Other kinds of exile: The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

“Lives are meant to be separate and apart; when the borders break and we overflow into one another, it only leads to trouble and sadness.”

Last month I had worried about easing back into reading following my recent unexpected cardiac arrest, but, in fact, August went well. September has proved much more difficult. I have picked up so many books I thought I wanted to read only to be unable to get beyond a few pages. So it is probably no surprise that I retreated to the comfort zone of re-reading a book by one of my favourite authors. I chose this book on the expectation that a new paper edition was due to be released today in Canada but from reports of the distributor being low or out of stock, the reality of actually seeing it on the shelves may be a long way out. Too bad because when you know a writer has many excellent books to his or her credit it is a shame to see only one, the latest or best known, in stock. Fortunately this title is readily available electronically.

pigsThe Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is the second full length novel by South African writer Damon Galgut. Originally released in 1991 it eventually dropped out of print and, when a new edition was issued in 2005 following the Booker shortlisting of The Good Doctor, Galgut took the opportunity to revise the book, wanting to address his longstanding feeling that the rhythms of the language sounded “discordant”. The result, for whatever it is worth, is a novel that embedded itself into my consciousness with the first reading, and proved to be even richer and more deeply affecting with the second.

Set against the backdrop of the first free elections in Namibia in 1989, 20 year-old Patrick Winter and his mother are heading to the land that he had, only a year before, been fighting for on behalf of the South African Army. That experience has clearly left him emotionally traumatized. He is dependent on Valium to sleep and cope with recurring panic attacks. For his mother the trip is an opportunity to visit her young black lover, the latest of a long string personal explorations she has flirted with since her divorce from Patrick’s father. As the story unfolds he will reflect on his childhood, the horror of his time in the army, his ambiguous feelings about his own politics, and the emerging recognition of the nature his sexuality.

The novel opens as Patrick and his mother arrive at the Afrikaner farm where she grew up and he spent many a summer vacation. His brittle grandmother fusses over his physical and mental health, cannot understand why they are heading north, and stubbornly insists on referring to Namibia as South West Africa, the name by which it was known going back to its years as a German colony. Here Patrick will begin to reveal his family background, his closeness to his mother and his alienation from his rugged, athletic, big game-hunting father and older brother.

When his brother Malcolm joins the army and is killed in a motor vehicle accident, the loss tears the fragile family apart. Patrick and his mother move out, unraveling the tightly wound expectations of marriage by which she had been bound. As she tries to reframe herself with a series of dramatic passions and obsessions, her son is placed in the awkward role of picking up the pieces behind her. So when his own obligation to the army arises, despite the sure knowledge that he is entirely unsuited for the task at hand, he enlists promptly hoping to get his two year commitment out of the way. He won’t last two years, nor will he be able to put the experience behind him.

As he awakes that first morning to a familiar noise on the farm he makes a striking observation about his state of well-being in an unforgettable passage. Outside a pig is being slaughtered:

“There is no sound on earth like the sound of a pig dying. It is a shriek that tears at the primal, unconscious mind. It is the noise of babies being abandoned, of women being taken by force, of the hinges of the world tearing loose. The screaming starts from the moment the pig is seized, as if it knows what is about to happen. The pig squeals and cries, it defecates in terror, but nothing will stop its life converging to a zero on the point of that thin metal stick.”

As a child, the spectacle of a pig being killed never failed to draw him with a fascinated horror. On this day his reaction takes on a different note:

“It was a sign of my state of mind or soul that on this particular morning the screaming of the pig sounded almost beautiful to me. It didn’t evoke violence or fear, but a train of gentle childhood memories.”

After the reverie of a walk around the farm and a hearty breakfast, Patrick and his mother head for Namibia. When they finally reach Windhoek and meet Godfrey in the township where he lives, Patrick is surprised to find that his mother’s lover is not quite what he had imagined and is, in reality, only a few years older than he is. They learn that a white activist who had been working with SWAPO (the South West African Peoples’ Organization) has just been assassinated and Godfrey must attend to details for his funeral and an election rally. This necessitates a further trip on to Swakopmund, a detour that places Patrick in a position to question his own political resolution and bravery, especially poignant in light of the fact that on the border he was engaged in fighting the very forces he is now helping Godfrey support. His mother’s enthusiasm soon wanes into boredom as, for her, the shine starts to come off her latest passion.

