No Letter was ever Going to Come
This year's (2009) Man Booker International Prize winner happens to be a Canadian woman short-story writer Alice Munro not for a particular book but 'for her lifetime body of work'. In recognition of her literary endeavours the panel that decided to give her the prize said, “To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before." Honestly, I strongly feel inclined to agree to the statement after re-reading two of her short stories, Thanks for the Ride (1968) and How I Met My Husband (1974), when I came to know about her winning the Prize. In this fertile land of ours it is not easy to get hold of the book that you feel like reading at the right moment more so when it is an English language book. Naturally I had to be satisfied with the one that I had within my reach from my old collection.
Most of the names of Munro's short-stories and books fascinate me as a reader for example both above mentioned titles of the short-stories give me an immediate impression that she does not go for conventional things and is very informal in her storytelling. To justify my point I can give examples like Lives of Girls and Women, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, Who Do You Think You Are?, and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. This, to me, has resulted from her strong regional focus as she was born in a family of fox and poultry farmers, and narrating her stories in small-town settings making her look at things unconventionally and informally.
Munro published her first short-story, The Dimensions of a Shadow in 1950. I have no clear picture from her biography if she wrote any other stories between 1950 and 1968, for during that period of time she got married, gave birth to three daughters and moved once to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then to Victoria. Her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades came out in 1968, and her latest book, published in 2009, is titled Too Much Happiness. Many critics compare Munro's works with Chekhov's because they think in her stories too, plot is less important and the talk drifts on, thoughts well up from within the breast, toss on the air and vanish like bubbles and little happens. But after my second reading of the stories mentioned above I genuinely feel that Munro has the quality to bring into play various other subtle dimensions of realisation in the minds of the readers.
Take How I Met My Husband. This story unfolds in the first person narrative of a fifteen-year old girl. She is not a very bright teenager, but possesses all the feelings, emotions and imaginations befitting the age. Failing to display her talent in education she is sent to work for a veterinary couple in the country by her parents where she meets one of those pilots who earn money by giving short rides to the people who love fun flying up in the sky. She grows a romantic attachment to this man double her age, and during one of her short visits to his camp he takes her to bed only to kiss her for a few minutes. This she considers to be an intimate relationship. The day this happens he tells her that for professional reasons he is going to move to another place the same afternoon, but he likes her very much and will write her letters from wherever he goes, and one day they will meet again. She believes him from the very core of her heart and from the very next week she sits near the mailbox at a fixed time routinely to check if she has got a letter. Though she meets the mailman everyday, the letter never arrives. Then one day the reality reveals to her, “It never crossed to my mind for a long time a letter might not come. I believed in it coming just like I believed the sun would rise in the morning. …One day walking back …looking across the fairgrounds with the full-blown milkweed and dark teasels, so much like fall, it just struck me: No letter was ever going to come.” Munro twists her story to another dimension with the help of two last paragraphs when she describes how the postman asks the girl to go out with him one day, and after two years of dating they get married and have children. The final lines read like this, “He [her postman husband] always tells the children the story of how I went after him by sitting by the mailbox every day, and naturally I laugh and let him, because I like for people to think what pleases them and makes them happy.”
What I like about the story is this waiting for something that will never happen, in this case the letter that will never come. Quite a good number of writers have worked on this particular theme, and I can readily name Tagore, Maugham, Beckett and Marquez. Tagore in his play Dak Ghor (The Post Office) describes how tirelessly a child waits for his emancipation from this worldly confinement and finally gets it by falling asleep or to be exact, through his physical death. Waiting as a theme also gyrates all through Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders) when we see Nandini repeatedly declaring Ranjan's forthcoming visit although he never appears in flesh and blood in the entire play. It is true Tagore's waiting is a kind of waiting at a higher plane, extremely philosophical, but it is rationalistic too. Maugham in his famous autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage writes how a ten-year old boy is subjected to humiliation for his club foot by his classmates and how he goes through an episode of deep religious belief, and believes that through true faith he can get God to heal his club foot, but as this does not happen his belief falters almost like the girl in Munro's story who suddenly realises that no letter will ever arrive. But man knows how to compromise with life and live on. Becket develops his play Waiting for Godot on an unbearably uninteresting plot of waiting in which two characters wait for someone named Godot who never turns upbut then again life itself is a long waiting for something to happen that almost never happens. Márquez's No One Writes to the Colonel is a novel that deals with the story of an impoverished, retired colonel who still waits to receive the pension that was promised some fifteen years earlier. Thus time and again writers have been dealing with the subject of human expectation that someday they will see redemption from their pain and suffering they undergo and wait for something better to happen the way Bangladeshi people are waiting for a change but unfortunately that hope never comes to fruition.
I like Munro's relaxed way of telling her story and finally delivering the ingenious message by means of a casual rhetoric: No letter was ever going to come.
Abdus Selim is the Assistant Professor of North South University.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009