Free Fruit For Young Widows by Nathan Englander, 2010
The magic trick:
Teaching the reader a lesson on the importance of context in the same way the character of Etgar learns in the story
“Free Fruit” essentially consists of three stories – a troubling incident of the past, the even more troubling incidents that preceded it, and the way in which a man reacts to both episodes. Ultimately, the stories teach the value of context; how one should not judge one story without understanding what stories laid its foundation.
A young boy, Etgar, in the story is the recipient of this lesson, as taught by his father’s tales. He’s not alone, though. Englander puts the reader in Etgar’s position to learn this same lesson as well. By opening the story with the disturbing episode of the wartime shootings, Englander encourages, if not forces, the reader into making snap judgments about Professor Tendler, just as Etgar does. As the story continues, the reader learns, along with Etgar, more about the Professor’s background and his tragic experiences during World War II. To call them harrowing is a gross understatement.
The reader is still welcome to make judgments by story’s end – and perhaps many will still come to the same conclusions about the Professor’s murders – but there’s no doubt the issues are far less black-and-white than they initially appeared. And that’s quite a trick on Englander’s part.
(Note: The use of the word “even” in the final sentence is so devastating it at least bears mention here.)
((Note: I feel strongly that art need not be about major world events in order to be termed important. However given this summer’s bloodshed on the Gaza Strip, I think it’s fair to recommend this story as an important addition to anyone weighing in on the current-events debate.))
(((Note: Today is my birthday, and this is a fairly somber way to celebrate. However, it is also fitting, because this is without-question one of the best stories I read this summer.)))
Etgar’s father explained the hazy morality of combat, the split-second decisions, the assessment of threat and response, the nature of percentages and absolutes. Shimmy did his best to make clear to his son that Israelis—in their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution—were trapped in a gray space that was called real life.
In this gray space, he explained, even absolutes could maintain more than one position, reflect more than one truth. “You, too,” he said to his son, “may someday face a decision such as Professor Tendler’s—may you never know from it.” He pointed at the bloody stall across from theirs, pointed at a fish below the mallet, flopping on the block. “God forbid you should have to live with the consequences of decisions, permanent, eternal, that will chase you in your head, turning from this side to that, tossing between wrong and right.”