Nothing threatens the meaning of life like freedom: The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali

On a plateau atop a mountain in Kurdistan, at the border of heaven and the realm of earthly reality stands a lone pomegranate tree. Known as “the last pomegranate tree in the world,” it is an enchanted and symbolic point of intersection for a handful of boys and the man whose life is bound to all of them although he will only meet one in person. His story—and, through him, their stories—recounted night after night to an audience of fellow refugees on a ferry riding dangerous dark waves, is one of hope, despair and the immeasurable price war exacts.

No, tonight I’m not going to tell you about Muhammad the Glass-Hearted, Saryas-i Subhdam, Nadim-i Shazada, and their connection to a pomegranate tree that heals the blind. It’s too early to reach the heart of our story. It seems as if we’ll be out at sea for many more nights. And if God comes to our help and our story is cut short because we’ve reached some country’s shores, if the coast guards detain and separate us, don’t worry that you haven’t heard the end of the story. You are right there at its end. This ferry marks the very end of the story.

The road to autonomy for the Kurdish people has been long and bloody, marked by insurgency, uprising, genocide and civil war. This is the reality of Bachtyar Ali’s The Last Pomegranate Tree, but the tale he gives us is one filled with magic, mystery and philosophy. Unfolding over the last decades of the twentieth century and just into the twenty-first, amid the dark, violent years of Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, it is as much a story about orphans, oaths and glass pomegranates, as a testimony to the brutality of warfare and the hollowness of victory. Yet above all, it is a story about the power of storytelling.

With his captive audience, our narrator, Muzafar-i Subhdam, is an unlikely Scheherazade, weaving his tale, not to save his own life, but to preserve the memory of a story beyond anything he ever expected to encounter—one he has now has committed himself to carrying. He begins with the account of his sudden release from prison after twenty-one years confined, alone with only the vastness of the desert for company. However, rather than finding himself a free man, he is taken to a luxurious mansion surrounded by a dense forest, where he soon learns that his old childhood friend, Yaqub-i Snawbar intends to keep him hostage so that they may grow old together apart from a world ravaged by destruction and disease. Years earlier when they were fellow Peshmerga freedom fighters, young men dreaming of a new future for the Kurdish people, Muzafar had forfeited his freedom to allow his friend to escape. He emerges from the desert, long thought dead and nearly forgotten, while Yaqub has amassed great wealth and power. But the wounds of conflict and corruption run deep, and Yaqub sees Muzafar as pure soul whose presence will ultimately cleanse his sins. But our hero has no desire to trade one prison for another. He has only one goal—to learn the fate of the infant son he left behind when he was captured so many long years ago.

Like a seasoned raconteur, Muzafar-i Subhdam entwines the story of his own search with the stories he acquires along the way, offering his audience hints at what lies ahead, but making them wait as a rich mythological tapestry slowly takes shape. Whenever he asks about his son, he is told that he is dead though no one can or will tell him how or when he died. Again and again he is advised not to seek answers, to accept the truth and move on. But for the decades he spent surrendering himself to the world of sand, letting all other memories be swept away, the one thing he held fast to was the thought that somewhere on earth there was someone named Saryas-i Subhdam. His son.

In these unusual times, fathers have become estranged from their sons.

Slipping into what at first seem to be magical detours, we learn about Mohamed the Glass-Hearted killed by love and two mysterious sisters who have sworn to never marry and always wear white. As Muzafar will discover when he conspires to return to the outside world, the life of Saryas-i Subhdam is bound to their lives and to the lives of many others. His efforts to piece together the clues he uncovers blends fantasy with the very real horrors of a series of conflicts that are, at the time, still ongoing and unforgiving. The chronicle he shares with his ferry companions is filled with memorable characters and strange coincidences, interspersed with philosophical musings as in the following testimony from Ikram-i Kew, the giant-sized,  soft-hearted fixer who agrees to help free Muzafar from the mansion and assists him as needed on his journey:

“I served the revolution for many years,” he said. “I’ve done everything except kill for it. I often regret it, and often I don’t. Muzafar-i Subhdam, innocence creates two feelings in us: on the one hand, you feel you’re nothing, you’re weak, and your innocence is like a rabbit’s in the middle of a pack of wolves. At other times, you have the opposite feeling – that you have encountered every kind of war and filth but retained your innocence. You tell yourself: that’s good, that’s beautiful, it’s a great achievement. Muzafar-i Subhdam, the revolution is a great big lie. You’re fortunate – you’re a revolutionary without having been in the revolution. And that’s divine grace. I had thought that the success of the revolution would automatically bring about paradise on earth. And yet, from the next day, the very next morning, when you opened your eyes and washed your face, you could see that everything was starting all over again. I saw that devil being reborn day after day, a devil that was only small to begin with. At first you say, So what? That devil is part of all of us, it’s only small, a natural part of any human being. But you can see it gradually grow bigger, sweeping everything away. Everything.”

The Last Pomegranate Tree, a modern Kurdish fable, is an immersive, entertaining tale that fuses the charm of ancient legend with the harsh reality of contemporary history. It honours a generation lost or, worse, hardened to death and disaster by years of hostility—both coming from outside the troubled region and arising from within. Resilience, as fragile as the glass pomegranates at the heart of his tale, is what Muzafar-i Subhdam cherishes and holds close as he trusts the convoluted story of Saryas-i Subhdam to a group of refugees lost at sea.

The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali is translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman and published by Archipelago Books.

Of that which is left unspoken: The Words That Remain by Stênio Gardel

He knew how to sign his name, he had no reason to keep the ID card with just his thumbprint and a red stamp on top of it, illiterate. He had to change it, he was somebody else now. Knowing how to read and write was doing that him. Raimundo Gaudéncio de Freitas. Literate, alfabetizado.

