In praise of small publishers

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my growing obsession for small publishers. Once you start to turn your attention to non-mainstream literature, follow literary journals and publications online, or seek out works in translation; the world of independent publishers invariably opens up. As readers we live in a global world, and we engage in discussions with fellow readers spread far and wide, so it seems natural that you will hear about intriguing works that are not available wherever you happen to live. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of time but years can separate releases in North America from those in the UK and Australia. Here in Canada we sometimes end up in between the two. Some small publishers do not yet have distribution on one side of the planet or the other, some may never manage it, but I would argue it is still worth trying to support independent publishers no matter where they are, whenever possible.

Why? Small publishers uncover challenging, interesting works, take chances, bring long ignored literature back into circulation, or into translation. Or both.

2015-04-23 13.08.58My two favourite books last year introduced me to two small publishers: CB Editions with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist and Istros Books with Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors. Sadly both are publishers without North American distribution. That does not mean, of course that their books can’t be sourced, but the magic of a browsing reader happening to stumble across one of their titles on a bookstore shelf is lost. The joy of random discovery is denied.

After paying extra attention to the IFFP and BTBA longlists this year, I will now be watching out for titles from Pushkin, Open Letter, Deep Vellum, Archipelago among many others. Becoming more engaged as a book blogger and negotiating twitter has caused me to be distracted by some irresistible “shiny objects” – treasures like the stunning A Gothic Soul which arrived earlier this week, in a package covered in Czechoslovakian stamps, direct from Twisted Spoon Press. Oh yes, I could have downloaded it from Amazon for almost a third of what I paid but that would have been a pale substitute for what is truly a work of art and devotion from a small not-for-profit press.

2015-04-23 13.10.55And then there is And Other Stories. I don’t know how I was so late to the party but it was the release of The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé in January that put them on my radar. Dovetailing nicely with my interest in South African literature, their publication of this brilliant debut of stories translated from Afrikaans as well as their ongoing release of works by Ivan Vladislavić was an obvious draw. But as soon as I learned about their grassroots funding of initial releases with subscription support and their engagement of readers in the process of exploring potential writers from around the world… well, I was sold. I subscribed right away. My only regret is that temporary financial uncertainty led me to opt for a 4-book rather than a 6-book subscription. A number of other publishers utilize subscriber support models so I hope in the future to extend my support further and wider.

Today my biggest thrill comes from walking into one of our local indie bookstores and finding a gem on the shelves. Of course I still end up placing special orders, through the same stores or from overseas. And, when there seems to be no option I order e-books but my preference for paper copies has grown after an initial blush of affection for the digital. I am even the sort of person who, having truly fallen in love with a book read electronically or borrowed from the library, just has to own a hard copy.

There must be diagnosis for this illness. But I don’t want to be cured.

Behind the photographic impulse: Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

“How can I say what these fragments mean to me? The awkward truths of my life take shape in their negative spaces. In the lengthening shadows of the official histories, looming like triumphal arches over every small messy life, these scraps saved from the onrush of the ordinary are the last signs I can bring myself to consult.”

When we first meet him, Neville Lister, the narrator of Double Negative, is a disaffected young man, uncertain and aimless in a fractured and troubled environment – apartheid South Africa. It is the early 1980s and he cannot quite find his footing, either in academic study, the political protestations of his friends, or the mixed allegiances of his parents’ generation. The stakes are high, but his ambivalence is a luxury well known to middle class youth. Being close in age to Neville and his creator, South African author Ivan Vladislavić, I could not help but chuckle at his repeated references to “Beerhunter”, (a party game we Canadians lay claim to, by the way) or recognize the insidiousness with which The Eagles’ Hotel California album seems to define our lives even if we never owned a copy of that recording. However, unlike our most reluctant hero, I did not have political unrest or the real threat of conscription bearing down on me.

