Roughghosts is one year old today: Looking back and ahead

Today I received a notification from WordPress congratulating me on my first anniversary. Well happy anniversary to my alter ego roughghosts who was born on this day from a scarp of creative writing I uncovered in one of my endless unfinished notebooks. I never was very clever with user names; most of my aliases amount to little more than my initials and the first 5 letters of my last name.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

I have become quite fond of roughghosts. It suits me, more than I might have imagined, or at least been willing to admit on May 31st of last year. To be honest, I created this blog to engage with other WordPress blogs and, I don’t know, maybe reflect a little, and explore some creative writing. At the time, a little voice I the back of mind said this looks like a rather manic move. After all I was under a soul crushing amount of stress at my workplace, had a major fundraiser and annual report due, and had not slept for more than a few hours a night since the previous November. But I shrugged it off, forged ahead only to crash and shatter into a thousand pieces a few weeks later.

Today, I have managed to rebuild myself to a point. There is still a lot more glue, stitching and healing required. Mania has subsided to a simmering depression with doses of anxiety and a pill that I do not like but is presently necessary as a sleep aid. And roughghosts the blog has evolved from a space to moan about the shock of realizing that, yes, I still have a mood disorder and all the fallout that a major breakdown entails, to a book based blog with a strong focus on translated and international literature.

Over the past few months I became involved with a jury shadowing the International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP), a challenging and highly rewarding experience. It taught me to read faster – still no speed demon, I – and read more deeply with a specific goal to being able to rate and write a constructive review for each book. I have started scribbling in margins and filling notebooks when I read. As a reader and a writer this has been invaluable. The camaraderie of reading and discussing the books together was an added bonus, introducing me to a great group of book bloggers. My subsequent expansion of activity on twitter has further enhanced this community of readers, publishers, authors and translators.

Then, close on the heels of the IFFP came the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) with a challenging and exciting longlist and a selection of small North American independent publishers to discover. Adding to this embarrassment of riches for lovers of translated literature was the conjunction of the biannual International Booker and the writers I want to explore from that list of finalists. And, on top of all this, my longstanding interest in South African literature will be further nourished by a trip to that county in a few weeks with a list of books I hope to obtain.

I am, I hope, reading my way back to wholeness. Preparing to write my way back into the world, or rather document my very real journey into the world in a full and honest way for the first time in more than half a century of living.

This past week’s awarding of the 2015 IFFP and BTBA prizes saw the celebration of female authors and translators. The IFFP honoured Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky for The End of Days, a decision that coincided with our shadow jury’s esteemed choice. This is a most important book with a timeless theme spanning the whole of the 20th century. About an hour later the 2015 BTBA was awarded to The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. I encountered this book as a longlisted IFFP title and simply fell in love with the surreal, dream-like tale. Notably, Can Xue was also named that same day with six other women and two men as finalists for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. I’ve been decidedly excited by this celebration of female writers and for those who know me, that is a huge shift in my own approach to literature.

Back in late January I wrote a pot in response to a discussion on the Tips, Links and Suggestions blog of the Guardian which had caused me to reflect on the abysmal ratio of female to male authors in my reading and on my shelves. However, my more explicit focus on literature in translation is slowly beginning to shift that balance. Especially if one considers how many of the works I read, if written by men, were translated by women. And I am taking serious note – not only should I endeavour to read more female writers, I can easily fall under the spell of Can Xue, Anne Garréta, Marlene van Niekerk, Olja Svačević or Valeria Luiselli, just to name some of the authors that have really impressed me of late. And I am pleased to report that an increasing number of the books I am currently reading or planning to read feature female writers and/or translators.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

So, on my first anniversary as a blogger, I look back over an ad hoc journal chronicling an ongoing passage from a terribly messed up state, struggling to make sense of a sudden shock to my self esteem, my confidence and my identity to a place where I have a strong real life community, solid mental health support and a creative environment where I am proud of the work that I publish in this space. Moving forward I hope to explore further writing opportunities, continue to recover and, with luck, make my way back into productive employment.

And keep reading a lot of terrific, exciting and challenging literature from around the world.

