Who’s there? Who’s there? Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger

Question: How many roads can be used to enter Switzerland? Answer: Several hundred.

Imagine a novel that refuses an ordinary logic but contains within its pages a multitude of overlapping narrative accounts from a cluster of speakers sharing a space vaguely defined in place and time.

Imagine a novel that exists on the threshold. A performance art piece rendered in writing. With a cast of characters who bring their memories, experiences and unbound images (The place I’m thinking of is a common refrain) weaving in and out of one another’s stories, through accounts that are sometimes offered within reported letters or phone calls, even though that same character is also apparently present. Or perhaps not.

Born in 1985, Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Kelag Prize in 2010 for her first novel Invitation to the Bold of Heart. Her second novel, Shift Sleepers, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Megan Ewing, is a bold and breath taking approach to story telling that defies expectations, but does so in a seamless and engaging manner that, under a heavier hand, could have read terribly forced and artificial.

Set in a house in some unspecified location, presumably in Switzerland, a seemingly eclectic group has gathered. It includes a translator troubled by dreams of collapsing mountains, a logistics expert suffering from prolonged insomnia, a travelling writer, a female academic named A.L. Erika who talks of a significant period of time spent in Los Angeles, a journalist, a student from Glendale, California, and the restless Fortunat Boll whose pursuits have taken him to Texas, Portugal and other locales. On the sidelines, so it seems, are the logistic expert’s sister and brother-in-law and Mr. and Mrs. Boll. Although a few of the characters carry the bulk of the narrative, their stories are not only interrelated, but as listeners they are actively engaged with and attentive to one another—questioning, urging the speaker on, offering supplemental detail. If that sounds odd, well it is. But it is remarkably effective. This is not a random multilevel conversation so much as it is an orchestrated, open ended meditation on a number of vital, and difficult inquiries that affect us all on personal and political terms.

Their conversations touch on art, music, writing, justice, migration, trade, and belonging. Their discourse rises as a polyphonic hymn to the nature of movement across borders—ideas in language, language to language, country to country, wakefulness to sleep, sleep to dreams, life to death.

But is it readable? I found it endlessly fascinating myself, but I imagined it as a play, as a performance art project rather than any kind of conventional narrative. The voices and their stories are what matter and the author wants to ensure that you listen to what they say. Thus, more than a house, the setting is akin to a stage, or a room into which many doorways or thresholds converge. Characters come and go, retire to their rooms, assemble to share a meal. But the action, if it can even be called that, is minimal. Movement happens elsewhere. In memories and dreams. And it is in these reflections, and the questions that arise, that the novel’s power lies.

Shift Sleepers is a fragmentary work, but one in which the fragments blur and blend into one another. In the course of one paragraph, a number of voices many pick up a thread, carry it for a sentence or two and step back. The key characters slip in and out of singular accounts that go on for a several pages at a time, continually resurfacing through the course of the book.

Each person is essentially exploring the same issues that, in different contexts, ask: What does it mean to be alive? In this moment? At any moment or place in time?

It is human to want to know where one fits in and with whom: Who’s there? the opening words of Hamlet, form a frequent refrain.

The figure of central concern, the one who embodies within himself, the primary focal point of engagement for this ensemble, is the logistics expert who has a background in customs, monitoring the transport of goods across borders. In his recent state of extreme sleeplessness, he describes no longer being able to distinguish between events near or far, or to determine what is relevant. Caught in a state of strange alertness, detached hyperawareness, he experiences himself wandering through streets and towns, bombarded with images from North Africa, particularly Djerba, an island off Tunisia, seeing an owl, images of bees and being routinely distracted by a child playing a flute. Strangers sit in his apartment, people come and go, but he is unable to fall asleep himself. He describes his desperation:

even the attempt to remove myself from the city and the events led nowhere, these things were happening everywhere, I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t imaging things, I was continuously awake and saw everything with my own eyes. In Djerba too, in Athens too, in Florida too everything would have continued the same way, everything actually behaves this way, the Customs manager produces risk analyses, two men allow their bodies to be rolled up in rugs to cross the border, the Swiss farmer has no more use for the asylum seeker when he fails to understand for the third time how to pick crops, the mountains form a natural border, the shift sleeper is in search of a new domicile.

The shift sleeper of the title has a historical context stemming from the second half of the nineteenth century when migration into the urban centres of Europe led to a shortage of available and affordable housing. Newcomers might be forced to rent a bed during the hours its regular occupant was out or otherwise engaged. Without an unconditionally secure place to rest, they would grasp at sleep for a few hours at a time. These individuals or transient existences were a source of public distrust. They still exist of course. Today’s homeless person, refugee, and migrant continues to live this way—in streets and alleys, couch surfing, in camps and settlement centres, and too often, wherever they can.

