“We are creatures of this world”: Reflections on Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”

Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”

I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t  that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?

Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic  influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:

Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”

Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:

She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.

This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.

Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:

I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.

—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”

At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.

Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement  work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.

Writing one’s self out of romance: Balla’s Big Love

Big Love by the self-deprecating and humorously misanthropic Slovak writer, Balla, is an anti-love love story in which the hapless protagonist fumbles around in the dark, imagining he knows what love is while perhaps the best relationship he will ever have slips from his clumsy grasp. This short novella is not only a sharp witted critique of contemporary post-socialist society in Slovakia, in the form of a fondly satirical take on its bureaucratic ineptness and literary pretensions, but it is also an endearing and all too recognizable romantic comedy of the kind that actually exists in real life more often than in the movies.

Our hero, Andrič, as is typical for Balla, is a thinly veiled version of the author himself—a writer at heart but a bureaucrat by day. Not unlike another absurdist author from the other side of what is now, once again, the Czech-Slovak divide. And like Kafka, his protagonists tend to exist in isolation, unable to communicate with or understand the world around them. In this case Andrič is trapped in such a strangely off base circle of reasoning about human nature and his own place within it that he routinely and consistently misconstrues his unnecessarily patient girlfriend’s cues until, of course, it is finally too late.

The first time Andrič sees Laura she is wearing a neck brace. She has been injured in a car accident. A strange impetuous for a budding attraction. A single mother with a young daughter, Laura seems to be everything he is not. She is boisterous, outgoing, physically active, responsible and capable of looking after herself and her child, even if it means being creative in seeking out opportunities and resources. It’s hard to imagine what she sees in Andrič. But somehow their relationship, albeit a long distance one, manages to survive for two years. She is, however, one of the least developed characters in the book, a function of how limited Andrič understanding of her truly is.

The supporting cast, if you like, is wonderful. In fact, it is these two unlikely, eccentric characters, who play well against the two aspects of Andrič’s life, the professional and the literary, and serve to challenge his limitations while furthering the overall satirical intent of the novel as a whole. Panza is his office mate and best friend. Unmarried, he lives with his sister, a fact that inspires a healthy amount of curiosity around the office. Even more than Andrič, he exists in isolation, formed and informed by his long bureaucratic career which has left him vacillating between paranoia and despondency. He exhibits a practiced form of engagement with the world that reflects his rejection of ordinary human interaction:

Panza is sitting, listening to Andrič and nodding, or rather, he’s not listening, only nodding, his eyes and his whole face make it clear that he doesn’t understand, and how could he, since he’s not listening, it’s not that he is stupid, he just can’t be bothered to listen, he’s had bad experiences in the past  when  he  used  to  listen  and  got nothing  in  return,  so  now he  professionally  and  routinely  doesn’t  listen,  especially  when a sentence begins in a complicated way.

Because how could such a sentence possibly end?

Panza, whose tendency to express panic about the state of affairs within the system to which he has dedicated his career and within which he should long been disavowed of any ideals or illusions of freedom promised by the collapse of Communism, fuels the younger Andrič’s own fears. And fascination. Together they are a misfit pair, with Panza consuming more of Andrič’s attentions than Laura even if it is, again, difficult to figure out if their bond is more than circumstantial, because they never seem to enjoy each other’s company. Or perhaps these are two men for whom enjoy and company are not natural counterparts.

By contrast, Laura’s mother Elvira, is a former school teacher with an apartment filled with books and a string of former husbands, one for any necessary anecdote or discussion point. An ethereal being who almost floats around the jumbled space she shares with her daughter and granddaughter, her disaffection with contemporary society comes from a different angle than Panza’s. Reading and everything associated with it seems, so far as Andrič can tell, to be the source of her particular melancholy, her “sadness beyond words.” She views her nation as a country of sleepwalkers, dulled into a state of semi-consciousness—a state which has extended to Slovak writers. She is especially harsh on them claiming they all, even the female writers, lack experience with women. Without experience, how can anyone write? But, as she says:

Fortunately,  writers  don’t  exist  anymore.  Because to exist is to mean something. But they don’t mean anything. We  should erase them from our diaries, we should stop phoning them on their name day. They are nobodies. Yet these nobodies haven’t even noticed.

As a writer himself, Andrič makes the mistake of equating his ability to create with some measure of accomplishment in his personal life, no matter how obvious the messages Laura is signalling should be. Over and over he fails to see that what he imagines is, at last, “big love”with Laura, is rapidly losing its hold on her. We only have the briefest glance into her side of the equation and she comes across as unconvinced of her love forAndrič as we are. Once she slips away, he is left to slowly realize that big love is sometimes measured by the space left in your heart and life once someone is gone. And, of course, by then it is too late. But even then, he salvages a perverse pleasure that he somehow found the words, although he cannot remember uttering them, that finally severed their relationship for good:

After Laura informed him about the termination of their relationship Andrič gradually began to swell up with a kind of absurd pride about the fact that he, too, was capable of using words, that his words had consequences  – and this also applied to statements he couldn’t remember at  all  –  but Laura refused to  repeat  those  words  of  great  significance  and  merely  reminded him that he had uttered them in a wine cellar in Spišská Sobota.

Who else but Andrič would follow such reasoning?

For such a short book, Big Love offers a lot through the somewhat thick lens of its hapless protagonist. It is relentless in its critique of society, family, love and literature. Many of the references are specific to Slovak history and culture, but a lack of familiarity with the underlying intertextual content will not impair the enjoyment of this funny/tragic tale. Andrič, for all his tendency to overthink the emotions out of any reasonable situation is endearing, the humour is bitter, sarcastic and wise. Yet, as the ending nears, his own existential crisis deepens, lending more credence to that well-worn Kafka comparison.

Just released from Jantar Publishing, Big Love by Balla is translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood.

Instructions for interacting with the material world: A Users Manual by Jiři Kolář

You can always be assured that a hardcover release from Prague-based indie publisher Twisted Spoon Press will be something very special. All their books—dedicated to bringing both long neglected and contemporary writers to English audiences—offer work that is unique and engaging, but they really put a little extra effort into their beautifully presented, typically illustrated, hardcover texts.

Like Jiři Kolář‘s A User’s Manual.

One of the most important Central European poets/visual artists of the postwar era, Kolář (1914-2002) was best known internationally for his innovative collages, but within Czechoslovakia he was a aligned with other politically defiant artists. He was a member of the avant-garde Group 42 until it was disbanded after the Communists came to power and, when the police discovered the manuscript to his controversial collection Prometheus’ Liver, he was arrested and labelled an “enemy of the state.” His poetry and artwork reflects his view of the society he saw around him.

This most unusual—and handsome—volume pairs 52 “action poems”, written in the 1950s and 60s, with images from “Weekly 1967,” one of his  series of collages created as a running commentary on each week of a year. First published together in this form in 1969, the resulting book is not only very entertaining to look at, but characterized by a sly creative energy and a devious wit. Each poem in A User’s Manual presents itself a set of instructions, often nonsensical, that mimic the form of communist dicta. Week 13, “Path,” for example, directs the reader to:

Go
empty-handed
on foot or by train
to a town
where you know no one
and spend three days there
When hungry
ask for bread
when thirsty
ask for water
Spend the night where possible
and every day ask
nine people about a person
with the same name as yours
with the same destiny as yours

The collages that accompany each poem are constructed from newspaper clippings, documents, cut outs, patterns formed with words or musical notation. Some are dedicated to individuals (sometimes presented as a profile portrait), others have a stark political feel, and yet others are abstract patterns. Together with his instructional verses, the effect is an elevation of the everyday and an imagining of a specific way of reacting to the world. As Ryan Scott explains in his Translator’s Note, in this work, Kolář is explicitly engaging with the materiality of language. He is inviting direct interaction with the immediate surroundings by calling attention to “the locus of speech, action and things.”

“Homage to T. S. E.” opposite an image titled To Michel Butor

As unusual as they are, many of the poems are oddly practical enough that they could serve as inspiration triggers. The language is spare, reasons and explanations are not offered, but therein lies the charm. Some are even strangely beautiful. Like Week 47, for instance, “Poem of Silence: For Emil Juliš”:

Collect
a pile of pebbles
and from them compose
anywhere

and with a title
pebble by pebble
as word by word
line by line

as verse by verse
a poetry poem

Exiled to Paris in 1980, as were many artists of his generation, Kolář returned frequently to Prague  after the Velvet Revolution, and spent his final years in the city. But born of a response the restrictions imposed under Communist occupation, A User’s Manual stands as a creative act of rebelllion that seeks a certain dignity in absurdity.  It makes a wonderful read, a fascinating visual experience, and would be a fine gift for an artistic friend.

A User’s Manual by Jiři Kolář with illustrations by the author, is translated by Ryan Scott, and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

The allure of a simple black ribbon for a writer who was anything but: A few words about my essay about Michel Leiris for The Critical Flame

The recent release, in English translation, of the final major work by French poet, essayist, critic and ethnographer  Michel Leiris served as a welcome excuse for me to spend part of my summer in the company of one of my very favourite writers. A related, but indirectly connected, follow up to his masterful four part autobiography, Rules of the Game, The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat is a fragmented, often playful meditation on Eduard Manet’s infamous painting Olympia. But it is more than an intuitive assessment of the timeless appeal of an important piece of art, it is also an opportunity for Leiris to return to themes that are woven throughout his singular autobiographical works—writing and language, sex and fetish,  aging and death.  Though he would live another nine years after its publication, Olympia is very much the work of a writer nearing the end of his life, worried not only about his own fate, but that of the world he fears he might be leaving behind.

With a politically and intellectually engaged life that spanned the better part of the twentieth century, and intersected closely with some of the most important thinkers, artists, and writers of French and Parisian society, Leiris, in his autobiographical writing, turned a remarkably modest, at times even self-deprecating, lens on the world. He is a deeply internalized writer armed with an abiding affection for the power and subtleties of words, sounds, and meanings, but it is his humanity, insecurity, and intelligence that make him wonderful company.

The result of my summer spent revisiting Leiris, is an essay that has just been published at The Critical Flame. This is the first major work I have written in over a year, and stands, for me, as a counterpoint to my analysis of Phantom Africa, the extensive journal a young Leiris maintained over the course of a two year journey across North Africa in the early 1930s with an anthropological mission. It was this project, his first major published work that, as I argue in essay published at 3:AM Magazine in 2017, not only made him an ethnographer—the profession he would practice for the rest of his life—but also set the groundwork for his influential autobiographical writing. With The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat, the threads of Michel Leiris’ literary finally life come together, as well as they ever can.

My new essay, “The rope that keeps me from floundering”: On Michel Leiris is intended as an overview Leiris’ work and an analysis of Olympia in light of his varied career. My affection for him as a writer is hard to disguise.

The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris is translated by Christine Pichini and published by Semiotext(e).

“I live dangerously; I stand in front of the microwave and watch food revolving.” SPRAWL by Danielle Dutton

I dramatize small moments of my life on the phone or in a public restroom. I am all sorts of things in themselves: I am in character, I am in mint condition, I am in my head, I am in luck, I am in need, I am in vogue, I am in the red, I am in deep, I am in tune, I am in trouble, I am in control, I am in the way.

