Monday, March 5, 2012

Short Story Monday: Hazaran

Archipelago is an online, "international journal of literature, the arts, and opinion" that I was exploring this week. They don't seem to have published an issue since 2007, but the issues that are available are great.

For Short Story Monday this week, I'd like to discuss a short story I read on Archipelago's website: "Hazaran" by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, also known as J.M.G. Le Clézio, a French and Mauritanian writer best known for his interest in indigenous people, social commentary, environmentalism, and mysticism. "Hazaran" was originally published in French in Le Clézio's collection Mondo et Autre Histoires in 1978. The version I read was translated into English recently by Patricia E. Frederick.

In "Hazaran", a poor girl named Alia befriends an old man named Martin who builds his hut away from the rest of the ramshackle slum-like village and doesn't care about money or possessions. He teaches his neighbors and tells magical stories to the children. He fixes household items  in exchange for food, though sometimes goes for days without eating. One day Alia asks him about this practice:
“Why don’t you want to eat sometimes?”
“Because I have to fast,” Martin said.
Alia thought about it.
“What does ‘fast’ mean?”
She added right away:
“Is it like traveling?”
But Martin laughed.
“What a funny idea! No, fasting is when you don’t feel like eating.”
How could you not feel like eating? Alia wondered. No one had ever said anything so strange to her before. Reluctantly, she thought of all the children at the Pier who spent the day looking for something to eat, even if they weren’t hungry. She thought of the ones who robbed supermarkets near the airport or stole fruits and eggs from neighborhood yards.
Martin answered right away as if he had heard what Alia was thinking.
“Have you ever been very thirsty?”
“Yes,” said Alia.
“When you were really thirsty, did you feel like eating?”
She shook her head.
“No, right? You just really felt like drinking. It seemed like you could drink all the water from the pump right then. If anyone gave you a big plate of food at that moment, you would have said no because it was water you needed.”
Martin stopped talking for a minute and smiled.
“Also when you’re very hungry, you wouldn’t want someone to give you a pitcher of water. You would say no, not now, I want to eat first, eat as much as I can and then after, if there’s any room, I’ll drink water.”
“But you don’t eat or drink!” Alia exclaimed.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you, little moon,” Martin said.
“When you fast, it means you don’t feel like having food or water because you really feel like having something else, something more important than eating or drinking.”
“What do you feel like having then?”
“God,” said Martin.

Martin also tells Alia and the other children a story about a poor girl who gains wisdom from the teachings of her animal friends and becomes the princess of a wonderful place called Hazaran. The story gives the children hope that their lives can change, though when that change comes it is not at all what Alia and her friends expect.

"Hazaran" is a very deep, layered story that can also be broken down into a simple parable. It's well worth reading, and I plan to find out what other of Le Clézio's works are available in English translation. I wish my high school French was still good enough to read the pieces in their original language, but I'm sure it's not.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.