Story #23: “Birdsong” by Chimamanda Ngoi Adichie

From the absurd pile of semi-read issues of The New Yorker, today’s story was another by Chimamanda Ngoi Adichie, “Birdsong”.  The narrator is a Nigerian woman who is in the midst of an affair with a married man.  On the one hand, she is under no delusion that he is going to forsake his wife for her, but she grows increasingly bitter and insecure about their relationship until she finally cuts herself off when the indignities of being “the other woman” pile up too high for her.

The story is framed  by an encounter the narrator has with a woman in a Lagos traffic jam.  She imagines (or not?) the woman to be the wife of her lover.  The story cuts back and forth between the two woman looking at each other through the windows of their stationary cars and the recalling of the story of her relationship with her lover whom she jokingly refers to as “CwithaD” or cock with a dick after they joke about a rooster.

As the story progresses, she the slights begin to accumulate from the repeated visits to the one restaurant where he safely takes her each time they go out and to the disapproving attitude of her lover’s driver.  In the restaurant, she notices that the waiter seems to think she is invisible and finally confronts him;

The waiter came back, a sober-faced man with gentle demeanor, and I waited until he had opened the bottle of red wine before I asked, “Why don’t you greet me?

The waiter glanced at my lover, as though seeking guidance, and this infuriated me even more.  “Am I invisible?  I am the one who asked you a question.  Why do all of you waiters and gatemen and drivers in this Lagos refuse to greet me?  Do you not see me?

The feeling of invisibility closes in on her until the point that she can no longer rationalize the relationship to herself.  It strips away the illusion she has created for herself and the one he has managed to convince her to sustain.

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Story #22: “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Taking a sharp turn away from Chekhov, today’s story is “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It was originally published in The New Yorker and I pulled it from “The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2010”.

This is a story about cultural dislocation due to colonization and losing and recapturing a heritage that has been stripped away.  As a young woman, Nwamgba marries a local man, Obierika, despite the wishes of many around her due to the curse of infertility in her future husband’s family.  After marrying and suffering four miscarriages, Nwamgba decides it is time to find another wife for her husband so he can have children.  Soon after, however, she discovers she is pregnant and gives birth to a son, Anikwenwa.  Obierikia dies and Nwemgba suspects poisoning by his greedy cousins.  The cousins subsequently take her husband’s possessions and some of their land.

Christian missionaries are prosletyzing in the area and recruiting Africans to their schools.  Nwamgba decides to send her son to a missionary school so we can become an educated man who speaks English in order to force her husband’s greedy cousins to return her property.  Anikwenwa is baptized as “Michael” by the Catholic missionaries and slowly becomes alienated from his mother until becoming a teacher and missionary himself.  The priest at the school notes, “There was something troublingly assertive about her, something he had seen in many women here; there was much potential to be harnessed if their wildness were tamed.” The priest vows to “redeem” Anikwenwa/Michael as his “special vocation was the redemption of the black heathens.” With the school, representing a type of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the form of the school, Anikwenwa not only stops eating his mother’s food but goes so far as insisting that his mother herself dress more modestly and cover her breasts.  “She looked at him, amused by his earnestness but worried nonetheless and asked why he had only just begun to notice her nakedness.

Michael and his Christian wife have two children, a son, Peter, and a daughter, Grace, who her grandmother calls Afamefuna.  Michael attempts to keep his children separated from his mother but Afamefuna/Grace finally visits her grandmother as she is dying.  The conclusion of the story vaults into the decades ahead with Afamefuna reclaiming her history as she becomes the headstrong historian of the story’s title.

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Story #21: “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov

The final Chekhov story of the week is “Ward No. 6” (1892) and, at 50 pages, much longer that the other stories I blogged this week.  In many ways, it was different from the other stories and I did not enjoy the story as a whole nearly as much as the others.  There are several perspective shifts in the story and much more dialog than in the other stories I wrote about this week.  In retrospect, I wish I had read it straight through instead of in several sittings while I was commuting back and forth to work.

