shining the spotlight on short story collections
‘In that terrible city which wears you down there are women who know how to make things beautiful, to put grace in simple acts.’
I wanted to buy my dad a book set in Turkey for Christmas. He was just back from a week in Istanbul and was obsessed with all things Turkish. Naturally, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse this my eye as I browsed the bookshop. I’d never heard of Philip Ó Ceallaigh but I stood and read the title story, about an aspiring writer of indeterminate nationality in a town on the Black Sea and his relationship with an Azerbaijani prostitute who reminds him of his Greek ex‑girlfriend. One day the cash machine breaks so he can’t pay her. In fury, she steals the only manuscript of his novel-in-progress; ‘his scribbles,’ she calls them. He leaves town, without the manuscript, which Sabila has thrown away. On the way to the bus station, he glimpses her: ‘Those bouncy little steps she took. I knew she was on business because she was walking very fast, very purposefully. For some reason I felt nothing against her. In fact I admired her.’ As the narrator puts it himself, he gets ‘screwed by a whore’. The story is funny, rueful, full of laconic observations. I was transfixed.
The rest of the stories are just as great. Many have a young man as the narrator. He’s often a writer and a drifter. Mostly he’s paying his way with manual labour. Sometimes he’s European, sometimes not: the narrator of My Life as an Artist is Latin American, working illegally as a gardener in the States. Without polemic, the story captures the melancholy, struggle and hopefulness of recent immigrants: ‘El Chino must have got up as early as we did, poor bastard. Perhaps in a teeming Asian city, as a boy, he had watched his father wash and iron a thousand shirts a day in a hot room filled with boilers and steam, and was glad to have a gas station along a medium-busy road somewhere in America.’
Ó Ceallaigh understands the camaraderie of bad jobs: ‘Luis told us stories about women he had fucked, and someone else talked about a man who had worked for the Company until he lost a toe to a power saw and got twelve thousand dollars compensation, which he drank away until his best friend stole his last three thousand and escaped back to El Salvador. We all agreed the friend did the right thing.’ He renders expertly the lost types you get in these jobs; some are broken, others still buoyed by fantasies: ‘Ramón had a whining voice and looked rather like a eunuch, a man more motivated by belly than balls’; ‘…here was Wild Bill Hickock—after his crazy years of smoking marijuana, fornicating, driving his pick-up truck intoxicated, having minor confrontations with the law—now supervising the labour of illegal immigrants, perhaps even finding them a little exotic, and asking me to teach him Spanish.’
The stories set in Romania—which, despite the title of the collection, is most of them—interested me particularly as it is a country not on the usual British literary map. Ó Ceallaigh has lived in Bucharest for many years and has immersed himself in Romanian culture. From his stories, Romania is a place of timeless countryside, where ‘the only people left were old’, and desperate towns.
This is his description of Moldova Nouă but I get the impression it could be used for most Romanian towns: ‘Homeless children. A couple of Gypsy girls picking clothes from a skip. Four-storey apartment blocks. Hard-faced people. Men with their T-shirts hitched up over their bellies, drinking bottles of beer. Men repairing their cars. Women dressed like it would all fall off tomorrow.’
In Walking to the Danube a man journeys towards the Serbian border along the River Nera, which feeds into the Danube. He camps in fields. Villagers feed him along the way. He gets food poisoning. He keeps walking. Put like this, it doesn’t sound original—after all, there are so many travellers’ tales—but Ó Ceallaigh’s phrases are arresting—the ‘green demonic eyes’ of the goats— and he reveals illuminating actions without any fanfare: ‘[The old woman] had been good to me and I felt like acting holy to please her, so I went down with Andrea to look at the village church.’
Bucharest prods Ó Ceallaigh into compelling toughness. My favourite story was As I Sink Down: a former engineering student now working as a miner ‘since things fell apart’ comes back to visit his ex-girlfriend, who aborted their baby because of their poverty and is now trying to move on. The characters endear themselves by trying to cling onto happiness: ‘In that terrible city which wears you down there are women who know how to make things beautiful, to put grace in simple acts.’ This quote inspired my only criticism of this collection: the idealisation of women and often strict gender divide. Apart from the old women and the whores, most of his female characters are sensible, ultra-feminine beauties who want to pin down the wild, imaginative men. This may be the way things are in Romania or it may be part of his debt to Hemingway. Ó Ceallaigh knows full well that he and his characters are following in Hem’s footsteps; the narrator of Walking to the Danube even says he feels like ‘Nick Adams on big Two-Hearted River’. What I love about Hemingway—relaxed but poised prose and a focus on simple pleasures—is what I loved about Ó Ceallaigh’s collection. But many people, men and women, even women in countries where feminism is not so established, long to wander alone, to disappear into nature and cast off domestic responsibilities and the constrictions of relationships.
Of course, I never did give Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse to my dad. I kept it and read the stories all over Christmas in Horsham with my flu-ridden extended family. I was grateful to Ó Ceallaigh for transporting me somewhere hot, mostly peaceful and different.
Read a story from from The Pleasant Light of Day by Philip Ó Ceallaigh here
About the reviewer: Rowena Macdonald‘s debut collection, Smoked Meat, was published by Flambard Press in 2011. In 2012 it was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize. Rowena lives in east London, teaches creative writing at Westminster University and works at the House of Commons. Her other short stories have been published in many anthologies. Most recently she has been published in the Warwick Review and an anthology from Influx Press, Connecting Nothing with Something and in the near future she will have stories published by Galley Beggar Press and in Unthology 4 (Unthank Books) and Red Room, an anthology inspired by the Brontës in aid of the Brontë Trust (Unthank Books).