The boundary between the psychiatric ward and the real world: Hospital by Sanya Rushdi

But why have we turned to the right? That’s where the psychiatric ward is. Of course, there must be examples in history of those who, in an effort to protect their non-mainstream alternative thinking, pretended to be who they were not in order to shield themselves from politics. This may be a similar arrangement. Even as I’m wondering about this, a wheelchair emerges from somewhere and I am told to sit in it. I refuse, saying I’d rather walk. They say if I don’t sit in it on my own, they will make me. So I sit.

Books and movies about mental illness and psychiatric wards frequently play to either the horror or mystique of madness, while language related to psychiatric conditions—bipolar, psychotic, schizophrenic—is often applied carelessly to describe a range of circumstances that have nothing to do with actual diagnoses. Around the world, the stigma of mental illness is difficult to shake. A heart attack will bring friends and family to your hospital bedside; a serious breakdown can leave you isolated and alone, at home or if you are sick enough, confined to a psychiatric unit. From the outside, a worse fate cannot be imagined but, in reality, once the shock of finding oneself hospitalized subsides, the world behind the locked doors tends to contain a community, at once strange and familiar, within which one can recover. Days pass with a certain routine that gradually returns structure to a life that has been temporarily, or periodically, upended, distorted, weighed down or wired up. Hospital, by Bangladeshi-Australian author Sanya Rushdi, takes you into that environment as seen through the eyes of a patient experiencing psychosis.

Based on real-life events, this debut novel is set in Melbourne, originally written in Bangla and translated by Arunava Sinha. Rushdi’s protagonist, is, like the author, a Muslim woman named Sanya. Years earlier, psychosis interrupted her PhD studies in Psychology. Now, with her third episode pointing to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, she finds herself at odds with her family, a community mental health team, and everyone who seems to be conspiring to force her to comply with the medical model of treatment that she distrusts. She acknowledges her past psychosis, but is unable understand that the curious coincidences, obsessive behaviour, and lurking paranoia might signal that she is sick again. That is the cruel nature of serious mental illness—what one experiences from the inside is increasingly at odds with what others observe from the outside. As her psychosis progresses, the world is simultaneously terrifying and brilliant, but Sanya resists all efforts to encourage her to access care willingly, so ultimately she arrives at the hospital under police escort.

Sanya’s narrative is restrained and oddly lacking in affect, even when she describes her tears and outbursts. She is continually trying to observe herself and logically reason her way through whatever arises. However, her reasoning is often disjointed and confused. She is constantly seeking symbols of significance, spends a lot of time trying to figure out the secrets behind the thoughts and actions of others, questions why certain song lyrics keep coming to mind, and fitfully attempts to draw strength from her faith. Rushdi’s ability to present this state of fractured association and allow her protagonist’s processing to slowly become more coherent as the story progresses is very impressive. Madness has a logic of its own as anyone who has experienced depression, mania or psychosis knows well.

Rushdi captures this shifting state of awareness by combining Sanya’s internal monologue, readings, and diary entries with the use of a dramatic format to capture external dialogue. This allows a record of what is said apart from what Sanya hears or wants to hear. It is also especially effective for reflecting the banter between the residents on the ward. On her first day in the hospital, one of the patients, an older man that Sanya describes as “so handsome,” exposes himself to her as she passes his room. Her self-appointed tour guides try to explain:

Michael: Please don’t be upset. He does these crazy things, but he has a beautiful heart. Give him a day or two and you’ll see what a lovely person he is.

Me: I’ve seen it already.

Glen and Michael laugh.

Glen: Yes, many of the girls are crazy about him.

Me: They need a reason to be here, after all.

Glen and Michael laugh again.

Initially, most of the men Sanya meets seem exceptionally attractive to her—a charged energy between the sexes is not uncommon on the unit. She becomes obsessed with a few of the male patients during her early weeks in the hospital, while other women barely register unless she senses that there might be something between one of them and a man she fancies. At such moments, jealous and conspiratorial thoughts immediately engulf her. At one point, when a doctor suggests she seems to be spending too much time following the male patients around, she becomes defensive. She will leave that session with another drug, lithium, added to her regime as a mood stabilizer and eventually these persistent passions will start to subside.

With her education in psychology and her prior experience with psychosis, Sanya feels she is in a good position to determine whether or not she is sick this time. She blames her family for sending her to the hospital and is resistant to drugs.  She argues that a particular type of language-focused talk therapy would be preferable, but, if she wants to be released, she knows that medication is part of the game. Convinced of the value of language, she pours her thoughts into her diary, filling pages with arguments that are, at the height of her psychosis, bound by incoherent and tenuous  connections. Reasoning and recognition are slow to return.

I read this book very slowly, although it is neither long nor difficult. But as someone who has been hospitalized for manic psychosis, I was impressed and sometimes shaken by Rushdi’s ability to draw on her own experience to craft such an uncanny portrait of psychosis from the inside. Her protagonist appears very logical and rational, and within her own inner construct she is, but from the outside, it is clear to her family and the medical personnel that she is unaware or unwilling to believe that she is ill. She lacks insight. It is almost like being separated from the rest of the world by a one way mirror. On her side, are her fellow patients who form among themselves a community, an island.  She remains convinced that language is the answer to her survival and recovery. And perhaps she has a point there, as Rushdi has demonstrated through her own use of language to create a work that is masterful, moving and tightly controlled.

Hospital by Sanya Rushdi is translated from the Bangla by Aruava Sinha and published by Seagull Books. In Australia, Hospital is published by Giramondo.

Not all there: My Life as Edgar by Dominique Fabre

With a child narrator it is always a challenge to strike the right note, the right balance of insight and innocence, but when the child in question has a developmental disability it can be even more difficult to create a believable, engaging voice. Or, as in Dominique Fabre’s My Life as Edgar, it can be an opportunity to present the world through an unusually sensitive, yet unfiltered lens. As is clear from the opening sentences, Edgar has a clear sense of what it is that sets him apart from others, even if he and those around him are never really certain just how far apart that truly is:

I was a quiet, unassuming child, but I had features of a kid with Down syndrome—a kind of coldness around the eyes, pale lips, big cheeks, a big butt, though my chromosomes weren’t really to blame. I could hear people around me say He’s not all there, is he? in soft voices, secretively, only I had ears, phenomenal ears, Micky Mouse was deaf compared to me, nature didn’t do me any favors, except for my ears.