Double NDouble Negative traces Neville’s evolution from long-haired, pipe smoking dropout to middle-aged late blooming artist, framed against the shifting political, cultural and socioeconomic backdrop of Johannesburg. In the first section, “Available Light”, his father arranges a meeting with a famed local photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hopes that the encounter might inspire his son to reach beyond his current employment assisting a man who spray paints lines on roadways. As Neville tags along, Auerbach and a journalist friend devise a game that will direct their photographic pursuit for the day. Standing on a hillside with a panoramic view of the city below, each man choses a roof top. They manage to visit two of the three selected homes where Auerbach charms his way in, and coaxes photographs out of the inhabitants – a poor black woman with her two surviving triplets living in a backyard shack and a white woman in a lounge suffocated with furniture and curios. But before they visit Neville’s choice, the photographer’s energy and his necessary light have faded and they head home.

When our narrator picks up the thread of his story in the second section, “Dead Letters”, he has been in London for ten years and the first free elections have just been held in South Africa. Swept up in a wave of nostalgic homesickness he flies home. By this time he is also making a living behind the lens, but as a commercial photographer. He returns to a city already morphing under new dynamics, post apartheid – street names changing, houses and entire city blocks replaced. Cities are, at the best of times, constantly re-inventing themselves, shedding their skins. The effects are more profound under the pressures that have been released and confronted in places like Johannesburg, where, by the time we catch up with Neville again for the final installment “Small Talk”, he has taken to photographing the ubiquitous walls that have arisen to close off and protect the city’s inhabitants from each other.

Upon his return to South Africa, he had experimented with trying to enter a home to photograph the resident, drawn, of course, to the house he had first chosen so many years earlier. The experience almost swallows him whole but does, in turn, offer the direction that will inform his own artistic photographic ventures. He no longer wants to see what lies behind the walls that have been erected. He draws the resident out but refuses to enter. It is now 2009 and our hero is being subjected to an interview by an eager, self-promoting young reporter and blogger who intersperses her blog posts with a litany of handy household tips that would make Oprah proud. She is of a entirely new breed, neither weighed down by nor fully appreciative of the reality of her nation’s history. By contrast, Neville Lister occupies the transitional space. As photography has moved from film to digital, a medium with remarkable capacity for storage and the editing and altering of images, so is his country altering and editing its own collective memories.

More than anything, this is a story that unfolds as a series of images, captured with Vladislavić’s poetic eye for detail. He translates scenes, the photographic and the interpersonal, with a language so effortlessly descriptive that I often stopped to re-read a paragraph for the sheer pleasure. Neville describes “gumption” as a “word that stuck to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter”. A character “moulted” his jacket. In navigating the city he talks of following “the simple arguments of avenues and squares”.
This ability to transform language into imagery is nowhere more apparent than in his descriptions of the scenes, immortalized by the lens of the camera under the direction of the photographer. One of the photographs resulting from the initial outing with Saul Auerbach is described in vivid detail:

“Mrs Ditton sat in the armchair beside the fireplace. The coffee table had been dragged away – there is no trace of it in the photograph – to expose the floorboards and a corner of the rug. Looming on the left is the largest of the cabinets, so imposing you would say it belongs in a department store. The chair has wooden arms with ledges for tea cups and on each side of these lies a pie-crust of crochet work and a coaster. The chair sprawls with its arms open wide and its fists clenched, and she wallows in its lap.”

I imagine that anyone with an SLR camera and a tripod has experimented with long exposures and the creation of ghost images. It seems to be a rite of passage. Double Negative is, in many respects, a book of ghosts. Visiting with the woman living in the house he had selected so many years earlier, Neville feels weighed down by the voices swirling around her lounge. In referring to the annotated cookbook passed down from his mother, he reflects that the food “tastes better when the ghosts adjust the seasonings.” And ghosts haunt a collection of dead letters that come into his possession and, it seems, may be destined to lead him into his next “artistic” endeavour. If growing older is a process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the ghosts we carry, our narrator is older and wiser but still working away to make sense of it all by the end of this book.

