A tragic-comic turn: Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić

Croatian writer Daša Drndić, who died of cancer just this past June, was a formidable and singular literary voice. Her novels challenge expectations, blending fiction with historical fact and archival material, often in ways that break up and defy narrative conventions. Her central concerns circle around the impact of the Second World War on the former Yugoslavia and on European Jewish populations. Hers is a literary act of remembering. One which she approaches explicitly, implicitly and sometimes head-on and unadorned, as in the list of  names of 9000 Jews deported from or killed in Italy and Italian occupied regions between 1943 and 1945 that stretches over more than forty pages midway through her novel Trieste. Her work is bold and uncompromising—she does not shirk from horrific detail, and sees no need to comfort her reader, but that does not mean her work is devoid of humour and beauty. And, if she had high expectations of her readers, she was equally demanding of her translators. A recent article in Granta reports:

She gave clear indications that the translation of her works into other languages should not stray from her intention, form or style. Dialogue is in italics, always. Inverted commas are reserved for irony, ridicule. Word order is carefully chosen, for stress, and should not be transposed. There should be few commas and even fewer semi-colons. ‘I evade semi-colons when I want my protagonists to speak in a breath – so, comma, comma, comma.’ She often talked about dialogue this way, as a breath. Sentences should not be broken up; she was not in the business of making things easier for the reader: ‘The rhythm and repetition are meant to irritate.’ She abhorred qualifiers which might ‘sweeten’ the text. Her language was not to be sweet, nor soft, nor ornamental, because her subjects were not sweet, and she rarely used ellipses, let alone exclamation marks. Everything should be said, not evaded, and the simpler, the more concise, the better: ‘I weigh words, I respect them, I work with them. Where there are repetitions, they are there for a purpose (rhythm and context).’

If her novels are necessarily complex and formidable, what then, might one expect form a shorter work? A “simpler”, more accessible experience? Well, yes and no.

Doppelgänger, a shorter work from 2002, newly released from Istros Books, is likely to surprise readers familiar with Drndić and possibly leave newcomers completely uncertain what to think. And that’s where the quote above is useful. Stylistically, this two-part novella is simpler, and, on the surface, a more absurd and tragic-comic work, but it is equally unapologetic, incorporates lists and digressions, and is firmly rooted to her common themes—the impact of World War Two and its aftermath on the former Yugoslavia. It is almost an exercise in miniature. Her stories are at once deeply distressing and deviously playful.

Composed of two very loosely connected, yet contrasting, long stories, Doppelgänger opens with “Artur and Isabella”, translated by SD Curtis. We meet the two main characters, an elderly man and woman, separately. Artur, watching life from the window of his apartment, thinks about his aged body, incontinence, adult diapers, and the warm shit in which he is sitting. He is unsentimental, cynical, and yet judgemental in his thoughts and observations of others:

Nappies. Incontinence, incompetence, incompatibility. He watches grey-haired ladies weeing in their nappies and smiling. They smile tiny smiles and they smile broad smiles. When they give off big smiles, old ladies quiver. Old ladies in aspic. In buses they piss and smile to themselves. In coffee shops, in cake shops, in threes, in fives, sitting at small marble tables nattering, some are toothless, nattering over cakes, secretly pissing and smiling. Great, happy invention. Nappies. Each one of them is warm between the legs. Just like once upon a time. In their youth. In joyful times. Long ago.

Isabella we meet in the bath. She thinks about her body too. And herself. She also thinks about art and photography. It is New Year’s Eve, 2000, and these two lonely people, both in their late seventies, are preparing to go out to take in the spirit of the occasion. Later in the evening, they will meet.

The account of their encounter and subsequent sexual interaction is interspersed with excerpts from police surveillance files that detail their pasts (and unfortunate ends), facts collected with cold, clinical precision. Artur is a former captain in the Yugoslav Navy, and a dedicated collector of hats. Born in Germany, Isabella is the daughter of a Jewish shoe factory co-owner, who manages to escape the fate of the rest of her family members by obtaining false documents and making her way to the Croatian island of Korčula. After the war she marries a chocolatier and moves to Salzberg where she lives until her husband’s death in 1978, when she returns to Croatia and opens a photography studio.

Isabella and Artur happen to cross paths, two strangers out alone on the deserted town streets at four o’clock in the morning. There is an instant attraction; geriatric flirtation ensues. Isabella smiles widely, showing off her real teeth which is immediately noted by the other. Their conversation is awkwardly endearing:

 Those are your teeth? Artur asks anyway. Are those your teeth? he asks nervously, and without waiting for an answer he decides: I’ll tell her everything about myself. Almost everything.

They are walking. Along streets empty and littered from the New Year celebrations. Artur says: I’ll tell you everything about myself. We’re not children. The night is ethereal.

You don’t need to tell me everything, says Isabella.

Artur says: I used to work for the Yugoslav Navy. I was stationed on Vis. That’s where I met my wife.

Isabella asks: Were you a spy?

Artur thinks: That’s a stupid question. He says nothing.

I adore spy stories, says Isabella, and skips like a young girl.

They talk about hats, chocolates, Isabella’s garden gnomes and Artur’s epilepsy. They make out in the park, fumbling beneath one another’s (thankfully dry) nappies. And as the narrative progresses we are offered insights into their lives as flashbacks and documentary evidence is worked in. What unfolds is a simple, heartbreaking tale about two lonely old people who chance to meet on the eve of a new century. Separately they go home to make similar choices, their desire spent.