Bohemian dreamer: A Gothic Soul by Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic

“Fiction is eternal; reality perishes” we are warned in the preface of A Gothic Soul, “Invented forms live, real ones vanish. Truth is ephemeral; illusion everlasting.” What follows in this classic of Czech Decadent literature, originally published in 1900, revived in a new translation by Kirsten Lodge and lovingly presented by Twisted Spoon Press, is a poetic account of the emotional and philosophical torments faced by a troubled young man who struggles to place his disaffected existence between real life as lived by others and the internal world of his dreams.

2015-05-19 19.33.24One can sense from the outset that this is not a happy story. The author has already made it clear that it will not be a “story” in the typical sense at all but rather a journey of internalized reflections. A romantic darkness and decay looms large, it is hard to imagine sunlight filtering through. The humour, the playful nods that the narrator directs to the great French Decadent writers, is very black indeed. And yet this work is permeated with a remarkable beauty.

The hero of A Gothic Soul is the last of his line, raised by maiden aunts after his parents’ death. His childhood is gloomy and oppressive, haunted by a fear of inheriting the religious mania that drove a cousin to take his own life. He responds to the external world with an affect of remote deadness while allowing to flourish, within his soul, an internal reality filled with light and magic. Each time he resolves to engage with world, to seek an end to his lonely isolation, he ends up retreating into his dreams to seek comfort. A deep conflict arises when his natural misanthropy clashes with his abiding desire for a true and perfect companion, a male friend and lover with whom he can meld body and soul. On the few occasions when he meets a potential friend, his fear and shyness drive him away.

“But everything was so distant. He was sick – he felt it. He could find no peace. It was as though all the atoms of his soul had been vapourized. He could no longer calm himself. He longed for a friend, a kindred soul. How beautiful to give himself to someone and to feel that he had given himself to someone. His life would immediately acquire meaning. What happiness! What charm!”

Early in his self-exploration he believes that the ultimate respite for his agonized soul lies in the Church, in monastic life. But his nihilistic temperament causes him to lose his grasp on his faith, to fall away from the idols and saints that once gave him comfort and to question what it means to believe in God. Spirits now begin to follow him through the streets and into his ancient family home. Fears of madness return.

His reflections then turn to the role that his Czech identity plays in this wretched existence to which he seems to be condemned. His Czechness, his city, become entwined with his struggle to make sense of his inability to live life fully. Is his nation seeking its own medieval traces, its own Gothic soul? Does the fate of his nation trying to define a space for itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire mirror his own search? Some of the most stunning passages in this novella read like a heartbreaking ode to his native city.

“And now the evening bells rang out over Prague. A weight, darkly clanging and tragic, fell from their harmony. And unexpected numbness imbued the air. Stifling shadows hung drowsily over the rooftops. Not even a wing of a belated bird moved in this air. Everything suddenly seemed to be standing stock-still to listen to the conversing bells. Iron strokes broke through the windows of belfries and towers. The resonant sound cascaded down before dying out in the distance, flowing haltingly over the city’s rooftops.”

As the story progresses, our hero continues to overthink his dilemma as he wanders the streets of the city or takes refuge in his rooms. His reasoning pivots between optimism and despair. He realizes that he is losing his grip, that a life unlived is his likely destiny.

2015-05-19 19.38.39Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic (1871-1951) was an instrumental figure in the formation of the Czech Decadent movement. In a fascinating Afterword and author’s Biography, translator Kirsten Lodge describes the nature and development of this movement. In contrast with other strains of the same tradition, for the Czech Decadents the themes of despair and death are taken to the level of national obsession. For Karásek, his homosexuality also deeply informed his conception of Decadent thought. A desperate homoerotic longing runs throughout A Gothic Soul. This is complimented in this gorgeously presented publication by a series of illustrations by artist Sascha Schneider (1870-1927).

Twisted Spoon Press is a small independent publisher based in Prague. This is my first encounter with one of their publications. I was drawn in by the sheer beauty of this book. It is a joy to read and an important literary work that still resonates 115 years after it was first published. Trust me, an electronic copy would not be the same. You will want the hard cover version.

A little radiance: Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević

“Everything’s the opposite of what it seems: hell is a comfort to the living, while heaven is ordinary blackmail.”