The stories of those pushed out of their homes and communities when their sexuality or gender identity becomes known—or even for fear that their hidden truths might be revealed—have been, and are still, commonly echoed in societies around the world. For that reason alone it is important that such stories continue to be told. The Words that Remain by Stênio Gardel, a writer who was born in a rural part of northeastern Brazil, is an ambitious addition to the growing body of international LGBTQ literature.

This debut novel tells the story of an illiterate man who has carried a letter he has been unable to read for some fifty years. But, because it was written by the boy with whom he fell in love as a youth, he is unwilling to let anyone else read it to him. Now in his early 70s, he has learned the basics of reading and writing and yet the unread letter weighs heavily. The only son of a poor farmer, Raimundo was needed on the farm so he was denied the opportunity to go to school. As his father told him “writing was for people who don’t need to put food on the table.” Why then, when Cícero was well aware that he couldn’t read, did he insist on this form of communication rather than meeting at the river as planned so many long years ago? As he looks back over all the decades that have passed, Raimundo recalls his passionate affair with his childhood friend, hidden for a time from their families and their small agricultural community, and the violent, unforgiving reactions of their parents when they are exposed. When it becomes clear to him that he is no longer welcome in his family, Raimundo leaves, his final undecipherable message from Cícero carried close to his heart.

He makes his way to the Capital where he lives, closeted, for a quarter of a century. He supports himself picking up work with truckers, a life that allows him to enjoy the freedom of the open road and hide the fact that he is a man who likes men. His sexual indulgences are limited to the dark, dingy interior of a porn theatre when the opportunity arises. It is through the most unlikely friendship that he develops with a tough transgender sex worker named Suzzanný that he finally comes to peace with himself and settles into a new form of self-employment with a found family arrangement that, if not what he once imagined as a lovestruck young man, offers stability and affection. And, finally, the courage to learn to read and write.

There is much to like about this book and its intention, but the execution does it a disservice at times. Although he employs passages of third person narrative in setting the stage for this tale, it seems that Gardel is trying to achieve an immersive experience, pulling his reader into the world of a doubly marginalized man—gay and illiterate—by relying heavily on often fragmentary dialogue-driven scenes, in concert with extended passages of internal monologue that land somewhere between stream of consciousness and first-person remembrances. The chronology is choppy. Details from much later in the protagonist’s life are introduced early and out of context, whereas other events, such as the death of Raimundo’s twin brothers, are revealed awkwardly, some way into the story, leaving one to guess when it occurred. The result is a narrative that feels, especially through the middle third of the book, oddly pieced together, stretched thin. Overly simplified even.

With the final third, the narrative becomes much tighter and the timeframe starts to fall into place. Suzzanný, who is a wonderfully realized transgender character, acts as the catalyst that the protagonist needs to finally come into being as a fully fleshed person, a fact that then is also reflected in the storytelling. For someone who has been living in denial, in hiding  and filled with shame for so much of his life this is understandable, but in Raimundo’s personal story a certain depth is lacking until he finds companionship—a different kind of love that brings meaning in more ways than one.

In the end, sadness and joy blend together in The Words that Remain to paint a moving story of LGBTQ existence that does not attempt to hide the alienation and loneliness that marks the lives of so many people who do not fit into the expectations of their societies. Opportunities are lost perhaps, but resilience and self-acceptance prove more important in the long run.

The Words that Remain by Stênio Gardel is translated from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato and published by New Vessel Press.

Not exactly at a loss for words: Doom Town by Gabriel Blackwell

That was the start of it. That moment.

What I mean to say is, and I want to be clear on this point, what I mean is that I knew then—at that exact moment—that all, all of my efforts in that area, that is to say, in the area of attempting to heal the rift between my wife and myself (and why not be blunt? all of my efforts in every area, every single one), had been and would continue to be futile.

Standing in Macy’s watching his wife examine pillows when they are supposed to be shopping for a replacement decorative bowl for a broken bowl that neither had liked or really wanted to replace save for an unruly accumulation of bills and notices that had gathered on the sideboard where the bowl had once sat, when intact, otherwise collecting the mail, the narrator of Gabriel Blackwell’s Doom Town is overcome with an inescapable sensation of, well, doom. What follows is a tightly wound, forever second guessing, forward glancing and backward looking circuitous internalized narrative—shades of Bernhard at his least ranting and most humane (think, Yes), if he was to write a domestic tragicomedy set in suburban America. It takes a while to get the rhythm of the troubled narrator’s cycles of prevarication, denial and doubt as he struggles to articulate, for himself at least, the story of the disintegration of his marriage in the wake of the death of their young son in an accident he feels responsible for, while the rest of his immediate world implodes in the most incredible yet thoroughly contemporary American fashion. But one is soon swept up in his desperate attempt to make sense of it all.

The narrator was, at the time of the accident, a lecturer in the linguistics department of the local university, a tenuous position in a seemingly impenetrable institution. As he feels that his entire world collapsing, it is critical to him that he be able to set the record straight on several levels, explain his side of a multi-faceted story. However, the tool one might imagine he would trust the most for this task has long since betrayed him:

Although my job was the teaching of the study of language and its use, or maybe because my job was the teaching of the study of language and its use, I had, long ago, lost faith in what most language did—what, I guess, I’d realized language was capable of doing, which is to say, nothing much, or else, something both very fleeting and very weak (and so maybe also, I’d once thought, something  therefore beautiful, in the way that beauty itself is often fleeting and superfluous… )

His efforts, then, lead him into long, discursive explanations and equivocations, carrying parenthetical asides within parenthetical asides, arriving at often indeterminate and inconclusive results that only seem to necessitate further clarifications. This distracted method of trying to construct a narrative, causes him to regularly allude to events that haven’t yet occurred chronologically in the story he is attempting to move through, which can, at times, be a source of both confusion and suspense. But, of course, although he has an imagined audience, a “you” to whom he is addressing his confession/defense, he is really only speaking to himself. Beyond that, his efforts to communicate with others are, as he well knows, sorely impaired not only by grief but by the variety of habits of inattention that tend to trouble most everyday human interactions.

