Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Shawl

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 16.

I’ve already mentioned how Contemporary Fiction was assembled, and I said then that the most voted-for story was Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Well, the second story in that ranking was Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl.” And that’s today’s story.

This short piece has been anthologized several times. It was first published in a 1980 edition of The New Yorker, it was chosen for The Best American Short Stories 1981, and it then made it to The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties. You can find it in this anthology from 1994. It became the title story for this book. It’s found probably most conveniently here, as a Word document. If you haven’t read the story, I do suggest you go ahead and click on that link to the Word document and read it now. It’s really short, and I’m going to spoil it in the next few paragraphs.

“The Shawl” is a good story, no doubt. From the start, you sense it’ll be gripping and despondent, and you won’t be disappointed in either count. First sentence: “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.” Despite its brilliance, it was great that “The Shawl” ended when it did (at 4 pages or less, depending on where you read it), because that staccato, anguished narrative, drawn out for longer, would’ve gotten tiresome.

The story is about a woman (Rosa) who’s hiding a baby (Magda) in what seems like a concentration camp or some other sort of military detention center with electric fences and policed seclusion. Rather than in soldiers, the story indulges in fear of soldiers. What is paramount is Rosa’s concern for Magda. Rosa has another daughter, Stella, who is savagely jealous of Magda, and who is described as “ravenous” twice. They are all undernourished, and Rosa fears Stella wants Magda to die in order to eat her. Magda is apparently kept alive by a shawl (called a “magic shawl,” even), which she suckles on in the absence of her mother’s milk. Near the end, Stella steals Magda’s shawl, and the little girl wanders off to a sunlit square searching for it. When Rosa snatches the shawl from Stella, and attempts to rescue Magda, the little girl has already been taken by a soldier and seconds later is tossed against the electric fence. Stella says she took the shawl because she was cold, and the story tells us she will always feel cold after that.

The tempo of the narrative is very particular. The story advances by spurts, combining them with well-placed flash-forwards that create relief or resignation. When we think Magda is about to die, we hear this, jumping a few months ahead: “But Magda lived to walk. She lived that long, but she did not walk very well.” Later, as we are cozying up with Magda and her shawl, we get this, abruptly: “Then Stella took the shawl away and made Magda die.” After that, come some paragraphs in which those events (the taking of the shawl, Magda’s death) are narrated. It’s a good story, as I said. The sense of fear is relayed well to us.

What I found very interesting about reading the story was deciding where to place its events. In fact, this affords a great test case in how context shapes interpretation. Look at the names: Rosa, Magda, Stella. Notice the police state in which everyone is living. One other thing: Magda is said to have blue eyes, like their babies, and is called “Aryan,” like them. So where do you think the story was set? Well, it’s much more straightforward if you have some context: Cynthia Ozick is Jewish, the abstract and tags from The New Yorker point you to concentration camps (but none of this was said when “The Shawl” was first published), one of the anthologies I mentioned above is subtitled Stories and Poems on the Holocaust. So it’s a Holocaust story.

But on my first reading of the story, something odd happened: 29 years after “The Shawl” was first published, 64 years after the end of WWII, I didn’t read “The Shawl” at first as a Holocaust story. Yes, I guess I should have, and the Shoah certainly deserves to be remembered and mourned. And yet, my background got the better of me. The names sounded distinctly Latin (I know Latin American women with all those names). The specter of a brutal police state hovers around a region where rogue armies, dictators, and quasi-dictators make the headlines regularly. And I read the “Aryan” tag as an oddity, a strange way in which the author was referring to an invasive “white” army amid a perhaps indigenous population. The story, by itself, does not rule out this interpretation. There are no explicit references to dates, place-names, concentration camps, or Nazis.

Reading it in that unexpected manner, the story still struck me as good and ominous. It was still powerful. And that’s how literature works, I guess, speaking to each reader differently, even if the reader is reading so flagrantly against the story’s intended grain.

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