Woven into the account of their few days in Namibia, is Patrick’s chronicle of his experiences in the army, beginning with the early days of tedium as the young soldiers pass empty days in their tents “playing cards, writing letters, telling jokes. An old scene, as old as the first village.” Patrick is keenly aware that he does not quite fit into this world of testosterone charged energy. He is hopelessly reminded of the way he felt sidelined as his father and brother tossed a rugby ball on the lawn or boasted about their hunting conquests. He senses a brotherhood of men to which he will never belong. It is not until a young Afrikaner named Lappies arrives that he finds a kindred spirit, makes a friend, and maybe – although he doesn’t realize it at the time – falls in love. Once fighting descends on the camp and strikes with a vengeance; horror, fear and death take their toll. When Patrick’s friend is killed, his grasp on sanity begins to slip. Galgut pulls the reader right into his young narrator’s shattered mind in one of the most intense descriptions of a mental breakdown I have ever read. It happens in fits and starts. Patrick tries to hang on, stubbornly, foolishly until his condition deteriorates to the point that he finds himself hospitalized, first in Pretoria and then in Cape Town. He is discharged from the army.

In the hospital his parents visit. Their responses to their shocked and emotionally injured son are true to form. His father travels to see him Pretoria where he sits awkwardly, shifting from ”buttock to buttock” unable to find anything meaningful to say. His mother has been busy acting in a play and does not make her appearance at his bedside until he is back in Cape Town. She visits him daily and talks about herself. It is here that she will first tell him about Godfrey, hoping to impress or shock him. He has no answer but he remembers the small drama.

“At that moment a shaft of light, blued by the rain, fell on her face: like the actress she was, she turned towards it, finding her spot. Then she smiled, and the smile became a laugh: a round, silvery sound, like a coin, which fell from her throat and tinkled down onto the ground.”

Patrick’s few days in Namibia will not answer all the questions he carries into the shifting sands of the desert one year after his breakdown. But he will emerge from the visit with a sense that it is time for him to define his own sense of personal space and figure out who he is. Borders – those lines between countries defended by force, defined by politics, and blurred between people – feature throughout this novel. True to form, Galgut allows these spaces to exist for the reader to explore. He is a writer of remarkable restraint, a storyteller who matches spare tight prose with simple moments of vivid intensity. In The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs he has created a haunting, intelligent, unforgettable portrait of the relationships between people at a time of great upheaval and impending change in Southern Africa. As Namibians queue with excitement to mark their ballot toward the end of the novel, Godfrey tell Patrick that maybe someday his own country will see the same. That day will still be more than four years away.

What it means to be grown up: Thirteen Cents by K. Sello Duiker

“Grow up. Fast. Very fast. Lightening speed. Everything is always like that. Quick. You must act quickly. Understand quickly. Otherwise someone will fuck you up nicely. They’ll beat you up so that you must always remember.”

Meet Azure. Standing shoeless on of the cusp of manhood, thirteen or about to turn thirteen, he is not really sure when he was born. Both his parents are dead. Murdered. He has made his way from Johannesburg to Cape Town – a mean and ugly Cape Town – where he sleeps near the swimming pool in Sea Point or, later, when that option is denied him, under a bridge in Green Point, home to a wretched collection of thugs and gangsters.

13centsHe makes money primarily picking up tricks, engaging in degrading, often rough sex with closeted married men. He is hardened, tough, able to endure these encounters with a detached resignation. Yet when he looks inside, when he faces the more invisible persistent fears that haunt him as he wanders though the city, past the train station, up Long Street, into the Company’s Gardens; we see what he truly is – a child on the street. His is a coming-of-age story that is relentless, ruthless and, in the end, remarkably redeeming.

