Terence McKenna put it best when he described how we in the West spend so much time turning over rocks in search of great mysteries, always looking down darkened byways of knowledge for the bizarre, the peculiar, the outré. For centuries the search for alchemical gold carved out huge chunks of the lives of learned people. Shamanism, on the other hand, long ago stopped searching for the Philosopher’s Stone; it has already found it. Carlos Castaneda, in the early 1960s, met according to him a man named Don Juan who, over the course of several years, inducted him into the practise. What Castaneda describes, if it is to be believed, proves McKenna’s claim. There is power at work in the world, wieldable by human beings, a ‘quality of experience besides which scientific inexactitude stands in peril of paling into insignificance’, said Theodore Roszak.
Generally speaking, I don’t like short stories. I’ve never been able to get into them. I’ve struggled through countless collections full of quaint tales of small happenings and chance encounters, but the fundamental problem has always been that I can’t bring myself to get invested in a setting and in characters that I know will be gone in under thirty pages. When I picked up George Saunders’ critically acclaimed collection Tenth of December, I went in telling myself that if I didn’t like it then this would be the last straw. I would renounce the short story for good and stick to good ol’ fashioned novels. But life, like good stories, finds ways of surprising us, and it transpired that I not only enjoyed Tenth of December, but I would also actively recommend it to other fellow sceptics of short fiction.
This deeply moving book illuminates refugee journeys with a rich narrative. Taking the case of a couple and their romance, they are torn from a relatively harmonious life in Aleppo. They must face each other’s relationship and the challenges of a relationship across continents. The story starts off with a serene depiction of their life. Nuri is a beekeeper and Arfa is an artist, who becomes blind and so Nuri has to take on the main responsibility. They furthermore take on the care of a young boy called Mohamed, furthering their woes. Nuri emerges as a hero type figure.