After a period of intense confusion following his son’s death, he admits he experimented with a few bizarre efforts to express himself, finally settling on the use of stories, not only as a classroom teaching tool but unfortunately, in times of stress, with his wife. The range of stories he calls upon, well known and arcane alike, are typically interrupted or otherwise left unfinished. His stories become a stand-in for what he cannot, and often should not, say so it is generally for the best that his audience is spared the conclusions. Meanwhile, his own personal tragedy aside, he is also at the centre of a vortex of tragic events that, were this simply a black comedy, would add a measure of absurd humour. But given the reality of contemporary American life reflected in this flood horrors, it is difficult to laugh. Rather, it adds to our ill-fated narrator’s multitude of woes.

The core event, the death of his young child, is a known fact throughout Doom Town, one that is steadily, if silently, undoing whatever fragile bonds were holding his marriage together. However, the actual accident itself—an unthinkable horror certain to send spasms of shock through the hearts of anyone who is a parent (or grandparent, aunt, uncle, and so on)—is hardly discussed. It is clearly a wound too deep, one the narrator has, by his own admission, not even begun to process, at least not by any socially acceptable means, and by this he means acceptable to his wife. His own private attempt to heal is a project, a reconstruction (symbolic resurrection?) of his son in the garage, cobbled together out of toys and items from his room. Yet, as strange and idiosyncratic as the protagonist is in his effort to salvage the fractured pieces of his world, his pain and desperation are very real.

Despite its frequent convolutions, this novel manages to capture, with stark precision, the agony of loss and the resulting dissolution of a marriage.  The steady erosion, under pressure, of existing fault lines and fissures may well be familiar to those of us who have experienced the slow-motion collapse of a long-term relationship. A tragedy can easily accelerate the process. This story also calls into question the myths of perfect parenthood and highlights the many ways we risk failing our children. But at the end of this brilliant, devastating tale all we really have is the internal soundtrack of one deeply traumatized, heartbroken and totally relatable human being. And that is, at its best, what language is capable of offering.

Doom Town by Gabriel Blackwell is published Zerogram Press.

To exist, and yet not be “fully alive”: Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher

In his short life, one defined by and confined by illness, Romanian author Max Blecher (1909 – 1938) published two novels, a collection of poetry, and a number of prose pieces and translations. A journal he kept was published posthumously. He also corresponded with some the most important writers and thinkers of his day. For a young man who spent the last decade of his twenty-eight years in various sanatoria with his torso immobilized in plaster, it is quite an achievement. Beginning in the 1970s, his work started to appear in translation in various languages including English, but the twenty-first century seems to be even more openly receptive to his work. The publication in 2015 of Michael Henry Heim’s new translation of Adventures in Immediate Irreality (which had been published in an earlier translation) brought his singular pained and distorted visions to an enthusiastic new audience, myself included.

Adventures in Immediate Reality is an existential sort of coming of age story in which the young narrator wanders through town engaging in “adventures,” many of which are sexual in nature. However, rather than becoming more confident and secure in his physical and emotional identity, he is increasingly aware of a nebulous, uncertain relationship between the tangible reality others appear to inhabit and the off-kilter space he navigates. Hallucinatory and surreal, haunted by questions of identity, bodily disconnect and discomfiting glimpses of a gloomy future, this work conjures a world not unlike those imagined by Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Dali. His other novel is quite a different beast.

Scarred Hearts is a much more conventional affair, a love story set in a sanitarium in the French seaside town of Berck where Blecher himself lived immediately following his diagnosis with spinal tuberculosis or Pott’s Disease. Like Blecher, the protagonist Emmanuel is a young man whose studies in Paris are cut short by the same devastating condition. The opening scenes wherein an x-ray and exam reveal that Emanuel’s spine is disintegrating, followed by the graphic description of the lancing of an abscess back home in his boarding house room are chilling. The shock he feels with his new understanding of the truth of his circumstances is vividly captured:

[E]verything seemed much sadder, more indifferent… A blighted Emmanuel walked this world, a man with an eroded vertebra, an unfortunate before whom the houses parted in fear. He stepped softly on the pavement, as if floating on the asphalt. In the interval spent shut inside the doctor’s office, the world had become strangely diluted. The boundaries of objects still existed, but merely as thin lines that, like in a drawing, surround a house in order to make it a house or stabilise the outline of a man; those contours that enclose things and people, trees and dogs, while barely possessing the strength to hold within their limits so much matter on the verge of collapse. It would be enough for someone to loosen that thin line around the edges of things for those imposing houses, their outlines suddenly wanting, to dissolve into a murky, homogenous grey sludge.

However, once he arrives at the sanitarium—a strange world unto itself, a hospital with the illusion of cultured society— the narrative that unfolds sheds most of its dream-like interiority and becomes remarkably standard and straightforward.

As Emmanuel settles into his new life, he learns to accept the peculiar atmosphere of the clinical hotel-like quality of the sanitarium and the resort town peopled largely with caretakers and former patients, at least in the off season. His perspective is now an essentially vertical one; he like so many of his fellow invalids he spends his time, day and night, on a trolley. In time, a plaster cast is constructed around his torso. Nonetheless, every day he is dressed as if still a man about town, wheeled down to a dining room for meals and allowed to travel about the town and countryside with horse and carriage. He makes friends with a cast of fascinating characters and soon he falls in love.

