The Crowded World of Solitude, volume 1, the collected stories and essays by Albert Russo
Albert Russo's collected short fiction, published in three volumes by Domhan Books, is a story cycle that spans nearly twenty-five years and is both chronicle and allegory of its author’s life and times. The first volume of the trilogy, Beyond the GreatAmazon USA
The Crowded World of Solitude, volume 1, the collected stories and essays by Albert Russo Philadelphia, PA, USA. Xlibris Corporation. 2005. 503 pages. $26.99 softcover, ISBN 1-4134-7016-5; $36.99 hardcover, ISBN 1-4134-7017-3 [email protected] - www.xlibris.com Albert Russo’s Short Stories: Crystals in a Shock Wave
Volume I: Beyond the Great Water Volume II: Unmasking Hearts
Volume III: The Age of the Pearl
Albert Russo's collected short fiction, published in three volumes by Domhan Books, is a story cycle that spans nearly twenty-five years and is both chronicle and allegory of its author’s life and times. The first volume of the trilogy, Beyond the Great Water, is divided into two sections, part one being African Stories, part two being mainstream short fiction. Another collection of Russo’s mainstream stories appears in the second volume, Unmasking Hearts, the last portion of the book being a collection of essays. The Age of the Pearl, the third and final volume, contains Russo’s fantasy and science fiction writings, as well as a miscellany of his short, satirical and often darkly comic Ripov stories.
The theme of metamorphosis, of the transformational moment and revelational event, of existential sin and arcane punishment, seems to run through all three books. I am uncertain of whether Russo himself is aware of this or not, for his writings surely probe the depths of his own unconscious mind from which they dredge up archetypal images from a deep internal reservoir. The stories deal with the mutability of existence, and at their conclusions, something, usually the characters, sometimes society or even larger aspects of the physical universe, is changed forever; often, it must be added, for the worse. Sex is a frequent catalyst for profound change. Many characters in the stories experience a kind of death and rebirth as a result of engagement in the sexual act. It is sometimes as if the participants themselves, rather than a third entity, are born of these carnal unions and the re-enactments of original sin they symbolize.
Many, indeed most, of the stories from these three books have the sharp bite of biographical truth, and this poignancy is especially present in the first stories, set in the Congo and North Africa, for they have the almost delirious vitality and revelational quality of youth’s first knowledge of good and evil, made hyper-traumatic because set against the strange and exotic background of the alien Islamic and African cultures of these remote places.
In Tunisian Fever, from the African Stories section of Beyond the Great Water, a young traveler experiences a profound sensual awakening amidst the souks of Tunis in a tale whose delirious, dreamlike quality is in some ways reminiscent of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In Magic Fingers, a Berber tribesman has an affair with a rich American tourist woman on vacation, and in the process he is enigmatically corrupted by the union, losing his identity in a transgression against himself. In both cases sexual debauch triggers the characters‚ acute transformations, yet the nature of these transformational events is mitigated by the quality and aspect of the experiences that produced them. In the former, the character’s transformation is positive, in the latter, the character’s self-transgression swings the existential pendulum to the negative pole.
Other awakenings in the book come about as a result of outside agencies, beyond the control of the main characters. In The Discovery, the protagonist realizes that his father's despised mistress, whom he plans to blackmail as an unfaithful libertine, has a daughter bearing a resemblance so close it becomes apparent that the young girl is his natural sister. In the title story, a native African returns to the Belgian Congo to visit his daughter after a prolonged sojourn in the U.S. The plane crashes, and a charred letter is all that is left -- in fulfillment of a native prophesy that the bearer will be consumed by fire.
In Part II of Beyond the Great Water the lead story, The Sephardic Sisters, deals with the slow but inexorable dispossession of two elderly sisters by the new wife of the brother with whom they have lived for years and to whom they have ministered as surrogate mothers. In this tale with Oedipal undertones, those who have a rightful place in the home are expelled by a capriciously vindictive newcomer to the household ménage; an external and overwhelming force leading to their ultimate disendowment.
Death in Venice is a theme of Bridges of Sighs, one of several plays for voices that appear now and again throughout the trilogy. Here, once more, a love affair (sex as original sin) results in the demise of one of the participants, although unlike other more metaphysical acts of destruction in Russo's stories, this one is all to real -- a suicide in one of the minor canals of Venice. Twenty-one Days chronicles a young man's rite of passage at a high-class rest spa in France. Here is the corruption of a credulous youth by older, already corrupted persons. As with other stories in the collection, here transitions in life are more like the progressive stages of a fatal and incurable disease, a dissipative process where individuals are not so much befriended as infected. Russo seems to be saying, at least on one level, that all too often the map is confused with the territory, the mask with the face behind it, and it is assumptions, often false, instead of realities, that guide our perceptions and passages through life, even those of profound importance to our development as fully functional human beings.