When we first meet Edgar it is 1964, he is three going on four and living in Paris with his single mother, Isabelle. Life is pleasant. They go to the park, she takes him to visit a psychiatrist he is fond of, and when she goes to work he stays at a day home. But things start to change when a married man comes into his mother’s life. Suddenly his small world becomes a little uncomfortably crowded, perhaps too crowded. Before long, Edgar is sent to live with a foster family in Savoy. He will remain there for the next seven years, his care paid for by monthly cheque. He will talk to his mother on the phone weekly, write her letters, carefully copying the examples his caregiver prepares for him, and, on occasion, she will come to visit. But in a sense, out in the country he has more attention, freedom, responsibility and companionship than he had at home in Paris. He is even allowed to go to school. With Auntie Gina and Uncle Jos, and the other kids of unwed mothers who pass through their home, he has a second family and freedoms that urban life would never have afforded a young boy who is “not all there.”

On the surface, Edgar’s story is simple, but his telling of that story is neither simple, nor direct. The first section, recounting life in Paris with his mother, has a certain charm. He understands more of what is going on around him—or at least he appears to—and reports his observations and responses with a clarity that belies his age. However, this is a relatively focused period of his life that he may well have replayed in his mind many times over the years that he lived apart from his mother, because, with the second and longest section, the tone changes. Unfolding as an internal monologue addressed to his psychiatrist, Madame Clarisse Georges, he confesses: “I’m still not all there, but I know how to hide it well. I’m grown up now. I’m still quiet and unassuming too, but I’m not sure that won’t change.” He is eleven—a good year for him, he says—it is the year he will return to the city. But he admits that the years before that were also good, and he wants to talk about them. So he sets out to “dive into the past without remembering much actually.” And, sometimes, remembering too much.

As one might expect, Edgar’s efforts to fill in the gaps in his memory leads to a narrative that can be rather disjointed. He reports what comes to mind, moving back and forth in time, from event to event, often unaware of the larger context of what he sees and hears. His foster mother is of Italian descent, while his stepfather apparently doesn’t like Italians “even though he married one and she’s not the first, but I only know that because I let my ears listen.” Uncle Jos is a man who has chosen Stalingrad over the Catholic Church and works for the local municipality:

[H]e has road workers from the Department of Roads and Ditches who are all the time filling the holes of the world so it won’t spill over on all sides. Sometimes at night he goes out in his underwear, wearing his Damart thermals, when the roads collapse  and no one can get through.

His narrative is peppered with stock expressions seemingly incongruous with that of a young child, especially one who is supposedly “not all there.” He talks about his mother’s “dark and traumatized gaze” and accepts that he is the “village idiot.” He calls Italians Dagos and talks of cuckolds without understanding that the terms are being used in a derogatory fashion. His language absorbs and reflects the prejudices and politics of 1960s working class rural France.

As a narrator, Edgar has no filter. He tells what he remembers, the significant and the insignificant alike, from the quality of his bowel movements (especially after the weekly polenta dinner) to the excitement of the Revolution of 1968. What he reveals is often quite telling, even funny, but he his always very serious in his accounting. His is a monologue that invites one to read between the lines, revealing much about the society and the family units within which he exists. And his observations can be quite profound as when he describes his stepfather’s relationship with his adult son on a day when his own mother has come to visit:

They also fought about the Algerian war. I’d often heard the story since being here. Uncle Jos had tried to break Ricardo’s leg so he wouldn’t go back and help the French get killed over there in the colonies, but his leg had held up against the hammer blows, so Ricardo returned to Algeria covered in gauze and bandages. Since then, the two of them didn’t talk much. Me, if we had to go to war for independence, I think I’d go see Ricardo, not Uncle Jos. It feels weird, Madame Clarisse Georges, I’ll always know more about Uncle Jos and Auntie Gina than about Edgar and Isabelle, and all the rest. But today, in case you’re still alive and don’t mind listening to me, I’m like a separated Edgar, I’ve already lived a long time.

In the final section, Edgar, now eleven, returns to Paris and after a few weeks with his mother, is sent off to boarding school. He navigates the dynamics of this new environment for a while, but ultimately  will try to take control of his life in a world which has repeatedly pushed him off to the sidelines.

Dominique Fabre is a writer who is interested of illuminating the lives of people on the margins. This is a brave little book that I suspect may have missed the mark with some readers who fail to connect with narrator. Edgar, for all his concerns about the gaps in his memory, is an endearing child trying to tell his own story as best he can. In the process, he unwittingly tells a much larger tale about the lives of children whose parents are unable, or unwilling, to care for them, the systems in which they find themselves—day homes, boarding schools and foster families—and the value of consistency and support, wherever one may find it.

My Life as Edgar by Dominique Fabre is translated from the French by Anna Lehmann.

In the end, only the laughter remains: Austral by Carlos Fonseca

“Only someone who knows he is condemned can clearly see the path to salvation.”

Carlos Fonseca is a writer who delights in spinning complex webs that blend history, fiction and a distinct fondness for archival elements to create a framework within which important ideas and themes can be explored. As with his earlier works, Colonel Lagrimas and Natural History, his new novel Austral reaches across time and space to craft a unique literary environment complete with eccentric characters and grand schemes that gradually reveal the secret of their connections. But this time, the key to the puzzle the narrator is seeking to understand lies closer to home than he suspects when he is first drawn into this most unusual mystery.

Julio Gamboa’s world is unravelling when an unexpected summons arrives from his past. His distant past. The letter, postmarked in Argentina, bears an unfamiliar name, but the contents inform him that his friend Alicia—or Aliza as he had known her—Abravanel has died following a long illness that had, ultimately, left her almost entirely mute. However, as the letter writer, Olivia, assures him, she remained perfectly lucid to the very end. And, in passing, she entrusted a most important task to Julio, even though it had been more than thirty years since they last spoke or saw one another. An invitation to visit Aliza’s home in Humahuaca accompanies this curious missive and, with winter taking hold of Cincinnati and the future of his recently fractured marriage uncertain, Julio imagines not only a welcome reprieve, but a potential return.

Julio had met Aliza as a teenager in his native Costa Rica. To him she was exotic—a British girl bursting with poetry and stories of punk music who had run away from home at seventeen in pursuit of freedom and adventure. By contrast, he was cautious and uncertain, reluctantly committed to trying to meet his parents’ expectations that he pursue an academic future. Knowing that a scholarship awaited him, Julio and Aliza headed off on a last road trip up through Central America, finally ending in Guatemala during the volatile years of the early 1980s. That is where they parted ways, Julio leaving an angry and disappointed Aliza behind. Over the decades that followed, he moved to the US where he studied, got married and eventually settled into life as a professor of literature. Aliza, on the other hand, stayed in Latin America, changed the spelling of her name and began to write and publish novels in Spanish. When a stroke left her with a progressive form of aphasia, she moved to a commune in northern Argentina to try to complete the last installment of an ecologically themed tetralogy. But that goal had perhaps been too ambitious so her focus changed and she turned her attention to a new project. When she died, she left that manuscript with the explicit instruction that Julio was the only person who could edit it.

