Every revolution is a child grown before fire: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful by Rohan Chhetri

      For so long I felt he was dead
or so alive I couldn’t bring myself to imagine
his ruined light, & yet there he was, grinning,
the old boy so far inside him, just looking
into his face was a vertiginous drop down
the cool dark of an abandoned well, & him
a thin shade at the bottom among the bones.

                              – from “Sebastian”

Consider the title: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. The conjunction, or, carries the weight of invitation. And there is much stunning beauty to be found in the work of Nepali-Indian poet Rohan Chhetri, but also a heavy burden of loss and intolerable pain—often shocking in its sudden depiction or in its lingering aural presence. Intensity of images rooted primarily in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya runs up against layers of emotion barely articulated within tapestries that honour Western lyrical traditions. In awarding the original manuscript the prestigious Kundiman Prize, the Judges Citation recognizes that “Chhetri dramatizes and resists the ways language, and its implicit logic, limit what is possible within our most solitary reflections, defining even those ‘vague dreams’ that in the end we greet alone.”

Now this might seem an intimidating brief with which to open this commentary, but for a reader, no matter if their connection to poetry is casual or confident, there is a certain comfort with familiar forms, say an ode or a sonnet, that makes the turns and twists the themes take that much more striking. In conversation with his editor Kristina Marie Darling, Chhetri is asked about his approach and the value of encouraging this dialogue between inherited literary form and modern, experimental techniques. In his response he suggests that:

“my poetic impulse is a baroque one which is well suited to the syncretic, non-linear, anti-neocolonial poetics that can accommodate politics and revolution from the margins, the fabular, folk horror and mythology, the motif of katabatic descent, the marriage of the classical and the local etc. — all of this prismed through the multiple poetic traditions I write out of as a Nepali-Indian Anglophone writer.”

In this one, full-bodied sentence, the poet offers a clear sense of the mood permeating his work and the atmosphere that envelopes the reader travelling through it. His central point of reference is a borderland where many forces meet—literary, historical, lyrical—crossing lines, echoing long standing struggles over land, language and cultural autonomy. It exists on many levels, in the reality, in the imagining and in the documenting. When I look back across the poems in this slim volume I am reminded anew how grim they are, and yet what I remember is a certain beauty, a bone-deep fundamentalness of being. That is, I suppose, why the myths and fairy tales that enchant us also carry so much darkness and shadow.

Sorrow, absence, and death are never far from the surface in Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. There is a strong sense of ancestral connection to the poet’s Nepali-Indian background, but the lyric voice is not personal until later, enhancing the mythological, even epic, quality of the poems. Time and again hints of smothered brutality give way to moments of unflinching violence—a violence that arises by both natural force and human design. It is a part of the philosophical/literary exercise at hand, but one that is rooted in historical, political and ethnic conflict. As Chhetri explains, in this book:

there is always that implicit tension between language and violence but it also plays out more overtly in a poem like “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”, which recounts the events of the last iteration of the Gorkhaland Movement in 2017, a hundred-year-old movement demanding self-determination and a separate Indian state for the Nepali-speaking population in West Bengal.

Revolutions—as an extended legacy gifted from generation to generation—run through this collection. The stories of grandparents, parents, and children find expression as choral and individual voices rising in lament. Some losses are intimate and cumulative, others vivid and abrupt:

Another afternoon            a fifteen-year-old boy
Hear the bullet              thud to breast like second heart
pain’s rubbery percussion             the way he looked up
mouth a shucked-oyster wobble                   Alive
in the elongating horror

                          – from “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”

In such moments, the dynamic relationship between language and violence is realized with such a sensitive touch—just the right phrase, spacing, word—that the impact is simultaneously personal and political. The broader implications of such moments of barbarity ripple out far beyond any border-straddling community, across state, national and international lines, to be echoed afresh in the ongoing conversation between form, content and technique.

As one would expect, the poems that comprise this collection draw much of their energy and atmosphere from rural imagery featuring forests, rivers and a frequent appearance of deer (causing me to think of Trakl for his fondness for the same motif). However, especially in the latter sections as a lyrical “I” begins to appear, the speaker finds himself in New Delhi and Los Angeles. Yet, as in earlier pieces, the environment is reflected from an array of unexpected angles. Set in LA, “The Intelligence of Hunger” finds the poet who was once able to sleep through earthquakes, gunfire and rampaging elephants, newly alive to noise and a fresh urban reality, hot and dry with fires burning in the hills:

Where I live now every sound I make is a half-note
of loss. The bare mountain withstands, drought-
ridden, the Pacific breaking froth at its feet.
The wind rasps through the chaparral & I think
of the fire followers waiting in their late style
of hunger. The giant coreopsis that will bloom
for three bright weeks in April. I wanted to write
about these. If not love. Wildflowers, not grief.

Yet in this landscape so distant from home, his pen still turns to grief, as the end closes in on a sharp imagination of agony and sacrifice. A mood that crosses miles in an instant.

It is difficult to emerge from this stunning collection unmoved. The language and the intensity of imagery speak to something very primal, human and strangely comforting. I find myself returning over and over again to marvel at how the concert of words plays out on each page. Strongly recommended.

Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful, the third collection by Rohan Chhetri, is published by Tupelo Press in the US and Harper Collins in India with a UK edition coming from Platypus Press in 2022.

