*Short Story Monday is a weekly feature run by The Book Mine Set*
(Today’s short fiction is from the Words without Borders September 2007 issue: Our Sonnets from the Portuguese)
The Woman Who Stole the Rain, is a study of contrasts in setting, emotion and tone. The narrator is in Lisbon on a two-day business visit. Her “(five-star) hotel had been overbooked, and the room already paid for by (her) agency was occupied by someone else”. So she’s offered the presidential suite, “a sumptuous apartment which could easily have accommodated an entire entourage”. By all accounts, the suite is the very epitome of “luxury, good taste and comfort”. On her last day there, as she is packing to leave, she hears two black maids cleaning the other bedroom next to hers. She stops to eavesdrop on their conversation, which is presented as an italicized story within the overall narration. One maid tells a gripping, tense-filled tale of a drought-stricken village in Africa. A witch doctor is called and he confirms the villagers’ suspicion: that the drought is caused by a woman whose
“husband had left her a long time before, and then her son had died and she had wept so much that her body had dried up, her eyes had dried up, she had turned into a withered trunk, bent toward the earth. She had become like a wild animal, she didn’t speak any more, she moaned and sometimes, at night, she screamed.”
The woman’s grief had stolen the rain. It’s clear that she must die. And she is killed, but it’s the manner of her killing that startles. Her grief and loneliness are used against her; she is betrayed by a society that in its inability to console, cannot tolerate her company. Or is it the land that cannot bear her grief? The maid concludes her tale and they all return to their previous activities. The narrator leaves the suite, checks out of the hotel and boards her flight home.
“There was something about that whole story which had left me feeling slightly on edge, something about that whole incredible female conversation which I had, for some irrational reason, stopped to listen to, I, who never eavesdrop on conversations, least of all on women’s conversations… I had spent two days in Lisbon and, for the price of a standard room, I had, I told myself, occupied an improbably large suite; it must have had fifteen rooms, as well as vast balconies and a bath the size of a swimming pool. And then, suddenly, I had opened one of the doors and found, in the next room, a piece of Africa, perfectly intact, like an area of virgin jungle. For seven minutes, exactly seven minutes, I had been lost in the jungle.”
As I read over the quotation above, it suddenly occurs to me that the narrator could be male. Like this very minute. That would be perfectly okay; the gender does not alter the story. Except perhaps I detect a slight note of condescension in the above quote when the narrator talks about “women’s conversations”, which in and of itself does not imply that the narrator is male. I’m finding that I’m likely to think that a narrator is female in the absence of any gender markers. Interesting. A reference thing or an inner voice issue, perhaps?
Anyway, I like the story. I thought the opening description of the suite could have been shortened but perhaps that was also necessary in order to set up the contrast in settings. Which brings me to the only negative in the story for me; the African jungle imagery. There are many types of villages in Africa. There are villages by the coast, villages in plains and savannahs, nomadic villages in deserts, villages on hills and mountain ranges, and villages within urban areas. So I’m puzzled by this “piece of Africa, perfectly intact, like an area of virgin jungle”. It’s a very romantic notion of Africa; an Africa untainted and spoiled by first contact. Certainly, it’s an Africa where one would be hard pressed to locate a presidential suite with a swimming-pool-size jaccuzzi. As if. I think it is lazy and easy for the writer to use the jungle imagery. Easy in the sense that it is a handy stereotype. Using jungle just wraps the African setting into a nice tidy package. And lazy, because the author, Teolinda Gersão has spent a lot of time in Mozambique and should really not resort to this stereotype.
The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is superb as ever.
From Words without Borders:
“Teolinda Gersão’s first novel, O Silencio [The Silence], published in 1981, was awarded the PEN Club prize for fiction and was named “book of the year,” and was later named one of the one hundred best Portuguese books of the twentieth century. She was shortlisted for the European Prize for the Novel for Aristeion. She lived for two years in São Paulo and for some time in Mozambique, the setting for her novel of 1997 A Árvore das Palavras [The Tree of Words].”
I’m going to explore more fiction by Teolinda Gersão.