An impressionistic flash-fiction trek through the wreckage of war.


Stories about life in Mozambique after its civil war, reckoning with the damage via fable and folklore.

This collection by Couto (Woman of the Ashes, 2018, etc.) was first published in Portuguese in 1994, two years after the end of a 15-year war that killed or displaced 6 million people. So the mood is understandably somber, but Couto is not interested in dwelling on carnage; in his introduction, he writes that he wishes to explore instead “the space where violence could not strike, where barbarism could not enter.” That means the stories are more intimate tales of loss or of odd, Borges-ian incidents: A man is concerned that his pregnant wife’s long labor signals she’s cheated; the rain in the title story represents the end of the war years when “the gods reproached us with this drought”; a coconut reportedly spills blood instead of milk; a man turns his heavy drinking into an act of postwar religious meditation. All of the 26 stories are brief, usually running no more than five or six pages. And the plots are brush strokes, usually turning on themes of infidelity and the ways society has been upended after the war, be it through coping mechanisms (drinking and sex, usually) or more peculiar scenarios, as in “Beyond the River Bend,” in which a hippopotamus breaks into a vocational school and contents itself “chewing through a sewing machine.” Stylistically, Couto’s writing is poker-faced, neither rejecting nor outright embracing the more surrealistic events he describes, though he does enjoy wordplay: Translator Becker ably preserves Couto's affinity for neologisms with puns like “timidiminutive,” “mistified nights,” “intirrigated,” “airsfixiated.” Not every coinage works, nor does every story, but the prevailing effect is, to quote one of his portmanteaus, “splendolorous”: conveying a sense of profound loss flecked with a measure of optimism about life after the bloodshed is over.

An impressionistic flash-fiction trek through the wreckage of war.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-77196-266-7

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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