Love is never enough. Madness is enough: Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up.

I tend to approach books about mental illness with caution, I rarely write about my own experiences, my appetite for memoirs, eagerly fed in the years following my diagnosis as bipolar, has been long exhausted and I tend to look askance at novels that bleed evidence of well-intentioned but distanced research. The best fiction, I’ve found, comes from those who have been close to but not caught inside the maelstrom of mania or the plunging darkness of depression—like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, the third section of Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room or, the book I just finished, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. These are books that touch on a condition, albeit relatively manageable, that has been my companion most of my life, books that seem familiar and strange at once. Even if they are all charged with a measure of compassion and dark humour, they have the power to disturb and unsettle me  because they remind me how disconnected, pained and even oblivious the sufferer can be when caught in the worst waves of the disorder, but, even more upsetting, I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, of how I must appear to those around me when I’ve been most morbid, morose or, as Em would say, “mad.”

Drawing on life with his own mother who suffered from a severe form of manic depression, one that resisted the treatments available, Jerry Pinto offers a bittersweet love story that is also an introspective coming of age story and a searing portrait of the way mental illness can create a vortex around which a family can be tossed and turned—a cyclone that pushes away the outside world and makes “normal”  life an impossible dream. At the heart of the tale is a small Roman Catholic Goan family tucked into the mosaic of late twentieth century Bombay, India’s largest city. The unnamed narrator and his sister Susan share a tiny one bedroom apartment in with their parents Imelda and Augustine Mendes , fondly referred to as Em and the Big Hoom. Although at one time their prospects might have promised a more generous standard of living, all changed as Em’s illness progressed. Swinging widely between deep suicidal depressions and expansive, unpredictable and emotionally abusive mania punctuated by rare episodes of normal, she dominates both the cramped living space and their reality. In the midst of the storm, their stoic father is a fount of calm reserve, their rock, the hint of stability to which the children cling.

Pinto’s narrator is an uncertain, emotionally sensitive character, charged with not only recounting the surreal experience of managing life, adolescence and early adulthood with his difficult and unusual and wildly eccentric mother, but with re-imagining a time before mental illness claimed her moods and mind, before the electrical currents started racing uncontrolled—“flashing and sizzling”—through her brain. Relying on Em’s own, occasionally lucid recollections, and scraps of the diaries and letters she compulsively wrote but rarely mailed, he tries to piece together a picture of her life as a young woman, forced to go to work in her teens to support her family rather than going to college as she hoped, then pushed into becoming a stenographer. She meets her future husband while they are both working in the same office; their courtship is prolonged and simple.

His father’s past our protagonist approaches more cautiously. The Big Hoom is his hero and, if he is seeking the ordinary behind his irrational mother, he does not want to risk learning that his father’s calm exterior is a façade. A father and son trip to Goa provides the backdrop for an exposition of the Big Hoom’s remarkable resolve and determination, tracing his inadvertent arrival in Bombay where, without his family’s knowledge, he stayed on and began working until he could he could afford to go to school and earn an engineering degree. He was the first of his village to make good in the outside world. But for his son he very much remains an enigma, and as a result, so do many of the social norms that are distorted by his erratic upbringing:

At that point I realized what it meant to be a man in India. It meant knowing what one could do and what one could only get done. It meant being able to hold on to two patterns simultaneously. One was methodical, hierarchical, regulated and the outcomes depended on fate, chance, kings and desperate men. The other was intuitive, illicit and guaranteed. The trick was to know when to shift between patterns, to peel the file off the table and give it to a peon, to speak easily of one’s cousin the minister or the archbishop. I did not think I could ever know what these shifts entailed, and that meant, in essence, that I was never going to grow up.

Back at home, Em remains an unpredictable force of nature. As her children get older, eventually moving on to post-secondary educations and careers, they remain essential to her immediate circle of care. With their father, and occasionally their grandmother, they take turns balancing each other off through her ups and downs. It’s a physically and emotionally draining routine:

We never knew when the weather would change dramatically with Em. You’re vulnerable to those you love and they acknowledge this by being gentle with you, but with Em you could never be sure whether she was going to handle you as if you were glass or take your innermost self into a headlock. Sometimes it seemed part of her mental problem. Sometimes it seemed part of her personality.

