Paul Theroux: I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” from TNY, 10/7/13

I was walking down High Street to the funeral home when I spotted Ed Hankey coming toward me. He said, “Jay,” then, “Guess who’s sick?,” then blinked and concluded, “Murray Cutler.”
Sometimes bad news takes the form of a greeting.

Revenge by storytelling. No, “revenge” isn’t quite right: justice. After all, that is the main character’s name: Jay Justus.

Mimi nyama, wewe kisu,” the Swahili phrase that translates into the title, also appears in Theroux’s 1998 book Sir Vidia’s Shadow. He picked a particularly apt storyline to earn that title: who is the meat, who the knife? You might think, based on the name of the antagonist, that question would be settled. You might think otherwise by the time you’re done. In his Page Turner interview, Theroux approves of the rough translation of this phrase as “I’m at your mercy.” Mercy is in short supply between these two characters. The story asks us to contemplate why this might be.

It’s a story that takes its time revealing itself. Jay is a storyteller of some kind – a writer, presumably – home for his father’s funeral, when he hears former teacher Cutler is dying in hospice. It’s inevitable that we’ll compare the impact, the meaning, Jay’s reaction, to these two deaths.

Murray Cutler had been our high-school English teacher. He was one of those people whose death, I knew, would be a problem for me. I was resigned to my father’s passing: we had no unfinished business, and he knew that I loved him.

We’re volleyed back and forth, as Jay is, between the stories he tells his mother, and those he tells his teacher. Both stories are, on the surface, offered as comfort, either for bereavement or the discomforts of severe disability and imminent death. As it turns out, one set of stories has nothing whatever to do with comfort.

What starts out as a bizarre choice eventually resolves into a message, and as we hear more and more of them, we start to see truth. It is a story about truth, about being robbed of truth, and Jay can only tell his truth to one person.

In the end, he doesn’t get the justice he seeks; at least, I don’t think so. The stories, I think, were intended as preamble; he was hoping to come to a place where he could offer the ultimate punishment: forgiveness. But he doesn’t get to that place in time. I wonder: is it even possible to forgive someone who doesn’t acknowledge he’s wronged you?

“And when the victim went home he couldn’t report what had happened. He had to make up a story. In his stories, he was not a victim. He was triumphant. He invented dramas and dialogue. He became such an expert at evasion that the oblique habit of storytelling became his profession.”.. “But one story always stood for another. What he invented was actually the truth,” I said.

I’m being particularly circumspect about the story, because it’s such an effectively crafted read; it deserves to be read, and reading about it necessarily diminishes it. It’s also an interpretable story, and as such, everyone should make her own judgment. It’s also a story that reads quite differently on second read; little things that drifted by the first time, stand out from the page. That’s how it should be with great stories, I think.

It quite broke my heart, to again confront the damage that can occur when one is at the mercy of one without mercy.

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2 responses to “Paul Theroux: I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” from TNY, 10/7/13

  1. Love the story as well! I have to admit that I dismissed Theroux as more of a travel writer than someone who can write such spellbinding fiction, until I stumbled upon the story at TNY (still catching up with months of backlog). It’s an amazing read, and the great reveal turned out to be heartbreaking–especially the last line, when his mother comforted him. Did his mother know all along, or is it the last thing you’d want to hear from someone who actually didn’t know anything?

    • Hi Kevin – I realize now that I ignored the mother’s role in this completely when I read it. Your comment got me to read the story again (though quickly), and yeah, I think she’s a lot more crucial than I’d picked up at first. Jay learned his storytelling from experience, but perhaps he also had a role model: his mother also couched truth in fiction. Maybe the true forgiveness here has nothing to do with Cutler; it’s that Jay doesn’t grind his mother’s face into what happened to him. Did she know it was happening at the time? Maybe; she might’ve realized, later, there were signals, and she’s telling stories to keep from going there. Jay’s forgiveness of her is that he allows her to get away with it, he doesn’t confront her with it. Because even if she were completely unaware of what happened, there’s a child in him screaming, “You’re my mother, you’re supposed to take care of me, why didn’t you protect me?” Yet he lets it go; he doesn’t become the knife with her.

      Thanks for giving me a deeper understanding of this story!

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