Upon his arrival in Humahuacha, he is given Aliza’s text—memoir or fiction, he is left to decide—and he begins to read a most remarkable account of Karl-Heinz von Mühlfeld, an anthropologist who travelled to Paraguay in the 1960s seeking the ruins of New Germany, the failed utopia founded in 1886 by Elisabeth Nietzsche, sister of Friedrich, and her eugenicist husband Bernhard Förster. But Karl-Heinz’s intended research takes a different turn when he meets Juvenal Suárez, the last surviving member of an indigenous tribe and only living speaker of the Nataibo language. Over several subsequent visits, the anthropologist’s efforts to record and preserve this soon-to-be-lost language increases while his sanity deteriorates. Aliza’s father comes into the picture a number of years later when he is invited to meet with the anthropologist in the Swiss sanitarium where he lives. He is inspired to carry the torch he believes the older man is attempting to pass him—a destructive path that left him ever changed but may have kindled his daughter’s attraction to Latin America.

As Julio makes his way into Aliza’s manuscript, titled A Private Language, he is impressed by the richness of the writing given the author’s declining ability to communicate while haunted by the notion that he is dealing with a work somehow composed in a “private key”—a text that “all could read but only one person could understand.” As her chosen reader, he feels that Aliza is offering him precious insight into the girl he once knew, but wonders what deeper message she might be sending him after all these years. Then, at a party, he learns of a companion piece she was working on, a dictionary of sorts. It is suggested that an indigenous man who visited the commune daily might know more. The following day, as Julio sets off by bus for Salinas Grande in search of this man, Raúl Sarapura, he is beset with his own linguistic anxieties:

Though he wouldn’t say so, he was bothered by that sense of foreignness that fell over him every time he came back to Latin America. That feeling of never really returning. An anxiety over belonging that occasionally even translated into grammatical errors and pronunciation mistakes, making him feel that little by little he was losing his language, and the last traces of his past along with it.

He returns bearing Dictionary of Loss, a notebook filled with almost child-like collages featuring images and entries with meanings, etymologies and commentaries for various words. If the key to understanding one text, and Aliza herself, lay in the other, and it was now Julio’s task to find the key to unlock the secret buried within this dual project.

Such a journey, of course, will lead Julio into a labyrinth lined with historical, philosophical and literary references, all somehow inextricable from his memories of his time with Aliza. But from his sofa back home in snowy Cincinnati, the logic connecting it all eludes him. Until he realizes that the roads he seems to be wandering down all lead to Guatemala, to the site of a village destroyed during the genocide, where a man he read about in the Dictionary, has constructed a memory theatre containing images, objects and recorded recollections—a space where fellow survivors of the war can honour their lost community and, through sharing memories, heal their trauma. Julio is certain that this is where he will find the answers he needs to complete the posthumous request his friend has made.

Austral is, clearly, a book about language, about the relationship of language—on an individual and societal level—to memory and legacy. It offers much to contemplate, but at the centre is the question of what can be done, in the face of the loss of language, to preserve the memory of a person or a people. Language does not exist in a vacuum, it needs to be spoken or read or committed to memory. Language is a link between the past and the future. A key image, repeated twice in the text, drawing on the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) depicts a sketch of two rivers, one representing thought and the other representing language. The caption reads: “The trick, then, would be to learn to pass from one bank to the other without ceasing to speak.” For Saussure, language was a social phenomenon, in Austral the isolation of one speaker from a social network that has completely disappeared is mirrored by the potential loss of the ability of another speaker to navigate an existing system because the tools make that language possible have become inaccessible to her. But where an attempt to record a dictionary to preserve a dying language without a community fails, a dying speaker losing language is able to employ a community to reach an audience of one.

Fonseca, like his protagonist, is also from Costa Rica although he spent much of his adolescence in Puerto Rico, and Austral marks his first return to Central America in his writing. He notes in an interview that it meant a lot to finally feel comfortable “narrating from a region that I recognise as home but which I left long ago.” It may have taken three novels to get back there, but, having read and loved both of his previous works, I would suggest that this

is perhaps his strongest, most focused and most rewarding to date. Sometimes you can go home again.

Austral: A Novel by Carlos Fonseca is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

It’s raining light: Second Star and Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm

In the waiting area, they’ve installed a piano. There’s one in each of the big Paris railway stations now, but you never know how that will go. In the Gare du Nord the other day, an older woman set her suitcase down beside her and then played, with great application, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring before melting back into the crowd, aware that no one had stopped to listen. She left without looking around, suitcase in hand, a little smile on her lips, of annoyance or contentment.
(from “En Route Virtuosos”)

French writer Philippe Delerm is a thoughtful documentarian of the quotidian experience. His signature pieces, one or two pages long, zero in on the small details of familiar actions or activities. Some might be thought of as meditations, others like character sketches or vignettes, and yet others like prose poems. Each one welcomes the reader in, sometimes addressing “you” directly, to consider a task, interaction or activity with a degree of attention you might otherwise overlook or disregard. It takes a special talent, after all, to celebrate the special satisfaction of washing windows. But that’s just one of the many subjects Delerm entertains in Second Star and Other Reasons for Lingering, a collection of sixty brief essays, drawn from his most recent collections of “literary snapshots”—The Troubled Waters of the Mojito and The Ecstacy of the Selfie—and translated by Jody Gladding.

Delerm approaches his topics with a careful eye, gentle wisdom and a little humour. They may be best appreciated a handful at a time, allowing space for the lingering the book’s title suggests. His subjects range from the whimsical to the profound and cover a considerable amount of territory from seasonal meditations, to the dissection of the enjoyment of a clementine, a slice of watermelon or a raw turnip.  Looking to the past, he ponders the watch pocket from the days of the pocket watch while in our futuristic present he contemplates the fingertip memory our cellphones now afford us. Delerm excels at creating scenes into which he invites you to imagine yourself gazing at a glass of whisky, directing a reluctant shopping cart or rolling up your sleeves. He takes you out onto the streets of Paris, visits Venice, spends time on the beach. Many of his “snapshots” capture familiar, common everyday moments, but, even in places and activities you’ve never experienced, he manages to kindle recognition because it is the intricacy of experience itself rather than the specific place or act. And, in doing so, we are inspired to take extra notice of our own small moments.

