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

Time, space, and truth: Till Kingdom Come by Andrej Nikolaidis

“Windows, even those with heavy shutters, were no help against the rain. It came with a wild westerly one moment and with a sirocco the next, constantly changed the angle at which it fell, attacking now frontally, now from the side, until it had crept through every invisible opening in the walls and woodwork. In their rooms, people made barriers of towels and babies’ nappies beneath the windows. When they were sodden they would be wrung out in the bathroom and quickly returned to the improvised dykes.

Roofs let through water like a poorly controlled national border. Like in a bizarre game of chess, families pulled out pots and pans across the floor: Casserole to f3, frying pan to d2.”

till-kingdom-come_5595626c38d7b_250x800rAs befits its title, Till Kingdom Come – the latest novel by Montenegrin author Andrej Nikolaidis’, his third to be released in English by London based indie publisher Istros Books – opens with a deluge of Biblical proportions. The heavens above the historically rich tourist town of Ulcinj have unleashed an extended season of torrential and relentless rain. As water rushes down the streets and seeps through walls and floorboards, the reader is quickly introduced to the narrator, a freelance journalist, a man who faces the world with reserved and stoic humour. Or so it seems. But then nothing is what it seems, and for our poor narrator most of all.

It soon becomes apparent that our hero has long suffered from periodic lapses in temporal/spatial reality. He has been known to just drift off, seeming to have lost consciousness to those around him, while he finds himself in some distant country or city previously strange to him that he suddenly knows intimately, until he wakes up back where he started. This dissociative tendency which has haunted him for years has left him with a rather slippery sense of self that, more than anything, seems to engender an abiding sense of ambivalence. That is, until the arrival of a man claiming to be his uncle causes him to have reason to doubt the veracity of his entire existence. He had believed that his mother was dead and he was raised by his grandmother, a belief supported with stories, photographs, a history and an unusual Jewish name. Discovering that his past was faked, sets him off on a passionate journey of speculation and self discovery, assistsed by a police inspector, directed by an anonymous email source and fueled by an obsessive fascination with serial killers and conspiracy theories.

Biting in intensity, taking broad political and historical swipes at medieval and modern history – poking the bones of Oliver Cromwell and stirring up the horrors of the Balkan War – Nikolaidis is in fine form, building upon and expanding the canvases he painted in his previously translated works, The Coming and The Son. Ah yes, Thomas Bernhard would be proud. Yet, for its sarcastic humour, metafictional wanderings through Red Lion Square in London and up the stairs of Conway Hall to the tiny second story office of Istros Books, and the endless speculations about the role of the black arts in the exceptional acts of cruelty and violence perpetrated by mankind that have littered history; Till Kingdom Come is a starkly serious book. The narrator exists on a plane of his own, while his friends succumb to pressure of feeling too much, of being unable to cope with a world that is fundamentally uncaring. As he muses at one point:

“Alas, there is only one happy ending – the Apocalypse – even if it is only a promise. Everything else is just an open ending, a continuous series of open endings, whose resolution not only resolves nothing but further complicates already unbearably complicated things.”

For my money, Till Kingdom Come is a more mature and demanding work than The Coming and The Son, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Nikolaidis is a highly political journalist and here he is clearly intent to skewer politics and economics with more direct, at times shocking, barbs. The Bernhard inspired intensity of The Son is dialed back a little while the historical diversions that provided an intriguing counter commentary to The Coming have been worked back into the narrative. As in these first two Istros releases, translator Will Firth captures the mood and intensity seamlessly. And, on an entirely personal note, it was a delight to see Red Lion Square and the Istros Books office worked into the text. However when I visited this summer I did not magically find myself strolling down Oxford Street. I got hopelessly lost and had to be rescued from the Tube Station by the editor herself, but then London on a map and London on the ground for someone who has never been there is, well, a metaphysical rather than metafictional experience to say the least!

