Read the World

Press Association, November 23 2004

Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer, published by Bloomsbury at £7.99. Available now

Five Nobel Prize winners is a lot to find in one short story collection. But when, as with Telling Tales, the collection has been put together in the very good and very fashionable cause of AIDS treatment in southern Africa, and the editor is Nadine Gordimer, herself a Nobel laureate, and the oldest piece included dates from 1954, you may begin to wonder why they stopped at five. Did nobody give TS Eliot’s estate a call?

Still, there is an advantage to asking for previously published work: you get top-drawer stuff. The range of this anthology is such that it could surprise even the most diligent short-story reader; and the surprises will all be pleasant.

Only one of the stories – Margaret Atwood’s anti-romantic romance “The Age of Lead”– could be said to deal directly with AIDS or HIV, but others were clearly chosen with an eye to where the profits will be donated. John Updike has given a balanced, occasionally comic account of visiting a cancer sufferer; Paul Theroux a parable about a virus that makes people sterile. Death and fate are more present than they might be in a single-author collection.

There is also a strong African contingent: Chinua Achebe and Gordimer herself, living up to their high reputations, and also the less-known, almost-as-impressive Es’kia Mphahlele and Njabulo Ndebele.

But most of the things here defy herding into categories. What’s the connection between a skit on rejection from a New York nursery in the style of a Russian novel (Woody Allen) and a meditation on the colour blue (Christa Wolf)? Or the accidental death of a parachute-jumper (Amoz Oz) and the long life of a centaur (Jose Saramago)? Only excellence. You will wait a long time for another book of stories as varied and worthwhile as this.