The short story continues to fascinate me for two reasons: the precision of thought and execution it attracts as well as its unpredictability. If well done, it can surprise and satisfy like nothing else in literature. And Nick Mulgrew does the genre justice like few other contemporary South African writers. His work has been recognised with multiple awards and his vision and skill have been highly acclaimed by critics. Mulgrew is also an editor and the director of the flourishing poetry press, uHlanga, which published his debut poetry volume, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, in 2015. In his many impressive literary incarnations, Mulgrew understands that short art forms require meticulous attention to language. He knows how to make words count.
Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories, Stations (2016), was a stunning accomplishment. His latest, The First Law of Sadness, expands on the predecessor’s sound foundations and takes us to the heart of sorrow: “There is the universe, I have come to know, and it is full of pain. This pain can neither be created nor destroyed: only transferred. For every pain healed in someone, a new one is felt in another.” This is the titular “first law of sadness”. Sadness in these pensive and beautifully crafted short stories comes in many guises, manifesting as loss, loneliness, melancholy or anguish. Each piece is accompanied by a colour photograph from the series “Robot Run” by Michael Tymbios, a Cape Town-based graphic designer. The images add a soulful dimension to the narrations.
The First Law of Sadness opens with a thought-provoking, and unsettling, epigraph by Genna Gardini: “Horror’s not the seedling. It’s the pot.” It is followed by an eerie prose passage in italics which includes this paragraph: “Your body, face-down. Ripples from the skin. Buoy at the edge of the world. Your body, it turns. Blue face, neoprene. A smile of teeth, beckoning. A hand of fingers, divining.”
Then a photograph and the title “Anew” announce the first story in the collection. The image is of skid marks on a road heading into an overpass tunnel on a clear, sunny day. Human presence is implied by its absence. There is a suspicion that despite appearances, something is out of control, that the calm of the surroundings is only an illusion. You never know what will shift a straightforward situation into a different gear or what will be needed to survive. The opening lines of “Anew” confirm the sense of instability and passing, setting the tone for the entire book: “Like water, it evaporates. Some small memory, in the sitting room, with the green damask carpet, the Lladros a silent audience. Sifting pictures on the floor, captured light, un-mounting paintings from the wall-paper. Last week’s newspaper, bubble wrap, boxes in the ruin. Strange how there is no memory now of what was living, but only the cleaning, the division of spoils.”
The First Law of Sadness includes ten other short stories, each introduced with a striking photograph by Tymbios. The images, ranging from an empty petrol station at night to a flower arrangement on display next to a car seem mundane at first glance, but closely observed, they can reveal moving stories in their own right and enrich the eerie atmosphere of the collection.
In “For Sale: Set of Secondhand Imported Momo Mags for Toyota Corolla (Mint Condition), Bargain”, an online sales ad for the item described in the title tells the tale of heart-breaking loss, reminiscent of the famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
“Ever Elizabeth” captures the moment of return to a place of one’s past, when anything but escape felt like a trap. Elizabeth comes back to Port Elizabeth where, from the moment she lands at the airport, everything feels out of joint: “Everything built for a future that never became a present. An international airport with flights only as far as Johannesburg. An arrivals hall with one rotating carousel. Unused custom booths, filing cabinets gathering the receipts of years.”
In “Bootlegger”, Yerodin Fermin, a foreign student at Rhodes, runs over a duiker on his way to Grahamstown while under the influence of drugs. He comes up with a wild idea what to do with the carcass of the animal. In “Rise of the Shogunate”, the narrator tries to deal with the challenges of his post-divorce life with an interest in Japanese aesthetics. An encounter with an albino turtle exposes a heart-breaking vulnerability in “The Turtle-keeper”. A dog is killed by a bird of prey in “Smaller”; the incident brings the pet owner’s ugly emotions to the surface. Unwillingly, a man becomes an internet porn sensation in the sinister “Patron”. The removal of a man’s tattoos tells his story in “Therapist”. Seeing the Springboks after their World Cup win, Kip’s life takes a new turn in “Jumper”. Help arrives in an unexpected form after a freak plane accident in “A Descent”.
The last image in the book is of a dark ash-grey gargoyle statue with burning red eyes. But the gargoyle is not perched on a building as usual and is unable to fulfil its traditional architectural function (to convey water away from the structure it aims to protect). It just sits there panting on the ground in front of a dull brick wall. Another creature seems to be attached to the wall behind it, but it is impossible to discern what it is, as only a part of a curled tail is visible at the top of the picture. I wasn’t sure whether the image is meant to go along with the photographer’s biographical note on the next page, or whether it is a visual comment on the proceeding texts. If the latter, it is a brilliant conclusion to the collection: a displaced gargoyle and an unidentified tail are the perfect symbols for a book of stories in which everything and everyone seem lost in one way or another.
The First Law of Sadness
by Nick Mulgrew
David Philip, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times on 23 February 2018.