The second, longer story, “Pupi”, is translated by Celia Hawkesworth. The protagonist is Printz, a 50 year old man who lives in Belgrade with his father, Rikard, a chemist and former spy. Born in 1946, Printz (Pupi is a nickname he doesn’t like) had wanted to become a sculptor, but ended up following his father’s dual career path, presumably without great success. Now he no longer works; he has been pensioned off after a breakdown while on assignment in Bali. When we meet him he is watching rhinos in the zoo—a common refuge at times of stress. His mother has just died after a lengthy illness. It is never made clear exactly what sets Printz apart, but he does report that his birth was difficult, and although he has access to boundless amounts of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his thoughts tend to race at times and he is aware that bits and pieces of his past are getting mixed up in  his head. A lengthy discussion about bipolar disorder (echoing Artur and Isabella’s discussion about well-known people thought to have had epilepsy) suggests that or a similar condition might play a part, which would not be out of step with some of the thinking and behaviour he demonstrates. But, for the most part, the fates he and his father face are representative of those of the Yugoslav middle-classes as their Socialist dreams, served by property taken from the Jews, is  crumbling under the materialistic pressures of a new generation. Any promise he may have once had has ebbed away.

The third person narrative shifts back and forth through Printz’s life. As a child he falls in love with a neighbour who will leave for a successful career as an artist; he marries twice and walks away from both marriages. Moving back in with his aging parents, he helps care for his mother, a one-time opera singer, as she is dying of cancer. And then there is his nemesis, his younger brother Herzog, a self-serving modern man who buys their father’s house, and, once their mother has died, begins restricting Printz and Rikard’s room as his own family expands, renovates and consumes the space. After the old man’s death, Printz soon finds himself with no home at all.

Although lists and historical and scientific details are woven into “Pupi”, this story is, for Drndić, a relatively conventional narrative, albeit one that employs her idiosyncratic rhythms, repetition, and italics. Printz is an engaging anti-hero—a damaged man with a good heart. War is in the background, colouring his dreams and imagination, even if joining the battle in reality is not practical or possible:

Pupi also often goes to war. That gives him inner satisfaction, that going off to battle sometimes across soft borders, sometimes impenetrable ones. Pupi no longer knows whether he is going to help the people from Vukovar or the ones from Sarajevo, he does not know. But in this war he becomes a hero and is proud of himself. He saves people, takes them out of their hiding places, bandages their wounds, tells the children stories. Sometimes he sees fields of unscythed wheat, sometimes streets flooded with plastic bags in which frozen faeces are thawing, human. He listens to people saying This is a terrible war, it is a small war and it will soon be over so Pupi is calm, he knows that he will survive. But still, in this war there are dead people, too many dead people.

Intelligent but easily disoriented, he is a lost soul and yet a strangely resilient one. However, in the end, even poor Printz has his limits.

Reading Doppelgänger is not unlike exploring the short works of one of Drndić’s heroes, Thomas Bernhard. The flow, mechanics and dynamics of his characteristic novels are all evident on a small scale in his short stories. Likewise, this novella stands in a similar relation to the Croatian novelist’s masterworks. There is humour here, and great humanity. Further, this unusual little piece was apparently a personal favourite. Her characters—Artur, Isabella, and Printz—are all eccentric, with peculiar obsessions that give their rather dismal lives meaning. They have all experienced trauma and hardship, and yet harbour little bitterness or anger. They seem resigned to their fates. Which makes their lonely ends that much more tragic.

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić is translated by SD Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.

Just the right touch: A few thoughts about In Every Wave by Charles Quimper and a link to my review at The Temz Review

It is a distinct challenge to attempt to write about a novel that is so delicate and spare, almost gossamer-like, without crushing it beneath the tip of your pen. In Every Wave, the latest offering from Quebec-based publisher, QC Fiction is such a novel—or rather, at just 80 pages—novella. To write too much, to attempt to over read it in the analysis, would not only spoil the emotional experience of encountering the novel without any specific expectations and, most critically, risks colouring the hauntingly open-ended conclusion which I feel can be rightfully read a number of ways.

When I write a review of a piece of fiction, I try to offer a way into the text—enough I hope for someone else to know if it might be of interest to them—but I try to be careful not to explicitly state how I understood the book. That kind of discussion is fine for a book club, even for a friendly online debate, but not for a review. There are several reasons for this. One is that my own feelings toward a work might not fully gel until weeks or months after I’ve finished reading it. The other, more important, is that the books I am most inclined to want to review, especially for publication elsewhere, have a level of ambiguity, an openness to multiple interpretations. That is what makes me want to go to the extra work involved in reading a text, often several times, and attempting to bring to it to life—just a little—on the page.

The premise of Charles Quimper’s In Every Wave (translated by Guil Lefebvre) is simple. After his young daughter is tragically lost on a summer holiday outing, a father’s world starts to crumble. The narrative, presented as an internalized monologue directed at the protagonist’s missing daughter, is fragmented, nonlinear, painfully realistic and disturbingly surreal in turns. Nothing is entirely certain—nothing but the aching, overwhelming grief that consumes the bereaved parents and destroys their relationship, altering their lives forever.

This brief, but indelible story is best approached without too many preconceptions, so I felt that writing about it necessitated the lightest touch. I hope I achieved that. My review, for the latest issue of The Tℇmz Review, is now online here.

