A short story I recently read

‘The Elephant’, by Chan Chi Wa (translated by Audrey Heijins)

Read it here, in less than 10 minutes.

Thinking about how the story opens, and how readers are engaged…

This short story begins with ‘After the elephant vanished, my life fell into chaos’. Perhaps the reader could imagine a circus owner saying something like this (a bad circus owner, that is; after all, how does an elephant just vanish?), but circus owners aside, this is a bizarre statement that captivates and draws the reader in. I love the idea of an elephant affecting someone’s life to such a degree, and I love a good mystery, so I want to know more about both of these things. The bizarre opening statement also sets up the bizarre situation the narrator finds herself in, which is foreshadowed by her comment that ‘Strange things happened during that extremely dry summer’.

As the story continues, the setting is established, and this provides hints as to the genre: the story takes place in the futuristic-sounding ‘O City’; there’s a devastating drought; rumours are causing social unrest; and the government is getting involved in the elephant situation. We learn that it was actually the government who purchased the elephant in the first place, in order to impress people and encourage tourism, elephants perhaps being rare and wonderous sights in this time and place. This is speculative fiction; fiction that tells stories that could really happen, that are set in our world, although perhaps in the future. Examples of this genre include Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and George Orwell’s ‘1984’. So, in this story, we have a government that is trying to control their citizens and cover up an incident that reflects badly on them, a people who are suspicious of their government, and a narrator who is caught in the middle.

A second mystery is then created, as the narrator is questioned by the police because an associate of theirs, who had visited the elephant, has also vanished. This second vanishing draws the reader further in to this tale. Things become even more intriguing as the narrator is placed under surveillance, and not just from the police. The narrator’s detached and factual tone, meanwhile, add a sinister edge; the narrator does not seem surprised by the police interrogation or surveillance, which suggests these are common things in O City.

I love the imagery used in the story, which in particular relates to the sense of the heat and dryness: ‘dried up’, ‘full of cracks’, ‘wither’, and ‘people had a thin layer of salt on their faces and backs.’ The reader can feel the discomfort and oppressiveness of the environment. This story was not originally written in English, but for me, the elephant connotes phrases such as ‘white elephant’ and ‘the elephant in the room’, which make me think the elephant is really a metaphor.

The eyes function as a motif – the protagonist’s eyes hurt when she looks at something for too long, and she needs eyedrops – this repetition emphasises the idea of seeing, not seeing, and needing to see. We also have the intertextual link that is Bacon’s Pope Innocent X painting. What does it mean? Is there a clue in the Pope’s name? The fact the Pope appears to be hidden behind something in the painting? Or the fact the original painting has been distorted into something horrific?

I find this story fascinating, not just because it’s enjoyably bizarre, but because of the potential meanings hidden within.

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