Mortimer of the Maghreb (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
Mortimer of the Maghreb is Henry Shukman’s first book of fiction published in the United States. Born in Oxford, England, he began traveling and writing in his early twenties and is better known as the author of travelogues and a single volume of poetry. His Sons of the Moon: A Journey in the Andes (1989) is a book-length travelogue about his adventures in Bolivia and Peru. Travels with My Trombone: A Caribbean Journey (1992) focuses on his travels in Trinidad, Granada, and Colombia as a pick-up musician in bands playing reggae and other local music. His third travel book, Savage Pilgrims: On the Road to Santa Fe (1996), describes his exploration of New Mexico, where he now lives. A contributing editor to the magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Shukman often focuses more on his own personal pilgrimages than on the landscapes of his journeys; consequently, it is not surprising that he has turned to fictional narrative.
As Shukman tells it, his first writing success, which ultimately led to the publication of Mortimer of the Maghreb, was In Doctor No’s Garden, a collection of poems published in England in 2002. Shukman’s poetry, which has won many prizes in England, as well as Book of the Year citations by both the London Times and the Manchester Guardian, is, as he has insisted in interviews, the kind of verse that he discovered and loved as a teenager: poetry that one can understand at a first reading. He has accused some twentieth century poets of being too obscure and inaccessible, of making poetry too highbrow by ignoring the general well-educated reader and writing instead to poetry specialists.
In an interview, Shukman has said that his book of poetry was a turning point in his career, for its reception by critics and the general audience brought literary agents to his door, wanting to know if he had any fiction. Shukman says he showed the agents some novels he had written several years earlier, two that he had begun when he was nineteen. These early works, according to Shukman, are the basis of some of the stories and novellas that now appear in Mortimer of the Maghreb.
Mortimer of the Maghreb consists of two separate groups of stories. The first comprises two stories and one novella“Mortimer of the Maghreb,” “Man with Golden Eagle,” and “The Garden of God”all of which focus on the adventures of the title character, journalist Charles Mortimer, at various points in his career. The second also comprises two stories and one novella“Castaway,” “Old Providence,” and “Darien Dogs”which focus primarily on middle-aged men living and working in the Caribbean. The two sets of stories were published earlier as two separate books in England, under the titles, respectively, Sandstorm (2005) and Darien Dogs (2002). Although British reviewers complained that the stories were somewhat spoiled by their clichéd prose, predictable plots, and romantic commercialism, some critics found themselves drawn into the world of the expatriate created by Shukman.
Because the book’s first three stories all focus on the journalist Charles Mortimer, part 1 of Mortimer of the Maghreb qualifies as a short-story sequence or “novel in stories,” providing readers some continuity as well as the pleasure of reading a story in which they meet a character they have encountered in a previous story. Such character reappearances create little shocks of recognition for the reader, a sort of “wow” feeling that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around, just waiting for another story in which to emerge.
Some critics argue that the space between the novel and the short story is occupied by such short-story sequences. However, when readers focus on the sequential nature of stories, their engagement is usually on the novel side of the equation rather than on the short-story side. Indeed, although Mortimer of the Maghreb is characterized as a collection of stories, the fictions here are not short stories but rather stories that simply happen to be short. They lack the tightness and the careful, poetic prose that one has come to expect from the modern short story since the time of Anton Chekhov. In fact, Shukman’s work is commercial fiction, not high art. The prose is often careless and...
(The entire section is 1808 words.)
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