And so is his country.

Note: Originally published in South Africa in 2011, Double Negative was released to an international audience in 2013 (with an introduction by Teju Cole) through the amazing publisher And Other Stories. Supported by their unique subscription model, this release was followed by the publication of an earlier title, The Restless Supermarket in 2014, and his upcoming collection of stories, 101 Detectives, will be released this year. Ivan Vladslavić was recently named one of three recipients of the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction along with Teju Cole and Helon Habila.

Addressing injustice with the pen: Reflections on Rumours of Rain by André Brink

Earlier this month I attended an inaugural PEN Canada event in my city. The purpose of bringing such discussions to locales throughout the country is to turn the discussion about censorship and freedom of expression inward where, against the outrages we see in other parts of the world, we risk falling into a false sense of complacency. The empty chair at this debate was reserved for Raif Badawi, the Saudi man sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for the “outrageous” crime of blogging. His wife and children have been granted refugee status in Canada but the Canadian government is curiously reluctant to speak out. Why? I can’t help but wonder if their foot dragging around any international injustices that involve refugees or foreign born Canadians (the non-white ones, that is) reflects the persistent attitudes of the Conservative government’s core grass root supporters. Funny how soon we forget that all non-Aboriginal Canadians are immigrants in this colonial landscape if you go back far enough. The subjugation and treatment of our First Nations peoples is often seen as justifiable, built into our collective history. That is no excuse, but somehow racial concerns carry an entirely new intensity when the matter is much more black and white, so to speak.

Or when we see it elsewhere.

RainThe recent passing of South African novelist André Brink led me to a long overdue reading of one of his classic novels, Rumours of Rain, which dovetailed nicely with the issues that have been in my mind since attending the PEN event. Published in 1978 and addressed directly to the injustices of apartheid, the echoes of this, and his other controversial novels of this period, have long reverberations that continue to ring  close to the bone in this increasingly global new world.

The power of Rumours of Rain lies in the narrative voice. Martin Mynhardt, a successful Afrikaner businessman, has stolen a rare week of solitude in London to exercise his literary ambitions while attempting to exorcise any measure of guilt in the unfolding of a recent series of events that have torn apart the lives of some of the people who were once closest to him. Driven solely by his own over inflated sense of self worth and an endless internal cost-benefit analysis, Martin is a ruthlessly blind apologist for apartheid. He imagines himself sufficiently enlightened to know what is best for his country and his family. He focuses his attention on the events surrounding a weekend visit to the family farm with his son where his goal is to convince his mother to approve the sale of the land, an urgent deal to which he is already deeply committed. But nothing is simple. Violence not only intrudes on his visit to the farm, but back home in Johannesburg, a violent series of riots is about to erupt in Soweto.

In a long winded, self indulgent, but oddly engaging account, he chronicles his complicated relationships with his best friend, his wife, his son, and his mistress. He honestly feels personally affronted by the revolutionary political passions he is witness to, especially in his friend Bernard – after all, he does not want them to reflect badly on him.  But he is unable to acknowledge any responsibility for the role any of his own action or inaction may have played in the end results; he can justify every selfish choice he makes in marriage, love, sex, business and friendship. No matter the cost.

Yet, in committing his story to paper, Mynhardt inadvertently succeeds in giving an eloquent voice to the very views he claims to disdain. He manages this by including transcripts from Bernard’s trial for treason, his son’s bitter reflections on his recent experiences with the army in Angola and through passionate exchanges with Charlie Mofokong, an educated black South African and childhood friend of Bernard’s whom he reluctantly employs to assist him in managing his mine interests.

