by James Murray-White
Means Of Escape is a vivid collection of short stories
from noted anthropologist and filmmaker Hugh Brody. The five stories
all explore loose themes of isolation and a sense of being trapped: all
the central characters in some way are searching for some kind of
escape, from the physical or psychological torment that is pursuing
This manifests for a young
missionary in the story Eva
as tension between the doctrine of his faith and the reality of the
Inuit people who live by their own social and spiritual codes, as he
attempts to proselytise to them. He is emotionally unprepared for life
in the High Arctic, and is betrayed by his religious masters. Brody
draws upon his many years of experience amongst Inuit culture (for
which he is a highly respected writer, anthropologist and academic) to
create many worlds and realities within several communities in this
story. He skilfully juxtaposes the past and present in the telling,
which weaves a sense of foreboding and disaster from the start.
is also a powerfully told story, written with more immediacy, and also
a clever device of a "story within a story" that made me re-read and
question the plot I had read so far. The story starts with an external
narrator, and then views the action from Marianne’s point of view.
Marianne visits her parents, Ysobel and George, who live on an island
off the British coast, and sinks into their world of bitterness,
regret, and manipulation. It is a cloying world, into which the parents
have retreated: “Ysobel’s voice was suddenly childlike. “I
belong at the edge. With the Roman army! I may not write, but I’m a
writer. My image of myself. Anyway, we couldn’t afford to live anywhere
else. Realism dictates.” As with the Eva story, the indigenous locals
also suffer at the hands of the incomers. Incendiary activism provides
an explosive end to this angry story.
The stories Family Trees and The Lake both deal
with Holocaust themes: dealing with memories and uncovering memories,
and all that can come up from the uncovering.
In The Lake
a wife’s wartime experience is suddenly revealed to a husband after 50
years of being hidden. This is wistful writing at its best. Again,
Brody shows great style in contrasting the raw experience of three
young Jewish women on the run in central Asia with the inner
reflections of an elderly husband travelling in Germany with his wife,
who has not returned since she fled the war: “I thought: I am
discovering whom I have been married to for half a century. I thought:
when it comes to love, we English are nothing if not tentative. 45
years of discretion.”
In contrast, the character of Aunt
Sonia in Family Trees
goes through a rapid uncovering of memories, which cause the first
person narrator to genuflect upon human society with all its despair
and failings. The theme of needing to find the means of escaping from
the vicious cycle of human hatred, rather than allow it to perpetuate
in each new generation, is very clear here.
The final story, Wolf, is an
increasingly gory dialogue between a young couple, John and Nina, holed
up in a cabin somewhere, telling stories in the dark that blur the
boundaries between the real and the imaginary. It is the most
Beckett-like of the stories, and oddly the most cinematic, due to its
mingling of dialogue in the dark with rich visual imagery, and its hint
of vulnerability and terror.
Brody is a powerful, sensitive
writer, who is loud and clear in his telling of stories, and artful in
their creation and execution. All the stories here are strong and
vibrant. In his acknowledgements, Brody writes “fiction is not, of
course, an escape.” In using this genre, as well as his anthropological
writings and film, the voice for deep examination of self and society
comes through, as well as a call for change.
This collection, which was published in 1991 and is sadly quite hard to
find (thank you to the bookshops of Hay-on-Wye for finding me a copy)
is a valuable contribution to the vast genre and archive of short
stories. I hope for more from him.
is a Jerusalem-based freelance writer, anthropologist and filmmaker. He
is working on a documentary examining the lives of the Bedouin tribes
of Israel’s Negev desert, and is a contributing editor (and book
reviews editor) to www.greenprophet.com, Israel’s only
environment-focussed English language website.
Brody was born in 1943, and has taught social anthropology at
the Universities of Belfast, Cambridge and Toronto. He has worked with
Inuit and Indian organisations, and most recently on Bushman history
and land rights in the Southern Kalahari. Non-fiction publications
include Inishkillane, Maps and Dreams,
and the acclaimed The
other side of Eden – hunter gatherers, farmers, and the shaping of the
world (2000), as well as documentary and feature films.
with Hugh Brody
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