Book Review: Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

 
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It seems that 2017 was my year of reading books from Argentina. From the classic The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares to the beautiful reflection into libraries in Alberto Manguel’s essay collection The Library at Night. In more recent releases there was Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac and of course the much hyped Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. These four books would have been enough to satisfy any reader, but there was one that stood out far more than these, and that was Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez. Translated by Megan McDowell, this collection introduced the English world to a great example of Argentine Gothic; however, this could easily fall into the horror genre.

What made this collection stand out is the way Mariana Enríquez was able to explore issues within Argentina without addressing the history directly. The beauty of using literature instead of journalism was the ability to offer social criticism and personal opinions in a stylised and entertaining way. Here we can read about the gruesome realities that many people live in Buenos Aires. Starting from the opening story “The Dirty Kid” which explores the fear a woman faces living alone in the slums. Not to mention the poverty, drug abuse, gang-related killings and even satanic rituals that surround her every day.  In the translation notes by Megan McDowell she states that “Mariana Enríquez’s stories, Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English speaking world”. There are many of the tropes found in the horror genre including abandoned houses, supernatural elements, and body dismemberment or mutilation. However, it is not these, but the everyday situations that often terrify the reader.

For me, “The Inn” appears of one of the unsung heroes within the collection, it combines a real issue with a bizarre story. This story explores adolescent antics as the girls begin to explore their own sexuality. However, there is the lurking terror of the looming presence of the Alfredo Stroessner soldiers. Enríquez was able to explore the horror of unexpected terror in the time of the Paraguayan dictator. Hinting at the constant state of terror and the clandestine torture centres without mentioning them directly.

Mariana Enríquez has an amazing ability to explore so many issues without mentioning them. I am confident with a better understanding of Argentinian history, Things We Lost in the Fire is a completely different book. Exploring many themes from poverty to the corruption facing the country, but the biggest focus is the treatment of woman. You cannot really talk about this short story collection without spending time talking about the title story “Things We Lost in the Fire”, which explores the idea of women taking control of their own beauty in a rather unique way. The story leaves Silvina in the position to either betray her mother and the Burning Women movement or physically mutilating her own body.

This is the final story in the collection that not only sums up the underlying themes throughout the book but it also leaves you with this feeling that women must often be subjected to a choice where all choices are harmful, leaving her to pick the lesser of two evils. This story is the title story for a reason, if you only read one of the stories make sure it “Things We Lost in the Fire”. However, I do recommend the entire collection. It is a socio-political masterpiece, exploring the horrors and struggles of Argentina and women around the world. If you only read one short story collection in your life, make it Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez.

Things We Lost in the Fire is out now from Portobello Books

 

I was a Teenage Psychopath

 
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In his third published novel, Loner, Whiting award winning author Teddy Wayne offers a glimpse into the mind of college freshman David Federman. Beginning his first semester at Harvard University, David is initially presented as a quirky, innocent protagonist with an adept ability to reverse words in conversation. David becomes immediately infatuated with Veronica Morgan Wells, a beautiful socialite who he feels is far too perfect to ever be interested in a relationship with him. Ever determined to win Veronica's affection however, David begins a relationship with her roommate Sara, setting the pace of a typical, coming of age campus novel in which boy meets girl and spends the entirety of the novel attempting to win her affection.

David's sinister intentions are soon revealed as his obsession with Veronica becomes less amicable and innocent as he begins to openly stalk her, lusting constantly over the idea of her. All the while, Veronica only seems interested in David's affection when she stands to benefit from their interaction, utilizing his naivety and intelligence by having him complete her course work. David does everything he can to assimilate himself into being more like Veronica's boyfriend, one of Harvard's elite and the pinnacle of an alpha male personality which eventually produces one brief sexual encounter between himself and Veronica. She soon cuts all ties with him as he delves deeper into his insanity and becomes more erratic and obsessive. Only when he discovers that their entire relationship had been an experiment by Veronica to explore the differences between relationships with Alpha and Beta male personalities for a final report for a course does David finally break, plunging the novel into a dark and twisted ending that is impossible to look away from.

David is first presented as a socially-awkward teenager attempting to cope with the transitional period between high school and college, but his intelligence and naive charm is so endearing that it is difficult to not feel as if he could be someone you know, a loner from the early years of your academic career who you had dismissed and forgotten. The innocence of dating is exemplified as David forges a relationship with Veronica's roommate Sara which fuels the nostalgia of early sexual experiences that continues to put the reader at ease with David's actions. Although his commitment to Sara is a fallacy, his innocence and inexperience both act as a red herring for his true nature:

We lay on our backs on the narrow mattress, our shoulders but nothing else touching, her body an environmentally friendly space heater. The white-noise machine was, indeed, clamorous; I would never hear anything in your room over it. As it thrummed, our stomachs produced gurgly video game sounds. Neither of us was making a move, two disoriented and jet-lagged travelers stepping off a plane in a foreign country, unsure if we had to go first to customs or the baggage claim.

David becomes the underdog whom I could not help but cheer for as he continues to grow into adulthood, all the while systematically calculating his next move to get closer to his beloved Veronica. The humor embedded within the novel creates a familiar ambiance which acts as a beacon attracting those of us who were, perhaps, slightly flawed in our formative years. Reading David as the hero throughout the beginning of the novel, which is exactly how Wayne sets the tone of the first chapters, unifies our relationship with the character.

The journey of the hero through his coming of age adventure is a welcoming concept, one which turns on blinders for the reader and allows us to lower our defenses and trust in David. The book progresses much like a traditional campus novel, a coming of age saga as David muses on his relationship with Sara and the outcome if he remains complacent in his search for his one true love:

I shuddered to think of the routinized trajectory we were on. If the two of us continued carrying on the habits that constituted our relationship, who's to say we wouldn't end up getting married, moving to Cleveland to be closer to her parents, and siring three children to replicate our family structures as I sentenced myself to a lifetime of buying CVS-brand zinc and date nights in mini-mall Starbucks.

His unsuspecting nature becomes increasingly erratic however, as his lust for Veronica begins to overwhelm him. His early humble attempts at creating no more than a social encounter with her are overshadowed by his now obsessive personality. Wayne begins to plant fear and apprehension into what was once a naive and innocent character, but his expertise is demonstrated in his ability to keep readers invested in the outcome of David's ambitions.

Wayne's calculated prose from the perspective of David moves the reader along through the plot, rapidly forcing us to question the motives of the once innocent narrator we were initially introduced to. As he becomes more possessive over Veronica, the slight idiosyncrasies of an awkward teenage being placed in circumstances far beyond his comfort zone become less endearing. The writing expertly sets the scene as well, allowing Wayne to recreate that fresh, new feel of a first semester away from home with utilizing his mastery in vocabulary while maintaining an approachable and comfortable reading experience. The balance created by the author between the two concepts is a wonderful reading experience. He can capture the nostalgia of the traditional college experience while simultaneously forging a malicious ambiance through a character who resembles a youthful, timid Patrick Bateman.