“Ward No. 6” is the story of a doctor, Andrei Yefimych, who begins the story as a doctor in an oppressive (so they all probably were in the 19th century, no?) mental hospital and in the end becomes one of its patients.  The patients in the hospital live in horrible conditions and are beaten at the whim of the medical staff.

Yefimych has the intellectual capacity to know right from wrong but lacks the courage and the will to act.  Upon arriving at the hospital for  the first time, Yefimych

…came to the conclusion that it was an immoral institution and a highly detrimental to the health of the citizens.  In his opinion, the most intelligent thing that could be done would be to discharge the patients and close the place down. But for that he reckoned that his will alone was not enough and in any case it would be useless; when physical and moral uncleanliness was driven out of one place, it went to another; one had to wait until it dispersed of itself.

Despite his disdain for the patients, the doctor befriends one of them, Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, who suffers from “persecution mania”.  The two spend hours talking  much to the dismay of the other doctors and hospital staff who begin to question his sanity.  There is much philosophical banter between the two men as they argue about whether the people on the inside or outside are more or less sane.  The doctor declares that Dmitrich is ill and he responds;

Ill, yes. But dozens, hundreds of madmen are walking around free because your ignorance you are unable to tell them from the sane. Why the must I and these unfortunates sit here for all of them like scapegoats? In the moral respect, you, your assistant, the superintendent, and all your hospital scum are immeasurably lower than any of us, so why do we sit here and not you? Where’s the logic?

In a foreshadowing of the fate of the doctor, Chekhov writes,

Logic and moral respect have nothing to do with it.  It all depends on chance. If anyone is shut up he has to stay, and if anyone is not shut up he can walk about, that’s all. Those who have been put here, sit here, and those who have not are walking around that’s all.  That I am a doctor and you are a mental patient has no morality or logic in it – it’s a matter of chance.

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Story #20: “At Christmastime” by Anton Chekhov

The second story of the night is “At Christmastime” also by Chekhov and written in 1900.  The story centers around a young woman who, after marrying and moving away to St. Petersburg, has lost touch with her worried parents who remain far away in their village.

The illiterate mother, Vasilisa, pays the brother of the tavernkeeper to write a letter for her.  She struggles to find the words to say exactly the right thing with her daughter.  As the writer, Yegor, waits impatiently for the next words to write he adds his own words to the letter which read like excerpts from a military manual meshed with an emotion outpouring from a mother to her daughter.  The lines alternate from the warm actual words of the mother such as, “To our gentle son-in-law, Andrei Khrisanfych, and our beloved daughter, Yefimia Petovna, we send with our love a low bow and our paternal blessing forever inviolable...” and military regulations and semi-nonsense such as, “Pay attention to Volume 5 of the Military Decrees.  Soldier is a common noun, a Well-nown one.”

The story then cuts to the son-in-law, Andrei, who is a doorkeeper at a “water-curing clinic“.  The letter arrives and Andrei hands it to his wife who is seated on a bed in a small room in the clinic with their three small children.  As he hands his wife the letter, Andrei also reveals to the reader that he has never delivered any of the previous letters his wife has written to her parents.  The story ends in a similar fashion to “Vanka“, with a desperate message of a desire to return home that will never be received by its intended audience. She reads the letter and sobs, “Queen of Heaven, our mother and helper, take us away from here!

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Story #19: “Sleepy” by Anton Chekhov

The first of two more Chekhov stories tonight after my first missed day of writing yesterday (due to extenuating but pleasant circumstances).  “Sleepy” was written in 1888 and tells the story of Varka, a young girl who is forced to work as a nanny for an abusive master and his wife.

Varka sits by the side of the baby’s cradle and tries to soothe him by singing so he’ll fall asleep.  As the story continues, Varka fades in and out of sleep as she is too exhausted to stay awake any longer.  Although she’s afraid to sleep out of fear of being beaten, her drowsiness overcomes her and she dreams of her mother and her dead father.  In the dream, she recalls (or imagines?) her mother’s futile attempt to save her dying father.  The story weaves in and out of Varka’s consciousness as the baby begins to cry and wake Varka up once again.

