March 13, 2010

War Story Revisted

Once my mother and I were riding in an overcrowded train. It was Victory Day. The man sitting opposite us looked like a peasant and was crying bitterly, washing his tears down with vodka. Every once in a while he'd break off to tell the same story. I heard it many times and remembered it. Here it is.
During the war he and his sister lost everyone close to them. Their village was destroyed, and they took shelter in another village, in an empty house. They were very hungry, and went from house to house asking for something to eat. Then the sister got sick, and the boy went by himself. They stopped giving him anything. Just when things were getting really bad, a miracle happened: at one of the houses they gave him a piece of pork. The boy ate his fill for the first time in days, and there was enough left for the sister. They were able to hold out for a couple of days more, and then some distant relatives found them and took them to the town where he lived for many years.

On that day he had gone back to the village where the miracle happened, to find the people who had saved his life and thank them, even though he didn't know their names. He got off the train and found a big feast going on in the village. In the middle of the table was a ham, with bottles around it. He sat next to an old man. They drank. The old man looked thoughtfully at the table, then said: "I don't like this holiday. It's hard on me remembering the war, I have a great sin on my soul.
"During the war my son was sick. The doctor said he had to have meat. I sold everything I could and bought a pig. I slaughtered it, but the pig was sick. What could I do? In the village there was an orphan who went around begging. I decided I'd give him a piece, wait a couple of days and see what happened. If the beggar boy survived, I'd give my son the meat. I invited him to have some of the pork. But he didn't survive, he didn't walk around the village any more. We had to throw the meat away. My son died. It's a heavy weight on me that I killed those children."

The man took a swig from the bottle and started the story again.

—as noted by languagehat, who goes on to add:

Now, in the comments at the Shkrobius thread a couple of people said they remembered this story from an old magazine, and one of them found a link: it's Мелкие неприятности ("Little annoyances"), by Pavel Nilin. The plot is close enough that it would be surprising if the two were unrelated; the main difference is that in the Nilin story there is no sick son—the villager tests out the pork on the boy and sees it doesn't kill him; presumably he and his wife eat the rest. Either the fellow Shkrobius and his mother saw in the train (he says in the comment thread that it was in the early 1970s) had read the story (which is dated 1974) and was telling it as his own, or Nilin heard the same guy and made a literary story out of it. Or, of course, it could be coincidence. But the interesting thing is how much more effective the anecdote told by Shkrobius is; the Nilin story, with its careful scene-setting and description of neighbors and so on, just dissipates the power of it.

Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara is an old book that has all the stories in it, as far as I'm concerned. Admittedly, I've only heard second hand about Somadeva's book myself, so I have no way of knowing how accurate my characterization is. Nevertheless, not having read it allows me to continue to guess it has a story in it just like this story among all the rest, a story repeated over and over again not only on the train by the inebriated traveller, but also over and over again by countless other travellers in caravans all over Central Asia and beyond for millennia.

The story as told on the train has neatly concentrated moral elements: we see the seeming bit of charity in the offered pig meat for the ploy it actually is on the part of the villager who, otherwise indifferent to their fate, only wishes to know if the starving children will sicken or die when fed the bad meat of a pig he otherwise plans to feed his own sick son to bring the ailing lad back to health. Shortly after eating the pork, sustained in the last moment before starvation by their fill of the meat given them by the villager for his own reasons, the boy and his sister are found by relatives and taken away to safety. But the villager mistakes the disappearance of the boy and his sister for a sign that bad pork has killed them, forbids his sick son the meat that might have saved the lad's life, and watches, wretched, as his sick son soon dies. The villager's act of inadvertent true charity has, misunderstood, inadvertently committed his son to death.

The great existential question posed by specifying the meat as pork is, "But would you eat that if your were starving?" Pork is the normatively forbidden thing, standing in for all the other forbidden tainted stuff avoided for all the reasons that might, yes, just might be consumed if it came down to it, which in fact it has come down to time and again down the ages for countless many people, people who have confronted the question in lean unequivacal terms, starving with but the arbitrary anything to chew on. Would you overcome your disgust and eat that? If it were truly distasteful? Even if you'd been told over and over again just don't? If it were made available, and you starving?

It's no secret about pork. The people who eat pork without qualm are conscious of the revulsion commonly engendered in others by the practice. Presumably the people who eat dog are equally conscious of the revulsion commonly engendered in others by the transgression of feeding on fido. And even the people who eat such stuff agree that it can go bad. So there's that in the story, the prospect of eating anything, yes, even the bad thing, when it comes to it.

In the story, the serving of pork adds piquancy to the threat of starving to death faced by the boy and his sister. Children will eat anything, and there's always a lot of keeping stuff out of children's mouths in the early going, keeping them on the path of the actual foodways of the culture they're emerging into and avoiding the pitfalls of the literal scenery chewing they are capable of early on.

By their nature as children and their condition as starvelings, the brother and sister in the story must eat the offered pork, swallowing with it whatever taint it may be said to carry.

"The boy ate his fill for the first time in days, and there was enough left for the sister." Note the brisk moral calculus revealed by the phrase "there was enough left for the sister." The starving boy eats as much as he can. Luckily for the sister, there's a surfeit, such as it is, of pig meat, and she lives too.

Note also the nested structure of the narrative. You're being told a story which was told (over and over again) on a singular train trip taken some time ago on Victory Day to the person telling you the story. And the person telling the story over and over again on that train trip on Victory Day to the person who's telling you the story proceeds to retell in his story another version of his own story as told to him by another fellow entirely in a village he travelled to, coincidentally enough, on yet another prior Victory Day. This kind of story nesting, being told a story about a story that has yet another story in it, isn't unheard of when it comes to storytelling. It's a prime sign that the formal events belonging to it, the forbidden food and its consequences, have been consciously arranged by a storyteller.

1 comment:

rampster said...

am reminded that "to wit: the Quotidian (formerly the Diurnal Journal), "peter ramus," but not me." resulted from a similarly worked earlier episode.