The object of his desire, Solange, is herself a former patient who stayed and now works in Berck. She accompanies Emmanuel about town in his carriage and visits him in his room, but in time his passion cools and his irritation with her grows. It is at this point that Emmanuel becomes an increasingly self-absorbed and selfish character but the motivations for this change are unclear and the novel seems to lose its steam. Although Blecher must be drawing on the experiences he himself had or observed in others, his unwillingness or inability to slip deep into the consciousness of his character as he did in Immediate Irreality, leaves a flat bitterness on the surface of a novel that started with such promise.

There is, of course, much to admire here. Blecher excels at evoking the smells and sensations, often revolting, of a world inhabited by the sick and dying, and laying bare the medical conditions of his era. At the same time, his descriptions of the flood of summer tourists who turn a quiet town dedicated to convalescence into a crowd of vacationing families and competing gramophones demonstrate how little has changed over the years, music plying devices aside. But the third person narrative creates an unfortunate distance. The title, Scarred Hearts, refers to the impact of severe illness on the ability to express emotion, but this tale seems to lose its soul as well.

Given its conventional form and general accessibility, Scarred Hearts was well received and has even been made into a movie. Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a much more daring work, so now that I have read this, I wonder if Blecher’s Sanitarium Journal will provide a context and some of the heart I felt was missing with this recent read. Last year two translations of the journal were finally published in English for the first time, along with his collection of poetry, so I will be able to find out.

Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher is translated from the Romanian by Henry Howard and published by Old Street Publishing.

Looking out toward the Horizon Line: The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas

The Horizon Line. That distant boundary between sea and sky, a path travelled by memories, traversing the great nothingness. It haunts Vicenzo Fontana, the narrator of The Last Days of Terranova by Galician writer Manuel Rivas. As the sole surviving owner of an eclectic bookshop that, after nearly seventy years of existence, is scheduled to close, he takes little comfort in the presence of the other businesses lining the streets of his hometown with similar Total Liquidation signs in their windows. A developer, it seems, has other plans for all this real estate, but he feels liable, as if he has failed in some self-appointed role as guardian of local history.

I feel responsible for all these closings. For having written my sign. A rebellion of the eyes. For having stuck my damn paw into the intimacy of words. I should stay open day and night, should hang up ship lights. It’s been a long time since I saw young people stealing books. The thrill in their bodies, in their gaze. I have to get back and open the bookstore right away. Someone might be hoping to steal a book. They’ll be so crushed. So disappointed.

As the novel opens, Vicenzo is watching a young couple illegally catching barnacles on the rocks below him while the waves threaten to rise and carry them off. He is worried for them, he is worried for his future, he is talking to ghosts. He knows he is seen as an oddity. He describes himself as “An old, fallen angel on crutches. A liquidation.” But he is not that old, no more than sixty-two, and the crutches—”Canadian crutches,” he notes—are necessary due to post-polio syndrome. The eccentricity he comes by naturally.

The story of Terranova, within which Vicenzo’s own story is inextricably bound, extends over nearly eighty years back to 1935, with the account of his maternal grandfather’s death across the Atlantic in Newfoundland. Before boarding the ship for what would be his final voyage, Antón Ponte had advised his son Eliseo, who had fallen in love with art and surrealist literature, to avoid the seafaring life. With this he was permitting a family occupational tradition to come to an end. The Galician name of his final resting place, along with money he’d earned working side jobs, would eventually fund, and christen, the bookstore Vicenzo’s mother, Comba, opened years later. His father, Amaro Fontana, was Uncle Eliseo’s best friend and a teacher of Greek and Latin until his career ended under the Purging Committees of the early years of the Franco regime. Amaro’s marriage to Comba in 1947, brought him into the bookselling business, along with Eliseo who came to live with the couple in the apartment above the shop. Over the years, Terranova would evolve into a rabbit warren of book-lined rooms, decorated with handmade globes, curiosities, posters, photographs and, often in false covers, smuggled and illegally produced copies of banned volumes.

Vicenzo, born into the Terranova world, was a reluctant convert to the family trade. As a small child he spent much of his time out in the country at the home of his paternal aunt and uncle where he was especially close to their housekeeper, the delightfully strong-willed Expectación, and her son Dombodán who is so close to him in age that his mother was able to nurse them both. Later on, Vicenzo and Dombadón will experiment with drugs and get into a little youthful trouble, but before that our protagonist will spend several years of his childhood at a sanitarium, trapped in an Iron Lung. Polio leaves him with lasting damage to his legs that further cripples him as he ages, and, to some extent, marks his self-identity for life.

In his early twenties, eager to put distance between himself and everything he thinks bookselling might promise (or threaten), Vicenzo heads to Madrid for University. That is, of course, the beginning of the road back home. In late 1975, with the death of Franco, the city is on edge. The apartment he shares with fellow students offers passing resources, like a place to develop film, to Argentinian youth escaping their own political turmoil back home. One is Garúa—or at least that is one of the names she uses. He is smitten, but their first proper encounter occurs at a café where, affecting his White Duke persona inspired by David Bowie, he is reading a contraband edition of the first Spanish translation of Catcher in the Rye. Garúa enters and, catching sight of him, comes right over:

She didn’t fall into the arms of the White Duke or admire the green lock of hair on his head or the lipstick on his lips or the makeup around his eyes. She simply stared at my book. That manner of looking. Squinted eyes squinting harder upon further scrutiny, not believing what they’re seeing, the cover absorbing her full attention, because it had an eye with an iris like a bullseye. This is from Libros del Mirasol! Let me see that, she said, as she tore it from my hands. I knew it—printed by the Compañía General Fabril Editorial in Buenos Aires! Are you…? No, I’m not Argentinian. And I’ve never been, I found it in a bookstore. I could have called it my bookstore, Terranova. But no, the White Duke liked to retain a certain air of mystery.

It turns out that her father had worked as a typographer for the publisher, creating in her the sensation that the very words he touched belonged to him. Over the weeks and months to come, they bond over books and music until eventually Garúa asks Vicenzo to take her to his family bookstore.

