Peter Carey’s short stories are closer to fantasy and science fiction than his novels, which are more aptly categorized as historical or Magical Realist. The only novel by Carey that is close to the vision of the short stories is The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994). In the stories, plot and psychologically well-rounded characterization are given less priority than atmosphere and audacity of conception. They are set in surreal, strange environments. Many of the stories take place in alternate histories where people are ruled by nondemocratic governments. These settings assist Carey in establishing an atmosphere of distortion and exaggeration where everything is at risk and no horror is inconceivable. The reader is put into a suspenseful mood, kept on edge. “Room No. 5 (Escribo)” is typical in this regard. This story was inspired by Carey’s visit to Spain in the early 1970’s, during the last years of the authoritarian government there. The story hauntingly imagines the conditions of life in a society filled with fear, degradation, and uncertainty. Everyone is waiting for the aged dictator Timoshenko to die. The narrator and his girlfriend, whom he has met on his travels, tentatively explore their relationship in the grimy atmospheric squalor of a country in which they are strangers. This sense of alienation and dislocation, often laced with humor, is characteristic of Carey’s early stories. Though nothing dramatic happens in “Room No. 5 (Escribo),” the reader is left with the record of a journey not only to a different land but also to an often unexplored area of experience. This is true of many of Carey’s short stories, which read like postcards from the untraveled realm, full of foreboding and apprehension but also pulsing with imaginative vigor. Carey has suggested that this vision may owe something to the history of his native Australia. Its European settlement pioneered by convicts, criminals whom Britain had rejected and exiled, Australia had its origins in the degradation suffered by outcasts. Carey’s short stories, though, show some un-Australian influences, particularly those of the Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, whose depictions of nightmarish dictatorships surely influenced Carey’s.
“Do You Love Me?”
“Do You Love Me” is set in an imaginary world governed by the Cartographers, whose mapmaking can control activity in the real world. They travel all around, keeping track of what is going on, and thus have a tremendous amount of power and social privilege. The narrator’s father, with whom he has always had a distant and difficult relationship, is a Cartographer. When society is faced with a crisis, the sudden vanishing of several major buildings and eventually the dematerialization of individual people, the father is unperturbed. As a Cartographer, he is accustomed to being able to control events. When people begin disappearing en masse, the narrator grows concerned and asks his girlfriend, Karen, if she loves him. The father realizes intellectually that only the portions of the world that are not needed or loved are disappearing, but he cannot translate that realization to an emotional level. The son also resents his father for having affairs with other women and for flirting with his own girlfriend. When his father starts disappearing, the son declares his love for his father, but as he does not really mean it, the father disappears nonetheless. The idea of “disappearance” is in some ways a metaphor for death.
“Kristu-Du” concerns an architect, Gerrard Haflinger, hired to construct a huge edifice in the capital of a backward country ruled by a fierce dictator. The architect is intent on finishing this building, called “Kristu-Du,” the purpose of which is not only to house individuals or offices but also to serve as an emblem of the dictator’s power, inspire awe and fear in the people, and...
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