The photograph on the cover of Leon Rooke's Oh!: Twenty-seven stories shows the author getting ready to plant a kiss on a charming, moss-flecked girl or deity in stone. She appears pleased and expectant, as though at the prospect of being quickened into full life. This waggish tableau is in keeping with the theme of at least some of the short stories gathered here, which is, in a broad sense, art. Art is at centre-stage in some of them, has a walk-on in others, but in still others gives way to quite different concerns. These tales (the blurb writer chooses to call them "documents") were written at the request of Marco Fazzini, an Italian poet and publisher, and have already appeared in an abbreviated bilingual edition. Though the invitation was to write a number of stories devoted to art, the reader will quickly find that Rooke is absorbed by questions in which art has a considerable but not central importance, unless as a means of giving such questions concrete form and expression.
Among the stories that seem to have to do with art more essentially, the treatment is at times perfunctory. In "Gypsy Art", we encounter a luckless picaro named Fazzini (the real Fazzini and the author must be good friends), who sets off in search of experience, the raw material of art. He discovers as much as he can use of lust, cruelty, hatred, and meaningless calamity. But Fazzini's art is, for him, a kind of salvation, since he has the talent to either disregard or transform (take your pick) his ups and downs, so that the vision remains unsullied. "I love your smile, he said to God. I love the rustle of Your skirts, the sun in Your hair, Your gay laughter, the fragrance of Your lilac-scented skin." All this while confined by gypsies and given the task of plucking chickens. When we next meet Fazzini, or at least someone bearing his name, in a story called "Fazzini Must Have You Ever at Her Side", he is married to a regularly (and hence not earnestly) suicidal painter. For her the completion of one painting produces a desperate interval (before the beginning of another) when the continuation of life itself seems in doubt. Happily, she enjoys the devotion of a husband and son prepared to race to her side, forestalling any terminal gesture.
"The Weepers of Vincenza" looks at the social implications of art, without going far beyond the usual expectations for such a theme, but in "Raphael's Cantalupo Melon" Rooke is up to something much more amusing. A Beckett-like landscape, though not so bleak, is populated by two labourers and an agitated woman. Around them stretch fields of melons, the abundance of which seems to leave all concerned a little non-plussed. It emerges that there is a painting to sell, a picture by Raphael of (what else?) a melon. "Something had pecked or gnawed numerous holes into the melon, birds perhaps or rodents of some kind, and in the fruit's depths could be seen a moist yellow centre containing whitened seeds." In a landscape of superfluous perfection, we are reminded of the power of art to make its devotees care more for imperfections, provided they are faithfully rendered.
Rooke seems in general to be more aroused by themes of justice, both individual and collective. Sometimes this takes the form of a fascination with the disjunction between the intellect and culture, on one side, and the crimes that flourish unchecked beyond the ivory tower. "Sidebar to the Judicial Proceedings, the Nurnberg Trials, November 1945" presents Martin Heidegger faced with a visit from a craniologist who intends to measure the philosopher's brain. In the foreground, of course, is the tension between art and science-although the reader may want to place these two words in inverted commas, given who represents each of them here. Heidegger is indignant at the idea that human genius, his own in particular, could be contained and fully expressed by means of such odious reductionism as the scientist stands for. "The time that lapses between one Heidegger thought and another cannot be measured any more than the contents of the thoughts themselves can." But containing all this, in the person of the story's speaker, and penetrating it by way of a succession of images, is the thought of the monstrous acts occurring outside the frame, acts perhaps made possible because art and science have broken dangerously free of their moorings in common humanity.
In "More You May Not Expect from Runté", Rooke creates a dystopia, a city aptly named Lethe, in which social stability is linked to the obliteration of the past. It is a rain-soaked place, a place where climate control has had unintended consequences and in which the spiritual impoverishment of its citizens is subversively revealed by a public enemy named Dr. Lamarze, whose slogan is, "Expect more from your universe." In the foreground is the glum figure of Robert Runté, whose undisclosed good work in "Office 12" has attracted the notice of Dr. Lamarze and his associates. Art enters the tale as yet another way in which Lamarze's resistance can create the discontent necessary to change. Elements of Huxley's Brave New World and short stories like Damon Knight's "The Country of the Kind" make this familiar territory, except that here more than a few respond to the call.
Injustice of another sort is the focus of "The Six Blind Boys of Santa Ocuro". In contrast to the story about Lethe, the injustice is not a kind of deprivation, but cruelty and oppression of a direct and oddly personal kind. A widow is violently seduced by a defiantly autocratic colonel. She is first alarmed and disgusted, then increasingly compliant. Meanwhile the corpse of her dead husband remains unburied and a sort of ritual pollution ensues. The eponymous blind musicians pass through the town, oblivious to its woes and annoyed by their unenthusiastic reception, the very type of the self-absorbed artist, wholly indifferent to the society that plays host to their art. More affecting is the monument to the dead husband, which at the same time is the dead husband: his whitening bones seated in a chair. Otherwise, there is no redress. Rooke seems to be implying that memorializing the victims of oppression is usually the best that can be done for them.
The personal element is continued and enlarged in "The Woman from Red Deer Who Went to Johannesburg, Set Herself Afire, and Jumped Four Floors to Her Apparent Death". (By the way, is there a Guinness category for longest title given to a short story? This one might well qualify.) Here two outcasts, both women, one a semi-invalid, the other a very mobile and destructive young person, discover a bond that goes beyond their both being disfigured. The elder had chosen to make a dramatic gesture of protest against the injustice of apartheid. The younger received her stigmata through neglect (perhaps), a looking-away at a moment when her life was in the balance. There is an implied connection between this and the injustice that results when a society collectively looks the other way.
In "The Judge: High Plains Art", the tyranny of an inexplicable code, one that seems necessarily to doom the characters, is the focus. A man who has seemingly executed some enemies is forced to wait till an unofficial but terrible judge arrives, Godot-like, on the scene. The evidence decays, as such evidence must, though the witnesses continue to urge the murderer to remain. In the end they too die. When their killer's iniquity is complete, the judge arrives, like a pre-Christian deity, to harvest the evil done.
This raises, in one form, the matter of religion. In another form, it comes up in "The Boy from Moogradi & the Woman with the Map to Paradise". Here we are back once more to the theme of state oppression and resistance to it, in this case both dogged and hopeless. A party of gringos is captured by guerrillas and their boy guide is endlessly interrogated as to the purpose of the expedition. Are the foreigners spies working for the hated government? The answer that they are in search of "Kolootopec", a place that doesn't exist, fails to satisfy. They must be mad, or lying. But in the end, madness (or hope) offers more than the prospect of a rational despair. Even death, as in the half-page story "Reprieve", yields to fantasy.
To pass to the longest (from the shortest) entry, in "The Guacamole Game", life is unsettlingly presented in the form of a not specially edifying contest. A husband and wife have created an oddly named competition, whose purpose seems to be to unmask the gross failures of love and charity that are expressed both by their lives and in what seems to be their chief recreation. What binds them is tougher than their mutual disillusion, however, and Rooke offers the prospect of redemption in what is almost a whisper.
This brief look at some of what is contained in Oh! can do no more than suggest the broad and generous engagement, the obvious intellectual reach of Rooke's short fiction. There are blemishes, of course, usually where the tendency to stylistic extravagance proves too much for the author. The result is sometimes whole sentences that might well have been rethought. An example? In "The Six Blind Boys of Santa Ocuro", we read, "The naked Colonel glared at them from her rumpled bed, the blade of his saber swishing about and his nasty cigar smoke billowing in the love-soaked air." Uneasy lies the naked Colonel that wears a saber, one supposes. Or is a fleshly weapon intended here? Unknown. Overripeness is all.
But it is for the sake of its many virtues that readers are urged to buy and judge this book for themselves. They will be more than compensated for its shortcomings.
Wayne Daniels is a librarian at the Toronto Reference Library and, to a fault, a generalist.