The short story never died, though some commentators rather glory in the notion that in Ireland it is undergoing a renaissance. In Europe, the form has always had a seat at the table.
Margarita Meklina is an essayist and fiction writer, born in Leningrad (St Petersburg) – as was the poet Alexander Blok and Pushkin got himself shot there. Meklina’s collection, The Battle at St Petersburg (2003) earned her the Andrei Bely prize. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals and she has completed a young adult novel in English. No less a figure than Usula K. LeGuin has praised her skill in English; though it may be noticed that American-English protrudes through some of the prose here.
There are eleven short stories presented here, some very short, one or two quite lengthy. The title tale, A Sauce Stealer, is sited in Ireland, precisely in Dublin, and though the story is finely-wrought it assumes a historic knowledge of the city and country which not every non-Irish reader will enjoy. And it may be wise not to suggest that Aldi sells mouldy bread. A reference to leprechauns may get a laugh from Trump-type tourists, but Ireland has somewhat moved along from that. Similarly, ‘the Vincent’s charity shop’ should be explained the St Vincent De Paul charity shop. To her credit, Meklina is not afraid to swipe at our ridiculous tax-breaks for big economic actors and toss in the visible poverty everywhere. She does not like a show called Eastrogen Rising (which may or may not refer to an event in Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin) because she doesn’t like the notion of ‘something that important’ (The East Rising) being turned into ‘a farce.’ Oh dear. Why does no one comment upon Beckett’s Estragon? This story is a tourist’s guide around the city of Dublin coupled with a young visitor’s disillusion. Compare this introspective retrospective with Switch, by contrast a juxtapositioning of the stories of several historical women with Meklina’s own, and in another sense, it is consideration of the meaning of language. It’s marvellously executed, without melancholy.
In The Eighth day of Hannukah, the word ‘God’ is spelled out as ‘G-d,’ which may bow to some religious sensitivities but is not required in a piece of fiction intended to be read by a general readership. Bashevis Singer, for one, never used it. (It follows an edict in Deuteronomy, to prevent the name of God, when inscribed, from being destroyed; but modern Jewish scholars argue that this applies only to the name when written in Hebrew. Oddly, it has become a fashion in the US, a distinctly Old Testament milieu.) In any case this is a lovely story about how tradition and faith can be left behind in the wake of a bottle of Jagermeister. Is drunkenness the new religion of the young? The new transcendentalism?
Meklina can certainly write and she has a genuine empathy with characters who are lost or slipping off the radar. It’s not possible to know whether this collection is autobiographical, or whether the other is a backdrop to fictional stories. But it makes a refreshing break from much that has been pushed out as new short fiction here. We’ve suffered greatly since the late – and Jewish Corkman – David Marcus departed from the editorship of New Irish Writing.
(c) Fred Johnston
You can pre-order a copy of A Sauce Stealer here.