As Thirteen Cents, the debut novel by K. Sello Duiker opens, he has taken to looking after nine year-old Bafana, a boy who has run away from home, his life on the streets a drug fueled choice. Azure lectures him on his addictions. The only drug he himself has any interest in marijuana when he can afford it.

“I’m not his father, I say to myself. That laatie is getting under my armpit, under my soft spot. I mustn’t let that happen, I tell myself. I’ve seen too many kids disappear. There’s no point in getting too close.”

Azure knows where to find discarded food, has a few trusted “grown-up” contacts, many of whom will turn out not to be the allies he had thought. In a slice of Cape Town in which each man or woman has to look after themselves first, judging character is a slippery exercise. One that can be brutal, if not fatal, if the shifting rules are not understood or respected. His one friend from home, Vincent, a man who is beholden to the same rules but somewhat older and wiser, manages to impart to young Azure an unusual vision that will ultimately prove more valuable than money or any other form of protection.

In the meantime, his greatest liability is one he cannot control. He has black skin and blue eyes. Hence the name, pronounced he informs us, Ah-zoo-ray. It is a gift he holds from his beloved mother which is stolen when Gerald, the powerful thug currently holding sway over the homeless population, renames him Blue.

“… I can never look at myself too long in the mirror as my blue eyes remind me of the confusing messages they send out to people. I wear my blue eyes with fear because fear is deeper than shame.”

Race is a currency of power in the community in which he has found himself. Gerald who is a coloured man, trading on his lighter skin, straight hair and reputation of exceptional violence, is especially drawn to and maddened by those blue eyes. The punishment he extracts on our young hero is by far the most persistent, horrific, and devastating aspect of this gritty tale. He is beaten, locked up, starved, and abused for days on end for no apparent rational pretext. But the emotional abuse, the attempt to undermine his self worth cuts deeper:

“Why do you feel sad? I ask myself. Because my mother didn’t love me. Gerald is cruel. That is the ugliest thing anyone has ever said to me. It is worse than having a bus crush you. I think of my mother and I feel confused. No. She loved me, I tell myself. And I loved her, no matter what Gerald says.”

As much as Azure/Blue holds to the conviction that he is almost a man, must not cry, must hold within himself the emotions a man can not afford to admit; he continually talks with frustration about “grown-ups”. Their ways allude him, anger him and ultimately drive him on a mission of self healing driven by an almost supernatural desire to destroy all that is trying to destroy him.

As Thirteen Cents moves into its final chapters, the story takes on a folkloric, mythical tone. The stark hyper realism of the earlier account crosses the threshold of magical realism. To escape the horrors existing for him in the city below, Azure makes the first of two ascents up the slopes of Table Mountain where he will spend several nights, have dreams and visions and find, we are led to believe, the beginning of a path out of the life in which he had found himself trapped. The voice that lingers, long after the book is closed, is one of resilience, one of hope.

Sadly his creator could not hold to that same strength. K. Sello Duiker was born in Soweto, South Africa in 1974, raised in middle class black family. His university educated parents wanted to secure a good education for their son. After achieving a degree from Rhodes University he studied briefly in Cape Town where drugs and mental illness disrupted his academic career. He would draw on his experiences in the city to write Thirteen Cents and his other major work, The Quiet Violence of Dreams (TQVOD). Recognized as one of the first important young black voices emerging in post Apartheid South Africa, he ended his own life in 2005 at the age of 30.

The edition of Thirteen Cents that I read, published as part of the Modern African Writing Series of the Ohio University Press, includes an introduction by Stellenbosch University professor of English, Shaun Viljoen which provides an exceptionally helpful context for the placement of Duiker’s work in the evolution of contemporary South African literature along with a glossary of the expressions and slang, mostly Afrikaans, employed throughout the text.

I have not, to date, read many black South African writers, but I brought a selection of titles back from my recent visit to the country. Duiker has long been on my radar and all 600 pages of TQVOD has been stting on my bookshelf for more than a year. I am glad I went back to this novel first, standing as it does in a pivotal context for black South African literature and look forward to reading more of the young voices that have emerged in recent years.

For another positive review of this powerful book, see my friend Penny’s blog.