Bedtime stories for insomniacs: To See Out the Night by David Clerson

In 2016, a feisty new imprint, dedicated to introducing English speaking audiences to a new generation of young Quebecois writers, emerged with their first release. Over the past five years, this small Canadian publishing venture has maintained an annual three-title season, their books garnering nominations, awards and international attention along the way. QC Fiction has now introduced their 2021-2022 line-up with To See Out the Night, a short story collection by David Clerson, the same author whose novella Brothers closed their first season.

A work of haunting minimalism, Brothers is a stark fable about the adventures of two misshapen boys who live with their mother in a desolate world—a place that exists somewhere between epic childhood fantasy and post-apocalyptic despair. Together the siblings craft a ramshackle boat and set off in search of their father, a wild dog. The tale that unfolds is one of tragedy and resilience, played out on a stage that is spare, surreal, and yet strangely alive. With broad brush strokes Clerson creates a work of such visual energy that I cannot help but imagine it as an animated film or graphic novel.

His new work, first published in French in 2019, carries some of the same qualities or tendencies as Brothers. Although the characters and settings have greater density—they are fleshed out a little more—but there is still much left unsaid. A porous line separates the real and the unreal. The narratives, if grounded in a more recognizable world, explore the middle ground between primal and modern energies. In keeping with its title then, one could think of the dozen short fables of To See Out the Night as bedtime stories for insomniacs, those caught between waking and sleep. As it turns out, night—alternate dream realities, night shift workers, the exploration of strange nocturnal spaces—feature in many of the stories.

Clerson has a fondness for the socially awkward character, someone who tends to isolate or struggle with finding a balance between the disparate elements of their life. He typically places most of his protagonists in distinctly Quebec settings, both urban and rural, but in most cases a weirdness awaits, one that warps otherwise ordinary existences, perhaps mildly, perhaps stretched far beyond the norm. This may even involve, as with the boys’ animal/human parentage in Brothers, a crossing of boundaries between man and beast. In the opening piece, “The Ape Within,” an unemployed night watchman experiences a compelling sense of connection with an orangutan on a nature documentary and soon becomes convinced he is possessed, from inside, by the ape. On vacation, the protagonist of “Jellyfish” is entered by an aquatic creature that will completely transform his life. In “The Language of Hunters,” the narrator’s encounter with a bear carcass, killed by a hunter but abandoned to the birds and forest animals, leads into an account of the impact his father’s suicide has left on him:

I felt like I couldn’t leave, like I wanted to dig a grave for the bear or take it with me, gut it, cut through its flesh, remove its animal skin and put it on. The hunter hadn’t bothered to take the fur or the meat, and I wondered why we taxidermied animals but not humans, why we tried to preserve animals in some approximation of life but hid the bodies of our loved ones until we forgot about them, until there was nothing left.

In each tale, an oddness of motivation or intent colours the engagements between the characters and the worlds they find themselves in. Clerson’s gift lies in taking apparently ordinary actors, setting them in an environment, real or surreal or both, and twisting the circumstances to see not simply how, but if they will respond. The touch is light, the tone is matter-of-fact regardless of context, be it realistic or fabulist in nature and, beneath the surface, existential questions percolate. Quietly yet consistently off-centre, To See Out the Night offers a charismatic collection of apocryphal tales for our times.

To See Out the Night by David Clerson is translated by Katia Grubisic (who also translated Brothers) and published by QC Fiction.

The living dead man: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.

Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.

Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.

After the first month he stopped counting.

Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.

The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:

The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.

He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.

Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.

The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.

The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.

As long as I live in poetry: Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.
.        – from “The Lamp”

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019) the much loved and highly respected Bengali author, scholar and feminist was a versatile and prolific writer whose extensive bibliography includes fiction, essays, children’s literature, travelogues, political columns and more. However, throughout her life she identified herself as a poet, first and foremost. As the daughter of two acclaimed poets, she began writing poems when she was a young child. In her comprehensive Introduction to the present collection, her daughter Nandana Dev Sen—not a poet herself, but a writer, actor and activist—reflects on the way poetry served as a vital and constant companion, one that was not always easy to satisfy. As Nandana records, in her mother’s own words:

“Poetry is like war,” she wrote. “A war with oneself. Finally, only when there is victory and peace, poetry follows. Poetry has to be earned.”

This sentiment can be felt in the clarity and precision that marks her work.

Acrobat presents a selection of poems that span Dev Sen’s career from the late 1950s through to 2019. It is very much a labour of love between a mother, the poet, and a daughter, the translator. Although she would not live to see the final publication, Nabaneeta Dev Sen was very excited about this book which would be her very first major release from a western publisher. She was gravely ill but undaunted when the project began and while translations of some of her poems already existed, she desired newer versions. A modest list of poems was compiled, but that was as far as mother and daughter could go together. Nandana translated those pieces and many more over the following months, gathering them together with a number of poems her mother had translated herself, a few that she had written in English, and one translated by her sister, Antara Dev Sen. Her Introduction includes a biography, personal in tone, and a discussion of the challenges of translating poetry and the considerations she followed when bringing her mother’s Bengali into English.