A chronicle of madness? One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

To be born is a fact. To be born in one period rather than another, as I’ve already said; and of this or that father, and in this or that condition; to be male or female; in Lapland or in central Africa; and handsome or ugly; with a hump or without: facts. And if you lose an eye, it’s a fact; and you can even lose both, and if you’re a painter it’s the worst thing that can happen to you.

Time, space: necessity. Fate, fortune, chance: all snares of life. You want to be, eh? There’s this catch: in abstract, you cannot just be. The being must be trapped in a form, and for some time it has to stay in it, here or there, this way or that. And everything, as long as it lasts, bears the penalty of its form, the penalty of being this way and no longer being able to be otherwise.

In a world obsessed with identity politics, there seems to be a considerable currency placed on defining and understanding oneself in relation to others. To be authentic. But implicit in claiming, or rejecting any identity, is the assumption that we can know our own selves, and have that knowledge accepted and validated by others. Yet what if that is impossible? What if the image we have of ourselves is at once entirely singular, unverifiable, and at odds to some degree, great or small, with the multitude of images everyone else has of us?

Then you have the crux of the crisis that befalls the protagonist of Italian writer Luigi Pirandello’s classic 1926 novel One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, newly released by Spurl Editions, the inimitable little US publisher of nearly forgotten literary and photographic treasures.

The premise is simple, if, at first blush, a little contrived. The narrator, Vitangelo Moscarda, is a proud but unambitious twenty-eight year-old, heir to a considerable fortune, who is content to allow others to manage the bank his father founded while he enjoys a life of self-satisfied leisure in the town of Richieri. One day, while he is examining his face in the mirror, his wife offers an unexpected observation about his nose—it tilts to the right—and, wounded by this previously unnoticed imperfection, he quickly finds more to fault: his eyebrows look like two circumflex marks ^^, and his ears are poorly placed, and examination of his hands and legs revel further defects. An innocent remark thus sets off a crisis of identity that quickly escalates, ultimately ending with the complete psychological dissolution of character. As his grasp of reality spins out of control or, perhaps, becomes so precise that he can no longer surrender to the illusions that had previously buffered his existence, Moscardo carefully details the progress of what he calls “his sickness” and the remedy he believes will cure him of it.

Since he first becomes aware that his own view of himself is lacking, it troubles him that his wife is apparently in love with someone else—a construct of him, “her Gengé”—whom he now can only pretend to be. He blames his passivity and indecisiveness on a fault in his character and upbringing:

Unfortunately, I had never been able to give any sort of form to my life; I have never firmly wanted myself to have an individual nature, on my own, both because I had never encountered obstacles that aroused in me the will resist and to assert myself somehow in front of others and myself, and because my spirit tended to think and feel also the opposite of what it thought and felt the moment before. It tended, in other words, to dismantle and separate in me, with assiduous and often opposing reflections, every mental and sentimental formation. And then, finally my nature was inclined to yield, to give way to the discretion of others, not so much out of weakness as out of indifference and resignation in advance to the troubles that could then come to me…

The more he thinks about it, the more he comes to resent the way she manipulates this other version of himself, and grows jealous of this shadow of a being who has now come between them. The one she really loves. He has begun to disassociate.

The narrative is presented as a dialogue of sorts with an audience, the protagonist anticipating objections, inviting attention to certain observations and considerations. Pirandello (1867-1936) was a prolific playwright, and this interactive form of monologue reflects that. But this is an intense and deeply internal journey, one that, once in motion, the narrator is unable or unwilling to halt—even as he is aware of the self-destructive nature of his actions. After all, “self” destruction is his ultimate desire. If he is simultaneously one, nonexistent, and a multitude, he reasons that he should be able to break his various selves apart, shatter the impressions others hold of him—prove that he is not what they think he is.

The scheme Moscardo concocts leads him to engage in irrational, cruel and reckless behaviour and, of course, his goal is not appreciated. Because he has become especially concerned with the widespread reputation, inherited from his father, that he is a usurer, he turns his attention to the financial affairs of the bank in an especially reckless manner. And when money is involved, everyone pays attention. But not in the way our poor hero imagines. His friends and family respond by seeking to have him declared incompetent, a fate he is keen to escape.

Following Moscardo’s misadventures is akin to witnessing an existential train wreck. However, his insights into the limitations of self-awareness, and the nature of being in the world are profound. And, his observations of others are, for a narrator whose world falls apart with the  revelation of his own physical flaws, filled with vivid, typically unflattering, detail:

To judge by his appearance, Canon Sclepis didn’t seem to contain all that power of authority, that stern energy. He was a tall and thin priest, almost diaphanous, as if all the air and light of the hilltop where he lived had not only faded him but had also rarified him, and had made his hands almost transparent in their tremulous frailty and his eyelids finer than onion skin over his pale oval eyes. Tremulous and faded was his voice, too, and his smiles were empty on his long white lips, from which often a little blob of saliva would hang.

In navigating a very fine line between wisdom and madness, Pirandello has, in Moscardo, crafted a protagonist who is complicated, tragic, and strangely sympathetic.

Most famous perhaps, for his plays  “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and “Henry IV”, Pirandello was known for his ability to parlay his acute psychological insight into entertaining drama. That talent was recognized with the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature. But he was also an important novelist and writer of short stories. This, his last novel, took him more than a decade to complete. Although it harvests territory familiar to Pirandello’s greater body of work, the tone is pessimistic, the style spare and the setting abstract. In that way it foreshadows the Theatre of the Absurd, in particular the work of Samuel Beckett. As translator William Weaver notes in his introduction, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand was not well received when it was first released. It was, he suggests, ahead of its time. In 1990, when this translation was initially published, Weaver recognizes that “(t)he terrible honesty of the novel and its protagonist has, with time, become all the more desirable and impelling.”