Throughout the novel two interwoven refrains recur: Martin’s grandfather’s favourite Biblical passage “And have not love”(1 Cor:13) and the anthemic Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

What we end up is with is the voice of a deeply flawed, myopic (literally and figuratively) anti-hero; not surprisingly one who must have made more than a few attentive readers shift uncomfortably in their armchairs. Literature is often at its most effective when it gives voice to the under dog, but in skillful hands, like Brink’s, turning the narrative over to the less sympathetic side of the equation can have a resounding impact. Especially when we feel a moment of empathy with a man we want to despise, catch a glimpse of him in ourselves.

Fittingly, a month that started with a local PEN event, has ended with Freedom to Read Week in Canada. The opportunity to honour an author who used his voice, together with many of his fellow writers, to raise a chorus to question and challenge apartheid, seems appropriate. Today the intrinsic messages against racism, classism and greed still need to be heard by a wide audience.

A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Valentines Day. It has been many years since I have had a true object of romantic affection. This annual occasion tends to come and go without my notice. Even my children are too old to warrant the heart shaped candies and chocolates I used to purchase. And yet I have to stop and wonder why I do not feel the absence.

I am not sure it is coincidental, but romance does not seem to figure highly in the work I tend to read. Lost love, dysfunctional relationships, misplaced attempts to find affection, yes; but it tends to be the underlying elements of discord that create dramatic tension and literary interest for me. Tolstoy’s unhappy families and all that. So in thinking about today’s exaltation of romantic love I decided to turn to a book I read last year but did not review, a novel that holds, at its heart, the account of a deeply felt but unrequited love: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

In this fictionalized biography of EM Forster, Galgut re-imagines the eleven years of frustrated creative blockage that spanned the time between Forster’s initial conception of his “Indian novel” and the final product, A Passage to India. Along the way we meet Syed Ross Masood, the Indian man with whom Forster will fall passionately in love – a love that will shape, define and haunt his romantic sensibilities – but which will remain one that the heterosexual Masood is unable to return in anything but platonic terms. During the World War I years in Alexandria, Forster finally loses his own virginity at the age of 37 but his meagre intimate relations will remain a sorry, even pathetic, attempt to achieve the emotional and physical comfort he longs to find in another man’s arms. Sexually repressed and closeted until his death, he is, nonetheless, able to channel his affections and experiences in India into one of the finest English novels of the early 20th century. It would be the last work of fiction Forster would produce though he would live and continue to write and engage actively in the literary world for another 45 years.

arctic summerIn my first encounter with Arctic Summer last fall my reactions were mixed. I was a great fan of Galgut’s more typical pared down, ambiguous and haunting novels and I was immediately struck by the more claustrophobic atmosphere he had created to evoke the sensibility of the world in which Forster lived and wrote. At times I felt it weighing on me as a reader. Having the good fortune to hear Damon speak in person and meet him when he passed through my home town with our writer’s festival while I was in the midst of my reading, I was aware that he had found the process of writing a historical novel rewarding but not one he would be anxious to repeat. That awareness may have been a factor but I suspect there was also something more at play. After all, as readers, we enter into any work with our own issues, histories and expectations.

At the timel I was still struggling to break down the barriers that I had constructed over the preceding decade or so to keep those around me from getting close. By that point I was painfully aware that I had re-closeted myself in the world to avoid emotional risk and vulnerability. At one point, despairing of ever experiencing desire in the way he longs, Galgut’s Forster reflects:

“His own sterility was apparent to him and would soon, he felt sure, be visible to others. Curiously, he didn’t feel depressed at the prospect. He was almost intrigued by the idea of giving in to his oddness, turning into one of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to normal people.”

I was struck by that passage, I remember where I was when I read it and the page number in my paperback American edition is burned into my memory. Although I had been, oddly enough, a single male parent for years, through my determined unwillingness to express romantic interest or engagement with anyone, female or male, I had stubbornly sought to neuter myself in the world. Unpeeling those layers of defense and reclaiming an identity, especially one that falls outside the default mainstream, is not easy. Forster’s dilemma was hitting too close to home.