When presenting work drawn across a period of six decades, there is a common tendency to allow the date of publication to dictate the order. In Acrobat, however, the poetry of Nabaneeta Dev Sen is sorted along thematic lines. The book is divided into five sections, each named for a phrase pulled from one of the poems within it. A chronology is included at the back so one can, as I did, check to see the decade a particular poem belongs to. Such an organic approach makes for a wonderful reading experience, allowing one to appreciate the way the poet’s work visits and revisits similar subjects over the span of her life, with styles and perspectives shifting over time and place. Dev Sen married young and spent her twenties and early thirties living in the US and UK where her academic work eventually drew her away from poetry for a while. In 1974, when her marriage to economist Amartya Sen began to falter, she returned home to Kolkata. As a newly single mother with two daughters amid the scandal of divorce, poetry took on a new importance as a personal space in which to explore her pain, her identity, and her place in the world. In contrast to her scholarly writing which was primarily in English, for almost all of her creative work, she made the “political” decision to write in Bangla—not only a reflection of her feminist values and her language activism but as a voice for deeper emotional exploration and observation.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry, to my reading, is distinguished by an alertness to the moment in all its strangeness and wonder. She is attuned to the anxieties and the triumphs of life, distilling key elements into vivid images. This is beautifully illustrated in an early poem, “The Great Fair” that appears in the first section which revolves around the notion of time. The speaker is waiting with a cup of saved coins for an adult who has promised to return to take her to the Great Fair. She lists wonderous toys and treasures she expects to be able to buy, but:

As I waited on my steps
My limbs grew long
My list blew away in the wind
My cup of change became a trunk of gold.

There is nothing left for me to buy
From your Great Fair anymore.

I am going to get up from my steps now

There is a remarkable sadness and defiance in the voice of the speaker; that complicated mix of emotion that comes with growing up, letting go of, or seeing through, the illusions of childhood.

As a passionate advocate for the preservation of Indian tongues, a translator and a promoter of the voices of women, it is not surprising that poetry, words and language, frequently appear as subjects in Dev Sen’s poems. She approaches the theme with humour, with elegance and with pain. “The Year’s First Poem,” for example, begins:

Pretending
as if nothing at all has happened,
picking up the heart
from the sand, dusting it clean
pushing it back inside my blouse
secretly, the first year’s poem gets written.

Other themes that resurface include identity, relationships with others, and a search for deeper truths in life. These are, of course, not unique as poetic topics. It is the distinctive voice, the vulnerability and the openness that combine to make the poems in this collection so strong. But, more than that,  Nandana Dev Sen’s translations and her loving curation of this volume—which opens with an Introduction that is both biography and translator’s note and closes with an open letter to her mother—makes Acrobat at once a beautiful memorial that honours Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s life and spirit and a vital introduction to her poetry for English-speaking readers.

Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen is translated by Nandana Dev Sen and published by Archipelago Books.

Hardly at a loss for words: Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas

Imagine this: a novel about a would-be novelist, a writer of “so-called” fictions, or stories inspired by his life in Bogota, Colombia, now living in California, who steals time to write, avant-garde music flowing through his headphones, in the cubicle he occupies at Prudential Investments where he works as a data analyst. When the work day is done he heads home, no not Home, but to The Other Home, a studio apartment in building adjacent to the building (containing Home) and joined to said building by a shared laundry room. This arrangement allows our “hero” to maintain a connection and an illusion of family life with his former wife, Ida, and his daughters, Ada and Eva. Add an unstable sister and a mother, both across country, and a selection of past and present girlfriends, serious and casual, and you have the psychological landscape in which one Antonio Jose Jiménez exists (and sometimes tries to pretend he does not exist).

Aphasia opens during Summer #8 of Antonio’s semi-domesticated or post married life, and his former wife has, as is her custom, taken the girls to her native country, Czechia, to spend time with her parents. Normally their absence would be a green light for him to engage with previous lovers and/or pursue new romances. But this year he is worried about the potential threat such romances might pose to his precariously balanced family life, so he signs up for Your Sugar Arrangements, a site for wanna-be Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies to connect under the name Arturo Ventanas. What could possibly go wrong? Or rather, what does this piece of information, offered on the very first pages of the book, tell us about our friend Antonio? Well, that he is quite capable of reasoning at cross purposes—in fact the entire novel could be described as an exercise in the tangling and untangling of his thought processes through an ongoing stream of remembrances, distractions and denials. A conventional narrative it is not, an absorbing reading experience it is.

This is the second novel by Mauro Javier Cárdenas featuring Antonio though the two Antonio’s don’t line up exactly. In The Revolutionaries Try Again he is an avant-garde music loving data analyst in California who returns home to Ecuador (which, rather than Colombia, is the author’s own native country) where, together with a school friend, he attempts to rekindle the political dreams of their youth. It is a boisterous experimental endeavour with multiple threads and an explosion of narrative styles. By contrast, the present incarnation of Antonio with his creeping middle-age anxieties is a quieter affair, but no less ambitious. Unwinding in a feast of long sentences that extend for pages without a break, Aphasia reads almost like a transcription of its protagonist’s thoughts and experiences shaped by what he thinks, knows and what he thinks he knows. Along the way, the incorporation of transcriptions of conversations he has taped with his mother, his former wife and his sister expand the world in which he exists.

