The interlinked processes of reading and writing grief: Thoughts on Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno

To read Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, is akin to making your way through a strangely familiar space that resembles a gallery, a diary, and a hall of mirrors all at once. It is, in its shifting fragmented form, unlike any conventional grief memoir. But then, as anyone who has lost a close family member—parent, child, partner—knows, there is nothing conventional about grief. The dynamics of shared histories, hopes and fears are complex. This colours, troubles and blurs the edges of the mourning process. Grieving is as much about our own lives, past and present, as it about honouring or making peace with our relationship with the person who is gone. We are the ones who need to be able integrate a complex of emotions and continue living.

Spanning thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016, Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s thoughtful, pained, uncertain attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida, works that attempt to articulate—initially in the immediate moment and later in the context of the photograph—the deep sense of grief he felt after the loss of his beloved mother, form a sort of natural undercurrent that arises regularly throughout the text. They are the only two books on grief that I read in the months following my own parents’ closely timed deaths in July 2016. I had already read, and thought often of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which also appears here, but as for this book which came out in early 2017, I was not ready, at the time, to approach it. My own losses were too fresh.

As it happens, waiting was wise. Not only have I been open to reading grief in recent months, I am actively working to write about the loss of my own mother and how that is bound to the grief, anger and guilt that haunts my own sense of self. Although the circumstances, stories, and intentions guiding my own project could not be more different, Kate Zambreno’s book is filled with kindling—thoughts, ideas and reflections that sparked some sharp insights into my own achingly conflicted emotions and I have pages of scribbled notes to show for it. But that’s for another writing project yet to come. The point is, that reading and writing about grief, is not about finding exact images of yourself and resolving loss on anyone else’s terms, it is about being open to inspiration to guide your own mourning process, whatever that may ultimately look like.

Zambreno’s relationship with her mother is rife with contradictions, frequent tensions and conflicts. Her mother’s independent existence apart from her, prior to her own existence and as she grows up, is an enigma that death calls her to try to give sense to. The only access is through memory—a “house of memories”—and it is the fear of facing what this may unearth that holds her back:

My mother is the text. I cannot enter her.

Your mother was not herself in those last few months…
But who was she?

This resonates with me as someone whose own memory project was interrupted by my mother’s death, closing the door to a house of memories I was suddenly afraid to open. And yet writing is, for many people, the only access to understanding and release. Barthes and Handke both embarked on early missions to write grief, private or public, and both, I would suggest, found release elusive in these immediate efforts.

But thirteen years?

The process takes the time it demands, and then some. But the desire for closure, as impossible as that may be, is a natural instinct—one that holds a curious allure for writers who work toward that line, sentence, thought where a poem, story or essay naturally ends. But, of course, the strongest endings are those that hang in the air unaltered. Allowing for that in the act of literary creation is one thing—living it is quite another. The desire to be able to gather up all the loose ends of a life so as to let them go looms large. Zambreno describes her own intention clearly as an attempt:

To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave it behind.

All the offerings for the dead
so they remain buried.

Book of Mutter can be read as a daughter’s incantation, an attempt to grant meaning to her mother’s life, illness, and the curious spaces she leaves behind. It resembles a literary scrapbook or a passage in and out of the rooms in a large house where mnemonic images drawn from life, literature, art, and history provoke reflections. It is a fitful journey. Zambreno’s guides are idiosyncratic, their very strangeness allowing for the unique tone of this remarkable work. Key among them are Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois. Darger is the famous “outsider artist” who was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood institutionalized. As an adult he maintained a solitary existence, attending Mass daily and supporting himself as a hospital custodian. It was not until he was forced to leave his Chicago apartment at the end of his life that a trove of illustrations and extensive typed manuscripts was uncovered. His stories and drawings depict detailed, elaborate fantasies—alternately whimsical and horrific—featuring children. Bourgeois was a French-American sculptor and installation artist. Works from her Cells projects, each a series of large scale installations featuring scenes and vignettes created with found objects and enclosed in wire mesh cages, provide recurring counterpoints for Zambreno as she assembles her own memory project. Disturbing insights into the creation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Saint Joan, reflections on post-mortem photography, and the fate of Mary Todd Lincoln are also woven into the text along with input from a variety of literary voices.