Not surprisingly, the body is a striking and recurring image in this novel. Several speakers admit to their own varying degrees of personal bodied discomfort, and metaphysical disconnect, while the bodies of others—of smugglers, migrants, victims of physical violence—become an object of fascination and concern. Even obsession.

Other motifs that recur throughout the conversations that comprise this work are movement, passages, across bodies of water, through forests, on foot, by train. Safely, legally, or otherwise. Falling is also a frequent image—from the crumbling mountains of the translator’s dream that opens the book, to regular references to the work of Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared in 1975 during a solo transatlantic voyage launched from Cape Cod. Encounters with his work, which often deals with falling, sit as a reference point connecting many of the characters to one another. And his fateful final “performance” is echoed with historical references to earlier transatlantic migrations toward North America. Historical themes are blended with contemporary images throughout.

Originally published in 2014 as the migrant crisis was raising alarm in Europe, Shift Sleepers is even more unsettling in light of Trump’s border detention camps and the increasing nationalism and xenophobia spreading worldwide every day. At one point, the logistics expert recounts a phone call from the journalist, wondering how he could be so complacent when so many people were risking everything everyday by simply crossing the national border that ran past his house. These people, he is warned could disappear, find themselves in remote enclaves:

He himself had tried in vain that day to enter a so-called reception centre, even though these centres and cells, these sensitive zones, were easy to find and he could go there without much issue either on foot or by car, as he explained on the telephone—at the same time it was impossible for him to ever actually enter these places for as soon as he set foot inside their rules lost all validity as concerned his person.

These spaces, he explained, essentially established two different categories of persons—and two separate categories of being. Further along, another character, speaking of a visit to the US will wonder why it is easier for some people to cross borders than others? Or rather, why can an American cross a border without changing, whereas a Mexican crossing the same border becomes a different person?

 One of the counterpoints played out against the increasing divisions between people and kinds of people, is explored in the idea of the possibility of harmonious communities. Fortunat Boll, a man who is present with his parents, speaks of his own innate loneliness, his travels to Texas and interest in La Réunion, the utopian socialist colony founded in Dallas by Victor Propser Considerant in 1855 to which his own supposed relative naturalist Jacob Boll briefly belonged, and of his father’s own bee colonies. Both the colonies, human and apian, had in this case failed. Fortunat wonders if he could ever live with others or would he always need to be apart.

Today I live alone, do I feel lonely? Hardly. Over time I have lost a certain vulnerability, I rarely have strong emotions whereas everything weighed heavy in my youth, I was driven by feelings. This tuba tone is finite and vanishes in the air, it means two things that are mutually dependent, the place of my childhood and the distance from it, such antagonisms are beautiful because they are simple, now I see the world as a complicated structure, everything possible exists within it simultaneously.

One has to wonder about unusual ensemble within which, at least for the duration of the book, he has found himself. What strange spell holds it together? There is a sense of cohesion borne of the questions asked and the answers given, in how stories are shared, often the same experience told from different angles, sometimes first- other times second-hand, stories nested with stories—like sets of personal and communal Russian dolls.

Images are echoed and revisited as the book progresses. However, rather than feeling repetitive, these returning accounts add to the density of the narrative, becoming threads woven into a self-referential intertextual tapestry. There are few answers to the uncertainties and concerns the various characters carry with them. There is no explanation as to how they all arrived at this one place or why they’ve gathered. This is a story about questions, not answers, about the personal concerns about our lives, bodies and relationships that are ever evolving, and the broader issues—migration, justice, and global trade—that threaten our ability to share this planet.

Shift Sleepers is a symphony of inquiries. Elegantly composed and executed. A very impressive achievement for a writer who is still very young.

Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger is translated by Megan Ewing and published by Seagull Books. It is my second read for Women in Translation Month 2019.

Love is blind, sometimes stubbornly so: Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski

Right from the very first passages of Marina Šur Puhlovski’s Wild Woman, her unnamed narrator offers no niceties and lays out no illusions—she is a perfect mess, housebound, disheveled, surviving on breadcrumbs and red wine, and slipping out only at the beginning and end of the day for the sake of the dog’ business. Her husband, we soon learn, has been gone for three days, the marriage finally over. At first she was delighted, now she’s delirious. The apartment around her, the same one she grew up in and has always lived in, has been prepared for renovations that never started, fleas have infested most of the rooms, yet she is miserably philosophical about her state of affairs:

I usually prefer the south, warmth and lots of light, but not now. Now I could do with the other side of the world, with the north and its perpetual cold and dusk, its connection to Hades where I landed when I collapsed on the floor and clearly died. Died as the wife of my husband, as his partner, died along with love, faithfulness, loyalty and everything that goes with it, all shattered by the broken vow of “forever”, now nothing but an empty word. Because nothing is “forever”, not the dog, not me, not the damned insects or this apartment or this building or this tree or this town or this planet or the Milky Way and the Universe with it, everything changes, and so do words, which are basically always a matter of politics, in other words, a bitch…. We belong only in our thoughts – me now and me once upon a time – and in photos, and these photos keep us together like Siamese twins attached at the head, making it impossible to separate the two. Except with a knife. When one of us will drop away.

