Thursday, May 15, 2008

Eclectica/D. E. Fredd/Katrina Denza/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Tom Dooley

Eclectica was founded in October, 1996, with the goal of providing a sterling quality literary magazine on the World Wide Web. The vision was that of a publication not bound by formula or genre, that harnessed technology to further the reading experience rather than for the sake of flashy gimmickry, and that was dynamic and interesting enough content-wise to keep readers coming back for more. Twelve years later, quality is still the sole criterion in our editorial process. If it is outstanding writing, then we want to share it with our ever growing, global readership. We pride ourselves on being one of the longest-running and most consistent literary ezines on the web.

I want to be hooked into reading and then rewarded for the time I spent doing so. When I'm plowing through a hundred or more short stories at a time, it's easy for me to get into a very fickle mindset-not unlike the kind of mindset I imagine the average web surfer might have. If something lacks originality or polish, I'm going to pick up on that within the first paragraph or two. This doesn't mean a story has to have a particular kind of opening paragraph. I'm just looking for assurances that my time isn't going to be wasted if I read further. If I read all the way to the end of the story, I'm then looking for the reward. Ideally, the end of the story-the sum total of it-will have an impact: knock the air out of me, make me laugh, something. Often it's the "something" that I really appreciate: an impact I wasn't expecting, and maybe haven't encountered before.

I could go on and on about why I love this story so much, but I guess the main reason I nominated it was because I wanted to see what someone else might say about it. If pressed, I would say that I love the contrast between joyful inventiveness and inconceivable sadness. I would also say I love the vividly drawn characters and the humanity-spanning canvass upon which they are drawn. I love the first sentence and the last, which are brilliant little bookends. I love that, like all great stories, this one is utterly steeped in its particular time and place, and as a result, emerges as timeless and universal. Go, Steiner!

Nominated Short Story: "Steiner Requests That His Hole Be Dug in Poland" - D. E. Fredd

Review: by Katrina Denza

In the famous Bidpai fable, two good friends, tortoise and scorpion, venture out on a journey together. When they come to a river, the scorpion asks for a ride on the tortoise’s back. The tortoise tells him he would be happy to oblige but he’s worried his friend will sting him. No, no, the scorpion assures him, to do so would surely drown the both of them. So the tortoise agrees but halfway over, the tortoise feels the hot pain of a sting on his back. The tortoise asks his friend why he went back on his promise and the scorpion tells him, I’m truly sorry, but it is my nature. One of my dear friends reminded me of this fable shortly after I read D.E. Fredd’s “Steiner Requests His Hole Be Dug in Poland.” We were at a park with our children and as she was telling the story, it struck me that the same could be said of Fredd’s characters, that each is bound and burdened by his nature.

We enter Fredd’s story through the voice of its wry, slightly paternal narrator who refers to Poland as “The giant, blundering cow lolling about her pasture mindless of the fact that progress is barking at her heels.” The time is April, 1939. Four German soldiers are ambushed just over the Polish border and shot dead. Steiner, a violinist, is also caught wandering around in the woods, looking for his lost lover—or so he claims. And Polish interrogator, Belinski, has no choice but to take Steiner in for “questioning”—or so he claims. For it would seem Belinski does have a choice, but is powerless against the destructive force that is blowing through Europe.

Fredd parses his narrative artfully. The structure of the piece allows the reader to see the situation, the capture and questioning of Steiner, against the larger picture: Europe just before Hitler invades Poland. He mixes in scenes of Steiner’s interrogation with ruminations on holes, with Steiner’s life as a musician-husband-lover, with Belinski’s polite sense of duty. And every now and then he draws the camera back so that we may be privy to the larger trouble man is in.

The titles of the segments are as thoughtful as the prose that follows: “It Is a Very Pleasant Day So Far. The Sky Is Filled with Bundled Cloudlings, Which Edge Down to Extra-Hear Steiner Being Questioned,” or, “The Author Interrupts the Narrative to Insert Some Extraneous Material relating to Holes in Various Countries and the Role, if any, Ascribed to Each.”

The situation is grim, the tension is high, the narrative authority is unquestionable, but what really makes this story an incredible read is the language. Fredd’s details are not only economical, they’re imaginative and serve to further enhance the mood of the story as in this description of Belinski: “From a medium distance one might think Belinski handsome, but his eyes, as one closes the gap, are set too close together, and his chin angles into his neck too quickly. This causes him to breathe through the mouth. He has developed the habit of muttering. It’s as if his brain were incapable of thinking inside itself.” Or as in this passage: “Hauptmann, the soldier, lies in the forest under a foot of earth. A worm is slowly burrowing its way through his leather boot. Hauptman is unmoved by the matter. His dedication to life has ended. In a way it’s a relief, as dedication for a German is always so much more burdensome than for another.” Hauptman’s worm brings to mind Hitler’s unrelenting madness burrowing its way through Europe.

In a time when people are called to consider the definition of torture and its usefulness versus its harmfulness this story spells it out quite nicely: “Yet torture often yields nothing more than a bastard version of the truth.”

One of the ironies in Fredd’s tale, if we are to believe Belinski’s motives are duty-bound, is that the act of defense compels the interrogator to engage in the very violence he is fighting against. Such an irony reveals the fact that we are all tangled in the roots of our nature, as are the characters in this affecting, brilliantly written short story.

Reviewer's Bio:

Originally from Vermont, Katrina Denza lives in North Carolina with her family. Her stories can be found in issues of New Delta Review; The Emrys Journal; The MacGuffin; The Jabberwock Review; REAL; The Emerson Review; Passages North; Storyglossia; wigleaf; elimae; SmokeLong Quarterly; and Cranky, among others, and in upcoming issues of REAL and Confrontation. A four time Pushcart nominee, she’s served as guest editor and submissions editor for SmokeLong Quarterly and guest editor for Storyglossia.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.


Myfanwy Collins said...

Excellent review, Kat!

katrina said...

Thanks, Myf and Bonnie. I enjoyed the story very much.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Very well written, Kat! If I hadn't read the story first I would be really intrigued. The Bidpai fable works great as the opening. You are a natural writer and reviewer.