Red Lion Square, London UK Copyright JM Schreiber 2015
Red Lion Square, London UK
Copyright JM Schreiber 2015

Listening to the voices of Afghan women: I am the Beggar of the World

“In my dream, I am the president,
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

With a long history, passed down through generations, landays are traditional two line poems recited or sung by the mostly illiterate Pashtun people who live along the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are composed of twenty-two syllables – nine in the first line and thirteen in the second. For the women in this area who face social and cultural restraints that define and restrict their lives, these anonymous couplets have become an important medium for self expression. Sometimes they gather to share or perform the landays they have learned, updated or re-invented; but radio and the ubiquitous social media and cell phones have also been worked into a new modern network for sharing.

beggarI Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, a collaboration between translator and poet Eliza Griswold and photographer Seamus Murphy, is a sensitive and moving collection of landays, brief essays, and photographs. Upon hearing of the death of a teenaged poet who had been forbidden by her family to write poems and burned herself in protest, Griswold was inspired to journey to Afghanistan to explore the role of landays in the lives of Pashtun women. She returned to collect some of these poems, assisted by native speakers and a Pashta translator, Asma Safi, who sadly died of a heart condition before the project was complete. Arranging meetings as an American was not always easy – being under occupation is a difficult, deadly environment – but along the way she collected the words and stories of some very strong, fascinating women.

Divided into three sections, the first is dedicated to Love. Many of the couplets are brazenly racy, teasing and modern. Yet because landays are by their nature anonymous, no woman can be held responsible for sharing them or for the contemporary imagery has been worked into the more traditional versions:

“Embrace me in your suicide vest
but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.”

“Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.”

“”How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged. Text me.”

The second section is dedictated to the themes of Grief and Separation. Suffering and servitude are enduring features of the lives of Pashtun women. Marriage implies both. Curiously love also features throughout the poems in this section because romantic love is forbidden. If a young woman is discovered to be in love with a man she can be killed or driven to take her own life to preserve her family’s honour.

“Our secret love has been discovered.
You run one way and I’ll flee the other.”

Once married, having one’s husband take another wife is emotionally painful, but being passed over altogether or married off to an old man can be worse.

“Listen, friends, and share my despair
My cruel father is selling me to an old goat.”

The final section explores War and Homeland. Complex, mixed emotions, anger and sorrow rise up here in poems that are moving and, again, shockingly modern. A long legacy of occupation under British, Russian, and American forces has placed the women of Afghanistan in a difficult position, torn between the brutality of American protection and the combined threat and promise of the Taliban. The landays and the images in this section are especially powerful and represent sentiments that women would not be able to express so readily in any other forum:

“Be black with gunpowder or bloodred
but don’t come home whole and disgrace my bed.”

“Beneath her scarf, her honor was pure.
Now she flees Kabul bareheaded and poor.”

“May God destroy your tank and your drone,
you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.”

This slim volume is a testament to the resilience of the Pashtun women in the face of the violence, threats and restraints they live with every day. These traditional two-line poems provide a framework for illiterate women to express themselves and share their sorrows, joys and wisdom with their sisters. In Afghanistan they still face risks in committing their own poetry to paper when they are able, so this oral tradition remains important, even if modern devices like cell phones have expanded their network. This beautiful book which pairs the simple landays with muted black and white photographs documenting the people of Afghanistan, the sparse landscape and the violence of war, provides a rare opportunity to hear the intimate voices of women that might otherwise be silenced.

Loss and longing: The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach

“I have been content up to now,” she said at last. I was perfectly content until recently. I could keep everything at a distance. But now, all of a sudden, I can no longer do so. I feel caught up in everything. And detached from everything too. So detached, and so caught up. A strange feeling.” She spoke more urgently. “I don’t know what I’ve done with my life! I don’t know if I can still love someone!” (She started, why speak of love all of a sudden?) “I can’t open my hand,” she said, opening her hand, her palm facing upward, “I can’t let go.”

This is the curious dilemma of Karolina Ferreira, the heroine of The Elusive Moth by South African novelist Ingrid Winterbach. A similar searching ambiguity, complicated tension and hidden motivation runs through the cast of this slowly simmering, cinematic novel. Moving across a finely painted canvass in fits and starts, The Elusive Moth is an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety that almost feels more like an art film, unfolding scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, fragmented conversations, all playing out against racial tensions that are building to a critical point in and around a small Free State town.

