On Thursday, Guernica’s October issue went live with a fantastical tale of childhood by Sofi Stambo. “A Bunch of Savages,” which was chosen by Aimee Bender to win the Disquiet International Literary Program Award in fiction, follows a maybe gypsy, definitely poor family in Stambo’s native Bulgaria during communism. Poverty is apparent in the story, present in the neighbor lady’s cart of cardboard to recycle, in the constant lice and tick infestations on the children and family dog, but it isn’t dwelled upon. Instead, the story is full of whimsy, unexpected humor, and love.
Narrated through a child’s eyes—the eldest of the family’s three children—ordinary occurrences gain magical significance and folk tales are taken literally. The narrator has a distressing birthmark on her lower back (birthmarks are “undeniable proof of gypsiness, ask anyone”), and her mother comforts her by saying she’ll always be able to find her by her birthmark if she gets lost. Her two siblings, who don’t have birthmarks, of course take this to mean that they’re doomed:
They lived in constant fear that sooner or later she’d lose them somewhere. It was just a matter of when. Buses and trains were torture. A trip to the women’s market in the center of the city always turned into a tragedy. My siblings screamed and refused to get on the bus, because if the doors closed before my mother got on, that would be the end. We’d never see them again. They would live between umbrellas and purses in the lost and found department, until they turned ninety, no one to recognize them.
The savages in the title are the narrator and her two siblings, named as such by their mother “because of [their] excessive running around, yelling and breaking property.” The family apartment is always noisy, with the TV, dog, parakeet, radio, and children all competing to be the loudest. The parents are always yelling at each other about something. But despite the chaos, the overall impression is one of love.
When the narrator breaks a mirror (while practicing her math equations on it with a bar of soap) and incurs seven years of bad luck, she knows what she must do. In the dramatic and quixotic logic of small children, she decides that in order to save her family from the curse of her bad luck, she must attempt suicide by touching the electrical box outside the apartment building that says “Do Not Touch” above a drawing of a lightning bolt hitting a skull and crossbones. While waiting for death, she realizes all the things she’ll miss:
I went and touched. I don’t remember how long I stayed there quietly crying (I was always a quiet person). There were things in life I loved and only realized it after I touched the box. Red sugar roosters and bunnies, merry-go-rounds, hot dogs, Pif magazine, my brother and sister, and most of all, swimming with a life preserver.
It’s a child-sized life-flashing-before-your-eyes moment, a poignant and humorous miniature of an adult coming to terms with death. And then, when nothing happens and she doesn’t die, she concludes that she must be immortal. The whole story is like that: moments of darkness undercut by whimsy and humor. The power of the story comes from the nostalgia it elicits from us adults, successfully recalling that wonderfully fearless, immortal feeling of childhood, and from the sadness that comes from knowing the lie beneath it.