Arab /Jew literary double-header

"The Disturbing Occurrences," by Naguib Mahfouz
Harper's fiction -- August 2005 issue

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"The Disturbing Occurrences" was first published in 1979 and, apparently, only recently translated. A simple tale told in first-person, it's as easy to read as butter is to spread on hot toast. Beginning as a straightforward crime story narrated by the investigator, it kind of implodes or dissolves 2/3 the way through and ends up as a philosophical piece in the way that only translated foreign stories are allowed to do.

The investigator-narrator is looking into incidents in a certain Cairo district, ranging from bags of money given to paupers to mass poisonings and fires. He receives an anonymous tip that one Makram Abd al-Qayyum is behind these shenanigans and goes about interviewing everyone who has had contact with this esteemed rich gentleman. The reactions of those who live and work in the building he just vacated are all over the map, from very positive to very negative, which might seem to be par for the course if you ask a bunch of people about anybody, but for this increasingly obsessed detective the range of opinion just makes al-Qayyum all the more mysterious and frustrating and, therefore, suspicious. The detective goes so far as to have printed in the papers various allegations and sketches of the suspect. My favorite part is where al-Qayyum himself, just back from vacation in the Red Sea, turns up in the police office and asks, "What is the meaning of what you published in the papers?"

The suspect turns out to be clean, and the investigator leaves his post -- which he is clearly not fit for -- to practice law while still retaining a secret belief that al-Qayyum is guilty of the crimes. In a twist, al-Qayyum hires him to manage his business and legal affairs, which he agrees to, while still having an inner certainty that the man is guilty.

This is the kind of direct character study that Chekhov and Maupassant were so good at, and when compared to a typical contemporary story it seems simplistic, not much more than a sketch. Some of those Chekhov and Maupassant tales are hardly three or four pages long -- and yet they manage to distill and dramatize some aspect of human nature without any distracting adornment whatsoever. In other words, this is an old-fashioned tale whose moral and philosophical qualities are stripped clean and laid bare for all to see and ponder without anything else getting in the way. Call me a relic, call me what you will, but I still love and admire stuff like this.

"Thicker Than Water," by Gina Ochsner
New Yorker fiction -- August 22, 2005 issue

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This tale of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in a Russian Jewish section of a Latvian town soon after the collapse of Soviet rule is narrated by Ada, a young girl whose provincial family is suspicious of foreigners and Jews, but who is herself fascinated by the differences she sees in them, which she romanticizes, especially the "brilliant" Jewish Ilmyen family on her street.
I loved to be at the Ilmyens' house, where everything seemed exotic and better than at home: their lace curtains were more elegant than the yellowed muslin hanging over our windows, and though I knew that the rain pelted our houses equally, it seemed to me that it fell more musically than from ours.
Her father is a drunk who maintains the local cemetary, and her mother has founded the All-Latvian Ladies' Temperance Society and appointed herself president, but when the only two people who join it are a Gypsy and a Jew (Mrs. Ilmyen), she has to change the name to the International Ladies' Temperance Society. And so on. There has never been any lack of material to be found in backwater nationalism and its suspicions of foreigners, and Ochsner mines it for all it's worth. You could replace the Latvians in this story with, say, rural Hoosiers or Nebraskans, and the Jews with, oh, Mexican immigrants or a family of doctors from Pakistan and have essentially the same story. I like that, the universality of this material.

The climax combining her visiting nationalistic drunk Uncle Maris and the chess tournament Ada is competing in thanks to the Ilmyen girl is well wrought. And the subtle, excruciating ironies and hypocricies and eventual failures of maintaining bigotry and discrimination in the face of the facts is satisfying. The treatment of Lutherans is hilarious. The ending, though I don't think it really works that well -- in fact, the whole story kind of hangs loosely together and could have used a tightening round of edits -- goes approximately where it should in terms of emotional resonance stemming from events as seen by a charming but young narrator. If it were me, I would have orchestrated a death in the end to bookend the series of deaths that begin the piece -- Jews dying in outlandish ways, having to be dealt with by the grumbling cemetary worker father -- but maybe that would be pat, and maybe that's why I don't have a story in the New Yorker while Ochsner does. Flawed though it may be, the story is worth a read for its wise treatment of provincial xenophobia.

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