This Antonio-centred world depends on a healthy amount of distraction, imagination and avoidance. His writing and reading drive much of it, his former girlfriends, Dora and Silvina, still occupy his mind, his occasional sugar arrangements complicate matters, his daughters command his affections, Nicola Carati, the hero of the Italian family saga, The Best of Youth, provides him an idealized alter ego, and, when required, Antonio even submits to his role as a data analyst. It’s a busy existence, one that clutters up the file cabinet in his cubicle at Prudential Investments because, if anything, Antonio is a master at compartmentalization. There is plenty he’d rather not think about, including a volatile family life with his father back in Bogota. However, the major elephant-in-the-room element is the current affairs of his sister Estela who, suffering from what seems to be schizophrenia, involve serious medical and legal challenges that continue to surface throughout the course of this novel:

—I don’t intend to write about my sister here, Antonio writes, among my so-called sugar arrangements—nor do I want to give you the impression my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion from thinking about my sister’s misfortunes, Antonio writes, because of course my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion, but so are all other activities that allow me to pass the time without thinking of the misfortunes that have happened are still happening to my sister—and although of course Antonio’s ashamed of his avoidance, no one needs to know, he won’t tell anyone, and thankfully he no longer believes in a god that can strike him for avoiding his sister’s misfortunes…

So, what will Antonio write about? Everything he insists he won’t write about and more. What he won’t/can’t write about the third person narration carries because what he writes and what he thinks and feels are often at odds. The recordings worked into the text allow key people in his life to speak for themselves to bring their own realities into the mix although not without Antonio’s questions influencing their disclosures. The narrative shifts perspectives multiple times within the same extended sentence yet remains internally driven by Antonio’s thoughts and experiences.

The style with its long circuitous sentences, intentionally repetitive and often uncertain and self-contradictory, will immediately call to mind Thomas Bernhard, and he is among the many literary presences in this book. Antonio, as a writer, tends to perceive and frame things in terms of literature, film and music, so writers and their works—including Sebald, Krasznahorkai, Beckett, Chekov, Virginia Woolf and many more—appear among these pages, sometimes employed in the most unlikely contexts. Encountering these elements is part of the fun of reading this work. And Aphasia is fun to read, falling into the rhythm of the long passages, and riding the waves of Antonio’s contradictory thinking and overthinking.

Essentially, this is a novel about what is going on in the presumably ordered if cluttered mind of its central character and, as somewhat of a counterpoint, in the disordered, psychotic mind of his sister. What has happened and what might happen is secondary to what Antonio thinks about these things, consequently he often acts without seeming to think at all which is, of course, what we all do so much of the time, for better or worse. Yet, this is, at heart, a book about family—the family histories that form us, the obligations they bring, and the complicated emotions involved in creating our own families whether accidental (as for poor Antonio) or otherwise. These are, of course, the themes troubling much of Antonio’s mental real estate. Whether he reaches any insights or not is secondary to the journey itself.

Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A map of your absence: If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani

Some novels greet you at the door—or in this case, just beyond the baggage claim—engage your attention, and hold you, sentence by sentence, through the past and the present, until you reach your final destination. If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Italian writer Andrea Bajani, is such a book. Yet the magic of this story lies entirely in the telling—in the delicate balancing of select, sharply depicted images within a spare, measured narrative that simmers with barely restrained emotional tension. On the surface, it’s the tale of a young man grieving his mother’s legacy of repeated departures and arrivals, the mainstay of his childhood, while he attends to her final dispatch in Romania, the ultimate faraway destination from which she would never return. His prospect of achieving closure, however, is tenuous for beneath the surface, complex and conflicted feelings remain unresolved.

The novel opens with Lorenzo’s arrival in Bucharest and his initial contact with Christian, the driver who will serve as his guide to the city and his means to understanding some elements of his mother’s life. Although she is dead, she is never far away—Lorenzo’s account is essentially directed toward her—but his tone speaks to an unbreachable distance. After enough time, absence no longer to makes the heart grow stronger. Addressing her is perhaps the only way to make sense of his loss:

You started leaving when I was young. The first trip was for pleasure, to go meet some friends who were off trying to strike it rich. You drew the world on a sheet of paper the night before, to show me where you were going. We’re here, you said, and tomorrow I’ll be right down here, in this spot. You drew a line with a red marker from home to there. It’s a bridge, you said, it’s like crossing the river to the other side. And under the bridge we colored everything blue; we filled in the water of Europe. Then we taped the picture to the refrigerator, and that’s where it stayed for years to come.

His mother’s trips became more frequent. Promotion of her egg-shaped, sweat-inducing weight loss machine takes her around the world. The souvenirs she brings home multiply in her son’s room, mapping her absence. When she is home, the increasing presence of her business partner in her life begins to put a strain on her marriage. Before long, the partner and the promise Romania holds as the ideal base for their enterprise is too strong and finally she is gone for good. Left behind in Italy, Lorenzo and his dad will never see her again; even the phone calls will dwindle as the years pass.

Now grown and finally in Romania himself, Lorenzo is reunited with Anselmi, his mother’s business partner, a loud, brash Italian who has clearly found a level of success and self-importance that would have eluded him at home. He is of a breed, not uncommon in the country—latter-day middle-aged foreign opportunists—and Lorenzo will encounter more than a few men of this type, including another long-time friend of his mother who reveals to him the shocking and sorry state of her final years. No one is exactly forthcoming with details, but Anselmi has taken up with a young Romanian woman named Monica who seems less than thrilled with her circumstances and rather attracted to the young Italian she has been ordered to attend to. Lorenzo, however, is seemingly most comfortable in the company of Christian, his mother’s long time driver. With him he is able to be present without pressure. Together they visit Ceausescu Palace, spend time in the city, share both laughter and silence. Lorenzo is gently attentive to the hidden strengths Christian seems to carry, leaving a faint erotic tension in the air.

