Review: A Canary for One

We all know he is a deceptively spare writer — Ernest Hemingway. The famous six-word fiction: For sale, baby shoes, never worn has been largely ascribed to him. And his complete collection of short stories, comprising 71 stout-hearted vignettes, is spread over just 650 pages.

This brevity is never diminutive in substance. It was Hemingway who coined the Iceberg Theory, the idea in which only one-eighth of the iceberg is shown to the reader, while the knowledge of the story that does not make it to the page forms the bulk of the iceberg.

In A Canary for One the bulk of the iceberg is a great unspoken irony that, deliciously revealed only in the last sentence, glows from amidst symbolisms of freedom and prejudice and relationships and reflections.

The tale follows an American male narrator, as he travels on an overnight train across France with his American wife and a fellow American woman-passenger. The middle-aged stranger shows off her caged-canary, which she bought from Palermo for her daughter who, back home in New York, has been nursing a broken heart ever since the mother tore her away from her Swiss boyfriend. “No foreigner can make an American girl a good husband,” the elder-lady is convinced. “Americans make the best husbands.”

Hemingway is a master of the metaphor. It is the instrument that hints at the leviathan beneath the surface. He uses the canary as a figure of speech here not merely for the young, unhappy woman robbed of her liberty to love, but simultaneously for the mother imprisoned in her own biases.

In an ingenious stroke, the author makes the latter vaguely deaf, an expression of an infirmity, if not to her child’s feelings, then to her own coloured views. And, despite an ostensible capacity to hear the bird singing, she is oblivious to what dynamic is reverberating between her companions.

As the train races through the night towards its destination, we realise (on hindsight) that the American couple, too, are trapped in the inexorable passage towards their marital predicament. Throughout the journey, no character is granted any reprieve.

But Hemingway is not interested in reprieves. Even the landscape past which the narrative careens grows more scarred by signs of crises. The story opens with the image of a wholesome house with a garden and tables in the shade, but soon brings us to witness a farmhouse on fire, bedding and things spread in the fields, before we encounter three rail-cars involved in a wreck.

Published in 1927 A Canary for One has been suggested by Hemingway scholars to echo the writer’s own personal life; for it was the same year when his marriage with Hadley Richardson came to an end. The notion this piece had been intended as an irony leads one to believe Hemingway had attributed the matrimonial rupture to himself — a poignant (probably honest) exercise in self-reflection and blame.

Like his other fiction A Canary for One is a substantive work that achieves multitudes through minimalism. Maximalism does not require copiousness; just think about the iceberg under the water.