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Allan Cameron: Can The Gods Cry? (Vagabond Voices)

Allan Cameron is a writer who believes passionately in the power of language to illuminate and transform.

He has explored its possibilities in every genre - as a poet, a novelist, an essayist and as a translator (of nearly ten books, mainly from Italian). And he is also an enthusiastic publisher of the words of others.

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He now adds short story writer to the list with Can The Gods Cry?

His earlier novel, The Berlusconi Bonus (recently republished) is an Orwellian fable set in a not very distant future in which the wealthy are rewarded with a kind of Get-Out-Of-Moral-Responsibility-Free card while the proles are imprisoned in an endless reality show of mindless consumption. His essays in In Praise Of The Garrulous, on the other hand, are not so much a defence of excess as an exploration of language itself as a means of understanding our feelings and sense of the world. As he puts it in one of the stories in this volume, “We are the stories we tell ourselves and the way we tell them,” although he sees that capacity as constantly threatened by the mindless chatter of technology’s endless present.

Can The Gods Cry? is more than a volume of short stories; it includes essays and some barely disguised autobiographical material. What links them all, however, is a sense that we should implacably interrogate reality and pursue the dream of a humane and just world despite the errors and diversions that delay us along the way. At times Cameron seems pessimistic about reaching an objective that can seem very distant. But the explorations and interrogations that make up his body of writing suggest that there is in us all an impulse to continue searching, writing, arguing - and to do so in the world, whatever its imperfections.

In two of the pieces - Outlook and The Sad Passing Of Chris Cary - writers withdraw into their ivory castles, or at least in the latter case to the high flats north of the river in Glasgow. But their isolation leads them to lose their humanity. The alternative, however, puts the writer in thrall to patrons and publishers who will always try to limit literature’s capacity to both “celebrate the imagination and lay bare the horrors of which we are capable”; this dilemma is the theme of The Essayist, an imaginary dialogue between the writer and a vaguely familiar cynical literary guru.

In his Afterword, Cameron pays homage to the great Russian writer Victor Serge, persecuted by Stalinism for most of his life and still largely neglected, “whose failure should be his greatest boast, because there are times when no decent man should succeed”. Other stories illustrate what is best and worst in the human condition - the selfishness of the wealthy man in The Difficulty Snails Have In Mating, the brutality of the soldier sent to crush the anti-colonial rebellion in Oman in The Sad Passing Of Chris Cary. On the other hand there is the small-scale compassion of an Algerian immigrant worker who evolves a scheme at the cafe where he works to charge each customer according to their needs.

The most extensive of the short stories, A Dream Of Justice, is set in a future secular Palestinian state where two elderly fighters from the Israeli and the Palestinian sides respectively reflect on their past (which is our present). It is a plausible if disturbing picture that Cameron paints - and his injunction to “dream sensibly” with which the story ends seems to suggests that the conflicts and hatreds of now will continue into the future.

The book ends with his own poem The Loser who, perhaps like the perplexed socialist that Cameron clearly is, “headstrong held to that one truth... his lonely way of wanting justice for the damned”.

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