Elusive_Moth_cvrKarolina is an entomologist who returns to the town where her family spent time when she was growing up. Ostensibly she is in pursuit of a rare species of moth that is capable of withstanding extreme conditions and this is a brutally harsh, drought ridden area. However, on her way to her destination she makes two unusual decisions. She stops and picks up a fellow traveller, Basil September, an unusual and enigmatic individual who is on his way to spend time working with his Argentinian mentor, an expert in herbal remedies and medicinal practices. He will become her daily companion out on the dry veld where he collects a vast array of living and non-living samples while she observes insect life. Karolina also, despite her scientific tendencies, stops into a roadside caravan to have her palm read. The fortune teller promises that she will find a man who will love her forever and a woman who will be a close and faithful friend, suggestions she both laughs at and hopes for.

As she settles in to her research, Karolina seems to be increasingly restless. She spies lovers in the cemetery who fascinate her. She begins to frequent the snooker room of her hotel where the regulars, all male, are coarse, frequently lecherous – farmers, policemen, reservists. On Saturday nights she takes to the dance floor to lose herself in the arms of a man referred to throughout as “that Kolyn fellow”, theirs a connection based solely only on comparable tango skills. She tends to drink heavily, retreating when necessary to the Ladies Bar where she regularly encounters Pol, a singing lawyer, delightfully described throughout as amphibious, watery, and humid. He is a source of background information upon whom he she tends to rely as local political undertones begin to rise to the surface. Basil is also a helpful bellwether in this regard, as he possesses an uncanny ability to analyze the natures of others on sight and, as it turns out, foretell death. And then there is Jess, a red headed man who is singled out for her by Basil when they first see him. He is an economic analyst on a sabbatical to study, for himself, Buddhist philosophy, longing to learn to live in the moment and to overcome a persistent fear of death.

It is clear that Karolina is at a tremendous loss as she tries to find a rhythm to life in this small town. Loss intermingled with longing. She has destroyed or divested herself of most of her possessions. She is plagued by a sense that she disappointed and was disappointed by her father, also an entomologist from who she inherited her early and long standing fascination with insects. He had died just hours before she reached his bedside. She had imagined herself capable of dedicating herself to her studies without the bother of emotional entanglements. Now, in her dreams she is haunted by strange visitations and lewd sexual fantasies involving not only past friends and lovers, but characters from her immediate environs. By day her observations and interactions with others are a mix of curiousity, compassion and clinical dissection. By night she struggles with a desire for physical comfort and a need for space. As personal tragedies and political tensions in the town move toward a dramatic eruption, Karolina will ultimately find the ability to surrender and move forward with her own life.

For some readers, The Elusive Moth, may almost be too fragmented and repetitive. I read it slowly, over the last few days, luxuriating in the beauty of the imagery – the stark landscape, sensual descriptions of architecture and artwork, the enigmatic characters. Winterbach is also a painter, she writes in images and scenes. I simply did not want this book to end. I am currently recovering from a trauma that has left me with a mix of loss and anxiety that I recognized in Karolina, Jess, and Basil. I found it to be an exquisite and haunting experience.

witmonth15

* Originally published in Afrikaans as Karolina Ferreira under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen in 1993, the first English translation by Iris Gouws and the author was published in South Africa in 2005. The edition I read was published by Open Letter Books in 2014.

A tenuous grasp on reality: All My Friends by Marie NDiaye

Oh my.

I was looking for a short story collection, something that might fit neatly into the Women in Translation theme that is guiding the reading of many of my fellow bloggers this month. Having heard so much about French author Marie NDiaye I decided to have a look at her collection All My Friends. What I found was a portal to a bizarre, surreal, mildly horrific literary Twilight Zone. If you like your stories neat and clear cut this is territory best avoided. If you enjoy challenging tales peopled by troubled characters who stretch the boundaries of reality, fueled by obsessions, fantasies and psychoses, well, step right in.

All My FriendsThe final heartbreaking, but relatively straight forward story, is very short. The four stories that proceed it are long, convoluted and slippery. The reader really has to surrender him or herself to the experience, to the strangeness and stunning evocative beauty of the language. After finishing this slim volume I had a glance at a number of other reviews and was surprised how differently others saw or interpreted the stories. And perhaps that is the ultimate power of this collection.

