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‘ An old man’ (shimagle seb ’ay): A short story that interweaves foreshadowing with irony

Title of book, 14 Short stories: winners of the Eritrea Festival 2008 and others
Publication date: August 2009
Publisher: PFDJ-Cultural Affairs
‘An old man’ (shimagle seb’ay) has been taken from a collection of 14 short stories by different writers. Like the rest of the stories, it is written in Tigrigna; so the English translation is mine.

Summary

This beautiful story written by Kibreab Fre relates an old man’s experience of a few hours ordeal before he sees the last light of his life. It begins when the old man’s daughter-in-law helps him out to get the morning’s sunlight as he spends the 20 hours of a day in bed. Then she goes shopping leaving him outside sitting on a stool. The old man shivers and tries to eat the piece of bread she leaves him with a cup of tea. But when he finds the dry bread difficult to grind with his toothless jaws he throws it away. A watchful old dog lying nearby (which we will find an instrumental character in the story) tries to grab it but a very young dog snatches it and goes away. As the sunlight becomes stronger and the old man prepares himself to take advantage of the warmth, some kids (still other instrumental characters in the story), who were playing nearby come towards him and the dog, and in the process of getting the ball which rolls down towards them, knock him down and go about their play. It is only the dog which seems to have felt sorry for the old man.

When the kids come again and pass by running, the old man envies them and goes back to his childhood through a flashback. As he reminisces about that very remote childhood experience, he forgets the effect of the sun, which is getting warmer and warmer with the passage of the minute, on his fragile state. Out of nostalgia he still wants to dwell on his childhood memories but the sun becomes unbearable as it nears overhead. He tries to stand up and go to his bed, but to no avail. He reaches a stage where he couldn’t even take out his overcoat and open his mouth for help. Washed all over by sweat, he rests his body helplessly on the wall nearby. Meanwhile some young men pass by, and noticing his position, they start talking about him. One of them wonders if he is in need of help; another says that such old people don’t need any help and his old age is enough and argues that the old man is simply sleeping and maintains how difficult it is to deal with such kind of people and concludes that they are simply a burden. But the other party counter argues how important the old are to the society and with this they simply continue on their business. The old man is saddened by their attitude and by the fact that he is considered a burden to the very society he served all his life. As the sun continues to beat him down, he envies the old dog which has thick fur that could tolerate the heat. It is only the dog which shows his sympathy by licking the sweat off his face. Seeing this, the old man’s grandson comes and chases the dog away thinking that the dog is trying to eat him. While in such a situation, the old man remembers what his daughter-in-law said about him to neighbouring women one day when he started getting older and, thus, curses old age. Meanwhile, the sun gets harder and harder on him and he starts getting into a state of a coma. He suddenly feels a cold feeling coming from the old dog’s licking his face and he gets fascinated. Getting the wrong impression, once again, the children come back and chase the dog away by throwing stones on him and, as a result of the persistent stoning the dog eventually dies. Shortly after, the old man too dies from the scorching heat. Twelve days after his death, he already becomes a thing of the past and gets remotely buried even in his family’s minds. Only the old people who are his friends keep remembering him.

Foreshadowing and irony

Foreshadowing is used to hint in a story what would happen ahead through actions, remarks, objects, etc. Along with a flashback and as part of a plot structure, it helps the author maintain variety in the arrangement of events in the story.

The use of irony, on the other hand, gives light on the point of view the writer has chosen. Kibreab has used irony to show how limited control humans have on things around them and to satirize the human sham that belies the true nature of their being. Interestingly, all three identifiable types of irony, namely, verbal, situational, and dramatic are employed to give meaning to the story under discussion. Verbal irony occurs when a character says what he/she doesn’t mean. In situational irony, what happens is in complete contrast with what is expected. In dramatic irony, on the other hand, the reader has better understanding of the situation unfolding than the character/s in the story (Kirszner & Mandell, 2000).