It feels oddly fortuitous or serendipitous to come to this book (truth be told, it came to me, but so be it) at a time when a healthy amount of literary oxygen is being consumed by an enormous novel which, depending on how you wish to slice it, consists of one sentence unfolding over 1000 pages. The narrator of Lucy Ellman’s ambitious Ducks, Newburyport is a housewife who stands, according to reviews, and thinks—about the mundane details, matters of political curiosity, family affairs and, apparently, Little House on the Prairie though I’m not certain if it’s the television series or the books on which it was based. I haven’t read it and likely won’t for the simple reason that 1000 pages, no matter how compelling, no matter how many sentences it is divided into, is a good 750 more than my typical comfort zone. 500 if I really feel inclined to tackle the length. But, it does serve as a fitting counterpoint to Danielle Dutton’s SPRAWL, a tidy 115-page single-paragraph narrative also centred around a suburban housewife.

However, Dutton’s unnamed narrator exists in a strangely self-contained universe. In an unbroken monologue her observations, desires, interactions, and actions—often broken down to distinct poses or placements of her body in relation to space or other objects—spill across the page. But we know little about who she really is beyond what we can glean from some childhood memories and odd comments about her marriage. She is an abstracted everywoman, existing in a series of tableaus, described with precision like a still life painting, in a community of (preferably) identical lawns, tedious backyard get togethers, nameless kids, and collections of objects on tables or countertops. Imagine flipping through copies of Oprah and Woman’s Day and piecing together fragments of an idealized suburban reality and trying to step into it. The absurdity of the two dimensional American dream subverted into a wonderfully surreal, almost otherworldly narrative. One that is disturbingly recognizable if not especially desirable: “While it’s been proposed that we are more interesting than characters on television, one day soon we will be characters on television.”

SPRAWL’s narrator is invested in a kind of performative domesticity, a search for a certain model of feminine perfection measured against the other women in her neighbourhood (with their pies, casseroles and perfect flower arrangements), and executed with the assistance of her husband Haywood who seems equally adrift in this world of prefabricated products, crumpled paper napkins, passionless sex acts and strange stilted allusions to conversation. Like real-life distorted through a glass of water. Fragmented and elongated at once.

In one sense, the town in which the narrative (can it really be called a story?) is set, is understood in historical and geological terms. It was not always there. And what presently exists has moved farther and farther from what might have been the natural state of the land.  The strata of geological time is mirrored in the (perfectly iced) layers of a cake as the inexecrable pressure of conformity takes hold. It’s a world of gossip and prejudices and peculiar notions of social cohesion and natural preservation. At the same time, there is a sense that chronological time is at once stretched out and bunched together, as if this town, all of America perhaps, is perched on the edge of a black hole. Dutton’s narrator, in her suburban technicolour irreality knows that feeling well and delights in these exaggerated bubbles of time. Her days are compressed, distorted and often very lonely:

We identify with metaphors about need and space. It is central to our values, which range from sexual depravity to temperance to melodrama. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, someone sends a rake against the asphalt. I grab my hat, full of enthusiasm, and head outside seeking kinship with others, but the street is deserted. Instead, I continue to function alone in the house. I am essentially productive and genuine and important. I bake banana bread and paint the ceiling. On the TV is an interview with a young woman saying loudly “Could I? Could I?” Later, a little boy in a driveway tells me he has three superpowers: eating yogurt with his eyes closed, reading upside down, and breathing warm air. A smaller boy drops a plastic gun and runs over to say: “Even my superpower is jumping on one foot.” But anyone can do that. So I jump on one foot for fifteen years, and he jumps too, and the other boy watches blandly from the seat of his bike, and no one walks down the sidewalk or drives down the street at all. I might as well think of this as the period of jumping.

Because there is an intentional feedback loop quality to the days that unspool and blur into one another in this most unusual novel, this Walden for an increasingly sterile modern age, it may be easy to wonder what it is like to read. With its compendium of lists and descriptive vignettes, the real or imaginary letters the narrator composes to various neighbours—generally to gently express her concerns about their behaviour—and her own endless efforts to coordinate herself, like any another object, with her environment, SPRAWL is enchanting, uncanny and unsettling. And, of course, it’s also very funny.

