Roh Lucifer (“Lucifer’s Spirit”), by Alice Gaber, Cairo: Al-Nassim Publishing, 2021.
Short stories are always a challenge for any writer. In a few pages he or she is required to create personalities, history and events that entice the reader’s curiosity.
Alice Gaber, in her last collection of short stories Roh Luciver (“Lucifer’s Spirit”), was able to attract the reader by doing just that.
The collection shares its name with one of the 17 short stories that comprise it.
The titular story is inspired by Rasputin, the infamous Russian priest viewed by many contemporaries as evil: an evil spirit moving from body to body to commit crimes, wrongdoings and misdeeds.
In Gaber’s story the priest is named Marcelin and is responsible for healing a mentally disturbed woman. From the description of his personality the reader expects him to rape her, which he proceeds to do after restraining her with iron chains.
Then, with malice, the victim asks him to light candles for romance. The narrator, a small girl of eight-years-old who sneaked in to watch what was happening, runs away and sleeps.
When she wakes up, the house is burned; both the priest and the woman are burned with it. The priest is glorified as a hero who died trying to save the crazy woman. Only the little girl knows the truth.
Even though the collection is named for this story, it is among the weakest in the collection. Despite the simple, smooth writing style and the easy narration, the story is predictable and repetitive; the victim manages to take her revenge on the perpetrator, even if it means dying with him. The writer places the story in a cold country and in the past, which alienates the reader. She simply reinvented the original Rasputin.
The writer manages to engage the reader in many of the other stories, most notably The Glittering City. The story is that of a boy abandoned by his birth parents in Ezbet El-Safeeh (“the tinplate manor”), a miserable neighbourhood in which children are abandoned every few days. Those boys who survive become petty criminals while the girls become prostitutes.
The main character is that of a boy who is lucky enough to escape the cruel life of a criminal. The police chief who arrests him has mercy and puts him in a respectable orphanage before adopting him after his wife dies. He considers him his own son and treats him as such.
The young man becomes a physician, but never forgets his childhood. His nostalgia brings him back to that awful neighbourhood to look for his childhood friend, a little girl that he used to split his food with and lay next in the cold nights. The reader is rooting for him to find her and when he eventually does we see the difference between both personalities.
One who was taken care of and eventually develops manners and a kind heart versus a girl who had a rough life and was used since reaching puberty. The boy wants to save his childhood friend, but she does not remember him and treats him as a weird customer. The ending is dramatic for both characters. The boy is hit by a car and dies on the spot and the girl has no emotion except for regretting that she could have gotten more money out of him.
Analyzing such a story would bring pain and darkness to the reader. The story could have ended on a happy note that brings hope or simply a neutral finish. But the author deliberately refused to give a chance to the less fortunate under the pretext that life is not fair. Hammering such ideas adds to the mischief of life.
In Red Suits You, the writer tells a story of a lady murderer, a woman who kills her husband and daughter for the sake of her boyfriend, and of the witness who turns her in, the younger daughter who sees her mother kill her sister. The writer manages to take away any possible sympathy for the murderer by making her an awful example of human trash, a cheating woman who kills with no remorse and would have continued to do so if she was not caught.
The one positive story Gaber wrote, Colour Combat, was addressed to a girl fighting cancer. The anonymous girl fights her pain through painting her nails, each nail in a different color. She fights for her life knowing that she will lose but refusing to go until it is her time.
Most of the collection contains miserable examples of humans, mainly women, who have misfortune when they marry the wrong men or are abused in one form or another. The writer avoids symbolism and is straightforward in telling her stories.
The narratives are written in a simple style that makes the book an easy read, but unfortunately forgettable.