A deeply personal piece of unfinished business draws Dada, the spirited heroine of Farewell, Cowboy, from the towers of Zagreb, back to the grimy streets of her hometown on the shores of the Adriatic in this debut novel from Croatian poet and writer Olja Savičević. Once she arrives her first task is to relieve her older sister of the responsibility of keeping track of their mother who seems to be surviving on a routine of pharmaceuticals, soap operas and bi-weekly treks to the cemetery to visit the graves of her son and husband. But at the heart of Dada’s return to the Old Settlement is a need to lay to rest her questions surrounding the suicide of her beloved younger brother Daniel several years earlier.

2015-04-27 23.09.41Dada is feisty, in keeping with her fiery hair, an attribute she shared with Daniel and their late father who succumbed to at an early age to asbestos poisoning. An aficionado of the western film, spaghetti and American classics alike, her father spent his final years working at the local movie theatre and then, after the war, in a video store. He bequeathed to his son his love of western heroes and a jammed Colt pistol.

Upon her return to the Old Settlement, Dada settles in to her room under her brother’s fading movie posters, gets an old scooter running and cruises through town on her mission to piece together the past. She recalls the eccentric playmates with whom she roamed the streets and encounters a most beautiful young man who appears and reappears, usually playing a harmonica. Meanwhile it seems that a movie crew has moved in to shoot a film on a drab grassed expanse that will double as a prairie for a project spearheaded by no less than a legend of the bygone era of the spaghetti western.

The primary focus of Dada’s pursuit however, lies closer to home. The family’s neighbour, known to most as Herr Professor, a veterinarian who had befriended Daniel, has resurfaced. After a violent attack triggered by rumours about his sexual proclivities, he had disappeared. Months later, seemingly without warning, 18 year-old Daniel threw himself beneath a speeding express train. Now the old vet has returned. And Dada is certain he holds the key to her brother’s death; in fact she is bitterly obsessed with a desire to confront him, to confirm that he is the author of a cryptic typewritten letter that arrived a few weeks after the funeral, a letter that seemed to indicate that Daniel had been trying to contact the sender. Face to face over cake and barndy she cannot quite say what she wants. She grinds her teeth over his melancholy insistence that “I don’t ask anything of life other than a little radiance.” What on earth is that radiance he asks for, she wonders.

This postwar Balkan world is one of decaying architecture, graffiti scarred walls and woodworm rotted buildings. Tourists are moving in or passing through. Modern technology and old customs exist side by side. Dada is a most engaging heroine, her voice rings through the grime and dust of her environs with a cool crystalline clarity and youthful spirit. For example, after tracking down her former room-mate she recalls that her friend had considered herself the last emo-girl:

     “ ‘You’re certainly the oldest emo-girl, and probably the last’, I said.
I imagined her as a little old Gothic lady, but little old ladies, at least the ones here in the Settlement, are generally Gothic in any case, it’s in their dress code.
My room-mate and my Ma would get on well, I reflected. They could go to the graveyard together and shave their heads in keeping with the Weltschmerz.
I’m thinking as though she had settled in my head, I reflected, immediately after, anxiously. I really am my sister’s sister.
Sar-cas-ti-cal-ly, I reflected, in syllables.”

Savačević continually surprises with the originality and energy of her prose, translated skillfully by Celia Hawkesworth. Images are revisited, lines repeated, like refrains, throughout the novel, creating a very dynamic and original flow. Tragedy lurks in these pages, but what could be a dismal heartbreaking tale is lifted with humour and thoughtful asides. And that is the sense that lingers.

Farewell, Cowboy is another terrific offering from Istros Books, one of the wonderful independent publishers that can be harder, but not impossible, to source on this side of the Atlantic. And well worth the effort.

Coming of age in the 60’s: The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns

Small town South Africa. The 1960’s. Rules govern social engagement. Black and white, Afrikaner and English, richer and poorer. Even in the smallest of towns a hierarchy of social stratification evolves and is reinforced with a blend of gossip and charity. And then there are those most ineffable mysteries of life: love, sex and death.

childrensSuch is the context of The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns. At the heart of this Bildungsroman is Simon, a sensitive, intelligent boy charting his way through the machinations of childhood in the dusty environs of Verkeerdespruit. He is keenly aware that he is living in the heart of nowhere. But the books that are such a vital companion to this only child cannot even begin to answer the questions that his interactions with classmates and the curious behaviour of the adults around him continually raise. Simon is left with the impression that he is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.

