I love a good short story with punch. This is one of them.
For years, I’ve preached the benefits of being well read. “It’s much more than knowing literature,” I’d say. “It’s knowing where you are in the world.” They would always argue against me. They would – especially the blue collared fathers of son’s who went to college for creative writing. “What can they do with that?” they’d reply. “If you don’t know, I would have difficulty explaining it to you.”
I am quite interested in finance – being so, I listen to a wide variety of online interviews regarding it. Not the types of interviews you would hear on CNN or Fox News. I enjoy listening to people in the know. People in industry. The people I care for are those with dirt beneath their fingernails – those who were raised correctly and those who have spent time in the field.
But it’s not just the financials I’m interested in, it’s lives as well. Which brings me to the point of this post – The Appointment In Samarra.
A few weeks ago, I was about half way through an interview with a CEO of a very large gold mining company located in South America. The fellow speaking, in my opinion, has always been quite talented and informed, so it was curious that my ears perked up when I heard this gentleman say something to the likes of, “It’s not like we have an appointment in Samarra or something.”
I was a bit taken aback by my own reaction. I was surprised at how much additional weight this individual commanded simply by mentioning one of the more famous fables of all time. He demonstrated he knew more than gold mining and more than running a company. He demonstrated a breadth of knowledge alongside his awareness of his place in the world. It makes a difference you know.
A small example of the power of literature. Take it for what it’s worth.
The Appointment In Samarra is the first of many stories I will read in the book entitled, “Literature – An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama” by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. This book is somewhat behind my motivation for this post. It’s undoubtedly going to open my eyes to a world I have yet been introduced and will hopefully change my life. For now though, I’d like to simply go through each story and discuss.
The fable’s not more than a paragraph in length, which may be what makes it interesting. How the author captures such richness in something so brief. If you’ve ever had a college professor ask you to write a paper of no more than one page, you surely know the challenge in conveying your point when there are limits attached.
I’d like to cover two aspects of this fable here – I am sure there are many more, so please feel free to leave comments and I will gladly reply. The first thing I want to mention is how intrigued I am at discovering something new each time I read this story. I’m not sure if it’s a mental trick or not. My mind tells me that something so short can be read quickly. It tells me that I needn’t pay all too much attention. So this may be my own fault. Or perhaps not because the story is rich. And it’s meant to be read that way.
The second thing I found interesting in this story is how the narrative speaker seems to change about half way through. At first, I thought I was reading from a third party. Then, I realized it was Death who was actually doing the telling. I’m not sure if I missed something – perhaps the first words, “Death speaks:” in Maugham’s retelling is throwing me for a loop.
The authors of the book, “Literature” are suggesting that this fable has some sort of a moral or lesson attached to it. In the conversation that follows the story, they discuss this – as well as some other examples of similar nature. Stories such as: “The Fox and the Grapes” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.” They ask how I would state the message in my own words. And this is where I failed back in my college days.
We’d sit in what some describe as “the circle of friends” and review what we had read the night before. If we were to read “The Appointment In Samarra,” we would begin with the student closest to the door and go around the room. Each would be asked to contribute their opinion of the underlying question – which is, in this case: How would you explain, in your own words, the message of this story?
To which I would reply: “I’m not quite sure I can use my own words to describe something I didn’t write. If I had written something that I had invented on my own, only to listen to someone describe, with any amount of confidence, the message I was intending to portray, I would be somewhat bothered. If they were to pick at my story, I would ask them to write something of their own. Now having said that, I will attempt to give my opinion of the story with hardly any confidence at all. To which is this – Natural law will always triumph. Anything in between its beginning and its end happens merely by chance.”
What’s your opinion on “The Appointment In Samarra?”