The novel begins to twist, moving from a comfortable read about a lonely adult who is unable to verbalize his passions to a psychotic diary of a man who is sick with the need for control. David's simple interactions with Veronica begin to create an illusion of a budding relationship, one which he immediately capitalizes upon and forgoes the love and trust of Sara to attempt to become closer to Veronica.

You'd speculated about my romantic personality and you'd now heard me having intercourse. No more measuring out my life with coffee spoons; it was time for a paradigm shift. Breaking up with Sara the morning after sex would be too harsh. And you were still asleep anyway. The real coup would be if you overheard it. Not only would it alert you to our severance, one that I'd initiated, but if Sara became distraught, it might make David from Prufrock look a little dangerous, not so wholesome after all.

He becomes more predatory, following her and waiting to feign coincidence to be near her. Teddy Wayne begins to reveal the truth behind his characters, leaving the reader repulsed that their early investment in David was a misguided mistake woven intricately within the text. Wayne's ability to fool us into trusting his character’s intent is the immediate success of this work. Without an initial investment in David, there is no payout in the end when he breaks and destroys the world which he so carefully created.

To be fair, there are times in the book when Wayne hints that David's obsession is more than just a schoolboy's crush, exemplified by a bizarre series of sexual rituals that force us to question if the character is as naive as first described as well as his immediate arousal at the sight of either pain or fragility. These two traits combined act as red flags, reminding us that although we once trusted David and wished the best for him, his true nature is far darker than anticipated:

In my room, under the covers, I revived my erection and cocooned it inside your bathrobe belt with an opening at the   top. But I didn't want to bring myself to orgasm with it, as I usually did; no, this time I would use a light touch, just enough to sustain the engorging bloodstream, delighting in the tactile sensation and the memory of you on the stairs, extending my priapic ecstasy for hours.

While David continues to slip farther from reality, we are presented with a closer look into Veronica. Although David's opinion of her is polluted by his lust and compulsion to be with her, she is nonetheless presented as a beautiful, but severely flawed character. Coming from a wealthy, upper-Manhattan lifestyle, Veronica seems completely uninterested in intellectual and academic gain while attending Harvard. Not only has she consistently used David to complete the writing for her classes, but she appears to be more interested in a fast-paced party lifestyle rather than her education. Her boyfriend during the beginning of the semester is an iconic example of the Harvard elite, a hyper-masculine alpha male who acts as the complete opposite of David. The three end up at a party together during the year, rocketing David far beyond his comfort zone into a world that is completely foreign, but impressive to him.

This was no sophomoric party in a freshman dorm, with its frenzied frottage of ephebes like so many molecules in a chemical reaction, its deafening Top 40 songs, and its disembodied arms holding out red Solo cups around the keg like baby sparrows squalling for worms. Upperclassmen mingled around button-tufted leather sofas and armchairs as the Kinks played at a soothing volume. Drinks were dispensed at a brass-rail bar. The walls feature framed black-and-white photos of notable alumni and vintage Harvard. In a far corner, the crack of colliding billiard balls periodically sounded from a crimson-velvet table.

Class and gender roles continue to play a pivotal part in this novel. David feels he must embrace the hyper-masculine, aggressive stereotype to impress Veronica. He openly partakes in the use of drugs during the party, attempting to camouflage himself into the environment which he has been dropped into. He is willing to tarnish his reputation with his small social circle and become dominant in his sexual exhortations in order to impress her. He begins to take more risks and publicly denounces Sara in order to become what he believes is the ideal man for Veronica. As he does so, she becomes more distant. We are led to believe she is attempting to avoid him, unsure as to how their relationship is to progress, but Wayne brings the pace of the novel to an abrupt halt with the discovery of Veronica's research.

Veronica has feigned her entire personality this semester, attempting to create romance with both an “Alpha and Beta” male to exploit the transnational nature of relationships. She proves at this point to be the aggressor, using David's trust and sexual inexperience as an experiment for purely academic gain. Only when his behavior become questionable and concerning did she abort the experiment. Every interaction he has had with her has been a rouse, a carefully calculated plan from Veronica, not David as we were being led to believe, to get closer to him.

The choice to flip the stereotypical gender roles of a campus novel and allow Veronica to be proven as the sexual aggressor for the sake of experimentation and academic triumph is genius. I was stricken with anticipation as the progress of the novel was brought to a screeching halt, foiling David's reckless behavior. I felt satisfied with what Wayne had presented at this point, believing that the novel would conclude with the image of a broken-hearted loner attempting to learn from his mistakes and move past his obsession, a major life-lesson definitive of a coming of age story, however Wayne's brutal crusade had not concluded. David's true character is revealed as a heartless, criminal mastermind who successfully achieves his intentions by forcing himself upon Veronica in a grotesque, horror-movie ending leaving me disgusted but unable to stop reading. David plants himself in Veronica's room and waits patiently until she is most vulnerable before he attacks. Systematically narrating his actions like he has throughout the novel, they have never been more terrifying as begins to sexual assault Veronica. It is only through innocent Sara that she is saved, leading to the arrest of David and the final soliloquy from our narrator.

But the true terror of the novel comes from the final paragraph, in which you are reminded that although David had become a monster in the most notorious scandal that had ever ruptured the sacred halls of Harvard, he remains unknown to onlookers. Narrating once more, David comments that someone would look upon him being placed in the police car and all they will now is his name and that he was a bit of a loner, nothing more and nothing less.  The terror of ambiguity reminds us that David is a very real person, a realistic danger lurking just outside our social circles.

Teddy Wayne was able to seduce my goodwill and fool me into trusting and believing in the severely damaged David. A thriller of plot twists culminating in a grotesque and brutal display of coveted obsession, Loner explores the dark regions of the human condition through an unreliable narrator who you cannot help but fall in love with, much to your dismay after the conclusion of the novel. Through a willingness to write about taboo subjects from the perspective of a deranged sociopath, Wayne has created a haunting, gut-punching novel in which the reader is left wondering if they too have known a David Federman in their lifetime. No matter how horrific the events of the novel were, the real fear embedded by Wayne is the fear of the unknown, that anyone could be the loner we see in the back of the squad car.

Loner by Teddy Wayne was published by Simon & Schuster

Dalton Gentry is a writer from Saint Joseph, Missouri with a bachelor's degree in Literature from Missouri Western State University. His previous work can be found in Open Letters Monthly and Black Orchid Poetry.

 

The Fairy’s Ring

A Short Story by Johnny O'Brien

The soft sound of the hissing rain all around him filled his ears.  The night was dark and wet, but he knew he was getting close to the cave.  He could feel it in his bones, in his soul.  He paused under a tree to wipe some of the rain from his face and forehead and shake drop from his unkempt hair.  The man was a picture of a turn of bad luck.  His clothing had obviously once been fine, yet now was torn and dirty.  Much like the man who wore them, they were a shadow of their former self.  He was thin and haggard looking and his clothing, cinched around the waist with a common length of hemp rope, had been made for a man a few sizes larger.  He shuddered and pushed off from the tree, drenched immediately again as he emerged into the downpour.  He cursed the Goddess as he stumbled along, looking for the mouth of the cave that would lead to his freedom.  At least he hoped it would.  She was his only hope now, short of going to the Goddess who he had just called to the lowest.  With as much as he had cursed her during the months of his torture, he knew he had no chance of her help.  She was his only hope…and that made him shiver more than the cold rain did, with its hint of winter in it.