Nothing but grey skies? One Hundred Days of Rain by Carellin Brooks

It begins abruptly with a domestic dispute, loud enough to alert the neighbour. The police are called. Our unnamed heroine is led away and will soon face a restraining order. This is Vancouver. Rain starts as her marriage ends.

“She is not fallacious enough to connect this with her circumstances. She confines herself strictly to the facts. She leaves. It rains.”

rain100What we find in One Hundred Days of Rain, the spare, reflective novel by Canadian author Carellin Brooks, is a poetic meditation on the unraveling of a relationship and the displacement of a woman and her small child in a city famous for its wet face, soaked streets, and days – no, months – of rain. The moments are ordinary: work, finding a place to live, stretching meagre resources. The dissolution of the marriage is bitter, acrimonious and manipulative. But much of the time the protagonist is numb, detached, preoccupied. The rain, in its infinite guises, stubborn ubiquity, tireless assault on the bodies and minds of the city’s inhabitants, is the central character. It has the starring role.

Rain is both vital and villainous:

“Outside the big front windows the rain has begun in earnest. This is the rain the denizens of the city know best, the rain they have cause to know. In the days before the weather began to change there would be weeks of it at a stretch. It is said of this rain that it drives people to suicide, that the sodden winter tried the hardest.”

It defines clothing and footwear:

“The skies drip, that’s all, and the relentless drip soaks silently into the land. She walks to the café to pick up her son. It’s a long walk but she won’t take the bus. Once again she is thankful for her thick soled shoes. The misery of bad shoes, ones that let the weather in, so that your feet when you peel off your squishy socks have a pale, pinched look of reproach. She hopes her son will be wearing boots.”

It becomes a distant memory when the summer brings sunshine. And then with autumn it is back:

“Collective amnesiacs who stare each autumn in unfeigned dismay, faces blank. What, this again? It’s raining? Forgetting as an act of self preservation. Nonsense, they say. It doesn’t rain like that. It can’t. There’s no way. A hundred days of rain one after the other? Certainly not. And the thing is, nobody lies, not consciously.”

As the sloppy, damp, year slides by, our heroine will move several times, balance visitation for her poor confused son between her ex-wife and the child’s father. Her relationship with M, the ex, is roughly fleshed out in a series of bitter vignettes. Other regular female lovers come and go. She seems at times to direct more emotion to the grey, unforgiving skies than to the people around her. She is on autopilot. It is almost as if the incessant rain risks drowning out her ability to make sense of what she really feels, thinks and wants in life. Perhaps it is simply granting time to start to heal.

Played out in a chorus of 99 short chapters, this novel, as a rumination on rain and a sketch of the endless end of a relationship, draws to a close, as it begins, with the first drops of rain. However there is a sense of a new beginning, however faint. The restrained third person narration has an arms length quality that is surprisingly engaging. The observations are sharp, precise, and often very funny. We don’t ever learn too much about the characters, we learn what we need to know. The fact that it is a same sex marriage that is coming apart is of little significance. Divorce is divorce. But we are invited to endure the Vancouver rain, appreciate it’s kaleidoscopic nature and, for some of us, remember why we live on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

One Hundred Days of Rain is published by Canadian indie publisher BookThug.

The only thing constant is change: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

“I look back to that summer and can’t believe that despite every one of my efforts to live with the “fire” and the “swoon”, life still granted wonderful moments. Italy. Summer. The noise of the cicadas in the early afternoon. My room. His room. Our balcony that shut the whole world out. The soft wind trailing exaltations from our garden up the stairs to my bedroom. The summer I learned to love fishing. Because he did. To love jogging. Because he did. To love octopus, Heraclitis, Tristan. The summer I’d hear a bird sing, smell a plant, or feel the mist rise from under my feet on warm sunny days and, because my senses were always on alert, would automatically find them rushing to him.”

