Monday, June 18, 2012

Flowering Judas and Other Stories by Katherine Anne Porter

Epitomizes the art of the short story
Originally published in 1930, Flowering Judas and Other Stories was the first collection of short stories by Katherine Anne Porter. These twelve selections constitute a remarkable literary debut, impressively showcasing not only Porter’s exceptional talent but also her tremendous range.

Eight of the twelve stories are set in Mexico, a country in which Porter lived, worked, and traveled. The title selection is the best of several masterpieces in the book. “Flowering Judas” tells the story of a 22-year-old American schoolteacher who moonlights as a revolutionary. The reality of the revolution falls far short of her preconceived, romantic notions. The head agitator she serves seems more concerned with bedding her than with the rebel cause. Even worse, she fails to live up to her own idealistic image of a revolutionary because she’s too tied to her Catholic, American, bourgeois past to wholeheartedly devote herself to the fight. Throughout the book, Porter celebrates the beauty and romance of Mexico while simultaneously stripping away the pretty veneer to expose the often harsh and ugly reality underneath. She explores the Mexican experience from various perspectives: rural and urban, rich and poor, agrarian and intellectual, native and outsider. In “Hacienda,” a Russian film crew shoots a movie which sounds an awful lot like Sergei Eisenstein’s Qué viva Mexico! When the company of condescending outsiders occupies a hacienda where pulque is manufactured, cultural and class distinctions become glaringly apparent as the real life events of the inhabitants and the fictional narrative of the film become inextricably entwined.

Porter is a fantastic writer, but there are still some weak links in this chain. “The Martyr,” a fable about an artist who loses his muse, is a little too lighthearted to achieve any profound effect. The excessively brief “Magic” also seems a bit pointless. The least satisfying entry in the collection is “Theft,” which is told in deliberately obscure, impressionistic prose reminiscent of some of William Faulkner’s more self-indulgent ramblings. Thankfully, she rarely resorts to this sort of gratuitous verbal chicanery, though she’s not averse to narrative experimentation. Elsewhere she uses the stream-of-consciousness technique to far better effect, as in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” told from the point of view of a dying 80-year-old-woman. In the excellent “Rope,” she deftly interweaves the competing interior monologues of a bickering married couple.

A common theme running through these stories is regret—regret for missed opportunities, lost loves, or loves retained long past their prime. In the exemplary piece “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” a married couple resides on a farm in Connecticut, the husband thirty years older than the wife. The woman misses her former exciting life in New York City, laments her attachment to an aging husband, and longs for a reunion with a younger man she once knew. Like many of the stories included here, the conclusion relies on how she reacts to these regrets and whether or not she can come to terms with them.

Porter demonstrates a clairvoyant insight into human psychology and a masterful skill at crafting riveting prose. The few low points in this collection are not the mistakes of a bad writer but rather the failed experiments of a brilliant scientist, necessary pitfalls in the course of a stellar career. This collection is a landmark work of literature by one of America’s greatest authors.

Stories in this collection
María Concepcíon
Virgin Violeta
The Martyr
That Tree
The Jilting of Granny Weatherall
Flowering Judas
The Cracked Looking-Glass

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