If You Kept a Record of Sins offers an account that rides as much on what is unspoken as on what is shared. The narrative is economical and precise, moving from one finely honed image to another. Lorenzo’s mood is lonely, detached. He is cautious in his engagement with others. The abandonment he felt at a young age comes through even as he recalls tender moments of play or adventure with his mother. As an adult he appears to be grasping at something to feel for someone he hardly ever knew. Her own family, he is aware, were oddly unforgiving and remote themselves, while her final years in Romania were marked by romantic betrayal and self-destruction, but how to make sense of the damage she was responsible for between those two ends? A mixture of love and ambivalence fuels this bereaved son’s ongoing one-sided conversation with this mother as, for example, in this account of his first night in her apartment:

The mirror was too low—it cut off my head—and to think there was a time you used to lift me up, to look into my eyes. I was still wet when I left the bathroom, a trail of droplets behind me. I turned off all the lights, except the nightstand lamp. I took my pajamas from my bag, put them on, and went over to your bed. I dropped onto it, tried to bounce, then slipped under the covers. And it was almost as if I felt your bones, under there, that I was lying between bone and muscle and had to stay very still, or else I’d hurt you.

This is a novel at once sombre and hopeful. Beautifully translated by Elizabeth Harris, it never falls in to oversentimentality. Grief is idiosyncratic, sometimes elusive, and Bajani captures this complexity well. The cast of complicated secondary characters add depth to Lorenzo’s experiences without ever distracting or weighing them down. Reading fiction this well-crafted is a joy.

If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Andrea Bajani is translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and published by Archipelago Books.

Troubling the alphabet: Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi

What can a language reveal? What can it obscure? If your memories were birthed in one culture, can they be retrieved elsewhere? What is gained and what is lost when you migrate from one land to another, from one language to another? How does this shift affect the spelling and the telling of a life?

Wittgenstein’s aphorism: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ is false; there were thoughts that lacked words. We doused ourselves in neologisms. Dorothy repeating ‘there’s no place like home.’ A memory burn: the first time I saw a man kissing another man. (from Chapter 9)

The thirty-nine part prose poem that comprises Australian poet Harold Legaspi’s pocket-sized volume Letters in Language seem to dance around these questions, indirectly entertain them. Flirt and tease. Lean in closely. Look away. Catching, again and again, his own reflection.

Drawing inspiration from American Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Legaspi has entered into his own experimental autobiography. Hejinian’s ground-breaking work, as published in 1980,  featured thirty-seven non-narrative prose poems, each thirty-seven sentences long—one for each year of her life at the time of writing. A second edition, revisited the project, growing with the poet, to forty-five pieces of forty-five sentences each. These sentences refuse direct connection to one another, defying the sequential illusion of conventional life writing. How do we remember ourselves? In fragments and moments, yet somehow, through the translation into language, patterns  and a sense of wholeness emerges. But is it real?

To read My Life is to let the words, the sentences, flow over you. There is a continuity of voice, and of the nature of images that interconnect when memories arise—details of a childhood for example may include activities, rooms, sounds, objects, and observations from a mature vantage point—but the intentional corralling of these images into narrative form distorts the truths it endeavours to preserve. The reader is invited, not to interpret and decode, but to respond from their own experiences of life.

Letters in Language mines a similar domain—life lived—but within the context of a Filipino family, a displaced culture, and multifaceted  questions of identity. I don’t know the author’s age at time of writing, but he does not hold to constraints of length. Legaspi’s language is playful, sentences often clipped and short, with images drawn from pop culture, even current realities like Covid-19 tossed in. The lines tumble over one another, appear connected for a stretch and then not, punctuated with aphorisms, self-reflection, rhetorical questions. The sentences have a transitory relation to one another, as if meaning is, at any single moment incidental and yet sensible. Not unlike the way the fragments and pieces of our own lives are shuffled and reordered each time we pull a memory card from the deck. New contexts constantly reshape who we think we are, refashion our ever-fluctuating histories.

Ever present amid the poems that fill these pages is the author’s lola—his memories of his grandmother fuel his own. The opening sentence reads: “My lola swept autumn leaves with walis tiniting, burned them in a can, wearing her grand billowy housedress.” Walis tingting is a Tagalog word for a broom constructed of coconut midribs. It sweeps its way through Filipino households. Likewise, the expression sweeps its way through these poems—a recurring image or an action that seems to signify the way we sweep through our memories, sweeping some to the forefront, others under the rug.

I who thirsted for knowledge. My niche unknown. Underneath the black economy. Where dry spells quelled my dysphoria. Fixed under the shade of a Bodhi tree. Away from air-conditioned air. Reborn. Conquered. A tangential awakening. Slid straight through, vagina dentata. The tip of my bayonet inched in her spine. Folk tales whispered, they got rid of me efficiently, like a baby out with the dingo. My mother, no shrinking violet. Did what was necessary. To cover up the blame. Walis tingting. As for the men, whose words were carefully chosen—passed on their phobias. My uncles. After thirty-nine years of solitude. Raised me like their own. Classed as a freak, unable to procreate like their sons and daughters (from Chapter 26)