The resulting oddly eclectic assemblage reflects, perhaps, the extended passage of time that marks the realization of this book. Zambreno is writing in fits and starts, as she seeks to articulate so many unresolved emotions and observations. By placing her not uncommon experiences against a backdrop that is unusual (as in, not the standard grief and loss tapestry), the surreal strangeness and absolute uniqueness of the grieving experience is captured. This is a book that is at once measured and raw. In her account she moves back and forth between memories of her own often difficult relationship with her mother and the profound absence and guilt she feels, her widowed father’s attempts to fill the vacated space in his life, and an often brutal portrayal of her mother’s illness, decline and madness.

The fractured quality of the text echoes the way loss refuses to conform, refuses to work itself out neatly. How can it? Although my own relationship with my mother was quite different than the one Zambreno describes, it was not and is not free of tangled sentiments that I have often wished we could have talked about. We were close. We spoke on the phone every week and she died in her eighties, weary yet peacefully ready to leave, however there are many moments in Book of Mutter, especially in the first half, that have illuminated, by contrast, questions I’ve been struggling with. Turned them around. And that is why we read grief. And why many of us feel a need to attempt to write it. Not to find answers. But to be moved to ask questions and follow where they lead. In recent months I have read some very good books about grief and loss, accounts that blend personal experience with time-honoured, accepted understanding of the grieving process. Which is fine, but this book with its uneven, awkward genesis across more than a decade is one that I skirted so widely when it appeared (and to be honest every time I saw it staring at me from the bookstore shelf with its peculiar cover that I now know to be one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells), has unintentionally offered a clue I needed to move forward in my own writing at exactly the right time.

And yet it remains an unfinished text. I am now reading the newly released Appendix Project, a collection of essays and talks that Zambreno wrote in the year following the release of Book of Mutter—coincidentally the first year of her own daughter’s life. It is a rich and valuable continuation of her meditation on writing grief and living with the ghosts and reverberations of an evolving and ongoing process that does not end with a final edit and the publication of a book.  What she once hoped to box up and bury is anything but.

Book of Mutter and Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno are published by Semiotext(e).

Distant and immediate intimacy in Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point: A personal response

I want to say that the strength of Felicity Plunkett’s award winning debut collection, Vanishing Point, lies in the singular beauty of the images evoked. That sounds, perhaps, too, trite. I am, as I always confess when I set out to write about poetry, not a poet. And yet, that is what held my attention throughout the reading, even in the most unlikely moments. Many of the poems in Vanishing Point traverse the an unexpected terrain, drawing on the annals of history, science, medicine, and film production while others touch delicately on the familiar moments of life. However, all move with an intimacy that unsettles and reassures in one breath.

The collection opens with “Journey of the Dead Man”, a dreamlike vision that juxtaposes the words of the Hindu god Shiva invoked by Robert Oppenheimer in his remembrance of the first nuclear testing in the desert of New Mexico, with the Jewish notion of sitting shiva after death to offer a powerful poetic commentary on destruction and mourning—one that rises, in its closing passage, to a shattering conclusion:

Stand in the desert, your hands
open, the shards flaking away,
and call the name of Shiva.
Omega: let there be an end to it.
Death be not proud now I am become you.
Cover me with your furious limbs
and shatter me when our eyes engage.
Remember you are dust,
and unto dust shall you return.

This is a very assured collection; Plunkett’s verse weds a poised formality with a lyric passion and perceptivity that may well appeal to readers who are resistant to poetry. Her poems are accessible, but offer a curious mix of tenderness and tenacity. Recurring themes, grounded in embodied emotion and experience, provide a certain, if not always comforting,  continuity, while flakes, in many different forms and contexts—flakes of skin, flakes of snow, flakes of paint, the flaking away of a dream—form a unifying motif, one that speaks to the transient quality of desire, memory, life. Such transience, is often conveyed in familiar terms, such as in “Restraint,” which begins:

Soft now on their wooden clavicles
each of your frocks once knew its place.

The speaker goes on to call to mind memories of a mother’s loving dedication to the tasks of rural domestic life before returning to the dresses:

Now I run my hands through
mended cotton, starched linen
stiff skirts, blouses still holding a remembered body
and my touch awakens mothball mint and lavender—
those ghostly scents.

The reminiscence then moves on to the more ambivalent questions of life, with all its joys and disappointments, carried unspoken in the living, and now left to linger in the air.