How are, then, these two techniques handled in ‘An old man’? The first hint of foreshadowing is introduced right at the beginning of the story. The narrator tells the reader, in the first paragraph, that the old man’s daughter-in-law wakes him up early to do her daily chores and to get herself ready for the ‘upcoming ceremony’ (page 91). The ‘upcoming ceremony’ is not revealed throughout the story, but, whatever it is, the reader gets some sense that foreshadows the old man’s death and the memorial ceremony that follows afterwards. The author could have simply used specific words such as ‘Christmas’, ‘Easter’, ‘birthday party’, ‘nigdet’ (a religious ceremony), etc. instead of just saying ‘upcoming ceremony’, a phrase which he must have wanted the reader to notice as something that foreshadows what is to come. In addition, if the idea of the ‘upcoming ceremony’ did not have an added value to the story, there was no need for the author to mention it at all and could have told us that the old man’s daughter-in-law went shopping simply as part of her daily chores. In short story, as in poetry, writers are very specific in their choices of words and make use of those that help them deliver their points.

Hereafter the use of foreshadowing becomes apparent. Kibreab has skillfully and beautifully used the foreshadowing technique with the help of an old dog. The old dog, in addition to highlighting the points the old man makes about old age, is very instrumental for the author to use foreshadowing. The author has in effect presented two stories that go parallel until the end of the story – that of the old man and that of the old dog. Had either of the two been missing from the story, the narrative would still not have lost its point. But the foreshadowing aspect would have certainly been affected, if not lost altogether.

The first instance of foreshadowing through action rather than through hints is demonstrated when the old man, after trying hard and failing to chew by his toothless jaws, a piece of bread he has been given for breakfast throws it away and the old dog tries to get it. At that instant, we see a small dog swiftly grabbing it first and running away. That incident foretells that things are about to become really gloomy for the old dog and, by way of comparison, for the old man too and that both are doomed. The following lines from page 92 can help one deduct that the author intends the old man and the old dog to be seen as some inseparable souls and should be treated so: “The old dog didn’t have the strength to fight back and bark. The old man thought that the old dog experienced what he had already experienced. So he felt sorry for the old dog which was pleading for his sympathy with his wet eyes. ‘Oh, old age! Oh old a-g-e! How it weakens the powerful, stoops the back, frightens the brave… What unnoticeable changes it brings about! Where does this old age come from?’ says the old man making a connection between his and the dog’s situation.”

Shortly after, another incident takes place that foreshadows events to come. The old man, out of pity for the dog, tries, once again, to give the remaining piece of bread to the dog, but his grandson comes and grabs it and runs away reasoning that “Granddad, I am sure that you don’t want to eat this” (Page 92). From this and the above incident, the reader comes to realize that the misfortune of the dog and, by way of comparison, that of the old man is going to mount. From that moment onwards it becomes evident that the kids, with all their innocence, would be the dog’s worst adversaries. The interesting thing, in this and the above incident, is the reaction of the old man – we witness that he feels sorry for the misfortune of the dog. His reaction is very ironic and exemplifies the use of dramatic irony interwoven with foreshadowing – he, unlike the reader, is not aware of what the future has in store for him. Indeed, he should have felt sorry for himself, but being human, as any one of us, he didn’t. His limited perspective doesn’t allow him to sense the danger that is creeping  around and awaiting him.

Soon, the eventual mishap for the old man had already begun. As the old man tries to take advantage of the sun, which is getting warmer, he hears some six children approach him from behind running after the ball that rolls down towards him. Engrossed by their own play and in their effort to get the ball, they knock him down and leave. When the old man sees the dog’s sad eyes it seems to him that it is communicating the fact that they both are helpless creatures and seems to be saying, “The two of us are the same”. Again this idea of them being the same accentuates the fact that their fate is going to be inseparable and, thus, the foreshadowing.

