BASS 2015/Pushcart XL: Colum McCann, “Sh’khol” from Zoetrope, #18.3

A novella had arrived from the publisher in Tel Aviv eight months before, a beautifully written story by an Arab Israeli from Nazareth: an important piece of work, she thought.
She had begun immediately to translate it, the story of a middle-aged couple who had lost their two children. She had come upon the phrase sh’khol. She cast around for a word translated, but there was no proper match. There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but none, no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child. None in Irish, either. She looked in Russian, and French, in German, in other languages too, but could find analogues only in Sanskrit, vilomah, and in Arabic, thakla, a mother, nathkool, a father. Still not in English. It had bothered her for days. She wanted to be true to the text, to identify the invisible, torn open, ripped apart, stolen. In the end she had settled upon the formal bereaved, not precise enough hardly, she thought, no mystery in it, no music, hardly a proper translation at all, bereaved.

Parents strongly cautioned: This story will rip your heart out in six different ways – yet leave you loving it for doing so.

And I’m not even a parent.

I need to be particularly spoiler-sensitive about these comments, however, because the story shifts and moves like the sea that plays a part throughout. It is indeed about the loss of a child, a phrase that is itself ambiguous. “He lost his daughter” means something very different from “He lost his keys.” Or does it?

I can imagine a logical reason for the paucity of words indicating a parent has lost a child. The death of a spouse, or of parents when one is young (you wouldn’t refer to a 30-year-old whose parents just died as an orphan), is a change in one’s societal status, unlike the death of a child. Even though the emotional effect is, of course, profound, would you want to be labeled as “the parent who lost a child” by a single word? The Sh’khol Jones, analogous to The Widow McAllister? I don’t think so. But it’s one thing to consider this from the calm, cool, analytical point of view, and quite another from the heart of the mother who fears she has lost her child.

This is what McCann does so effectively: radical empathy. Becoming the other, a theme from the Fiction of Relationship course. Telling another’s story. Getting to know another well enough, to understand the nooks and crannies of how they feel, and why, to tell the story. McCann has worked with a group of creatives to form Narrative4, a non-profit that brings together kids from disparate neighborhoods – most recently, Newtown, CT, and Chicago (“Twenty-six murders in one day, twenty-six murders in one month, you tell my story, I’ll tell yours”, about the 1:01 mark).

I remember reading an excerpt from McCann’s novel Transatlantic in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, and being amazed that I could be so mesmerized by a story that takes place primarily in the cockpit of a 1919 aeroplane. Here again, I was spellbound by the story of Rebecca and Tomas. McCann not only has the radical empathy he values so highly, the empathy he credits with changing lives and possibly the world, but he’s able to create it in others using only text on a page.

The writing is astonishingly beautiful. I always hesitate to say something like that, because I still have this nagging question: is writing that calls attention to itself able to do the job of writing, the transport of one person to another situation? When I stop reading, transfixed over these words: “I have, she thought, made a terrible mistake”, am I still in the story? That sentence is a flashing neon sign. It demands I stop, pay attention. Why is it broken up like that? The story – about brokenness – is about loss, the loss of a child, but the sentence starts with, “I have,” takes a breath with “she thought,” then understates the obvious. The sentence stays with me. I suspect, the next time I make a big mistake, it will be this sentence that comes to mind.

The interaction of Rebecca and her ex-husband is just as arresting. When they were married, they had the Good Life, and she left it for this tired cottage until crisis brings him back to her:

– I’d like to be alone with my wife, Allen said.
Rebecca lifted her head. Wife : it was like a word that might remain on the page, though the page itself was plunged into darkness.

The story kept changing as I read. I can understand why T.C. Boyle, in his Introduction, compared this to a novel. In technical terms beloved by high school English teachers, a short story is not only readable in one sitting, but takes place over a limited period of time. The plot of this story takes place in the space of a few of days. But the story is far longer, going back perhaps to Eve losing both her sons – a scene not included in Genesis, by the way. Because it’s too horrible to contemplate – or because it’s so well-understood?

