Friday 17 December 2010

The Subtle Art of Telling Stories

From 2003 to 2009, I worked as an English language teacher at a university language centre in Melbourne, and one of my colleagues throughout that time was a genial fellow named Harry Zable.  Harry was born in New Zealand, but emigrated with his family (of Polish-Jewish background) to Australia when he was a kid.  Which is all well and good, you may say, but what has that got to do with literature?  Well, dear reader, Harry has a brother, Arnold, and it turns out that he is a writer, a fairly successful writer at that, and I recently read one of his books for the first time - and it was a cracker...

As the final piece in the Aussie Author Challenge, I decided to look up Arnold Zable in the library database and was able to reserve a copy of Café Scheherazade, a short reflective novel set in St. Kilda, a bohemian coastal suburb in my adopted hometown of Melbourne, and (via memories) in various cities all around the world.  Scheherazade was, of course, the queen who kept herself alive by weaving spellbinding tales for her husband over a thousand-and-one nights, so it is no surprise that this book is centred on stories and the power they have, even decades after they happened.

The titular cafe, located in Acland Street in St. Kilda and run by Avram and Masha, is a meeting place for immigrants from eastern Europe.  They drop by every day to eat, drink, argue, reminisce... In short, the cafe is a social hub for the displaced.  Martin, a journalist, starts coming to the cafe to interview Avram and Masha for a story he is writing, but he is entranced by the never-ending tales they spin and becomes a regular, sipping his coffee while listening to stories and watching the people walk by.  As he gets to know more of the café's patrons, and hears of their incredible histories, he begins to believe that these stories need to be written down, chronicled for future generations, before the old immigrants slowly fade away.

The stories the old men tell have to do with the Second World War - what they did, where they went and how they lived to tell the tale.  Some escaped eastwards through Asia, travelling through Russia, over to Japan, and then on to Shanghai, a neutral haven for a while.  Others hid behind false walls, hoping not to be found by, or betrayed to, the Nazis.  Still others retreated to the forests, surviving as resistance fighters, living each moment as if it was their last.  Each retelling gives a different gloss to the story unfolding, and each time Martin learns a little more of what happened, the more determined he becomes to let other people know.

The most important story though is that of Avram and Masha, and of how Café Scheherazade came to bear its unusual name.  After their various wanderings throughout eastern Europe, the two meet and fall in love, arranging, once the war has finished, to have their first official date in Paris - not under the Eiffel Tower or in front of Notre Dame, but in a café mentioned in a book by Erich Maria Remarque (Arc de Triomphe): Café Scheherazade (guess what my next purchase from the Book Depository is likely to be...).

One of the strong points of this book is the use of language, with different styles used for different functions.  While each chapter begins with a languid, poetic description of St. Kilda, usually with one of the characters making their way through the streets to the café, the dialogue is very different.  Vibrant, colloquial, argumentative, aggressive - the old men (and Masha!) tell their tales in their own inimitable style.  As the conversations are supposed to take place mainly in Yiddish, the writer throws in some Yiddish words and plays around with word order to give the English text a slightly foreign, off-kilter feel.  It definitely works, and the contrast between the descriptive prose and the lively conversation gives greater emphasis to the stories unfolding in the café.

As much as this book is about the tales though, it is also about Melbourne, a city of stories, and end station of sorts for refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world.  Here, standing on the St. Kilda foreshore, staring in the direction (far in the distance) of Antarctica, you can feel that you have reached the end - the end of your journey, the end of the world.  Many people in Melbourne are either immigrants or children of immigrants, and it's easy to believe that these stories exist everywhere.  Every time you enter the supermarket, every time you step onto a (chronically delayed) train, every time you walk into a café: there are people all around you with similar, fascinating, amazing stories to tell, if only you have the time to listen.

We all have stories - maybe I'll tell mine one day (it's a good one), but I'll leave you with one which Zable unfolds in the book in his typically hypnotic style.  You may have been wondering about the journey I mentioned above, where thousands of Polish Jews fled through Asia.  This was because they were able to obtain Japanese transit visas, allowing them to receive travel documents through Russia and escape to the relative safety of Japan and, later, Shanghai.  But why and how did a German ally allow so many Jews to leave Europe and find sanctuary within its borders?  Go to Wikipedia, and look up the name Chiune Sugihara...

Some stories should never be forgotten.