As the end nears, the narrative grows increasingly abstract and existential, cracks start to appear in the domestic veneer, but Dutton’s hand is so steady, her language so endlessly surprising that one is, as Renee Gladman notes in her Afterword, reluctant to leave this bright and brilliantly realized world behind. It is akin to living, for a time, in a painting—a still life at once realist and surreal—that contains within its frame, a sharp and insightful commentary on contemporary suburban life in America.

SPRAWL by Dorothy Dutton is published by Wave Books.

Poetry as personal ad? Human Tetris by Vi Khi Nao and Ali Raz

If dating in the era of online personals and dating sites intimidates you, especially if you lack the necessary surface appeal to ensure that your desired target will be inclined to swipe right, a space that will allow you to describe succinctly a lover with the exact shape to match your own twisted shape, you might wish a network like Human Tetris really existed. If you’re sexually squeamish, you might not. But in the way that old-fashioned newspaper-printed personals provided plenty of entertainment even if you were not on the hunt, shall we say, this playful poetic collaboration that boldly satirizes aberrant desire is great fun.

Within the pages of this game-shaped book with a stubbornly neck-twisting layout, unspoken (primarily) queer longings are given voice with a healthy measure of “no boundaries” internet exhibitionism. (I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want—and exactly what I expect you to do to realize my exceptional expectations.) Gleefully playful or painfully doleful this uncensored imaginary/imaginative collaboration between the incomparable Vi Khi Nao and the amazing Ali Raz injects a double-barrelled dose of estrogen into the—to date—male dominated catalogue of one of the most promising innovative publishing projects to arise in the past few years, 11:11 Press.

This tag team creative duo has dreamed up a collection of sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing personal ads suffused with the hopeful desperation of a world in which we are simultaneously more connected and more isolated than ever.

Be My Beehive, Be My Boner & Clyde:

I need someone sexy to blame
for all the great things
that are happening in my awesome life.
Or, you could be ugly & and this is how it will roll: Do you want vacation
days or do want my Sundays? Do you want happiness or do you want décor
What if I offer both?
I’m beautiful and I’m happy.
I need a soulmate who aren’t either.
@hitmebabyhitthisdamnbabyrightaway

ALABAMA (where else?)

Mutated pop-culture pleasures, kinky quirks, and a plethora of identities (which honestly should almost come with a glossary—subject to change without notice, of course) rise in these poetic pleas that run down, rather than across each page. But don’t fear. It’s not all unexpected terrain. There is @papabear, a beach-loving “30-something hardworking exec” seeking his cute and totally together beach bunny for some shared mind exploring and world expanding interaction. Would a collection of personals be complete without at least one of these missives of implied perfection?

Most, however, veer off the well-trod path:

Looking for My Panadol:

curl up with me like a leaf. be my wellness dog. i’m always sick (but don’t let that scare you!)

who isn’t sick in these days of anomie? indeed, if you are perennially well—I don’t trust you.
be sick with me, let’s be sick machines.
@stickfiguresex

Soeul, South Korea

Every poem exists as an integrated unit. The content of the romantic (or unromantic) call for companionship plays against the title, avatar name, and location; the elements of each poem bounce off each other like, well, the tiles in a game of Tetris. A complete picture depends on the interaction of all these pieces.

But where do I stand? I haven’t been on a date in forty years. Since that time, as a marriage ended, there was another relationship, one that started in the time honoured fashion—introduced by a mutual acquaintance  albeit at a distance. Today I’m as uncertain about my identity as a potential partner as I am about what that imagined “other” might look like. And if years of being single accomplishes anything, it raises your standards to the point that a forty-page questionnaire might just barely suffice to guide my search.

I could write an entire book of poems myself and just crack the surface. So maybe I’ll adapt this one (substituting the cheeseburger for something vegetarian and the bar for a coffee shop).

