Zohar Elmakias On:
Previous Condition by James Baldwin
“I got no story, Ma”. In these words Peter, the protagonist of the short story “Previous Condition”, ends a two day nightmare in a life of struggle and anguish. While Peter’s words declare an end, he opens to the reader gate after gate to his personal hell, using a clear and sharp voice. What are these gates, but a story? What are these collections of interactions – with a lover, a friend, a landlord, with the police, with drums and pianos – if not stories? Baldwin’s main action in “Previous Condition” is a strive towards and against (simultaneously, and both – fearlessly). He asks, in every way, to make a story of it. Somehow, miraculously, his actions rise above the literary “story-making” (creating from the materials of life, writing, choosing characters, time and place, to tell of these), and soars, yes soars, into the mundane, the realistic. Facing the socio-political reality, facing his own protagonist’s explicit determinist stance, Baldwin insists on making a story of it. And, just like a notorious story-maker, he can allow Peter to speak through him, and to deny that it is a story at all. We face this non-story and our beating hearts are torn, for we know this is a truthful story indeed.