He pushed through brush and up against tree and rock as he searched through the dark gloom of the night.  It would be around here somewhere.  It was only a matter of time before he found it.  Her cave was known to be somewhere upon this mountain and he had been looking for two days now.  He had to be close…he had run out of food and water was being gotten from any stream or brook he came across.  He had to be close to her cave or he’d end up dying before he got any help.  That would be just like his life to end that way.  He stumbled suddenly, almost falling to the forest ground before he caught himself on a tree.  He sunk to the ground, as tears began to leak from his eyes to join the rainwater sliding down from his hair.  He lifted his hands to scrub at his eyes and scowled.  Damn the fae….how dare they do this to him.  He was a rich man and a pillar of the community back at his home.  He had wealth and power and influence!  It simply wasn’t fair that this happened to him!  He had done nothing to deserve this!

“You lie.  You lie.  It’s plain as the sky,” a soft, sing-song voice piped up out of the darkness around him.  He choked on a sob that welled up in his throat and grabbed for a stone from the ground and flung it out into the darkness.  He threw more stones into the night until he slipped and fell onto his side while reaching for a stone.  He lay there for a time before he got up slowly to his feet.  He felt so very weak these days and he knew why he did.  It was the ring.  It was sucking the life out of him day by day.  He had been bigger than this, more healthy and better off.  He had been a famous merchant, traveling all over to sell his wares to people high and low alike.  He even had begun to sell to the fae.  That had been his greatest mistake, for he had given them the chance to curse him like they had.  He could remember that day still, as if he would ever forget it.

It had taken him months to find the proper place and time with which he could meet with the fae.  And months more to make sure he had just the right items to sell to them, that they would want.  He had brought three full wagon loads to the standing stones and by the time the night was over most of it was sold or traded for other goods which the fae seemed to have brought with them or simply produced out of thin air.  He had found the fae to be as mysterious and other-worldly as he had expected.  They had passed over the small but expensive collection of jewelry and instead bought every bolt of cloth he had brought, whether it was wool or silk.  The fruit and the vegetables were bought up quickly as well.  As were the small toys for children and the copper cookware.  In return he had received gold and silver and jewels as pure as morning dew.  And the leader of the fae, the one they called the Prince, spoke to him privately when it was all over and the fae were preparing to leave.

“You have dealt with us fairly and honestly, Master Merchant, and for such a gift we give you this gift in return, so that you may remember this day and all it has given you,” the Prince had said and placed into his hand a small ring of beaten gold and amethyst stones.  It was clearly for a man’s hand, if slightly delicate looking.  He had thanked the Prince that day and placed the ring upon his finger, and watched them fae leave back to their world.  Then he had gathered up his men and his wagons and went home with his new riches, more than he had ever had before.

The ring still sat upon his finger, glinting in the darkness with an unnatural light of its own.  A gift he had called it, but it was really a curse!  They had cursed him to lose all he had gained and not only from them but in his life entire.  It was the only explanation for what had happened after he had gotten home.  He had paid his men off for their work guarding his caravan and listened to their complaints.  Saying he had claimed that they would be paid more for their guard work.  He had explained to them that is was conditional after all.  The fae hadn’t been a threat, so he didn’t need them so much; therefore they were paid slightly less.  He should have realized the sudden tight feeling of that ring on his finger was the curse taking hold.  He had ignored it, however, and thought it was nothing.  He had gone home and showered his wife and children with the new wealth he had acquired.

He had taken a few days off before going back to his business.  The ring had gotten tighter and tighter after he had returned to his business.  The more he sold the tighter it became.  He ignored the discomfort as best he could and by the end of the day it had gone away.  By the next morning he had put it out of his mind and returned to work.  By the midpoint of the day, however, the curse placed upon him had revealed itself completely.  During a sale he was making to a young nobleman the ring had piped up in its sing-song voice and told the young man that he was being lied to.  He had tried to salvage things by smoothing the young man’s ruffled ego yet the ring had piped up again and the nobleman had stalked out of his store.  And that was only the beginning of it all.  He had tried to remove the ring but it was stuck tight to his finger and wouldn’t come off.  He had tried lard and grease from his wagon’s axles but it wouldn’t come off.

He had tried to run his business but the ring continued to demonstrate its curse over him.  His business began to fail as people stopped going to him at all.  His savings were slowly used up as his business fell on hard times and his family began to look at him differently as well because of it.  He went abroad to seek out magical help to remove the curse.  He went to witches and wizards and paid what they asked for to remove the ring but none could help him.  He had finally returned home one day to find he had no home.  His wife had sold his home and business while he was away and left with the children.  Probably back to her mother’s home, he was sure.  Thus it was that began his true misery under this terrible curse.  He could not remember a single day of that time, clear and to itself.  Instead it was as if the days bled into each other and became one long period of torture he was being forced to endure.

He was no longer sure of the passage of days but he thought it wasn’t too long past the annual day of Samhain.  He stopped to catch his breath in the darkness and came to lean against a rough rock face, sticking up from the mountain side, taller than even his impressive height.  He thought it had been some while over a year in time since he had lost everything.  He had been reduced to begging for money and food and hoarding the money like the worst of misers.  He would spend it on anyone who could have magic and help him.  Magicians and witches and those whom it was claimed had fae blood within their veins.  He knew that it would take magic to remove the ring from his finger and so he searched far and wide for someone to help him.  All of it had been for naught, for no one could help him, even though they took his money readily enough.  He had been to almost every source of magic in search of help for his curse and none had been able to.  Though many had mentioned the one he now sought.  She was a fae, like the ones who cursed him and a powerful one at that.  She would help any who sought her aid, for good or ill, yet the price she charged was always high, and always higher than you thought it was.

Where was The Blue Hag?  Why wasn’t she easier to find?  He knew the answers to those questions lay within the questions themselves, but he had to find her.  He had to beg her to remove this cursed ring at any price.  It didn’t matter the price he had to pay as long as the ring was taken off.  “You lie.  You lie.  It’s as plain as the sky.”  The ring piped up in its singing voice once more to him.  Before he could respond with an invective to the piece of jewelry another voice, raw and coarse cut through the night from above him.  “Lie!  Lie!  Die!  Die!”  He stumbled back away from the sheer facet of the mountain side and looked up, searching for the voice’s origin.  There seemed to be nothing there but the night.  He heard the flapping of wings for a soft moment and whirled around.  Nothing but the dark forms of trees and rocks greeted his eyes.  A shriek suddenly pierced the air and he spun back to face it and found a rectangular opening in the rock face, spilling out light from within and a hunched form standing within the doorway.  The form was shadowed, standing as it was in front of the light of a pair of burning torches within the mountain tunnel.  It held a staff in one hand that it leaned on for support and its robes were tattered and old, yet the colors of white and blue could still be see on them.