Vanishing Point is very much a book of passages, of uncertain pasts and uneasy futures. Within this tapestry, birth and death, are closely wound threads explored most vividly in the closing section of the book—from the overview of the medical and philosophical understanding of female reproductive capacity, traced in the delightful “A Knitted History of the Uterus” to the fragmented processes of pregnancy, delivery, and the vulnerability of the body. The imagery, again, is often striking, as in “The Negative Cutter”, a multi-part piece which incorporates quotes from a text on film editing to expose the accepted performance of diagnosis, treatment, and grief:

DISCONTINUITY EDITING
Any alternative system of joining shots together using techniques unacceptable within continuity editing principles. Possibilities would include mismatching of temporal and spatial relations, violations of the axis of action, and concentration on graphic relationships.

Clowns rehearse outside the next caravan.
You crush words hard against your teeth.
They fly out of your mouth like shots
or you spit them, blooded and cutting,
fretted and strung with beads of shiny feeling.
You are drowning inside yourself, alone.
Anger jerks out of you, or unstopped crying that falls fluent
the way it does in dreams: salty, benedictory.
The skirt of your feelings, stuck in the car door,
flaps at passersby without your knowing.

This collection has a strong feminine awareness, but paired with a curiosity  and a measure of physical disengagement. The female bodied experience extends beyond the specific to the universal—inviting a distant and immediate intimacy. Or at least that is how I responded. Vanishing Point was published in 2009 and, a few years earlier, some of the material might have triggered a particular discomfort for me. But I come to it now as a transgender male reader and writer finally beginning to reclaim aspects of his female past  after nearly two decades of estrangement from a perceived reality incompatible with the coherent history of a man, including the birth of two children. Whether it is the benefit of sufficient remove or the growing need to be able to embrace a whole life lived, I don’t know, but it is fortuitous that I picked up this wise and wonderful book at this time.

Vanishing Point by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.

“The streets were never really mine”: Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Although he claims to feel no nostalgia, the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s most recent novel, Friend of My Youth, carries a wistful melancholy that can really be understood in no other way. It comes through in his discomfort and his attempt to articulate a mixed affection for and estrangement from the city in which he grew up—Bombay. Chaudhuri has woven a close line between his own life and the experiences and qualities he grants his characters before, but here he blurs it completely, even playfully. His protagonist is an author named Amit Chaudhuri, who is in the city to promote his latest release, The Immortals. If this is, on some level, a metafictional mechanism to reflect on the question of the relationship between an author and his narrator, it is exercised in such a light-handed, controlled, mildly self-deprecating manner, that it never risks becoming distracting or annoying. Chaudhuri is a restrained, thoughtful writer, and Friend of My Youth offers so much more. Set against the urban gridwork and landmarks of South Mumbai, a city, at the time, still recovering from the horror of the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel, it is a quietly insistent meditation on the ways we try to make sense of our own personal and geographic histories over time.

From the beginning, the narrator confesses to an ambivalence toward his former hometown:

I feel a sense of purposelessness—is it the ennui of the book tour or book-related visit? Not entirely. No, it pertains to Bombay, to being returned to a city where one performed a function, reluctantly. Reluctance is fundamental. You don’t plunge into growing up; it happens in spite of you. Then, one day, it’s done: you’re ‘grown up’. You go away. Back now in the city of my growing up, there’s nothing more that can happen to me. I embrace a false busyness. I suppose I’m living life. Without necessarily meaning to. It doesn’t occur to me that the visit is part of my life. I believe I’ll resume life after it’s done.

But, although he has been back to the city many times in the decades since his family had moved back to their native Calcutta, and he himself had gone on to study and teach in the UK, there has always been one grounding constant—a friend from his school days, Ramu. On this occasion he learns that Ramu, whose life has been defined by drug addiction, is in intensive rehab and cannot be visited. Their friendship is strange, an attraction of opposites, one who would go on to achieve a degree of literary success and middle-class normalcy, the other troubled and stalled, unable to completely shake his demons, now in his fifties, still living in his family home with his sister. Theirs is an often awkward camaraderie, bound to a small geographical space in a city that has, over time, expanded exponentially beyond the confines of what has become known as South Mumbai. When Ramu is not there, Amit discovers that without this particular conduit to his past, whose eyes he had relied on, he is forced to encounter Bombay anew, even alone.

