the border, real stories written by censored Palestinian writers effectively imprisoned by the Gaza strip. To read these stories is to plunge into a world that is hidden from sight, to touch an open wound and feel how it hurts. To emerge unaffected afterwards is impossible.
I was reminded of Pirandello by the startling insights, the fatalism of characters trapped between two worlds: one inside their heads, one outside their door. The four characters of Atef Abu Saif’s “A Journey in the Opposite Direction” chase their dreams as far as the border in a desperate attempt to find happiness. They grind to a halt, stranded like ‘ship’s masts sunk at harbour’ on the ‘submerged road’, inside the ‘heaving valley’, beyond the ‘city enshrouded by cloud’. The young woman evoked by Nayrouz Qarmout wears “The Sea Cloak” as she bathes, fully dressed, in the sea off Gaza. Every step takes her deeper into the water, deeper still into an illicit world of sensuality and freedom from which she has been excluded. The contradiction that strikes you is that people are as much imprisoned by the Gaza strip as by themselves and their own past.
More city portraits: in “Red Lights” Talal Abu Shawish gives us the Gaza take on traffic light beggars. The Palestinian taxi driver slows, stops, winds down his window. Poverty is distributed; that is the Gaza way. But more terrifying than anything, is Zaki al `Ela’s journey ‘back to the woods’. In case you had forgotten, in the lyrical blend of poetry and fiction, that we are talking about the genuine suffering of an abused people, the last story of the collection drives home the point, prosaically provoking that jolt of real compassion of which we are all in dire need as we propel ourselves deeper and deeper into the abyss of political passivity.
Any Cop?: An essential short story collection.