“What is it you want here on my mountain!?  Speak up boy; I haven’t got all night to jabber at you.”  The creature spoke, its voice coming hoarse and ragged, yet distinctly female underneath it all.  A dark formed flapped down from the night sky and landed on her shoulder cawing the word ‘lie’ over and over until she snapped at it to be silent.  This was the Blue Hag.  This was Cailleac Bhuer.   If anyone upon this world could help him break the curse he had upon him it was her.  He moved slowly forwards until he was closer to her, though he then wanted to recoil in horror.  She was the ugliest creature he had even laid eyes upon.  Her hair was stringy and white and one of her eyes was covered in a yellowish film.  Her other eye was good and so sharp and clear he felt naked under its penetrating gaze.  Her staff was made of holly and topped with the skull of a carrion crow, much like from the same bird that perched now upon her shoulder.

“Cailleac Bhuer…I beg of you for help.  I have been living in misery for a long time now because of the actions of a group of the fae.  They have placed a curse upon me.”  “You lie.  You lie.  It’s as plain as the sky.”  “You see?  Because of this ring I have lost all that I had.  My wealth…my status….my family, all of them is gone from me forever.  I beg of you Cailleac Bhuer.  Please help me remove this ring.” He spoke to her with a tremble in his voice…from desperation or from fear even he could not say for both feelings rode high in him now.  The Blue Hag stood in silence watching him with her eyes, both of which he was sure now saw him even though one looked to be blind and useless.  Finally she turned and started to hobble down the tunnel away from him even as she spoke to him over her shoulder.  “Come in and close the door behind you.  I’ll not waste my heat on the outdoors, not when winter is coming to the lands so soon.”

He rose up unsteadily, feeling dizzy with relief or lack of food and stumbled into the tunnel.  The door was rock upon outside it seemed and wood on the inside.  It closed with a shriek of rusty protesting hinges and locked securely once closed.  He turned then and moved after The Blue Hag as she walked down the torch lit tunnel.  A cool draft told him that the place had air holes somewhere within it, even if he could not see it.  He had lost sight of her while he closed the door yet the tunnel had no branches leading off it so there was only one way he could travel.  He stumbled and walked down that tunnel in silence but for the crunch of his boots upon the stone and sand floor.  He finally arrived in a large circular cavern of a room as big as a small house.  Shelves had been carved into the walls themselves and a few wooden pieces of furniture gave the place a lived in feel.  A large cauldron made of some metal sat nestled among a roaring bonfire and the smells coming from it made his mouth water.

The Blue Hag was rooting around in a shelf and removed a glass jar from it.  Within was contained a large purplish colored organ, a liver most likely of some animal.  She threw it whole into the large cauldron before she replaced the jar on the stone shelf and looked to him.  In the light of the room she looked even more hideous than he had thought.  She paused to spit into her cauldron as she hobbled past towards him and snatched up his hand within one of her gnarled and withered hands.  She peered intently at the ring for a long time, turning his hand over for a while to look at the ring…or maybe it was his palm she looked at.  Finally she let go and he cradled the hand back to him and looked to her, swallowing the fear and the revulsion he felt just looking at her.

“You’ve been dealing with the Seelie Court.  They don’t go around cursing people, boy.  You’ve got what happened all turned around in your mind.  I can understand why it seems like a curse to you however.  This ring was given to you to help you abstain from lying.  Every time you lie it will tell everyone around about it.  The reason it won’t come off is because you had a grace period.  There were a number of days where all it did was tighten around your finger when you lied, until it became too tight to come off.  Typical human foolishness if you ask me.  Alright then boy, bring that hand over here to my table and we’ll get that ring off you.”  The Blue Hag turned and hobbled back to the table.  She leaned her staff against a wall and he followed her to the table as she rummaged in a small wooden box which rested on one of the shelves.  She turned around to face him, a large meat cleaver grasped in one of her bony hands.

“No.  I don’t want my hand cut off!!  Please…Cailleac Bhuer…anything but that!  I’ll pay any price…but I don’t wish to lose my hand.  Please, any price but that!”  He begged her and saw her eyes narrow sharply as she regarded him with an unimpressed expression.  Her good eye looked like a tiny diamond glittering in the depths of her craggy face.  She spat on the floor and slammed the cleaver down into the table where it stuck.  He flinched as she did that and stepped back as she approached and snatched up his hand once again, looking at the ring.  After a short while she thrust it away from her and looked to him closely.  “Are you sure you wish to pay the price for removing the ring this way?  It will be high to pay and I will expect you to pay it in full before I remove that ring.” She spoke and her voice was as chill as a new winter day.

“Yes Cailleac Bhuer, I will pay your price.  If you will remove the ring without taking my hand off to do it I shall pay your price in full!”  He said, relief flooding him…she could remove the ring.  He was finally going to be free of his curse.  Free to live his life once again.  Cailleac Bhuer frowned up at him and muttered something about “not listening” as she turned around and hobbled over to her staff grasping it up.  She held her staff up and over her cauldron and the fires burned brighter and hotter, changing color from red and orange to blue and green.  She chanted in a strange musical language, her voice seeming to lose its ragged roughness and rise above the mountain and the sky itself.  It soared from her lips with a crystal beauty that awed him to his very soul.  She swung the staff around and struck the side of her cauldron three times.  Each time the cauldron sounded like a huge great funeral bell, ringing out the mourning of those who lived while a loved one has passed on.

“Done, Done and Done!  Three times done and the deal is sealed!  For three years and three days you shall work for me.  You shall fetch and carry firewood.  You shall hunt for me, cook for me, clean for me.  All this you shall do and you shall serve me in whatever ways I request of you.  At the end of the three years and three days, I shall remove the ring from your finger and you shall then be free to leave.”  She spoke to him as the fire returned to its original hues and she rested her staff upon the floor.  His knees ceased to support him and he found himself falling to the floor.  Darkness encroached around him as his body simply took a much needed break from the days of no food and little rest.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Be careful with that you fool of a man.  Set it down, carefully, in the basin.  If it breaks open in your hands what is inside will eat you alive before I can stop it.  Gently now…set it in the basin gently.  Good, now stand back”, his mistress snapped at him, as she always did, and he obeyed as he had always done.  The egg he had placed in the basin was the egg of a salamander.  One which was without a mother any longer so his mistress took the egg in for whatever her reasons.  He was still unsure if she would eat it or raise it for the chances were equal for either choice.  He watched carefully as she laid some kind of magic around the egg and with a gesture a burning fire filled the basin and surrounded the egg.  She turned away from it, grabbing her staff from where it rested against the table and hobbled over her cauldron and tasted what was cooking inside with her large wooden spoon.

He had learned what she cooked in that pot and he had been violently ill all over the floor at the knowledge.  He had gotten used to the smell these days…it hardly bothered him at all to know she ate humans…or fae if the craving took her for some of her own kin.  He had even hunted down humans for her upon the mountainside, killing them and dragging them back to her cave for her.  He was more fit now than he had been when he first arrived.  He looked like a completely different man however.  His experiences here and before he came here had marked him.  Had made him different than the easy life he knew before.