As I have since learned to re-embrace my identity and sexuality, I did briefly imagine that I was ready to open myself again to the possibility of falling in love. The result was in influx of a emptiness and longing. I began to feel the absence and did not like the void. So I have decided to turn my focus to building an emotional support network based on common interest and experience. It is, I realize, a much better place to start. If, somewhere along the way, the potential for romance arises I would not necessarily reject it, but it cannot be the grounds for meaning and value in my life.

Now, four months after I first finished Arctic Summer, I have occasioned to revisit A Passage to India, and have found myself dipping back in and out of Galgut’s novel simply to savour the restrained beauty and sensitive recreation of the writer’s inner personal and creative journey against the lush landscape of India. The work has simmered in my consciousness and increased in the power that it holds for me as a reader. I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Forster’s love for Masood had been reciprocated. I am not sure he would have ever been able to even crack open the closet doors and I suspect that he might have ended up even more deeply torn between his homosexuality and his attachment to his mother. For better or worse he was able to channel his energy into writing, friendship and a long life.

Well lived? For his sake I hope so.

Home is wherever you find yourself: The Alphabet of Birds by S.J. Naudé

birdsFor all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.

Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.

These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”

I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.

The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010

Dreams and determination: A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

It is, of course, a harsh coincidence, perhaps no more than that, but the first two murders of the year in my city took the lives of two young members of our 5,000 strong Somali community. The first of the two unrelated incidents occurred just ten blocks from my home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, the second the following day. To many here in Canada, Somalis, if they are thought of at all, are conflated with pirates.

I have watched with dismay, the rise of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the increased visible ethnic diversity that has spread across the country, changing the face of a city that was, when I was young, predominately white. My city that is only 130 years old, most of us have come from elsewhere recently or within a few short generations. And those who were here before, our First Nations, still have to struggle to call attention to their circumstances. But we are lucky, this is a land of peace, a land of promise.

GoodhopeAgainst this context, a review in The Observer drew my attention to A Man of Good Hope, a new book by South African writer Jonny Steinberg. In my work I encountered and supported many young men from the troubled Horn of Africa, but the depth and complexity of the political and human realities that have been endured by many of the refugees who ultimately make their way to our shores are far beyond my imagining from my safe space. However, I was not quite prepared for just how difficult that journey can be.

The life of Asad Abdullahi, the young Somali man at the heart of this biography, is changed forever when his mother is shot by militiamen in Mogadishu when he is 8 years old. As he flees with relatives he begins a long, at times circular, journey of hopes and repeatedly dashed dreams. Lacking formal education he is gifted with determination, a proud sense of identity, an unflagging work ethic and an ability to assess any situation to determine where a living can be made. But at every turn there are losses, challenges and continued threats to life and limb that mount and threaten to drag him down. He is forced to grow up fast. Eventually he makes his way to South Africa seeking the wealth and security he hears fellow Somalis talk of only to find that even for the successful migrant, the end can be sudden and brutal.

Economic opportunities for newcomers like Asad, who are forced to live with temporary documents, are limited and often place them into the hostile and difficult environment of the townships where loyalties can turn on a dime. His beloved wife, unwilling to face the rising danger, heads home to family with his children. He stays, holding on to the dreams of America that have long called to him and endures the rising xenophobic violence perpetrated by black South Africans against the tide of incoming African migrants. His diligence will be rewarded, but not without great sacrifice.

Steinberg recounts, with care and compassion, a tale that has more breath taking twists than a thriller but exists on a plane on which dreams, hopes, memories and regrets blend to create a story that is at once deeply human and ultimately elusive. On a more immediate level, the view into the the ancestral dynamics of Somali history and culture that provides a background to Asad’s story has added, for me, extra poignancy to the recent New Year’s Day killing near my home. The victim shared the family name Abdullahi.

In praise of moral ambiguity : The Impostor by Damon Galgut

With no particular allegiance to astrology, I have often mused that my tendency to take on the role of the devil’s advocate fits well with a Libran temperament. My natural response to a harshly judgmental statement is an immediate inclination to flip the coin and present an argument for the other side.

I like to think that I carried this tendency into a career working in social services where the complexities that define and refine, strengthen and restrict the way that people respond to, survive or succumb to, the pressures they encounter in life cannot be understood in black and white terms. Motivation, decisions, and actions have contexts that run deeper than the actors or observers understand. When talking to clients or their families I would try to open up questioning to allow those I was supporting to look for their own answers. I was aware that I could offer suggestions but no guaranteed solutions.

Why then does literature so often try to provide answers, lead us to scenes of redemption, close out with a moment of denouement? Life, in case you haven’t noticed, is not always so neat and tidy. Sometimes we are not really sure what happened or why we might have acted in a certain manner. Our natural instinct is to explain our feelings and behaviours, to others and, most critically, to ourselves. But that is not always possible. We act irrationally, selfishly, even, as those of us with mental illnesses know, when we are not in our right minds. So why do we want our literature served up with moral certitude?

When I read a book with a dark context, whether on a large or small scale, I feel let down if an author fails to push the envelope, to take the risk of leaving the reader with a feeling of unease, a question of moral ambiguity. Oh sure, it is nice to be comforted, but more often than not, I read to be challenged, to be shaken, to be exposed to experiences, places and circumstances I have not known. That is one reason why I tend to be drawn to literature from countries other than the one in which I live.

ImpostorSouth African author Damon Galgut is decidedly unafraid to tackle the shifting landscape of political and economic power in his own country post Apartheid and show how easily the ordinary, average individual can get swept up in situations they have neither the awareness or the initiative to appreciate. Someone like Adam Napier in The Impostor, a man who discovers, too late, that his very unimportance makes him expendable in a game he didn’t realize he was playing. Or did he just not care enough to take notice?

After losing his job and house to the new racial and social realities arising in Johannesburg, Adam finds himself cut adrift in mid-life. He seeks refuge with his younger brother Gavin who is taking calculated, ethically questionable advantage of a burgeoning property market in Cape Town. Sickened at the prospect of accepting the job his brother offers he accepts instead the refuge of a neglected house Gavin owns in an isolated town in the Karoo. Here, he reasons, he will dedicate himself to writing poetry and find himself anew. What he finds, instead is a curious figure from his past, a school friend he cannot remember even though this man Canning insists that they once shared a very special bond, one to which this bland effusive stranger is clearly indebted.

Without admitting his complete lack of recall for this supposed friend, Adam is soon drawn into spending his weekends with Canning and his alluring black wife Baby up in the lush mountain retreat Canning inherited from his father. From here on things become complicated, tragic and eventually frightening. More than one moral compass is unloosed and all of Adam’s apparent values are tested and found, well, the reader is left to decide…

Tense and brilliantly spare in the telling, Galgut draws from the hostile environment of the Karoo, to create a fable with no clear moral reckoning, no redemption, and a heaviness that sits in the stomach of the reader long after the last page is turned.

I wonder if my fondness for literature from South Africa and Europe comes from the fact that conflict is never far from the surface in lands that have known so much recent turmoil and disruption. The result is a literature that, at its best is vibrant, alive and emotionally challenging. In Canada it is perhaps too easy to affect a measure of complacency even though, if you turn a few stones and look closely enough, our history holds plenty of darkness that seeps into the present day. And as the world effectively becomes smaller, racial and xenophobic tensions rise, examination of the legacy of our treatment of our Aboriginal populations takes greater precedent, and our commitment to true acceptance of diversity is properly addressed; literature that risks posing the questions that lack obvious answers will become more critical.

And more authentic.

 

The Absent Therapist or listen now, can you hear the voices…

“ When I was a child I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.”
                                         Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Oh yes I thought, but then they gave me a designation and it made no sense.

A-ha moments like this surfaced throughout my engagement with the slim volume that is Will Eaves’ brilliant The Absent Therapist. Deceptively simple, the fragmented pieces that form this most unusual, experimental, but achingly human novella are carefully crafted and finely polished moments in time.