Because the character Rebecca is a writer, a translator of literature, McCann has, I think, greater leeway to have her thoughts be beautiful even in her anguish and fear. Just as inside Jack’s head, in “Jack, July” was a unique place, so is inside Rebecca, and McCann puts us there, offering us radical empathy – or rather, the story requires it of us.

Sh’khol. She knew the word now. Shadowed.

So many ways to lose a child.

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6 responses to “BASS 2015/Pushcart XL: Colum McCann, “Sh’khol” from Zoetrope, #18.3

  1. One thing I liked about this story relative to some of the other entries is that there is a plot. I’ve sometimes jokingly said that literary fiction can be loosely defined as “fiction in which plot is not a central consideration.” Something clearly happens in this story. You could paraphrase what the story is about and not do it a great injustice. Try doing that for “Fugue.”

    I always have jealousy as a writer when I read certain stories. McCann was allowed an indulgence which I have been criticized in workshops for before: making language, foreign language particularly, a central thematic axis. Her insertion of the meaning of Sh’kol is very much like passages I’ve written. But I’ve been told that I was being pedantic. As a guy who makes his living translating, like the main character of this story, I find that to be maddening.

    We do step into the other. I think Rebecca’s experience is an acceptance that she will not really be able to step into her son’s other, to let him fully inhabit his own otherness alone. Parents these days are often criticized of being “helicopter parents.” (I am one. And, of course, if our kids ever do the slightest thing wrong in public, parents get chewed out for being negligent of their kids. So you can’t win.) Rebecca is forced by her son’s condition to be an extreme helicopter parent. Her momentary lapse in hypervigilance–inevitable, really–gives us, maybe, something of an antidote to this kind of parenting. Your parental screw-ups are sometimes your children’s opportunities to become themselves. Children are the greatest mystery there is. They come from us, they are us, and yet they can be unknowable to us.

    • You’re a translator? I’m in awe – what do you translate, literature, technical/business, anything that comes your way? What languages? It’s a process that fascinates me, in college I spent way too much time worrying about translation of Beowulf (does alliteration translate to iambic pentameter? Do we have to rewrite the story to capture it?) but it got me started on something of an obsession with turning one language – or time period, or even a frame of mind – into another. From a Pushcart of a couple of years ago, the Villon piece, I was blown away by a translation of a medieval poem, how so much was retained, form and meaning – and amazed that such a thing is possible.

      Even as we hear each other’s words, though we use the same language, we have to translate over the boundary that is self. I can never know what someone else means by “pain” or “love” or “red,” but only what I mean, and what the shared cultural connotation is. So all communication is, like Rebecca and Tomas, a process of translation.

      Every parent loses his/her child. That’s what growing up is. That’s what a parent’s job is, to bring a child to that point and let him go. I think when the child is disabled, it’s harder, because how can you accept, he needs some autonomy now, maybe even just a bit of privacy, when you don’t know if he understands danger. And in the case of Tomas, can he ever be truly “let go”.

      I take it Jack didn’t work for you 😉 When i was trying to write, I was always told my stories had no plot. That’s why I started blogging; I can say what I want, without worrying about plot, or character, or any of the thousand and one things a fiction writer has to consider, I can just do the part I love – write.

  2. Please don’t be impressed by that. Learning a foreign language is about as difficult as learning to play a musical instrument. It takes hours and hours of practice, but if you’re willing to do that, then most people can get it with a reasonable level of proficiency eventually.

    • I’ve read that language acquisition, math, and music are somehow related, in that they tend to go together. I’ve never found a language I could learn, an instrument I could play (though I can sing fairly well), or any math I could do well.

  3. Pingback: Exit (BASS 2015) | A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: Finishing Pushcart XL | A Just Recompense

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