The mistress and master cruelly order Varka around telling her to perform various tasks such as lighting a fire, washing her master’s galoshes, washing the steps, getting some beer, and continuing to rock the baby.  We feel the overwhelming urge to sleep overcome her as she washes the galoshes,

Suddenly, the galosh grows, swells, fills the whole room.  Varka drops the brush, but immediately shakes her head, rolls her eyes, and tries to look at things in such a way that they do not grow and move as she looks.

One powerful aspect of this story is how far Chekhov takes it in so few pages.  We feel sympathy for Varka’s plight from the first words of the story.  At the end, however, Varka decides, “The enemy is the baby.”  She decides her only way out is to kill him, and so;

Laughing, winking, and shaking her finger at the green spot, Varka steals up to the cradle and bends over the baby.  After strangling him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughing with joy that she can sleep, and a moment later is already fast asleep, like the dead…

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Story #18: “Vanka” by Anton Chekhov

Another day, another Chekhov story.  Today’s story is “Vanka” which was written in 1886.

Ivan “Vanka” Zhukov is a nine-year old boy from apprenticed to a shoemaker in Moscow.  Simply put, Vanka is miserable and desperate to return to his home village to be reunited with his grandfather.  We don’t know exactly why but Vanka’s parents are both dead.  Vanka’s recollections of his grandfather and their village are interspersed with Vanka’s pleas to return home which he records in a letter.  As her pictures his grandfather in his mind, Vanka

…vividly recalled his grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch, who was night watchman to a family called Zhivarev. He was a thin but extraordinarily nimble and lively little old man of sixty-five, with an everlastingly laughing face and drunken eyes. By day he slept in the servants’ kitchen, or made jokes with the cooks; at night, wrapped in an ample sheepskin, he walked round the grounds and tapped with his little mallet

Vanka proceeds to describe his misery and desperation;

The master dragged me out to the yard by the hair and thrashed me with a belt, because I was rocking their baby in the cradle and accidentally fell asleep.  And last week the mistress told me to clean a herring, and I started with the tail, so she took the herring and began shoving its head into my mug.

Vanka pleads with his grandfather, “Dear grandpa, do me this mercy, take me home to the village, I just can’t stand it… I go down on my knees to you, and I’ll pray to God eternally for you, take me away from here or I’ll die.”

As this brief story closes, Vanka places the letter in an envelope and addresses it to his grandfather – To Grandpa in the Village, as someone at the butcher shop explained to him he was to do.  While the reader is left with the realization the letter will never reach its destination, Vanka falls asleep as he imagines his grandfather in his kitchen reading his letter aloud to the kitchen maids.

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Story #17: “The Student” by Anton Chekhov

Time to switch gears again and spend a few days reading Chekhov.  I’ve only read a few of his stories before so I’ll be writing about all new stories over the next 5 days.  For the time being, I’ve settled on the following pattern; five days with the same author and two days of random stories by different authors.  The latter will most likely come from anthologies or magazines sitting on my frightening pile.

Since I’m a bit pressed for time tonight, I’ll posting about a rather short piece, “The Student” which Chekov wrote in 1894.  Ivan Velikoplosky, a seminary student, is returning from hunting (“fowling”) and stops at the garden of a widow, Vasilisa, and her daughter, Lukerya.  Just before the encounter, Chekov writes;

And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression — all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not want to go home.

He strikes up conversation with the widow and he launches into a telling of the Biblical story of Peter denying Jesus three times after Jesus predicts he would do so.  The widow begins to weep and her daughter stares “as someone who is trying to suppress intense pain.”  The student leaves her and heads home.  Ivan ponders the effect he has just had on the widow and his role in connecting her with a story from “happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present“.  In the end, “life seemed to him so delightful, wondrous, and filled with lofty meaning“.

It’s a huge shift in my reading experience to turn to Chekhov after just about everything I’ve read this month.  This story is just a glimpse of a brief interaction.  Chekhov uses few words to paint a picture of these characters and their short but intensely emotional interaction.

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