“Has the sun set yet, boy?” Her voice came to him, sounding curiously casual to him.  He told her it had set a few hours ago and he thought to himself that she should know that.  She knew so very much about the world that the rising and setting of the sun was a minor thing for her to know without seeing.  She nodded and hung the spoon up on its hook, looking to him with a pensive expression on her face.  She stared at him and he simply watched her back and waited for her to speak.  “Come here boy.  Give me your hand.  Your time is up and I shall remove your ring now.”

He blinked staring at her in confusion for a brief moment before his memories supplied what she spoke of.  He looked down to the ring around his finger and then to her.  Three years and three days…it had seemed so much longer, or shorter depending on when he thought of it.  But the time was finally over.  He allowed himself a small tremulous smile as he walked over and held out his hand to her.  He had seen her work magic so powerful that it made him shudder in horror to see it performed and now she would perform magic for him and remove the ring.  Perform magic of the price that he had paid for three years and three days.  She rested her staff in the crook of her arm and reached her hands out, one taking hold of his wrist and the other taking hold of the ring.  She paused for a moment and looked him in the eye and then she pulled the ring off his finger and let his wrist go.  She tucked the small ring into her pocket and removed her staff from the crook of her arm, to lean upon it again.

“Mistress…I don’t…I don’t understand.  I thought…”  He trailed off as he looked at her bemused expression.  She turned and hobbled back to her cauldron and looked into its depths.  “Of course you don’t understand boy.  You thought I would use powerful magic to remove that ring from you.  I told you years ago when you first came here.  It was not a cursed ring.  It simply was a ring to help you prevent yourself from lying.  You have lied to yourself and to others every day since receiving that ring.  For one year and one day you lied.  You reap what you sow, so says the Goddess.  You sowed bad tidings for yourself with those lies.  You needed only to spend the proper amount of time to repay those lies with truths.  If you do evil to others you will receive it back threefold.  If you do well to others you will receive it back threefold.  To repay the time of lies you spent, you had to spend threefold it in a time of truth.  Then the ring would come off.  You have done that here, boy, and so the ring is now off your finger.  You are free to leave now and return to your world and your life.  Try and make a better one this time around.”  She spoke with a small hint of kindness in her voice and didn’t raise her head to watch as he uncertainly turned and headed for the entrance of her cave.

He had traveled the length of this tunnel countless times to leave on errands for her and yet now he was walking it for the last time.  He kept pausing and staring back over his shoulder to see if she was there watching him, but she wasn’t.  He reached the door and pulled on the beam, pulling back the door on its rusty hinges.  He stood then looking out at the moonlit mountain side spreading down before him.  The dark, shadowed shape of the trees and rocks spread out like a blanket before him all the way down to where the lights of the small town near the base of the mountain sat.  He was free now to return to the world out there.  He looked down to the hand that had bore the ring for so many years.  His skin was white underneath it, untouched by time and the elements.  He rubbed that spot where it had been and looked once more to the world outside that cave.  He shut the door and relocked it before he turned and headed back towards the cavern and to his mistress.  He had paid her price and it was higher than he thought it would be.  He had paid a price in time and the world beyond had no place for him any longer.  He knew he would never be able to rejoin it.  His time had been paid here, with his mistress and he knew he had to remain or he would be lost again.

He entered the room and looked about, finding that his mistress was gone somewhere for the time being.  Her cauldron and the basin with the egg in it still burned merrily but the rest of the room was silent and empty except for him.  He approached the basin and looked at the egg glowing now within the flames.  He turned and walked across the room to where his bedding lay upon the floor.  He sat down there upon the bedding to wait for her to return.  He glanced to his small pillow and blinked at the sight of his ring sitting there upon it.  He looked around the room, half expecting to see his mistress’ wry face grinning at him from across the room, but she was not there.  He picked up the ring from its cushion and held it up before him.  Gold and amethyst glimmered back at him as the firelight played across it.  Without a word he placed the ring back on his finger, the golden and gem-stoned band covering the white patch of skin.  He looked down at his hand with the ring upon it.  It was as if it was meant to be there.  He leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes, waiting for his mistress to return.  He was free to choose his life again, but this was the life he chose.

 

~Fin~

 

Bio

John O'Brien is a Canadian who spends a large majority of his free time getting lost in fictional worlds, or dreaming them up himself, when he's not making videos as a hobby.

Question Time

1. What, to you, is the story about?
To me, the story is about the trouble that can arise because of a lack of understanding or communication, either on the speaking end or the listening end.  In this story it is definitely the fault of the listener, the protagonist.

2. What is the plot?
The plot is that a merchant, once successful and influential, receives a magic ring from the Seelie Court of the fae in return for his fair dealings with them.  After returning home, the ring refuses to come off and begins to speak everytime he lies, telling everyone around that he is.  He slowly loses everything he had valued in life, either because of the ring or because of his spending resources to try and get it removed.  Finally, destitute and desperate, he seeks out the fabeled Blue Hag for her help.  She agrees to help him in exchange for years of servitude.  When he has served his time, she removes the ring and he is free to go but he chooses to remain.

3. Can you explain the ending?
The ending has the merchant getting what he asked for.  The ring is removed without him losing his hand (which would have been the easier but more painful way) but the cost to him was higher than he first thought.  He's been away from the world, all of humanity in fact, for a little over three years.  When he has the opportunity to leave, he chooses not to because he doesn't have a place in the world anymore...but he does have a place with the Blue Hag.  He chooses to put the ring back on because his time spent serving the Blue Hag was a time spent living in truth to himself.  He no longer sees the ring as cursed and understands and has come to peace with the fact it was his own fault.

4. Who are the characters?
There are really only two characters in this story.  The Merchant, who is nameless because I didn't feel he needed a name in order for his character to be portrayed.  The other character is Cailleac Bheur, the Blue Hag, a mythical fae type creature from Irish/Gaelic mythology.

5. What were your influences writing this short story? Were you influenced by philosophy, literature, author(s), life, music, etc...?
My influences writing this story kind of is fantasy literature and mythology but for the most part this story came about because I was taking part in a casual writing challenge where we were given a prompt to write a story about and the prompt I was given was "fairy ring" and instead of writing about the circle of toadstools that bears that moniker, I decided to take it literally and write about a ring belonging to a fairy and it just kind of flowed out from that point.

6. What are your intentions with writing this story?
Mostly my intentions with writing this story was just to write...as a creative outlet.

   a) Are you wanting to expand the short story into a longer work?
    I am not intending this story to be expanded into a longer work, no.

   b) Were you wanting to write a shorty story about a man and his struggles
    I think this story is less about a man an his struggles and more about how sometimes the struggles in your life are put there by yourself without you realizing it at the time.

   c) How are you wanting the audience to feel after finishing your story?
    I would hope that the readers would be feeling pensive and introspective after reading it.

7. Do you feel the story had an appropriate resolution/ending?
I have always been happy with the ending to this story so yes I think it did.

8. Similar to question 1, what are you trying to convey in the story?
I think what I'm trying to convey in this story is the need to listen, to communicate properly with those around you, to pay attention to signs that something might be wrong and that you may well be your own worst enemy.  I suppose that it is kind of a tale of hubris bringing someone low.

