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Esele – A Collection of Well-Crafted Stories

In a chat (with a colleague), I raised my concerns about how technology is undermining people’s ability to think for themselves as they are depending too heavily on smart phones, tablets, and other gadgets. I argued if people depend too much on gadgets they finally find it hard to do some even simple things they did before the invention of the gadgets.

My colleague was of the opinion that (or so I understood) people don’t need to do simple chores if machines can do them. For example, he said, people should not do simple calculations if calculators can do them. They, he said, should focus on interpreting the results of these calculations and not waste time doing things these gadgets can do.

He also stated that people introduce technologies after they have assessed their advantages and disadvantages carefully. He said man can control technology and there is no way technology can get out of control. In other words, my colleague believes, there is no way man can make a computer that Mr. Muluberhan Habteghebriel describes in ‘The Professor,’ one of the stories in Esele, a collection of stories he wrote and published in 2014.

In this tale, Mr. Muluberhan relates in his remarkable style, (with a lot of dialogue, and very little description) the story of a notable Eritrean professor teaching at Oxford University. As the story progresses, we understand the role of the professor in the death of another Eritrean scholar, whose death the community mourns at the beginning of the story. As Professor Mark Smith (that is the name of the professor) takes in the details of the morning ritual, the reader has bit by bit the professor’s full story (right from birth to death). Through this story, Mr. Muluberhan shows us the failures of the professor, an eminent scholar, who knows little about himself and even much less about his computer, which he improved but brings about his destruction.

In Esele, a collection of 26 short stories, Mr. Muluberhan’s second collection of stories, the author presents readers with a display of various characters. (So far Mr. Muluberhan has written three volumes of short stories, and a number of non-fiction books, and some translations to Tigrigna.) However, one notices some common thread running through these characters. One way or the other many of the main characters share Professor Mark Smith’s weakness’: lack of knowledge. And this weakness precipitates the downfall or the unhappiness of these characters.

In Mizan Mahxen, (The Womb’s Judgment) we have the story of a prisoner released from jail. Right from the beginning the prisoner asks where his wife was and why she didn’t come to welcome him home. Giving readers only as much information as necessary to follow the story, the author keeps the reader in the dark about the reason until almost the end. Finally, when we read the last few sentences, we realize that he wouldn’t have suffered the way he did if he had known his wife well.

In Professor Smith’s case it was lack of self-knowledge and the technology that brought his downfall. Though it has another more important theme, ‘Millionaire’ (another story in the collection) gives us another man who doesn’t know his wife, and therefore suffers the consequences. In ‘Valium’, we have Surafiel, the writer who doesn’t know himself, and exposes himself to the ridicule of two of his readers. Similarly, another character in ‘Mestyat’ (Mirror) causes himself unhappiness because he fails to understand his wife and her needs.

In this collection, Mr. Muluberhan has created some very noteworthy characters. Especially, some of his female characters are so successfully portrayed. In Amakarit (The Marriage Councilor), he has created two female characters that stay with the reader long after the reader has finished reading the story. Some of the most unforgettable characters in his stories are the female characters, not just in this collection but also in a previous book, Sehaqn Nebi’atn (Laughter and Tears). They are educated and confident females, who know what they say and do. They are brave and do not hesitate to take action when necessary. But not all his female characters are praiseworthy, for he has some unpleasant ones and timid characters. For example, the child’s mother in ‘Simieta’ is a woman who cannot defend herself even in the face of brutal beating or the main character’s mother in Wedi Mama, who breaks the society’s code of proper behavior. In fact, we agree with the young woman, wedi mama’s girlfriend, with her decision to break off the relationship because of his mother’s unpleasant behavior.

Most of the stories are well written, but some of them stand out. ‘Millionaire,’ ‘Amakarit,’ ‘Mmhaw Sur,’ ‘Beal Jeans’ are my favourites. In these stories, Mr. Muluberhan dramatizes human character, both good and bad, faith and betrayal, trust and opportunism, greed and good naturalness. Through these and other stories, we ‘learn’ from the failures of some of the characters and how they could have avoided their fall if they had taken a different course of action.

Mr. Muluberhan rarely uses long descriptions of characters, setting, or actions, which helps him achieve economy of words, one of the requirements of a short story. He uses short descriptions, two or three sentences at most, providing us with necessary information about the characters, the action, and the setting. He also uses dialogue, employing it to further the action, and to reveal character. These two aspects of his style distinguish him from other Tigrigna short-story writers. One more feature also puts him apart, as he uses surprising end in his stories, which shows O Henry’s and de Maupassant’s influence.

In most of the stories, the characters are ordinary people, who make mistakes we are likely to commit, and we sympathize with them. We pity even characters such as Professor Mark Smith who fitted the computer with a special software with evil intentions in mind. Mr. Muluberhan handles the situation so gently that we don’t judge such characters as Iyasu, who sacrifices his family for the sake of money. Similarly, we don’t judge Hermon’s wife, though her actions are hardly ethical in Mestyat (Mirror), another story in the collection. In Zimlketo Akal, (The Concerned Body), we feel angry as a government employee mistreats some people, refusing to listen to them until she puts her personal affairs in order using government time and property. In most of the stories, he handles the situations so well that we experience what he wants us to feel.

But, in some other stories, I still don’t know how to feel about the characters or the stories. For example, in Gexe Bereket (The Gift), two sisters, both young women of marriageable age, think of and execute a plan how to have a young man marry the younger. Am I to get angry because of their trick? Or feel angry with the man for not seeing through their deception?

Similarly, I still keep thinking of Efrem in ‘Bookish,’ (a dirty man and with untidy hair), who goes to a library in Asmara, where the librarians treat him as a crazy man. Despite his protestations, the librarian threatens him to shut up or leave the library.

Edgar Allan Poe, one of the foremost American short-story writers, theorized that a successful short story should have a single effect, and all the elements of the story should work to create such an effect. Does Efrem convince us to seek knowledge at any cost even at the cost of humiliation and personal hygiene? Or do we support Feruz, his cousin, who urges him to use his knowledge to earn his living? Using Poe’s single effect principle, I find myself supporting neither Feruz nor Efrem: I don’t know how to feel about Efrem or about Feruz.

In short, Mr. Muluberhan’s stories are remarkable and very successful. This must be the reason why readers like his stories and have encouraged him to write three volumes of short stories in a period of few years.

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