In 2001, Claire Messud published two novellas in one book, The Hunters and A Simple Tale. Pairing them together in this way invites comparison between the two, which is partly a shame because they are both strong, stand-alone pieces in their own right and, to my mind, comparison actually weakens one of them. (Perhaps with the recent changes in publishing, there wouldn’t have been such a commercial necessity to publish the two together as there was in 2001… but this is only just speculation.)
The collection opens with A Simple Tale. Set in Toronto, this is the story of Maria Poniatowski, an immigrant to Canada from the Ukraine and survivor of the Nazi work camps. The story begins in the present, with Maria’s job as cleaning woman for several of Toronto’s wealthy families, but it dips backward to tell of Maria’s childhood, her time in the camps, how she met her husband Lev and how the two made their way to North America. It tells of raising their son Radek, who becomes the very Canadian Rod and who has no interest, even no use for, stories from his parents’ immigrant past. The book also focused on Maria losing Lev and her long widowhood.
Just as the title suggests, it is a simple story, but carefully and respectfully told. Compared to the other work of Messud’s that I’ve read it involves a much quieter narration. Straightforward and conventional in a positive sense. Classic. A lot of its power lies in the judicious way that Messud moves from memory to memory – looking back over a life, big events can become less important than smaller events and I like how she handled this complex reality. It is one of those pieces of fiction that isn’t easy to read because it tells of difficult events and deep emotions, but the prose reads easily. I read it in one evening, wanting to move between the opening and closing of the story in one sitting.
Emigrant/immigrant narratives are fascinating to me not only because I’m an expat myself, but because they are what make up the collective American (and by this I mean North American) experience. Both Canada and the US are immigrant nations and with A Simple Tale, Messud has written a really thoughtful consideration of the identity shifts and feelings of disorientation that any immigrant goes through. Her story deals primarily with a particular immigrant experience, one of Canada in the 1940s and 50s, but much of what she brings out is universal.