The title tale, “All My Friends” is narrated by a school teacher whose wife and children have left him. He leaves his house like a museum and hires a former student, Séverine, to work as his maid. His attraction to her is complex, a curious blend of obsession and loathing that extends back to the days when, as a beautiful student, she resisted his charms and his efforts to impart knowledge on her. She is, however, married to another former student, an unassuming Arab that the teacher can barely remember. And then, to add to this peculiar triangle (quadrangle?) is Werner, yet another former student from the same cohort who went to Paris to better himself and returns, wealthy and well educated, to win Séverine’s love. Complicated? Definitely, especially because, so far as I could tell, Séverine herself is portrayed as a rather cold, obstinate creature and it is hard to imagine what sort of appeal she holds over all the men who are drawn to her.

Two of the stories revolve around celebrity. In “The Death of Claude François”, the passing of a famed singer devastates the women of a housing project. As the story opens, Dr Zaka meets her former best friend, Marlène Vador, after a 30 year separation. Marlène has remained on the project, nursing it seems, an undying love for the long dead hero. Dr Zaka never shared the depth of that affection:

“How ridiculous, she told herself, all that sniveling, all that sweat, all that sorrow simply because a man has died, a perfect stranger to every one of the women on the lawn, although dearer to their wanting hearts than the many children they’d borne, than the husband who had begotten them, whose eyes stayed dry on the death of that luminous, splendid stranger, so French, so blue eyed, so blond-headed.”

However, if the death of the French idol failed to move her, Dr Zaka has conceived a most unusual “gift” for her friend, presumably to make amends for leaving so many years before. In the longest story, “Brulard’s Day”, an overtired, psychotic woman has retreated to a resort town in the mountains. She is clinging to the idea that she was once a famous actress although the true extent of her acting career is not clear. She has left her husband and daughter and is awaiting funds she expects from a mysterious lover. In the meantime she is haunted by visions of her younger self, mortified by the fact that she is reduced to wearing – gasp – loafers and attempting to perform an appearance that befits her image of herself. When her husband appears on the scene it begins to become evident that neither have more than a desperate desire to be more than they are or have ever been.

Finally, the story, “The Boys”, reads like a dystopian tale in which poor rural families seek wealthy women to purchase their sons. A family fortunate to have a son handsome enough to fetch a price as a sex slave will stand to benefit from the income. As the Mour family pass their handsome son on to his fate, René, a poorer boy from a nearby home who picks up odd jobs with the family but is otherwise allowed to disappear into the shadows, watches and comes to decide that he too would like a ticket out.

“He’d always known he could make a gift of himself. Assuming someone would take him, assuming someone was eager to have him, a colorless boy named René, he could subjugate himself to the will of anyone at all. Little matter if he was purchased or picked up for free.”

Tightly paced, haunting and deeply disturbing, this is perhaps the strongest entry in the entire collection.

witmonth15Born in 1967 to a French mother and Senegalese father, NDiaye trained as a linguist at the Sorbonne. She was was playing with form and style at an early age and her first novel was published when she was only 18. In 2013, at the age of 45, she was long listed for the International Booker. This collection was originally published in 2004. The English translation by Jordan Stump was published in 2013 by Two Lines Press.

You can’t go home again : Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns

On one level, Lost Ground sets itself up as a crime novel where the elements of the conventional police procedural are bound with deep echoes of the tensions and realities of the new South Africa. But in the skillful hands of Michiel Heyns it evolves into much more – a heart stopping rush headlong into a series of events that will leave its erstwhile hero irrevocably changed.

lost groundIt is a murder that draws Peter Jacobs, an ex-pat South African, back to his hometown of Alfredville, a sleepy little village in the Little Karoo. A freelance writer living in London, he has been away from his native soil for over 20 years. His father’s British citizenship afforded him the option to pursue studies abroad and thus avoid conscription. What finally draws him back is his writer’s sense of a good story. His own beautiful cousin Desirée has been murdered and her husband, the black police Station Commander, is under arrest. This is, Peter believes, the entry point for an examination of the complicated dynamics of post-Apartheid South Africa and, in his neatly planned agenda, a story that he imagines re-envisioning as a New Yorker friendly exposé drawing allusions to Othello. What it opens, in the end, is far more personal and devastating than he can even begin to imagine when he first returns to his hometown.

It is clear from the beginning that Peter is carrying more baggage than the basic wardrobe he itemizes. James, his partner of five years, a Jamaican actor, has just broken up with him and he is not entirely certain how he feels about it. As he settles into his hotel, old locations and familiar faces naturally trigger memories – of school days, childhood adventures and the awkward fumbling of youth. Then, he discovers that his best friend Bennie is also back in Alfredville. He is now a police officer, temporarily the acting Station Commander,  and married with two children. Their reunion is awkward and tentative at first but it slowly warms, reawakening a flood of memories of a past that Peter believed he had, with time and distance, left behind.