Like a prose poem, Delerm’s meditations tend to move toward a final moment that balances the prosaic with the profound—and sometimes this arises in the most unexpected context. Take for example, “The Embarrassment of Vaping” which suggest that vaping, if not hidden, lacks that certain mystique once associated with cigarettes:

There’s none of that with vaping. At first it was thought to be harmless, quite an insult to a self-destructive ritual. Doubts were raised, which have yet to spawn a new mythology. That’s because of the gesture. So sad in its asceticism, its privacy, surly Epicurean reduced to Jansenist. Someday maybe they’ll be a Gainsbourg for vaping. Although it’s hard to imagine. In the meantime, we have to go on living, or else smoking. Because smoking kills. But then living does too.

In other pieces, sentiment is clearly the guiding force, leading to a moving portrait as in “Memory of Forgetting” which looks in on a blind woman, newly moved to the Alzheimer’s unit of  a nursing home. Disoriented and frustrated, she tends to become irritated easily. When she informed that her husband has come to visit, she is surprised to learn that she has a husband, excited when she is told he has photos of her that he looks at often. She asks if she can meet him:

She’s happy to come sit beside his man who, five minutes earlier, she wasn’t the least bit aware of. She hums along with the Schubert impromptu and you’re amazed at her incredible memory for melodies, for songs.

Her face has relaxed and become almost radiant, ecstatic. For someone doing so badly, how can she still be so well? Why must she suffer the same anguish in her room again tonight? She’ll remember that she lost something, she won’t know what. They say it’s hell. But there isn’t a word for it.

Philippe Delerm is capable of taking the smallest sensations and observations and turn them into quiet meditations that fit within a frame that is never too tight or too large. It is fine skill, representative of a form or genre that he created over two decades ago. Now, with this attractively presented collection, English language readers can experience its charms.

Second Star and Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm is translated from the French by Jody Gladding and published by Archipelago Books.

Rain like this doesn’t wash away the filth: Hawa Hawa and Other Stories by Nabarun Bhattacharya

The gleaming wet road, the rusty tin roof of a motorcar repair garage, behind it an old paint-peeling stunned-still old house and a chimney precariously propped up with haphazard wires—the sky can see all this. And, not as clearly, the burnt-black tin-backed shops and buses and the in-between blocks of darkness that were Matador sheds and not the half-rotten bellies of fish but the shells of banged-up taxis. There were crumbling and dead accident cars too, their mouths full of dirt. The sky view mists over every now and then, for it has been raining continuously.

This is the setting of “Last Night,” one of the pieces in Hawa Hawa and Other Stories, the recently released collection of inventive short stories by Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya. As the angry rain beats down on the trash-filled water logged street, two young men are fighting. They are unevenly matched, a condition mediated by sheer intoxication, but they are each intent on doing damage to the other. And in a very unexpected way they are also best friends.

Bhattacharya (1948-2014), the son of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi and actor and playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, worked as a journalist from 1971 to 1993, before turning his attention to writing fulltime. His magic realist tales tend to feature eccentric characters drawn from the shadows—dirty cops, nostalgic former revolutionaries, unsavoury figures and an assortment of anxious souls. His Calcutta is gritty, pungent, dark and unforgiving. The scenes that unfold, on these streets and beyond, range from sharp political and social satire to strange meditations on violence, madness and love. Set primarily in the 1970s and 80s, but reaching back as far as the 1940s, there are stories that play out against the early Communist-led peasant movements in West Bengal, the Naxalite uprising and the 1975 Emergency, as well as more intimate dramas set in family homes, trains and, of course, on the street.

Bhattacharya excels at creating memorable characters, and rapid, witty sequences of dialogue peppered with English words (indicated in the translation with the use of italics) and references to popular Indian films and songs. A number of his stories rely heavily on a steady back and forth between two people who happen to meet up and share some kind of common past or current circumstance. Others unfurl under surreal conditions, influenced by alcohol, madness or some impending fear. There is an immersive quality to these dark tales.

Take, for example, “Mole,” the story of a seemingly unrepentant cop with a patch of skin on his neck that begins to itch and become inflamed just before he murders someone—“murder” being an accepted language for the state-sanctioned killing his investigative role entails. The itch causes his restless right hand to fumble in his pants pocket where his pistol awaits. The sweat, the smells and the agitation grow. We follow him on a mission to a nightclub. Once the job is done he kicks at the corpse bouncing on the floor of the police van and emotionally decompresses as he returns to the station. A bleak and grim premise perhaps but for the banter in the office (with its water tank filled with bombs to be deactivated), the pointed parenthetical commentary on authorized violence, and the insatiable demons that haunt the protagonist:

Back home, he usually takes a bath, uses soap—puts some ointment on the itch—the sweat from his body and the dirty soap-lather swirl into the drain and disappear. He rubs scented oil on his hair. He is very sleepy, but sleep never comes without dreams. Dreams have eyes, they ask questions, they laugh, they beat on drums. Their limbs are ripped and shredded, bits and pieces bloody. His family has told him he sometimes talks in his sleep, groans, slurs out orders. Sometimes he scratches his back so furiously that he wakes up in the morning to find it bleeding.

There is a deeply embedded hallucinatory fear that follows him down the darkened Calcutta streets and adds a spark of troubled humanity to his situation.

Fear and superstition mark several of the tales, most tragically perhaps in “A Piece of Nylon Rope” in which two men meet outside a hospital on a rainy night. The narrator is there to look in on a colleague who had a stroke at the office, while the other is waiting for news of his son who suffered a serious football injury. The latter, Jagadish-babu, has a uncertain confidence despite the poor prognosis. He feels his fate has turned. He explains that he was already inclined to seeking fortune tellers and good luck charms when he learned that what he really needed was to get a piece of a hanging rope:

‘Hanging rope?’

‘Yes. Suppose someone hangs themselves to death. If you can get a piece of that rope and keep it with you, then boom!—whatever you want is yours. All the evil eyes on you, the vexing, the hexing—the whole fucking lot will vanish. Khoka’s injured so badly. But do you see any fear in me?’

Jagadish shows the narrator the length of nylon rope he has acquired and carries with him everywhere, but admits that the good fortune it promises comes with a steep price. He cannot be alone, for fear the suicide victim will return and demand the rope back. For a man with a trusted talisman, he is a nervous wreck.

Several of the stories in Hawa Hawa, including the title tale and “Mole,” highlight the brutality of the West Bengal police, while another demonstrates the inability of a newly elected politician to protect an old friend and revolutionary comrade. Elsewhere we meet a child with a cruel streak, the brother of an accused murderer who holds to his belief in his innocence, a businessman offering the perfect suicide—for a price—and a gangster who prophetically spends the evening with a headless prostitute. Inequality, injustice and the abuse of power are common themes driving the world that Battacharya wanted to bring to the surface through his darkly humorous, weirdly engaging fiction. And if his comfortable contemporary Bengali audience was disturbed by what they found in his work, he was hitting his mark.