She could be erratic, intense, loud and obscene, often embarrassing her children. Responding with a disapproving, “Em!” would only further her efforts to shock. However, as difficult as the manic episodes were to endure, especially for the narrator who seems to take it all so personally, the other bipolar extreme was even worse:

I don’t know how to describe her depression except to say that it seemed like it was engrossing her. No, even that sounds like she had some choice in the matter. It was another reality from which she had no escape. It took up every inch of her. She had no time for love or hate, fatigue or hunger. She slept ravenously but it was a drugged sleep, probably dreamless sleep, sleep that gives back nothing.

Add frequent suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and an inability to leave her home unattended, the Mendes family are caught in an endless nightmare.

But for all that, this is a beautiful, warm and affectionate tale, told with generosity and gentle humour. Em’s mind-spinning divergent monologues capture the off-the-rail ramblings of mania with remarkable room filling intensity, but a very human, vulnerable portrait of the woman behind the illness is preserved. However, the real magic of Em and the Big Hoom lies in the narrative voice. Pinto captures the son’s self-conscious guilt—the awareness that his mother’s illness forces him to think and talk about himself and then feel badly about it. He wants to tell his mother’s story, but of course it can’t be extricated from his own. She stirs conflicted sentiments. Bitterness. Anxiety. An impossible love. The illness is endlessly exhausting on those around her, yet the narrator worries that he might share the same genetic tendency to mood disorder, lives in fear that his sister will marry and move out and that the Big Hoom will die leaving him to care for Em alone. Mentally he tries to prepare for this and  wonders if he will ever have the confidence and maturity that stage of life will demand of him. It is this complicated tangle of emotion that carries this novel right through to its poignant, unexpected end.

Jerry Pinto is a well known writer, poet, translator and children’s author from Mumbai. He’s also a passionate mental health advocate; I was fortunate to hear him speak in Bangalore this past November. I know from my own experiences that the stigma around mental health is widespread, even in the western world where progress has been made but services are often difficult to access or too expensive, and a breakdown can easily  cost jobs, careers and relationships. Books like this—entertaining and thought-provoking—are an important aspect of a necessary ongoing discussion.

Em and the Big Hoom is available in India and internationally from Penguin.

The theatre of the desert: Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust

Last week, as I sought a text to carry me across the midnight bridge between decades, I wanted something that might, even for a moment, turn the world on its head. What could, I wondered, be more fitting than to spend New Year’s Eve and the following day in the company of Pierre Senges. After all, a voyage with the French writer, be it brief or extended, is guaranteed to offer a taste of the unexpected. The world he inhabits exists on the edges of maps, in the margins of manuscripts, in the creases between pages, and tucked into the corners of the imagination. If it looks familiar that’s because you have been there, wandered its streets, navigated its seas, crossed its stages. But when you stop to adjust your compass, or try to align yourself with the stars, the needle tends to spin, shudder to a stop, and, then, as soon as you think you know where you are heading, a flood of literary, historical, or starkly contemporary references will slide into the narrative and lead you off track once again. To read Pierre Senges is to embark on an adventure, one that may just as easily take you travelling halfway around the world as stumbling down the block and into the local pub.

Fortunately for me, I had recent translations of two rather different texts by Senges on hand, both translated by his tireless advocate Jacob Siefrig, and published by a couple of inventive small publishers. The first, my New Year’s Eve companion, was the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis. Published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, a project that began in mid-2019  to produce original literary offerings distributed as a monthly print newsletter, this small, pocket-sized volume marks their first foray into the big world of book publishing on a manageable small scale.

Senges delights in taking characters and themes from literature and history, reimagining  them in terms that stretch from the mildly satirical to the strangely absurd, and then proceeding to fashion tales shot through with sharp, dry humour—one that can, at times, be lost on readers who like their humour to be more, shall we say, in your face. In this regard, Falstaff: Apotheosis, taking as its subject Shakespeare’s most misunderstood minor character, is an ideal bite-sized introduction to his singular style. More than a comic foil, Falstaff is presented as an ingenious master of humiliation as a heroic act. His crowning glory, or apotheosis, is his bold and daring performance of a deceased figure on the battlefield, an act that sets the stage for a treatise on the ethics of playing dead:

To be the master of one’s own death, what a timeless caprice: the trick being to lie down not just any old way, rather to adopt the humble simplicity of the sandbag, or the hieratism of the tree trunk, or the mannerist posture of a hunting dog, or an expressionism inspired by anatomies of past centuries and the bold contrasts of cinematic skills—to breathe out one’s last sigh, but exhale it negligently, instead to opt for the Romanticism of the last and lightest breath, like the breath a child turns on a dandelion. . .