There are other two incidents that augur the fact that the kids, as are to the dog, are going to be the old man’s worst enemies and that they would be instrumental to his inevitable downfall. That is, there is this incident which shows the children confronting the dog when it tries to relieve the old man of the scorching heat by licking the sweat off his face. At that instant his grandson comes and chases the dog away saying “Go away! Go away! You want to eat my grandfather. Get lost! Get lost!” Here too, the author has beautifully merged both the foreshadowing and irony (situational) techniques. The boy, oblivious of the events unfolding, hurts his grandfather in two ways: by kicking away the very help the old man is in need of and, contrary to his grandfather’s expectations, by not seeking help from the vicinity.

It is also ironic that the sun, contrary to the old man’s and his daughter-in-law’s expectations of it as the source of warmth, should be the source of his death. Instead of becoming the source of life (warmth) it becomes the instrument of death. This is another example of situational irony.

The final blow from the kids comes when the dog, once more, tries to lick the old man’s face while he is in a state of hallucination and they come and kick away and start stoning the dog to death. The dog, given his old age and probably as a result of the hunger he has to endure, couldn’t run away and save itself from the persistent stoning and gives up and dies quietly. This again foreshadows that the old man’s final fate is getting very much nearer and, indeed, it occurs soon enough. In here the reader witnesses how foreshadowing and dramatic irony are intertwined as the old man “though was sorry for the dog, half-heartedly he believed that getting away with life was a relief by itself” (page 100). It is very dramatic and amazing to witness the old man believing getting away with life could be a relief without realizing that he is also commenting about his own life and condemning himself to his grave. As predicted the old man draws the inevitable lot and he too dies shortly.

It is interesting, in this case, to see the connections the writer is making between the reaction of the young dogs when they ran by chasing one another after the old dog’s death and that of the young men who pass by earlier in the story while the old man is desperately looking for help. The indifference the young men demonstrated towards the old man during his desperate moment and the indifference the young dogs showed towards the old dog’s death are very much alike. They seem to send the message that they don’t care what happens to old folks.

The remaining type of irony that hasn’t been discussed is the verbal irony. After the death of the old man, his daughter-in-law is seen lamenting his death saying “Father, who have you left us with? Who have you left us with?” which is a common way of expressing one’s loss in Tigrigna. Here the author is inviting the reader to see for himself/herself how fraudulent the daughter-in-law is. Her fake act is in stark contrast with her true feelings about him. Earlier on page 98, while in a state of confusion, the old man is seen remembering in retrospect what his daughter-in-law says about him while discussing him with neighboring women. She complains that “He is unbelievable. Being stuck to the bed, he never moves from it. It’s really difficult to help him turn over, pee, sit up right!” Though after his death she is acting as if she is lost or bewildered, deep down from her heart, she is, no doubt, entertaining the contrary. Given her earlier attitude, his death cannot be heartbreaking for her. She must have been relieved that he is gone for good and, thus, an inquisitive reader cannot miss how an imposter she is.

Another instance of verbal irony is demonstrated when the people who go to the old man’s house to pay homage say that “God calls those He loves” (Page 101). As a way of consolation, this is a very common saying in the Tigrigna speaking community when one dies. But it won’t go beyond serving that purpose as people don’t really mean it. If that was the case everyone would not have been petrified of death but rather would have embraced it with open arms and would have created an endless queue to be the first to go to Heaven.

The use of foreshadowing and irony has, especially the way author had them interwoven, given the story its unique flavor and helped him make his point. In this story the unintentional but yet devastating actions of the young seem to suggest the existence of an eternal battle of life or death between the young and the old, which could be, among others, the theme of the story. Another major theme that the story tries to communicate is that people are inherently phony, which the author has built from the start to the end. The choice the author made to use third person point of view helped him to beautifully execute the foreshadowing and irony techniques together in delivering his message.

Works cited:

Kibreab Fre. 2009. An old man in PFDJ Cultural Affairs. 14 Short stories: winners of the Eritrea Festival 2008 and others
Kirszner, L & Mandell, S. 2000. Literature. (4th edition). Harcourt College Publishers. USA.

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