Imagine picking three books at random—three short story collections—from your ‘favourites’ stack. Imagine having read these books before and this time you just want to read one story from each, to compare styles. Random is the key word here. There’s no rhyme nor reason to any of the choices.
So you open the first to a page that’s part of a story called ‘An Evening in the Cafe’ about a woman from Montreal who is near the end of a teaching term in an unnamed German city. She has a room above a butcher shop, the smell of fleisch is everywhere, even permeating a handkerchief in a dresser drawer. The Chinese restaurant across the road teems with life, while in the café [attached to the butcher shop] where she feels obligated to take her meals, the days and evenings are quiet and predictable—as are the people, including “Oma and Opa… digging into their Schmalz, their broad knives bring up thick portions of seasoned lard from the blue-grey pottery. Now they would be spreading it on their Brot. They would be sipping at their wine and spreading Schmalz on their Brot.”
A letter arrives and creates a stir.
You open the second book at a story called ‘Plum Dumplings’ about a woman in Montreal, anxiously preparing for a [dreaded] visit from her Austrian grandmother, a woman who has nice things to say about Hitler and considers her granddaughter an idiot for living in Canada [she refers to it as keiner da: no one here]. Despite the “fairy wisps of hair” that escape her long braid she remains a tough nut, but then food plays a significant role in shifting attitudes [and is not limited to the title dish]. “Soup in the evening—true gourmandise—brought forth a more expansive Oma. Spooning up broth, folding a slice of bread in half and buttering the end each time she bit…”
Finally, the third book, which you flip open [all still very random] at the story ‘Little Bird’. A young man, an ‘entertainer’ in Berlin, is haunted by his unsettled childhood and his father’s past. He recalls the moment he’s forced to face an awful truth while living in the Caribbean where his Mutti reads Tarot cards and his father sings German folk songs, and where he’s been invited to another’s boy’s house after school, someone he has mistaken as a potential friend. The boys have a snack… “The cook took two slices of white bread from the breadbox and sprinkled them with chocolate, then put the plates in front of us.”
And then things get ugly.
Imagine your delight at these odds: three exceptional stories, randomly stumbled over and each featuring Germany or Austria, the German language, an Oma or a Mutti, references to bread and, in two cases, protagonists from Montreal.
‘An Evening in the Cafe’, from Truth or Lies, by Frances Itani (Oberon Press, 1989)
‘Plum Dumplings’, from Ruins & Relics, by Alice Zorn (NeWest Press, 2009)
‘Little Bird’, from Oh, My Darling, by Shaena Lambert (Harper Collins, 2013)