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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of moral ambiguity : The Impostor by Damon Galgut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And more authentic.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe I am simply more mature myself.

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

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

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

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

So far so good.

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

And it takes place in India.

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

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

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

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

No one wins.

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

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

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

But consider yourself warned.

The detective and the end of the world: The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis

If you are a bit of a news junkie like I am, there is a lot of bad news on our TV screens and computers each day. Violent political upheaval, deadly viruses, floods and fires. But it is scattered and for so many of us our complaints are relatively minor, isolated. What if the signs suddenly started to rapidly multiply and spread across continents and communities. Would it herald the end of the world? Would we know or even agree on the meaning of the signs? Assign them to God, reduce them to science?

Translated by Will Firth Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America
Translated by Will Firth
Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America

The Coming, a wonderful novella by Montenegrin novelist Andrej Nikolaidis explores such questions from a rather unconventional perspective. Our hero is a private detective, a small town Philip Marlowe based in the ancient city of Ulcinj. He finds himself most comfortable providing his clients with the answers they want, regardless of whether or not he even manages to find the truth behind a crime or infidelity. This approach makes him popular with the locals who prefer to approach him  rather than the authorities. Consequently the quiet life he seems to desire tends to allude him. As the book opens he has become obsessed with the particularly brutal murder of an entire family which appears to have coincided with the burning of the local library.

Yet even stranger phenomena begin to threaten his routine. Snow starts to fall in June and does not let up. Around the world catastrophes – earthquakes, floods, raining amphibians – are reported with alarming intensity. Is this the Apocalypse, is the Second Coming finally at hand?

For our poor detective who faces this most peculiar string of circumstances with cynical humour and frustration, there is an added factor. Emmanuel, a child he fathered during a brief affair with an irresistible client, is now grown and has tracked him down from an asylum in the Alps where he has been confined after some serious mental breakdown. Through a series of emails Emmanuel shares details of his childhood with the father he has never met and offers his curious knowledge of messianic mystics, millennial cults and numerous attempts to calculate the date of the end of the world throughout western history. Perhaps because he himself has a mental illness, Emmanuel interprets the reported behaviours of many cult members or their charismatic, wildly erratic leaders in reference to what would be probable modern psychiatric diagnoses.

For myself, personally, in the months that followed my diagnosis with bipolar, I struggled to make sense of the role of my illness in the intensely spiritual experiences that I had periodically encountered growing up. During full blown psychosis, I could imagine that the frantic notions that I had the answer to the meaning of life were indeed in keeping with mania. I had the cramped and panicked nonsensical documents to prove it. But what about the earlier visions and spiritual experiences? Far less dramatic, frequently beautiful, these moments had filled me with such an assurance of the existence of God that I completed an honours degree in philosophy without once being troubled by any ontological questions. I could argue for or against the existence or nature of God while my own personal spirituality remained intact.

However, as I started to read about psychotic symptoms, I began to recognize similar features in the visions of Biblical prophets, the martyrdom of saints, the trance states of mystics and other ostensibly spiritual experiences. I could not divorce my own experiences from an underlying framework of biochemistry. My sense of personal faith crumbled.

Over the years as I have watched good people of faith rejected by their churches following mental breakdowns, I have been increasingly concerned by the double standard. After all who draws the line between mystical vision and clinical madness?

The Coming sees no need to draw those distinctions. I loved the way the pragmatic emails from the detective’s estranged son reach out to a world that may well be facing its final hours with the observation that the human desire for an Apocalypse can be compared to our urge to fast forward through a detective movie because we can’t wait to see how it ends.

We want answers – but we those answers to come from God or from science, not from the visions of those who are determined to be not in their right minds.