As the narrator traces his way through the city, a reflective uncertainty, a searching for words, underlines his thoughts. The prominent, well-known landmarks are laden with the hallmarks of his own idiosyncratic life history, from the restless eagerness to leave in adolescence and youth, to the regular returning, each opening shades of a city he knows he never really knew. How much, he wonders, was his inability to really see the city he grew up in rooted in a conviction that his origins as a Bengali prevented him and his family from ever full belonging, and encouraged his belief that his destiny lay elsewhere. If you feel, at heart, that you do not own a city, how can you truly see it?

So he is trying to make sense of his relationship to the city—and through that, to the shifting currents of memory and nostalgia that continue to haunt us all as we grow older. Ramu’s absence looms large. Who we believe we are is always, to some extent, measured and understood against the trajectories, real or imagined, of others.

I know I’ll see Ramu again. But it’s as if I won’t see him again. I’m thrown off-balance—but also surprised. I didn’t know I’d react like this. Ramu isn’t the only close friend I have. But it’s as if my sojourn in Bombay depends on him. ‘Depends’ is the wrong word: I haven’t come here because of him, to delve into his whereabouts. But the surprise I’ve mentioned is related to my astonishment at being here. ‘Astonishment’ denotes how you might start seeing things you hadn’t noticed earlier, but it could also mean becoming aware that you won’t see them again.  As I turn into Pherozeshah Mehta Road and then left into the long stretch of DN Road, I know I won’t see Bombay again. That is, I will see Bombay again, but not the Bombay I’m looking at now.

Toward the end of the book, two subsequent visits do bring Ramu back into Amit’s life, neither resolving nor further alienating his connection to the city. There is something oddly comforting in their unlikely location-specific friendship, one that speaks to the ineffable qualities of our own connections to the people and places that we leave, but can’t quite leave behind. This is a novel as much about loss and aging, as it is about recognizing that there are connections that perhaps we never really had, no matter how much time we spent with them.

I took this book to India with me, planning to read it in advance of my own recent visit to Bombay but, as it happened I did not open it until about a month after my return. Although familiarity with the city is by no means necessary, even a brief encounter will add an extra dimension because this is a novel so clearly linked to space. For those who know the city well, it will be potentially an even richer experience. I spent three days in the Fort area of South Bombay, visiting a few of the common tourist sites like Gateway of India and Marine Drive and attending several events at the Kala Ghoda Festival literary venue, the fabulous garden of the David Sassoon Library. I used Horniman Circle and Flora Fountain as guideposts and got lost in Churchgate, not realizing I was entering a train station (in my defense, the entry said “underpass” and I assumed I would avoid crossing one of the city’s notoriously congested roadways). All of these features or locations appear and it was fun to be able to immediately bring them to my imagination—mind you, without the emotional gravity with which Chaudhuri so effectively paints them.

Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and New York Review of Books in North America.

Lost in the endlessly circular experience of Agnomia by Róbert Gál

Stories that begin at the end don’t need beginnings that would convict them of making a point, that is, of committing a falsehood. A falsehood that loses its falsehood, being turned inside out by the truth, as if that were possible at first sight. But in any subculture there are other rules and privileges accorded to others that permit them to fire off viruses at everyone else, as if all that was at issue were the odd truth. As indeed is the case.

After what seems an impossible delay, and an unthinkable series of detours, Agnomia by Slovakian writer Róbert Gál is finally available in English, only a decade after its original release. I originally encountered Róbert’s writing in 2015 with what was, at the time, his first published work of fiction in English, On Wing (Dalkey Archive). After that I slipped back  to what was, at the time, his only other available translated book, 2003’s more explicitly philosophical Signs & Symptoms (Twisted Spoon Press). I have to confess that these two volumes served as important inspirational triggers for my own writing, and Róbert has become part of my far-flung circle of literary friends. He is, however, stubbornly reticent to talk about his own work, so I have no advantage in crafting my response to this text which fits, chronologically speaking, subsequent to Signs & Symptoms and On Wing, holding thematic ties to both, but standing uniquely as an attempt to offer a solid, singular prose piece, albeit one that disrupts the lines between fiction, memoir, and philosophy.