Back in Galicia, Garúa is immediately welcomed into the Terranova family. She is captivated by Amaro’s historical knowledge, swept away by Eliseo’s stories which have the capacity come alive before his listeners eyes, stories that come from a “deep place in the memory where only that which you want to happen will happen ” and Comba, ever sensitive, is instantly aware that Garúa’s arrival at Terranova is fated. “We have to protect her,” she tells her son. “That girl is full of souls.” In return, she has much to offer to Vicenzo, his family, friends and to the store. At least until her past comes calling.

The Last Days of Terranova is rich tale peopled with singular characters driven by idiosyncratic passions and hidden secrets, haunted by personal demons. Their relationships are complicated and the risks they take are real, set against uncertain and often dangerous political realities in both Spain and Argentina. The quirky bookstore is brilliantly realized while Vicenzo is the perfect, modestly eccentric, narrator to carry a story that holds so much humour, honest emotion, and literary and historical lore. The absence of quotation marks and the tendency to fall into an immersive, wandering narrative that seamlessly incorporates the memories and stories of various actors without immediate guideposts, apart from occasional time stamps, can lead to passing uncertainty about exactly whose account is being presented, but the disorientation never lasts long. Rivas is an accomplished storyteller with strong poetic sensibilities who trusts his readers’ attention to hold and rewards it with an original story that celebrates family, friendship and the power and wonder of books. As Vincenzo says early on:

People say that books can’t change the world. I disagree. Just look at me, they’ve given me quite the beating. But I’d still forgive anything for a stack of them.

The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas is translated from the Galician by Jacob Rogers and published by Archipelago Books.

There are eight million targets in the naked city; everyone’s wearing one: Alien by Ali Raz

I’m a coordinate, I know. I’m hunting aliens, but I’m not hunting them for me.

My last read of 2022, first review for 2023, is an otherworldly escapade from the ever inventive indie publisher, 11:11 Press. Alien by Ali Raz with its delightful vintage-style cover looks like a comic and, to be honest, with the text presented in varying-sized boxes that move across the pages, it reads rather like a comic at least until the end when the text sheds its boxes (or is unboxed) as our hero loses control of the illusion of control and everything starts to fall apart.

Unfolding as scraps of a desperate narrative, we follow an alien hunter in a city under siege as she navigates a strange, distorted and deadly terrain. A surreal game is afoot in this hellish urban landscape. Our hero knows she’s a pawn, in service of the mysterious “Syndicate,” guided by coded messages from received from poet’s radio, and viscerally attuned to the presence of a nefarious network that directs her to sites where small blue-skinned aliens might be found. Titillated and thrilled by the hunt, she does not fully understand how predetermined her movements are or how deeply she is caught in a twisted web of eccentric friends and lovers. It’s a dangerous game, but dangerous is, after all, the only kind of game in town.

The world our unnamed hero inhabits is cruel and unforgiving—gruesome, deviant, hellish and ripe with all manner of foul odors. Death is cheap, possibly even desired, haunting waking and sleeping hours alike:

Infinite openness and infinite malleability. My teeth turn to metal. I laugh with sparkling metal teeth. Like a villain, like a villain, the infinite refrain seethes in me. I roll my eyes back in their sockets, look at my brain. I wake up shivering in sweat. I sit up on my mattress, make a note in my notebook.

This is sci-fi in the capital-w-Weird sense of the genre, but painfully spare, stripped to its bare essentials and wildly poetic. Raz sketches a an extra-terrestrial reality of and not of our planet. Amid the devastation she plants select South Asian imagery—banyan trees and sugarcane juice vendors—that seems to soften the hardened, cracked and decaying apocalyptic cityscape:

The banyan tree weeps things to me. Its voice is glazed and husky.

But, be careful, one could just as easily imagine our hero strangled in a mesh of aeriel roots surrounding the trunk of a banyan tree or ground to pulp in the gears of a sugarcane vendor’s cart. No place is safe. No one can be trusted. And hearts can be broken.

Alien is a grimy futuristic noir romp, inventive in format with a sharp, poetic narrative that promises a wickedly queer adventure—and delivers.

Alien by Ali Raz is published by 11:11 Press.

Reading highlights of 2022: A baker’s dozen and then some…

It seems to me that last year I resisted the annual “best of” round-up right through December and then opened the new year with a post about some of my favourite reads of 2021 anyhow. This year I will give in, look back at some of my favourite reading experiences out of a year in which I had a wealth to choose from and aim to get some kind of list posted before friends start hanging up their 2023 calendars around the globe. In a year with war, floods, famine, storms and still no end in sight to Covid infections, books seemed more important than ever, as a respite, a record and a reminder that we, as human beings, have been here before and must learn from the past to face the increasing challenges of the future.

As ever, it is difficult to narrow down twelve months of reading to a few favourites. One’s choices are always personal and subjective, and many excellent books invariably get left out. This year especially—2022 was a productive and satisfying year for me as a reader and as a blogger. Not much for other writing, I’m afraid, but that’s okay.

This year I’m taking a thematic approach to my wrap-up, so here we go.

The most entertaining reading experiences I had this year:

Tomas Espedal’s The Year (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson) was one of the first books I read in 2022. A novel in verse, it is wise, funny and, nearing the end, surprisingly tense as Espedal’s potentially auto-fictional protagonist careens toward what could be a very reckless act.

International Booker Prize-winning Tomb of Sand  by Geetanjali Shree (translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) looks like a weighty tome, but blessed with humour, magic and drama—plus a healthy amount of white space—it flies by. An absolute delight and worthy award winner!

Postcard from London, a collection of short stories by Hungarian writer Iván Mándy (translated by John Batki) was a complete surprise for me. In what turned out to be a year in which I read a number of terrific collections of short fiction, I was a little uncertain about this large hardcover volume some 330 pages long, but by the end of the first page I was hooked by the author’s distinct narrative voice and I would have happily read many more pages.