How then, will today’s identity obsessed climate respond?

An excerpt from the opening chapters of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand can be found at 3:AM Magazine.

 

Comic relief: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, Illustrated by Nicolas Mahler

Anyone familiar with the unbroken, single paragraph monologues that characterize the typical novel by late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, might find it hard to imagine how his work could be realized in the medium of the graphic novel. I mean wouldn’t there be too many words to corral on the blank page? How could the intensity of the original be translated? For Austrian cartoonist and animator Nicolas Mahler it’s simply a matter of focusing on the essentials of the story and letting his quirky illustrations and creative use of space do the rest. As a result, his graphic interpretation of Bernhard’s Old Masters: A Comedy is, well, something of a small masterpiece. One suspects that the author himself, and his alter ego characters, Reger and Atzbacher, would secretly agree, despite their shared conviction that a true artistic masterpiece is impossible to achieve, let alone imagine.

Rendered in stark black and white drawings playing on extremes—massive architectural details, characters who are tiny and squat, elongated and thin, or large and corpulent, often grotesque, appear against golden yellow highlights (a distant echo of the artwork in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series)—Mahler allows his images to complement and amplify the ridicule, humour and disgust so intrinsic to this and the majority of Bernhard’s idiosyncratic prose. Frequently recurring of images—the museum security guard, Irrsigler, seems to spend an inordinate amount of time disappearing into the men’s room—visually mimic Bernhard’s fondness for repeating phrases and motifs. As the blurb on the back of the newly released English language translation of this comic-book take on a comic classic states: “The Master of Overstatement meets the Master of Understatement.”

And it’s a match made in, well, the Art History Museum in Vienna.

There is precious little action in Old Masters and little obvious plot. It is, however, a spirited takedown of Bernhard’s favourite targets: the Catholic Church, the State, the arts and artists—his characteristically dark, satirical look at the world in general and Viennese society in particular. But it is also, in the end, a touching, sad and surprisingly romantic tale.

The story unfolds, if you will, at the musem, on a bench in the “so-called Bordone Gallery” directly across from Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Here sits Reger, as he is wont to do every other day. Meanwhile, the narrator, his long-time friend Atbacher, observes him, just out of sight, from the “so-called Sebastiano Gallery” waiting for exactly eleven thirty, the time at which the two men have agreed to meet. Reger’s invitation is out of character because the they had met there just the day before and this second consecutive rendezvous was not in keeping with the typical pattern of either man. Curious as to the reason for Reger’s invitation to break from habit, Atbacher has arrived an hour early so as to watch his friend undetected. Naturally, this provides him the opportunity to launch into a lengthy account of Reger’s family history, his opinionated views, and his predilection to spend every other day at the museum, seated across from Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. In the novel this monologue consumes the bulk of the text. The same is true in this version which contains roughly the same number of pages, but much, much fewer words!We learn that Reger, the museum regular, has been visiting the Art History Museum for over three decades. Yet his attitude toward great art, the work of the “so-called” old masters, is one of disdain. Philosophically, he muses that a detail might be perfected, but the whole of any painting, sculpture, or other artwork ultimately leaves us appalled:

There is no perfect painting and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music, said Reger, that is the truth.

None of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter who did them, is actually something whole and perfect. That reassures me, he said. In essence, this makes me happy.

Only when we unswervingly come to the realization that there isn’t this whole or perfect thing do we have a possibility of survival.

And that has been the reason why I have gone to the Art History Museum for over thirty years…

As one might a expect, a number of artists, writers, and thinkers are subject harsh, and often hilarious, criticism as Reger, speaking through Atbacher’s account, expresses his unbridled opinions. Nineteenth century Austrian author, Adalbert Stifter, for example, is written off as a “kitsch master” with “enough kitsch on any random page to satisfy more than one generation of poetry-thirsty nuns and nurses” and then, strangely, compared to Heidegger, that “National Socialist, knickerbocker-wearing Philistine.” No one tosses out an insult like a cranky Bernhard character!There is, of course, much more below the surface than insults and irritation. That is where his peculiar wisdom lies. And, in this story, we learn that our irascible main character Reger’s antipathy to the old masters, and artists in general, has its roots in an emptiness they cannot fill. One that speaks to his, and our, need for love.One does not need to be familiar with Old Masters in its original form to enjoy this book (I wasn’t), but exposure to Bernhard in his full verbal intensity probably is. The satire, the heartbreaking warmth of the ending, and the sheer feat of rendering the mood and spirit of the Austrian writer’s pessimism and bleak humour into a graphic novel is not likely to be fully appreciated otherwise. I am a huge admirer of Bernhard, but I confess I’ve never really been drawn to graphic novels (pardon the pun). But the other night, when my son found this book on the doorstep of my old house where it had been left by a courier, I was immediately captivated. It has been a difficult few weeks and Bernhard’s misanthropic humour, oddly, is always strange comfort at such times. The beauty of this book is that it is not only a delight to read and look at, but I can imagine myself returning to it and rereading it many times (after all it doesn’t take very long—it’s akin to an instant hit of Bernhard relief).

Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, illustrated by Nicolas Mahler, is translated from the German by James Reidel, and published by Seagull Books. Essential medicine for any Bernhard fan, I’d say.

This is my first offering for German Literature Month 2018.

