Alice Munro: Marathons in Sprint
In a true mirroring of life, Munro's stories steer clear of delivering verdicts or solutions to predicaments and miseries.
In Boys and Girls, Alice Munro accomplishes the perfect storyteller's feat--instilling in the reader feelings of delight, shock, surprise, suspense, and dejection, all over the course of a single short story. The narrator is a young girl whose father raises foxes in a pen for selling their fur to traders in wintertime. She helps out her father with the job by bringing water to the foxes twice a day in the summer and raking the grass and money-musk that her father would cut.
As she performed these chores under his supervision, little dialogue was exchanged between the two. The girl, however, took great pride in being able to shoulder his labour, even if in a minimal way.
One time a feed salesman came down into the pens to talk to him and my father said, "Like to have you meet my new hired hand." I turned away and raked furiously, red in the face with pleasure. (Boys and Girls, Alice Munro)
Working for her father is one of the ways in which this young protagonist fights the gender stereotypes she is supposed to comply with, even as her flashes of rebellion provoke the ire of her mother and grandmother. In a clever sub-plot, Munro allows this child flights of fancy in which she rescues people in danger from a bombed building, shoots rabid wolves and undertakes other such heroic endeavours with the noble intent of saving others. These situations represent the polar opposite of her actual station in life, where her gender must always precede her will or wish.
However, a moment arrives during the imminent execution of an old (female) horse, for the purpose of its meat being supplied as food to the foxes, when our young narrator has an opportunity to live her imagination. Entrusted with closing the house gate by her father when Flora, the horse, breaks loose from the clutches of her executioners, the eleven-year-old girl lets the horse escape by keeping the gate wide open. The only witness to her defiant act is Laird, her younger brother.
At dinner that night, Laird proudly describes how he saw his father and his farm hand capture the frenzied horse after giving her a chase in their van and cut its body into pieces. He also reveals how his big sister had let the animal escape earlier in the day. The story ends with the father telling everyone present, "Never mind. She's only a girl," and his daughter's ignominious acceptance of what that taunt implied.
As I delved into the universes Munro constructs with an architect's precision and an interior designer's aesthetic charm, her ability to zoom lens--be it on a character, situation or even the interior landscape of a person--kept me immersed in her stories, one after the other. Munro's tales are not snapshots--seen now and forgotten then; they are alleys we have all trodden in our own lives--as perpetrators or victims of cruelty, in happiness and despair, while concealing deceit and guilt. It is this universality of her themes, despite the affectionate localization of her stories, many of them set in Southern Ontario, where I now live, that makes Munro both appealing and important.
In a true mirroring of life, Munro's stories steer clear of delivering verdicts or solutions to predicaments and miseries. Often the one relating the agony of the victim--whether it be the schoolgirl who bullies her classmate or the husband who contemplates a new relationship even as he assumes a caregiver's role for his dementia-afflicted wife-- is the one responsible for it, usually not by design, but a strange concoction of circumstances, societal expectations and personal quirks.
When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize last week, I was delighted. Not just because she has enviably mastered the art of seizing entire universes within the scope of short fiction. Nor because of her neuroscientist-like ability to get inside the minds of young adults and their tribulations. Not because the locales in which she sets her stories are now part of my personal geography. Or because of her mature portrayal of the internal drama the human mind loves to engage in.
"Her voice on the (answering) machine was different from the voice he'd heard a short time ago in her house...A tremor of nerves there, an affected nonchalance, a hurry to get through, and a reluctance to let go." (The Bear Came Over the Mountain, Alice Munro).
I was delighted because like her protagonist in Boys and Girls, Munro held the gate to a world she believed in--that of short stories--wide open. And won.
That she is the first Canadian author to win the prize makes it more special. Just like when a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore--himself an accomplished short story writer--became the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
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