Ah yes, she is resentful, defensive, and defiant—angry at herself and the world. But she is also the indefatigable force behind one of the most honest, human and sarcastically humorous narratives I’ve encountered in a long time.

Newly released from Istros Books, in a translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, Wild Woman is Puhlovski’s sixth novel. Enthusiastically received in her native Croatia, her introspective narrator practically bristles with attitude—think Knausgaard on speed—and yet beneath the surface of her non-stop monologue is a painfully recognizable portrait of the perils of falling in love with love, against the backdrop of life in Communist Yugoslavia.

To explain just how it is that she has found herself in such a pathetic state, the story moves back seven years. At the age of nineteen, with the excitement and promise of university ahead, our protagonist has, along with her desire to study literature, the determination to score romantically. It’s the 1970s and, as far as she is concerned, the two go hand in hand. It is, she will realize too late, a misplaced goal. But for now, the arrival of the maxi-skirt on a fashion scene long dominated by the mini-skirt is going to be her saviour. With her heavy legs hidden she believes she will finally be on an even playing field. She finds a pattern, the idealBe careful what you wish for: fabric and corrals a tired relative to construct the dress of her dreams. Perfect! She will be magnificent, divine! “And what I want to happen happens,” she reports, “the skirt does its job, it sweeps, it collects, it drags some thoughts underneath it, adopts them, imprisons them. I have no idea that from then on I will be imprisoned myself, that the game is over.”

When she arrives at uni in her custom-made maxi skirt ensemble, designed to flatter, she has a particular target in mind. He and his friend stand at the back of the hall. He doesn’t sound like much—fair-skinned, hair thin, but dark—while his companion is healthier-looking with thick blonde hair. However, her sights are already set on the, objectively speaking, less promising specimen. The fact that they are studying literature as opposed to some boring practical subject is a big part of the romantic appeal. She is imagining a meeting of the minds, à la Sarte and de Beauvoir, the seedlings of a great intellectual and artistic love affair. When the two men hurry off after class she is not so sure; when they return in the evening her faith is restored: “Amazingly, they kept coming regularly, in the morning and in the evening, with the other one taking notes, like me; but my guy didn’t, he didn’t even carry a notebook with him, ignoramus, I thought, but I didn’t hold it against him.” She’s resolved to forgive any hint of a shortcoming, dismiss any reservation, before Mr. Right even knows she exists. Not exactly a good start.

In the early days of distant admiration, she analyzes his physical features in detail. He comes up short. She vacillates, she reconsiders. What draws her in should, and would, in hindsight be a warning sign, ones that no one so desperate to secure her chosen mate would want to acknowledge:

Inwardly, I was attracted by the very things that put me off, the look that needed softening, the smile that needed coercing, and then the weariness, especially the weariness, with its hint of something tragic, of the predetermined downfall of the novel’s hero, he exuded an unhappiness that needed soothing, a pain that needed easing, a wound that needed healing, it was all written there in his eyes and on his brow, especially on his pale, high brow … Suddenly he became gorgeous.

Had he flown red flags that would have been visible from the moon, she would have looked the other way. And there are plenty of pieces that fail to add up from the very outset, but she keeps recalculating to achieve the number she desires, and tucks any remainders left from the equation away like unused furniture “building my room for the unspoken, undiscussed comments I kept to myself, afraid that talking about them would force me to draw conclusions.” Later, she would be compelled to confront her commitment to the cause—to him—but by then, she would be in too deep, caught up in a complex and complicated mess of doubt and devotion, exasperation and obligation.

As the narrative unspools, the narrator casts an unsparing eye at her own naiveté, mocking her own blissful blindness, casting gossipy aspersions at an entire cast of supplementary characters whose own lives have tumbled sideways, even long after she has begun to suspect her own bed of roses is in fact lined with nails:

There’s something wrong with that boy, my mother said, worried, two months after I had brought him home to introduce him to my parents so that he could come to the house and visit me. He isn’t just my boyfriend, he’s a colleague from uni, we have the same interests, books, the same plans for life, I explained to my mother, my feet weren’t on the ground, I was on cloud nine, thrilled to have found a soulmate, with whom I was in love, because there were plenty of guys around for the physical part, but to find a kindred soul, mused the virgin who had yet to be penetrated and whose sexual life was therefore a matter of fantasy.

A premonition of the possible fate awaiting her could be found  close to home, in that of her own family and in that of her “one and only’s” but her response as a daughter is to question her mother’s concerns even as they secretly eat away at her.

