Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The New Yorker: "Free Fruit for Young Widows" by Nathan Englander

Although there’s more to Englander’s story than there was to Gilb’s story last week, I’m not sure, ultimately, that it’s more satisfying. I’d welcome other views.
Essentially, the story is about a young Israeli boy, Etgar, who is trying to understand his father’s treatment of Professor Tendler. The father, Shimmy, runs a fruit and vegetable stand and always gives free vegetables to Tendler, just as he gives free produce to young war widows. At first, when Etgar is very young, he gets one version of the story. As he ages, he is allowed to know more. Eventually, when he turns thirteen—the age of bar mitzvah—Shimmy tells Etgar the whole story. At this point, the reader thinks he knows what Etgar is about to hear, because Englander begins the telling of his story with a horrific incident in which Tendler kills a group of Egyptian commandos and then beats Shimmy senseless. But the incident that Etgar needs to understand took place much earlier than that, in World War II.
The way Englander has Shimmy tell this story is worth noting. He tells of Tendler’s improbable survival in the war. And then there is more to tell, and more. (I won’t reveal what happened—read Englander’s story!) Finally, Etgar hears the truth and he learns his lesson, which is that life is complicated, filled with excruciating choices.
Which is a good way for a story to end.
 May 17, 2010: “Free Fruit for Young Widows” by Nathan Englander


Anonymous said...

I dunno, man -- I thought this was a rather good candidate for best story of the year so far. It's one of those short stories that's just the right length, with just the right tone and narrative to cater to its theme and leave the reader with a profound philosophical experience. It struck me as being exactly what a short story should be -- a tale expertly told around a campfire, to be listened to while gazing into the abyss of the night.

Maybe it's just me, though.

Clifford Garstang said...

I liked it a lot, as I tried to convey, and I liked the momentum it had as the truth kept adding up.

But I'm troubled by the message, I guess. That's what I mean by not being satisfied. Good story, yes, but is Shimmy's choice the right one? Is Etgar's?

Or does that question not even matter? Maybe not. Maybe Englander is saying that.

What do you think?

F. Escobar said...

I found the morally gray aspect of the story intentional. Near the beginning, we are told that Israelis "were trapped in a gray space that was called real life." As I see it, that pretty much sums up the moral debate around Tendler's actions.

My objection to Englander's story is that such an interpretive apparatus was built at all. Tendler's story was great. It was poignant, funny, and stirring, and it kept me in suspense. But everything else (Shimmy, Etgar, the Suez incident) took away from the strong impression caused by that story. The language also becomes significantly convoluted and circuitous (this unwieldy sentence serves as an example: "And maybe his other family—the nurse at whose breast he had become strong (before weakened), her husband who had farmed his father’s field, and their son (his age), and another (two years younger), boys with whom he had played like a brother—maybe this family was still there waiting"). If Englander had stuck to Tendler, and narrated Tendler's life story crisply and powerfully, I would've joined Anonymous in suggesting this could be the best story so far this year.

Clifford Garstang said...

Good comments, and I agree that Tendler's story is compelling. But I actually find Etgar's story more interesting, maybe because the "Tendler's Choice" is shocking but still expected, whereas watching Etgar's growing understanding of the truth and, as you say, the gray area, makes this a more complex story.

F. Escobar said...

That's probably what Englander was aiming for: greater complexity. But I am convinced that we would, like Etgar, ponder those moral issues and probe that gray area without being forced there by the Etgar-Shimmy superstratum. The fact that Tendler's story refuses to be pigeonholed in a single moral category would, I think, have that effect on readers. But it's a matter of opinion, admittedly.

BTW, with regard to something you describe in a later post, I've also been getting New Yorkers late, and I so much prefer to reading them in print that I wait for them to arrive in the mail instead of reading them online. Englander's story I just got two days ago.

theoncominghope said...

I really loved this story, personally.

I wrote a bit about it here: