There are no roads here: Ghost Variations by John Brian King

The images are dark, indistinct, deep shadows lurk behind rock, ground and grasses caught in the harsh glare of the flash of a simple black-and-white instant film camera. The sky, if visible, holds varying shades of light. Ghost Variations by photographer, filmmaker and writer John Brian King, is an invitation to explore the nocturnal landscape of California’s Coachella Valley without a guide or obvious frame of reference.

King, whose work over the years has examined a range of topics, focusing on such themes as airports, punk scenes, horror film and crime, turns his attention, in this photobook, to a desert landscape almost completely devoid of obvious human elements. The intentionally crude method of photography leaves the possibility of presence open. There are no words to provide interpretation or orientation so the narrative—or a multitude of narratives—is left to arise within the viewer. The scenes carry mystery and a bleak beauty, while the isolation of the flash’s illumination heightens the surrounding darkness, evoking the sensation of trying to navigate an unfamiliar terrain with insufficient light.

Photographs by John Brian King, Ghost Variations, Spurl Editions, 2022

The apparent repetition of some images—or lack of distinctiveness—enhances a feeling of being lost. Some scrub here, a rising wall of rock there, a deepening shadow swallowing the edges of the scene. An empty, noncommittal sky. Anyone who has camped out in a natural area will know how radically distorted the landscape becomes in the dark. But here, of course, one never gets the opportunity to reorient by light of day—this book contains an endless night. A night and a world to disappear into.

Ghost Variations by John Brian King is forthcoming from Spurl Editions who have also published three of King’s earlier photobooks: Riviera, LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84, and Nude Reagan. 

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore (and a few words about Seagull Books for World Book Day 2022)

As I write this, it is World Book Day, April 23, 2022 and it seems the perfect time to call attention to a man who has dedicated his life to making important, challenging books available to eager readers and celebrating the book itself as a work of art, an object as delightful to look at and hold as it is to read. And now, that man, Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, has a book of his own, Knotted Grief—a collection of piercing, spare poems that turns its attention to sorrow and anguish as experienced in both national and intimate spaces.

Poetry is, for Kishore, as I understand it, the product of a daily practice of writing—of putting words to the page every day, regardless of available time or present situation. As a friend, it is a discipline he has recommended to me, rather insistently in fact, but I fear I fell off the page some time ago and am only just climbing back on. His poetry has also been shared with those around him, appearing online here and there, even arriving on occasion in my own email inbox. One could even say that poetry tends to inform and permeate his prose and his speech—as if it has become, not a vocation or an exercise so much as a way of being in the world.

Knotted Grief, coalesces around “Kashmiriyat,” an extended cycle inspired by the devastating events in Kashmir in recent years. Across 105 spare verses Kishore paints a pained portrait of violence, misery and loss. The flickering light of candles, personified shadows, cold winter winds, bloodied earth, strangled silence—images of war fold in on one another, frozen by the photographer-poet’s eye and trimmed to their bare essentials, then revisited again and again.

6
bird stripped
of sight
seeking
refuge
in a sky
full
of bullet wounds

Most of the verses are short, a handful of lines, but midway through the sequence—50, 52, 55—stretch out, with anger and desperation rising:

elsewhere the echoes
of a candle flame muffled
by fingers that knew no pain

the stone floor
beginning to feel the cold
as bare footsteps walked over its grave

like a whisper
the angel gliding past
its silhouette fighting shy of the firelight

on a clear and blue sky is heard
the song of the winter wind
utterly and completely silent

a child’s memory of the future? (from 55)

Sadly, armed conflict and occupation are not unique to any one place or time and to read this poem as war rages in Ukraine and elsewhere, the words are not in any way diluted. Rather they dig deeper, strike closer to the core. In the following sequence, “Street Full of Widows” the painful universality of the human cost of war strikes hard:

Go gather the flowers               for the wreaths
go                   from door to door
                      gathering
.                            sheets for the shrouds

 

there is no time to grieve

When, then, we might ask, is the time to grieve? Grief is a fundamental part of life and living, complex and compounded as we grow older, and this theme in its more intimate sense guides the balance of the poems in this collection. The weight of sorrow is, at times, heavy, and Kashmir still lingers in the shadows, while the interplay of memory, dreams and desires carry the later pieces in a more fanciful and uplifting direction. Throughout, an unmistakable energy lifts and carries the poetry, rising and falling in mood and intensity, the weight and balance of each line carefully measured. One might imagine that the poet’s background in stage lighting serves him well. Certainly Naveen Kishore’s deep association with theatre, literature and photography stretching back over more than four decades fuels this moving debut.

Writing about books these past few years has opened for me a network of independent publishers I might never have encountered had I continued to let the literary bestseller lists guide my fortunes. It is, I suppose, one of the small gifts of having to leave my profession earlier than planned. I bought my first Seagull Book in 2015 and made my first pilgrimage to Calcutta in 2018. I’ve been back to the city once but hope that, if all goes well—as the world conspires against us daily—I will be able to visit Naveen and the rest of the Seagull family on this, the fortieth anniversary year of operations for a publisher that believes in the power and beauty of literature.

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore is published in India by Speaking Tiger and in Australia by Gazebo Books

Love is blind too: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Lina Meruane’s compelling novel, Seeing Red, envelopes you from the first lines. The narrator, Lucina, is distraught. Sentences end mid-thought. Unfinished. A party is in full swing, only a room away, but she is suddenly alone, isolated.

I had to give myself an injection at twelve o’clock sharp but now I wouldn’t make it, because the pile of precariously balanced coats let my purse slide to the floor, because instead of stopping conscientiously, as I should have, I bent over and reached to pick it up . And a firecracker went off in my head. But it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying.

A diabetic diagnosed with a serious condition affecting her eyes, Lucina had been warned against leaning over and now one thoughtless movement has left her eyesight, her work and her normal connections to the external world threatened by a curtain of blood. What follows is a deeply internalized monologue that builds in neurotic intensity, narrated by a woman struggling against her worst fears with a rapidly diminishing reserve of dignity and grace.

Inspired by her own real-life episode of blindness, Seeing Red is not exactly an autobiographical novel. In an interview, the Chilean author and essayist explains that she began writing what she thought would be a memoir, but as the relationship with truth began to interest her less, it quickly became a piece of fiction. She was, however, keenly interested in capturing the experience of blindness as “seen” from the perspective of the unseeing person—something raw that would be in contrast to the tendency in Latin American literature to present blind characters from view of the outsider.

Set in the early 2000s, Lucina, the protagonist of Seeing Red is, like her creator, a writer (writing under the name “Lina” Meruane) who lives in New York City with her boyfriend Ignacio, an academic. Their relationship is only about six months old and they are just about to move to a new apartment when her sight starts to rapidly disappear. She faces an uncertain prognosis, and a delay before the doctor will be able to consider operating, but they are bound to one another by the intense emotion of a new romance. That’s a good thing, because Lucina will test it, especially when she flies home to Chile to visit her parents—both of whom are doctors—while Ignacio attends a conference in Argentina. He soon joins her as they to try to salvage a vacation they’d planned, one that is now restricted to Chile, primarily to her family’s Santiago home, because of her fragile condition. Relying on her memory, she guides her partner through a city he has never visited, trying at the same time to blindly negotiate an emotional minefield of complicated family dynamics and past relationships.

The narrative style cleverly enhances the increasingly unreliable nature of Lucina’s connection to the world around her. Through a series of unbroken single-paragraph sections, each two or three pages long, we are held hostage to her unseeing perspective. Thoughts unspoken race through her mind, as she imagines how those around her are reacting, picturing their expressions and adding to their words her own visualized commentary. She second guesses herself. She second guesses everyone and everything. One can only imagine how her patient partner or her aloof mother really feel as everything is channelled through Lucina’s  personal filter. Her reconstructions. Her cynical digressions. Her abruptly aborted sentences.  As readers we have to trust her descriptions which are themselves coloured by her anxieties and growing agitation.

Aren’t you dying of cold? Ignacio insisted, rubbing his hands together as if lighting a fire. I was trained to resist the damp air that was seeping into his bones. His teeth chattered. He got up from the chair and bent his legs to wake them up. He rummaged quickly in a packet of cigarettes, the match scratched my ears, and I heard him suck on the cigarette in spite of his imaginary flu. I could envision him forming fragile smoke rings that his forced cough then tore apart, his dry cough and the beaten voice of a bellyaching Galician. Winter in my Santiago made him remember winter in his own, in Compostela, and he told me again how as a boy he’d slept beside a wall that let water filter in from outside, how he’d spent his whole childhood sick, covered in rashes, his ears hardened by chilblains. He exaggerated his hardships, or invented them, all so as not to talk about our own.

The question of her relationship with Ignacio, and whether it will stand the strain, haunts Lucina. She wants to give him the freedom to decide if he would be willing to stay, even if the unthinkable happens and her sight never returns, and yet they are each terrified of being alone, lost and overwhelmed by the enormous implications that hang over them both. Conversations begin but are quickly aborted. Strange sexual urges obsess her. Once back in New York, with surgery ahead, the narrative only becomes more charged and visceral and surreal. In Megan McDowell’s excellent translation, none of the energy or intensity is lost. Lucina is a complex, difficult, thoroughly compelling character. Her story vividly demonstrates the fear of losing control, the limitations of relying on the mind’s eye and the extreme pressures a person in crisis can put on those close to them.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Deep Vellum.

The weight of emptiness: The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam

This is my life, my story: it has a lot of drama, successive doses of profound distress, and a lot of peculiarity, to the extent that I continually imagine myself a mere character in the novel, choreographed by the hand of a brilliant writer, but he overburdens me with unusual loads. I don’t mean in a literary sense—that’s for the critics—I’m talking on a human and personal level. He always puts me in the most complex scenarios, boiling over with seemingly cosmic plots, or at least in pivotal points of tearful collective historical plots, always overturning places on my head.

The narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, Akram Musallam’s metafictional meditation on loss, identity and emptiness, is at the mercy of his own pen as he endeavours to commit his own story to the page, a story which finds him at the intersection of a lineage bound by village and familial legend and a series of events that define the history of Palestine in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He is his own anti-hero, haunted by successive losses, disappearances and absences that undermine his efforts to write himself into being. The resulting novel-about-a-novel-about-loss, by turns melancholic and absurd, thus becomes a mirror of much larger questions haunting the Palestinian imagination.

Born in 1972 in Talfit, near Nablis in the West Bank, Musallam is a journalist for the Ramallah daily Al-Ayyam. The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, first published in Arabic in 2008, is his second novel, his first to be translated into English. And although its premise may sound bleak, this playful tale manages to be both sorrowful and fun to read. The magic lies in its charming and determined narrative voice.

The novel opens with a dream-like account of a night in late 1988 when our protagonist, a teenager working in a hotel across the border in Israel, has his first sexual encounter with a young woman who has a freshly tattooed scorpion at the base of her spine. At one point he asks her to stand, naked, facing the mirrored wall behind the carpeted stage in the “dance hall” where he slept each night. He traces her hips on the reflective surface with lipstick. The girl, a visitor from Paris, would leave for home the next day, disappearing from his life forever. However, she and her scorpion would begin to revisit him in his dreams, lying beside him once more. As he stroked the deep-blue design on her lower back the creature would come to life, slip off her skin and struggle to climb up the mirror to find its place between the lipstick lines drawn there. This scorpion in its desperate attempts to reclaim a perch on something that no longer exists, haunts the narrator, who adopts it as an identity for his story’s hero. “Isn’t this a novel-esque dream, or a dream of a novel?” he asks himself and the answer, he knows, is yes. Which I suppose means it’s both.

It is mid-2006 when he finally commits himself to realizing this novel-esque dream. He arrives at a parking lot in Ramallah and offers to rent a particular stall although he has no car to park there. He simply wishes to sit there, on the ground or on a plastic chair, think and maybe even write a novel. The attendant is uncertain, but the parking lot manager, a former political “prisoner” jailed for his actions during the Uprising, is smitten by the idea of hosting a writer. As the author-narrator’s story unfolds—that which we are reading and/or that which he is writing—the “prisoner” becomes his audience, his cheerleader and his challenger to the truth of the narrative as presented. But, just as real-life has dictated the narrator’s story, the liberties he takes in recording it are often the only way to begin to adequately—and safely—address the huge gaping holes that fate and history keep placing in his way.

‘Names aren’t that important, believe me, usually there are no names in my novel, haven’t you noticed that? Names are constraints for the characters and me, I don’t like them. I prefer to describe my characters according to what sets them apart. Then, my friend, you want a novelist to write “real-life things.” Listen: in order to be able to speak the truth, you have to wait for a lot of people to die; in the same way, speaking the truth may end up killing a lot of people.

The Scorpion’s earliest life memories are charged with absence. When he was very young his father lost his leg, the result of a workplace injury attended not by doctors but by construction site “first aid” of a much more basic sort. As the only child it would fall to our hero to scratch his father’s missing foot—not the stump, but the space where his foot once was. It was an early, tangible experience of emptiness and perhaps began to condition him for life in a time of conflict in a land under occupation, insofar as one can ever be prepared to have the places most important to you, your key touchstones, destroyed or irrevocably altered—to have your history erased. He would have preferred that the war would stay out of his life, but it kept intruding, driving the plot. For the narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, his connection to lost places may seem exaggerated at times due to the magical tone of his tale and his tendency to limit or avoid identifying details, but they are not only fundamental to his sense of self and his ability to tell his own story, they echo the broader collective concerns that haunt the Palestinian people.

This is, then, a deceptively quirky, light tale filled with eccentric characters and family legends woven against historical events—the Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Second Intifada, the 2002 Invasion—that is deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves to address loss and emptiness, to remind ourselves that we do exist. As the narrator insists “my game, our game is a game of stories.” It is also about the stories we can dare to tell, especially in dangerous times. So, as his own manuscript takes shape, it isn’t completely clear where the novel we are reading and the novel being written diverge, if in fact they do. The scorpion is an enigma. Who is the scorpion? The narrator or his self-protagonist? Or a dream symbol of the impossible? A scorpion that can sweat, struggling to hold on to a memory and an idea of a time, a place and a nation that holds an increasing amount of absence as time goes on.

The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam is translated by Sawad Hussain and published by Seagull Books.

Exploring the other Oxford: A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto

When we travel or relocate to a new city or country we inevitably arrive with expectations. We have an image in our minds of what it will look and feel like to be on the ground. Sometimes the preconceived experience bears a remarkable resemblance to the realized one. But sometimes reality blindsides us completely. Either way, any place we visit or live in can never experienced fully—engagement is always subjective on so many levels so that, even if you live in the same location all your life, you will only ever know a corner of it, or a series of images collected over a network of space and time.

In a sense that is the premise underlying this handsome photobook which came to me, in contrast to the title, without any expectations at all. I knew little of Oxford apart from a general awareness of the University and all the academic weight that it carries. As to any specific historical or visual detail—either about the University or the city that surrounds it—my knowledge was minimal. What intrigued me about Arturo Soto’s A Certain Logic of Expectations was the idea of experiencing the city through the eyes of a Mexican studying at Oxford during the Brexit years. I suspected he might have an interesting angle on such a storied place. I was not wrong.

Born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in 1981, Arturo Soto earned an MA in Art History from University College London and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York before completing his PhD in Fine Art at the University of Oxford. His fondness for the grittier side of urban landscapes developed early. His first photobook, In the Heat (2018) focuses on Panama, but eschews the travel brochure side of the country and turns its attention to “banal spaces that people rarely consider, partially because of their familiarity, but also because they contradict conservative notions of progress and economic growth.” The same social and aesthetic impulses guide his new work.

A journal in a shop window with the legend Start Where You Are on its cover is the perfect maxim for projects that blend photography with psychogeography. Instead of wishing to document faraway lands, photographers should consider examining their immediate surroundings first.

Oxford is a city with multiple realities. The Oxford Soto engages with through his camera lens, contains none of the esteemed features of the University. He talks about it, yes, but I have to admit that the mention of such architectural landmarks as the Radcliffe Camera, the Magdelan Tower or the Bridge of Sighs brought no immediate images to my mind. I had to google them to find out what they looked like and, even then, I would not have recognized or placed most of them before making a point of looking. Oxford, the University, exists as much as an idea as as a place. Yet I was captivated by, and remain much more interested in, the working class Oxford Soto’s images record—the brick buildings, boarded up shops, back alleys, and strangely vacant streets. They tell their own stories, but they also project a certain anonymity. (A selection of images from A Certain Logic of Expectations can be found on his website.)

Weaving a path of sorts between the two possible Oxford’s is the text. Memories, observations and anecdotes drawn from Soto’s time in the city are presented as discreet descriptive passages, with no connection to any particular image. He considers the dynamics that have formed Oxford as a city, and talks about some of the idiosyncrasies of the photographic endeavour. He records scenes and interactions he encounters on the streets and reflects on the student experience, recalling friends, romances and favourite watering holes. Some of his remembrances have a photographic quality of their own:

A friend and I spot a naked girl through a basement window on Rectory Road. She is sitting down on the bed with her back to us. The basil green sheets make me think of Modigliani, whom I associate with that color. The room is brightly lit, making it hard to understand why she has not drawn the curtains. My friend is equally fascinated by the incident, and we speculate about the situation for a while. She keeps referring to the girl as beautiful, even though we did not see her face.

Oxford, as Soto describes it, is a city constrained by its own history—a history that is actually confined to a very small geographic space. Beyond that, its ability to renew itself is limited. A distinct separation is maintained between “town” and “gown.” As a student, Soto has full access to the college he attends (but not the entire University). For residents of the city with no connection to that side of Oxford, the hallowed halls of the educational institution and the world it contains exist entirely outside their lived experience. Two solitudes.

Soto’s camera brings the otherwise unseen Oxford into focus; his crisp, clear images highlight its absolute ordinariness. To his eye, and given his own background, even its “dodgiest” neighbourhoods appear orderly. His prose passages and vignettes are precise, admittedly subjective and charged with a deadpan humour. It all came together when I learned (also on his website) that his artistic practice:

owes a great deal to the work of the French writer Georges Perec, whose fragmentary and often absurd projects offer a methodology for the study of the infraordinary, the term he coined to describe the nothingness that comprises the bulk of our lives. Perec highlighted the complexity of micro-events and banal spaces, exposing the partiality and selectivity of our attention and making us question why we grant significance to certain things while overlooking others. Perec’s writings provide a fitting analogy for documentary images, which give a realistic impression of the world while also connoting an authorial vision.

In the background throughout this project looms the tensions around Brexit. Soto is a careful observer, noting, for example, party signs pasted up in a window. Yet, as an outsider, without a vote or a particular stake in the matter, it is still impossible to remain entirely neutral. He recounts a friendship that dissolves when he learns of the other’s political leanings. There is inevitably a spark in the air that one senses when in a foreign country at a time of voting or campaigning that fuels an interest and a disconnect at once. It seeps into the memories you take away. There may be a level of discontent in the air, but as Soto reflects on returning to Mexico as his studies draw to a close, he knows he will miss the freedom and safety he enjoyed on the streets of Oxford. That comfort also seems to inform his photographs and his observations such that this Oxford, the one that defies a certain logic of expectations, is perhaps one that can only be seen by an outsider open to all its possibilities.

A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published in a limited edition by The Eriskay Connection.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

Crossing borders and defying boundaries: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Think of a story as a living being. There are countless beings and countless types of beings. Physiques, lifestyles, screams, conversations, breaths, tremblings, horns, mutenesses, ways of living and dying, all different. So running off in the middle of a story in a huff is simply not acceptable. Let it live its life, find its own denouement. A butterfly’s tale is a few days a flutter, a bee gets four weeks abuzz, a mouse drools over a handful of crumbs; if a dog lives twenty years, good for him, and yes, if you’re a parrot, turtle or elephant, you get a full century. The wretched cockroach won’t even die when fired from a cannon.

First things first, yes this story sprawls across some 700 pages, give or take, but as the above quote indicates, it has, as all stories do, its own lifeblood, its own pace, and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, kicks up its heels, starts with bold and defiant enthusiasm, and refuses to let go from its first paragraphs to its final words—and even then it carries an advisory that no story ever really ends. Quite simply, this energetic, intelligent and engrossing novel, brilliantly translated (or is that dazzlingly transformed?) from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has the power to delight just about anyone with a pulse. Even an avowed novella devotee such as myself.

Tilted Axis, UK edition

Central, no, essential to this tale is one singular octogenarian heroine—Ma, Amma, Granny, Mata-ji, or Baji—depending on the perspective of the character (or creature) who falls into her orbit. Recently widowed as the novel opens, she spends the first, say, 175 pages or so lying in bed, defiantly turning her back to the world, ignoring the desperate entreaties of family and friends. She seems determined to remain, confined in her grief, willing herself to dissolve into the wall. Propped by her bedside is a cane, a gift of a grandson, one who engages for the most part from a distance and is thus known as Overseas Son. This collapsible cane, decorated with butterflies, is the key magical element in this oversized, yet thoroughly down-to-earth fable. What revolves and expands around Ma and her cane, is a story about borders—about women and borders we are told at the very outset—but it is also about all sorts of boundaries. Between genders (in society and within a single body and life), classes, family members, religions, nations and even between human and nonhuman communities.

Prior to her retreat from the world following the death of her husband, Ma was the typical matriarch of an upper middle-class Indian family. If there were subtle hints of a certain eccentricity, she devoted herself to the role of wife and mother, surrounded by her son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, referred to respectively as Bade, Beti and Bahu. Of the immediate family members, only the eldest grandson is known by a given name, Siddharth or Sid. The majority of the burgeoning cast however, servants, officials, Ma’s dear hirja friend have proper names of some sort—an indication that it is the core of the family that will have their prized self-identities tested the most once Ma emerges from her mourning isolation reborn, so with a fresh, almost adolescent sense of wonder and adventure.

Penguin India edition, cover illustration by translator Daisy Rockwell

However, before Ma’s new lust for life begins to assert itself, she disappears, raising all manner of panic, alarm and indignant outrage, only to turn up days later, at the police station, oddly changed, apparently confused and so much smaller than anyone remembers. Bade and Bahu are greatly relieved. He has just retired after an auspicious career in the government and will soon be moving from his official residence to a retirement flat where, as custom dictates, his mother will live and be cared for. But Ma has other plans. She intends to go home with her daughter.

Beti is, at first, pleased and surprised. She has always imagined herself as the free-spirited, bohemian member of the family. A feminist. An activist. Divorced, she lives alone in a modern flat decorated with art and stylish furniture. Her current boyfriend, KK, visits when he is not travelling. Both of them are journalists and value the ability to come and go as they please. Ma’s presence begins to upend everything Beti thinks she knows about herself, especially as Rosie Bau, Ma’s long-time hijra friend begins to spend more and more time visiting, charming everyone except Beti in the process.

The story in its second part becomes one of shifting roles and questions of identity. Bade struggles with the aimlessness of retirement, Bahu, is conflicted by her desire for individual expression and her commitment to the expectations of her place in society, and Beti by just about everything she has valued as she finds herself losing control of the world she has carefully constructed around her. She pulls away from her boyfriend. She is at once grateful for and resentful of the care and friendship Rosie offers her mother. And her work suffers as she finds herself slipping into a mothering/housewife role she had so proudly avoided. As Ma continues to shed layers of her past, to defy what others had long expected of her, her daughter acquires new, suffocating layers. One woman grows smaller as the other grows bigger, so to speak.

Finally, in the third part, Tomb of Sand enters the realm of Partition literature, heralded by an opening chapter that features a ghostly contingent of the many literary greats who have contributed to the tradition gathered at the Wagah Gate, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan where every evening a grand spectacle is held to mark the day’s end. The legendary authors and some of their iconic characters jostle for attention and much mayhem ensues, culminating with a direct, albeit invisible attack of mischief that disrupts the famed flag lowering ceremony. Of course, cellphones are duly collected by the embarrassed guards and no tangible record of the event survives. With that introduction, Ma and Beti’s adventures on the far side of the border—a border which has so bitterly divided a nation that once was one—is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected excitement, horror and heartache.

Of course, a thumbnail sketch like this hardly begins to do justice to a work like this in which the whole and its parts together create a larger-than-life experience filled with warmth, humour, and social, ecological and political commentary without skipping a beat. Ancient history and modern concerns—local, national and global—are wound together. The boisterous, omniscient third person narrative voice seamlessly drops in advice, wisdom and instructive asides along the way. There are characters we never see from the inside, Ma and Rosie in particular although they both will have their moment to speak deeply and passionately from the heart. By contrast, Bade’s and especially Beti’s tangled emotions are opened up wide. And we also cross over into the heart and mind of a crow and his community (who have some very pointed opinions on the way human creatures are fouling the planet) and are given, on occasion, the door’s eye view of the ongoing affairs because there are, after all, some things a door cannot avoid seeing. Finally, there is a guest narrator who makes several cameo appearances, a friend of Sid’s who by his own admission is not a character in this story, but happens to be on scene at the time. His brief first-person accounts stand as grounded eye witness reports of some of the more fantastic elements that others too busy with the business at hand may well have missed. This all may sound like a bit too much, but it works, the flow is smooth and swift and that the pages seem to turn of their own accord.

Then there is the language which necessarily involves a discussion of the translation. This book is liberally littered with Hindi (along with some and even a little Sanskrit) sometimes translated, obviously as with quoted poetry or, obliquely as in a clever comments like: “And no one will say, but these are good days, acche din! Except for the government, that is.” But more often than not,  Hindi words are simply worked directly into the text without any effort—or need—to explain though I will confess that as a reader with a basic Hindi vocabulary it was fun to recognize and understand them.

The original Hindi version of this book was known for its exuberant wordplay and this is where the translator’s careful attention to the spirit and the energy clearly shines. Onomatopoeia is liberally employed and generally transferrable, but the puns, layered meanings and alliteration possible in one language cannot be reproduced directly. The author and her translator established a good rapport that openly encouraged wordplay in the target language, and, as Rockwell describes in her Translator’s Note, she endeavoured to evoke an echo, a resonance, a dhwani of the source text. The result is work that embodies mood and emotion so effortlessly that even the smallest moments seem charged with life’s joys and sorrows:

No one noticed when the leaves changed the season of the heart yet again. When the monsoon was at its peak. The leaves grew fat. Hanging heavy on the trees. They hung, dripping sadness. Even when they’re quiet they hang heavy. There’s beauty in their fullness, but there’s a core of grief, dark and deep. The raga of grief in slow tempo, extremely slow, a despondent alaap, a prelude. Or is it a vilaap, a lamentation?

Finally, I want to say something of the portrayal of the hijra character Rosie who is key to the turning of the events that drive this novel. She is an independent figure, standing apart from many of the common activities that have so often defined hijra existence—begging and sex work. But that makes her an enigma and a perceived threat to Beti for all of the latter’s assumed hipness and LGBTQ-allyness. Rosie has a hold and influence on her mother that she cannot appreciate and this heightens her obsession with the hijra’s body, her otherness and the secret alliance Ma and Rosie seem to share:

What was all this topsy-turvy talk? Perhaps there was some clue to help Beti understand this topsy-turvy body. Strange how whatever one said of Rosie, the opposite was also germane. Like a body engaged in challenging all stereotypes and definitions. A body unrecognizing of the legitimacy of any borders. Flowing this way and that.

When Rosie eventually begins  to appear at times in male presentation, Beti is unable to cope with the dissonance that does not seem to bother her mother, KK or anyone else in her housing society. Yet, ultimately Rosie will be given the opportunity to take up the issue of her reality from her own perspective, as one who is not considered to exist, to be of value, to belong to anywhere. In this character, in her fabulousness and her tragedy alike, is a strong statement that I, as a legally and socially transitioned person who has crossed from one side of the gendered border to the other, can relate to. It is a recognition, not always acknowledged in fashionable transgender discourse, that we never really belong to either side. Some boundaries we carry within us forever.

Tomb of Sand is a huge novel, a story that celebrates the best of storytelling as an art form and as part of a cultural tradition.  Packed full of historical and literary figures and references, snatches of Bollywood song lyrics, and a wealth of culinary delights, it does what translated literature should do at its best: Invite the reader in, welcoming them to cross linguistic boundaries and experience a story that is filled with the scents, flavours and tones of its home country yet recognizable and relatable in the very human and global concerns it explores. Defying borders, at least for a time.

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree is translated by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis in the UK and by Penguin in India. It has been longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, the first Hindi translation to be nominated for this award.

The stars used to be on our side: Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets

There is a very eerie atmosphere that envelopes the stories in Yevgenia Belorusets’ collection, Lucky Breaks. This is a collection that examines the impact years of covert military action on civilians, in this case the conflict in the impoverished Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been ongoing since 2014. But, by terrible coincidence, the release of this work in English came on the heels of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and these tales of loss, displacement and trauma have suddenly been cast into sharper relief. This slender volume has become more vital than it already was. As I write this I am following the author’s daily diary updates from Kyiv and her words have become an essential aspect of my emotional connection to a situation that seems to so difficult to understand. That is in no small part because she is deeply interested in ordinary people whose stories are so often unheard, caught up in events they did not choose and cannot control, detailing her character’s situations with a measure of ironic humour and serious respect for the remarkable resilience that keeps them going against the odds.

Fate delivered her to Kyiv. She didn’t know what to do about it. She came from Donetsk, where she had lived her whole life in her parents’ small one-family house. She had enough money in her purse. That’s what they say, “in her purse,” although her actual purse was empty, full of wind. The wind part, really, is a hyperbole. She simply possessed something in her name, that’s it. That’s how they say it around here, “to her name,” although her name had nothing to do with it; she was not a name brand. In short, she had some inviolable reserves that she had to unseal and start systematically spending.  (from “The Lonely Woman”)

Belorusets is a photojournalist and writer whose work is informed by political activism. Her intention is to call attention to communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in the media. Her writing is an extension of this practice. In her collection Modern Animal (reviewed here) she worked with people she had interviewed during her years in the Donbas to reimagine their painful experiences in stories and allegories involving animals. In her “Note Before the Preface”, she indicates that in this volume, her activity with the tales she tells is still a form of documentation, not of the conflict itself, but “the surmounting of the conflict through a dialectical process—by means of phantasmagoria, narrative, conversation, and the disclosure of certain situations to the viewer.” Alongside the stories there are two photographic sequences: But I Insist: It’s Not Even Yesterday Yet and War in the Park. The grainy black and white images are not labeled and are not related to any of the stories, rather the three threads are presented as a means of showing how different contexts collide and unsettle narrative certainty. I will also mention, and I don’t know if it is intentional, but the font used is unusually small, effectively slowing the reading process and forcing the reader to remain longer in each of these relatively short stories.

The protagonists of Belorusets’ stories are almost exclusively women, told either directly through the character’s voice, presented as conversations or interrogations, or recounted as the experiences of someone the narrator knows or knows of. As such, the author’s own voice may be reflected in some of the accounts. Refugees and others displaced by war are common. Many find themselves lost and disoriented in Kyiv, longing for a past life or trying to build some kind of existence in the city. They look for work where they can find it. Others belong to an uncertain fate. Like the story of a florist so attuned to her art that she hardly exists outside her shop in Donetsk, but what happens to her when her home and shop are destroyed? Some characters arrive in Kyiv bearing the scars of the traumas they’ve endured, like the woman who keeps trying to rid herself of a broken black umbrella she carries only to rush to retrieve it, scolding it, pouring her pain into this tattered object. There are dreamers and horoscope readers and a woman who visits a cosmetologist as one might a therapist, in the belief that her hands can somehow massage, however temporarily, the griefs she carries right off her skin. Through their troubled, often eccentric circumstances, the characters who inhabit these thirty-two stories contribute to a narrative of life under hostilities in a state of persistent, slow burn. The heat has since been turned on full and these tales become at once more affectionately folkish and more disturbingly real. The stakes are even higher. One recurring character advises the narrator that she wants her identity hidden, and challenges her motives for recording her story at all:

“At least this is why it’s better for you and me if no one knows about me. I could be called to account, couldn’t I? But is there anything I can change? Not only can I not change anything, I don’t dare to. You’re taking my words down, you must be counting on something. Maybe a tearjerker about how we’re all full of hope for a new future, or how the country that we loved became our prison. We’re left to eke out a life in small towns, to die in plundered hospitals, in dirty public wards, or in empty little apartments where there’s no hot water for months and the lights go out at night. Someone will want to hear about us, and then you will be the one invited to a grand festive table, you will be the one they’ll raise a toast to.” (from “Lilacs”)

In allowing such passionate, disaffected voices to come through, Belorusets has, in Lucky Breaks documented a mood existing in Ukraine before  the barrage of headlines that have come to dominate our understanding of her country. That is what a documentarian does. And she is still doing it as bombs fall.

In his informative Afterword, translator Eugene Ostashevsky describes Belorusets’ writing as being most indebted to the early stories of Nikolai Gogol and early Soviet era avant-gardist Daniil Kharms. Elements of the supernatural and the absurd normalized within the realm of the everyday and a concern with narrative fiction appear in her work. Ostashevsky also discusses her controversial choice to write in Russian which raises political and logistical challenges for a Ukrainian writer in a country where most people can speak both languages, but Ukrainian is increasingly favoured and protected. He does admit, however, that her Russian is subtly different from that spoken in the Russian Federation: “it is based on the rhythms and intonations of the Russian of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and continues the Russian-language line of Ukrainian literature.”

Despite the grim subject matter that underlies (and sometimes surfaces) in this collection, Lucky Breaks is filled with warmth and humour. Belorusets’ characters exhibit much the same mix of anxiety and resolve that can be seen in the people she meets today as she wanders the streets of Kyiv and compiles her journal that is, at this time, being translated and shared with followers around the world on a daily basis. However, I can only hope that a wartime diary is not required too much longer.

Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and published by New Directions in North America. It will be released in the UK by Pushkin Press in May.

Some thoughts about two months of reading Norwegian literature

I started 2022 with a personal decision to focus on Norwegian fiction for at least January and February. There was no particular reason apart from a couple authors I wanted to visit or revisit and a general sense of Norwegian literature fitting nicely into a Canadian winter. Canada is a similarly northern country, albeit much larger, and I have often felt “at home” in the climate and landscape that emerges in much of what I’ve read from Norway. Of course, although I had a number of Norwegian books already on my shelves, this little project inspired the purchase of more, a trend that continued during the reading.

So, I have some thoughts about this experience. I read a total of seven novels or short story collections by five male and two female writers. This was the first issue. I had difficulty finding female authors of interest, although I have since become aware of a number I’d like to explore. My initial searches brought up a predominance of writers of noir and historical fiction—neither genres of particular interest. And then I inadvertently purchased a few titles that turned out to be Danish, not Norwegian, enough that I could probably do a month of reading female Danish authors. I will confess, though, that I was curious to read recent work by male authors my age or a little older, and in that respect, four of the novels I chose fit the bill.

I really enjoyed five of my selections, had a few minor issues with a sixth and was decidedly underwhelmed by a seventh. I decided not to review that title, as I felt there was little to gain by dissecting a novel I found so disappointing—I’m ready to accept that the problem is probably with me—but my response does deserve a few words here. The book is The Other Name: Septology I–II by Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls–Transit Books/Fitzcarraldo). I have yet to read anything but praise for this work which extends for seven parts over three volumes and I honestly expected it to be a book I would have liked. But, not so.

It’s the story of an aging artist, a widower, who is a misanthropic loner with a rather religious temperament. In the nearby city lives another artist with the same name, matching the same description, whose life has followed a very different course. He is drinking himself to death. Other characters in this small cast also echo one another in name and biographical details but live different lives. Or so it seems, because our narrator, Asle #1 as I thought of him, and no one around him, appears to notice the duplication beyond the name. The story unfolds in a ponderous leaden prose—a glacial stream of consciousness—ostensibly a single sentence, but one that reads more like “sentences” with an absence of full stops. Other punctuation occurs and any dialogue is off-set in the text. However, I could not help but feel that the author has given himself too much runway for the story he is trying to tell. It not only drags on, but his imagined memory episodes, like two sections where Asle watches (and listens to) a young couple (obviously himself and his late wife) in a park, made me irritated rather than impressed. The general narrative style and the potential metaphysical questions at play appeal to me, but the execution did not. I did finish it, if only to see if I caught the spark others have felt, but although the second part was an improvement, I can’t imagine going any further.

I could not help but wonder if The Other Name suffered in part from the fact that I picked it up, halfway through this project, after beginning with two books that I loved, my favourites overall as it turned out. Tomas Espedal’s The Year is a stream of consciousness novel in verse about aging and loss that is intelligent, humorous and sad, whereas The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is likewise a deeply internalized narrative, dark and meditative that also deals with grief and matters of faith. These first two reads were so strong—that is, perfect for me at this moment—that I filled in the rest of my Espedal collection and bought Ørstavik’s earlier novella Love. It’s worth noting that I was not put off Fosse altogether either, but rather than looking ahead to complete his Septology, I bought one of his very short novellas. I think I might appreciate his work more in a very tight space.

The balance of my Norwegian project featured three new-two-me authors, Thorvald Steen (The White Bathing Hut), Ingvild H Rishøi (Winter Stories), Kjell Askildsen (Everything Like Before)  and one long-time favourite, Per Petterson (Men in My Situation). When I think about it, the one theme that binds every one of the  books I read is isolation. That is, perhaps, a significant aspect of the appeal for me.

All in all, this little Norwegian project has been a rewarding experience—I read a lot of great books and bought even more. This is the first time I have set a solid goal early in the year and met it. I have also read and reviewed several nonfiction and poetry collections and one other short story collection since the beginning of January. It feels good have been so productive, slow reader that I am, but it will also feel good now to think about reading without any strict self-imposed objectives for a change. However, I do hope it bodes well for 2022, reading wise. I mean, we’re still dealing with the pandemic despite the willingness of many governments to believe it’s over and the worsening situation in Ukraine and ongoing conflicts elsewhere are terrifying. Then, of course, there’s climate change and so much more. I would suggest we need literature and art more than ever at this time.