What makes Senges so successful is his language—long winding sentences filled with wise and wonderful imagery, holding fast to a measure of seriousness in the narrative voices he employs.

My into-the-new-year Senges was Geometry in the Dust. Published by the bold, experimental Lawrence, Kansas-based publisher Inside the Castle, this is a longer, more elaborate ruse—a delicious anachronistic tale presented as a report to a desert-bound prince keen to construct a city in his kingdom of sand, from his loyal minister who has been sent on a mission to learn about the features of a real-life city and advise his ruler on what will need to be considered. Echoing the spirit of the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, our narrator is attentive but a step out of time, observing the modern metropolis, but not always connecting the dots completely. The result a strangely insightful and original reflection on the nature of the urban landscape.

His observations are often trapped in time. He seeks out the city scribes at one point, hoping to be able to compare his ideas to theirs and finds, rather than rows of copyists at their desks he finds that calligraphers ply their trade by night, running through the darkened streets, clutching paint, hurriedly scrawling messages on walls. The intensity of city life overwhelms him, continually exceeding his expectations, but leading to wonderful portraits as he seeks to describe the indescribable to the sheltered and isolated ruler he serves:

To define a city for you more or less: it’s a danse macabre every single day of the week: it seems to me that the idea of the danse macabre will help you put your finger on what a city is, because it communicates to you a scraping of nail on bone, as well as a gnashing of teeth. The danse tells us all we need to know about the city’s circular nature (not so long ago cities were contained within wooden circles, like certain soft-rind cheeses; although they tried hard to emancipate themselves and go over the walls, they still retain a bit of this roundness: it will be necessary to take this design into consideration)

Yet, even if the noise, chaos and moral loose edges of the city challenge our often judgemental traveller, he is determined to make sense of everything (including the curious cul-de-sac) and advise his prince on the extent to which all architectural, cultural and social intersections should be designed so as to leave nothing to chance. It’s difficult, of course, not to be struck by the degree of hubris driving the ambitions of this desert monarch and his faithful servant, especially on their shifting terrain of sand and dust. But then again, perhaps it is only in the space of pure fancy that the ideal metropolis can exist. Paired with the artist Killoffer’s grotesque depictions of the hectic, congested modern city, Geometry in the Dust offers a fantastic meditation on the impossibility of reducing a concept as complex as the city to a few lines scratched in the dirt.

For a taste of this work and Senges’ inimitable style, see this excerpt from Geometry in the Dust with illustrations by Killoffer at 3:AM Magazine.

Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges are both translated by Jacob Siefrig and published by Sublunary Editions and Inside the Castle respectively.

The music of silence: Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar

Charged with a mournful, aching beauty, the opening passages of Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar’s 2007 novel, Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, clearly set the tone for the story that will follow. The scene is one drenched with misty melancholy. It is late March, 1945. A grey, foggy sky hangs low over the landscape, and a sense of weary dread has settled over the residents of Sóbota, a quiet town, or varaš, nestled on the plains of an otherwise forgotten region of eastern Slovenia, lying between the Mura River and the Raba Valley. The area which had, until the implementation of the Final Solution almost exactly one year earlier, been home to the majority of Slovenia’s small Jewish population, is presently under Hungarian occupation. Now, with rumours that the Russians are advancing and the Germans retreating, no one is certain what to expect next; no one knows what the currents of history are carrying their way.

That night the story of good men and women could barely stand up to the devious wind dispassionately erasing the words on the faded monuments of the law. This mysterious force was stronger than the storms and deeper than the floods that were once talked about here. It came as a vague feeling, or a long, harrowing dream, which burrowed into people’s souls even before they fell asleep or drank themselves into a stupor.

