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Wednesday, July 10

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Another pleasant journey into the world of short stories- this time, Bernard Malamud's little jewels that simply swept me off my feet. Books can do that, you know, make you fall for them and allow you to get trapped in their little universe. Bernard Malamud, described by his daughter as "My Father is a Book", was a Russian Jewish author of novels and novellas that wrote slowly and loved to burn manuscripts. He probably never took Mikhail Bulgakov's word for granted -"Manuscripts don't burn"- and tried to see for himself whether it felt more liberating to burn your creation rather than let the world burn with curiosity and excitement.

It is a funny thing that I have always felt for little people- people with unspectacular lives, who struggle with their own dull existences until, either something extraordinary happens to them or they get to be part of something great; it is these little epiphanies that bring the best in them or reveal to them odd truths. These are the characters of Bernard Malamud- shopkeepers, shoemakers, candle makers, matchmakers, or rabbis- immigrants striving to make both ends meet in New York or Europe. Bernard Malamud is not the first writer to describe the immigrant experience but there is such grace and profound meaning in the struggle and turmoil of the lives of these people.   

Some of the stories of Bernard Malamud contain magical realism traits a illustrated in his New York world that celebrates the mundane. Simple situations and people are endowed with a deeper meaning and are triggered by unexpected elements that reveal mysteries and magic. Thus, The Angel Levine is the story of tailor who is on the verge of losing his sick wife and fortune and prays to God for help. So Angel Levine appears but he is not what the poor man expects- he is black. The tailor feels he is being mocked at and refuses to put his trust into the angel's power. Until the tailor comes to accept the angel and that God works in mysterious ways, his life does not change for the better. How many people face the arrival of an angel with such easiness, only questioning the colour of the skin?

Humorous and ironic is also the story that gives the title of the short story collection- The Magic Barrel. Here a young Jewish rabbi uses the services of a matchmaker to find himself a proper wife. Leo Finkle is no exception to the practises of the Jewish community that believes marriage brokers are the best way of finding good wives. Mr. Salzman, skinny and smelling of fish, comes with a file containing pictures and detailed information on the potential brides and their family background, yet attempts to find Leo the ideal mate fail miserably. On a last ,desperate visit, Salzman leaves an envelope for the young man that lies unopened for days. Finally, when Leo looks over the pictures of women, his heart and mind wrap around the image of a young lady that runs out to be the counsellor's daughter, Sonia. Salzman refuses to arrange a meeting at first, stating that it was one of the photographs that should have been in the barrel- which makes Finkle think of the barrel as magic. It is the final scene of the short story that is magical: the two meet and Salzman remains hidden around the corner, chanting prayers for the dead.

Delightful and sensitive, Bernard Malamud's stories are remarkable for their subtlety and vividness. They silently pull the reader into the magical world of small New York immigrants, where frustration, regret, unhappiness and sorrow fail to sadden you, yet move you deeply.