Unfolding in a single, unbroken paragraph, Agnomia runs to just under 80 pages. The narrator is, as one would expect, a Slovak writer named Róbert Gál. But where the enigmatic author and his fictional alter ego converge and diverge is unclear; it’s not even clear that they know:

For the author wants to tell his tale, but doesn’t know where to begin, and he doesn’t even know if there is a tale to be told at all. He tries to get inside it, as if any entrance on his part would automatically coordinate with the context in which the tale is being played out. Coordinate with what is being played out, whatever that might be, on a parasitical basis, though it’s erroneously taken to be symbiotic.

This metafictional segue that arises in the early pages of the book is not sustained, the narrative “I” soon takes centre stage, such as it is, but he is an impatient, introspective, and alternately obsessive and ambivalent participant/observer/chronicler, inclined to lapse into philosophical musings. If the story does, in fact, have a beginning and end, it seems to be in New York City, with plenty of Prague in between. But this tale is circular rather than linear. Our author appears to be piecing together his account as he goes, fueled by memories and dreams, however ambiguous and unformed. The result is an meandering prose poem, regularly folding back on itself as if to take stock of its own ability to write itself into being, a post-punk Bernhard monologue set to an erratic thrash jazz soundtrack, playing out inside the mind of a mildly neurotic writer.

And that mindscape is a busy place. Old friends and passing acquaintances, former girlfriends, fellow artists, even the author’s parents pop in and out, arising in fractured conversations, their off-hand gestures observed, their habits briefly dissected, their otherness serving as springboards for the narrator’s digressions. The men are analyzed and compared, while women are allowed a certain magical leeway, like L., a former lover whose diaphanous nudes he’d “used in another book of aphorisms” (see Signs & Symptoms). But between them all, the narrator, seems to be navigating ghosts, remembering encounters, propelled by his own recurrent personal and philosophical obsessions. Nothing is fixed fast in time, lines of thought spin off in all directions, always circular in motion with a relentlessly engaging force.

Driving the narrative are several persistent themes: an underlying bitterness about the futility of being involved in the creative process, especially as a purveyor of words, and more explicitly as the citizen of a small, insignificant country like Slovakia (where “a poet is dead before he’s even born”) ; a fascination with the curious dynamics of romantic and sexual involvement; and a penchant to wander down metaphysical and epistemological wormholes, get tangled up in tautologies, and play with words:

I’m gazing at a tree-shrub hastily planted in a demolished square. I want to tie the moon in with it so that the image I’m creating looks fully formed. It’s a full moon. Is it fulfilled? My room is inhuman. It isn’t accessed by a door, but by clockwork, with a key poking from outside in. A bit like a deep intake of breath whose exhalation and exhaustion are identical. Music has an instant effect. That’s something it shares with a drug or a telling aphorism. Circular self-relocation, each time a total gyration round one of a pair of aching legs. Oneness with pain like a fly with a wing torn off. The whirling of a whirligig beetle. Extirpation of redundancy by stretching it on the rack of a thing that at that instant is no longer a problem.

The flow of accounts, anecdotes, aphorisms, and anxieties continues unabated from end to end of this slender, philosophical fiction, inviting and rewarding rereading—as is typical of all of Gál’s other writing. The abiding presence of his holy trinity of influences is increasingly evident with each re-encounter: Thomas Bernhard, Georges Bataille, and the wildly prolific and ambitious avant-garde composer John Zorn. Readers familiar with the author’s aphorisms and other published work will recognize strong cross currents running throughout Agnomia, but the tone here is lighter, the logical challenges more accessible, and more of Gál’s spirit and humour comes through. The “truth” of fiction? Who knows?

The “stories” or memories that form the loose, fractured framework of this book support what is, in fact, its beating heart—the endlessly unanswerable questions about the nature of thought, truth, and the possibility of adequately representing reality. The balance of narrative—fiction or memoir, it matters not at all—against the narrator’s musings and meditations is pitch perfect. An account of an evening out with a woman, for example, leads to further considerations:

“We’re going now,” I say. I might have helped her break free from certain stereotypes, but she didn’t need my help. She might have helped me break free from certain stereotypes, but I didn’t need her help. Repetition is reminiscing ahead. Ineffectual dreams don’t exist, so the unconscious is more effectual than consciousness. And since my pain doesn’t follow from the findings of philosophy, the question is: In what respect can clarification of the cause of my pain be aided by the findings of philosophy? In being accountable for anything’s enduring, since for what else can one be held accountable? This raises more questions: To what extent can the consciousness’s accountability for something enduring be its consistent monitoring of it, and to what extent is the monitoring of what endures even conceivable and admissible? Is every story a manipulation? And so forth.

