Edited by Nadine Gordimer
Picador: 306 pp., $14 paper
AIDS in America may seem less threatening than it was a decade ago -- although rising numbers of sexually transmitted diseases and the long-term failure of some AIDS-related treatments suggest such complacency is misplaced -- but it continues to rage elsewhere. Worldwide, "40 million ... men, women and children [are] infected with HIV/AIDS, two-thirds of whom are in Africa," Nadine Gordimer writes in the introduction to "Telling Tales." Her social and artistic conscience makes this new collection of short stories, in which she brings together a matchless list of writers, unique: All royalties and profits from its sales will fund AIDS treatment, research and prevention efforts.
Gordimer approached writers she knew or admired and asked them to submit what they considered one of their best stories for "Telling Tales," making this AIDS book peculiar -- a reader waits in vain for a character to be confronted with a positive HIV test or for the AIDS virus to interrupt another story as horribly as Edgar Allan Poe's Red Death does. Eventually it becomes clear that her aim was not only to honor the lives of people with AIDS by helping them, but also to honor literature and its power to minister to all.
The 21 contributors include five Nobel Prize winners (of whom Gordimer is one) and others who someday may join them (Susan Sontag and Amos Oz, for example). Although no general theme besides AIDS seems to have been specified by the editor, one quickly emerges: the prevalence of suffering on every level of existence (from inner despair to random accident and genocide) and the struggle to find the means to survive it. In Jose Saramago's astonishing "The Centaur," the last of those mythical man-beasts canters stealthily through thousands of years of civilization, only to finally meet his fate in our own time. John Updike's "The Journey to the Dead" offers a more everyday rendering of the moment a friend's sudden illness changes the world of those helpless or too frightened to witness or alleviate suffering.
Even when the tone is comic, a sense of desperation remains. Woody Allen's "The Rejection," written in hilarious bad-Dostoevsky style, tells of a prosperous New York City family driven to ruin because their toddler has been turned down by "the very best nursery school in Manhattan." Children throughout are the victims and witnesses of the most unbearable suffering, never so powerfully as in Gordimer's "The Ultimate Safari," in which a family fleeing bandits and death in Mozambique joins a mass of Africans traveling stealthily through a safari range, perishing without food or shelter while oblivious white tourists barbecue and celebrate the day's diversions a few feet away.
The implicit message of this book is that great writing can (and perhaps should) be fully involved in the world's problems -- that focusing on the social and political does not have to lead to shallow characters and propaganda literature. As Gordimer states in her introduction, "along with music, the art [of storytelling] is the oldest form of enchantment." From the beginning, such tales confirm that once beguiled, the enchanted often awaken not only creatively enriched but also wiser to the real world they must make their way through. To writers of this caliber, casting a spell and conjuring a solution is not only their trade, but also their obligation. As one character says of another in Kenzaburo Oe's "Abandoned Children of this Planet," "I expect he's lived his life ever since in fear of the day he would have to abandon everything in order to dedicate himself to matters of the soul."
These "matters of the soul," whether manifest in warring factions fracturing African communities or in layers of imagined and authentic moments of love and loss (Sontag's sublime "The Letter Scene"), are deeply related to the matters of responsibility the AIDS virus presents to all of us; and so, in a way, Gordimer has produced a book that is as much about the epidemic she rises to resist as are many other AIDS anthologies. Her efforts deserve our support and emulation.
Patrick Giles writes about books, politics and the arts for The Times, the Village Voice, Salon.com and Interview.