“Gatherers and Hunters”, selected stories by Thomas Shapcott,
#1 As every good presenter of somebody else’s work, I would like to start with myself. Some time ago, I was asked if I preferred (writing) poetry or prose?
This question, a seemingly usual, prosaic one, opens a deeper dilemma that touches the very essence of the human nature: when we speak of “two” (or more) inside us, do we speak of duality or division? Or, in the first case, do we speak of the “two” inside us as parallel, simultaneous, even harmonious (co)existence of two halves in one whole? Or, in the second case, do we speak of separateness, opposition, even collision, mutual exclusion of the two?
Starting from the direct occasion for this text, the selected short stories by Thomas Shapcott, I would like to present the dilemma of the duality and division via a classical, almost Saussure-like triangle typical of the literary (or more precisely, prose) work: the one made by the author/creator, the story that he/she tells, and the narration (the way in which he/she tells the story), as the third point closing the triangle.
Let me start with the author: It seems that Thomas Shapcott, the accountant with the face of an Australian farmer who has turned a poet who also wrote prose, the retired university professor, believes in the first option: the harmony of duality. It is his life-long and creative impulse: born as a twin brother in 1935 in Australia, he was parallelly working with figures and words as late as the age of forty-three, before obtaining a degree from Queensland University as a part-time student, and a full-time father of four children. Some time before he turned fifty, married for a second time, he traveled around Europe and Canada, and was awarded the Golden Wreath of the Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia in 1989, thirty-three years after his first poem was published.
Now, some eighteen years later, Blesok presents Shapcott as a prose writer (for second time in Macedonia after the publishing of his novel The White Stag of Exile in 1988, by “Misla”), with this author’s own selection of ten short stories (translated in Macedonian by Igor Isakovski), who, in the same spirit of his belief in duality, is entitled Gatherers AND Hunters (rather than gatherers OR hunters).
Duality also rules in the stories that Shapcott as an author presents here. The stories The Red Hat and What to Do at the Time, which function as a personal and intimate, almost biographical level, speak of growth, transformation of a boy into a man. It is the puberty-specific coexistence of the child and man in a confused mind and uncoordinated body, when “at fifteen it is still possible to be hurt by almost anything”, as Shapcott says. In the period of life when the uncomfortable awareness of one’s own physical body is born, and the ability to control it is still distant, the characters in these stories over night turn into rebels scared from their new incestuous thoughts, or hard heads who have suddenly become aware of being different from their peers.
The stories Furry Animals and Sunshine Beech speak of a deeper duality – the one of each end that undoubtedly carries within itself the seed of the beginning. They happen in another period of life: when man loses his life-long companion. In the former, this happened banally and ironically – via a divorce, in a legal way; while in the latter – fatally, tragically and finally, with the death of the wife. The burden of the question how to start again after this final end undoubtedly leads to self-pity, and even to a Thomas-Mann-like obsession with a beautiful young girl. A similar search for a new beginning after the absurd end is also the one of Emre – a refuge from the World War II destroyed Europe, who ended (or started) in the deep province of Australia in the short story Refuge. There, in the “land down under” (as the Australians would call it), he quickly realizes that is education does not mean anything any more, that the several languages that he speaks are but luxury, and that his life has become a chain of a countless number of new, small beginnings.
The duality of the distant in Australia, the new continent, and the close/universal of the contemporary experience in the global world in which we all live is the basis for the stories such as Bank Closure and Pristine. There the changes of the external world dictate the inner ones. In a background, surprisingly recognizable also for us as Macedonians, the social changes murkily and restlessly nibble on the security of what was once safe and recognizable living. These external changes are brought to a country like Australia by the “new” immigrants – the newcomers raise huge fences around their houses and yards, they build mosques, have fourteen children each! Because of them, the old settlers (or the “older newcomers”), the ones who were there before them, feel like foreigners in their native towns. On the other hand, the social landscape that is ruthlessly changing, the impoverishment of the little towns closes down mines and banks, and once hard working, prematurely aged clerks fossilize the already unusable documents of a previous system.
Just as we have found ourselves in this universal experience, identifying ourselves with the problems of the Australian old settlers, in the stories Turkish Coffee and Ljubljana we see the differences (or the duality) of our cultures: the exotic, passion and (to some extent) absurd melodramatic spirit of the Balkans, as opposed to the cold rationality and (to some extent) absurd naiveté of the West. In the first story, the noisy group of Macedonians in a restaurant are no different than Italians in the eyes of an aged Australian woman (who once went as far as Istanbul looking for love). In the second story, in 1989, the main character (Shapcott himself, it seems) experiences his first encounter with the mystical Balkans so strongly that he even (for the first and last time in these stories) flirts with the surreal – the vampire cult. “My sight, like my listening ear, was still far too superficial, stuffed with novelty and a willingness to focus on the exotic.” – In a Henry-James’s naiveté speaks the newcomer from the “youngest continent” facing what (they tell him) are the holy places in the heart of the “old Europe”.
Let me move from the author and the stories to what is (at least according to me) the foundation point of each prose triangle: the narration, the way in which the author told the stories. In this collection, written in a simple and strict prose, economic and squeezed in short and clear sentences, the stories are almost confined to creative writing (subject taught by Shapcott) exercises. They are readable, stripped and unburdened of any wordiness, almost sketches in which the skeleton of the story is cleaned of the flesh of any additional directions or conclusions (sometimes writer’s wise-mouth’s, and sometimes event those that are of essential need for the reader). One could say – the stories are dry, informative reading, almost an accounting report. Shapcott is “less a seeker for essences and more a commentator of relations and states”, as Gane Todorovski says about him in the wreath-winning 1989. Or, he is a gatherer of (seemingly) insignificant details of human lives, and a hunter of the deep truths in them, an author who would himself say that “large changes in our life can sometimes best be indicated by tiny details”.
Here, I will end this short presentation of the short story collection Gatherers and Hunters as I started – with myself. Without thinking at any, even the shallowest, philosophical level, asked which one I preferred from poetry and prose, fast in language (and language plays tricks with all of us, as Shapcott says), a true traitor to verse, I rushed and said – of course, I prefer prose. Does this mean that I believe in division rather than in duality? Or, in this specific case, is Shapcott a (better) poet or a prose wrier? And finally, when he writes does he remain true to his favourite quotation (by Anais Nin), who says: “ ‘The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” Since there is no such thing as objective, there is no duality as well: it is only up to your subjective judgement – read, collect, hunt, see yourselves…
Translated by the author