BASS 2019: Karen Russell, “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.2

I wrote the original draft of “Black Corfu“ in a feverish season of hope and fear; while I was pregnant with my son and considering the unlevel landscapes that children inherit from a new vantage point…. How many people today feel trapped in their orbits, unable to ladder out of poverty, despair? Condemned to work in the shadows while they watch others enjoy health, wealth, safety? The vukodlak seemed like the right vessel for a story about a father’s “zombie” hopes – those undead dreams of freedom that stalk a world where they are as yet unfulfilled.

Karen Russell, Contributor Note

I haven’t read much horror fiction, What I have read has come to me via literary fiction – Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, some of the short stories of Manuel Gonzales – where monsters may appear only very briefly, or even not at all, yet they set a stage for some remarkable human contemplation and drama. Add this story to that list. It’s much less about the supernatural monsters that form so much of the plot, than about the human monstrosity we experience every day.

Don’t let the setting of a 17th century Croatian island scare you away. If you’re aware that doctors and surgeons of that period were not exactly as we know them today, and if you’re familiar with the suspicion surrounding Shakespeare’s famous Moor, Othello, you’ll have no trouble. The monsters the plot revolves around – vukodlaks – seem to be something like zombie werewolves, the dead come back to life as a threat to the living, particularly those who loved them most.

The primary theme of the story is clearly racism, but several other ideas weave in and out quite effectively: rumors as disease, the Other Man, the commonality of perpetrator and victim. But let’s slow down a little; unlike the story, which begins in the middle, let’s start with our (takes a shot*) unnamed protagonist at the beginning.

His wife is very proud of the doctor’s accomplishments. Because he loves her, he never shares the black joke. Not once does he voice an objection to the injustice of his fate, or rail against what the island has made of his ambition. Above ground, the chirurgo practices medicine in his warm salon – performing salubrious bloodlettings, facilitating lactation for the pretty young noblewoman. Whereas this doctor must descend into the Neolithic caves, under the cold applause of stars.
His formal title is the Posthumous Surgeon of Korčula, yet all the bereaved know him by name….He operates on the dead – the only bodies an occupant of his caste is permitted to touch. Before his good reputation was gutted by his accusers, the doctor had a perfect record: during his twenty-three-year tenure on the island, not a single vukodlak had been sighted. Everyone slept more peacefully for his skill – the living and the dead. Whose relief was manifest in the verdant silence of the woods, in the solemn stillness of the cemetery air. Inside that pooling quiet he could hear, unwhispered, thank you, Doctor. Bless you, Doctor.

The Doctor’s job is to perform surgeries, involving cutting the hamstrings, on the newly dead, to prevent them from turning into undead vukodlaks. He had once hoped that his service, his skill, would be noticed and rewarded by allowing him to become a doctor to the living. But such is not to be for a Moor in a Christian land. His religion is not the issue (he seems, in fact, to be Christian), but his ethnicity is. I’m currently reading Don Quixote along with a period history of Spain, so I’ve been somewhat immersed in this prejudice for a couple of months. Sangre limpieza – clean blood, untarnished by Moorish or Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity generations earlier – became an obsession for Spain, a requirement for government positions by the middle of the 16th century. From the story, it seems a similar restriction was in place along the Adriatic coast. The Doctor will not be allowed to rise, literally or figuratively. He makes the best of it: “We treat the living. We treat the fears of the living.”

The events of the story are set in motion by the arrival of Jure, a teenager from an elite family on a neighboring island, an island overrun with vukodlaks. They need a Doctor of the Dead, and he was chosen to fill the role. Why? The Doctor speculates that, while he is from a privileged family, he is too dull to fill any other role. Jure, however, is ill-suited to this role, as becomes evident: he doesn’t study, doesn’t learn, and is constantly afraid of the dark, the cave, the dead bodies, the howls in the night.

The boy stiffens. “Oh God,” he says, jerking back with a shudder. “There has been some mistake. I do not belong down here with you. Please, I want to go home.”
“Home” being synonymous, for this lucky young man, with the sunlit world above.
Blessed are the living, thinks the doctor, his scalpel poised.

When rumors of a vukodlak begin, the boy sees his chance to get out of the dark: he claims the Doctor made a mistake on one of his patients, the daughter of the most elite family on the island. Later he embellishes the story to add an illicit romance. The Doctor’s years of service, his perfect record, no longer matter. All that matters is who is the Moor and who is not. There’s a twist in that the boy’s complexion hints that his family may not have clean blood, but it’s cleaner than the Moor’s.

What I really like about this story is how Russell moves beyond mere plot. The Doctor views the rumors of his incompetence as illness, a contagion; today we’d call it infection, but this was before germ theory, so such spreading illnesses are attributed to miasma, bad air.

So the rumor has penetrated the walls of his home, the mind of his child. …
What if the miasma of the rumor is already changing? Becoming even more poisonous,contagious –
I will have to keep the girls indoors from now on, to prevent their further contamination
What will happen to him, if he cannot stop the rumor from spreading, transforming?

What better way of considering racism as a societal norm, than as bad air, an atmosphere that affects everyone though it can only be seen from outside? Jake Weber’s post looks at the story in the context of the recently released movie Parasite, which, in a darkly comic way, deals with a similar stratification by class rather than by race; I went to see the movie myself, and it’s an interesting comparison.

I’m not sure if it’s related to the racism, but there’s a great deal of color in the story. Mostly red and blue – suggestive colors in a contemporary setting, if not the 16th century – but also black, white, and a sprinkling of others. I don’t see a pattern offhand; I’m tempted to take a few days and look more closely, but prior trips down rabbit holes like these have not really been worth the time expended, so I’ll pass for now at least.

The Doctor’s wife suggests he confess and beg forgiveness, and he is devastated that she has succumbed to the contagion of the rumors. “In an act of spontaneous reformation, his wife immolates her image of him as a perfect man, resurrects him, and forgives him.” But it goes beyond that: he becomes enraged with her, because how could she be so loving, reaching out her hand, if she believed he had caused the vukodlak to emerge? It’s an interesting twisting of threads: he is shocked and ultimately disgusted by her forgiveness. In spite of efforts to find the monster, no one has reported actually seeing it, but the rumors grow. Can you say “fake news?” The townspeople dig up the girl’s casket and find her body is missing, seemingly confirming the horror. But the Doctor has a good idea how this could have happened, and though it involves a monster, it has nothing to do with any vukodlak.

The Doctor sees himself now as the Other Man in a different way: he has become a vukodlak, roaming the hills in the darkness. In a heartbreaking scene, we see him climbing up the hill to the home of the girl who has risen as a werewolf, the most elite home on the island, where the boy Jure is now staying, secure among the elite; he watches the luxurious dinner, the gentle company, through a window from the dark, cold outside:

It is suddenly all too easy to understand why the boy from Lastovo which moved the countess’s body.
We are in the same predicament, then, the doctor considers. You do not want to be a liar, anymore than I wanted to be a monster.

The final scene is ambiguous enough to require re-evaluation of both the Doctor’s story, and the story itself. I spent a long time thinking about it, and I still haven’t made up my mind.

This is one of the stories in Russell’s collection, Orange World, published this past Spring. Between BASS and Pushcart, I’ve read half of the eight stories.

* Jake and I have a little drinking game going, and unnamed protagonists are one of the triggers.

4 responses to “BASS 2019: Karen Russell, “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.2

  1. I’m so glad you went to see Parasite! My comparison between that movie and this story makes no sense, but I just couldn’t think of anything else for a few days after seeing it.

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