20797992Described on the cover as a “miniature but infinite novel”, I found myself returning over and over to my favourite strands and marking them in the margins. Although some fragments appear to be linked or feature the same characters or themes, the overall experience is akin to floating through the ether, engaging momentarily with the thoughts, frustrations, memories, and conversations – internal or external – that swirl through the mind. Your mind. The minds of others.

At times reflective and philosophical, at times obscure, at times laugh out loud funny (“I went to the Spanking Club once…”) these little pieces reminded me of the snippets of the stories we tell ourselves and others as we knit together and make sense of our lives. As we engage our own absent therapist.

I had heard of this book, and am familiar with the author’s more conventional work, but when I saw it appear on a couple of the “best of 2014” lists of reviewers I particularly respect, I became desperate to get my hands on it. Not an easy feat since it is not available here in Canada (even though as readers we spend time on the west coast and Vancouver on this little journey of fragments). I ordered it from the UK and coincidentally it arrived earlier this week as I was out on my way to my very present and vital therapist.

Rarely has such slight book offered so much, this is a company of voices to which the sensitive reader can return again and again. Relate to the lonely, commiserate with the angry, recognize the nostalgia expressed. Marvel at the philosophical musings, those poetic moments we strive to find meaning and guidance in, but that too frequently pass and get lost under the crush of everyday life. I would even dare the same reader to not mark favourites in the margin.

“ The balm of consolation is too strong for some. Its most powerful ingredient is not the emollient lie that time heals, but the more astringent perception that whether we heal or not, the wound was deep and real and ours.”

Indeed.

The haunting memory of friendship lost – I Refuse by Per Petterson

April 7, 2016: The post below was composed when I was debating the extent to which I wanted to turn toward reviewing books. As a result it is primarily personal and reflective in nature. Since writing it my reviews rapidly moved to more serious and critical efforts, many of which now appear on other sites.

I recently wrote a piece for the Three Percent blog on why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award for 2016. It offers a more critical view of this work.

23626238The novel opens with the chance meeting of Jim and Tommy, two childhood friends, now in their mid-50’s on a bridge at the break of dawn. More than 30 years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to return to work. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, to find himself in a high level financial position in the city. But his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them and over the course of the day that follows this early morning encounter each one finds himself facing a deep sense of grief and loss over the close friendship they shared growing up in semi-rural Norway.

As spare and luminous as the northern landscape that grounds this exploration of time, friendship, family and dysfunctional parents – themes Petterson has returned to continuously – I Refuse follows a winding chronology and employs a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide at 18 initiates events that drive them apart. Brought to life through the blistering translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (of Knuasgaard, Loe and Nesbo fame) this is simply Petterson’s broadest, darkest and most complex work to date. If his brilliant Out Stealing Horses has long occupied a space in my top ten all time favourite books, this new work is even more striking and mature.

Or maybe I am simply more mature myself.

At this moment in time, at roughly the same age as the men at the core of this novel, and currently engaged in my own pursuit of disability supports following an unexpected return of a mental health disorder after more than a decade of stability, I could relate to the essential theme of the slowly eroding and distorting impact of the passage of time on our selves and our relationships with friends and family. Apart from a failed marriage and a childhood in a similarly semi-rural setting; my life and circumstances are different than those portrayed here. But the true power of this work lies in the author’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries.

Kind of like the way we have to navigate life itself.

Manic Implosion: Venturing into the third section of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room without warning

About a month ago I had an opportunity to talk briefly with Damon Galgut following his appearance at Wordfest here in Calgary. He published his first novel at 18 and I shared that I had wanted to write when I was younger but wanted to live first, completely unprepared for the messy and complicated path my life would take. So we spoke about the challenge of winnowing out a story that runs close to bone from the detritus of life lived. He pointed to my newly signed copy of In a Strange Room, his 2010 Booker short-listed novel, and admitted that in this, of all his works, he felt that he had most closely captured the essence of his self. And he achieved it, I later learned, by telling three tales which recount actual events from his life and feature a character named Damon from perspectives that often shift from first to third person to a detached observer, sometimes within the same sentence or paragraph.

