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How does one begin describing E.H. Gonatas’s short-story collection The Cows? Certain adjectives come to mind: grotesque, fantastic, ethereal; surreal would be another apt designation. While Gonatas refused the label of surrealist, there is something of that aesthetic fingerprint found all over his work—stemming, perhaps, from his friendship with preeminent Greek surrealists such as Miltos Sachtouris and Nikos Engonopoulos. Like Borges and Kafka, he was a master of the short form, with much of his best work reading like prose poems. Gonatas’s work springs forth from what the writer himself labeled an “irrational” element, and it is in this chasm between the rational and the irrational where Gonatas’s sublime and wonderful vistas unfold The Cows is no exception. The title story, for example, deals with an unnamed protagonist who discovers a town’s well-kept secret: exploding cows. In another, “The Forest,” an encounter with two strangers, who may or may not be twins, leads to a “boundless garden,” filled with “white, round boulders,” where “flowers are nowhere to be seen.” And in “The Swans”—a story that can be found in David Connolly’s anthology, The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy—the rescue of a young girl lost ends in confusion when a swan’s head appears at the most inopportune time. While it would be a stretch to say that the short stories that compose The Cows cohere in any tangible manner, they do connect through a dream-like logic of repeating motifs and images. The entire collection can be read as a fantastical bestiary, brimming as it is with references to animals—snails, cows, swans, ominous birds—all of which Gonatas imbues with totemic import. Or, better yet, The Cows can read as a road map to those places we dream of but can never remember when we awake. Dream landscapes of which, as Gonatas writes in the last story of the collection, “They Will Send Us Away,” we can only say, “I have no idea how I arrived at this wretched sea side village. Nor do I know if I should stay or not. I don’t remember when I arrived, or from where I came. Perhaps I’ve spent an entire life here.”
A contributor to Words Without Borders, George Fragopoulos lives in New York and is a Ph.D. candidate in English and American literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetry.
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