Honouring a singular Slovak voice: The Bloody Sonnets by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav

Before it came to an end one hundred years ago this November, The Great War, that rapidly escalating clash of empires—the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian—would not only reshape the map of Europe and impact the distribution of power on a global scale, but fuel a new sense of national purpose and identity among the citizens of the countries pulled into the conflict either directly or by virtue of pre-existing alliances and obligations. It also unleashed, in very short order, the potential for destruction and violence on a scale previously unknown. With Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, nations started to line up with their allies and declare war against one another. By the end of August, Germany, Russia, Britain, France and Japan were drawn in to a battle that was immediate, bloody and exhausting. And, as everyone soon realized, it was only just beginning.

It is easy to look back with hindsight, knowing the costs of this war and the ones that have followed, but in the opening moments of, and well into, what would become known as the First World War, the fervor of patriotism and passion to fight for God and country ran high. And this was well reflected within a realm one wants to imagine associated with “higher” ideals:

Despite its unparalleled horrors, the war had already produced something of immense value to humanity: namely, unforgettable poetry. This, at least, was one rather amoral commonplace from the early months of war. If poets had all too often been shut in their ivory towers, they were now quick to see that they could and must speak with the voice of the people. As Europe’s nations rediscovered their souls, they also rediscovered poetry. [1]

With few, cautiously voiced exceptions, the poets who responded to the unfolding drama of war, many of whom were themselves conscripted, were aroused with a new sense of purpose. Much has, of course, been written about this literary movement. Many collections and anthologies have been published over the years. However, one prominent, remarkably prescient poetic voice was raised against the prevailing sentiment, and his name is curiously absent from most of the annals and assessments of World War I poetry, such as the relatively recent text quoted above. In August and September of 1914, Slovak poet Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav composed a sequence of thirty-two poems, The Bloody Sonnets, expressing his passionate response to the growing hostilities into which his native country, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was bound. It has been largely overlooked. Now, a handsomely presented volume, published by the Centre for Information on Literature in Bratislava, seeks to bring renewed attention to this important collection of anti-war poetry as the centenary of Armistice approaches.

Born in 1849, Hviezdoslav  (a pseudonym appended to his birth name) worked as a lawyer and banker in Dolný Kubín in northern Slovakia before leaving his administrative career behind to devote himself entirely to poetry and translating. Writing in his native, endangered language, he was formally and thematically ambitious, exploring questions of Slovak society and culture, while weaving neologisms and elements of dialect into his work. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was sixty-five years old. While the poets and artists of Europe turned their attentions to creations charged with nationalistic rhetoric, his reaction was decidedly different. As one who aspired to a feeling of shared kinship between Slavic nations, the notion that Slovak and Czech soldiers would be called into action against Russia was deeply upsetting. With The Bloody Sonnets he set out first to decry the mounting bloodshed, and then to venture beyond that to imagine how the conflict might end.

In his introduction to this special edition, translator John Minahane marvels at the acuity of Hviezdoslav’s vision and his willingness to engage in a polemic against the prevailing poetic climate:

Hviezdoslav has such a powerful sense of the war’s scale and destructiveness that at first I found it difficult to believe that the Bloody Sonnets could have been written in August and September 1914. Surely, in their final version at least, they must be from 1916 or even 1917, when the full horrors had unfolded? Today when we read that “the human slaughterhouse is [everywhere: / on earth, upon the ocean,] in the air”, we are bound to think of how World War I introduced the most appalling form of modern warfare, aerial bombing. Already by 1916 there were signs of its potential: at least twice airmen killed almost one hundred people in single missions. But the aerial campaigns, though long-prepared, got underway only in 1915.

In reading The Bloody Sonnets, one is continually impressed by the vivid images painted, at this early juncture, of the blood-drenched reality of warfare. The first seventeen sonnets resound with an angry, at times despairing, evocation of the brutality, agony and immorality of this escalating tragedy—one so fundamentally at odds with the Christian values its perpetrators and champions are claiming to profess. The poet’s contempt is palpable, heightened by his adherence to a formal structure. The sonnets follow course, each one building on the intensity of the one before. His view is strikingly, terrifyingly universal. Take, for example, “Sonnet 13” where Hviezdoslav asks:

What caused this wreck, this brutal and ignoble
collapse of morals? What provoked the breach?
What led mankind, in spirit grand and noble,
to plunge in the mud? What vampire? Oh, what leech,

sucking the sap of life out of the breast,
constantly thirsting bloody parasite?
Ah, selfishness! — and to destroy this pest
today we have no troops, no heroes to fight.

Yes, it will twist and tear and rend, and fall,
a tyrant, on the weak and innocent;
although the world is wide enough for all,
it would have sole control of earth’s extent
and even possess the universe, no less,
pitching the other into emptiness —

Leading into “Sonnet 14”, his imagery, and his scorn, is unambiguous:

This puffed-up arrogance that’s dressed in iron
and, armed with lethal weapons, lurks in wait;
that bulks like stormy clouds on the horizon,
each move a threat, with wide eyes full of hate;

that hangs above the earth like punishment
and keeps peace powerless: it coarsely swears
that it fears God alone! — But this is meant
contemptuously: in truth it does not care…

Then, midway through the sequence the tone and energy shifts as Hviezdoslav turns his attention to the possibility of peace and the role that his own people, the Slavs, and most specifically his disadvantaged Slovaks, might have, in days to come, as a voice for justice. “Sonnet 17” marks the transition, as the poet wonders aloud if there is anyone who will stand up and call for ceasefire:

Whether your wisdom comes of silver years
or you’re a man in bloom, cry to them all,

“Enough!” — and you’ll be a champion of the world.
Offer your enemy a brother’s hand,
a white flag over red ruin unfurled!
Or… must the violence constantly be fanned

till it burns out?