Available in English for the first time in an attentive and sensitive translation by Rawley Grau who also translated Šarotar’s Sebaldian-styled  epic Panorama, this earlier novel is a tale of remembrance, told from a distinctly cinematic perspective, that of a timeless all-seeing eye hovering above the earth, capable of taking in good and evil alluded to in the brief prologue. Not unlike the lens of a camera.

The result is a simple, painfully human story that revolves around two key dates in 1944 and 1945. Touching on critical moments in the lives of a handful of characters — an Auschwitz survivor and former shopkeeper’s return in search of some semblance of home, a young girl’s first infatuation, the secret an aging prostitute has kept from the only other woman still left at the Hotel Dobray, the complicated emotions of the arrogant but ill-prepared leader of a sorry group of fatigued Hungarian soldiers awaiting certain defeat, and an ambitious and prosperous businessman’s unlikely twist of fate – it is a narrative that glances into hearts but never settles for long. The effect is a slowly simmering evocation of the impact of war on a community ground down, torn apart and ultimately upended by events orchestrated from afar. Inevitable because, in the end, we all know how this story ends, the sleepy varaš is ever altered, its Jewish population is all but decimated, and its national identity rewritten. However, unwinding the story as he does, employing careful repetition, connecting events and characters forward and back in time, and gradually revealing a little more with each passage, Šarotar creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of poetic tension.

Central to the story is Franz Schwartz whom we first meet on the road to Sóbota. It has been almost exactly a year since he and his fellow Jewish citizens had been rounded up and sent off, the men to work themselves to death in camps, the women and children to more immediate termination. He knows he will never see his wife and son again, but having escaped the camp he has no place on earth to return to than the town where he was once a proud and successful retailer.

The cold, gaseous sphere hung motionless over the town. The houses, the plane trees and poplars that lined the streets, the bell towers, the man – all were left without shadow. The sharp, blinding light had painfully imprinted an image of the morning on the consciousness of Franz Schwartz. In a succession of short exposures, one after the other as if he was blinking his eyes, the pages of a large photo album were being turned inside him. He stood in the middle of the intersection, entirely alone.

Images of all the familiar streets, buildings and structures return to him, but he carries neither joy nor despair at the prospect of being back. The town has changed and he knows he cannot risk being seen until he gets his bearings.

Meanwhile, Budapest has recently fallen and the Hungarian occupation is on borrowed time. The small military unit presently housed at the Hotel Dobray, under the incompetent command of József Sárdy, secretary of the Office of the Special Military Tribunal, is despondent and all but defeated. They await the advancing Red Army with apprehension. About the only townsperson holding out optimism for the future is Josip Benko, the owner of the local meat factory, former mayor and indefatigable entrepreneur.

As the story unwinds, evidence of a network of complex emotions, complicated loyalties and chronological connections begins to emerge. When the narrative eventually slips back to April of 1944, Franz’s family background and the heartbreaking magnitude of his loss is illuminated. Piece by piece a portrait of the slow motion tragedy that spread over this part of central Europe is brought to life. It is, at once, part of a much larger story and yet distinct and, to the author, inherently personal.

The power of this tale lies in the telling. The somber but lyrical narrative is allowed, when needed, to “creep along like a low-flowing river.” Words are chosen carefully, emotions are numbed, stifled sounds speak volumes. The strains of a song that can no longer be sung or performed permeates the memories of a number of the characters. The music of silence is a recurring motif.

The omniscient, distanced third person perspective of the all-seeing eye only serves to heighten the emotional intensity. Šarotar masterfully maintains this intensity, letting it reverberate like the a violin strung too tight, right through to the end, as all the threads and stories are wound together but ultimately left unresolved, hanging in the air. He ends his narrative with a timeless, unanswerable question. One that, as nationalism is making a resurgence, we would do well to attend to.

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau, is published by Istros Books.

Searching for a future in a devastated landscape: Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Ellmiger

There were no maps, no more accurate maps for the northern coal district. It was absent on all the plans, it was one large absence, so to speak, the course of the roads had long since slightly shifted, hills diminished, towns abolished.

