Everything about everybody is nothing but diversion from death: Yes by Thomas Bernard

One would never accuse Thomas Bernhard of being a cheerful, optimistic writer—his fiction tends to themes of isolation, human misery and the deterioration of modern society. But that’s not to say he isn’t funny. His characters are typically wildly eccentric, usually scientists or scholars of some kind, with musical and/or philosophical inclinations. Yes, his fifth novel, originally published in 1978 and translated into English in 1991 by Ewald Osers, is a shorter work that ticks all these boxes and, for my money, is crafted with just the right balance of idiosyncratic energy and narrative tension.

Many of Bernhard’s novels and stories are presented through a secondary narrator, a friend or acquaintance who records the protagonist’s account, a style that can, at times, necessitate backtracking through a particularly serpentine sentence to determine whose words are actually being described. Yes features a direct first person narrator, a scientist living alone in a rural area in a ramshackle dwelling he retreated to many years earlier to dedicate himself to his studies on antibodies. Beyond science, his passions are the  music Schumann and the philosophy of Schopenhauer, most specifically The World as Will and Idea. The story he wants to impart, one which now lies at some distance, concerns the impact that the arrival of a Swiss engineer and his long-time companion, a Persian woman, had on his life and well-being at a point when he had reached the absolute depths of depression and despair. It is naturally, a roundabout exposition, beginning with the sudden arrival of the so-called Swiss couple at the home and office of his friend the realtor Moritz upon whom he has just unloaded the full and horrible truths of his mental sickness and self-loathing. He immediately recognizes in the Persian woman a certain kinship and a release from the suffocating conditions of his own mind and the stifling community he lives in. Over the course of the novel, he seeks to learn more about this man who had purchased a most undesirable piece of land with intent to build on it, and to further his association with his life-partner:

While the Swiss was busy, in the small towns nearby, looking for door and window fittings, for bolts and grilles, screws and nails and for insulation material and marine paint for the concrete house which, as I learned from him at our first meeting, he had himself designed and which was already going up behind the cemetery, and in consequence was almost never to be found at the inn (the Swiss couple’s quarters for the duration of the construction), I myself, quite suddenly and probably at the life-saving moment snatched by the couple from my depressed state, or in truth from a by then life-threatening depression, suddenly found in the woman friend of the Swiss, who soon turned out to be a Persian born in Shiraz, an utterly regenerating person, that is an utterly regenerating walking and thinking and talking and philosophizing partner such as I had not for years and would have least expected to find in a woman.

What unfolds is a relatively straightforward, well-paced, focused and affecting novel. There is humour, carried primarily in the narrator’s self-obsessed paranoias and blunt opinions, but the classic Bernhard absurdity and circuitous storytelling is contained within a serious, sombre atmosphere which, at least for me, grants the work a mood reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s Nephew in contrast to the relentlessly cynical tone that can weigh down some of his longer more convoluted narratives if one is not quite in the mood to surrender. Of course, the unnamed narrator is, as usual, suitably misanthropic and miserable about the rural environment his lung disease has forced him to retire to, the tedious characters who dwell there, and the current state of political decay in his nation and continent. But in spite of himself, he seems remarkably cognizant of his own role in the isolated circumstances in which he is trapped and in social settings often finds himself balancing his distaste for others with an equal level of attraction, fully aware that he is likely seen no better by anyone else.

Throughout the text, the narrator eludes to his friendship with the Persian woman and their frequent walks in the larch-woods, but it is clear that, despite the momentary release they both find in the company of the other, darkness lies ahead. Then, in the final twenty pages, the narrator draws his account together with increasingly disturbing revelations building to a final sentence that he has been leading to from the very first words he committed to the page. I may have a new favourite Bernhard book and I definitely have another suggestion to offer whenever anyone asks where to start with his work.

Yes by Thomas Bernhard is translated by Ewald Osers and published by The University of Chicago Press.

