Fernando Iwasaki – To Troy, Helen
I think sometimes that men are at the most satisfied when they are embroiled within their work. It doesn't matter specifically what their work might be – for a writer it is a book, for a mechanic it is repairing an automobile, for a politician it is analysing policy – but what matters is that, during this time, if they have chosen correctly for themselves what they do in their day to day lives, then they are, for a little while, wholly themselves. Following in this vein comes the idea that girlfriends, wives, children and mortgages are, to a greater or lesser extent, distractions. But what happens when these “distractions” take on a life of their own (as they should!)? While this manner of thinking may not be true for all men but it certainly seems to be true for some, and is absolutely true for the protagonist of Fernando Iwasaki's short story, To Troy, Helen.
I found myself suddenly and prematurely aged, in my role as a professor, fed up with all the drinking and dancing of my younger days, my wife finding her own way into her thirties, full of drives and desires of her own whose sensuous velocity I could never really match.
Iwasaki creates, in admittedly rather broad strokes, the character of an intellectual who never quite managed to achieve what he could, and who has stumbled, for better or worse, into a job which is rewarding but not challenging, and has found himself a wife whom, if he is honest, he doesn't particularly admire, appreciate, or deserve.
However! He is, for all that, a man of his work, and it is in his work that he becomes – not fulfilled, but more truly himself. So, of course, the result from that is that he is unable properly to satisfy his wife and, surprise, she turns away from him to another.
The truth is Helen had tried too hard, had tried harder than you could expect from a girl who got married at twenty to a professional bum, and one who was not doing too well in his profession.
Thus far, Iwasaki's story is regular, ordinary, common, its contours expected and unsurprising. We have the vaguely intellectual protagonist as substitute for the writer, and the sensual, neglected wife as substitute for a desire, a thought, an ideal – but not a woman. Here, though, just as the characters are established (again in broad strokes – nobody comes across as a “real” character), Iwasaki subverts our expectations by having, not the man but the woman, as the straying lover. He subverts by making our intellectual fellow feeble and helpless – yet always, cerebral – in light of the fact that his wife has found a man who can, frankly, be passionate and physical:
Quickly, fluidly, they moved on to new games, new positions, rolled, twisted together, buttocks and caresses, fingers stroking hair, tongues licking, eyes delirious and dark. It had been a good long time now since I had seen Helen's face like this, her mouth open, lips swollen, jaw set, transfixed by pleasure. Our intimacy had become a monotonous affair, bureaucratic, frustrated. Here everything was audacity, spontaneity, fun.
What is there to do? For our protagonist, there is work. There is his professorship, previously undervalued, now very important. There is the understanding that a regular, measured home life is worth its weight in gold, even if the price to pay for such a life is far higher still. The protagonist accepts the betrayal he has seen (seen, mind you; neither knows the other is aware), and on goes life.
So, then, what to say about work? What to say about fulfilment? What to say about marriage and its place? Iwasaki remains silent. His protagonist, ordinarily created as a tool for action and reflection, instead subsumes himself into that great manly tradition of hard work and limited self-awareness. It's rather refreshing, really, and even more refreshing is to read this, a perfect encapsulation of an emasculated man indulging in useless, impotent fantasy:
I thought about the children, about the hardship that would be theirs if I were to kill her. About the irreparable absence of their mother, about the nightmares, their sharp screams. And here, here, see how Helen screams, her face scrunched up, her contented smile, debauched, on all fours. And I say to myself here that it's not worth doing...
The reader knows from the outset that none of these things would ever happen. Instead, sorrow, perhaps, but also comfort, because the protagonist knows that his wife, having betrayed him and nonetheless stayed, is unlikely to leave. She will stay with him irrespective of his failings, and isn't that something? For the protagonist, yes. But oh, what a sad, little man he is – and he doesn't know it.
To Troy, Helen by Fernando Iwasaki is a short story from Words Without Borders' April 2012 edition, Sex issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders April 2012 edition, Sex issue include:
---Halfon, Eduardo - Good Women and Bad Women
Words Without Borders review series:
---September 2012: Writing From the Silk Road
---May 2012: Writing From the Indian Ocean
---March 2012: Mexican Drug War Issue
---January 2012: Apocalypse
---May 2011: Writing From Afghanistan
---January 2011: The Work Force
---October 2010: Beyond Borges: Argentina Now
---August 2010: Writing From Hungary
Index of short stories under review