“I was thirty-eight years old, everything was blown, I had nothing left.” Men in My Situation by Per Petterson

There we sat in silence beneath the big wide tall trees behind the station building, breathing, each in our uneven rhythm, as if we’d all been running, but none of us the same distance. Then I said, Vigdis, I guess it’s up to you whether we should say anything about this to Mummy, about what just happened. It was quiet in the back seat, all three of them sat there looking out the windows. Vigdis sat in the middle, but it was Tine who said, no, and then Tine said, no, too, and Vigdis didn’t say anything.

Early 1990s, Oslo, Norway and Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight years old. From a later vantage point, a decade or more down the road, thirty-eight is young, but when you stand there it feels ominous, as if one is hurtling helplessly into middle age. And, at this moment, Arvid has found himself alone in the world. His wife has left him, taking their three daughters with her, and it is less than two years since his parents and two younger brothers perished in a tragic ferry accident. In Per Petterson’s most recent release in English translation, Men in My Situation, the Norwegian author places his frequent “stunt double” into a set of circumstances that will test his emotional awareness and resolve, and, as the title perhaps implies, as a man of his background, era and disposition, his resources may well be limited.

Petterson is a writer who has claimed that he is unable to detail a plot in advance; he begins with an image or a sentence and, as a result, a measure of uncertainty lingers in the finished product, a sense that the protagonist or narrator is not sure where he or she will end up. One has to give the story the time it needs. Grief and longing are also common themes in his work, as are life transitions and family dynamics (the boat accident is drawn from Petterson’s own personal history and appears elsewhere in his ouevre). All of these ideas come together in Men in My Situation, an accomplished novel from a mature, confident author. This version of Arvid is bemused and hurt to find himself abandoned. His self-awareness is of the moment; he retells his tale as if in an effort to make sense of it all—his confusion, his numbness and his blind spots all make him familiar, complicated and real.

Arvid is a writer of some renown, sometimes even recognized on the street, but he is ever conscious of his working class background. His exposure to literature was self-directed and it is only in recent years that he has been able to give up his factory job to write full-time.  But it makes him a bit of an outsider in literary circles. He and his ex-wife, Turid, met in their teens and, although she shares his background, she seems to have been able to find her place among an artistic crowd Arvid describes as the “colourful people”—a space he cannot penetrate. He senses that, seduced by her new friends, she simply grew away from him. But it hurts.

It was a cold autumn, the first after Turid. I felt cold all the time. I wrote almost nothing. I could wake up at night and not remember that her side of the bed was empty, a certain number of kilos permanently lifted from the mattress and her smell fainter with the passing days, and with the nights, weeks, and in the end completely dissolved and gone.

When, after about six months of weekend visits, his daughters announce that they no longer want to come to see him on a regular basis, he struggles to embrace the ambiguity of estranged fatherhood and a haphazard and unwelcome bachelorhood.

Alone now, Arvid does tend to spend a fair amount of time wandering aimlessly, often idly hoping to meet a woman to go home with, although he appears to be such a passive, lost soul that the women who are interested seem to drag him home as one might a stray puppy. And frequently he is a disappointing date. He attracts pity, but the rare instances suggesting real potential desire on his part generally frighten him off. He never calls back. Anchorless, he drifts without making an effort to either move on or make claims on the children he has been denied access to. As frustrating as this may be, the spiral of depression and grief he is caught in is real. Despondent, he falls short of anger which, properly directed, could be the motivating force he needs. Only his eldest daughter, Vigdis, appears to understand, but she herself has some uncertain medical or mental health concerns. And Arvid worries that she perhaps sees him all too clearly.

This is a slow moving novel, but it is beautifully realized through a narrator who has an appealing honesty and dry sense of humour. Long, winding paragraphs often extending for several pages, incorporate observations, memories, asides and dialogue without line breaks or quotation marks, echoing Arvid’s characteristic internalized processing. At the same time, great attention is paid to the urban and rural environments he travels through by bus, train or car, creating a vivid expansive sense of place and further highlighting his isolation within it:

On the way to the station along the wire fence and the railway line it began to blow and to snow again. I didn’t have a cap with me, but pulled one round of the scarf over my hair as a muffle against the snow, and the snow whirled around me in the wind and whirled over the closed-down factories by the Sagelva river, over the shopping centre up the road, over the hills beyond and over Øyeren lake and the river Glomma, over the forests toward Sweden. And I imagined I could see all this snow whirling over the treetops and then slowly falling and new snow coming, covering the timber roads, covering tracks of elk and roe deer, of hare and why not the wolf now moving in from  the forests of Sweden after a hundred years of absence, all this seen as if from a soundless helicopter, and I caught myself longing back to the Sundays when my father and I went skiing deep into the woods on the red-marked tracks in Lillomarka, his back broad and muscular ahead of me in the blue sweater my mother had knitted, just him and me breathing sharply in the sharp winter air and the dry snow and the dry cracking of trees leaning against each other in the brittle cold, and at the same time the longing for all this made me so weary. It wasn’t going anywhere. My father was dead. There wasn’t any before. There was only now.

As the novel progresses, Arvid begins to fill in some of the relevant or unfinished pieces of his past and make an increasingly resigned alliance with his new circumstances. But there is something missing. Toward the end of the novel, the depth of his compounded grief begins to become apparent, both to Arvid and his audience. The loss of four family members twice over in the span of little more than a year, first his parents and brothers then his wife and daughters, one loss quite likely setting the groundwork for the other, is a significant trauma. He never labels it as such, nor is he likely to allow himself that full recognition, at least not yet. That would be entirely in keeping with men in his situation.

Men in My Situation by Per Petterson is translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey and published by Harvill Secker in the UK and Canada, Graywolf in the US.