Monday 29 April 2024

A Cosmopolite in a Café by O. Henry

lya Repin, Parisian Café (Le Cafе du Boulevard), 1875, oil on canvas.

I wasn't exactly planning on a Monday double-feature of O. Henry short-stories, but there you have it. "A Cosmopolite in a Café" was slightly disappointing and probably the first misstep that I have encountered with the author's work so far. O. Henry's signature blend of sharp wit and eloquent prose remains intact but this particular story lacks staying power. His best stories are elevated by their ingenious twist endings, yet in this instance, the absence of a truly memorable conclusion threatens to consign it to obscurity amidst the vast expanse of his literary oeuvre.

The author paints a vibrant scene with his vivid descriptions of a late-night Parisian café bursting to life with its cacophony of lively music, animated chatter, raucous laughter and swirling tendrils of cigarette smoke. Amongst the bustling crowd of diverse patrons, the narrator's excitement peaks when a distinguished figure, E. Rushmore Coglan (a name that practically dances off the tongue!), takes a seat at his table. Much to his amazement, he swiftly discerns that he is in the presence of a true cosmopolite, far beyond a mere globe-trotter. This is no ordinary traveler; rather, this is an individual who embodies a profound curiosity for  global cultures, languages, and traditions. In awe, he realizes that this remarkable cosmopolite not only traverses the world's expanse (12 times!) but also immerses themselves deeply in the myriad hues of human experience (a "citizen of the terrestrial sphere"). As a true cosmopolite, one of his key arguments is that someone's place of birth is irrelevant and should not be intrinsically linked to their identity or self-worth. This point of contention will become important at the end.

As Coglan regales the narrator with his mesmerizing adventures from far-flung corners of the world, one cannot help but be captivated alongside with him. However, despite the allure of these fantastical narratives, a lingering question emerges: are these tales genuine expressions of lived experiences, or are they the clever fabrications of a masterful charlatan? Skepticism is engendered as the thin line between truth and artifice becomes increasingly blurred. My primary issue with the twist ending lies in O. Henry's prolonged setup for a punchline that ultimately fails to deliver the intended impact. Ultimately, the ironic humor falls flat and leaves me questioning whether the payoff was truly worth all that buildup.

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