This week's Sunday Guardian column.
Read some of the more acclaimed short story collections of recent times, and you’d be tempted to think that the influence of Chekhov is on the wane, despite Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win.The gothic, comic sagas of Karen Russell, the revealing bravado of Junot Diaz, the black humour of Sam Lipsyte and the sardonic vision of George Saunders, to name a few: none of them can be described as belonging to the camp of quiet realism. Others such as Deborah Levy stray even further, with surreal vignettes and ice-cold prose. Even the recently-announced winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Sarah Hall, tells the story of a woman who turns into a fox during a woodland walk with her husband.
Perhaps a reason for this is that the world they write about has already been mapped so closely by those who came before that a startling new vision is necessary. Other parts of the world, though, remain comparatively undescribed, and it is here that the lessons of the Russian writer make themselves apparent.
It’s in this context that Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter ought to be seen. This collection of eight stories was earlier long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (along with Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land) – and was also shortlisted this week for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the titles on which were described by Peter Stead, chair of the prize, as “young writers going for the big themes”.
Almost all of these stories are set in Nepal and its environs, and are marked by character-driven, open-ended plots delineated in simple but never simplistic prose. This is not to say that Parajuly doesn’t display ambition. To begin with, he explores the consciousness of a wide variety of people, from a Kathmandu servant girl to an unemployed Darjeeling graduate to a Bhutanese refugee to an IT professional in New York and more. (Chekhov: "It's easier to write about Socrates than about a young woman or a cook.") There’s ambition also to be found in stories such as ‘A Father’s Journey’, which sums up the shifting, decades-long relationship between father and daughter. Further, there’s deft use of craft in ‘The Cleft’, with intercuts between past promises made to a set-upon domestic worker and her present predicament. Clearly, then, these aren’t tales of the aroma of Darjeeling tea or glimpses of Mount Everest – as one of the New York-based characters wryly states, these are the things that people ask him about when he tells them where he’s from.
Many of the stories deal with the gulf between the disadvantaged and the better-off, contrasting the dreams of the underprivileged with those “uncomfortable with the vast gulf separating one’s silver-spoon upbringing from another’s fast-improving but modest existence.” It’s a gulf of both class and wealth. An unemployed, impoverished engineer resents having to put up more well-to-do members of his extended family; a Muslim grocer holds his tongue rather than complain about shoplifting by the daughter of a well-heeled customer; and Bhutanese refugees in Nepal scheme to find a better life overseas. Politics enters some stories as an influence on private lives, be it the cause of economic hardship because of demands for a separate state or ambitions of making a living as a politician representing those without a voice.
The later stories are among the more moving, whether exploring the day-to-day existence of an ageing couple whose children have settled overseas, or the plight of a Gurkha family after the British have left. ‘The Immigrants’, set in New York, has a pleasing, gradual inversion of roles between an employer and his maid but is alas a bit too predictable, employing familiar tropes in the telling.
In an essay titled 'Learning from Chekhov', Francine Prose writes: “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.” Parajuly, who has a debut novel out soon, seems to be doing just that.