In Memory Gap, the collection's penultimate story, set immediately after the signing of the Carter-era Israel-Egypt peace treaty, a young man is beset by a species of melancholia religiosa akin to "Jerusalem Complex" while on a trip to Israel. In a narrative of spiritual death and rebirth, the protagonist is haunted by the memory of the bizarre killing of his friend at the hands of an Egyptian border guard who gunned him down after an accidental and innocent night-crossing of the border. Again, a meaningless line is crossed -- the transgressor has not strayed very far at all -- but the consequences are brutal, final and total. Images of these transgressions pervade the story, such as those found in the following passage.
But now a violent undercurrent reminded him that he was not a denizen of the sea, even if eons ago he might have been one. He felt like a usurper, and he would be treated as such. Scanning the surface around him, he encountered a slick, unfathomable giant in whose net he was trapped. If he lost the control of his movements and thrashed about, he’d be gobbled up like a vulgar worm. The more he thought of this, the more his lungs burnt, those lungs which in their evolution had foresaken their initial role by adapting to the atmosphere. He swam towards the jagged cliffs and, gripped by fear, hurled himself headlong to counter the tide.
In Unmasking Hearts, Volume II of the trilogy, Flavio's Dilemma narrates how a young man is seduced first by an older woman -- she is a portrait painter who begins by asking him to pose for her and proceeds to turn him into her lover -- and then by the woman's teenage son, the central character's peer. In The Break, a young man is caught up in the turmoil created by his parents' imminent divorce, and here again, outside forces place the protagonist in a position of helplessness from which he cannot hope to emerge unscathed. A passage from Flavio’s Dilemma may serve by way of illustration.
When Samantha insisted, Flavio meekly accepted. Soon thereafter, he asked to be excused, for the wine had gone to his head. He came back from the bathroom, relieved, and seeing how livid he had become, Samantha suggested that he take a rest in her own bedroom. Before he could answer, he saw himself flung across the queen-sized bed of his host and being soon undressed. He half made a gesture of protestation but was devoid of any volition and minutes later he fell into a long slumber peopled with wild sensual images where succulent carnivorous flowers opened up to lure oversized red bananas then clutched them between their treacherous pincer-like hairs until, bit by bit, inexorably, their substance would be ingested.
From these fictional tales, Unmasking Hearts ends with a series of essays. One of these, Murder of a Novel Parisian Style Amid the Frenzy of France's Merrygoround, is the factual account of how Albert Russo was roasted over the coals by a disreputable Parisian book publisher. The essay is especially interesting because of the light it casts on the behind-the-scenes infighting and cold-blooded manipulations that are often unpleasant realities faced by authors, and I suspect faced the world over. Another essay, Ionesco in Action, offers an intriguing insider’s look at the playwright Eugene Ionesco, whose acquaintance Russo made while serving as a judge on the Prix de l’Europe literary awards panel.
In the final volume, The Age of the Pearl, the title story again deals with a case of sweeping metamorphosis in the form of grotesque and bizarre consequences when the innocuous assumes the dimensions of monstrous evil. Slowly and inexorably, by an alien, inhuman and implacable process, the seas' oysters are wildly, cancerously multiplying to the point where they must soon overwhelm the natural barriers of earth and ocean. By the attrition of sheer force of numbers, humanity is doomed. The very world, it seems, has developed cancer, and there is no cure in sight.
Likewise in The Musichor, another fantastic tale in this volume largely devoted to Russo’s science fiction and fantasy pieces, music becomes mutagenic, metastasizing into an agency of monstrous evil that has replaced normal patterns of thought and communication shared by the human species. The story’s two central characters, daring to challenge the Musichor -- a sinister world government -- in a rediscovery of human emotions, thoughts and intimacies, are condemned to death as a result of their transgression. Like Adam and Eve, and like other characters in Russo’s trilogy, the transformative event that initially brought them great satisfaction in the end becomes a death sentence from a higher power, and the innocence of their actions serves as no protection against their suffering an ultimate arcane judgment.
A passage, early in the story, prefigures the story’s morbid end. One of the characters, Ryan, seems to be simply snoring. Yet in a sterilized world even this commonplace evokes the fear of Orwellian thoughtcrime. At two a.m. strange noises woke up Natasha. To her dismay they came from...Ryan. He was asleep and uttered sounds she had never heard before. They formed a sequence of monotones, each note appearing to be related to the previous one. Then it stopped all of a sudden. She gave it some thought and went back to bed. It happened again two nights later. This time, though, the monotones had much harsher inflections, and each sound seemed to be mimicked. The play of muscles around his mouth looked like grimaces. Even though the sounds had died out, she couldn’t go to sleep. They were not the same as the ones she’d heard the first night. She was frightened. What on earth could these horrible sounds have meant?
