Reviewed by Michael Mungiello
Maria Mitsora’s book of short stories, On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed, is words: specifically, dancing, cat, language, eagle, and Athens. There are a few other words too but those are the main ones, the ones that organize Mitsora’s restless imagination and guide us through her challenging world of conceptual slipperiness.
Slippery, not sloppy; like I said, it’s organized. In fact, given that Mitsora’s English-language debut (published by Yale University Press/Margellos World Republic of Letters, translated by Jacob Moe; 180 pages, $16) collects the best from a forty-year career, it’s uncanny how much these stories have in common.
Mitsora works almost exclusively in the first-person. Even in stories like “The Suzani and the Scooter” and “Visions of Persephone” where the bulk of the story is told in third-person, Mitsora opens with an “I” who is gazing into the distance, contemplating words. The latter story begins: “As I watch the sunset through the windowpane the words select me: vast, vulnerable, cracked, explosion, teardrop, and an indefinite future.”
Then, the game: Mitsora tells a story (“Persephone”) that features an appearance from each italicized word. This method can be charming for its irreverence though at times a note of forced zaniness creeps in: a girl is forced by her dad to get a tattoo of an eagle on her breast and is then kidnapped and imprisoned and then the main kidnapper ends up being her lover and they ride off together on his motorcycle into the sunset; the two lovers bond over an allegiance to the god Mercury and the notion that bombs are anti-linear time. But overall, Mitsora’s randomness is invigorating and the Easter egg hunt of “where’s the word” gives the randomness some structure (it keeps us reading, too—we don’t find “teardrop” until the story’s last sentence). The anarchy of Mitsora’s wild plots is always curtailed by some set of language rules.
What stories promise us is some reward outside the story: something real. Do as you’re told and you’ll get (or be) what you want. This, at least, is how people with a one-dimensional relationship to stories think. Stories are always about you; instructions to be enacted. (Think, Don Quixote. Think, people who go on the road after reading On the Road.) These are gullible people. They want to be main characters in a story. Relatedly, these are also people who are easily manipulated. Mitsora shows, wonderfully, how spectacular stories with big clear heroes and big clear villains are nothing more than ways for the powerful to control the resentful (cf. the Greek/American/global far right). We should be distrustful of stories like that.
In “Dogwise” Mitsora writes, “Those who control us present everything as a spectacle.” Wanting not to control us but to arm us with skepticism against those who would want to control us, Mitsora writes anti-spectacles: what’s impressive about these stories is how many radical transformations occur under the spell of banality. Slipping into a hypnotic trance reminiscent of Robert Walser, you have to reread to realize that there’s been an international conspiracy or an explosion or a sudden trip to England. Mitsora forces you to pay attention and question who/what/where/when/why sentence by sentence, bringing the whole back into question at each step. I was gladly kept on my toes by Mitsora’s balletic abstractions.
When Mitsora’s characters play the parts to which they’re assigned, following a received script, they find themselves feeling "hollow," stuck. When you tell your story, though—when you go from protagonist to narrator—that’s when the magic happens. The magic being the consolation of words. You don’t change anything by telling your story. Of course you don’t. But you feel something other than hollow.
The first story in Shallow Grave, “The Cat That Can’t Dance” centers on a shy man, raised by his aunt, who loves his cat Snow White and Rita, who visits him (and Snow White) in his garden. As we near the story’s last page, the protagonist has told Rita almost nothing while endlessly practicing what he’d like to tell her. Then, finally,
I don’t know what possessed me, I decided to tell her everything, in the faint voice of a ghost. I told her about my aunt, about my aunt’s shallow grave, about my mother whose name was also Margarita, who had red hair too. At first she scrutinized me with a scientific curiosity, and at the very moment I expected terror in her eyes, the balloon she let go of nearly caught on the carob tree….I sat there speechless, wondering how on earth I came across her. This one is able to teach me how to dance.
He’s as free as Rita’s surrendered balloon, and about to learn to dance. How lucky! And how thematically appropriate! Dancing is movement in place, basically; I mean, you don’t dance to get somewhere. It's movement without going somewhere else. Although Shallow Grave is full of characters running, sprinting, trying to escape, these runners never get what they’re after and instead the narrators (and readers) are transfixed by the confined intensity of dancers. Dancers narrate movement, rushing forward and jumping and flinging themselves around without ever moving away. Dancers narrate journeys without leaving the theater; they're circumscribed by the stage.
Likewise, language circumscribes the limits of our lives. We’re stuck with it. Like the government: we need one but it constrains us. Shallow Grave centers on Athens, home of democracy, which is no accident. In the interchangeability of her characters, her ambiguous recurring symbols, in her weirdness, Mitsora dramatizes what a democracy of fiction might look like. (The democracy of Character swapping in for Setting, Theme filling in for Perspective.) Her stories crowd together to form the following “message”: our relationship to language—to stories—should be like a relationship with a lover who is also a legislator. Play on one hand, skepticism on the other. We can’t desert stories but we shouldn’t blindly obey them either.
In “Persephone” Mitsora writes, “They’re keeping me tied up because they still believe I am capable of escaping.” Politically, to be constrained is already evidence that you’re powerful. For people interested in politics right now who might be feeling fatalistic, this is a good message to hear. For people interested in art right now who might be feeling fatalistic, this is a good message to hear. Mitsora’s vision of restlessness as life’s big consolation—her guide to imaginative survival—is alive in the best stories here: “Brown Dog in November,” “Grace,” and “Zenaida Junona.” People assume disguises, other names, they change forms like old Greek gods, they run away or just as dramatically stay in the prisons of their own design; they change and survive.
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey. His chapbook Some Times was published by Ghost City Press.