Heyns’ gift for language and dry wit bring a rich and detailed world to life. He deftly captures the village and surrounding farmland wilting under the extremes of summer heat and the distant sensations they evoke:

“I open the door of my room and go out onto the balcony. Victoria Street is empty at this hour, but the sullen air is teeming with the smells of a summer night – exhausted vegetation, wilting flowers, wet soil from the gardens being watered, heated asphalt. The blend hasn’t changed in twenty years. To smell it again is to remember not so much individual incident as the tonal value of those summer nights, the vague ache of an imperfectly articulated desire.”

A wide range of colourful characters and personalities pass through the pages, described with the precise care and attention befitting his detail oriented writer narrator. Some are ghosts from Peter’s past, others, like the elegant black female psychologist who becomes his challenger and confidant and the handsome vet who seems to have cast a spell over the bored housewives of Alfredville are either new or passing through. But it is the nostalgic revisiting of his youth, inseparable from the memories of his friendship with Bennie, that anchors the novel, creating the emotional texture and complexities that will ultimately leave the reader gasping for breath as the end nears.

This was, for me, my first read following a significant health scare. It was everything that I could have hoped for at this moment – a smart, well written and tightly paced story woven with literary allusions, significant observations about the current state of South Africa, telling observations about the risks inherent in returning to the past and an unobtrusive but entertaining gay subtext. By turns humorous, heart breaking and dark it was the perfect prescription.

* Published by Jonathan Ball, Lost Ground is one of Michiel Heyns’ books that is fairly easy to access outside of South Africa, at least through special order distributors.

Easing back into reading

As soon as I was coming around a few days after my recent near death encounter (and I don’t mean that in any mystical tunnel of light sort of way) I told my kids that I wanted them to bring me books. I could barely stay alert long enough to get an entire sentence out but I wanted books. They obliged me. Wisely I asked for one of the few books on my shelves which might count as a mystery – Lost Ground by South African author Michiel Heyns – which has proved to be fine company indeed though I have only been able to read attentively for a few days now. They also brought along one of my endless stream of incoming purchases, a gem from Twisted Spoon chosen for Women in Translation Month – Primeval and Other Times by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. A surreal and fantastic work it looks good but I may have to push it a little further down the month. Reading is tough work after cardiac arrest. Go figure.

Now that I am at home, facing three blood tests each week and a host of other medical appointments all over the city when I have been told I can’t drive for 6 months, I find myself reading and re-reading my discharge report. I am living on warfarin – rat poison – afraid of bleeding too much or worse, clotting too easily and having a stroke. The devious little pulmonary embolism that triggered this whole adventure (a likely souvenir of a hellish 24 hours of flight time packed tightly into 28 hours on my recent return from Cape Town) is still sitting in my lung and will, they say, eventually be absorbed. My left leg is swollen and bruised due to a hematoma, a probable complication of the resuscitation process. I watch people jogging by outside on this hot summer day and feel like some sort of Frankenstein creature, dragging this heavy black and blue leg around.

Even though my friends have been amazing – I had a steady stream of visitors throughout my hospital stay and have no shortage of offers for rides around town – I feel a despair settling in. I don’t know where to turn, where to dig into the towers of books surrounding me. I wonder what would have happened had I slipped off this mortal coil two weeks ago. What would my family say about all these books on which I have squandered my limited funds? For heaven’s sake my open shelved coffee table loaded with books and stacks of journals – Granta, Paris Review, Music & Literature – came apart when the paramedics tried to pull it out of the way. I feel overwhelmed rather than excited about diving in to all the new books I have acquired in the past month. I had to buy an extra bag, after all, to get my haul of books home from South Africa and now they too sit on the shelf taunting me.

Will the magic of reading come back with my health?

2015-08-09 17.37.38I have also wondered if this experience is that final kick in the behind that I need to get serious about my own writing. I’m in my mid-50s. I’m not getting younger. Coincidentally while in the hospital I signed my first contract for the publication of an essay in a book coming out next Spring. It is a niche project – a collection aimed at gay, bisexual and transgender men – but my first professional publication credit all the same. So how much life with all its mess, joy and agony does one have to drag his or her sorry self through before there is enough fodder for a story? I wrote throughout my youth, being a writer was always my dream, a strength in every course I completed in university and every job I have ever held. But when it came down to creative writing I always insisted that I had to live a little first.

