Alberto Manguel: The Power of Stories

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In 1940, sixteen years after Kafka’s death, Milena, the woman he had loved so dearly, was taken away by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Suddenly life seemed to have become its reverse: not death, which is a conclusion, but a mad and meaningless state of brutal suffering, brought on through no discernable fault and serving no visible end. To attempt to survive this nightmare, a friend of Milena devised a method: she would resort to the books she had read long ago and unconsciously stored in her memory. Among the memorized texts was one by Maxim Gorki, “A Man Is Born.” The story tells how the narrator, a young boy, strolling one day somewhere along the shores of the Black Sea, comes upon a peasant woman shrieking in pain. The woman is pregnant; she has fled the famine of her birthplace and now, terrified and alone, she is about to give birth. In spite of her protests, the boy assists her. He bathes the newborn child in the sea, makes a fire, and prepares some tea. At the end of the story, the boy and the new mother follow a group of other peasants: with one arm, the boy supports the mother; in the other, he carries the baby. Gorki’s story became, for Milena’s friend, a sanctuary, a small safe place into which she could retreat from the daily horror. It did not lend meaning to her plight, it didn’t explain or justify it; it didn’t even offer her hope for the future. It simply existed as a point of balance, reminding her of light at a time of dark catastrophe, helping her to survive. Such, I believe, is the power of stories.1


  1. Manguel, Alberto (2011-05-26). The City of Words (CBC Massey Lecture) (pp. 12-13). House of Anansi Press. Kindle Edition.

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