Beneath the surface of a once prosperous coal mining district, flames from a fire in the tunnels has been smouldering for decades; above, the land has largely been laid to waste. Pit frames dot the horizon while in some places the land has caved in, sometimes taking livestock or an unfortunate human resident with it. Towns stand nearly abandoned, home to only the stubborn and the eccentric who have held fast. In one such community, two young women—daughters of the police commander and the last remaining youth—have never known anything but this desolate territory. It is their sole inheritance, all they have to look forward to. Their future is bleak, but they are determined to salvage some sense of optimism.

For Margarete and Fritzi, the protagonists of Swiss writer Dorothee  Elmiger’s award winning debut Invitation to the Bold of Heart, an old map indicating that a long-forgotten river once flowed through the region offers a spark of hope that drives a determined search for evidence that it still exists somewhere—even if it has temporarily disappeared below ground. If they can locate this elusive Buenaventura River, they believe they may be able to begin to make sense of a past, including their own family history, that no one wants to talk about and create a base from which they can start to look forward on their own terms. It’s an ambitious and enormous goal.

Bookish and studious by nature, Margarete is the official archivist. She devours the books she finds in the apartment above the police station where she and her sister live with their father. Natural history, science, and literature. On a Remington typewriter lifted from one of the policemen she types her account and makes notes of details that seem relevant. Facts about rivers and deserts, about mines and mining appear and reappear throughout. Moodier and more carefree, Fritzi makes little direct contribution to the narrative. She is the restless explorer. What she adds, however, through her reported observations is thoughtful and wise, such as this reflection on their surroundings:

For a long time, she said, I have been trying to comprehend the landscape here. She said, I look at the pit frames rising up to the sky, and I look at the railway lines running deeper and deeper into the ground because they’re sinking and sinking. I look at the sky, because the sky might also be symptomatic, the sky is also part of this landscape. I count, she said, I count the colours; my vocabulary is exhausted after brown, olive and black, and when I think about it those are all the colours that are here.

Of course, to affect a thorough search both girls have to head out, together or apart, on foot, by motorcycle or car, and eventually, in the company of a horse named Bataille that Fritizi finds and brings home. Meanwhile, the policemen who have little need to patrol, spend most of their time glued to the television set, hardly noticing the sisters’ comings and goings.

Characterized by a spare disjointed style, the novel most often resembles an attempt at record-keeping, a report for a future that is vague and uncertain, set in a surreally dystopic present that seems willfully disconnected from its own past, or simply exhausted by the weight of the space it occupies. The adults are either oddly apathetic or completely absent, like their mother who holds an almost mythological place in their imaginations. A female Hemingway-like character, she smoked cigarettes, cut her hair short, and one day simply drove off into the distance. Together they fantasize a series of daring adventures for her. On the other hand, they typically refer to their father as simply Heribert Stein or H. Stein, reflecting a relationship that seems cool, even antagonistic.

The fractured, loose-limbed narrative is, at one level, rather unsettling. It is, not unlike the sisters own place in the world—ungrounded, suspended somewhere in a geological timeline between oceans and deserts. They have facts and coordinates and maps, but no direct knowledge beyond the borders of the territory they’ve always lived in. One has the sense it has been intentionally cut off, guarded to keep outsiders at bay. This uncertainty which reflects the sisters’ own isolation is never resolved. A wealth of intertextual references woven freely into the text further offset the environment of the novel. It is a daring approach and, for the most part, very effective. Yet, in the innovative voice of Invitation to the Bold of Heart, one in which the narrative often appears to wander, ramble and repeat, pulling in facts drawn from a variety of interconnected sources, one can hear the qualities that Elmiger will develop and refine in her more mature and startlingly impressive second novel, Shift Sleepers. Without question, she is an author to watch closely.

Invitation to the Bold of Heart, by Dorthee Elmiger, is translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and published by Seagull Books.

“We are creatures of this world”: Reflections on Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”

Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”

I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t  that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?

Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic  influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:

Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”

Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:

She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.

This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.

Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:

I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.

—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”

At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.

Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement  work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.

Writing one’s self out of romance: Balla’s Big Love

Big Love by the self-deprecating and humorously misanthropic Slovak writer, Balla, is an anti-love love story in which the hapless protagonist fumbles around in the dark, imagining he knows what love is while perhaps the best relationship he will ever have slips from his clumsy grasp. This short novella is not only a sharp witted critique of contemporary post-socialist society in Slovakia, in the form of a fondly satirical take on its bureaucratic ineptness and literary pretensions, but it is also an endearing and all too recognizable romantic comedy of the kind that actually exists in real life more often than in the movies.

