Politics There and Here

In an age of multiple distractions, short stories continue to remain an enduring literary experience.  Whether we encounter them on the printed page or on the screens of our Kindles or iPads, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a well-wrought story, which rivets our attention, while taking us to places we’ve never been before, or introducing us to characters we have not previously met.

Fortunately, we also live in an age in which the short story has had an extraordinary renaissance, even though many of the form’s traditional venues have either disappeared or been transformed by the new digital technologies.  These days we’re probably more likely to read a short story through hand-held electronic devices than in a glossy magazine, with the exception of those important stand-bys, The New Yorker, The Atlantic or Harper’s.  Even many of the venerable literary or “little” magazines have either gone digital or boast a digital version, a boon perhaps for the reader on the run.

A happy antidote to the digitally downloadable story (it’s not for nothing that a new form has evolved called “the flash story), is the fact that many trade and small publishers continue to give us the real thing, an actual collection of stories by new or established writers; books that we can own and cherish, even if we read them on the subway or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment.

Such a book is Gloucester writer George Rosen’s The Immanence of God in the Tropics, a collection of seven stories of flawless craftsmanship with settings as intriguingly diverse as East Africa, Mexico and New England.  Rosen, a Harvard graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, has traveled extensively in Africa, India, Central Asia and Mexico.  These stories reflect not only his actual immersion in the places he writes about, but his understanding of their internal politics and the ways those politics reflect international events. Rosen has worked equally as journalist, reporting on East Africa for The Atlantic and publishing in the New York Times.  In addition, he’s been a Boston Globe columnist and NPR commentator, experiences which deepen and inform his fiction.

Rosen is also the author of Black Money (1990), a beautifully written and highly original novel involving two Americans—one a teacher, the other a former Peace Corps volunteer—who find themselves drawn into a murderous plot involving smuggling, big game poaching, political corruption, and Eastern and Western cultures in conflict.   Like several of these new stories, Black Money has an East African setting.  And like the stories, Rosen’s prose is astringent while movingly lyrical, his dialogue unerring in its ability to suggest native speech, whether African, American or Indian.  Readers of The Immanence of God in the Tropics will want to read Black Money, in which many of the themes of these new stories are explored.  But the stories themselves stand powerfully and entrancingly on their own, even as they spin out some of the ethnic, moral, personal and political conflicts that are treated in the novel.

Of the seven stories in this collection, recently chosen as “Pick of the Week” by Publisher’s Weekly, four are set in Africa, two in New England, and one in Mexico. The first, “Our Big Game,” involves two Kenyan schools, which are rivals not only in soccer but in terms of the relationship between headmasters.  One of the masters, Gichuru, “an intelligent man with a dark, handsome African face that belongs on a coin,” had been a former student of the other, the imperious MacIntyre, who, according to the American teacher who recounts the story of MacIntyre’s defeat, both on the playing field and as a result of his personal avidity, “places on Gichuru’s shoulders the blame for all that has gone awry in East Africa for the past forty years.”

One of the two New England stories, “The Sauna after Ted’s Funeral,” involves four men, Alden, Squillace, Willi and Nutbrown.  The first three appear to be middle-aged; Nutbrown is older, “an aged angel consumed in God’s moist fire.”  They are taking a steam bath together in what could well be one of the traditional Finnish saunas of Lanesville or Rockport, Massachusetts, after burying their friend Ted.  Naked in the steam-filled space, their desultory talk circles around the task they have just completed: “They observed the flaccid muscles of their calves, their piebald reddening skin. The men on top stared at the skulls of the two on the bench below. The tips of their ears burned…” Suddenly, one of the men, Alden, stirred into remembrance by the alternating heat and cold of the sauna, begins to tell a story about an experience he had years before while working as an engineer in Mexico.  It is a story about a picnic in the country that turned into a disaster, during which Alden successfully rescued a young child from drowning.  His story over, the four men leave the warmth of the bath, venturing out into a gathering snow storm. Their sauna complete, there is no mention of their dead friend, only a lingering sense that in coming together in a ritual all five men must have shared for years, they have honored Ted’s memory.

Set in Mexico, “A Second Language,” is about Benson, a lonely American who goes to Oaxaca presumably to re-learn Spanish. Published first in the Harvard Review, this powerful story combines a scintillating concretion of places, objects, characters and atmosphere, along with the subtle unfolding of a narrative with profound implications about how we go about trying to recover what we aren’t often completely aware of having lost, or exactly how we’ve lost it.  Benson’s effort to reconnect with the “unaccountable sense of beginning” he had experienced in Mexico twenty years before with “his first, his only” wife, through an attempted recovery of a once-studied language and, equally, of a place, time and lost or squandered love, is incredibly moving.  As the story ends, we leave Benson, if not less lonely, at least in possession of what brought him back to Mexico: “Now he remembered it all; the wind, warm and powerful, scouring the marketplace; its touch on his skin, dry and restoring; the vision of hills beyond.”

This story is the crowning narrative in a collection of stories that may appear on their surface to be traditional in terms of theme, content or structure, but are in reality extremely modern in their approach, language and point of view.  Rosen is a brilliant practitioner of the form, a writer whose technique and inspiration are never on show, though powerfully implicit in every crackling sentence he writes, every nuance of character and shade of meaning.  Though we can imagine the writers he’s read in a lifetime of practicing the craft of fiction, the voice in these stories is unmistakably his own.  This is a collection that demands to be read and re-read.

George Rosen will be reading from and discussing The Immanence of God in the Tropics at the Gloucester Writers Center (Harbor Room, 8 Norwood Court, off East Main Street), on Wednesday, November 28 at 7:30 p.m.

The Immanence of God in the Tropics, by George Rosen, Leapfrog Press, Fredonia, NY, 170 pp., $15.95 (www.leapfrogpress.com)

Peter Anastas

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