At the end of the story we have more questions than answers and that’s the point. After all, what truths lie in the thoughts we think we have?  And is it possible to express them, or is all creative process dependent on our own inherent ignorance?

Agnomia by Róbert Gál is translated from the Slovak by David Short, and published by Dalkey Archive.

The appeal of India for this restless soul: A reflection

Back from a month in India, I am struggling to reorient myself. The jet lag and the cold I thought I had shaken that has now morphed into a different version of moderate misery do not help. My brain is foggy. My body is trying to adjust to the twelve and a half hours I just gained back. My heart is sick with a longing to grasp again, just for a minute, whatever it is that I left behind. That I leave behind every time I return.

India has a strange charm. One I can’t quite place. I never imagined I would go there; I cannot pinpoint when the seed was sown. I do know that for years it was a secret wish, not bound to any  particular calling but simply a desire to go there. Last year’s chance decision to visit Seagull Books in Calcutta was an opening, this year I expanded my time and orbit, and met so many more people along the way. Had so many great conversations.

How is it, I ask myself again and again, that I can travel halfway around the world, and make more solid connections—new or renewed—in four weeks, than I can manage in an entire year in a city I have lived in for most of my life? Is it, perhaps, that I am able to be myself in a strange land, relax into a comfort with who I am in a place where I do not naturally belong? Why can I not bring that person back with me? Or at least feel at ease with him when I come home.

What is home, then? And why does this place fail to complete me? Why do I feel a home-away-from-homesickness weighing on me? I envy those who belong someplace.

As long as I can remember, I have felt that I was out of step, out of sorts, a misfit. Marriage, moving, midlife metamorphosis—nothing has ever completely eased the discomfort. Only in travelling do I find relief. Only in upsetting the equilibrium do I feel whole.

At least for a while.

Toward the end of my visit, an unexpected event challenged this temporary relief. I went out to visit a friend at a school in Andhra Pradesh. Here, in a rugged and breathtaking location with only the faintest internet signal, the world was out of reach for the night. In the morning, as I climbed into the car, my driver greeted me with news he had just received. “India attacked Pakistan,” he reported with enthusiasm, “people are celebrating in Bangalore!” I politely responded that I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, but all the way back into the city I contemplated what it would mean to be in a country at war. I was not unaware of the tensions that had been building, but I had no clear grasp of the historical context. As an outsider, I am cautious to hold to a respectful neutrality, but somewhere along the way a line is crossed. I have become attached to people and places. I am not simply a visitor.

Once again I am aware of a sensation similar to what I feel as a person without a coherent gender history. A neither-here-nor-thereness defines my life. Always has, always will. Only now it is slipping across other boundaries, opening new possibilities.

After this recent trip to India, and the many rewarding and validating encounters that I was fortunate to have, I am beginning to believe that if I can learn to embrace an inherent disequilibrium as a fundamental and vital part of who I am, I can finally move ahead to tell the story that has been eluding me. My own story.

Folktales for a new world: Rain and Other Stories by Mia Couto

In the preface to his newly translated collection, Rain and Other Stories, Mozambican writer Mia Couto tells us that the stories we are about to read were written after his country’s long and bloody civil war. The conflict which erupted in 1977, two years after the African nation achieved independence from Portugal, would last for fifteen years, leaving over one million dead and devastating the country’s infrastructure. As the majority of the white Portuguese fled, they left behind an impoverished, uneducated population. Yet, where Couto had anticipated total ruin and destruction, he found that seeds of life and hope had survived. Not all was lost.

These tales speak to this land we are remaking and where we soak our faces in this rain of hope, this water of benedreamtion. Of this land where each man is the same, like this: pretending he’s here, dreaming of going away, imagining his return.

The twenty-six stories that follow are very short—most are but a handful of pages—and although they spring from the immediate aftermath of a contemporary battle, signalling the end of both Soviet-backed Cold War alliances and white domination in Southern Africa, the roots and spirits of these tales seem to run deep into the very bedrock of the earth. They are uniquely Mozambican and yet timeless. These are the fables, folktales, comic and magical imaginings of human folly and resilience. They are a telling of a shattered world back into being.