Partner Wanted for One Date:

It’s been raining all day where I am.
It’s romantic; the rain, cool wind, winter.
I want to go for a long drive with the top down.
We’d stop at a restaurant (your choice) and have a coffee and cheeseburger each.
Then we’d watch a movie (my choice). We cuddle a little. On the way back,
before I drop you home, we stop by a bar for a single drink each.
You pay for my drink, I pay for yours. I drive you home. We never see each other again.
@hamster

Detroit, MI

Ah well, Human Tetris is a quirky jaunt over what is, in the end, a familiar space—the longing for love, and the desire to be seen, validated, and known. Open this collection with a  confident queerness and find inspiration for your next conquest; peek between the covers with a history of unrequited love and perpetual unmatchablity and discover, amid the puns and pathos of passion-starved misfits, that you are not alone.

Human Tetris by Vi Khi Nao and Ali Raz is published by 11:11 Press.

Tales within tales: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

Oh, she serenades me so lovingly in the crepuscule of the park, the last lark. Does she really want to fraternise with this fluorescent shade? You are from the social services, Mevrouw? What? Come closer chincherinchee, I’m hard of hearing. You’re from the service that does the annual census of rough sleepers? She looks at me! Oh what an expert gaze rests upon me! Diva of the indolents in the catacombs of Krijtberg, sleep-counter of the stone-broke in the Heiligeweg!

At the end of July I shared a few thoughts about translation, arguing that a translated text need not be cleansed of all the linguistic flavour of the source language, especially slang, vernacular or wordplay woven into the original narrative. It may not always be possible or desirable to maintain certain elements, and sometimes transferring the rhythm and feel of an idiosyncratic expression may require the creation of a new word or the unconventional use of English, but it’s a balancing act. Strip away too much and, unbeknownst to the reader, the smooth sounding rendition they hold in their hands may have come at the cost of much of the energy and charm of the original. It might arrive prechewed, if you like, as if to make it more digestible. And unless you know the source material and language, who’s the wiser?

With Marlene van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, you will have no doubt that you are dipping into the slippery terrain between languages. Originally published in Afrikaans, and translated into Dutch and English, it almost feels as if more than one language is meant to interact on the page at times. As a collection of four longer short stories—two set in Amsterdam, and two in South Africa but with a significant connection to the Dutch capital—there is room for a little playful linguistic overlap. And English language translator Marius Swart is quite comfortable allowing that to happen, when appropriate.

Of course, this approach is entirely in keeping with the text at hand. This set of loosely intertwined tales is concerned with storytelling—with language, translation, sound, and images. With what can be told and what cannot. With what should be said—that is, the storyteller’s social obligation—and what should not. And with how to open oneself up to what is being shared.

The opening story “The Swan Whisperer” will be familiar to anyone who chanced to read it in a slightly different form in The Cahier Series edition which featured the striking images of William Kentridge. Rereading it again I was as captivated as ever. Presented in the form of a lecture by a South African teacher of Creative Writing who shares the author’s name; it is an account of Kasper, a misfit student who unexpectedly sends her a long missive from Amsterdam where she had secured him a writing bursary. He is in the hospital, but wishes to explain why he is dropping out of his degree, and recount the most unusual and transformative occurrences which he has experienced. She is not impressed. No, she is even a bit angered. Reads a little and tucks his letter away. When a second package arrives, this one filled with cassette tapes and a so-called Log Book of a Swan Whisperer, she retrieves the letter, reads further and learns about her student’s infatuation with a drifter who appears to be able to communicate with swans. Reluctantly she finds herself drawn into the strange and compelling mystery her former student represents, and caught up in the project captured on his tapes—one where translation leads beyond the structure of ordinary language, grammar and meaning.