So who is the “I” who lurks in this extended prose poem? A poet who exposes himself through his passions—emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual—played out against a formative soundtrack of music, films and books; bound by friends and lovers, and framed within a multigenerational Filipino family. Letters in Language never drifts far from the unresolved reality of the migrant existence, from the feeling of being defined by and yet disconnected from a land that is now somehow alien. After his grandmother, his unaltered link to the Philippines, has passed, Legaspi becomes aware of a kind of anchorlessness. One that rests in language, between a present language that cannot contain the loss, and an ancestral one not comfortably in hand: “Where English was an oblique mirror to my alter ego. I found myself faint with anxiety, a fictional object my truth. A truth with no original, veiled, forsaking to journey where it all began.”  The need to acknowledge this fundamental lack of grounding is then reflected in the closing sections of this text. Chapters 34 to 37 are composed almost entirely in Tagalog, a shift accompanied by translated versions. Thus, of all the questions of identity that surface and resurface throughout this poem, it is the poet’s own bilingual identity that troubles the deepest waters. Casting uncertainty on what has come before. What, if anything, has remained unarticulatable? Lyn Hejinian’s original autobiographical project is essentially unfinished, with material appended over time. Like life. What of Letters? That is not a question to anticipate in advance. Like life.

Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi is published by flying island books, ASM, and Cerberus Press.

Coming out elsewhere: Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall

Pride Month is typically a difficult time for me; it was worst in the years when I was trying to find a space within the LGBTQ “community.” For many, no matter what label(s) one lines up under, it can be an uneasy fit. Definitions are at once elastic and exclusionary and today, more than two decades after I first recognized myself as a trans man, I find myself drifting away from identities (in all aspects of my life) and exercising caution with language I do use to talk about who I am. However, there was a time—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when self-identification was critical and a “queer” network (print, virtual and face-to-face) helped me come out, make the decision to transition, and cope with the fallout. Although my location and circumstances were far from those detailed in this book, it brought that time back to me all the same.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by activist and writer Pawan Dhall, traces the challenges, achievements and evolution of a fledgling  queer initiative in West Bengal and Odisha, one that was  driven by a need to provide connection, support, and sexual health resources to a variety of individuals who otherwise faced isolation, stigma, discrimination and physical threat. To read this account, one senses a time of darkness, concern and excitement, yet, although much has changed for queer people in India, especially in recent years, significant challenges still exist.

This slender, illustrated and referenced volume, part of Seagull Books’ Pride List series, presents a sort of textual and visual documentary of the early queer movement that began in Kolkata, eventually spreading out into rural areas and across state lines. As such it is a part of a broader story of queer life in India and across the globe, a story that in many countries still remains to be lived, let alone told. The author is a journalist with an archivist’s calling, and his intention is neither to explain nor justify the need for a queer movement; his focus is on the how, not the why. He relies on research into the archives of some of the earliest support forums in the area, and introduces many of the individuals who were involved with these groups or who sought their assistance at a time when resources were few and far between.  Where possible follow-up interviews were conducted in 2017. Allowing this story to unfold through real-life experiences, framed historically and in the present day, makes for a remarkably engaging read.

Central to the early queer mobilization as explored in Out of Line and Offline, is a support group called Kolkata Counsel Club, formed in 1993 by a small number of gay and bisexual men including the author. Dhall had already started publishing a queer themed newsletter on his own and it soon became the house journal of Counsel Club and a beacon for countless isolated, uncertain and questioning queer people who wrote letters seeking advice, validation or contact. As Dhall says, “This was the pre-Internet era; even acquiring a telephone connection was a tough task.” Younger folk coming out in the age of social media and a ubiquitous online world likely have little understanding of how vital books, photographs, and newsletters could be to people desperate to come to terms with feeling different, uncertain if anyone else like them exists. I remember it well.

In time, the group would grow and its sphere of influence would expand beyond that of men who have sex with men. Two female university students wrote to them, wishing to find a way to be together away from their families’ objections, so arrangements were made to help them “escape” to Delhi, a success that would not always be feasible for other such young women, sometimes with tragic consequences. Transgender women (often, but not always, hijras) would also find a place the queer movement, as well as representing an important target of sexual health advocacy, especially in poorer, rural communities. Of particular interest to me was the account of a young student who wrote to Counsel Club in 1999 from the small state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. An article on “women in love” had drawn their attention and through it they found the group’s mailing address. This individual (called “Ryan” in the book) claimed that although born a girl, they had the attitude and behaviour of a boy. Ryan was seeking help to have a sex-change. Dhall was struck by the absolute helplessness expressed and wrote two letters in response offering what empathy he could, albeit with a clarification that article that inspired the exchange had been about lesbians. Ryan did not write back, leaving much unresolved. Today Dhall is careful not to assign any label to his troubled correspondent—his own understanding has evolved with the changing awareness of a range sexualities and gender identities. This sensitivity is the mark of someone who has spent many years directly involved with the expanding queer community in India:

But I have also experienced the pitfalls of activist enthusiasm to get the terms right at the expense of the priorities of the person across me. Many of us have come around to believe (through day-to-day interactions, research and training) that there is no one way to be a man, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, Hindu, Muslim, Indian or anything else. Thus it should not have been my place to ‘correct’ Ryan if they somehow felt kinship with the women in love portrayed in the magazine.

Of course, Ryan’s sense of kinship makes perfect sense to me and, like Dhall, I hope they found a way to reach their goals. But I also wish more activists were similarly open rather than dictatorial in their approach.