When I find myself struggling to find the words to write a review, it is typically a situation where I feel lukewarm or worse about the book I have just read. This is not one of those situations. Quite the opposite. Wanting to read a few diverse offerings with LGBT themes in honour of the fact that it is, in my city, Pride Week, I wanted to begin with a novel I imagined would fall into a conventional coming of age/coming out tale, something I do tend to enjoy. André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name is that, but as a beautiful, elegant, emotional, and intelligent piece of literature it offers much more for anyone who has ever been hopelessly infatuated, experienced a brief passionate affair, or lost a love that has left a hollow space in their heart and imagination.

call meThe setting is lush, a mansion on the Italian Riviera in the mid-1980s. Our narrator’s father, a distinguished academic, is in the practice of inviting a young scholar to spend six weeks with the family each summer – in return for assisting the professor, the chosen candidate has an opportunity to further his own studies and experience a taste of Italy. When Oliver, a handsome, carefree American post-doc who is working on a book about Heraclitis arrives for his stay, the entire household is captivated. For seventeen year-old Elio though, it marks an intimation of so much more; an instant, devastating attraction that will consume and obsess him for weeks to come.

The atmosphere is richly intellectual. Elio, an only child, is precocious and he knows it. But he is still a teenager. He is transcribing Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”, quotes Paul Celan and references Star Trek. His father is always encouraging him to get out, see friends. But once Oliver walks into his life his attention has a new focus – a focus he strains to hide under a guise of indifference while secretly noting every gesture, glance and inflection he perceives from this seemingly casual, self-assured houseguest. Their relationship seems to slide from hot to cold from day to day. Elio continues to see and sleep with a female friend, in part in reaction to Oliver’s tendency to disappear to town at night, but also to try to quell his own uncertainties about his sexuality and his complicated feelings for the 24 year-old man who is likely unattainable, unavailable and uninterested. Yet as much as he tries to push his feelings away, they continue to dominate his waking and sleeping hours.

“Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music on perpetual replay play forever, I’m asking for very little, and I swear I’ll ask for nothing more.”

Awkwardly and uncertainly Oliver and Elio do eventually acknowledge their mutual attraction and move toward what will become a few scant weeks of deeply passionate, sexually explicit consummation. Their love represents a perfect, intense summer drenched affair. The frantic attempt to have and to hold as time slips away. Ultimately Oliver will have to leave to return to Columbia where he teaches, Elio will be heading back to boarding school. The space they have to share is defined but within those limitations they experience an intimacy that is timeless and create small, immutable memories that will endure. Like life, nothing is perfect, and it is inevitable that time and circumstance will soon take Oliver and Elio in different directions. For one man their affair will serve as a confirmation of where his attractions lie; for the other, the outcome will differ. But 15 years later when the two men meet again, they have to acknowledge that the experience was profound and has not been forgotten.

Given my rough, romantic précis it is difficult to appreciate the sheer beauty of Aciman’s prose. A memoirist, essayist and Proust scholar, Call Me By Your Name, was his first novel. It stands as a rich evocation of memory, youth, and the unquenchable desire to possess and be possessed by one’s beloved. He brings to life the sultry seaside beauty and character of the Italian Riviera in language that delights in nuance and detail, rich with allusions to literature, music and philosophy. Latin and Italian passages are seamlessly woven in to the text, adding atmosphere. Elio’s endlessly convoluted, adolescent passions contain a tension that pulls the reader in and the story forward until, looking back years later he wonders about the trajectory his life has taken against the alternate life have might have lived had someone other than Oliver turned up at his home at that fateful summer. We have probably all wondered about those potential parallel lives we carry inside us.

Desire, possession, loss, resolution. Time passes, and as Heraclitis would remind us, everything is constantly in flux.