The most absorbing book I read this year (and its companions):

City of Torment – Daniela Hodrová’s monumental trilogy (translated from the Czech by Elena Sokol and others) is a complex, multi-faceted, experimental work that explores a Prague formed and deformed by literary, historical and political forces, haunted by ghosts and the author’s own personal past. After finishing the book, I sensed that I was missing much of the foundational structure—not that it effects the reading in itself—but I wanted to understand more. I read Hodrová’s own companion piece, Prague, I See a City… (translated by David Short) and more recently Karel Hanek Mácha’s epic poem May (translated by Marcela Malek Sulak), but I would love to have access to more of the related literary material, much of which is not yet available in English. I suspect that City of Torment is a text that will keep fueling my own reading for some time.

This year’s poetic treasures:

This is the most challenging category to narrow down. I read many wonderful collections, each so different, but three are particularly special.

Translator John Taylor has introduced me to a number of excellent poets over the years and in 2022, it was his translation of French-language Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes. I read this gorgeous book in August and it is still on my bedside table. It’s not likely to leave that space for a long time yet, and that’s all I need to say.  

I first came to know of Alexander Booth as a translator (and read a number of his translations this year) but his collection, Triptych, stands out not only for the delicate beauty of his poetry, but for the care and attention he put into this self-published volume. A joy to look at, to hold and to read.

Finally, My Jewel Box by Danish poet Ursual Andkjær Olsen is the conclusion of an organically evolving trilogy that began with one of my all-time favourite poetry books, Third-Millennium Heart. Not only is this a powerful work on its own, but I had the great pleasure to speak over Zoom with Olsen and her translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, for Brazos Bookstore in May. The perfect way to celebrate a reading experience that has meant so much to me.

Books that defied my expectations this year:

Prague-based writer Róbert Gál has produced books of philosophy, experimental fiction and aphorisms—each one taking a fresh and fluid approach to the realm of ideas and experience. His latest, Tractatus (translated from the Slovak by David Short) takes its inspiration from Wittgenstein’s famous tract to explore a series of epistemological and existential questions in a manner that is engaging, entertaining and provocative.

A Certain Logic of Expectations (you see the back cover here) by Mexican photographer and writer Arturo Soto is a look at the Oxford (yes, that Oxford) that exists a world apart from the grounds of the hallowed educational institution. Soto’s outsider’s perspective and appreciation of the ordinary offers a sharp contrast to the famed structures one associates with the city (and where he was a student himself) and what one typically expects from a photobook.

The third unexpected treat this year was The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths. This short novel about the soldiers sent to guard the tomb where Jesus was buried is an inventive work that explores questions of faith, religion, and art history. Truly one of those boundary-defying works to use a term that seems to get used a little too often these days.

The best books I read in 2022:

Again, an entirely personal assessment.

I loved Esther Kinsky’s River, but Grove (translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt), confirmed for me that she is capable of doing something that other writers whose work skirts the territory occupied by memoir and autofiction rarely achieve, and that is to write from the depth of personal experience while maintaining a degree of opaqueness, if that’s the right word. One is not inundated with detail about the life or relationships of her narrators. Rather, she zeros in on select moments and memories, allowing landscape to carry the larger themes she is exploring. So inspiring to the writer in me.

Monsters Like Us, the debut novel by Ulrike Almut Sandig (translated from the German by Karen Leeder) deals with an extraordinarily difficult topic—childhood sexual abuse. It does not shy away from the very real damage inflicted by predatory family members, nor does it offer a magical happy ending, but it does hint at the possibility of rising above a traumatic past. As in her poetry where Sandig often draws on the darkness of traditional European fairy tales, she infuses this novel with elements and characters that embody the innocence, evil and heroic qualities of folktales within an entirely and vividly contemporary story. So much to think about here.

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Pastor (translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken) was my introduction to the work of a Norwegian writer I had a lot about over the years. This slow, melancholy novel set in the far north regions of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter, was a perfect fit for me as a reader, in style and subject matter. The story of a female pastor who takes a position in a remote village following a personal loss that she does not fully understand, explores emotional, historical and spiritual questions through a character who is literally stumbling in the dark.

So, what might lie ahead? This past year I embarked on two self-directed reading projects—one to focus on Norwegian literature for two months, the other to read and write about twenty Seagull Books to honour their fortieth anniversary. I found this very rewarding experience. Both projects were flexible enough to allow me freedom, varietyand plenthy of room for off-theme reading, but in each case I encountered authors and read books I might not have prioritized otherwise. For 2023 I would like to turn my attention to another publisher I really admire whose books are steadily piling up in my TBR stack—Archipelago. As with Seagull, they publish a wide range of translated and international literature that meshes well with my own tastes and interests. I don’t have a specific goal in mind, but already have a growing list of Archipelago titles I’d like to read. Other personal projects—public or private—may arise, perhaps more focused toward the personal writing I always promise to get back to, but time will tell. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s a long uncertain road from January 1st to December 31st and it’s best not to try to outguess what the road might hold. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst once more.

Best wishes for the New Year and thank you for reading!

“You weren’t made for this life” Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

It begins as it ends. With a beam, a rope, a chair and a window looking out on a hill, a cypress tree and a potato field. With a heart turned to stone through so many trials.

In her stark, poetic elegy The Last Days of Mandelstam, Lebanese-French poet and writer, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, aimed to bear witness to the final days and hours of Osip Mandelstam’s life that had passed unrecorded in a transit camp near Vladivostok, alternating between the dying poet’s feverish thoughts and delusions and delicately sketched moments from his past. With Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, she again begins with the final hours of another great Russian poet whose work was supressed during her lifetime, but her approach here is more direct. Woman to woman, poet to poet, Khoury-Ghata wants to trace the long, troubled journey that led Tsvetaeva to take her own life in 1941 at the age of forty-eight:

Hunched over your huge 750-page journal for months, I try to assemble the scattered pieces of your life, understand the reasons for your infatuations and your disappointments, especially your frantic desire to connect with men, women (some loved with words, others with hands) before you ended up alone, destroyed, bitter, unrepentant, ready to begin again.