It is not a question easily resolved, in real life or in verse. From this point onward, Hviezdoslav directs his queries to the Lord, looking to God for answers and guidance. These poems are filled with a Biblical humility that stands in direct contrast to the self-righteousness he challenges in the first half of The Bloody Sonnets. Cautiously he ventures to question whether lessons may be learned from this legacy of conflict and carnage. Yet, however sceptical he is about the salvation progress and civilization might offer, he wants to believe that God has higher plans:

— forever save the Slavs (Lord, hear my prayer!)
from being nothing but a heap of dung
on foreign fields, where the thin native layer,
craving fertility would have them flung. (“Sonnet 27”)

The fate of Slavdom, and of Slovaks in particular, is of abiding concern. He belonged to a tradition that had, during long years of cultural suffocation under Austro-Hungarian occupation, looked to Russia as their hope for liberation. But, because Russia had never committed itself to justice, he feared that smaller Slavic populations would be absorbed and lost within the larger entity. Ideally Hviezdoslav wants to see a Slavic Europe emerge in which each of the nations is allowed to maintain its uniqueness while benefiting from the association afforded by their shared kinship—a future in which the Slavic streams are allowed to follow their own courses without, as Pushkin envisioned, necessarily being merged into the Russian sea.

This powerful sequence comes to an emotional climax as, in “Sonnet 32”, as the poet bids his own bloody cycle of songs good-bye with the wish that that they may be “read by many a tearful eye”. As much a patriot as his fellow poets who were at this time still trumpeting the glories of war, his own desire is simple:

I too have had my inward battleground,
I too am wounded, and my heart’s pierced through;
just once to see my people and feel proud:
redress for all their injuries long due

As an opponent of the war, Hviezdoslav was at risk of being branded as pro-Russian and, thus treasonous. Consequently, The Bloody Sonnets existed only in limited manuscript and presented as performance pieces during wartime. It was not until 1919, two years before his death, that the sequence was finally made available in print. However, in the decades that followed, his work fell out of fashion and was forgotten. It is only in more recent years that Hviezdoslav’s rightful position of respect has been restored in his homeland.

This English edition of The Bloody Sonnets will hopefully go a long way to ensuring this important Slovak poet is finally recognized for his contribution to anti-war poetry more than one hundred years after he poured his heart into this cycle—his last great poetic project.  Translator John Minahane has taken on a formidable challenge here. Hviezdoslav, working within the constraints of the Petrarchan sonnet, was trying to express the intense emotions welling up inside. Rhymes are never easy to accommodate across linguistic borders but the results sing with overwhelming power, energy, and passion.

And then there are the illustrations. Artist Dušan Kállay’s black and white drawings practically burst with violence and depictions of evil. They speak to the senseless destruction of war without uttering a word—a perfect complement to a cycle of poems unjustly silenced for so long.

This title can be obtained through the Martinus online bookstore in Slovakia. The site is in Slovak but they are able to communicate in English and ship anywhere.

[1] Geert Buelens. (2015) Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. (Trans, David McKay) London: Verso Books

Disembodied desire: Murmur by Will Eaves

The price of consciousness, of power, is choice.

 Mathematician Alan Turing is remembered as much for his critical role in the development of computer science , his contributions to code-breaking during the Second World War and his work on artificial intelligence as for being a man whose homosexuality led to a charge of gross indecency and a period of enforced chemical castration. His life has been examined in print and film, his character analyzed and debated, and his death mythologized, but to truly venture deep into the recesses of the mind of such a complex and extraordinary character is to invite challenge, scrutiny and dissension. After all, what can we ever truly know of another person’s internal processes? Or, for that matter, our own?

In his latest novel, Murmur, British writer Will Eaves takes the key elements of Turing’s career and ultimate predicament, and creates a shadow character, Alec Pryor, slips inside his skin and inhabits his dreams and anxieties while the state takes control of his body. This audacious approach stays close to the outlines of Turing’s life, even borrowing first names and specific details like his fiancé or his fondness for Snow White, but avoids the constraints of conventional biographical fiction. Presented through journal entries, letters and a feverish dream chronicle, Murmur offers a poetically charged reading experience that is at once scientifically astute, philosophically engaging, and emotionally disturbing. It imagines a rational minded man pushed beyond the edges of rational existence who still manages, we assume, to hold the surface still, controlled and humane.

So much of real life is invisible.

The novel begins with Pryor’s recorded reflections on the circumstances that led to his charge and conviction, his dalliance with a young man and subsequent reported robbery echoing Turing’s misadventure. Choosing one year’s probation with hormonal treatment over jail, he begins therapy with a psychoanalyst, Dr. Stallbrook, and weekly injections to turn him “into a sexless person.” Analytical by nature, he cannot resist the temptation to filter his situation through scientific, historical, and philosophical musings. As if he wants to quantify a situation that clearly has left him concerned and uncertain about what lies ahead.

The central section, which comprises the bulk of the narrative consists of extended dream sequences and an ongoing epistolary correspondence between Alec and June, a former colleague and friend to whom he was once engaged. It begins with a disassociation, a stepping away into third person, which leads to a recognition of a division, necessary perhaps to observe the self, but also speaking to the effect that the treatments are beginning to have on Alec’s relationship to his own physical being:

I am a thinking reflection. He is the animal-organic part, the body unthinking. I am a searching mechanism with a soul. I’m him, but only when he’s near the glass, metal, water, the surface where I’m found. I search for some way to express this separation which feels all the wrong way round.

