Nathan Englander: “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (2010) Wow. While I can’t necessarily say that this is the “best” of the thirty stories I’ve read in this project, it certainly feels like it. This could be because I read it last, with the weight of all the others behind it, or it could be that this is one hell of an amazing short story.
In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” the narrative voice has some character of its own, with turns of phrase that suggest an elderly Israeli (like the characters in the story) speaking English, and with a nice sense of humor. There are smile-inducing, if not quite laugh aloud, moments in this story about the brutal and the grim which make the tale easier to read. So we have Millhauser’s narration as historical account, and perhaps some of lightness of James Thurber in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
The story is told as nested stories, like Russian dolls. We begin with a description of our two protagonists, Professor Tendler and Shimmy Gezer, when both were soldiers fighting for Israel against the Egyptians at a time, the narrator tells us casually, when, due to France’s changing sides, both Israeli and Egyptian soldiers wore identical, French-issued uniforms. Shimmy sits at a mess hall, along with four other soldiers. When Tendler arrives, he sets down his tea (“careful not to spill”) and shoots the four other soldiers in the head. Shimmy, thinking he’s gone mad, tackles his friend Tendler. Tendler explains that these soldiers were Egyptians, that he’s just saved Shimmy’s life. Shimmy pauses, then tackles him again, angry that he killed them instead of taking them prisoner. Something snaps in Tendler, and, instead of warding off Shimmy, he beats his friend within an inch of his life.
This is a story Shimmy tells, with increasing amounts of detailed information as the boy grows, to his son Etgar (named, incidentally, after an Israeli writer friend of Englander’s, whose anecdote inspired this short story). Knowing this story, Etgar never understands why his father is so kind to Tendler, now a professor living in neighborhood, giving him free vegetables from the family’s fruit and veg stand—an act of respect usually reserved for war widows—when this same man beat Shimmy so mercilessly long ago. Once Etgar reaches the age of thirteen, Shimmy sits Etgar down and tells him the story of Tendler during the Second World War, the war about which his father has not spoken, and which no one speaks of, the war in which Shimmy lost his entire family. The story about Tendler that Etgar has not yet heard.
Englander gives us three stories in one: the backstory of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, the framing story of Shimmy and his son Etgar, and the central story told by Shimmy about Professor Tendler during the Second World War. This final story is the most powerful and memorable. In Shimmy’s story, the story-telling voice, which is great for fables and tales of magic, but is not as good at producing tension and thrills, largely due to the subtle filter system of the implied narrator (here, Shimmy) as story-teller interfering (someone telling you about a scary film is less scary than watching the film), miraculously produces the sense of creeping dread, horror, and power that surprised me as a reader, after the light and delicately-handled opening.
At age thirteen, Tendler survived a death camp by hiding beneath the pile of corpses waiting to be incinerated. When the camp was liberated, he emerged from the pile, causing two G.I.s to faint at the sight of a living corpse crawling out of the pile of “balsa wood.” He wound his way back home and found his nanny and her family—husband, two grown sons, infant daughter—there, occupying his family’s home. He is given a royal welcome—a goat is slaughtered rather than a fatted calf—as the returned master of the household. Nature calls and Tendler, while urinating outside the window rather than withdrawing to the outhouse, overhears the nanny and her family plotting to murder him in his sleep, for fear that he will take away the property they now consider their own. Tendler returns to the house, enjoys the feast, and heads up to bed. But he stays awake into the night, until the house is asleep, and then he shoots the entire family, including the infant daughter, so that no one is left to take revenge upon him.
This last section is a brutal rollercoaster of emotions for the reader. It is told coolly, with the distance of Shimmy’s narration, including several pauses that pull us out of the scene, when Shimmy and Etgar discuss something in the story. But the material is so vivid, with images like the skeletal Tendler emerging from the pile of corpses, and the emotions so raw, that we practically beg the nanny’s family to take change their minds, then beg Tendler to escape into the night rather than murder the family, especially the infant who truly cannot be blamed. These voices in our heads are echoed in the discussion between Shimmy and Etgar about the story being told. Shimmy plays devil’s advocate and seems to excuse Tendler for killing the entire family, convincing Etgar of its reasonableness, and then shaming him for ever thinking that any human should feel permitted to take a life. Shimmy never would, and wishes to teach this lesson to his son. But Tendler’s experience as a survivor of the death camp system, which was meant to allow none to survive, cracked him just enough that he has lost the humanized capability of showing mercy, of knowing when to stop, of recognizing that, in the choice between escaping, subduing, or murdering it is better to choose the first two rather than the third.
The story is written with such a deft hand that not a word is out of place, nor a word used too few or too many. It brings up, and chews over, philosophical ideas, which is a hard thing to do in works of fiction. Fiction might prompt philosophical discussion (as does Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”), and non-fiction about philosophy might draw examples from fiction, but for one text to be a work of fiction that includes philosophical discussion (without sounding pretentious or stepping out of the narrative) is a pretty rare feat. The characters are brightly drawn with few adjectives. There is very little “Writing” here, all of Englander’s skills are massaged into place, without anyone hitting you over the head with the fact that a Writer has Written this story (as is the case with the wonderful but Baroque style of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”). The story is as good a psychological profile of those fractured by war and returned to society, having to turn off their emotions or melt down because of them, as I’ve ever read.
The only parallel on this Playlist is Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” interesting to read alongside Englander’s story. The writing styles are similar, employing a light hand to deal with serious issues and creating a surprising amount of tension. In Salinger’s story, our former soldier kills himself, whereas Tendler kills his enemies—but Etgar recognizes how easy it could have been for Tendler to have turned the gun on himself instead. Such material could be heavy and gooey in the wrong hands. Englander makes the tale feel light, airy, sky-etched.