A Viennese Odyssey: Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler after James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a monumental work of Modernist literature, dense with detail and interior narrative,  so when an illustrator and author known for a characteristically minimalist style of graphic storytelling decides to reimagine this classic what could possibly go wrong? Nothing if it’s Austrian illustrator and author Nicolas Mahler holding the pen.

This ambitious volume is my second encounter with Mahler’s ebullient art and wit. The first was his delightful take on fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, a work that didn’t have to break with location or language in its reincarnation. However, this time he is transporting another equally idiosyncratic writer from Dublin to Vienna and from English to German (translated back into English in this edition by Alexander Booth). This is a retelling “after Joyce” as liberally inventive as the original. As one can imagine, the medium necessitates some streamlining of the story, so Stephen Dedalus is left out (although there is a nod to his tower abode) and some key scenes in which he appears are reimagined in a wild exposition of our German Bloom, Leopold Wurmb’s sexually frustrated, guilt-ridden fears and obsessions. But the parallels with Joyce’s masterpiece are wonderfully realized; after all, the visual medium can reproduce the overlay of experience and internal monologue in a remarkably efficient manner. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So we find ourselves tailing along after Wurmb (who unfortunately resembles his implied namesake  Wurm” or worm) as he makes his way around Vienna on June 16, 1904. While Bloom was an advertising canvasser with the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin, Wurmb is similarly employed by the Viennese Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt. Headlines, excerpts and image offsets from the June 16, 1904 edition of this paper are used to great effect in the chapter where our hero goes to the office. Mahler also draws on images and advertisements from some other Vienna publications from the same day and finds German names for key characters from the same archival sources. But he also adds a really special touch to his Ulysses. Joyce’s novel was first published in 1922, at a high point in the history of newspaper comics, so we find in the pages of this graphic variation many of the cartoon characters who were popular at the same time. Most notably, Olive Oyl stars as his secret romantic pen pal, while Popeye takes on the role of the garrulous sailor W. B. Murphy who regales Wurmb with unlikely tales of adventure in the bar.

If some of the fun of reading Joyce’s novel is looking for the echoes of Odysseus’ journey in the narrative, some of the fun here is marveling at how cleverly Mahler manages to echo key features of Bloom’s journey in his Austrian themed tribute. Wurmb, like Bloom, is trying to avoid going home, knowing that his wife Molly, a singer, will be having sex with her manager Berlyak that afternoon. The impresario’s posters haunt him on his wanderings and reminding him he’s a cuckold, while recurring thoughts of sexual frustration, bitterness and depression mark his day. He mourns his infant son, dead now eleven years, attends a friend’s funeral, takes care of bodily functions and finally, after a day of work, social engagements and some wild, guilt driven fantasy, returns home without his key and is forced to break into his own home. From her bed Molly then takes the stage, so to speak, with a version of her infamous soliloquy which, if necessarily abbreviated, is not devoid of much of the key imagery and sentiment.

Of course, Ulysses is a novel famous for the use of stream of consciousness. Bloom’s inner thoughts are injected into the events of the day (or vice versa). One might wonder if a graphic novel, and one that leans toward a relatively spare open form, can reproduce this effect. Mahler’s solution is to project Wurmb’s thoughts in large, bold letters, across sparsely illustrated pages and over cartoon-strip style interactions when his thoughts wander. Obsessions are illustrated boldly. Thus his inner world takes precedence, as it should, if you want to do justice to Joyce’s masterpiece. Mahler’s variation on this classic is inventive and funny without undermining the sadness and ordinariness of the Everyman at its heart and might even inspire a few readers who have not yet read (or, ahem, finished) the Irish original to pick it up.

Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler, after James Joyce, is translated from the German by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

“Quiet the evening through till dawn.” The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker

Whenever a story began, he never quite understood where it was supposed to go.

After my father died I found, in his office, a journal he kept for the last full year of his life. He recorded each day’s trips, chores and purchases with occasional comments about my mother’s health, the quality of a restaurant meal, or some other personal detail like a book he was reading. He also tracked the weather and key stock market statistics. It demonstrates just how unwilling he was to let a day pass without a set of accomplishments, but captures none of his opinions, worries or hopes. However, it is one of my most precious possessions, a diary I read as a man in his eighty-eighth year trying to hold on to the passage of time.