And on it goes, each chapter adding another cause for concern or attempt to wash it away. Pieces of his apparent history fail to add up, like two years spent in Italy that no one can confirm and a troubling tendency to disappear that begins early in their relationship. He puts little effort into his studies and she soon ends up spoon feeding him the answers he needs, effectively doing his degree and hers at the same time. Even his friends seem at odds to defend him, but they have their own demons and obsessions too. And behind it all, is the very real sense that for these young adults, family background, class, political affiliation and ghosts lingering from the war have already composed their future prospects. The narrator’s fantasy of an intellectual life inspired by her philosophical and literary heroes is as unrealistic as the personal romantic ideal she clings to. Plenty of illusions can be shattered between nineteen and twenty-six.

However, even though we know we are heading for what seems—at least from the vivid descriptions of her present state of utter dis-repair—to be a tale of loss and destruction, the narrative account of how she gets there never sinks into self-pity. Almost a rant, her monologue is spiked with a healthy measure of dark humour, seasoned with the hard-won wisdom of hindsight. One can’t help but root for her. And one can’t help but suspect she will, in the end, not allow herself to be defeated.

Tellingly, she never names her beloved, and every time she refers to “my darling” or “my one and only,” you can almost hear her sneering—at him and at herself for being so willfully blind for so long. But, of course, it’s not so simple. In real time it never is. She has made her bed and for a long time seems resigned to lie in it. She has, it turns out, fallen for a replica of her own father—lazy, capable of cruelty, and prone to illness. With her father, alcohol is the cause whereas her beloved suffers from an acquired condition with a less certain prognosis.

I never hit back, he’s sick, I might hurt him, so I just twist away, try to fend him off with my hand as I used to with my father who also hit me, when he was drunk, not on the head, my mother would cry out, but it was no use because, if I protected my face, his hand would automatically go for my head. And it stopped when I told him that the next time he hit me I would kill him, I was already of age. And then I brought my husband into the house only to have it continue, as if I couldn’t live without being hit.

The extent to which his illness, a small cerebral angioma, is an actual contributing factor in his odd behaviour, and how much it is a convenient excuse to avoid ever making an effort at anything, it is hard to say. Either way, her complicated sympathies to both her dying father and her needy partner hinder her ability insist on the boundaries and respect a healthy relationship requires.

And this is the true beauty and power of this book. It speaks volumes about the decisions we make when we let love cloud our judgement, or allow societal, cultural or other personal pressures to push us into relationships. I married young myself and defended my ex against all criticism for a long time, I’ve seen others similarly make ill-advised or hasty commitments—and it’s not simply a hold-over from earlier generations. It still happens today, although perhaps not quite so young. And it’s not only women who feel the pressure, nor is it a feature unique to heterosexual unions.

However, in Wild Woman, as in real life, it is the women who do, more often than not, end up short-changed. Their men tend to be lazy, selfish and unfaithful, for varying reasons and to varying degrees. But in the narrator’s mother’s generation the inclination is to endure a losing situation, stick it out for better or worse, is greater. That shift is occurring. The narrator finally has to accept that she has married a man who is inclined to treat her as her father treated her and her mother. The cycle repeats itself.  Unless  she can break it—no, smash it to smithereens—it will continue. In 1970s Croatia, that might just entail entertaining a little wildness, but if anyone has it, Puhlovski’s insanely wonderful, wise and witty narrator has it in spades. She just has to find it first!

Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books.  An excerpt can be found at 3:AM Magazine.

A ghost from Calcutta revived: Herbert (or Harbart) by Naburan Bhattacharya

With an opening not for overly delicate sensibilities, Harbart (or Herbert depending on the edition) takes you down into the darkened streets of Calcutta where a group of intoxicated men vomit and piss their way home, and a “rag-clad mumble-mad woman” washes herself at the neighbourhood water tap. They’ve spent the evening partying at the home office of “Conversations with the dead” with the proprietor, the title of the character of the book, who has by now, unknown to them, slit his wrist and lies bleeding to death while a blue fairy frantically presses at the window unable to alter his fate.

Recently released in a brilliant new translation by Sunandini Banerjee[1], this beloved cult classic is a spirited—and spirit-filled—story of a man who never quite manages to fit himself into a world that is in upheaval, through a time of shifting social and political uncertainties. If our hapless hero exercises a certain practical and historical indifference and finds himself caught up in a number of currents he does not understand, his creator was anything but complacent. Writer and poet Naburan Bhattacharya was a dedicated humanitarian, passionate about the lives of all members of society—a man who was, as his daughter-in-law remembers him, keen to explore “the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically.” This inclination shines through warmly and vibrantly in this, his first novel, originally published in 1994.