Boys Without God

A Short Story by Luis Del Angel


We were sitting on Dominique’s porch swing that overlooked her neighborhood. I looked straight ahead inspecting the houses around us. They all looked the same. If they weren’t all colored differently, every time I’d visit I’d probably have to knock on two other houses before I got to hers.

    I looked at Dominique out of the corner of my eyes. She was beautiful. Her black hair cascaded down ending with loose curls just a little past her shoulders and her bangs covered her eyebrows. The porch light was off and we were poorly lit by the streetlights which casted shadows on her face that hid the true potential of her blue eyes and pale skin that would have otherwise taken your breath away. It was as if I were not worthy to admire how angelic she could truly look.

    Dominique wrapped her hand around the neck of the beer bottle, bringing the tip to her lips then she tilted it slightly. Her throat danced as she swallowed the liquid. She passed me the bottle that was now half empty.

     “So…” She wiped her lips with the sleeve of her sweater. “He’s dead?”

     I turned my head to look at her then took a couple of small sips from the bottle.

    “Yes.” I said. It was a simple answer because I did not want to tell her how it had happened. I wonder if it would have been easier on me to explain it to her if he had died of natural causes. But to tell her it happened while he was driving intoxicated was different, or at least I felt it was. I could still see the pictures in my head that were posted in a Mexican news website of Santiago’s body. He had been driving dangerously fast which probably made him feel immortal. His car had crashed with a concrete lamp post and he had gone through his windshield. His body laid on the hood of his car with his arms outstretched and pieces of glass from the windshield that had managed to penetrate the skin of his forehead, his final resting place.

     “In a car crash.” I finally said as I passed the bottle back to her. No more explanations and it was clear that she didn’t need any. I spoke plainly like if I were talking about something that had happened to a total stranger.

      “Where?”

     “Across the border in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico… That’s where he spent his weekends with his family.”

     Dominique stroked a strand of her hair behind her ear and she went on, “We had just seen him last week…” Suddenly her eyes turned red and misty. Tears rolled down her cheeks, leaving a wet glistening trail. I pressed my hands on her soft cheeks, using my thumbs to wipe under her eyes.

    “You hardly knew him.”  I said. It upset me that even though she had only meet him a few times, she was already crying yet I who had known him for seven years had yet to shed a single tear.

    She squinted her eyes, giving me her stare of disapproval. “Whenever we saw him on campus he was so sweet and nice.”

     “He was flirting with you. It was kind of gross because he did it despite me being there.”

     “Just because he was nice doesn’t mean he was flirting.”

     “Trust me he was. He was loud, obnoxious and annoying. He was always bragging about his sexual conquests, and he would proudly proclaim if he had gotten a girl to cheat on her boyfriend. Back in High school, out of nowhere he honked Stephanie’s boobs. She reported him, but of course the administration didn’t do anything to him. I'm not a lawyer or anything but I think that’s sexual harassment. She didn’t talk to him after that, but now she’s posting how sad she is and how much she’s going to miss him.”

     She rolled her eyes. “It’s what people do though. The alternative would be trashing his memory and that would be so horrible…”

    “I know…I know…”

    “You know?” Then she added, “You’re being horrible.”

    I had to think about it for a while, but all I could think about where people’s comments saying how they ‘just knew’ that he was dancing with God and how he had gone to a happy place. All I could think about was how he had probably ceased to exist the moment his car meet the concrete lamp post. I felt horrible that I didn’t feel sad, but mostly shocked that someone I had known and spend time with was dead and he was probably rotting away in some morgue as we spoke. That made me so delicate and empty. I wonder if his kid brother understood was going on or maybe he didn't and was still expecting him to come back. That thought didn't make me sad so I cried.

    Dominique’s face was now filled with compassion replacing her cold stare. She wrapped her arm around my shoulders. Burying her forehead against the side of my head. She spoke softly against my ear.

    “So you are sad?” Sometimes she was good at knowing what I was feeling, but this time she was off. She was a compassionate person filled with emotions and she did not get my lack of emotions.

     “No.”

     “Then what’s making you cry?”

     I sniffled.

    “Everything.” I lied. I didn’t feel comfortable telling her that nothing made me feel sad. She pressed her lips against mine and through the compassion of her kiss I felt forgiven for feeling nothing, but I knew it wasn’t so. She began to cry with me.

            I had mentioned to Dominique that I had to dig through a ton of his Mother’s posts about their GoFundme page to find some actual information about the funeral service. I only told her that to point out the hypocrisy. She insisted that we should attend.

 “This will only take out a small portion of your time.” She said and I finally gave in. Four days later, Dominique and I were on our way across the border to Mexico to attend Santiago’s funeral service. She had her legs resting on the dashboard of my car. She was reading a paperback book while nibbling on the skin of her thumb. Without looking away from the book she asked me, “James, Is this your first funeral?”

“Yes. What about you?”

“It’s mine too.”

“Really? I thought you told me your Grandfather died.”

“Well yes, but I didn’t go to his funeral. He died on a Thursday evening and the funeral was that Saturday. Since it was spring break my dad had taken me and my sister to a weekend camping trip that Thursday morning. We were really excited, we had been planning it for months. So my mom told my dad that he should let us enjoy our trip and not tell us anything.” She had closed the book and looked out the window. She sighed. “My mom didn’t think it would be “healthy” for us to go the funeral. In hindsight I should have realized my dad was acting weird, but I was just having so much fun.”

 “When did you find out?”

“On Sunday, right when we were coming back home. We were ten minutes away and Dad pulls over and tells us. I remember that I started to cry then I opened my mouth but no sound came out. I guess my voice finally reached my mouth and I started to wail like a baby. Then my dad just hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay.”

“And was it?”

“Was it what” She looked away from the window. She reached into her purse to pull out her sunglasses which she put on then looked at me.

“Was everything okay?”

“Of course. He had been sick for a bit, so he went on to a better place.”

She had never told me that before. Her voice was very alluring and sweet, almost hypnotic and I enjoyed listening to her. It made me feel closer to her. She trusted me with her feelings, so why couldn’t I?

We arrived to the church a few minutes late and it was already packed so we sat at the back where a few of my friends had saved us a seat. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t stalled. I had tried to stall as best as I could. Taking the long way, saying I needed to go the bathroom, etc. Anything to get there late or avoid it entirely but we got there just in time to speed past the priest who was about to walk down the aisle.

     I fidgeted on my seat, my left leg shaking slightly. I looked around the small community church that was packed with people some were my old high school friends, others people I recognized from our college, the rest family members and friends of the family. Everyone, if not

crying, had red and moist eyed. It was a shame that this was my first experience with death. In some ways I had hoped that the first death I experienced would be symbolic. This was not symbolic, no matter how much Dominique, who already experienced a death in her family, wanted it to be for me.

     In front of the altar, was a large picture of Santiago dressed in a suit and besides it a closed casket. It made me sick. I couldn’t even get lost in my thoughts because either the Priest was talking or the mariachis were loudly playing hymns. Every church I seemed to go to was always too loud.

