Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No Frills, But Strong Short Fiction

Hugh Nissenson’s 1959 collection of short stories A Pile of Stones should be more widely read.  Each story is outwardly simple, but carries complex messages of divided loyalties and conflicting impulses. 
Take “The Prisoner” a story set in Poland in the early 20th century.  A rabbi is charged with visiting a Jew in prison, accused of Socialist activities. The rabbi’s son realizes that the prisoner is tortured.  Not by his captives, not by remorse over his ideas, but because even in prison, God reveals to him that everything is beautiful, and joy pervades the universe.  The prisoner pleads “Why can’t He leave me alone?”

Or “The Well,” set in Israel in the early 1960s.  During a drought, a socialist Kibbutz member offers water to a nearby Bedouin camp whose well has run dry.  But he realizes, as the women are drawing water from the Jewish well, that they will be taxed by the clan chief for the use of the water.  Socialism, feudalism, Judaism, folk Islam, and the rights of the land, all collide on one overwrought moment, with awful consequences.

This collection should be read.  For writers, it shows how to get in and out of a story, leaving messages and meanings for the reader to unfold.

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