From its ominous, dramatic beginning, the narrative slips back in time to fill in the gaps, and make its way forward to close the circle of Harbart’s short, unfortunate life. From the start, tragedy marks him. Orphaned before the age of two after his father is killed in an automobile accident, and his mother accidentally electrocuted while hanging laundry on a wire, Harbartt ends up deposited at his father’s family home in Calcutta where he “proceeded, through indifference and neglect, toward adulthood.” His aunt Jyathaima will be, throughout his life, the sole family member to show him kindness. His cousins, especially the greedy Dhanna-da, resent his presence, abusing him whenever the opportunity arises, while his uncle whose unrestrained fondness for whores leaves mentally incapacitated as the result of venereal disease, spends his time circulating from room to veranda with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, screaming “Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!” This Hindi version of the brain-fever bird call, meaning “Where is my love?” becomes a running gag in the book—just one small indication of the humour and character that runs through the story.

Although Harbart spends a few years in school, he finds it not to his liking and drops out, preferring to read on his own and even, for a brief time, dabble in some, less than elegant poetry. Had his father not been obsessed with movies and squandered his share of the family fortune on film projects before his untimely death, this entire tale might have been quite different. But, instead, what he and the boy’s beautiful fair-skinned mother leave their son is a handsome profile, a Hollywood-ish, Leslie Howard-ish air, and a notably shahebi name—Harbart (or Herbert).

Early on, Harbart develops an interest in the dead when he find a human skull and a few bones in a trunk in the house. He eventually takes them to cleanse and release them into the waters of the Hooghly River, but from that point on he starts to immerse himself in two tattered books on the occult that had once belonged to his grandfather. This is not, however, the beginning of his career as a communicator with the deceased. His cousin Binu, a young man with connections the Communist Party had come to the city just as political tensions were rising in the early 1970s and is killed by the police. Despite his attention to Binu as he lays dying in the hospital, the incident slips from Harbart’s memory until, many years later, he recalls his cousin’s long forgotten last words in a dream and, before long, his fortunes take an unexpected turn:

Herbert could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Herbert’s time now. He would have to produce panic-pandemonium. Rip apart everything, torment-turmoil everything until the entire universe whirled in the dance of devastation.

All of a sudden, Harbart is in business. At the same time, a chain of events is set in motion that catches the naturally anxious proprietor unaware. It seems that there are forces intent on cashing in on his talents and others determined to shut him down.

Harbart’s business may be a sham, but it is not conducted with an entirely mercenary intention. On the one hand, he is too inept to concoct an illusion worthy of the mediums of the past, like the personalities who populate the reference books he clings to, on the other, the painful stories of those who seek his services tug at his heart. It is exactly this weakness that allows him to fall into the trap set by those intent on discrediting him. But is he really hurting anyone? He is accused of playing on the desires of the bereaved to believe ghosts exist. And yet, in truth, Harbart’s own ghostly ancestors are never far away. His deceased parents huddle close by whenever their son is in trouble, his progenitors confront him in a terrifying god-like vision, and they all will cluster around at his unforgettable cremation.

This slender novella moves with a force and energy of its own—stretched out in places, sliding sidelong in others—and packs an entirely unanticipated punch at the end. By turns funny and tragic, it sings with the spirit and energy of the Calcutta streets and neighbourhoods, which are slowly changing, where modernization—like the satellite dishes sprouting on roof tops—is leading to more isolation and less compassion. It’s a world where a lonely misfit like Harbart, clinging to illusions (like that afforded by the moth-eaten Ulster great coat he walks around in, or his infatuations with a lady doctor he happens to see in passing or a stone fairy in a store window) hardly stands a chance.

Finally, I have to add a few words about the two editions of this book. I bought and read the New Directions edition first and thoroughly enjoyed it. The language is vibrant, coarse, and playful. Calcutta as I’ve experienced it comes alive on the pages. But I was curious about the different spellings of the title character’s name. It is not unusual for a book published in North America by one publisher and in the UK and the rest of the world by another to have two different titles, or small variations in the edits, but the name is rather obvious. Harbart is the Bengali rendition of “Herbert,” the name the Seagull edition uses which, depending on how you choose to look at it, given that this is an English translation, the protagonist was given an English name and he likes to imagine that others might detect in him a whiff of “white blood,” there is a fair cause for an English spelling but it’s not a major concern for me. In this review, I decided to hold to the US edit. However, the quote above is from the Seagull version, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, the delightful hyphenated rhyming or alliterative verbs and nouns that litter the text in this edition have been, largely diluted, sometimes even replaced in the New Directions edit. Same with some of the vernacular. Given that the translator is the senior editor at Seagull who are themselves based in the heart of Calcutta, this noticeable difference begs the question: Was the translation deemed too lively for American audiences?

Both Seagull Books and New Directions are publishers I greatly respect and I don’t want to belabour the differences. This is an exceptional, moving and important book—not to be missed, no matter the edition!

 

[1] This new translation has been published by New Directions in North America as Harbart, and by Seagull Books in the rest of the world as Herbert.