Wrapping up a month of healing with Thomas Bernhard and Wittgenstein’s Nephew

As I look back on a month which began, at least as I can best remember, in a hospital bed on the cardiac unit, it seems oddly serendipitous that my final read for August is a book that begins in the chest clinic of an Austrian hospital. I did not know much about Wittgenstein’s Nephew in advance beyond the fact that it dealt with madness, one of Bernhard’s common themes. I had ordered it, in all honesty, to reach the free shipment minimum on an Amazon order for a quality adaptor for my trip to South Africa. It’s long been on my wish list so I just tucked it in. I picked it up off the pile on my coffee table yesterday and could not put it down.

nephewBernhard is a favourite. I always find him, in his characteristic vitriol, to to be funny and wise. But this book is less caustic and more sentimental than I could possibly have anticipated. It is also a tribute to his real life friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, in truth a relative of the famous philosopher. In one singular paragraph that extends over a mere 100 pages, the narrator, one Thomas Bernhard, orchestrates a grand meditation on health and illness, sanity and madness, and the singular power of a friendship grounded in common interests and mutual intellectual respect.

As this novella opens Bernhard is recovering from surgery to remove a tumour from his thorax. While he lies in his hospital bed tormented by his roommates and ignored by the nursing staff, he comes to learn that his dear friend happens to be confined to the mental ward of the same facility, ironically in the Ludwig Pavilion. Paul, who may well have suffered from manic depression, is given to recurring bouts of madness. For Bernhard, the causes and courses of their conditions are analogous:

“Paul went mad because he suddenly pitted himself against everything and lost his balance, just as one day I too lost my balance by pitting myself against everything – the only difference being that he went mad, whereas I,  for the selfsame reason, contracted lung disease. But Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine. Paul never controlled his madness, but I have always controlled mine – which possibly means that my madness is in fact much madder than Paul’s.”

A blend of fiction and memoir, fans of Bernhard’s trademark crankiness will still delight in his rants against psychiatrists, German newspapers, simple minded people, literary prizes, actors and in the end, the cruel inevitability of death. But the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s Nephew is an ode to the life sustaining value of a true friendship. Paul is remembered as “the only man I had ever been able to talk to in a way that was congenial to me, the only one with whom I could discuss and develop any topic whatever, even the most difficult.” They shared a passion for music, an inherent restlessness of spirit, and a love of philosophical discussion and debate. A most rare and precious bond.

Ultimately, especially after the death of his wife, Paul’s spirit deteriorates. He starts to die long before his final breath is drawn, and as his friend witnesses this decline he finds it increasingly difficult to be in his presence. Bernhard pulls away, a rejection driven perhaps by the fear of dying engendered by those on death’s doorstop. This slender volume is a eulogy to a man of wisdom and spirit who could not maintain his grip on a world that is perhaps more mad and unstable than he ever was.

Thanks to the fallout from the clot sitting in my lung and the cardiac arrest it triggered, I am presently experiencing a faint taste of what chronic sufferers of lung disease like Bernhard might have known; yet, like Paul, I have also been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. At one point, Bernhard talks about returning home from the hospital and the reckless urge to do more than one is physically capable of managing. This leads to a rant about how the healthy fail to understand the chronically ill. This is an unfortunately valid observation, one that is especially true when the illness is psychiatric. A year ago this spring I suffered a serious manic break after 16 years of stability and although I am still “technically” employed, no one from my former workplace is allowed to contact me. I am a leper. Admittedly I have built a new community of support since that time, but I have had many more offers for assistance after my recent health problems than I can handle. It is quite a contrast. Last year I was prone to a few rants of my own about how I suspected that my employers would have been much more sympathetic had I had a heart attack.

A month out now from an event that still haunts my thoughts and emotions, I am gaining strength each day. Sometimes I overdo things and have to rest. A high level of smoke in the air from distant forest fires kept me housebound for week causing me to feel a little edgy. But I have read a decent number of books, including a few that may be among my best of the year thanks to the Women in Translation challenge. Winding up August with this heartfelt ode to friendship is perfect, after all there a couple long distance calls to South Africa on my cell phone bill. There were a few moments in those very early days in the hospital that there was only one voice I needed to hear.

Originaly published in 1982, Wittgenstein’s Nephew translated from the German by David McLintock was first published in 1989.

Ode to the soul of the world: Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk

“God sees. Time escapes. Death pursues. Eternity waits.”