Couto, the winner of the Neustadt International Prize, and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, has an uncanny ability to create miniature worlds peopled with wonderful characters, images and happenings. In some tales war is still a present quantity, in others it is past but only barely. These are the people caught in the “transition from the tragedy of war to the misery of peace.” We encounter ordinary folk trying to deal with love, its loss, infidelity, old age, even an errant hippopotamus. Some tales are apocryphal in tone, others tragic, yet others simply enchanting. Throughout the collection, the accounts are seasoned with witticisms, aphorisms, and gentle wisdom.

“Blind Estrelinho” is an early and particularly captivating example. The title character is a “man of no moment,”entirely dependent on his guide Gigito Efraim to lead him through the world and open it to his unseeing eyes. And what a world it is! Little Gigito:

described what wasn’t there. The work he detailed was fantasies and fine-lacery. The guide’s imagination bore more fruit than a papaya tree. The blind man’s mouth filled with waters:
What marvellousity, this world. Tell me everything, Gigito!

When his young guide is taken away to war, the blind man’s world falls dark. Gigito’s sister arrives to take her brother’s place but she describes the world as it truly is, and Estrelinho’s loss is magnified. Until he discovers that a girl offers other, shall we say, insights. But the story does not end there.

Some tales are disturbing, like “The Flag in the Sunset” about a boy who, needing to bleed to dream, would ask his grandma to cut him. For his failure to salute the flag he meets an untimely and bloody end, taking another life with him, and haunting all who pass where the flagpole once stood—a resounding comment on forced allegiance, and the degree to which flags “detract from the celestial blues.” “Lamentations of a Coconut Tree” recounts the report, verified by the Nation’s newspaper, of the experience of the narrator’s friend Suleimane Ibraimo who, upon splitting the shell of a coconut finds that:

the fruit didn’t gush the usual sweet water, but blood. Exactly so: blood. But that wasn’t the only astonishing thing. The fruit cried and lamented in a human voice. Suleimane took no exaggerated measures: his wide-open hands dropped the coconut, the red stains spread. He stood there, dumbfounded and overwhelmed, spent. The shock made his soul vanish into the low tide.

The narrator rushes to help, finding his friend sunken but with all traces of the incident cleaned away. Naturally he is distrustful: “Doubt, we know,” he says, “is the envy that the unbelievable hasn’t happened to us.”

One of Couto’s real strengths lies in his ability to sketch out larger-than-life characters in the span of a few pages, like the man who worries about what his enjoyment of his formerly frigid wife’s newfound manly intensity says about him, the night watchman who confronts a hippopotamus ravaging a schoolroom or Professor Novesfora, the protagonist of “The Hapless Calculus of Happiness,” a mathematically minded man who weighs and measures everything, allowing algebraic operations to guide his world view:

He also divided out his affections in calculated doses, limiting love to its numerical equivalent. Love affairs, women, children: all those things were null hypotheses. Feelings, he was fond of saying, have no logarithm. For that reason, there was no reason to even solve the equation. Since he was a child, he’d abstained from affection. From an algebraic point of view, he would say, tenderness is absurd. Like a negative zero.

Until the day he falls for an underage student and all the calculations change!

Rain and Other Stories, is a rich and rewarding collection of fables that capture the cultural and ethnic diversity of post colonial Mozambique rebuilding itself after prolonged conflict between the Marxist government and right wing insurgents, each backed by outside players with their own agendas, had nearly torn the fledgling nation apart. Translator Eric M. B. Becker captures the sheer magic of Couto’s playful Portuguese, and his simple but powerful imagery. This is writing toward healing, toward a celebration of life, but with a clear caution that darkness is never far away.

Rain and Other Stories is published by Bibioasis.

 

Oh Calcutta! Reflections on my second visit to the City of Joy

A week in Calcutta, my second visit to the city, now lies behind me. I am back in Bangalore again, looking out over the rooftops as the sounds of a busy Saturday remind me that life is ever alive and vital in a large Indian metropolis. But, as I sit here, the sights, sounds and scents of Calcutta are still coursing through my imagination. It’s a hard city to shake once it gets into your system.