The second tale, set in Amsterdam, takes the form of a lengthy, rambling eulogy for Willem,  a writer of some renown. Jacob, his best and perhaps only friend, is a clockmaker who sets out to describe the last day of Willem’s life, one they spent together. The writer had been seeking feedback on his latest story, “The Percussionist,” and now Jacob has brought the unfinished manuscript along. It forms the unlikely backbone to his address to the gathered mourners. He reads from it, imploring the restless assemblage to help him complete the tale. As with all of Willem’s stories it was inspired by someone he had become fixated on and studied through his binoculars:

I would always know when he was having a crush on someone new, and that he’d write it up as soon as it was over, and that I’d once again be called as his witness. Not to witness the infatuation, but to attest to the fantasy. Because nothing meaningful ever came from these so-called great loves of Willem’s. The stories were all he retained. He held on to them for dear life. They were his real lovers, I only realise this now.

Their final day together ended in a riotous, childlike trashing of Willem’s apartment, as if he somehow sensed it was his last, but his friend, left to gather up all the pieces is the one who now has nothing to hold on to. Even as much as he resists it, the funeral also has to come to end and he must go home in his aloneness.

The title story “The Snow Sleeper” is the point at which the threads that tie the stories together intersect, though, the way they actually connect, or the extent to which the narratives and characters can be trusted, is not entirely certain. Here Willem’s younger sister Mevrouw, with both her father and her brother dead, is engaged in a study of Amsterdam’s homeless for her thesis. She finds herself under the spell of a “radiant vagrant,” an enigmatic and articulate jester holding court on a bench in a city park. Unfolding as a series of transcriptions from her interview with him, interspersed with memos that record her reaction to her curious subject along with memories of her own father who had similarly wandered in his later years, lost and restless until he was contained in a nursing home. She is, in guilt and grief, vulnerable to the strange charm of an eccentric drifter determined to tell her a story about a snow sleeper while she is intent on recording responses to the questions on her questionnaire.

Where I’m from, that’s what you want to know Mevrouw? Don’t they teach the art of the diplomatic approach any more, there in your lieweherehogerschool? “Where” is a vagrant “from”, did you hear that, dear listeners? Where from!

Fromness is for someone with a bed in one place, dear lady, but I sleep outside, I come from a cucumber and blow where I will, I know all the spots, the summer houses and the short stays, this park bench is my Xanadu, but I’m actually a man of snow, I drink my own thirst, with a horseradish for a nose and three chestnut buttons on my stomach, a cruel infestations of imaginings in my breast.

Among the tales he spins for his interviewer, is one of a doleful young man whom he tricked into believing he had the power to call swans, and a photographer for whom he performs the construction of a winter bed of cardboard and plastic. He has been, he implies, the ultimate jack of all trades—reciting poetry for a few coins in the park, seducing the lonely souls out of their own security and onto the streets. And for Mevrouw? He haunts and disturbs her thoughts as they share that park bench and day fades to evening:

If you’re going to split your fire for me, I wanted to tell the drifter, if that’s what your story is about, about how you consume people by whom you feel threatened, then I will burn like the wood of a plum tree, you will see all your language burn, soaked into my fibres, you will hear the echo of your impossible tale, a suitcase full of popping coals.

The interview ends when her tapes run out, but she is altered. Not even certain how. His stories nested within her own memos is a searching for answers.

The closing story, “The Friend,” returns to South Africa. The narrator is again named van Niekerk, caustic like the first one, but different in nature. She tells of a friend from school to whom she was unnecessarily cool when she was a young politically engaged activist and he was an awkward character with a stutter and an interest in photography. She encourages him to turn his lens to the injustices of the day at their country’s critical turning point. And he does, becoming a famous documentarian—then going a step too far. Does he perchance end up in Amsterdam one winter? Paths cross, but this is a softly tragic tale about a different kind of storytelling. One with images instead of words. One that ends, like the first, beyond words altogether.

Marlene van Niekerk, known for large novels like Triomf and the monumental Agaat, is equally mesmerizing in a smaller format. The stories in this collection are dense with emotion, ideas, and textual cross references, yet each one feels like magic—sad and wonderful at once.

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk is translated by Marius Swart and published by Human & Rousseau. It is my final Women in Translation Month read for 2019.