A few thoughts about language and reading in translation

I am presently reading Herbert, the Seagull edition of the Bengali cult classic by Nabarun Bhattacharya. I just finished reading in the New Directions American edition, published as Harbart. I will write a review after this second reading, not as point of comparison because both are publishers I greatly admire and strongly support. However, it is impossible to read both and not wonder what, if any, small changes are made in making a text more, shall we say palatable, for a particular English language audience. Don’t worry, the ribald, piercing vibrancy of Sunandini Banerjee’s translation shines through in both editions celebrating a work that is gritty, funny and tragic in equal measure. That’s not the issue, but so often when one sees a critical assessment of a translation by someone familiar with the original, the translator is the larger and obvious target of an attack, one often illustrated with specific examples that are seen as muting or distorting the original. Invisible in the equation is editorial input. Translations, like any literary work, are subject to editing before they are published.

The differences here are, so far as I can tell, primarily language choices—what do you leave in a vernacular, what do you edit for the ease of an American or a British audience (as relevant)? This is a frustration I have long had with translation, something that  bothered me, for example, with South African books edited for audiences outside South Africa, especially translations from Afrikaans. With my favourite writers I have tried to obtain the original South African translation if possible. One that hasn’t been sanitized for an “average” English language reader (whatever the editor  feels “average” is).

Why is so hard to imagine a readership unable to guess at the meaning of a word from context? For the purist there is always Google, but that is ultimately as fallible as trusting any one editor’s word preference. Even in our native languages we often encounter words whose meaning we are at best vague, if not entirely off course with as to the exact definition. With learning a second language this disorientation is increased, but it should not necessarily be a barrier, students are encouraged to try to fill in the gaps from what they do know about vocabulary and grammar as their fluency improves. Is it an extension of some skewed political correctness that we should never meet a word we don’t recognize?

This is why I love Michel Leiris. I am currently working on a critical essay about his work. He loved language, delighted in meanings. And misunderstandings. In the way an assumed meaning is sometimes more magical than the actual one. Or how a door is opened when we take it upon ourselves to become enlightened as to the nuances of a word or expression’s meaning. Or it’s relation to root forms or variations in other languages.

In a translation there is a place for a glossary, but it ought to be a carefully mediated tool. Broader political references or identification of figures of importance mentioned in the text are one thing, especially in a novel as socially and politically charged as Bhattacharya’s. However, deciding  which idiosyncratic word or expression must be defined or replaced is a question of balance. Less is more, I’d argue. If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way? I suppose it is, in the end, a question of what kind of traveller one is—of how one wants to experience the world. You can pop in, hire a car and see the main tourist attractions then fly off to the next stop. Or you can find a path or two and navigate it until it feels, even for a few days, familiar. I am of the latter sort.

My first few days in Calcutta in February of 2018—my very first days in India ever—were ones of complete and total culture shock. I was aware of nothing but the mangy dogs, the tired poor, the crumbling footpaths, the incessant noise. It took a few days of making my way through the city on foot to begin to see it. To begin to open my heart to it. I spent a full two weeks there and didn’t go anywhere else. I took the Metro, rode ferries and yellow cabs. Met up with friends, sat in restaurants, coffee shops and parks.

I returned to the city again this year fresh from my first encounters with a wider range of Indian cities—Bangalore, Bombay and Kochi—and saw Calcutta from a new angle once again. Everything is relative. The traffic that had horrified me on my first visit now seemed remarkably—or almost—orderly (albeit still incredibly loud).

Granted, I read books from many countries I have never visited, translated from languages I have not even a passing acquaintances with, so I rely on the wisdom of translators and their editors. It’s a tricky thing, I know. I was once faced with editing an excerpt from the translation of an Arabic novel, a situation in which I respected both the original author and the translator very much. But I was afraid to question anything, for fear of showing my ignorance. Surely the process leading to a final published book would ideally be one that engages the editor, translator, and if possible, the author (or those who knew him or her well). Should I be tasked with taking on that entire manuscript—one of the most startling and discomforting I have ever read—I would have to overcome that fear.

Herbert or Harbart is a very special little book, one that is inextricably bound to the city in which it was birthed; its power is not lost in either edition for the very minor differences. It is also a book that benefits from a re-read, beginning as it does with the end of the story some of the magical elements can be lost on a first encounter.

Why read both editions? Why not?

So that is where I am at the moment. I’ll be back to write more about this wonderful book soon.

Women in Translation Month 2019: Some off-the-radar reading suggestions and my own modest proposal

Each August is Women in Translation Month, a time set aside to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English and, of course, encourage increased translation of these authors into other languages so that they may be more widely read.  This initiative, started by blogger Meytal Radzinski, is now in its sixth year.

My best ever effort to participate was during 2015, my first year as a blogger. Not only was this before writing critical reviews and editing commitments started to creep into my reading time, but I was also recovering from a cardiac arrest and could stretch out on the sofa and read without guilt. Doing much else was painful! Since then, each year I have made public or private commitments to toss a few extra appropriate titles on the TBR pile and, if lucky, read one or two.  I console myself by remembering that reading women in translation is something that naturally seems to occur throughout the year in the course of my normal reading. As so it should.

This year I have a few books earmarked for the month (fingers crossed), but I thought I would take a little time to suggest some titles that might not be so well known. They’re all taken from my own bookcases and most are (as of yet) unread.

I’ll start with those that I have in fact read and reviewed. First up, poetry:

From the bottom up:
Korean poet Kim Hyesoon won the 2019 International Griffin  Poetry Prize for this book Autobiography of Death, a cycle of 49 poems and one longer piece inspired by national tragedies and personal experience. Her daughter’s distinctive illustrations accompany this powerful collection translated by Don Mee Choi.

Thick of It by German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is a wonderful blend of the magical and the everyday. Fresh and alive.

Finally, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor, is a spare and delicate collection that invites rereading. Earlier this year she and I were able to meet and spend a few days together in Calcutta when my visit happened to overlap with a residency she was doing in the city—evidence that reading the world makes the world smaller in unimaginable ways!

*

Second, I wanted to highlight a book I recently reviewed that I am afraid has not had the attention it deserves:

Croatian writer Olja Savičevič’s Singer in the Night features a wildly eccentric narrator and a highly inventive style to tell a story that paints a serious portrait of the world that her generation inherited after the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth, this book is already available in the UK and well worth watching for when it comes out on October 1 in North America.

*

Third, I have an impressive stack of Seagull Books by female authors that I am ashamed to say I have not read yet (save for the poetry title tucked in here). The interesting thing for me about this selection is that although I did purchase many of these books, other titles arrived as unexpected—but very welcome—review copies by writers previously unknown to me.

Most of the above are German language writers; two, Michele Lesbre and Suzanne Dracius are French, the latter from Martinique. The review copy at the bottom of the stack is East German writer Brigitte Reimann’s diary I Have No Regrets.

*

Finally, I wanted to include a couple of translated titles by Indian women writers. Two vastly different offerings.

Translated by Kalpana Bardhan and published by feminist press Zubaan, Mahuldiha Days is a novel by Anita Agnihotri, one of West Bengal’s best known writers. She draws on the decades she spent in the Indian Administrative Service in this story of a young civil servant caught between her obligations to the tribal community she is working with and the state.  By sharp contrast, I Lalla, gives a fresh voice the poems of fourteenth century Kashmiri mystic poet, Lal Děd. A detailed introduction by translator Ranjit Hoskote provides a fascinating background to her life and the tradition to which she belonged, opening a world little known to most Western readers.

*

So, what are my best laid plans for this month? I would like to read one or two titles from my Seagull stack—not sure which—and I have a new Istros title Wild Woman by Marina Sur Puhlovski on my iPad in PDF format, but the following three books have been patiently waiting for August:

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart, is a recently released collection of short pieces, including “The Swan Whisperer” which was published as part of the Cahier Series.  I ordered it as soon as I heard of it—new van Niekerk is a rare and special treat.  Aviaries by Czech writer Zuzana Brabcova caught my attention when fellow readers and reviewers started talking about it so it’s another title I sought out when it was released here this spring. And last but not least, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years now. Will I fit it in this August? Time will tell. And, of course, I reserve the right to change my plans altogether…

The nice thing about books is that, at least with the old fashioned solid form variety, they don’t vanish at month’s end if you don’t get to them. They will still be there on the shelf waiting no matter how much time I do or do not have to read amid all my other projects on my plate this August!

We live in a gingerbread house: In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya

“In this house, we live relentlessly, filling eternity with our detritus.”

Life sometimes holds the smallest, unexpected surprises. Unassuming, they come along and sit there quietly waiting to catch your attention until one day…

For me, those unanticipated gifts are invariably books. When, several months ago, In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya arrived, I was uncertain what to make of this slight novella with its simple cover featuring a still-life painting of flowers and vegetables. Savitzkaya, the publicity insert advised, is a French language Belgian poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, but what caught my attention was a link to an article about the author in Weird Fiction Review. Weird? That would not have been my first impression, it looks like such a simple text, yet as Edward Gauvin argues in his essay, the prose is minimal rather than abstract, but it is as if :

something has been subtracted from it, making us work harder for a fuller picture of what is being described. The result is a certain destabilization, dislocation, an alienation that does not distance you so much from the text as lock you alone inside it. Hence the usual adjectives: hallucinatory, intense, incantatory… the feel and unease of Weird.

With In Life, weird fiction is rendered domestic if you will, softly surreal, stubbornly anachronistic. In it, nothing happens and, yet, everything happens. Magical imagery, strange and wondrous, is applied to the quotidian ritual of hearth and home—cleaning,  cooking, repair and maintenance,  tending the garden, and nurturing of the soul of the house and its inhabitants. No task, no bodily function is unworthy of attention, often in unlikely detail. This is a book that revels in the minutiae of existence—the shed eyelashes and flakes of skin, the lost buttons, the crumbing walls, the weeds pushing through cracks in the walkway.