In fact, Pawan Dhall’s holistic, inclusive perspective is the greatest strength of this book. He accepts the choices others make without judgement even if they are not immediately easy to understand. He sees value in all the people who become involved in advocacy and activism, recognizing that no matter what their background or identity (several of the key figures here are straight, drawn into work with queer communities by virtue of their professional or academic interests). Recent events—the repeal of Section 377 which decriminalizes consensual same sex activity and the passing of the controversial Transgender Bill—point to significant, if complicated, progress. Class inequality is still a critical issue as many queer people are marginalized, in urban and rural settings alike. And, of course, the ubiquitous online world of dating apps, support groups and hyper-visibility is at once a blessing and a curse. So there is always more work to be done and more people who need to be reached.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall is published by Seagull Books.

The ties that bind: The Promise by Damon Galgut

Apartheid has fallen now, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

South African author Damon Galgut is back. It has been a long seven years since the release of Arctic Summer, his fictionalized imagining of the creative block that filled the space between EM Forester’s conception of an “Indian novel” and the publication of A Passage to India eleven years later. It is a tale of unrequited love, rich with historical detail and Edwardian literary flavour. With The Promise, Galgut has returned to his native soil with a work that traces the cumulative misfortunes of an Afrikaner family across three decades of national transition and turmoil. Thematically and stylistically this novel echoes his earlier work, but this ambitious, original effort rises to another level, casting a critical eye at his nation’s troubled history with the insight, confidence and sly humour of a seasoned writer.

Central to The Promise are the Swarts—mother Rachel, father Manie, daughters Astrid and Amor and son Anton—their small farm outside of Pretoria, and a shifting assortment of relatives, partners and community members who come and go along the way. The first section opens with a death, Rachel has lost her battle with cancer, and the family gathers. Astrid, the middle child, is living at home, but her thirteen year-old sister Amor has been sent away to lodge at her school and nineteen year-old Anton is doing his military service. The year is 1986. Rachel’s recent return to her Jewish faith complicates the funeral proceedings and stokes existing tensions between both sides of the deceased woman’s family. But there is something more. Two weeks earlier, Amor had been present in her mother’s room when she begged Manie to promise that he would give Salome, their housekeeper, the small house that she lived in. Reluctantly he agreed. Of course Amor’s parents did not remember she was present at the time; she was, as she puts it, as invisible as a black woman to them. As invisible as Salome herself. Within her family Amor is the odd one—injured as a in a lightning strike as a child, she is seen as slow and plain and, as such, set apart from her older siblings, the golden ones.

Across the years, the members of the Swart family drift apart, each following their own path, to be pulled together only by a sequence of funerals, each separated by roughly a decade. It is by no means a spoiler to reveal that every gathering reduces the Swart clan by one. The section titles even give the victim away, but in itself that tells you little because as life and death takes its toll on the family, the children grow up and South Africa changes, for better and for worse. The promise of Independence, the strangeness of seeing racial boundaries bend, even blur, the rising crime, and the ultimate political disillusion colour the world within which the primary characters fall in and out of love, succeed and fail, and meet their ends. Guiding the entire drama is a rambling omniscient (mostly) third person narrator who is, by turns, playful, sarcastic, critical, and compassionate.

The narrative voice is exceptional, orchestrating a drama which is at once far reaching and intimate. James Wood in his review for The New Yorker says:

Technically, it’s a combination of free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a specific character) and what might be called unidentified free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a shadowy narrator, or a vague village chorus).

This is a helpful way to describe what Galgut is doing, but it doesn’t begin to capture what it feels like to ride the narrative wave, or the skillful way that the narrator engages with his audience echoing views of an extended cast of characters, some almost incidental, others central to the story, to call moments of historical value into relief and to further personality development with passing commentary and sideways glances. The line between the narrator and the characters is porous; it is, at times, impossible to tell if we are hearing a character’s thoughts or words, or if we are hearing the narrator’s direct response to that individual, an editorial aside, or the reflection of a group or societal opinion. One also finds moments where names are forgotten, mistakes are made and quickly corrected, and where metafictional observations step out to question the logic of novel writing/storytelling in process. However, these are not mere gimmicks, rather they underscore the willful blindness that so many of the characters, and by extension, white South Africans, cling to as their reality is challenged. And, of course, the promise at the heart of the novel, unkept and as such symbolic of this shifting terrain, is a constant stumbling block:

Not even Salome is around as she normally would be. You might have expected to see her at the funeral, but Tannie Marina told her in no uncertain terms that she would not be allowed to attend. Why not? Ag, don’t be stupid. So Salome has gone back to her own house, beg your pardon, to the Lombard Place, and changed into her church clothes, which she would have worn to the service, a black dress, patched and darned, and a black shawl, and her only good pair of shoes, and a handbag and a hat, and like that she sits out in front of her house, sorry, the Lombard Place, on a second-hand armchair from which the stuffing is bursting out, and says a prayer for Rachel.

The Promise is, all told, a rather bleak novel, though the boisterous narrator keeps it afloat. As the family falls apart, so does the farm. Everyone seems to have an interest in the house, or its presumed value, but no one is prepared to maintain it and, as we reach the closing section, it’s 2017, and there are competing claims on the land. The only person to keep a degree of distance is Amor, the youngest. At first she travels, returning home transformed, no longer the ugly duckling. She goes on to become a nurse and remains in touch with Salome while avoiding the rest of her family. If she is the Swarts’ moral compass, the price she pays is perhaps no less than that of her siblings, Astrid who marries young and has twins, and Anton who also marries but remains recklessly without a rudder. Religion, or lack thereof, a necessary feature of a tale built around four funerals, proves insufficient to hold anyone’s life intact, yet in various incarnations faith forms an important thread running through this book. But on an individual and a national level there are no easy answers and, true to form, Galgut offers no absolutes. The promise to Salome that goes unfulfilled is not the only unmet expectation—the promise of a new South Africa blooms and gradually falls apart as the book progresses. In the end, only one promise will finally be honoured, at the risk that it is, like so many things in life, too little, too late. One can only hope that for the two main characters remaining it will be enough.

