Lately I feel international literature available in Bulgaria has been witnessing some very positive developments. More valuable books are being translated with less focus on self-help, esotericism, alternative healing practices and food-for-the-soul type of novels. Bulgarian literature has also enjoyed its much awaited revival so things are indeed looking up and I expect (or rather hope) that the average Bulgarian will learn to read and appreciate quality literature.
However, one major negligence stands out. The Canadian winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize Alice Munro has never ever been translated in Bulgarian. I would very much hope that this omission will soon be corrected as Alice Munro is a great storyteller and frankly an incredible woman.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro’s tenth short story collection, strikes with its rather unconventional title. The first story, bearing the same name, quickly sets the tone for the rest of the stories to follow – a vivid and thorough dissection of human relationships in their various forms. Munro’s characters are ordinary people, usually living dull and seemingly uneventful lives. They are adolescent girls and boys looking for purpose, middle-class families going through crisis and sickness, older couples faced with separation and eventually death. The author skillfully jumps from past to present and to future – her trademark – to build comprehensive stories that feel like miniature novels. At the heart of every individual character’s motivation, however different they might be, lay relationships. Rather than becoming more straight-forward and simple as we grow up (which is what I am hoping anyways), they tend to grow even more complicated, confusing and frustrating. Beyond the ordinary characters hide complicated creatures, whose bonds with family, friends and lovers are both affected and affect their lives in unimaginable and sometimes final ways. Throughout her career Munro has been fascinated by the origin of relationships – are they really arbitrary and random or are they fated? Do the bonds we form depend solely on our background and environment or are we forever looking for that special kind of person who is supposed to fill in a certain void? I suspect everyone would find a different answer to this question in Munro’s collection.
While reading I often got confused between the short stories, mixing characters and places. At times it felt less like a collection of separate short stories and more like a novel, where only the names of the characters and the places change, but the main idea remains constant with the author slowly taking us through introduction, climax and then resolution. In that sense the stories are skillfully ordered. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage the cruel games of two bored adolescent girls threaten to make a fool out of a woman, who decides to travel the country and live with a man she has been tricked into believing had feelings for her. Fate, however, has a funny way of sorting things out – and in that sense love becomes more of a chance happening than of a growing and rethought feeling. Comfort, probably the most disturbing short story, follows the calculated decision of a terminally ill man to take away his own life. His wife, upon finding him, is not surprised or shocked – they have discussed it. She is only disappointed because she expected that as she had been an integral part of his life, so should she be present at his death. As she struggles to come at peace with her husband’s death, Nina struggles to make sense of his suicide note and to convince society that an atheist must not be buried according to convention. Nettles is the touching story of a childhood friendship that ended abruptly and unexpectedly. Decades later, a man and a woman mean and re-enact their relationship in a violent storm under the pouring rain. However, both were scared by life in some way – getting together for real is out of the question. The only thing that remains is that distant feeling of warmth, friendship and gentle tickling of the first love. What is Remembered is a chance encounter at a funeral, which soon turns into a passionate one night stand. They are destined never to meet again – and probably for the best. Nevertheless, Meriel relives and revives that night, embellishing and altering it to fit her most sacred dreams. An affair that doesn’t destroy her marriage but that changes her outlook towards life. The final story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, follows a man who slowly loses his wife to Alzheimer. The only short story in which the now 72-years-old Munro focuses on the challenges of old age. Grand and Fiona have lived and cared for each other for 50 years (despite his occasional flings) when her sickness commits her to a care facility in which she forms a rather unusual bond with another patient. Grant is left to overcome his jealousy and selfishness and to ensure the happiness of his now estranged wife, even with another man.
Alice Munro possesses enviable knowledge of the way the human mind operates. Her characters are vivid and real, her stories are plausible yet surprising and shcoking, and her portrayal of relationships as the most important determinant of our life positions her among the greatest masters of the short story. Absolutely looking forward to reading more from her and secretly hoping we would get to see her in Bulgarian bookstores fairly soon.