Addressing her subject directly, Khoury-Ghata paints a spare, unsentimental portrait of a complicated, gifted woman whose creative intensity and constant need to be loved not only attracted but suffocated those around her. It is an effort to understand her demons and her pain.

Born into privilege, the daughter of a friend of the tsar who founded the Moscow Fine Arts Museum, Marina Tsvetaeva was a prodigy, studying music and French as a child, and publishing her first collection of poetry at age seventeen. She was soon drawn into literary circles where, through critic Max Voloshin, she met Sergei Efron whom she would marry in early 1912. Later that year, she gave birth to her first child, Ariandna (called Alya) just before her twentieth birthday. Her fame as a poet grew over the following years with the publication of further collections. Then, with the October Revolution, her fortunes rapidly began to unravel.

You had to learn how to live humbly, become invisible, not attract attention, expect at any moment to be denounced, arrested, deported shot.

As her late father’s connections become a liability and her husband joins the counter-revolutionary White Army, Tsvetaeva is reduced to begging from friends and struggling to get by, now with two children to support. She finds creative expression through writing plays and physical expression with lovers, but she allows her youngest daughter Irina to die of starvation at an orphanage where she had taken her girls in the hope that they would be fed. Her death is one of the many ill-fated decisions and situations that will haunt her.

Khoury-Ghata follows Tsvetaeva’s escape from the USSR to Berlin in 1922 where she plans to meet up with her husband whom she has learned is alive and studying in Prague. She falls in love while waiting, as is her nature, an act that never seems immoral to her, simply an outlet for the many passions that course through her being. When she and Alya, finally reunited with Sergei, settle near Prague, a new lover, her husband’s friend Konstantin Rodzevich, occupies her day, while writing commands the nighttime hours:

In the evening after supper, only the scratching of your pen on paper can be heard. Your fierce writing coupled with the desire to destroy what you have just written. Alya and Sergei, powerless spectators of your self-destruction. They watch you racing to the abyss but do nothing to stop you. The involuntary tear that you believe you wiped from the corner of your eye dilutes a word in passing. No tenderness for yourself. The horror is behind you.

In 1925, her son Gregory (known as Mur), in Tsvetaeva’s imagination the product of three men—her husband, her lover, and her great, impossible love Boris Pasternak—is born. Later that year the family leaves for France where she will live for more than thirteen years before finally returning to the USSR in 1939. New loves, including an passionate correspondence with Rilke, follow along with important literary output, but, over the years, continued economic strife will drive the Efron family into increasingly desperate situations. When she is unable to find a market for her poetry, Tsvetaeva reluctantly turns her hand to prose. Sergei, and ultimately Alya, who is often treated little better than a servant by her mercurial mother, become more politically engaged. It is impossible to feel safe and settled. The poet, so highly lauded in her teens, so desired by countless friends and lovers, finds herself alone and unloved. Most painfully, her long time supporter, yet elusive love object, Pasternak, is now lost in a new life as father and husband and no longer has time for her letters:

Pasternak has taken back the only gift he ever gave you: exaltation.

You blame your despair on everything around you.

The mirror above the sink is responsible for your wrinkles.

Too narrow, the worktable is guilty of drying up your inspiration.

Too noisy, your neighbours prevent you from concentrating.

Volatile, dynamic and passionate, the woman who comes to light in these pages is hopelessly dependent on the praise of others. She knows that she is not well liked among her fellow ex-pats, she has no qualms about engaging in romantic activities outside her marriage but is shocked and unsettled when she learns Sergei is contemplating divorce. Both her children come to lose patience with her; over time others learn to either humour or avoid her. Yet as with similar human emotional whirlpools, the one she ends up hurting the most is herself.

Khoury-Ghata’s Marina Tsvetaeva is not a strictly chronological account. Although she traces the general course of the journey that leads to the chair, rope and attic window in Yelabuga, because she is addressing her subject intimately, like a respected correspondent, a friend even, time is porous. Thus, a circle of Tsvetaeva’s friends, lovers, fellow poets and their assorted, often tragic, fates are recurring ghosts, living and dead, that delight, distract and trouble her throughout her life right up to that key final moment that is always present in the interrogatory second person narrative. Pasternak, Mandelstam, Mayahovsky, Biely, Akhmatova and more. Fragments of poems, letters and diary entries offer brief insight into the heart and mind of a woman who would come to be known as one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, whose life sadly coincided with a dramatically turbulent time that was not made for her.

Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated from the French by Teresa Lavender-Fagan and published by Seagull Books.

Twenty Seagull books to mark forty years of publishing magic: A 2022 reading project wrap up

Long-time followers of roughghosts will know that I have a particular fondness for Seagull Books. They continually publish a wide range of interesting international and Indian authors, bring many to English language audiences for the first time and, oh, those covers! Senior Editor and Designer Sunandini Banerjee’s work is instantly recognizable, yet always original. And not only have I amassed a healthy collection of their publications, but I have also visited Calcutta twice, taught classes at their School of Publishing and treasured their friendship and encouragement over the years. I admire the work they produce, their dedication to supporting fellow independent publishers in India and abroad, and their work to further understanding and education through the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. So to mark their fortieth anniversary this year I decided, somewhat late in the game, to embark on a personal reading project. I promised myself that I would read and write about twenty Seagull books by year’s end. Twenty for forty.

And here we are.