There is an element of this kind of reporting the mundane ordinariness of the everyday in Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, a fragmentary novel stripped to its most essential elements. Within the series of isolated sentences, phrases and brief passages that comprise this work, a regular report of the day to day flow of weeks, seasonal tasks, and observations of nature not only contribute to an atmosphere of place but speak to the desire to believe that some things stay the same, hoping that as long as this flow continues, the story will not end and one can defy death a little longer. But this novel does not recreate a diary as such, rather it constructs a picture of a village or community, past and present, as its residents age and face the end of life, as memories and images surface from a dark history that has left its mark on a generation that spent their childhood and youth during the war.

A train station appears in the course of everyone’s life.

Poet, writer and radio dramatist, Becker was born in Cologne but spent the war years in Thuringia. He was a participant in Gruppe 47, a collection of important German writers, from 1960 until their dissolution in 1967 and has long been involved with PEN Centre Germany and the German Academy for Language and Poetry. He is known for an open form of experimental literature set in opposition to narrative conventions. The Sea in the Radio (2009), perhaps the first of his prose works to be translated into English, reflects the importance of landscape seen in his later works as well as the tendency to cast side-long glances at the experience of growing up during the Second World War that drives so much of his prolific literary output.

This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts. It begins with bucolic imagery—snow in the winter woods, owls that call at night, the glow of the light—but an ominous tone appears early: the trains off behind the woods that one never saw, the off-road vehicle that is always moving from place to place, photographs showing people or houses that are gone, allusions to secrets lurking. Grammatical tense can be misleading. Is this a statement about the present or the past? Outside the odd quoted statement there is no “I,”, the closest one gets is with the indefinite, gender neutral pronoun “one,” otherwise we move between second, third, and first-person plural perspectives. Wordplay and aphoristic observations also appear, contributing to the overall poetic feel of the text. As we move through the three parts—three orchestral movements that each end with the acknowledgement of the relevant conductor—the story that emerges is dramatic and vivid, despite the fact that so much of it lurks in the silences and spaces between the sentences.

Fine, if you know everything already.

When it is hot and dry, you don’t see any snails in the garden.

What should one do? One does what one can. One does what one can’t.

Motorcycles whining through the village. It’s Sunday.

Watching TV for hours. And then what?

After the storm the sun, immediately humid again, the next storm.

A hissing. Gravel sliding of the loading bed.

He says, Night’s shorter when you can sleep.

The pace is not slow, but charged with a kind of quiet restlessness. This is a novel that invites you to listen closely. An acute awareness of the passage of time and circumstances permeates the work, seeding it not with nostalgia but melancholy. Motifs recur and sentences play off one another, often contradicting what has recently been said, small themes build across a page or two then fade into the background, and there is a knowing humour to some of the observations: “In the waiting room there are magazines that one would never read otherwise.” There is, decades after the years that haunt the aging children that people this landscape, no closure, only increasing decline, illness and loss. And a little wisdom.

When you are old yourself, you treat the old people who are already dead in a friendlier fashion.

Translated by Alexander Booth with an ear to maintaining the rhythm and flow of this fragmentary work, The Sea in the Radio is presented with a design of subtle beauty that features detail from Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa and a pattern simulating water that runs across the lower edge of every page.

The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

The disquieting terrain of loss: Grove by Esther Kinsky

I arrived in Olevano in January, two months and a day after M.’s funeral. The journey was long and led through dingy winter landscapes, which clung indecisively to grey vestiges of snow. In the Bohemian Forest, freshly fallen, wet snow dripped from the trees, clouding the view through the Stifteresque underbrush to the young Vltava River, which not had even a thin border of jagged ice.

As the landscape past the cliffs stretched into the Friulian plains, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had forgotten what it is like to encounter the light that lies behind the Alps and understood, suddenly, the distant euphoria my father experienced every time we descended the Alps.

