Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Djinn by Russell Banks – short story review

April 1, 2011

Recap: a man is sent to Gbandeh by his company. The first time everything goes well, he gets into a routine of hanging out at a particular cafe, until one of the locals, one of the many “mad men” who live there, comes up to him one day and acts as if he knows him. And the narrator can’t shake the feeling that maybe he does. Soon, the owner of the bar comes over, chases the mad man (whose name is Djinn) away. The narrator quickly leaves and doesn’t return for the rest of his stay in that country.  15 months later, his company sends him back and he quickly falls back into his previous routine. Of course, Djinn shows up again. This time, however, Djinn scales the side of a building and is shot and killed by a plain clothes policeman. This greatly upsets the narrator who later ends up scaling the same building. Another plainclothes policeman is there, draws his gun and tells the narrator to come down, though the policeman now calls the narrator Djinn. The narrator successfully scrambles up the rest of the side of the building and onto the roof, the cop puts away his gun, and everything returns to normal. The story ends with the Narrator/Djinn on the roof of the building, watching the night sky move towards the morning, and the stars disappear. At the end the Narrator/Djinn tells he is “alone.”

A djinn is “In Muslim legend, a spirit often capable of assuming human or animal form and exercising supernatural influence over people.” Going with this definition, we can make a fair assumption of why the crazy man was called this. We also get an idea of why the narrator was referred to as this out of the blue. Also, it fits the strange compulsion that overtook him to climb the building and put himself at risk of being shot – his description of what propelled him could fit very well with the idea of being influenced by a spirit.

At the same time, this is also the closest the narrator comes to truly bridging the gap between himself and locals. While he moves about on their streets, he has a solid working relationship with the people his company employs and who he is training, he doesn’t truly belong to the community until he makes himself one of the mad men.

By becoming one of the madmen, or one of the djinn (as it appears this might be the common term the locals use for all crazy people), the narrator also attains a certain anonymity. Until one of the djinn goes out of their way to draw attention to themselves, such as climbing buildings, the locals don’t notice them. The narrator does, and he often seems perturbed throughout the story when the original Djinn wanders into the cafe and, literally, isn’t noticed by the locals.. So while he becomes closer to the locals on one hand, he also makes himself less visible to them. And the narrator realizes this at the end of the story, realizing that, sitting on the roof, he is “alone,” and may have been alone the entire time. By becoming a djinn, he is pulled away from the curtains he allows to shade him from the reality of his foreignness. While he can go to the cafe every day, while the bartender remembers his name and what he drinks, while the locals don’t pay any special attention to him, he still doesn’t fit there, he doesn’t belong. This only becomes apparent after his transformation.

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The Other and Ulrikke by Borges – Story Review

May 20, 2010

I have been trying to get into Jorge Luis Borges for about five years now. I had a professor at Siena Heights who really pushed the guy and I really respected this professor, so when he leant me his collection of Borges’s fiction I really tried to bear down on the thing and get under its skin. And I failed. Miserably. The thing ended up sitting on my shelf for a few weeks until the time that I returned it to him, told him how much I enjoyed it but didn’t get far into it and silently promised to take up the task again in the near future.

Five years later I pulled the collection out of the local library and have begun again. I may or may not have given the thing a chance while at UT but I can’t say for certain as that period of my life is mostly filled with memories of darkness, destruction and calamity. And none of the aforementioned triumvirate of misery had anything to really do with grad school itself, which should really tell you how wonderful those two years were.

Now I am having just as difficult of a time but I’m still trying. Instead of starting at the beginning, I’m going through the book almost at random, reading what immediately catches my eye while skipping over the things that hold less interest. This is the first story that truly grabbed me.

It centers around Borges encountering a younger version of himself on a park bench. in Cambridge, in February 1969. The bulk of the story consists of the older Borges trying to convince the younger Borges that this meeting is actually taking place and that they are, in fact, the same person. Despite many repeated attempts, the younger Borges refuses to capitulate, refuses to believe in the assertions made by thee older Borges.

It finally turns at the end where the older Borges continues to believe that he is real but that the other Borges was dreaming, but dreaming poorly as he dreamed of  a paper bill that couldn’t have existed. It’s an almost easy ending that allows you to forget how well it just plain old works.

and I’m still trying to decide whether I like it or not. It is a variation on the old “and it was all a dream!” ending that reeks of an author taking the easy way out of a difficult situation. At the same time, Borges isn’t saying all of it was a dream, just the other guy; that everything else was real except the younger Borges was there while dreaming while the older Borges was awake during the conversation. And all of the proof the older Borges has is this dollar bill that was dreamed incorrectly.

At first I didn’t think there was much to it, despite the story being enjoyable. I thought it was just a cute little thing. But the most obvious question soon surfaced: why does the older Borges so stridently believe that he’s not the dreamer? After all, it could just as easily be him that dreamed the incorrect dollar bill and it may be more likely that the dreamer would believe in his reality more than the dreamed.

But there wasn’t much I could do with this until I read the next story, Ulrikke. It’s a story, again about Borges, but about his short affair with a Norwegian woman: Ulrikke. Like The Other, Ulrikke depends greatly on the author’s point of view and the knowledge pre-supposed. Taken together, it seems that memory and perception are focus points for Borges. In either story, the protagonist has a great belief in how they view the world being the correct view. They take assured steps because of this. But I’m not sure either protagonist has great reason to believe this.

The problem I am encountering with Borges is that his fiction is so short, that it is difficult to break one story down into enough, well, stuff to really do anything with. It appears that the only way to mine Borges is to read an entire collection (not necessarily his career collection but one of the individual collections he put out in his life) and to see where the whole goes.  I’ll keep mining.