    “I have to go the restroom.” I whispered to Dominique.

   “Again?” She eyed me suspiciously. “Okay. Just don’t stall.”

    I nodded and made my way to the restroom. Next to the restroom area there was a glass door labelled ‘Prayer Room’, which was covered in a red drape.  I entered out of curiosity. Inside there was a prayer desk facing a statue of the sacred heart of Jesus Christ which was gilded completely in gold and was surrounded by floor arrangements and white candles. I approached the prayer desk and then knelt down on the padded kneeler. I put my hands together and rested them on the worn out padded armrest. I closed my eyes softly.

I said the Lord’s Prayer softly under my breath. I was taught in bible school to say it before praying so that God would know you were trying to talk to him. I would say the prayer in a certain flow and speed, if I was distracted and lost track of the flow, I would have to start over again. Since the music could still be heard through the walls, I was unable to focus. I tried to say the prayer a couple of more times but to no avail. I sighed and apologized to God, telling him I would learn better next time. Then I proceeded to pray my prayer. It was always the same thing:

“Jesus Christ, I pray that you bless my mom, my dad and my brother as well as Dominique. And that you protect my grandmother and grandfather. I pray that you keep my aunts, cousins and uncles in the path of light and goodness. I hope you tell your Father...or well yourself to keep them all safe. I pray for this to you, Amen.”

“Oh, yeah,” I added, “Also for Santiago's little brother, give him the strength to survive this turmoil.”

My eyes remained closed as I took a couple of deep breaths. My grandmother once told me that when she prayed hard enough she could feel the warmth of God’s grace. I hadn’t understood what she meant and I still don’t. In that moment, I felt nothing except the cold chill caused by the air conditioning. There was no moment of enlightenment that would show me that everything was going to be okay or an embracing touch that would tell me I was loved unconditionally. Anything that would make me feel sad or make me cry, so that I could feel what the people were feeling out there.

“Your child is lost, God. Where are you?” I laughed slightly and shook my head. I wondered whether God had moved on and forgotten about his creations leaving us to wills of evolution and our own demises or if I had simply forgotten him and he no longer deemed me worthy.

I formed my right hand into a fast and pressed it a couple of times against the open palm of my left hand. I got up from the prayer deck and left the room. Then without looking back, I walked out of the church. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and the air was chilly. I took in a deep breath. The bar or La Cantina I frequented was just a couple of blocks away and I decided to walk over there.

    La Cantina was a small place with just enough room to fit six booths and a dozen small tables, but large enough for the bar to be able to host twelve stools. It was a noon on Wednesday, the place was unsurprisingly empty except a man wearing a suit was asleep on a booth and another one sat at a table drinking a large glass of beer. I liked it here was because it always seemed to be quiet, even when it got loud. As I made my way to the bar, I patted the back of the man drinking a beer.

     “Salud.”

     “Salud,” I responded. I went to sit on one of the twelve stools.   

    The owner of La Cantina was behind the bar. He was a chunky man with tan skin and a wide smile that bore crooked yellowing teeth. He smiled when he saw me and asked me the same question he always asked me. I heard him ask it as if it were the first time I was hearing him. “Jaime, what will you be having today.” His accent was thick and heavy. He had gone to a university in Texas, but I never bothered to ask which one just like I never bothered to ask him why an educated man like him opens up a bar in a border town.

    “Scotch on the rocks.” I said like every other time before. He nodded as if it were the first time he had heard me pick that drink. He got a glass from under the bar and raised it up above his eye level before placing it in front of me. He put three chunky ice cubes in the glass that clinked as they hit the bottom. Then he got the bottle of scotch and rose it up as well before pouring it into the glass. He put enough so that the ice cubes would float.

    “Salud.”

    “Salud,” I responded.

    Suddenly he had a hazy look in his eyes and began to pat his chest with his fist. The first times I had seen him do it, I wasn’t sure what to think and I assumed it had to do with some health problems. Then I decided to follow along even though I was afraid he would think I was ridiculing him and get mad at me. He didn’t and from then I considered it  “our thing.” He looked happy as if for that moment he wasn’t alone.

Pat.

Pat.

Pat.

    After that he looked fine and so was I.

   “So what brings you here on a Wednesday?”

   “An old friend of mine passed away around here recently and they’re having the service.”

   “Oh. I heard about that. I’m sorry to hear he was a friend of yours.”

     I shrugged. “That’s the thing though. I don’t feel sad. I know I should but I’m not. He was annoying and obnoxious. He was a jerk. The church right now is filled with people crying for him. It makes me think…who’s going to come to my funeral if I were to die right now? Do I have to act like him to get people to want to be around me? God, I hope not.” While I talked, I was taking sips of my drink.

     He listened to me, his face without judgement and his smile made me feel comfortable and secured. He didn’t say anything and it was quiet and I felt satisfied with myself that I was understood. I grabbed my glass, and held it to my lips, letting the last of the warm liquid run down my throat.

     He asked me if I wanted a second drink and I accepted it.

    “Salud.”

    “Salud,” I responded.

     He reached over the bar and grabbed my shoulder in solidarity. I understood that he wasn’t perfect. That he didn’t know what would make me feel better. He understood that simply just being there for me was enough. I couldn’t help but cry.

    “What’s making you cry?” He asked genuinely.

    “Nothing.” Then I laughed. I grabbed my glass and tilted it against my lips. I finished it in seven short sips. “I’m crying about nothing.”

    “I understand.” He did not cry.

     He asked me if I wanted a third drink and I accepted.

 “Salud.”

 “Salud,” I responded.

     I drank this third drink more slowly. The bartender went back to cleaning glasses with a rag. As much as we wanted, we knew we couldn’t help each other. Because we both knew that we didn’t know everything. We knew nothing.

    He offered me a fourth drink, but I rejected it. Three was enough. Three was good.

    I told him I had been gone for too long and that my girlfriend was probably looking for me. He understood. I paid him for my drinks and left him a good tip, because he was worth a good tip.

     I walked out of the bar. Outside in all her glory was Dominique. Her arms were crossed and her eyes squinted in disapproval. In the daytime, she was angelic. God, she was beautiful. She was blessed by God but I was not.

     I felt ashamed and uncomfortable as she looked at me. My lower lip quivered trying to come up with an excuse. But I had none. So I walked up to her and wrapped my arms around her waist. Pressing my face against her shoulder, I began to cry.

    “Why are you crying?”

    “I’m crying because of Santiago. He’s not going to be here anymore. I’ll miss him.” I lied.

     “I understand.” She cried with me.

      I was lost and she was lost and the bartender was lost and even the lady outside of the church holding her bible was lost. We were all lost. Even you. We are all fucking lost.

 

Bio

Luis Del Angel grew in a small southern city of Texas. He graduated in 2017 receiving his BA in English with a concentration in Literature. He hopes to continue his education by pursuing an MA in Literature in the near future. Although he had always had passion for reading, he was motivated to start writing after reading the works of Ernest Hemingway and other writers of the Lost Generation. Luis draws inspiration from people he has encountered and situations he has been in. When he isn’t writing or reading, Luis spends his time listening to records, watching documentaries and having existential crises. Even though he has written several other short stories, Boys without God was his first attempt at getting his work published.  