At this moment I feel that I lived so much that I don’t know where to begin. And now I have almost died too.

1914 – Goodbye to All That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, Lavinia Greenlaw, ed.

War and conflict are among the most fundamentally human motivations behind our desire to tell and share stories. Religions, mythologies and histories draw on these timeless themes. And, as human history continues to prove that we have not yet managed to learn from the past; conflicts, ongoing or marked with progressive anniversaries, will continue to to inspire artists and storytellers alike.

greenlaw_2985334aThe centenary of the advent of the “War to End All Wars” in 2014 saw a renewed focus on the contemporary writers and poets of WWI as well as a broader assessment from today’s artists of the lasting influence of that critical event on the conflicts that have followed. An interesting contribution to the discussion arrived in the form of 1914 – Goodbye to all That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, a selection of essays edited by Lavinia Greenlaw which was published in the UK last year by Pushkin Press. This collection will see its release in North America on September 1, 2015.

For Greenlaw, the First World War has a resonance that is not tied to a particular time and place but rather stands as touchstone to “reinvigorate questions we should never stop exploring.” With that in mind a variety of writers were invited to offer reflections broadly inspired by the question: “What does it mean to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict?” To that end, writers from a number of different countries were recruited.

The final compilation is, perhaps inevitably, uneven. However, the strongest entries are startling and have stayed with me long after the reading. The first essay to catch my imagination was, much to my surprise, Daniel Kehlmann’s “A Visit to the Magician”. Having read his F: A Novel with a measure of disappointment, I was drawn into his account of his own attempt to pursue the experience of being hypnotized after this same novel was released. Because a visit to the performance of a hypnotist sets the stage for the events that unfold in F he decided that he ought to have a go at the real thing himself. The exploration of hypnotism leads to an interesting reflection on the mechanisms that may help motivate individuals to rise, against their better angels, to support dictatorships and even march to war.

“(I)t’s nothing more than the most normal effort to be like everyone else, to experience what everyone else experiences, to behave the way authorities want you to behave. And then of course there’s the desire not to do anything wrong in full sight of so many other people.”

For Belgian author Ewrin Mortier and Slovanian poet and writer Aleš Šteger connections are drawn between the First World War and subsequent conflicts, WWII in the first case, the Balkan War in the latter. In “The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing”, Mortier concerns himself with the silences that remain unspoken, and the way language and lies are employed to negotiate the complicated way that both World Wars divided Belgian communities and families. His essay encompasses the story of his own grandmother and her beloved younger brother containing the painful truth that he would weave into the fabric to his debut novel Marcel. By contrast, Šteger’s tale, “Tea at the Museum” is unsettling and unusual. When Z, a woman he has not seen or heard from in years, calls and suggests that they meet to for tea he cannot imagine why she wants to see him. She is, it seems, keen to apologize for a wrong she swears she has done to him – in a previous life lived during the First World War. The encounter leads him to confront the memories of individuals and of countries, and reflect upon the way poetic imagination is employed to talk about horrors to painful to face directly:

“Only through literature can we realize how impossible it is to have any true insight into the past, any true experience of it, and what’s more we will become part of some equally incomprehensible past.”

Elsewhere, novelist NoViolet Bulawayo writes about the work of writers from her native Zimbabwe who, through their voices raised in protest in the threat of censorship and imprisonment, served to reconnect her to her community from afar, ultimately leading to a focus and theme in her own writing. Her exploration of her own identity in this context serves as a direct and deeply personal tribute to her fellow Zimbabwean artists. Another striking and powerful contribution comes from UK based Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo. Her account of the experiences and often unfortunate end of thousands of Chinese coolies imported like cargo to dig trenches and lay railway tracks along the front toward the end of WWI is at once astonishing and disturbing.

The collection is rounded out by contributions from Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Elif Shafak, Colm Toibin and Jeanette Winterson. What is most interesting is the varied and diverse ways that all of these accomplished writers respond to the theme presented for their consideration. There is plenty of food for thought here.

* Review copy provided by Steerforth Press through NetGalley.