‘Saki’ – the ‘wine-bearer’ favoured in Urdu poetry – is an apt pen name for H H Munro and his ability to intoxicate us with the romance in his short stories. Possibly his childhood, spent in the company of governesses under the watchful eye of his aunts, stoked the rebellious spirit in him to come up with deliciously malicious tales like ‘Sredni Vashtar’ and ‘Tobermory’.
It’s that mixture of irreverence and nonchalance that gives his stories a heavy kick – the ‘twist-in-the-tale’ approach may be predictable but Saki delivers on the deal and makes it to the elite list of raconteurs featuring O Henry, Maupassant and Maugham to name a few.
Saki’s stories caught popular imagination when the first appeared in the newspapers and collected versions were issued soon. The stories have stood the test of time and curious youngsters are likely to find them either in their textbooks or as adaptations on the television.
Saki speaks for the underdog – the victim of authority and power who lacks the obvious firepower to question his tormentor and yet finds ways to get his revenge. He also has a charmed disdain for the ‘social’ busy-bodies who like to appear ‘superior’ and ‘condescending’ but find their ‘feet-of-clay’ being nakedly paraded by the story-teller with a sardonic laugh. He also favours nature in its battle against man and a variety of defeats and humiliations arise out of this view and often our sympathy is not with our fellow- being.
My Top 5 would include –
The Open Window
It’s the favourite story to feature in anthologies and textbooks. The context is perfect, a quick-witted young lady spots an easy victim in a nervous young man who has come to the countryside for ‘rest’ and to soothen his nerves. Her motives aren’t even alluded to and the victim doesn’t even fit the specimens Saki enjoyed to target but the story still is a crafty example of creating terror from an ordinary hunting trip. Framton Nuttel is not able to take in the horrors and beats a hasty escape. The hostess seeks an explanation and the young lady proffers a perfect one. It ends with a perfect tagline – ‘Romance at short notice was her speciality’.
A telling commentary on the vacuous lives of the social snobs and how a ‘talking cat’ – Tobermory – can cause potential scandal if he lives to tell all that he hears at a country-house party. The dark humour is delicious and we expect the shallow lives to be served their just desserts. Unfortunately it’s not meant to be and Tobermory is killed by another cat. His tutor – Cornelius Appin – is a social mis-fit who continues his misadventures with animals and gets killed trying to teach German to an Elephant at the Zoo. Again not ‘textbook’ Saki when we look at the victims but the story is still a delight and a trademark of his creativity.
This one is perfect example of Saki targeting the ‘prim and proper’ and of course he wins over the children as well. It is about an aunt trying to engage her naughty brood on a train journey. She tries to tell a moral tale that bores the kids to death. A stranger sitting opposite observing the scene intervenes and tells an entertaining but rather malicious tale. He wins the admiration of the kids. It reminds me of Maugham’s ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’, wherein rubbing virtues in people’s faces is seen to be obscene.
A child is dominated by adults who fail to love him but enjoy to control him and thwart his schemes. He develops an imaginary religion with a vengeful deity, ‘Sredni Vashtar’. The deity avenges his humiliation by killing his guardian aunt but the boy is unmoved by the unnatural tragedy. Obviously an exaggeration but Saki taps into the angst and anger felt by a young child who is not able to express himself. Undoubtedly the audience’s sympathy remain with the remorseless child.
‘The Dusk ‘ (My personal favourite for I fought with my English Teacher trying to example Saki’s sardonic sense of humour’
I like the spirit of the tale where the writer compares dusk as the hour of the defeated when the ‘Men and women, who had fought and lost, who hid their fallen fortunes and dead hopes as far as possible from the scrutiny of the curious, came forth’. A conman tries to borrow some money from a stranger, Norman Gatsby, in Hyde Park by narrating a unique tale – new to the city, stepped out to buy soap and lost his way to the hotel. Gatsby is hard-nosed but humours the man and ask him to produce the soap. He then chides the conman with a perfect line, “To lose a hotel and a cake of soap in one afternoon suggests willful carelessness”.
More fun happens when Gatsby finds a bar of soap under the bench. He runs to find the conman and tells him that the evidence has turned up. So he lends him the money. Imagine how galling it must have been to return after committing a gesture of magnanimity to find yet another loser searching for a lost bar of soap under the bench.
Perfect irony and I enjoyed the tale but to my frustration my English teacher didn’t get the message. She genuinely thought that two people could have lost a bar of soap in Hyde Park on the same afternoon. She rebuked me for my dissenting voice in open class. Saki was lost to her – what a pity.