Last year, as my first introduction to India, Calcutta was not what I expected. A full assault on the senses in ways I was not prepared for. It is still is, but this year I returned with a little bit more perspective, however limited. Unlike some people I’ve spoken to who cannot imagine why anyone would want to, or dare to, go to Calcutta, picturing the city at its most difficult times (enhanced perhaps by a little Hollywood melodrama as well), I had arrived expecting it to be more modern than what I found, especially in the grand, old, if somewhat decaying central parts of town. This time, however, I noticed more office complexes and taller buildings although somehow Calcutta manages to do “modern” and yet maintain a distinct element of shabby chic. Either that or, as in the new curator’s offices at the stately Victoria Memorial demonstrate, create a generic and unremarkable annex completely at odds with the echoes of the past. It’s a wonderfully eccentric we’ll do it our way way of being as stubbornly defiant as the hand pulled rickshaw drivers that continue to make their way along the back streets.

And speaking of streets, after a taste of the traffic in Bangalore, Mumbai or Kochi, Calcutta is comparatively ordered and slow. Very slow. Typically vehicles stay in their lanes, and the traffic police ensure a general order, lights at intersections are obeyed, and major roadways can be safely crossed. Which is saying a lot to be honest. It is a walkable city. The pathways can be rough at times, or filled with street sellers and food vendors, but if necessary one can generally manage to travel along the edge of the roadway. Some of the backstreets are fairly quiet and empty much of the day. But if a single vehicle comes along, you will hear of it. More than one vehicle and you won’t be able to hear yourself think. The noise of the car horns can be ear splitting. I’m inclined to think that anyone out to acquire a new or used vehicle must head to the showroom, car lot, back alley or wherever such transactions might occur and simply lean on the horn. If a few windows shatter, it does not matter if the wheels are falling off, it’s good to go!

Another traffic related observation I noted this time is the increased use of helmets on motorcycles. Friends told me that it has been a point of enforcement over the past year. And a good thing too. I was heading up a major thoroughfare on my way to meet a friend at the Marble Palace, when I came across a motorcycle accident. There were two children and one or two adults on the cycle, all fortunately with helmets. The one boy must have fallen off. As I passed, they were carrying this dazed child to a bus stop bench and a large crowd was gathering all shouting and offering their opinions. Without helmets it could have been far worse. All I could think of was the woman I saw speeding down the expressway in Bangalore with her young daughter on her lap, neither with helmets. But of course, where I live, motorcycles are a seasonal mode of transport, not a practical necessity as they are in this part of the world.

Traffic and faded architectural glory aside, to be back in Calcutta felt like coming home. A place I returned to seeking to refine a creative focus. On my first visit I came fully intending to write; this time I came with no such illusions. I came to experience, to meet other creative spirits, and to reconnect with all the good people at Seagull Books who have become dear to me. This time my stay was shorter, but coincided with so many wonderful visitors and events. It began, the night I arrived, with the opening of Removing the Gaze, an exclusive showing of collages by German artist Max Neumann. Monday morning began with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank’s masterclass at the Seagull School of Publishing, followed in the evening by my conversation with him at the Victoria Memorial (still fretting a little at what I had hoped to talk about but didn’t, I’m afraid). Tuesday it was my turn to lead a school session. As with my first experience last year, I was caught off guard by how quickly the three hours passed and by the engagement of the students. Wednesday was a full day of sightseeing with a new friend, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who, by coincidence, has been in the city on a residency, and Thursday morning featured a masterclass with conversationalist extraordinaire, Paul Holdengraber. Throughout the week I also had a number of meaningful conversations with Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books who was staying at the same residence where I was and doing some work with Seagull. Along with many visits to Seagull Books’ new office in their former school space, now newly opened up—a bright, cheery and inspiring creative environment—this was week packed with literary energy.

Now to see if I can carry some of the inspiration and focus I was seeking forward.

In Bangalore tonight, the friend I am staying with remarked on a new sense of perspective, of direction, and perhaps peace. As if India does give me something I need. The one thing it won’t give me is planned time for the two of us to travel, as unexpected circumstances now call him to be with his family. But such is life. This leaves me with a little over a week, and apart from one more overnight journey out of the city, much needed time and solitude to put some perspective to my own writing goals and direction before I return to the distractions and demands of life at home.

Of course, I will be back. India is not finished with me yet. Nor I with her.