Notably, this translation is the work of a young translator, Subha Prasad Sanyal, and his ability to bring Battacharya’s subversive and playful writing to life is impressive. He pays careful attention to rhythm and tone. As mentioned, the English words transliterated in the original Bengali text are italicized, yet many Bangla terms are left intact where context is sufficient to imply meaning, a choice that helps maintain a distinctive narrative feel. Meanwhile, any cultural, political and place references that enhance understanding are explained in the Translator’s Note.

Hawa Hawa by Nabarun Bhattacharya is translated by Subha Prasad Sanyal and published by Seagull Books.

A book is vegetal: The Geography of Rebels Trilogy by Maria Gabriela Llansol

I then began to accumulate memories of the future in a great meditation

There was a woman named Maria Gabriela Llansol, born in Lisbon who, fleeing repression in her native country, put herself into exile in Belgium for twenty years before returning to Portugal to settle in Sintra for the rest of her life. She was a writer when she arrived in Belgium, but it was during her time there in that, in an environment more conducive to her creative energies, writing began to flow in earnest—that she became as she might have preferred to say, a “writing being,”[i] for hers is a deeply inhabited landscape within which an experience of living with the wisdom of the past and the present, of human, animal and plant life alike, is not only possible but necessary.

Despite a relatively late start, Llansol would go on to have an extraordinarily prolific career as an author and translator. At the time of her death at the age of seventy-six in 2008, she left twenty-seven published books and more than seventy notebooks. Her singular style won her significant critical praise, but she was not expecting her books to attract a general audience. Like the many religious, historical and literary figures who move through her texts, she was writing with the belief that her work would outlive her. And so it has, for those who venture into her literary universe are unlikely to emerge unchanged. But it is a journey that requires one to have a willingness to suspend expectations of how a work of fiction should behave. In fact, Llansol herself would reject the notion that her books are fiction at all:

I don’t see them that way. Because they are really books based on a reality that is lived, that is an intimate observation of my journey as a body, as a person. So even though they usually call it fiction, I think this writing isn’t fiction. It is the product of an experience that deepens, a textual conveyance of the worlds I traverse.[ii]

This understanding encourages an engagement with her novels, then, as one might with mystical and philosophical writings that are continually questioning, seeking and exploring relationships where the “characters” and the authorial voice is a shifting, open plain—sometimes specified, other times formless and timeless. Conventions of spatial and temporal continuity have their own logic. And yet, as one catches the rhythm and flow, a beautiful, sensitive, otherworldly narrative unfolds.

The first opportunity English language readers have had to enter Llansol’s expansive world came with the 2018 release The Geography of Rebels Trilogy from Deep Vellum in Audrey Young’s translation. Comprised of three linked novellas, The Book of Communities, The Remaining Life and In the House of July & August, these works can be considered as a clear directional shift away from the two short story collections she had already published and later dismissed as too conventional. They are connected thematically, with recurring personages, the first two texts perhaps to a greater extent than the third, but for Llansol all her books draw on her own earlier books as well as the writers, texts, conversations and experiences that she has along the way. She sees writing as a cumulative process, one in which “characters” appear and reappear, situations recur and take on new realities, while at the centre of it all is the being, the writing being, who is “giving them a certain response.”[iii] As such, perspectives shift, moving in and out of a first person voice that may or may not identify itself in a fragmented narrative that often drops off mid-sentence or rearranges itself on the page into narrow columns. Yet although it may sound unlikely, Llansol’s work is enveloping, atmospheric and not difficult to read if one respects the fact that it is not prescriptive in nature, but rather inquisitive and exploratory.

The Book of Communities opens with the description of a woman who “did not want children from her womb” and instead invited men to bring their children to be educated. While the children recite passages from the writings of Saint John of the Cross she entertains dreams of the discalced Carmelite himself. This woman initially echoes Llansol who, upon moving to Belgium, taught in a community school for international students, but she introduces herself as Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa, a historical figure who was a friend and benefactress of Saint John of the Cross. Little detail is known about her life, so into this open biographical space blossoms an enigmatic, inspirational and generative female force whose presence provides a continuity to the trilogy, at times central to the “action,” at other times observing, and eventually seemingly directing activities from afar. Ana de Peñalosa is regularly described as being near the end of her life, at one point she appears to die and be immediately reborn, but it begins to seem that she is simply ageless. Yet, although death is spoken of with some fear, “living” and “dead” have no permanent meaning in this world. Many of the characters or “figures” that populate these novels are long dead, often by centuries or not yet born at the time in which the work is loosely set—the years of the Counter Reformation. But, of course, this trilogy exists on its own plane of reality, one in which writing is the vital and essential metaphysical force that unites disparate strands to form images with their own unique integrity.

The work proceeds through a series of often strange or surreal scenes or vignettes. Some are centred around a house that belongs to (or is dreamed into existence by) Ana de Peñalosa in a remote, forested area near a river. Others depict periods of exile or wandering. A number of controversial, even heretical, figures are drawn into the narrative, including John of the Cross, the radical Protestant Thomas Müntzer, Friedrich Nietzsche, 13th century mystic Hadewijch, Meister Eckhart, Lorenzo de Medici and many more. Animals and plants are also an important part of the community that arises—in their own right and as forms that human characters assume permanently or in passing. John and Thomas Müntzer are especially dear to Ana de Peñalosa; she refers to them as her sons. The latter, beheaded in 1525 for his role in the German Peasant Revolt, carries his head with him throughout. Nietzsche, who arrives first in correspondence before appearing in person, also briefly in child-like form, will spend more of his time alone in his room writing and is the third key figure, while the fourth, Hadewijch, the Flemish Christian Beguine known for her ecstatic poetry, appears midway through the trilogy and becomes more influential as the work progresses.

The third novella, In the House of July & August, maintains a somewhat more consistent narrative. It is revolves around an imagined community of Beguines, the Christian lay order of women who dedicated themselves to a life of devotion and service, which includes among their number, Hadewijch. Ana de Peñalosa appears to have a role directing the lives of this group along with a man referred to as Luis M. He is not further identified, but early in The Book of Communities, Ana de Peñalosa speaks of a brother-in-law, Don Luis del Mercado who entrusted her with care of her niece Inés, so there may be a nod toward the historical Ana here. Nonetheless, Luis has a cryptic relationship to these women that may extend to the physical. There is a deeply sensual feminine aspect to this community who are known as The Ladies of Complete Love.

