The Migration of Ghosts

Author:Pauline Melville
Publisher:Bloomsbury Publishing

Pauline Melville is hard to pin down. In an era when so many writers are confined to a single voice or easy ideological stance, she-using the main metaphor in her novel The Ventriloquist's Tale — speaks in many tongues, from the excruciating beauty of “Lucifer's Shank,” wherein one friend watches another slowly succumbs to lymphatic cancer, to the boisterous black humor of “Don't Give Me Your Sad Stories”, as two working-class alcoholics find a laughable stain among their garments of despair. Each tale proceeds with flawlessly wrought prose that sets the British writer apart from her peers. Impressively, Melville manages to end each story with a brutally inventive wallop; as a result this short story collection stands in true homage to the form.

“The Duende” swirls in the twilight of an elderly widow, once a flamenco dancer, who mounts the stage for a final performance. What happens in the end is shockingly perfect. The impassioned realism in “The Duende” contrasts sharply with “The Parrot and Descartes,” a delirious fantasy that pits Rene (“I think therefore I am”) Descartes against an erudite parrot who laments the divide between magic and science and - contrary to its avian will - memorizes the first (and worst) production of Shakespeare's “The Tempest.”

“The parrot had intuitively recognized the danger of a man who believed animals were automatons,” writes Melville, “and that parrots ceased to exist when they were asleep. But reason tells us reason has its limits, thought the parrot. And he was so delighted with his own wit, that he let out an involuntary laugh which had the servants searching all night for an intruder.”

Indeed, Melville's polyphonous voicing is the intruder's intricate laugh, warning, if anything, of the necessity to respect humanity's spectral, undying richness. Her stylistically disparate stories form complex variations on the titular theme: illuminating movement of cultural memory liminal between history and myth. Guyanese immigrants engage in ancient rituals for the appeasement of British spirits; a Parisian mime captures an expression of consummate tragedy; a polyglot parrot crosses continents, gathering fragments from 300 years of culture under its tongue while dreaming of mango groves.