Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nathan Englander, "Free Fruit for Young Widows"

When I came across Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (TNY, May 17, 2010), I said, great, a war story. Now something momentous will happen. And it did. But most of what happened was the author getting in the way of the best part of the story. Around that powerful central storyline, the author tacked on side stories apparently to add consequence to the overall tale. The result was an unkempt series of anecdotes, a tiny coming-of-age story, and an interpretive apparatus that pretends to guide our understanding of the main story.

Allow me to explain. Central story: a boy called Tendler escapes from a Nazi concentration camp and returns alone to his old family home. He finds it has been occupied by former neighbors, who were great friends of Tendler’s family before the war. They welcome him enthusiastically, but Tendler overhears their plans to kill him. He reacts, but I cannot say how without spoiling the end.

Anecdotes: in 1956, a soldier called Shimmy Gezer watches how Tendler kills four distracted Egyptian soldiers at close range. He challenges Tendler for committing murder, and Tendler beats him down into the ground (literally).

Tiny coming of age story: Gezer tells both these stories to his son Etgar, who helps his father run a fruit-and-vegetable stand at a traditional Jerusalem market. Etgar is told the Suez story in greater detail as he grows up. When Etgar turns 13, his father tells him Tendler’s WWII story. Etgar had always wanted to know why Tendler got a widow’s treatment at the stand, that is, why his father gave Tendler free fruit and vegetables. The story ends with a moral discussion between Shimmy and Etgar about what happened, who was right and who was wrong. We are told Etgar grows up to become a philosopher without a philosophy degree.

My point is this: Tendler’s story is great. Powerful. Stirring. By itself, it would have questioned any comfortable notion of black-and-white morality, pushing us into the “gray space that was called real life” (the story says this about where Israelis live). The Etgar sections simply guide our interpretation. I would say clip them off. And snap off the part about the Suez Canal too, in order to leave Tendler’s story to stand on its own. It would have been a good story.

As the narrative fabric is entangled, so is the language. The beginning is wasteful, with a couple of adjectives (vital, agitated) that a good friend should’ve told the author were unnecessary. The narrator crashes the story all the time, like so: “He was using the same word about the same people in the same desert that had been used thousands of years before. The main difference, if the old stories are to be believed, was that God no longer raised His own fist in the fight.” Let it be, why don’t you? Some sentences become hefty and convoluted, like this circuitous one: “And maybe his other family—the nurse at whose breast he had become strong (before weakened), her husband who had farmed his father’s field, and their son (his age), and another (two years younger), boys with whom he had played like a brother—maybe this family was still there waiting.” More clutter (asides, clever-clever plays on chronology) begged to be removed.

This sentence is worth singling out, both for its insight and for the way it’s expressed: “you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite” (Shimmy says it to Etgar about Tendler).

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