If the act of writing and the book have an existential quality in the first two books of The Geography of Rebels, both become somewhat more concrete in the third as the focus turns to the printing and production of texts and the acquisition of manuscripts. One of the beguines, Marguerite, is sent to study in the house of Christophe Plantin, the French printer and book publisher who lived and worked in Antwerp. The craft becomes a vocation for herself and some of her sisters until she is sent on a dream-like mission to locate the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates where she is to obtain an important document. Meanwhile her dearest companion, Eleanor, is sent Portugal to work as a gardener before being taken to Lisbon to live in a convent where she discovers a library containing forbidden books. Communications between Marguerite and Eleanor form much of the narrative, however, this is still a world featuring enigmatic beings, neither living nor dead, consultations with ancient and arcane knowledge and an intense connection to rivers. In other words, well within Llansol’s expansive, yet self-contained universe—one that is, as ever, realized through a living text, carried on a breath and a prayer.

Maria Gabriela Llansol’s works may defy easy summary or classification, but they are born of a deep personal engagement with the philosophers, authors and spiritual figures who emerge in her writings. There are few writers to whom she can be meaningfully compared, Clarice Lispector and Fernando Pessoa possibly being the most immediate, but hers was a life-long project with a distinct and innovative continuity running from book to book that allowed her to chart a literary cartography all her own. One can only hope that this luminous trilogy will be followed by further opportunities for English language readers to explore Llansol’s oeuvre.

The Geography of Rebels: The Book of Communities, The Remaining Life and In the House of July & August by Maria Gabriela Llansol is translated by Audrey Young with an Introduction by Gonçalo M. Tavares and an Afterword by Benjamin Moser, and published by Deep Vellum.

[i] This is from a transcript of a radio interview with Llansol recorded in 1997 at the time of the release of her Inquérito às Quatro Confidências: Diary III, translated by Audrey Young and reproduced with permission on Anthony’s excellent site Times Flow Stemmed. Llansol discusses her own unique perspective on the nature of her writing.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

Some nights silver others pale gold: Kerala Journal by Kim Dorman

Rain drips on the
tin roof, frogs
& crickets chant.

The passing days
turn to years.

Lying awake in the
dark, I know the
taste of ash.

The images are simple, rendered with honesty and clarity. Darkness and light. Sound and silence.  Rituals of nature and moments in time.

American poet Kim Dorman was drawn to India as a child, and made his first visit to the country in 1976. He made several more journeys over the years until, after a long absence, he and his wife returned in 2019 to live in the southern state  of Kerala. Drawing inspiration from classical Japanese literature, especially Matsuo Bashō’s travel diaries, he focuses his attention on the small details and everyday routines and rhythms of life—his own and his neighbours—in this tropical environment. Kerala Journal is a collections of his poetic observations, recorded between March 2019 and January 2021.

A farmer clears his field with a sickle.
Fodder for cows.

On the road, a young family goes past
on a scooter.

Man, woman, child.

Certain images—night skies, dust on the road, rats in the attic, cawing crows—appear and reappear regularly, highlighting the rhythms that run through the days but as the poet, who admits to having three versions of Heraclitus among his books, knows well, one never steps in the same river twice. Time flows on.

Solitary path, dust.
Cockcrow sounds far:
All is lost, gained.
Sunrise on the river.

Yet, as Covid strikes, the world beyond the local community enters the immediate environment as newspapers bring news of migrant workers and their families slowly making their way to distant homes, while elsewhere a rhino ambles down an empty road meeting no one. Time during lockdown takes on a different shape for different people based on circumstance just as the reality of a pandemic heightens an awareness of mortality. I do notice that the poet seems ever more conscious of his age as this collection nears its close.

I was already in my late fifties when I first travelled to India and I had the great opportunity to visit a friend in Kerala twice in 2019. I am impressed with the Dormans’ decision to return there later in life. But I understand the perspective only age can bring. To fully appreciate a place takes patience and time and a quiet introspection. These poems observe without judgment. They inspire us to isolate and pay attention to the smallest details in our lives. And, sometimes, even the unexpected humour:

The chemist
hands me a bottle
wrapped in
the obituaries.

Kerala Journal by Kim Dorman is published by Xylem Books, an imprint of Corbel Stone Press.

A bell in the distance: ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals’ by Philippe Jaccottet

When Swiss Francophone writer Philippe Jaccottet died in 2021 at the age of ninety-five, he left two final manuscripts, finished in the final year of his life with the assistance of his friend, poet José-Flore Tappy. These two works, La Clarté Notre-Dame, a sequence of prose pieces, and The Last Book of the Madrigals, a selection of verses, have now been published together in John Taylor’s translation and, in them, we see the poet looking back over certain past experiences, ever asking questions of himself and the world he observes, even as his age weighs heavily on his thoughts.

The first work opens with a remembered outing with friends, when, as they walked down a gentle slope under grey skies, the silence or “deep absence” of the vast open space surrounded them:

Until the little vesper bell of La Clarté Notre-Dame Convent, which we still couldn’t see at the bottom of the valley, began to ring far below us, at the heart of all this almost-dull greyness. I then said to myself, reacting in a way that was both intense and confusing (and so many times in similar moments I’d been forced to bring together the two epithets), that I’d never heard a tinkling—prolonged, almost persistent, repeated several times—as pure in its weightlessness, in its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline . . . Yet which I couldn’t listen to as if it were a kind of speech—emerging from some mouth . . . A tinkling so crystalline that it seemed, as it appeared, oddly, almost tender . . .

This bell is the initiation and the subtle motif that binds a series of reflections that carry Jaccottet back to childhood, to earlier travels and, along the way, to inspirations and writings from his past. There is an element of reassessment to this sequence, a restless questioning of the poetic and the political, with frequent parenthetical asides. And though many of the passages date back to 2012, the image of being “at the very end of my life’s path” is ever present. Doubt, not of his accomplishments, but of their faithfulness to some kind of truth and ethical value, creeps into his musings.

There is a slowness, a patience, and willingness to set aside reflections for a time, to let them rest, that lends La Clarté Notre-Dame an organic wholeness in its final form, even if its genesis was more fragmentary. The vesper bells seem to effortlessly feed Jaccottet’s ongoing concerns about the situation in Syria, thoughts about his own poetic influences, memories of subtle details and interconnections arising from his long life of experiences and human interactions, and uncertainty about what lies beyond but, in the end, he is willing to close on an open, unfinished note. This is true to form. When asked what Jaccottet’s writing has to offer to a new generation of readers, John Taylor, one of his long-time translators suggests:

We have entered an age of unequivocal partisan discourse, of linguistic robotization, of tiny symbols standing for complex emotions. In total contrast to this, Jaccottet’s writing constantly shows nuance, attentiveness, perseverance, circumspection, and a genuine quest for essential truths. His hesitations and doubts are salutary because they bring us to a halt and help us to observe and ponder anew, sometimes against our own preconceptions and wishful thinking, as we learn to cast away chimeras but also not to abandon all hopes.