Welcome to Primeval, a mythical village that exists, if it exists, somewhere in Poland at the very heart of the universe. Watched over by a somewhat irresolute God and His angels, the people of Primeval and the surrounding communities live out lives filled with love and loss, joy and pain, birth and death. In her unusual and affecting novel Primeval and Other Times, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk introduces a world endowed with a cosmology that skews conventional Christian wisdom, placing God on the sidelines of His creation. In this world view, matter and spirit are tightly bound at all levels of existence and imagination is a vital force driving life forward.

“Imagining is essentially creative; it is a bridge reconciling mater and spirit. Especially when it is done intensely and often. Then the image turns into a drop of matter, and joins the currents of life. Sometimes along the way something in it gets distorted and changes. Therefore, if they are strong enough, all human desires come true – but not always entirely as expected.”

This is not, as you might suspect, a conventional novel. Three generations of the Niebieski/Boski family form the backbone of the story but there is no overriding or direct narrative. Rather it dips in and out of the “Times” of a collection of archetypical characters, places, even objects; sweeping the reader along on a stream of vignettes plaited together to build a chronicle of the experiences of the residents of Primeval through the twentieth century, from the advent of the First World War to the rise of Solidarity. We meet Genowefa Niebieski, the wife of Mikał, the miller, who has been called up to join the Tsar’s forces. While he is away at war she gives birth to a daughter, Misia, and years later, a second child Izydor, a son born with hydrocephalus. Misia will, in time, marry Paweł Boski, a man of ambition who eventually rises to the role of Health Inspector under the Communist Party. Together they will have four children. Some secondary characters recur throughout, like Cornspike, a fallen woman who has retreated to a ramshackle old house where she lives, close to nature, with her daughter, Ruta, and the eccentric Squire Popielski. Other characters pass through, especially during WWII when the greater forces of the outside world penetrate the borders of Primeval bringing terror and destruction with them.

2015-08-29 18.47.59With the magical tone of a fairytale for adults, the world of Primeval is brought to life with a keen sensibility for botanical detail and the cyclical flow of months, seasons and years as they pass. It is a rural community. However, the close bond to nature defines not only village life, but the world beyond its borders where modernity increasingly stands in its opposition. At one point, as Misia, reflects on the mutability of the blossoms on her fruit trees, the orchard itself becomes an analogy for the broader patterns of human existence. There are apple-tree years and pear-tree years. In the former conditions are harsh but the brief blossoms intense and the animals that do survive are strong and aggressive.

“Apple-tree summers give birth to new ideas. People tread new paths. They fell forests and plant young trees. They build weirs on rivers and buy land. They dig the foundations for new houses. They think about journeys. Men betray their women, and women their men. Children suddenly become adult and leave to lead their own lives. People cannot sleep. They drink too much. They take important decisions and start doing whatever they have not done until now. New ideologies arise. Governments change. Stock markets are unstable, and from one day to the next you can become a millionaire or lose everything. Revolutions break out that change regimes. People daydream, and confuse their dreams with what they regard as reality.”

By contrast, nothing happens in a pear-tree year. Plants lay down deeper roots, animals and people grow stronger. Larger litters and healthier babies are born.

“People think about building houses, or even entire cities. They draw plans and measure the ground, but they do not get down to work. The banks show enormous profits, and the warehouses of large factories are full of products. Governments grow stronger. People daydream, and finally notice that each of their dreams is coming true – even once it is already too late.”

It is very difficult to describe the experience of reading this book. Ordered with Women in Translation month in mind, it arrived from the wonderful Prague based Twisted Spoon Press when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. Once I could hold my thoughts together long enough to entertain the idea that I needed some books to read, Primeval and Other Times was one of two books that I asked my son to bring. In the opening passage, “The Time of Primeval”, the geographical boundaries of the village are laid out along with the risks and dangers personified by the features marking each direction and the Archangel assigned to guard the borders. I panicked, imagining that I would need to sketch out a map to keep all these relevant facts in mind. All month I have looked at this gorgeously bound volume sitting on my stack of books until I felt I was ready. My concerns, as it turns out, were for naught.