Above all, this is the story of a house surrounded by a garden, a neighbourhood, a town, hills, the sea and sky. A self-contained universe, from the crumbs that fall under the dining table to the scents that arrive on the breeze. At the heart of this universe, the house is a physical and metaphysical entity that must be maintained by those who dwell within, its contents sorted and preserved:

There isn’t only one way to tidy, but thousands—each necessary for structuring and mapping out the existence of the house, which is (well before it appears to be a system of doors, windows and walls) a whole system of alveoli. The simplicity of domestic life flows from the vast complexity of these alveoli. Just as you need a place for soap, you need a place for books. A place for sleeping and a place for sitting. A place for thumbtacks and a place for salt. A place for perfume and a place for stench. She who knows the place of each thing is capable of measuring the household’s degree of destitution or richness.

The narrator is a writer, a man with a fiancé and two children, a son and a daughter, echoing Savitzkaya’s own family, but this is not an autofiction, at least not in any biographical sense. His writing seems a secreted activity, gathered in snatches. He is aware of being unusual in that he is home at all hours of the day, actively engaged in caretaking, yard work, cleaning, ironing and, with special attention, preparing meals. His voice, however, is singular and plural, and shifts between perspectives. “We” might be the family, or a more comprehensive designation; second and third person may be employed to speak of others—for example the reader as an imagined guest—or to expand the universal nature of his reflections on the simple, most fundamental elements of life and the art of living.

Reading like an extended prose poem, this novella is a sensually charged evocation of the ordinary moment at its most ephemeral and most enduring. The narrator delights in unexpected imagery, sparking everyday rituals such as the family meal with fairy tale magic:

Thus assembled, we are ready to gobble a mountain of potatoes, loads of lamb, a cow, even an elephant. Animals fear us. But eyes are always bigger than bellies. They have a good sense of excess. As for us, we content ourselves with little, but have a yen to devour the world. We live in a gingerbread house. We drink birch sap from glasses made of sugar and when grief torments us, drops of brine fall from our eyes. We need light to eat—sun, honey or incandescent light.

Victuals are a central feature of life in this house, as one would anticipate. The meditation returns repeatedly to the growing, the preparation, the sharing, the bodily elimination and the disposal of leftover food. For vegetarians like myself, the meat content is considerable and carefully detailed, but, in fairness, the question of the respectful consumption of animals is not overlooked. Still, the passages on food are some of the most wonderful. After all, more than simply seeing to the nourishment of the family, the provision of food is an act of love with existential dimensions. Take for example, the act of peeling apples:

You can watch the blade as it slides under translucent skin. And, in your hand, you see a sort of phylactery unfurl, detailing the surface area of the fruit. This is a job that, if left only to me, would be eliminated evermore from the manuals of domestic life because an apple is a whole; the skin belongs to the flesh, the flesh is complete with the skin. Be that as it may, it’s worth the trouble. No activity, apart from washing dishes, is as soothing. From the instant that children ask for their slices of apples to bestowed on them without the peel, peeling becomes necessary and eminently interesting. Peeling becomes a way of being, a way of weighing the pros and cons, of conducting yourself in relation to objects, of searching under the skin for the illumination of flesh.

Love holds the house inhabited by Savitzkaya’s alter ego narrator and his family together. But the details fleshed out are not personal. It is as present in the cement troweled into cracked walls and the odours, fair and foul, that rise into the air, as it is in children’s laughter, or lovers in their shared bed. And embracing it all, is the garden. Here, as everywhere else in the universe contained within the pages of this small novella, reality is porous. It contains us but cannot be contained.

The garden’s only goal is abandon; it lives on abandon and thrives on the smallest opportunity to liberate itself and break through its imposed limits. Where is the garden? Between four walls or around the house? In the center or surrounding? In which garden am I sitting? In my garden. I am always in my garden, even when I’m not the gardener, and I don’t need anything, neither to move nor to identify what’s mine. It’s my garden because I’m there, because I live in it for just one second. And I part with it the next.

In Life is a small miracle of a book. It is a slippery object. Although it is filled with images and reflections on the tasks of daily life, it offers nothing firm to hold on to. In a way it is exactly like everyday existence—small moments, the beautiful and the mundane alike—slip by so quickly that we struggle to grasp them lest they be lost. We cling to impressions, to bits and pieces. Sometimes, we might even capture a few on the page.

Eugène Savitzkaya’s In Life is translated by Andrew Colpitts and published Quale Press. They have previously published a collection of his prose poetry, Rules of Solitude. In life is the first of his novels to be made available in English .

Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed—and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.