The Last Book of the Madrigals, Jaccottet’s final poetic offering is a return to verse, a form he had moved away from in favour of prose poetry in the 1990s. The dual language text opens with a piece entitled “While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi” which imagines an encounter with the most influential madrigalist of the early 17th century. It opens:

When singing he seems to call to a shade
whom he glimpsed one day in the woods
and needs to hold on to, be his soul at stake:
the urgency makes his voice catch fire.

Then by its own blazing light, we spot a moist
night-time meadow and the woods beyond
where had come across that tender shade
or much better and more tender than a shade:

now there’s nothing but oaks and violets.

The voice that has brightened the distance fades.

I don’t know if he has crossed the meadow.

Their long summer night together continues under the starry sky, becoming a transformative  experience for the speaker.

The poems that follow in this sequence draw on mythic, celestial and natural interactions. Other voices are invited into conversation with the poet on his journey, but an image of a writer nearing the end of his time recur—these are the last madrigals, an allusion to Monteverdi, perhaps—invoking the same sense of solemn awareness haunting La Clarté Notre Dame. After an encounter with an old blacksmith he asks:

Was he delirious when I heard him murmur:

‘If this lamp that is like a beehive
is removed from me,
if this perfume drifts away, companions,
you can carry off these quills and bundles of paper:
where I’m being led, I’ll have no more use for them . . .’

Later in another madrigal, as a summer evening falls, the poet again recalls the “blacksmith of volutes and flames,” whom imagines wishing away temptation only to then wonder of himself:

And he who still writes on the last staffs,
perhaps, of his life:

‘That unknown woman fishing in her lightweight skiff
has struck me as well.

I first thought it sweet to be her prey,
but now the hook tugs at my heart
and I don’t know if it’s the daylight or me
bleeding in these pearly waters.’

These poems are filled with beauty and longing, calling on the stars in the heavens for silent answers and anticipating the turning of the seasons toward autumn and winter. One can well imagine a chorus of voices carrying the final songs of a poet who looked at the world closely, listened to silences and distant bells, and sought the meanings in it all on the page. This volume with his two final works is not only a fitting literary addition to a life of great accomplishments, but can serve as an introduction for those who wish to read more.

‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ andThe Last Book of the Madrigals’ by Philippe Jaccottet is translated from the French by John Taylor, with an Afterword by José-Flore Tappy, and published by Seagull Books.

A compilation of shadows: Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi

From childhood till now, I’ve spoken many bold words. Publicly or in private, I’ve proclaimed the kind of person I wanted to be, though it never happened in the end. I feel like someone has somehow taken my place, leaving me to become the person I am now.

When I’m around too many people, I lose myself. In an unfamiliar city, among crowds of strangers, I keep having to stand still—not to ask directions, but to find myself. Even when I’ve done that, I’m still lonely, so I head back to my hotel and listen to the sound of rain.

These lines, drawn from the melancholy and poetic Introduction to Ninth Building by acclaimed Chinese writer, poet and playwright Zou Jingzhi, speak to a fragmented sense of self, a “compilation of shadows,” that has long accompanied him, appearing unbidden on the street or haunting quiet nights. This book, originally published in Chinese in 2010 and now available in Jeremy Tiang’s excellent English translation, is an attempt to give these shadows some of the depth, context and meaning distorted by the experience of growing up during the years of the Cultural Revolution. As Jingzhi says in an interview on the site of the 2023 International Booker Prize for which his book has been nominated:

 In the early 1990s, my childhood felt like it had been a gust of wind behind the trees. I used to spend my days being lost: What should I write? Whatever I wrote was wrong. It was impossible to get rid of my childhood back then. So I just wrote like that. I wrote for myself. I wrote to let go of my childhood.

Ninth Building is a cohesive work with a common narrator, but it is presented as a series of vignettes or very short stories, set between 1966 and 1977, arranged in a roughly but not strictly chronological order. Time, in its experiencing and remembering, has a somewhat fractured quality. After all, the Cultural Revolution was an unnatural period of disruption and upheaval and, as Jingzhi’s stories so clearly demonstrate, many hours of unstructured tedium. The first section “Ninth Building,” takes its name from the housing complex in Beijing where Zou is living with his family when the Revolution begins. He is about thirteen or fourteen at the time. The first story “Eight Days” is a diary format tale set in November 1966 that describes the eagerness and concern with which a group of boys set out to obtain Red Guard armbands. It is not clear that they understand just what they signify, only that they don’t want to be seen without one. Many of the pieces in this part demonstrate the haphazard way that the adolescents try to make sense the objectives of this movement sweeping the country, rejoicing in the death or humiliation of old women labelled part of the “landlord class,” unaware that many of their own families would soon be suspect. Yet amid the increasing levels of violence among their classmates and peers, there is a lot of idle time to be filled with a variety of friends and neighbours. Boredom had company.

There is a lot of humour in the first part of Ninth Building, some of it rather black, even disturbing, but much also reliant on the innocence of the protagonist and his young buddies (it is the 1960s after all). A wonderful early vignette (“Capturing the Spoon”) describes a night patrol during which the intrepid and enthusiastic guards observe, through a lighted window, a naked couple thrashing around in a bed. Alarmed, they rush to report this obvious, if strange, infraction, but the grown-ups from their compound’s “Attack with Words, Defend with Force” Unit are unmoved by this important information:

Nothing came of our waiting. We’d imagined they’d jump up immediately to stop whatever incorrect action was taking place. This was at the height of the Revolution, and the train we were on had switched to another track. What we’d seem didn’t fit the scenery on this route; red armbands and nakedness didn’t go together. The five of us had three flashlights between us, and for more than half a month now we’d stayed awake night after night, fully alert, wishing something would actually happen. Now something had, but the adults didn’t feel about it the same way we did.

The second and slightly longer part of Ninth Building, “Grains of Sand in the Wind,” opens in 1969 when is Zou sixteen and sent to the Great Northern Waste for “re-education through poverty.” He is one of the millions of “educated youth” sent to work in rural areas and learn from the peasant population. He will not return to the city until after the Revolution comes to an end in 1976. These are years filled with long days of back-breaking labour under harsh conditions, yet no more immune to extended periods of boredom than he knew in Beijing. But here the distractions, apart from the required performances of patriotic operas, were limited to gambling, drinking and practical jokes. Innocence is gone; the underlying tone is now one of resignation. Zou and his peers have come of age in a time when their lives and dreams of the future are suspended:

Youth is a concept whose meaning isn’t easy to grasp. You might as well try to wrap your mind around every era, every event. The word doesn’t really evoke any special memories for me. Perhaps I’ll have to wait till the age when every other sentence begins with “back then” before I truly understand it.