Our hero, Andrič, as is typical for Balla, is a thinly veiled version of the author himself—a writer at heart but a bureaucrat by day. Not unlike another absurdist author from the other side of what is now, once again, the Czech-Slovak divide. And like Kafka, his protagonists tend to exist in isolation, unable to communicate with or understand the world around them. In this case Andrič is trapped in such a strangely off base circle of reasoning about human nature and his own place within it that he routinely and consistently misconstrues his unnecessarily patient girlfriend’s cues until, of course, it is finally too late.

The first time Andrič sees Laura she is wearing a neck brace. She has been injured in a car accident. A strange impetuous for a budding attraction. A single mother with a young daughter, Laura seems to be everything he is not. She is boisterous, outgoing, physically active, responsible and capable of looking after herself and her child, even if it means being creative in seeking out opportunities and resources. It’s hard to imagine what she sees in Andrič. But somehow their relationship, albeit a long distance one, manages to survive for two years. She is, however, one of the least developed characters in the book, a function of how limited Andrič understanding of her truly is.

The supporting cast, if you like, is wonderful. In fact, it is these two unlikely, eccentric characters, who play well against the two aspects of Andrič’s life, the professional and the literary, and serve to challenge his limitations while furthering the overall satirical intent of the novel as a whole. Panza is his office mate and best friend. Unmarried, he lives with his sister, a fact that inspires a healthy amount of curiosity around the office. Even more than Andrič, he exists in isolation, formed and informed by his long bureaucratic career which has left him vacillating between paranoia and despondency. He exhibits a practiced form of engagement with the world that reflects his rejection of ordinary human interaction:

Panza is sitting, listening to Andrič and nodding, or rather, he’s not listening, only nodding, his eyes and his whole face make it clear that he doesn’t understand, and how could he, since he’s not listening, it’s not that he is stupid, he just can’t be bothered to listen, he’s had bad experiences in the past  when  he  used  to  listen  and  got nothing  in  return,  so  now he  professionally  and  routinely  doesn’t  listen,  especially  when a sentence begins in a complicated way.

Because how could such a sentence possibly end?

Panza, whose tendency to express panic about the state of affairs within the system to which he has dedicated his career and within which he should long been disavowed of any ideals or illusions of freedom promised by the collapse of Communism, fuels the younger Andrič’s own fears. And fascination. Together they are a misfit pair, with Panza consuming more of Andrič’s attentions than Laura even if it is, again, difficult to figure out if their bond is more than circumstantial, because they never seem to enjoy each other’s company. Or perhaps these are two men for whom enjoy and company are not natural counterparts.

By contrast, Laura’s mother Elvira, is a former school teacher with an apartment filled with books and a string of former husbands, one for any necessary anecdote or discussion point. An ethereal being who almost floats around the jumbled space she shares with her daughter and granddaughter, her disaffection with contemporary society comes from a different angle than Panza’s. Reading and everything associated with it seems, so far as Andrič can tell, to be the source of her particular melancholy, her “sadness beyond words.” She views her nation as a country of sleepwalkers, dulled into a state of semi-consciousness—a state which has extended to Slovak writers. She is especially harsh on them claiming they all, even the female writers, lack experience with women. Without experience, how can anyone write? But, as she says:

Fortunately,  writers  don’t  exist  anymore.  Because to exist is to mean something. But they don’t mean anything. We  should erase them from our diaries, we should stop phoning them on their name day. They are nobodies. Yet these nobodies haven’t even noticed.

As a writer himself, Andrič makes the mistake of equating his ability to create with some measure of accomplishment in his personal life, no matter how obvious the messages Laura is signalling should be. Over and over he fails to see that what he imagines is, at last, “big love”with Laura, is rapidly losing its hold on her. We only have the briefest glance into her side of the equation and she comes across as unconvinced of her love forAndrič as we are. Once she slips away, he is left to slowly realize that big love is sometimes measured by the space left in your heart and life once someone is gone. And, of course, by then it is too late. But even then, he salvages a perverse pleasure that he somehow found the words, although he cannot remember uttering them, that finally severed their relationship for good:

After Laura informed him about the termination of their relationship Andrič gradually began to swell up with a kind of absurd pride about the fact that he, too, was capable of using words, that his words had consequences  – and this also applied to statements he couldn’t remember at  all  –  but Laura refused to  repeat  those  words  of  great  significance  and  merely  reminded him that he had uttered them in a wine cellar in Spišská Sobota.