The unnamed narrator of Grove arrives in Italy, fresh from the loss of her long-time partner, planning to spend three months contemplating the possibility of forcing her life “into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown.” As she travels down from Germany, she stops in Ferrara, a town she had and M. had planned to visit on the Italian trip they would never manage to take together. But the literary landscape of Georgio Bassani will have to wait, at this time her destination is further south, a small village south-east of Rome. There she will walk the streets and roadways of the rolling landscape, orienting herself in relation to the house where she rents an apartment, the nearby cemetery and grove of trees. An anchor for an unanchored time.

German author and translator Esther Kinsky’s books cannot be rushed. They unfold slowly and linger in the imagination. Like her acclaimed novel, River, this meditation on grief offers an intimation of autofiction but I prefer to see her work as fiction bound to real-life experience and location that conceals as much as it reveals. Intimate yet not overtly confessional in nature. The focus is on immediate response to encounters, observations and memories, while autobiographical details tend to be limited, leaving both the author and her protagonist in the shadows. The narrator has recently lost her husband after a serious illness; Kinsky’s husband, Scottish-born German translator Martin Chalmers, died in October, 2014. The grief, the loss, is palpable, yet still too recent to be fully articulated, not only in the first section chronicling those early months alone, but in the third part set exactly one year later. M.’s memory haunts the narrator’s dreams, her attachment to an article of his clothing, his image. However, we learn very little of anything about him or their life together. Likewise, what the narrator is looking for and what she finds is unclear—as in River, it is the journey, or rather journeys, not the destination that guides the narrative.

In the first part of Grove, “Olevano,” one has the sense that the narrator is attempting to find herself in the landscape of a place where death is never far away. Cemeteries, the sellers of fresh and plastic flowers to mark graves, the sight of a body being removed from a house, memories of the Etruscan tombs her father loved, even trees being felled to combat the spread of disease all summon thoughts of morti, followed by sounds of vii—bird song, children’s voices, the daily ordinary routines of life. It’s a slow unfolding, gradual emergence from winter to the early signs of spring, that accompany the narrator’s wandering through the village, the countryside, to Rome, to the sea and back to her temporary refuge on the hillside. She is learning how to live again, awaking in an alien place, a stranger to each new day:

When after sweeping the landscape my gaze fell to my hands on the window ledge, I thought I saw M.’s hands beneath them, in the space between my fingers – white and delicate and long, his dying hands, which were so different from his living hands, and they lay beneath mine as if on a double exposed photograph. Then the coffee maker hissed, and the coffee boiled over, and my living hands had to break away from M.’s white hands in order to turn off the stove and remove the pot, but I inevitably burned myself, and this pain made me aware that I hadn’t relearned anything yet.

The flowing language, poetic, careful and observant, traces a slow burning existential pilgrimage. Kinsky paints a rich portrait, not only of the landscape and urban areas, but of the people—from the reticent village population to the groups of African migrants who cluster around marketplaces and bus stations, barely surviving on the outskirts of society, unable to leave, with no home to return to. As in River, a novel set on the edge of London along the Lea River, her narrator here similarly is attentive to the character and quality of place; she does not simply see, she feels her way through the misty months of early disorienting grief and necessary solitude.

I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance – it presented itself differently from each side. On each side the routes drew a different script, the mountains cast different shadows, and the plains, foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds shifted. A terrain that left traces in me, without a recognizable trace of myself remaining in it. Something about the relationship between seeing and being seen – between  the significance of seeing and being or becoming seen, as a comforting conformation of your existence – suddenly appeared to me as a burning question, which defied all names and acts of naming. If on that hillside some had told me that I might die from the inability to answer or simply even phrase this question, I would have believed them.

It is clear from the beginning that she is no stranger to Italy. Her father spoke Italian, was fascinated with the history of the Etruscans, and year after year family holidays were spent exploring the country. The second section of Grove begins with her father’s death, then revisits memories of trips taken over the years. Grief, through the lens of time and distance becomes an attempt to understand a somewhat elusive man against the backdrop of his knowledge of architectural sites, landscapes and bird calls, his tendency to disappear for hours and his penchant for outings that often led to the family getting lost. In the end though, this fascinating and recognizable account of lengthy family car trips reminds anyone with a similarly enigmatic parent that we can ever fully know them when so much of our experience rests deeply in childhood. Loss and mourning is perhaps always incomplete.

