Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Short Story Review: The Shady Life of Annibal by Gerald Kersh

The Shady Life of Annibal
By Gerald Kersh
Originally Published April 18, 1959, Saturday Evening Post

This is the second story in Men Without Bones, the short story collection by Gerald Kersh. It's an interesting follow-up to the titular tale in that, although it has "fantastical" elements, it's not a horror story...not in the least. It's not even really a genre tale of any vein. Be warned, hipsters: THAR BE SPOILERS HERE. 

Our narrator is a reporter for some slick gossip rag, settling down for an interview with actress Bella Barlay. She's an odd duck to be sure, not quite attractive, but certainly talented. She relates to the intrepid reporter a strange tale about her family, which also describes how she got started in acting.

Before Bella was born, her parents were so baby crazy that they invented a child, a son named Annibal. For years--decades, really--they pretend that Annibal is real, and tell their friends and acquaintances stories about his life. It was a great masquerade, and at some point they seemed to come to believe their own lies.

When Bella came along, she was neglected, nearly forgotten as she lived in the shadow of her mythical older brother. When she has finally had enough, she infiltrates the fantasy and (symbolically) shakes the shit out of her parents, bringing them to their senses.

Kersh, through Bella, through our nameless narrator, likens this all to The Emperor Has No Clothes in reverse (The Clothes Have No Emperor), but there are also other echoes to be found. Seen through modern eyes, this is reminiscent of the 2000 film Little Otik (which was itself based on some bit of folklore).

It's a meditation on truth vs. fantasy, reality vs. unreality, fact vs. fiction. It is worthy of deeper analysis than I can offer, but consider this.

The whole story is fiction, composed by Gerald Kersh, but told as fact by Bella Barlay to this journalist, who openly admits at the onset that he has never been against twisting words for a story ("We could take a word out of context as neatly as a sandpiper picks a worm out of a beach at low tide"). This implies that even the story we're reading, as told by the journalist, may not be the whole truth--only a version of the truth as he wants us to know it.

Annibal is not a real person. We know this from the get go. He is an imaginary friend, and nothing more. But the continuation of the lie for decades gives him a sense of reality.

Further, Bella is an actress. Her living is based on pretending to be other people...she is, in essence, paid to lie. And it is through her first lie, her first stab at acting, that puts an end to the lie that is Annibal. One lie destroys another, making way for the truth.

Within the story, Bella grows upset with her nurse Ilonka when she discovers that a fairy tale Ilonka told her wasn't true--that it was a "lie". Ilonka responds with "A liar...is worse than a thief; a liar will swear your life away. But a story-teller is as good as a holiday among new things--he opens the world". Which not only enforces the notion that there is more truth in fiction than in non-, but also changes Bella's life. If not for this statement, it is doubtful that she would ever have become an actress. In fact, the lie of Annibal probably would have continued unabated for the rest of her natural life.

It also sets the stage for this story's ending. Once her tale is told, the journalist asks her if it is true.

I imagine she is smirking when she answers him. "With development, it could be a good idea for a play."

When I first finished reading the story, I thought it wasn't bad. Even when sitting down to write this very review, I thought it would be a quick, breezy little thing. But Kersh has demonstrated his ability to craft a story that is much more complex than initially thought, and a story that is much better than initially thought, as well.


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