A bird is puzzled by its reflection; not, surely, the reflection by the bird. And yet I’m one with him. I’m one and separate. I search for ways to describe this. I live and think within all glass. He only has a body and can’t hear this murmuring; sees himself in a mirror—doesn’t know that it is me.

From his detached vantage point, the dreaming Alec revisits his younger self at school, observes a schoolmate whom he once loved, and watches as the two boys swim naked across a lake where they will spend a night together. This other boy, Christopher, has a counterpoint in name and fact in Turing’s biography, a close friend and object of an affection most likely unreturned in the same nature. In both realities, Christopher dies young. But in Alec’s dreamscape, his psychiatrist is conflated with his former schoolmaster, and his friend’s post corporeal essence becomes an abiding presence. His intellectual preoccupations, such as the limits of machine intelligence are personified in bizarre interactions with a real life associate who visits him as a computational illusion. His mother and brother appear as cartoon effigies straight out of Snow White. By opening this vast and increasingly distorted space where, as is common in dreams, people known and events experienced become the scenarios that are continually replayed in response to current waking affairs, Eaves is able to twist Alec’s past and present together to create a complex, introspective character who is both troubled by and curious about the impact of  the unnatural situation in which he has found himself.

With his sex drive disabled, Alec admits to June that he is plagued by dreams and desires, a “coded overcompensation” for a reality supressed. Ever the scientist, he understands these dreams as a means of functional storage and processing:

My dreams are candid with me: they say I am chemically altered. They are full of magical symbolism! At the same time, they are enormously clear—where there is high reason and much thought, there will be much desire and many imaginings. Urges. I can be given drugs and hormones but they will only work as drugs and hormones work. They cannot get at excess desire. Take out libido and another drive replaces it. Materialism and determinism define me through and through, and yet there is more than they allow. And if that illusion of more—call it free will—is itself a mere effect, then an ‘effect’ suggests, does it not, a real cause, as a film ‘suggests’ a projector?

Balanced against this projected, or perhaps, “reflected” reality, Alec’s correspondence with June provides a safe place for him to explore his physical and existential uncertainties. She serves as confessor, sounding board, and unconditional support. Early on, especially as the hormones begin to soften and alter his body, as the estrogen causes his breasts to grow, he expresses fear of becoming a hybrid—less the fear of change than of loss. He grieves his past, his one true, yet quite likely impossible, love for Chris, and worries that he will somehow lose himself.

The estrangement between physical and essential being continues to grow. The dreamer longs to grasp a sense of if, and how, the body exists beyond death—dispersed, yet tangible, and at the same time, its elemental links to a geological, and for Alec, icebound past. The “self” seems suspended between:

The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.

No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among asteroids. Only the world’s ship-like trembling, its great pistons concealed, attests the passage of aeons, time brakeless and unpeopled. Then, as fast as they arrived, faster, the glaciers recede, the waters rise, anoxic bile that boils away at Pryor’s still, unvoiced command—and I am either glass again, or obsidian, axe flint, my face upturned and refashioned.

The veil of night drawn back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.

There has been much controversy around the matter of Alan Turing’s death by cyanide poisoning a little more than a year after his hormonal sentence ended. Suicide was the official verdict; accident and murder have also been argued. The fortitude he is reported to have displayed throughout his ordeal, is offered as an indication that his mind was not as troubled as imagined. But, for Eaves’ shadow protagonist, there is both profound growth and insight as a result of his enforced period of introspection, and a fundamental internal loss of self that others cannot see. His perception of and relationship to his body is ever altered.

Murmur is a bold, imaginative accomplishment—one that manages to convey the strangeness of conscious experience while asking what it truly means to be conscious, pushing at the edges of its limits and constraints. It is, in many respects, a natural evolution of Will Eaves’ experimental novel, The Absent Therapist, a fragmented blend of scientific fact, philosophical reflection and fictional vignettes that read, not like snatches of overheard conversation, but as fleeting encounters with the thoughts of a wide range of characters. Murmur pulls you deep into the mental reality of one man whose rational and logical grounding is upended, but this time the therapist is present and inseparable from the subject.

However, as much as this is a novel embedded in conscious experience, it is a memoir of the body and its essentialness to being. It asks: Can a machine be encoded with emotional intelligence? What happens to the substance of the body after death? What of the self is lost or altered when the body is rendered sexless? No matter how cerebral one may be, the body matters. In my own, long-standing, welcomed and self-administered treatment with contrasexual hormones, I have experienced an evolving disassociation from the altered body I now inhabit. Yet, at face value, I look right. I am afforded the ability to live in the world in a manner that conforms with the internal gendered self I’ve always known. In a way that feels right. But I am changed. My body is othered and alien, de-sexualized. Over time that disassociation feeds existential discontent. Threatens the self in weird and curious ways I hear echoed in this book—a book which echoes my own murmurings.

Murmurs by Will Eaves is published by CB Editions and shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmith Prize. A North American release is forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in April, 2019.

To find balance in a changing world: Insomnia by Aamer Hussein

My introduction to Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein was oddly serendipitous. It came through an unsolicited essay submitted to me for possible publication at 3:AM Magazine. I had no sooner read the piece through before I ordered a copy of one of the short story collections mentioned. Then I wrote a letter of acceptance.

