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Does a short story stand for a micro-novel?

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 5 October 2012


Clive Anderson and Miroslav Penko

Radio presenter Clive Anderson (L) and author Miroslav Penko (R), winner of the BBC Radio 4 International Short Story Award 2012. (Photo courtesy of Issa Pilton)

In previous blogs I have discussed several times that the span of the news, of our attention and of other phenomena in our social life is becoming shoter and shorter.

There's something in literature too which displays this tendency.

Short stories and novellas which could be read 'in one gulp' seem to be in demand again.

Recently I went to a book launch at award-winning Peirene Press, which publishes only novellas and one of the lines of their mission statement says: 'We only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD'.

So when I was invited to the ceremony of the BBC Radio 4 International Short Story Award I was not just happy, but also curious as to what kind of short stories made the shortlist and which particular one would win.

In preparation for the event I listened to all shortlisted stories here; It was pure delight.

From  1990s Belfast in Lucy Caldwell's Escape Routes, told from the point of view of a child, whose friend and babysitter mysteriously goes missing in a besieged city, through Miroslav Penkov's East of the West, set in Bulgaria during and after the Cold War and explores the difficulties of love, relationships and identity, to Henrietta Rose-Innes' Sanctuary - a powerful story which traces an encounter with another family in the South African bush and explores the experience of domestic violence and its consequences - I have travelled the world ridden with conflicts and violence.

Though there is a playful piece by Julian Gough called The iHole which depicts the launch of the latest must-have gadget: a portable black hole with its relevant media hype, marketing, industry competition and consumer mania, satirically taking on technology and consumerism in the 21st century - the majority of the shortlisted stories are about the complicity of inter-human relationships and how family comes first.

In M J Hyland's Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes the adult narrator, who many years down the line still sees his father as somehow culpable for his mother's departure, and tires of his father's dependence on him, is forced to reassess his relationships as it becomes apparent that his wife is leaving him too.

Carrie Tiffany in Before he Left the Family examines the jagged relationship of two brothers and their parents following a painfully wrought divorce; while one brother's loyalty lies with the jilted mother, the narrator finds affinity with his father.

Krys Lee also explores the family relationship in The Goose Father: a man sends his wife and children to America for a better life, while he stays behind in South Korea making a living as an accountant. Concerned with respectability and success, the man's life is set awry when he takes in an endearing young tenant - along with his pet goose.

The other three shortlisted stories are also about human interaction, but they go beyond the protagonist's families.

In the Basement by Adam Ross - is a story perfectly fit for a play script. Two couples meet for dinner and wind up discussing an old friend called Lisa. But their disparaging attitude towards Lisa's lifestyle, choice of husband and treatment of their pet dog, unconsciously reveals more about their own relationships, insecurities, envy and brutality, than it does about Lisa.

Chris Womersley's  A Lovely and Terrible Thing tells a story of a man, who encounters a stranger on the road when his car breaks down. Invited to the stranger's house, he is further enticed by the promise of being let in on the family's secret - a daughter with a miraculous ability. It's an offer the man, who struggles to cope with his own daughter's disability, can't refuse.

And finally Deborah Levy in her short story Black Vodka explores the issue which we put in the centre of our short story written with the contribution from the five continents. In Black Vodka a hunchbacked man goes on a date with the girl of his dreams. A subtle battle between shame and prurience ensues, as the man is crippled by thoughts of his own repugnance, and the girl is only intrigued by his appearance.

After the preparatory work I headed to the award ceremony, where the judges under the chairmanship of Clive Anderson, announced the winner of the competition as Miroslav Penkov with his short story East of the West.

This short story which you can listen to here, like other stories in the competition, is in fact a micro-novel, rather than a short story in the Chekhovian tradition. It's not a single anecdote or a single event around which the narration develops.

Two villages, once united, are now divided by the river and by the state borders after the war, and people on both banks, many of whom are relatives, gather once a year for a sbor - or overnight gathering. Multi-layered relationship not just within families, but also among relatives and now citizens of two states make this short story an epic.

Love and childhood, hatred and old age, traditions and globalisation, identity and loss - all of that finds its own place in the space of eight thousand words.

Yes, the life span of many things around us is getting shorter and shorter, and BBC Radio 4 which not only manages to put into those ever shortening spans the best of literature, but extends the formerly national competition to the international level is worthy of credit. Otherwise the end of that spiralling tendency to ever increasing brevity is oblivion, isn’t it?...

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