The vignettes set against the vast rural landscape are harsher, with more tragic elements. They are not devoid of humour or eccentric characters, but illness, injury and death feature regularly. Life is cheap. However, poetry and increasingly astute observations are woven into Jingzhi’s anecdotes and tales. As his narrator matures and grows more cynical, he also begins to recognize the seeds of his future as a writer that have been sown during these long years.

The Cultural Revolution was a period of great turmoil during which the power of radicalized youth was harnessed against the Communist Party hierarchy, but as illustrated by Ninth Building, the impact on many young people during this time was marked not by heroism or the glory of conflict, but by years of boredom, dislocation and numbly tedious labour. With its brisk pace and refusal to succumb to despair in spite of the countless temptations, this collection of brief vignettes makes for an entertaining and powerful read.

Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi is translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang and published by Open Letter in North America and Honford Star in the UK.

Forever before and after: Rombo by Esther Kinsky

The seismic shocks of May divided life and the landscape into a before and after. The before was the object of memory, stories unceasingly layered and blown over by words. One argued over the form of the cliffs, the course of the brooks, the trees that avalanches rolled over. About the whereabouts of objects, the order of things in the house, the fate of animals. Each of these arguments was an attempt at orientation, at carving a path through the rubble of masonry, mortar, split beams and shattered dishes, to understand the world anew. To begin living in a place anew. With one’s memories.

On May 6, 1976, just before 9:00 pm, a devastating earthquake tore through the Friuli district of northeastern Italy. Several strong quakes followed in September. Bordered, today, by Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north, this region which extends from the slopes and foothills of the Carnic Alps, onto the flat flood plain of the River Tagliamento, would be forever changed, as would the lives and memories of those who survived that year of death and destruction. Rombo, the latest novel by German poet and writer Esther Kinsky, places this event at its centre and turns its attention to the rich and deeply interwoven stories that bind the land and its inhabitants together.

As her novels River and Grove demonstrate, Kinsky is deeply sensitive to and observant of landscapes, urban and rural; her narratives move through environments that are simultaneously emotional and physical—spaces of memory, grief and reconciliation. The same can be said of Rombo, but here, instead of a peripatetic first person narrator tracing a deeply personal journey, a chorus of voices carry the flow of a unique, multi-layered narrative that encompasses the human and non-human, the animate and inanimate alike. The text is divided into seven sections, each opening with a quote from a classic geological work and a coarse black and white illustration depicting a fragment of the remaining frescos from the cathedral at Venzone. A neutral narrative voice describes the landscape and its history—present and past—offering observations of a geological, ecological, folkloric and scientific nature. Woven into this tapestry are the memories and stories of seven men and women—Anselmo, Olga, Mara, Lina, Gigi, Toni and Silvia—who were children or youth at the time of the earthquake, and whose reflections take them back to the events that forever divided their world into before and after.

This choral narrative flows and swirls like a river, rising and falling, turning in eddies, joined by streams and tributaries along the way. Moving back and forward in time, repetition, contradiction and fractured accounts are gradually woven together to create a rich, if heartbreaking, whole. In the beginning we are briefly introduced to the seven survivors, from a third person perspective, on May 6 and in the present, decades later. Then, the dynamics of the seismic event are set up, the unevenness of the impending disruption are alluded to, and the forces of the earth are unleashed:

It is said that animals are much quicker to sense the vibrations that gradually build up in the Earth’s interior and eventually exceed the stress limit in the spreading centre, causing the tectonic plates to snag and tip, irrevocably shifting the order of hollow cavities and mass, the order of emptiness and fullness.

For each one of the survivors, the hours leading up to the May earthquake were marked by unusual observations—an unexpected sighting of a snake, anxious goats, loudly barking dogs, fitfully chirping birds. The day was unseasonably hot, the light oddly filtered. And everyone remembers the otherworldly sound, il rombo, rising out of the ground just before it started to shake. In the moment, they are pushed out of their houses, stand under archways or find themselves crawling out from under collapsed structures. Damage is extensive but, all things considered, their village is one of the lucky ones. Others are almost completely destroyed.

After our first glimpse of that fateful day, the survivors begin to speak for themselves. They talk of their memories of life in the valley, their families, and their later adult years. But mostly they speak of the earthquake and its immediate aftermath—the strange, dislocated summer of freedom for the school-aged children, the stress of rebuilding and rising tensions among the adults and, amid the turmoil, the accommodation of marriages and deaths and the business of life. Then, when things are beginning to promise a return to some degree of normal, the severe September shocks roll through. Everything is unsettled again.

The lives and stories of some of the characters intersect, contradict one another or offer different angles on the same situations or experiences. Their individual histories reflect the historical and economic realities of the region. Fractured, multi-generational families are common as people are forced to leave to search for work, or driven back again by the need for the support of extended family. Anselmo and Olga, for instance, were both born abroad, in Germany and Venezuela respectively. They come to the valley with their locally born fathers after divorce or widowhood finds them stranded in foreign lands and brings them home. Some couples comfortably fall into a pattern of living in different towns or countries, like Silvia’s parents or Lina and her husband. After the earthquake, many will leave the region for good, having lost their jobs and their homes, but for the seven villagers featured here, including those who do leave for a time and return, the valley is and always will be home. As Lina says about the land and her place in it:

The soil is poor here. Limestone ground, the ground of poverty. The flowers are paler here than elsewhere. The winter is long. But winter is alright by us, because it brings snow and whatever grows around here has snow and goat shit to thank for it. The snow saturates the ground differently than the rain does, they always say. On the other side of the mountain, in the south, it only rains, even in winter no snow falls. It’s God’s pisser, the people say.

What is my life? sometimes I ask myself. My life is this place. Here I know everything. Every stick and every stone. The animals and the people. I write down what I want to remember. The weather, the harvest, the comings and goings, misfortunes. Surprises.

As these witnesses, now looking back through the filter of more than half a lifetime’s experience, recall the upheaval of the earthquake and talk about their lives before and since, their reminisces are framed and reframed through the shifting sedimentary layers of accumulated memory. Just like the land around them. Unfolding with an uneven, yet natural pace, the flow of personal stories, woven among the descriptive passages, observations and anecdotes, lends a filmic documentary-like feel to the novel, successfully achieving a Sebaldian balance of truths and fictions imbued with Kinsky’s distinctly meditative poetics. The result is an unusual and highly affecting form of storytelling that follows its own narrative logic.

Rombo: A Novel by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt and published by New York Review Books  in North America and Fitzcarraldo in the UK.