Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Anis Shivani's Anatolia and Other Stories

For two reasons, I always have a soft spot in my iron heart for reviewers who also write short stories/poems/novels. First, I agree with Martin Amis and Gore Vidal that a lively literary society means that creators also critically comment upon (not just advertise and ass-kiss) what's happening in the wide community; they called it a duty to do so. Second, a curiosity to find out how a creative piece by a critic matches his own standards and predilections is natural.

This is the second in a series of reviews regarding reviewer-critics/artists. I've admired Anis Shivani's criticism of (usually) American authors, and picked up his 2009 Anatolia and Other Stories, a collection of eleven short stories which criss-cross the United States, but which also makes for India, Tehran, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), and Dubai. The on-the-ground complexities and outcomes of multiculturism is the obvious theme stitching the disparate narratives together. An undocumented worker in Dubai who gets a lucky break only to meet up with the inevitable bureaucratic hammer of lead; an aging Japanese man in a California internment camp; an Indian businessman fighting the new marketing schemes of his brothers and their families; an aspiring playwright from the Deep South his first time at an elite (and expensive) annual writers' conference: these and other stories graph the intersection between benign expectation and silent coercion. Shivani writes with great insight and depth, remarkable for the convincing and numerous angles he allows between characters. The final story, in particular, "Tehran", is a gem, more dramatically insistent than the somewhat understated, casual pace of the other stories. And he's not afraid of making bold statements (no surprise, there) as linked social criticism, within an appropriate narrative thematic. Here's an example of the latter, from "Conservation", set in Boston:

"Nothing in any of the classics seemed alterable, not a brush stroke, not a pigment shade. He would almost stop breathing, so immersed did he become in the sublime grandeur of the works that seemed to have been created out of time, out of place.

Then morning came, and the busy bee workers returned, their lab coats and business uniforms spruce and spry. The women had become more like men, and the men more like women. They spoke of similar concerns, in similar tones, in similar vocabulary. All the races pulled together now, all were agreed on the moral values worth holding"

What those "values" are is made plain even in this short snippet, and it needs emphasizing that the paltry race-squawking from all sides during our politically correct humourless negotiations is quite beside the point when values and distinctions themselves often crumble into an art-hating conformist swamp. (I don't like the redundant "sublime grandeur", and other verbal indiscretions appear in various places, but Shivani's narrative powers of character endurance, social compromise, sexual politics, political vicissitudes, and universal scope makes these occasional constructions fairly easy to forgive.)

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