Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cockatoos by Patrick White

She switched aside the blind from a bow-window, to see whether the cockatoo.  There were two of them.  Stamping and striding around the tree.  Her heart was beating.  Sometimes the birds got so angry, she could hear them screeching through the glass.  She wouldn't have dared open the window: she might have frightened the cockatoos.  Who tore at the lawn with furious beaks, or calming down, composed their crests along their heads, eyes tender with a wisdom which, like most wisdom, threatened to become obscure or irrelevant.

The titular birds of White's short story "The Cockatoos," which in turn gives its name to the whole collection, capture the attention of an entire neighborhood.  It's not hard to see why--there's something mystical and beautiful about a flock of wild cockatoos that contrasts the inertness of 20th century suburban living, something otherworldly.  They mean something slightly different to each neighbor: an ornamentation, a talisman, a nuisance, a memory, a promise of reconciliation for an estranged couple.  Like White's stories, their significance hovers somewhere beyond the threshold of comprehension, and yet each character longs to possess them, to call them "his birds" or "her birds."  Unsurprisingly, like with so many human attempts to understand and possess the unknowable, violence erupts.

"The Cockatoos" is the last story in the collection, and the most perfectly realized, though it draws from the same well as many of the others.  White's protagonists are typically older couples, the wife explored more fully than the husband, happy with each other or unhappy, but mired in long-established routines into which the mystical, like the cockatoos, continually threatens to break in.  In "Five-Twenty," an elderly woman watches the afternoon traffic with her crippled husband, comforted by the timeliness of a single man in a single car, until her husband dies and she embarks on a chance sexual adventure with the commuter.  Sexual affairs are linked to the mystical, too; in "Sicilian Vespers" another old woman cheats on her husband in an Italian church.

These stories are well wrought, and manage both a strong realistic power and a metaphysical presence, but "The Cockatoos" is clearly the best of them.  Almost as enjoyable are a pair of stories that don't fit this mold: "The Night the Prowler," about a young woman's supposed sexual assault, and my other favorite, "The Full Belly," about a Greek family under the Nazi Occupation.  Near starvation, the protagonist Costa receives a vision of Mary urging him to take food from his dying aunt, only to find that his other aunt has gotten to it first.  They fight and Costa wins, but they have become something primal, animalistic:

When his aunt had gone, Costa Iordanou plumped on the carpet, intent on stuffing his mouth with rice.  If only the few surviving grains.  Sometimes fluff got in.  Or a coarse thread.  His lips were as swollen as cooked rice.  The grains stuck to the tips of his fingers, the palms of his hands.  He licked the grains.  He sucked them up.  The splinters of porcelain cutting his lips.  The good goo.  The blood running.  Even blood was nourishment.

What a great, minimalist sentence: "The good goo."

I wasn't sure that White's mysticism and lyricality, which work so well in his historical novels Voss and A Fringe of Leaves, would translate to contemporary settings, but The Cockatoos left me pleasantly surprised.

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