Find Luis Elsewhere : Twitter (Luis_D_Angel)

 

Essential German Literature

It has always been our goal to share our passion for literature all around the world. We want to be able to explore the literary world in many genres and have a particular focus on books that were not originally written in English. When one of our amazing Patreons, Miriam, suggested collaborating on a list of essential German literature we jumped at the chance. For this list we decided to focus on books originally written in German, and we know there are many great choices so this is a very abridged version. Perhaps there will be future lists and posts exploring German literature in the future.

 
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The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If emo was a literary genre it would be the Romantic Movement, and if you want a good example of that, check out Johann Wolfgang von Goethe semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. This epistolary novel is said to be one of the influences of the Romantics and follows a collection of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm. These letters are an intimate account of his attraction towards the beautiful Lotte; a young woman he meets in the village of Wahlheim. Despite knowing that she is already engaged to a man 11 years her senior, Werther falls for her and attempts to develop a friendship between the two in an effort to get closer to Lotte. However we have to consider the idea that his joy and sorrow is not just unrequited love but of a much deeper issue.

 
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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader tells the story of the teenage years of Michael Berg while recovering from hepatitis and his passionate affair with a mysterious woman twice his age. Divided into three parts; the summer of love, the trial and imprisonment; The Reader explores three different scenarios as well as the notion of keeping secrets. At the start of the book Hannah comes across as a Good Samaritan trying to help Michael who was throwing up in the street. Later he pursues her and she gets an impression that he is old enough to be out of school; he does not correct her, thinking the papers he leaves behind was enough for her to know his true age but we later finds out she would never have looked at them. When she finds out, she throws him out and it is not until much later in the book we discover just how important education is to her. Hannah is his first love, he is too young to fully understand the kind of relationship they are having, while Hannah remains guarded and tries to protect both her public and private shames.

 
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The Trial by Franz Kafka

It is true, that we probably could have picked any novel by Kafka but The Trial is the one that sticks out the most. Kafka appears to like to write philosophical novels; in “The Metamorphosis” he explored the idea of human identity and social acceptance. With The Trial, I get the feeling maybe this is a look at religion and the idea that life is just a big trial. Or maybe this is just an existential novel. Or maybe this is just poking fun at the bureaucratic nightmare that is Kafka’s life. No matter how you interpret this novel, rereading this unfinished book might bring you something new, and I tend to love when literature does that.

 
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Perfume by Patrick Süskind

At birth Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was tossed aside into a pile of fish guts in the slums of eighteenth-century Paris. His mother believed he would be a still born, just like all the others and quickly got rid of him to continue working. From birth Jean-Baptiste was a little different; born without a scent but grows into a man with an absolute sense of smell. He quickly found work as a perfumer, learning the trade. He wanted to capture the scents of the world, but more importantly the one that intoxicated him; the scent of a beautiful young virgin woman. I recently re-read Perfume, because I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about this novel. In the first reading the novel and I came to the conclusion that scent worked as a metaphor for lust in this book. A lust that Jean-Baptiste had towards young virgins; which is so typical and boring but I was interested in the way Süskind used smell to explore this idea of lust. While this still rung true for me the second time around, I also began to look at smell as a representation for class; the higher the social standing the better you smell.

 
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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Not to brag, but I first read Siddhartha while visiting India, which has left me with a surreal connection to this classic novel. Hermann Hesse’s novel is one of spiritual self-discovery and it follows a man named Siddhartha during the time of Gautama Buddha. While immersing himself in Indian philosophy, this novel follows this one man’s journey to achieve enlightenment and the reality behind this quest. Siddhartha is actually made up of two Sanskrit words, siddha (one who is accomplished) and artha (meaning, sense, goal, purpose or essence).

 
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Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi is a literary character who does not need to shy away from any comparison with the big ones in international classics. Theodor Fontane’s heroine is matched up with a man not only twice her age, but also the complete opposite of her character-wise. This marriage forces Effi into isolation and into the arms of a liaison with the passionate Crampas. The affair will haunt Effi for much longer and with greater consequences than she might have thought in the first place.

Theodor Fontane’s writing reads like it was written in the 21th century rather than in the 1800 and his criticism of the close-minded hypocrisy of the middle-class appears timeless. The reader is captivated from the start as more and more tragedies, smaller and bigger, appear in the lives of all characters involved and manages to make you feel for the unlikeliest characters without being sentimental.

 
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The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

Another piece that has not lost any of its timeliness and is in today’s atmosphere of spreading fake news and the damage that comes with that more current than ever before. Heinrich Böll's haunting novel tells the story about a woman associated with a suspected criminal and therefore being terrorized by the media.

Heinrich Böll made it very clear in his author’s note that he does not shy away to draw comparison to well-established newspapers and yet the book itself is written in a very sober and dry way. Only at a second look, the cleverness behind Böll’s writing and the hints he spreads to where he stands in this case are revealed to the reader.

A true masterpiece starting off with an unconventional beginning The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum shows how far media will go to get the headlines going and what humans are capable of when they realize that they have lost the most precious thing, personal integrity.

This spin of violence makes us question our own morals in a completely new way.

 
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Mephisto by Klaus Mann

A former Communist actor hungers for fame and is willing to sell his soul in Klaus Mann’s spin on the classic tale of Faust. Hendrik Höfgen’s performance as Mephistopheles in Faust brings him the attention he always wanted, giving him the opportunity to aim for head of the State Theatre alongside the enormous rewards of wealth, popularity and a position in the high classes of Berlin.

As the moral consequences of betraying his loved ones slowly creep up on him, Höfgen’s dream of fame turn into a series of nightmares. Clearly inspired by Gustaf Gründgens, a German actor, who ironically played the role of Mephistopheles in an adaption of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Hendrik Höfgen is a character you will not forget.

 
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Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

A Jewish merchant, a Muslim sultan, and a young Christian knight form the main cast of yet another timeless tale about religious tolerance and the relation between the three big religions. Written in the era of the Enlightenment, this drama is highly philosophical in its quest to find the answer to which religion is the right one and discover that there might not be just one right answer for everything. In his play Lessing does not simply preach religious tolerance but shows ways to act through his characters. If you desperately search for flawed characters that learn their lessons over time, Nathan the Wise is the perfect choice.

 
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Woyzeck by Georg Büchner

This fragmented drama is considered the first real modern play.  The soldier Franz Woyzeck tries to financially support his girlfriend Marie and his illegitimate child by working as a servant for his captain. In order to secure an additional income from his meager pay, he puts himself on a pea diet suggested by a ruthless doctor for experimental purposes. Both the Captain and the doctor not only exploit Woyzeck physically and psychologically, they humiliate him in public as well. After he finds out that Marie secretly begins an affair with a drum player, he starts to hear voices and his fall into madness is inevitable.  Through Woyzeck, Büchner explores the ideas of social status and desocialization as well as the destruction of the privacy through social determinations and the concept of fatalism.