Who else but Andrič would follow such reasoning?

For such a short book, Big Love offers a lot through the somewhat thick lens of its hapless protagonist. It is relentless in its critique of society, family, love and literature. Many of the references are specific to Slovak history and culture, but a lack of familiarity with the underlying intertextual content will not impair the enjoyment of this funny/tragic tale. Andrič, for all his tendency to overthink the emotions out of any reasonable situation is endearing, the humour is bitter, sarcastic and wise. Yet, as the ending nears, his own existential crisis deepens, lending more credence to that well-worn Kafka comparison.

Just released from Jantar Publishing, Big Love by Balla is translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood.

Instructions for interacting with the material world: A Users Manual by Jiři Kolář

You can always be assured that a hardcover release from Prague-based indie publisher Twisted Spoon Press will be something very special. All their books—dedicated to bringing both long neglected and contemporary writers to English audiences—offer work that is unique and engaging, but they really put a little extra effort into their beautifully presented, typically illustrated, hardcover texts.

Like Jiři Kolář‘s A User’s Manual.

One of the most important Central European poets/visual artists of the postwar era, Kolář (1914-2002) was best known internationally for his innovative collages, but within Czechoslovakia he was a aligned with other politically defiant artists. He was a member of the avant-garde Group 42 until it was disbanded after the Communists came to power and, when the police discovered the manuscript to his controversial collection Prometheus’ Liver, he was arrested and labelled an “enemy of the state.” His poetry and artwork reflects his view of the society he saw around him.

This most unusual—and handsome—volume pairs 52 “action poems”, written in the 1950s and 60s, with images from “Weekly 1967,” one of his  series of collages created as a running commentary on each week of a year. First published together in this form in 1969, the resulting book is not only very entertaining to look at, but characterized by a sly creative energy and a devious wit. Each poem in A User’s Manual presents itself a set of instructions, often nonsensical, that mimic the form of communist dicta. Week 13, “Path,” for example, directs the reader to:

Go
empty-handed
on foot or by train
to a town
where you know no one
and spend three days there
When hungry
ask for bread
when thirsty
ask for water
Spend the night where possible
and every day ask
nine people about a person
with the same name as yours
with the same destiny as yours

The collages that accompany each poem are constructed from newspaper clippings, documents, cut outs, patterns formed with words or musical notation. Some are dedicated to individuals (sometimes presented as a profile portrait), others have a stark political feel, and yet others are abstract patterns. Together with his instructional verses, the effect is an elevation of the everyday and an imagining of a specific way of reacting to the world. As Ryan Scott explains in his Translator’s Note, in this work, Kolář is explicitly engaging with the materiality of language. He is inviting direct interaction with the immediate surroundings by calling attention to “the locus of speech, action and things.”

“Homage to T. S. E.” opposite an image titled To Michel Butor

As unusual as they are, many of the poems are oddly practical enough that they could serve as inspiration triggers. The language is spare, reasons and explanations are not offered, but therein lies the charm. Some are even strangely beautiful. Like Week 47, for instance, “Poem of Silence: For Emil Juliš”:

Collect
a pile of pebbles
and from them compose
anywhere

and with a title
pebble by pebble
as word by word
line by line

as verse by verse
a poetry poem

Exiled to Paris in 1980, as were many artists of his generation, Kolář returned frequently to Prague  after the Velvet Revolution, and spent his final years in the city. But born of a response the restrictions imposed under Communist occupation, A User’s Manual stands as a creative act of rebelllion that seeks a certain dignity in absurdity.  It makes a wonderful read, a fascinating visual experience, and would be a fine gift for an artistic friend.

A User’s Manual by Jiři Kolář with illustrations by the author, is translated by Ryan Scott, and published by Twisted Spoon Press.