The novel opens in the modest, relatively speaking, metropolis of Bloemfontein, where Simon, now 15, is attending Wesley College, a “second-rate” Methodist private school. The occasion of a tennis match between the boys of Wesley College and a nearby technical high school on a stifling hot December day in 1968 unspools a series of flashbacks that reach six years into the past and gradually move forward. Simon’s reflections are triggered by the unexpected, unwelcome appearance of a former classmate on the visiting school’s team – the awkward, epilectic Afrikaner Fanie van den Bergh.

From the time he first arrives in Verkeerdespruit, Fanie is a curiousity. His fits alarm his classmates and teachers, while his inarticulate, easy-going nature sets Simon off balance. He regards Fanie with a measure of contempt to which the latter appears oblivious. Yet  Fanie is a constant source of surprise. When Steve, in his tight jeans and white t-shirt, roars into town astride the magnificent Matchless G8 bringing a touch of heroic glamour to streets of the sleepy village, attracting the adoration of the boys,and the fluttering of female hearts, it is Fanie who disappears on the back of his bike. The fallout resulting from Steve’s arrival marks the advent of Simon’s awareness that the world is full of joys and dangers that the adults around him allude to with the most cryptic references. Frustratingly alert to the innuendos around him, Simon is delightfully naive as only a child of the pre-internet era can be. I remember it well myself. As Simon admits:

“Though I was probably quicker than my contemporaries at fitting together apparently unrelated observations, I was hampered in my deductions by an almost complete ignorance of sexual matters. I had arrived, for instance, at the conclusion that kissing was both a much sought-after pleasure for oneself and a much-ridiculed weakness in others, and that adults were too old for it and children too young.”

By observing the parade of adults that passes through his home town, Simon’s glimpses of the outside world become broader, if not necessarily clearer. A teacher who takes harsh discipline in the classroom a step too far is sent away, a pretty young girl he assumes is a special friend abandons him for the school jock, a woman with a shocking past appears and breaks the heart of one of his favourite teachers. And then there is Trevor with his dyed hair and pink shirts who shocks everyone by shaking up the life of the stuttering shy bachelor postmaster and his mother, briefly redesigning the beehived heads of the local women before being run out of town once speculations about the true nature of his friendship with the postmaster spread. Again Simon is perplexed, though it is Trevor who first implies that he sees in the boy a likely kindred spirit. The only outlet he has for the really “big” questions that trouble him are his Saturday afternoons at the local soda fountain with Betty “The Exchange”. The cynical, unfortunately chinless, telephone operator entertains Simon’s queries but confuses him as much as she informs him – children, after all, are only allowed so much enlightenment in this era.

It is Fanie who, in the end, stands to call attention to the missing puzzle piece that Simon has been holding in his hand all along.

I have an affection for strong coming of age/coming out stories. This is one. Sexually Simon is a slow learner, a boy who is less in touch with his body than the more viscerally grounded if intellectually dimmer Fanie. He over thinks the world even though he encounters more than one adult male who recognizes in him an inclination that he has, at an early age, no context for. Today with the ubiquity of queer conversation, imagery, access to internet, resources and young adult novels that explore queer themes, it may be hard to imagine how isolated a child could be growing up in earlier decades. Some claim this is an argument for censorship or against realistic sex education in the school system. But that is a spurious argument. One could still grow up LGBT in a vacuum. Or worse in denial. Many of us did.

I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in conservative rural Alberta. My parents, like Simon’s were liberal, but, like my peers, there were so many facts of life we did not understand and would not have dared to ask. Especially if there was any inclination that our own sense of self was off the norm. Long before one could retreat to the wisdom of Wikipedia, our resources were limited. I will never forget when the word “faggot” started to appear on our radar, probably as 10 or 11 year-olds. We would scurry to our dictionaries to find only “A bundle of sticks or an unpleasant woman”. Somehow we knew that couldn’t be right!

With The Children’s Day Heyns captures all of the curious confusion of growing up smart, bookish and not quite fitting in. And he does so with a warm, understated humour. Through his perceptive, yet naive, narrator the wonder and mystification, shame and humiliation of adolescence are evoked with remarkable resonance. Like many coming of age tales this was also a debut novel. But first published in 2002 when the author was in his late 50s, this novel also marked the debut of second career as a writer and translator – one that is still going strong – an inspiration to the rest of us in mid-life with writerly aspirations.

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.