Diaspora City by London Arts Board
There’s an awful lot I do not understand regarding contemporary literature, but one thing I do know is that there’s nothing in my mind that will permit me to ever miscalculate the unshakable vim of the short form. Short story collections are highly important, I know that much – yet these days it seems like they are virtually ignored. Maybe they always have been? I don’t know. Personally, I just try to read as many as I can muster. It’s the least I can do. You see, and I’m talking to you aspiring writer, post your collection to the nearest literary editor and your manuscript of crafted short prose will be effortlessly tossed onto the nearest slush pile. They don’t want to know. It seems, here at least, we just don’t 'do' short story collections. But why is this? Why isn’t there more, why are we not connecting with the importance of this form?
Diaspora City (published by Arcadia about a year back and edited, with great aplomb, by Nick McDowell) may make some headway. We may, dare I say it, start to buy more short fiction. We may soon start to pick up short story collections from the shelf and, who’d have thought it, actually begin not turn up our noses at them. And those pesky publishers may, for once, have a little peek inside that manuscript of shorts you have painstakingly written when it finally lands, with a symbolic thud, on his/her desk.
The short story is a crystallized form invented and reinvented by Chekhov and Bukowski respectively and has probably never been bettered since – well, in my humble opinion at least. It is direct, we gain an immediate sense of the authors’ intentions; we see style, content and plot at face value, we read a short story for what it is and this is its strength. A condensed picture formed from a larger canvass, the short story does everything we want it to do, at once difficult and easy, plain and complex, yet always enjoyable – in short it is rarely conformist and doesn’t like to take itself too seriously.
But ignore me, I digress, Diaspora City is quite a serious book and has new writing from such luminaries as John Berger, Ben Okri, Toby Litt, Iain Sinclair and A. Sivanandan and many others. Some traditional in form and structure, others not. All, though, use London as inspiration, all celebrating the multicultural diversity which is intrinsic to the heart-beat of every large city the world over.
In his brief introduction Nick McDowell informs: “The theme of Diaspora was chosen to encourage entries from and about Londoner’s with roots and heritage in countries and cultures across the world …” (Pg vi).
Toby Litt kicks off proceedings with a rather quaint story called Rare Books and Manuscripts. Set in the British Library, of all places, Litt still manages to create a fresh and real world for its characters. It is an impressive opener. This is a story about longing and loneliness, a search for companionship and love (which turns out to be a regular theme within these pages). I suppose Litt is touching upon the ironic fact that even when surrounded by the lives of myriad authors throughout all stages of modern history, in the largest library in the capital, in the biggest city in this country we can still feel infinitesimally small and alone – it is a rather obvious tale but still manages to retain its ethereal charm throughout.
The two standouts in this collection, rather ponderously, are John Berger’s wonderfully enchanting The Museum of Desire and Iain Sinclair’s wonderfully complex Fyndet (or: I Kan Eat Anyone). In The Museum of Desire a man becomes captivated with an elderly and charismatic female museum guide. The story is absorbing to say the least and poses numerous questions about the validity of our lives. How do we feel when looking into the past? Is everything we see, somehow, symbolic of ourselves? Where and what do we belong to? Are we trying to find something in ourselves? Is everything lost and forgotten? Are we all looking to be wanted? Desired? Rather tellingly Berger’s crux is refreshingly terse:
“To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody can reach in this life to feeling immortal” (Pg 117).
The intricacies contained in this story are quite mesmerising, especially the particulars noted by the elderly guide in the museum. Each paragraph is deft and touches pace, thought and action adroitly – it is delicately written, ostensibly Berger is a writer aware of his power to pull the reader inwards into the page and like the museum guide, who pulls and places visitor’s through the house he holds the reader within his knowing grasp. We follow the doting narrator as he wanders through the museum, at one point envisaging himself stealing a horse – proclaiming it would be much better than owning a work of art. Berger is interested in the living, breathing beauty of the present. He juxtaposes this with the collected and preserved histories of the museum. The ethereal past we can not attain. Feelings of love and, especially, desire (echoed in the past inhabitants of the house) haunt each doorway, corridor and room; it is impossible to ignore. We cannot escape the past or the present; we are all caught, desiring the same, experiencing the same, longing for the same. It is this sad beauty which binds both present and past together and the museum is the canvass where all our dreams and desires can be secretly acted out. London, outside, is a mere memory.