To date, I have reviewed all but one of these books—the remaining review of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Marina Tsvetaeva will follow in the next few days—but I wanted to stop and celebrate twenty excellent reading experiences before the holiday busyness begins. My reading naturally overlapped with my other 2022 self-directed projected, a focus on Norwegian literature, and the annual months devoted to Women in Translation and German Literature that I try to contribute to each year. Within and beyond that there was still plenty of room for variety. Two of the books I read were English originals—both from India—and the rest were translated: six German, four Norwegian, three French (two of which were by African writers, the third Lebanese-French), two Arabic, one Hungarian, one Dutch and one Bengali. I read five works of poetry/prose poetry, nine novels, three collections of short fiction, one long form essay, one play, and one graphic novel. Had I planned this project a little earlier I might have read more nonfiction, but as the year was rushing to a close book length became a deciding factor—December’s four books were necessarily shorter and that influenced choice!

Among this stack of handsome books are some authors I had already come to know and love through Seagull—Tomas Espedal, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Franz Fühmann, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Friedrike Mayröcker, plus one writer I have long wanted to read: Mahasweta Devi. But, as usual, there were some unexpected surprises among the authors I encountered for the first time, most notably German Jürgen Becker and Hungarian Iván Mándy.

Happy fortieth anniversary, Seagull! Here’s to an ever brighter future.

Books read:
in field latin by Lutz Seiler, (German) translated by Alexander Booth
Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friedrike Mayröcker (German) translated by Roslyn Theobald
Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui (Togo/French) translated by Chris Turner
Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi (India/Bengali) translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay
The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann (German) translated by Isabelle Fargo Cole
Winter Stories by Ingvild Rishøi (Norwegian) translated by Diane Oakley
Love and Reparation by Danish Sheikh (India)
Ever Since I Did Not Die by Ramy Al-Asheq (Arabic) translated by Isis Nusair
The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha (India)
Marina Tsvetaeva by Vénus Khoury-Ghata (Lebanese-French) translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Leaving by Cees Nooteboom, w/ drawings by Max Neumann (Dutch) translated by David Colmer
Love by Tomas Espedal (Norwegian) translated by James Anderson
Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully (Mauritis/French) translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson
The Sea in the Radio by Jürgen Becker (German) translated by Alexander Booth
The Dance of the Deep Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam (Arabic) translated by Sawad Hussain
Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig (German) translated by Karen Leeder
Postcard from London by Iván Mándy (Hungarian) translated by John Batki
The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen (Norwegian) translated by James Anderson
The Year by Tomas Espedal (Norwegian) translated by James Anderson
Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler, after James Joyce (German) translated by Alexander Booth

“How many lives go into a life?” Leaving by Cees Nooteboom, Drawings by Max Neumann

A man standing in a winter garden becomes aware of something not quite right—a cloud that seems too heavy, bare branches against an ancient wall, the refusal of neighbouring geese—an unspoken uneasiness that carries his thoughts back to the war:

The war that never stopped coming back,
a guest who’s known to all, a toothless
kiss, the language of intimate betrayal
around him now again, remembering a past

he couldn’t share with anyone.

This is how Dutch poet and writer Cees Nooteboom’s Leaving begins, its speaker in his garden thinking about family, war, times past. About those images that fail to fade. But as this three-part sequence of poems was coming into being, another guest, unexpected and uncertain, arrived and shifted the focus. His work would, in the end, acquire a subtitle: A Poem from the Time of the Virus. Without ever mentioning the virus itself outside of his Afterword, the shifting currents of the early months of its spread cannot be ignored even within the poet’s green refuge, for “Whimpering at the garden gate is the world, the / fuss of a newspaper.”

Heads and faces—remembered, imagined, dreamed—form a key motif throughout these poems, complemented by German artist Max Neuman’s series of drawings of abstract figures with spare features, completed in advance of news of the pandemic, for this, their second collaboration. The man in his garden is haunted by heads:

I saw heads, countless heads,
field marshals, lovers, travellers
from star to star. Each head its
own story, hidden in the folds

of the brain, alongside narrow streams
of blood, reeds on the banks, secret
landscapes no one can reach,
except for a lonely traveller

This leads into the second sequence, where the poet, the lonely traveller, wants to make sense of the darkness and strangeness of his visions  that surface from memory. All these heads. Who are these people, he asks, these creatures, these voices? As spartan as Neumann’s drawings, these poems propose questions that the poet cannot or does not want to answer. Can one look for meaning in life if, when looking back, one is confronted with forms, shadows, faces without mouths? The past seems intent on revisiting the man who knows that the end is nearing:

Life, the song of songs? Sure,
but underneath there is that other truth,
the truth of night and fog,
the test that lasts

until the end.

The third and final sequence, or movement if one wishes to read this poem as a musical composition, moves into a space of quiet and melancholy. Others—friends, brothers, lovers—have left the path once shared, one by one, “disappearing like ghosts.” The silence descending on the world is like a nothingness the poet has never heard before: “contradiction / surrounds me, an organ, / no keys, a song // whose sound has been sealed.” Yet, where the poet is troubled by the images that confront him in the second sequence, he is now coming to a place of peace with himself and others in the silence and isolation, and finds he is ready to take the road ahead and let the past be:

Now my feet are counting the road, I know,
looking back is not allowed. My steps measure time,
a dark and peerless poem, a beat
that can’t be slowed.

In the Afterword, Nooteboom who is not a writer to shy away from contemporary issues,  talks about how a poem comes to be, how influences enter and make themselves known, changing the direction in which the poet thought he was headed. It would be strange, he says, if the arrival of a mysterious virus were to be completely ignored; sometimes reality intervenes to help one write. And so we have this thoughtful, timely work, one that invites rereading and lingering on the words and the drawings.

Leaving: A Poem from the Time of the Virus by Cees Nooteboom with drawing by Max Neumann is translated by David Colmer and published by Seagull Books.