This is a captivating tale, rich with ideas and emotion. The constantly fluctuating threads of the tale are not disruptive. Rather they work smoothly together and allow the story to progress over such a vast time span with ease and forge an unforgiving and unforgettable vision of the world that is poignant, heartbreaking and gorgeous.

witmonth15Olga Tokarczuk is an award winning, highly respected Polish author. Born in 1962 and trained as a psychotherapist it was little surprise to find out that she frequently cites Carl Jung as a significant influence on her work. Primeval and Other Times was first published in Polish in 1996. This translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2010.

School Days: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

“Our Lady of the Nile: how proudly the school stands. The track leading to the lycée from the capital, winds its way through a labyrinth of hills and valleys and ends, quite unexpectedly, in a twisting climb up the Ikibira Mountains – which geography textbooks call the Congo-Nile range, for want of any other name.”

NileThis first novel by Rwandan born French writer Scholastique Mukasonga imagines life in an exclusive girls’ school high in the mountains of Rwanda close to the source of the Nile. Created by the Belgian Catholic church to nurture and prepare the daughters of wealthier Rwandan families for a future that befits their pedigree in the now independent nation, the lycée offers a well rounded education for a young lady and protection from the undue attentions of the opposite sex. Being a virgin, or at the very least not pregnant, is still key to securing a good marriage. And keeping watch over this small community is a blackened statue of the Virgin Mary enshrined nearby, practically assisted by a rigid Mother Superior, several sisters and a chaplain with a lecherous eye for his female charges. Lessons cover academic subjects, languages, religious studies and finishing school skills such as cooking and sewing.

Our Lady of the Nile opens at the beginning of a new school year. Land Rovers, limousines and buses arrive to deposit students. As one might expect, the girls form alliances, engage in gossip, develop crushes on the French male teachers. Assuming a dominant role among her third year classmates is Gloriosa, the big boned, intimidating daughter of a high ranking Party official. In the Hutu dominated nation, her greatest scorn is reserved for the two Tutsi girls admitted under the quota requirements, Virginia and Veronica.

As the year progresses it becomes clear that for all the Catholic school’s efforts to civilize the young ladies, traditional superstitions, beliefs, and customs have a strong hold over the students at the lycée, blending in with Christian faith and fear. For Veronica in particular, another element comes in to play. An eccentric white man who lives nearby on a crumbling estate, lures her into his obsessive fantasy about the Ancient Egyptians and his belief that the Tutsi are their direct descendants. In her vanity she is willing to entertain his delusions. Virginia is skeptical and uncomfortable by her friend’s willingness to assume a queen’s role and seeks instead to assuage disturbed spirits.

Of course underlying racial tensions are never far from the surface. One student, Modesta, with a Tutsi mother and Hutu father, is caught between the two. She likes to confide in Virginia but cultivates a place of security by playing Gloriosa’s lapdog. Although the Rwandan genocide is still years off at the time this story is set, violence is a real and present threat and each side is aware of where their fate lies and it all comes down to a question of race:

“Because there were two races in Rwanda. Or three. The whites had said so; they were the ones who discovered it. They’d written about it in their books. Experts came from miles around and measured all the skulls. Their conclusions were irrefutable. Two races: Hutu and Tutsi, also known as Bantu and Hamite. The third race wasn’t even worth mentioning.”

As Our Lady of the Nile unfolds, life at the lycée and the adventures of some of the girls in this tiny African nation are sketched out at a slow, simmering pace. However, because each chapter tends to deal with a distinct event, the novel has the feel of interlinked short stories. I did enjoy this book, it reads well with moving, often funny, passages, but the overall effect is somewhat disjointed. I found it too easy to put it down and not pick it up for a day or so. A little more consistency and tension would have helped propel the story toward what is a shocking and violent end.

witmonth15Translated by Melanie Mauthner, the tone is graceful and clear. But I have to say that there was one moment that set the reading experience off and had me wondering where the editor was. Told from an omniscient third person perspective throughout, there is one paragraph that falls into the first person plural, in the first half of the novel. The effect is jarring. One of those times that, as a reader, one wants to have a peek at the original text.

* Our Lady of the Nile was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) 2015