Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
It is my hope the reader will find in this work a glimpse of lives that may at first seem very foreign; so different as to be pure invention. These are fictional lives and fictional stories; but they are based on real events, real people and real places.
John Moehl introduces his short story collection, Phobos & Deimos: Two Moons, Two Worlds, by stating that the moons of Mars are a metaphor for his world that has been “. . . pulled by the forces of two different moons ≈ two worlds.” Moehl’s worlds exist in foreign countries, particularly Africa, and the United States. “But, as moons, each world is linked to one planet, and part of the same system.” He describes his worlds in fourteen stories and a verse.
For those of us who have served in far-away lands, we have no trouble believing the reality that lies behinds his fictional stories. In “The Super Market” Albert, the main character, has a concession selling fabrics — wax cloth, fluffy denim, plissé, broadcloth and twill — in a traditional open-air marketplace. The author minutely details the life of a such a vendor, how he spends every day and night of his existence, happy, satisfied with his simple life, his business, his family and village. Then comes “. . . the knell of doom.” The Ministry of Finance will close the market to build a taxi park and bus station and all the concessions for travelers would be held by the mayor and run by high-paying Asians. Albert is devastated and can think of no alternative work to do. One day, as he wanders aimlessly about town he is hit by lightning. When he awakes in the hospital his wife is there tending to him, devoted and desolate. The story ends with Albert’s fantasy of visualizing his loving wife dressed in the finest of fabrics.
Many of the stories have such inconclusive endings — we don’t know what happens to Albert and his wife — that seem to be a hallmark of modern literature.
While the author purposely does not divulge the names of countries in which the stories take place, I felt frustrated by not knowing. I found myself guessing from names or other clues whether the country was francophone or anglophone or where it might be. This became tedious, my own self-inflicted problem, because I like a geographic context.
In many of the stories, the main characters leave their impoverished villages for urban centers, seeking a better life. They are usually devoured in the maw of urban poverty by predators, circumstances or accidents, but sometimes end up accepting their new destinies, even if it is prostitution or ignominious manual labor.
There are two contemplative essays rather than stories, “Thinking Back Looking Forward” and “The Moons’ Glow” that put forth the notion of disparate cultures finding a common path.
In “Regal Responsibilities” a village chief is controlled by his nine wise men or notables (presumably in a francophone country). The Chief is confronted by a dilemma when foreign investors negotiate to tap into the country’s rich mineral resources. The notables would reap great wealth, so they are for it, and even the Chief fantasizes about a black Mercedes, sending his kids to school in France, and becoming very wealthy. However, the Chief’s adored junior wife, Francine, prevails upon him to remember traditional social and environmental responsibilities. People would be displaced by excavations, erosion would spoil the rivers and streams, trees would disappear, and land would be destroyed, pillaged of its precious stones. The Chief’s trusted personal advisor, the Tchinda, warns him to avoid any conversation with the notables who might poison him to get him out of the way. The Chief becomes paranoid, staying in his private chambers, seeing only Francine and his advisor. Francine brings him his favorite dish, which the Chief eats with relish, then goes to his bed. “The cock crowed one last time as his tongue swelled and the curtain fell on his world.” In the distance Francine drives off in a new black Mercedes.
This ironic ending involving a femme fatale is the theme of other stories, too. The central character of “The Manipulator” is Nicole, a woman who aspires not only to reach the top, but to be “the top.” She sees her path in her daughter in whom she places all her ambitions. Her husband dies, then her father, and her mother inherits a substantial windfall. Nicole then disparages her siblings, in order to inherit the family fortune. When her mother finally dies, Nicole concentrates all her energies on her “most uncommon” daughter. Just when Nicole can see “the top” her daughter has a baby, marries the father and moves to the capital, becoming very common. “Nicole never spoke to her again.”
The author shares his extensive knowledge about development (or the lack thereof) in Africa. I especially appreciated his account of a Chinese “invasion” in “The Farmer’s Song.” (This is a subject that Africans across the continent are beginning to worry about, as it smacks of a new colonialism.) The Provincial Government announces that a major Chinese firm has chosen the village of our hero, Jerome, to eradicate all the farms in order to set up a mining business.
Initially, this top ranking had filled all with great joy, like collectively winning the lottery. . . . There would be money, money, money.
However, instead of providing jobs for local people, the villagers are dismayed when they have to leave their lands and livelihoods to make room for thousands of Chinese workers who came in droves, filling all the jobs from cooks to supervisors. They live in long houses of corrugated metal and cardboard, with large communal latrines and kitchens that hold huge woks. The villagers are given a relocation indemnity of $500 each, the Chief vanishes to France and, in his place, a Chinese investor takes over restructuring of the village. Traditional family and community values erode as the villagers seek individual survival. Jerome resorts to peddling small items such as combs,mirrors, flashlights on his bicycle to surrounding markets, leaving at dawn and returning, exhausted, at night. “He had to retool his life, learn new skills, and listen to a new song.” At home alone, his wife becomes bored and lonely and takes to drinking in the local bars and, inevitably, prostitution. She and her daughter leave Jerome. But, lo! there is a happy ending to this desperate story. Jerome’s uncle informs him that he has inherited a farm in the south and asks Jerome to manage it. Jerome, overcome with astonishment, whispers “I again hear the farmer’s song.”
As riveting as these stories are, the book would have benefited from careful editing. I get stuck on details such as spelling errors, grammar and punctuation. On the other hand, there are lovely passages such as “The rooster was only a small part of the orchestra that so skillfully played the song of the farmer.”
Many social and economic issues of poor countries are dramatized in Moehl’s stories. They reflect commonalities and differences between people of developing and developed worlds. As the author comments, “Life is a challenge for all who live it.” But we know who has the greater challenges.
Reviewer Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs (amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).