The Promise by Damon Galgut is published in North America by Europa Editions.

In the brotherhood of sleep, all sleepers are equal: The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany

It is said that we spend one-third of our lives sleeping, sometimes struggling to fall sleep, other times either struggling to stay awake or seemingly lost to the world. Some, like me, even wear trackers that weigh, measure and rate the quality of each night’s rest, but no matter how you consider it, sleep has a claim on us all. We are all sleepers. Yet, apart from typical biological and psychological considerations, what does that actually mean? What is the nature of sleep? And how might the sleeper be understood in relation to the waking self and in relation to others? These are the kinds of questions that percolate through Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep, questions examined and entertained in a space removed from conventional approaches to the subject. An open space.

The reality of sleep is not antithetical to that of waking; it is an extension of it, a reordering. Sleep suspends gravity’s pull, it confuses inner with outer, while waking restores gravity and divides reality into an exterior space which we share with others and an interior in which we close in on ourselves.   (from “The Sleeping Space”)

Over the course of eighty-six short non-narrative prose pieces—most no more than one or two pages long—El Wardany employs philosophical, political, and literary devices to think about sleep and the sleeper. The resulting work is one that defies easy categorization—a thoughtful, fragmentary, poetic imagining and reimaging that reaches widely. However, it unfolds in the shadow of the rising unrest in Egypt that marked the spring of 2013 during which the book was written.

The Book of Sleep rests on an understanding of sleep and the sleeper as existing in relation to other objects or beings. It is a perspective not commonly taken, one that allows for a natural progression of reflections that move from the individual to the group. In a conversation recently re-run on the ArabLit site, El Wardany describes for Roger Outa his approach the questions of the identity of the sleeper and the meaning of sleep (translated by Book of Sleep translator Robin Moger):

The book contains three sections on the sleeper. In the first I write about the relationship between the sleeper and the unseen social. In the second I discuss the relationship between the sleeper and the social body: how sleep opens a space in this body and opens it up to another body. In other words, sleep is body opening up to body and all the desires and fears and dispositions in contains. In the third section, I discuss the sleeper’s relationship with the individual and the group and try to escape the binary or introgressive categories this relationship carries with it to say that the group may be other than what we assume: it may be a collection of non-existent people, or of non-human creatures, or of things, or places, and so on, In any case, I do not seek to define the sleeper or compile a list of its possible meanings, because my aim is not to author an encyclopedia on sleep, but rather to write down ideas and observations, which is why I chose fragments.

The format of the book with its many brief open-ended chapters, offers the attentive reader plenty of room for self-reflection, in fact it invites personal engagement. Notions are explored through observations, micro-essays, allegories, and fictional vignettes. Dreamscapes are entered, anchored in a somewhat altered reality save for the presence of the dead. Fellow literary companions are summoned, most notably Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Nancy, two thinkers who present views of sleep that have clearly had an impact on the author’s musings. Throughout this intelligent inquiry, questions are asked, situations are presented, and possible understandings are offered—this is not an argument to be fought but a hopeful reframing of a subject long constrained by black and white reasoning.

If revolution is awakening—a long awaited anomaly that brings a deep collective slumber to an end—then is not sleep a return to dispossession? Is it not a synonym for failure? A failure to reshape reality? An inability to alter the circumstances of life? A defeat in the struggle to redefine the self? But a closer look at what takes place in the instant that we enter sleep tells us something different: this moment does not mark the onset of failure; it simply concedes it. It is the moment in which the sleeper surrenders to his drowsiness and his inability to stay awake. The failure comes first, whether it is the failure of  the self to maintain control or the defeat of the collective in its fight for change.       (from “Coma”)

It is difficult to capture the experience of reading The Book of Sleep without resorting to catch phrases. In truth, the entries, the titled prose pieces, play against one another, approaching the evolving images of the sleeper, sleep and all it might mean from different angles, bringing in varied techniques to flesh out ideas. Some fragments directly echo one another, others revisit and build on themes touched on earlier. A strong poetic sensibility runs through every piece. It is, in the end, an exercise in how to interpret anew, in the possibilities of literature as a “methodology for thinking” that can be applied to other topics that have been suffocated under rigid preconceptions. A process that can open fresh ways of understanding.

In the brotherhood of sleep, all sleepers are equal. Their experiences, their selves, their memories, all are dispersed equally among them: even their unshareable absence is held in common. Sleep proposes another kind of community, a community that does not define the group in terms of its members’ presence but as the product of a shared absence: a bond of kinship that connects all those who have departed; or rather, if the expression holds, a bond of unrelation.
(from “A Bond of Unrelation”)

A book rich in unexpected images and interrelations, this engaging volume invites a reader into a deeply rewarding interrogation of a state of being that consumes so much of our existence—one that we tend to accept with our eyes closed, so to speak.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany is translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.