The elegant museum guide is ‘time’ itself gliding through the museum, a constant reminder to all who walks through its doors that all is finite and that we may, or may not, be remembered when we’re gone:
“She was elderly and I had the impression that her thinness was to do with slipping through time …” (Pg 118).
Oh, but Berger is crafty: when the museum guide points out to the narrator, and assembled visitors present, the suggestive view up the skirt of a girl in a Dutch masterpiece is she really, other than to look into the wonderful painting, asking us to look further at our naked self? Is she, the aging museum guide of another era, the trigger of all desire? Is she the clichéd metaphor of lost love? Is this what Berger wants us, the reader, to read into her or, more tellingly, ourselves? This is a quiet tale of subtle meaning set within in a city of flux and turmoil. The more this short tale is read the more meaningful it becomes and is, quite possibly, one of the strongest I have read in a long time.
Iain Sinclair’s Fyndet (or: I Kan Eat Anyone) is a different kettle of fish altogether – and then some. Personally, on first reading it I could not make head or tail of it. Joycean from the outset:
“The swish and swosh of sea /traffic, just below the level of nuisance” (Pg 81).
And for its esoteric detachment one of my favourite opening sentences, in any work of modern fiction, in a very long time. We are immediately drawn into the ebb and flow, the trickle, the deluge – the relentless, ever-annoying presence of London town and its environs; a geographical psycho-drama of noise and never-ending movement. A living, breathing metropolis that can smother and suffocate in an instant or cheer and delight the very next. A constant surprise, a danger to all that inhabits its burgeoning wonder. At once Sinclair’s writing jars. It demands closer scrutiny, and even then it can be hard to decipher. Asylum Seekers looking for work trawl the streets, living in shacks by the sea, travelling into London for money – they’ll do just about anything. They lust, they want a life. Sinclair jump cuts from one image to the next, one character to another within – sometimes – barely three sentences. It’s often hard to keep up, much like a straggling out-of-work immigrant looking for work as the rattle and mechanics of everyday London pass him by bewilderingly. A cold, aloof city, foreign and unremitting. This is a dirty tale about Kaporal’s “three-day trek from the coast” (Pg 85) into London and various other remote characters like the gaggle of “ever-so-slightly pregnant women. Sperm still wriggling in their knickers…” (Pg 82) who seem to litter this strange tale. We directly see Kaporal’s horror as he is faced with the ubiquity of mass-consumer London, a topographic nightmare of warehouse-like buildings brimming with strange looking people and winding roads that lead to the next, roads that the Royals don’t use, snaking around the city, squeezing, constricting the life/blood out from it. A ‘they’ and ‘we’ landscape. A city that will make a meal of you in the end – quite literally:
“Kaporal’s torso was on a hook. He was peeled like a kebab, bone and gristle into the industrial mincer. A grinding and spitting, a cough or two. And the human meat was smooth as paste. Rendered. Kaporal rendered, flour-dusted, dipped in gravy” (Pg 92).
Like most stories in this collection this is a tale fully aware of the power London can hold on the individual. We see countless characters seeking approval and companionship, work and love – all in the face of the almighty, indifferent tumult before them. The first footsteps of a new life, the first encounters with other cultures, words, meanings, misinterpretations and misunderstanding. And all the while London remains sucking into its large intestine each dreary life, one after another and without a care in the world. I suppose this is exactly the image Sinclair, like his fellow contributors, is trying to convey, only seen through different, rather jagged eyes. It will take me a while to get to the bottom of this story – and I’ll love every minute in doing so.
Other than my standouts there’s a lot in here, Richard Troman’s The River Underground is touching, and Maggie Gee’s The Artist is well written, if a little patronising. Ben Okri is marvellously terse in The Black Russian. There’s enough for everyone. Diaspora City is a strong collection, gathering together the old and the new, the experienced and the eager, forging a vivid and unswerving picture of the human make-up that unfolds, quite inexorably, each and every day across the width and breath of our capital city. All quite fitting really.
So, short fiction is unquestionably back, it is harsh, moving and meaningful. Above all it is well-written and at times ultra-modern. This is an intriguing collection and even if you have no connection with London what-so-ever I feel you will find at least something buried beneath the lives that eke out their meagre living within its pages – and one thing we will agree on: is that short fiction is worth reading again.