Like crystals forming in a shock wave, the subjects of the stories frequently undergo rapid and complete changes of state, and they are often greatly distorted in the aftermath of the sudden onslaught, or even smashed altogether and broken beyond repair. Much has been written about a so-called Observer or Recorder that seems to be a functional element of the human mind; a dispassionate, or at least detached entity that ceaselessly tracks every event, no matter how great or insignificant, experienced by the self. There is much of the Observer or Recorder in Albert Russo's collected short stories in the trilogy. There is a procedural quality, deliberate and controlled, to many of the stories that lays it all out but does not pass judgment. Beauty or ugliness, truth or falsehood, light or darkness, right or wrong, are left for the beholder's eyes alone.
Yes, you've heard about this before. It's called "Show me, don't tell me," a familiar maxim to any college student since the close of the Second World War when -- it must be added -- the exact opposite of this now familiar dictum was considered essential to the craft of writing fiction. You might think of Hemingway's words in A Moveable Feast about writing "true sentences," but truth, and the sentences that writers believe convey it, often wears many guises.
Russo's way of writing the true sentence is closer to Kafka's approach than Papa's. Kafka's approach was to defeat reader identification at critical junctures. To bring the reader close to understanding the nature of the piece, and then yank the truth away like bait on the end of a string. As a result, many readers give up on Kafka as incomprehensible. They do not see that what Kafka was doing -- deliberately or unintentionally -- was to force the reader to "understand" the piece on a non-verbal, non-linear and non-intellectual level, to know it by a gestalt process, a noetic process as sharp and spontaneous as accidentally biting the inside of your cheek.
It's this stylistic approach that Russo comes closest to, in my opinion. You can immediately fathom some of the subtext, but not all of it is accessible intellectually or immediately. That's the effect of much of the sex and -- because explicit -- pornographic elements of some of the stories. The sex is usually less a turn-on for the reader, or a blissful consummation for the characters, than a scourge and a punishment. Also, the androgynous nature of much of the sex found throughout the stories is well-integrated into the fiction. I personally don’t care for gay writing; on analysis, I believe it’s as much because most of this writing plays sexual politics and deals in politicized aesthetics as the fact of my own (I am sure quite boringly) heterosexual orientation.
In Russo’s case, there is no political banner flown; what is presented in the fiction is presented because Russo has lived it, seen it, felt it, thought it, and since he strikes no artificial pose, there is no tawdriness or pretention to the writing. On the contrary, the writing takes no sides, makes no apologies, and is therefore honest, elemental and cleanly wrought. And, curiously enough, a Weltanshaung that might simplistically be attributed merely to the author’s own neuroses does appear to echo ancient Arabic metaphysics. This from a section on the Moorish conception of morality in Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1909), by Finnish sociologist Edward Alexander Westermarck, still regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on social customs:
Why is sexual intercourse looked upon as unclean and defiling, or in other words, as a mysterious source of danger? That the danger is supposed to be particularly alarming in the case of contact between the polluted individual and anything holy is merely an instance of the general belief that holiness is exceedingly sensitive to, and readily reacts against, external influences; indeed it is not only exceptionally susceptible to influences that are, or are supposed to be, injurious also in ordinary cases, but it is affected or influenced by various acts or omissions which are otherwise considered perfectly harmless.
In reading the stories you get the impression that all Russo's characters are playing "truth or dare" games with one another, facing off in mortal combats in which the losers can end up maimed for life; the special grace or holiness that invests them at first destroyed or severely damaged by contact with the unclean. But that's one of the things Russo's telling us -- life, beneath the surface, is like this. We are as innocent and unknowing of the full implications of the transformations and metamorphoses we undergo as water changing to ice or the head of a match struck suddenly into flame. As goes the Zen proverb, the difference between heaven and hell is the thickness of a leaf. Russo may be said to be writing about what Indian gurus call avidya, and what Tibetan holy men call namparshespa, the darkness of the mind, obscured by the multiple veils of ignorance. Most, indeed virtually all, of the characters in Russo's short stories are lost in existential mazes, and most don't have a clue about how to find their way out.
In some ways I see Albert Russo as a kind of shaman or holy man. Writing is simultaneously his religion and the cross to which he's nailed. He walks a path through a labyrinth, searching for truth, and he does not fear the distant snorts and echoes of cloven hoofs that may signal the presence of a Minotaur in the maze. He seems to have sought for this core reality -- call it samadhi -- amid the four corners of the earth, and many of the stories do indeed seem much like reports from the bloody beachheads of existence, Russo as life's war correspondent pinned down by enemy fire making an effort to be heard above the din of mortars dropping closer and closer with each true line, each true sentence.
This collection is as much a manifesto as a retrospective, as much a biography as a work of fiction, as much an engrossing statement of fact as a diverting concoction of fable. The stories, sometimes outwardly simple, are dense with meaning beneath the surface. As is a hallmark of the best literature, they will reward repeated readings time and time again.