So far so good.

7199962The first two sections involve travel and more or less unresolved interactions and attractions between the remembered Damon character and people he meets while he frets and wanders through parts of Europe and Africa with a restless inablity to settle himself. The prose is tight and evocative with the open ended reflections and ambiguity that feature in my favourite of his writings. But I was sucker punched by Part Three: The Guardian. Not only is it harrowing in its intensity, but the devastating action centres around a woman in the throws of a full-blown suicidal manic pychosis. I could not help but relate as a caregiver but more critically as someone who has experienced the full impact of manic psychosis from the inside. My blessing, if there is one, is that I have never been especially suicidal or inclined to self-harm, nor do I drink or use drugs. All of those factors are added to the mix in this account.

And it takes place in India.

It is not a secret that his close friend Anna is not in a good way, when Damon agrees to allow her to accompany him on the first part of a trip to India. He has been before and intends to stay and write for several months, but it is thought that the change of scenery might be a positive and healing experience for Anna. Her life is beginning to unravel around her and the creative, vivacious woman he has known for many years is tipping dangerously close to the edge. With a stock of mood stabilizers, tranquilizers and sleeping pills she promises not to drink or indulge in recreational drugs on this excursion – a vow sullenly defied as soon as they take flight. Her mood escalates, and behaviour becomes increasingly frenzied and unpredictable from there, culminating in an intentional overdose while her already weary guardian is close at hand but not paying close attention.

Throughout this process and the weeks that follow, Damon’s concern is stretched beyond affection to annoyance to guilt and back again. While Anna fights for her life in ICU, a British nurse and another couple from the village where they are staying are co-opted into a tag team to provide support and relief for Damon at the hospital where cockroaches and rats scurry about and, although care is free, all supplies from bandages to drugs to all other medical items much be purchased by friends or relatives who trek back and forth to the pharmacy with lists. As Anna begins to recover and relocate to more crowded and unattended wards, she not only becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, but her erstwhile crew of attendants have to attend to all her care including propping her over the bedpan and cleaning up the splashing mess afterwards.

Care for her actual mental health concerns is not part of the treatment plan.

To make matters worse, attempted suicide is a criminal offense in India and the police are awaiting Anna’s release so they can detain her. An escape must be planned and executed. Finally she is safely returned to South Africa, but she and her support network are shattered and strained at both ends. Sadly her successful suicide is only delayed, not avoided. And her traumatic spiral leaves those who love her and even those who get caught up in her whirlwind of self destruction, with wounds that will take their own time to heal long after she finally achieves the rest, or self martyrdom, that her illness drives her to desire.

No one wins.

My own manic psychosis was maintained to my home where the refrigerator filled with inedible meals and my children destroyed the yard while I struggled to make it through the days. As my grasp on reality slipped and the long standing issues I had been fighting off for years bubbled and distorted in my mind, a month of growing horror ended in a morning of escalating fear and violence before the ambulance finally arrived. Diagnosis and treatment of my bipolar disorder helped explain much, but in the end the very real issues of identity that had haunted me for most my life still existed. The difficult years that followed would see the end of a long marriage and, the beginning of a new authentic existence for me.

Anna was committed to death in her madness. In mine I found life.

I finished reading this book late this afternoon at a cafe where I frequently go to clear my mind and write. I could not put it down until I reached the final pages. As I stumbled out of the cafe into the biting cold and snow of this premature winter evening, I felt devastated and emotionally wrung out. As painful as it was to read, for those of us who live with manic depression or care for someone who does (and I do both), the third part of In a Strange Room is essential reading.

But consider yourself warned.