Born in Karachi, Hussein moved to London in 1970 when he was just fifteen years old. An accomplished writer, critic, and translator, influential in both his native country and his adopted home, his work is curiously underappreciated in North America. Yet his stories which so deftly capture the amorphous, shifting atmosphere of living a life that crosses borders and cultures in a way that feels both timeless and timely, draw on a wide and diverse range of influences:

I love classical Persian and Urdu poetry from Attar to Iqbal, from Jami to Ghalib and Mir, from Rumi to Faiz. In the Western canon, I started off being influenced by the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov; and the fiction of Pushkin, Kleist, Flaubert, Karen Blixen, Tennessee Williams, Cesare Pavese, Marguerite Duras – oh, so many. (2011 interview)

Although Hussein has more recently explored the longer novella form and has even begun to write in his mother tongue, Urdu, his short fiction is especially impressive and seemed like a good placed to begin my acquaintance.

Published in 2007, his fourth collection, Insomnia, is comprised of seven stories that feature a variety of Pakistani-born narrators or protagonists negotiating new or changing environments—travelling in Europe as Islamophobia is on the rise, adapting to life in London as a teenager, balancing political idealism fed abroad with a longing to return home, or slowly building a writing career against the backdrop of the Second World War, Indian Independence and Partition. A sense of displacement is common, as is a quiet, aching nostalgia for something that is missed but cannot quite be clearly defined.

The longest story in the book, “The Crane Girl,” is set in London of the 1970s. Murad has, like the author, arrived from Karachi at the age of fifteen to complete his schooling. He becomes infatuated with Tsuru, a mercurial Japanese girl several years his senior. With her he learns to smoke and listens to the music of the day—James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens. But then, without warning, she disappears. Murad is at a loss, awkwardly trying to socialize with Tsuru’s former flatmates, a Canadian boy and an Australian girl, until he meets another Japanese youth, Shigeo. Seemingly self-assured, his new friend turns out to be a moody, manipulative boy with a penchant for Spanish guitar and an uncertain attraction to Murad.

This is a story in which, like adolescence itself, meanings and desires are murky, motives and truths are unclear. A newcomer among other newcomers, Murad allows himself to drift for some time before he begins to be able to set limits and pull away when his friend’s behaviour bothers him:

Murad didn’t like asserting his views and tastes the way Shigeo did. (Recently, when the trouble had begun between the east and west wings of Pakistan, Shigeo had asked him about the situation as if he wanted to pick a fight, and Murad had uncharacteristically retaliated by bringing up Japan’s treatment of Korea. But that was a long time ago, Shigeo said, Japan had learned its lesson.) What, after all, did they really have in common, apart from their loneliness? Being foreign boys in London? Their dark hair and eyes? It wasn’t as if Murad was planning to drop Shigeo: he’d just avoid him for a while. Their friendship had become too much like a habit.

And then, of course, Tsuru returns, as suddenly as she had disappeared, and the situation becomes more complicated. Again, just like adolescence.

The political and the personal overlap in the haunting “Hibiscus Days” in which the narrator,  dedicated to translating the final poems and fables of his friend, Armaan, finds himself lost to memories, mysteries and regrets. The story retraces the relationship between four friends, two couples, all from Pakistan, who meet when they are studying in England. When Armaan and Aliza decide to return to Karachi and get married, they appear to be opting for more conventional middle class lives while the narrator and his girlfriend who stay in London become more committed to a political idealism. The complexities of exercising one’s politics at home and abroad are ultimately thrown into harsh relief, in this sad and beautiful tale.

Finally, another outstanding story, perhaps my favourite, is “The Angelic Disposition.” Set primarily in Delhi, this is a female writer and artist’s account of  her life and career, directed to her friend and mentor, Rafi Durrani, an established writer with whom she had a writerly relationship primarily conducted through letters.

Rafi was of medium height and medium colouring, and he seemed surprisingly weightless. In his world darkness seemed not to exist. And yet I could recognise compassion in him, too: his wasn’t the wit of callousness or disdain. He wasn’t a Marxist; neither was I.

But to sing so blithely about love in a time before siege? Those were strange days. We—the scholarly, the teachers and doctors and lawyers—were trying to find a place in a world that we were increasingly aware was no longer our own; and we felt obliged to write about change, to write to change it all.

Rafi encourages her to write for children, sometimes adding illustrations to her work. Theirs becomes a friendship born of mutual respect. It’s not romantic, they each are married to others, but his willingness to listen to her and share stories about his own life is critical to the support of her career, which is, at the time, quite unconventional for a woman.

In any exchange of letters there’s a writer and a reader: this is invariable. It’s hard to explain. I have something to say, to impart, to confess. You listen. And sometimes you, too, start singing, your triumphs, your failures and your little tribulations. But you could be saying all this to anyone. You’re writing to make me write, that’s all.

After his early death, fighting for Britain in the Second World War, she continues to address Rafi, as an angelic presence and inspiration. He may be her hero, but her gift and passion for art and literature are her own and will see her through the difficult years of the twentieth century. The true strength of this beautifully crafted tale, lies in the quietly dignified and powerful narrator whose presence lingers long after the story comes to a close.

This is an extremely satisfying collection and I am certain that my first experience of the work of Aamer Hussein will not be my last. And, in case you’re interested, the essay that sparked my interest, “Silence as Resistance in Aamer Hussein’s Stories” by Ali Raz, can be found here.

Insomnia by Aamer Hussein is published by Telegram.