So we come to the third and final part of the novel which finds our narrator returning to Italy exactly one year after her stay in Olevano. Again it is January when a certain colourlessness and frosty otherness mutes the land. She travels first to Ferrara, orienting herself by the landmarks of the life and characters of Georgio Bassani, haunted more by the fictional environs of the Finzi Continis. From there she moves to Comacchio, on the Adriatic, where she spends her days walking through the stark salt pans, observing flamingos and other shore birds, and seeking out the site of a fabled necropolis. It’s a sad and lonely time to be wandering this place devoid as it is of tourist activity, but she seems to be approaching a new, peaceful meditative relationship with loss. If she set out to consider how she might force her life into a new order one year earlier, the apparent bleakness of this last stop in Italy carries the quiet promise of moving forward anew even if where she is heading and what she has learned is not clear, or not for sharing.

Grove by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and as Grove: A Field Novel by Transit Books in North America.

Is he really gone: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

The loss, he says, the loss of someone so
close, the loss of a HAND and HEART
PARTNER is something so completely and
utterly devastating, yet it may be, we may be
able to keep right on speaking with this HEART and
LOVE PARTNER continue conversing and may
even expect a response from this person.

I’ve long had an interest in literary expressions of immediate grief, a much more elusive task than one might imagine until actually faced with the intensity of loss and the longing to express that experience at its most raw. Then it seems almost impossible, yet Friederike Mayröcker’s Requiem for Ernst Jandl may be one of the most successful unmediated responses to the loss of a loved one that I have encountered.

Paperback edition, German List

Mayröcker met fellow Austrian poet and writer Ernst Jandl in 1954. They both left marriages to be together, but did not marry or share a home. Theirs was a deeply creative lifelong partnership, they supported one another’s work and collaborated on radio plays and other projects over the next forty-six years. When Jandl died on June 9, 2000, she was devastated by the loss yet miraculously she was able to channel it into a series of poems composed within the first months after his death. The rawness and confusion of grief is evident. Her characteristic, experimental style which employs capitalization, italics and numerals, and often incorporates fragments of private conversations and excerpts from letters and diaries, serves to heighten the anxiety, confusion and emotion of this period of early grief. Also woven into the series of poems that comprise this requiem is an earlier piece that captures the nature of the interplay of the their creative energies.

There is a sense throughout this slender collection of words and emotion spilling out on the page, gathered up and coming loose again. The great love, the completeness of the loss, and the exhaustion of caring for a weak and dying man all have to be released, repeatedly, in the tumult of grief and guilt that colours these early months. Each poem approaches these conflicts, but the final long piece in the book, the prose poem “’the days of wine and roses’, for Ernst Jandl,” reflects this emotional urgency with particular power. Here Mayröcker seems to be sorting out a flux of memories, thoughts and feelings as expressed to a friend, Leo N.

And what about the pencil, I say to B., why
on the morning of his death did he draw a
pencil on a piece of note paper, I say to B.,
why did he ask for a pencil, there were
plenty of pens on the little table next to his
bed, the quill of the Holy Ghost lingered
longer on Job’s sorrows than it did on the
delights of Solomon, B. says, I tell Leo N.,
is he really gone, is he really in heaven now,
a heaven you yourself believe in, the
passageway into the other world, says Leo
N., is described as stepping through a
waterfall, and the vulture flies through the
sun, I went up to his room, up to a bed that is
empty and say to him I feel better today, but
I am thinking: I NO LONGER have any hope
for this life, at 3 o’clock in the morning…

In the crush of the weeks and months following Jandl’s death the voices of some friends and phone calls from others rise and fall. This is a loss both deeply personal and shared with a community of artists, and at times a tension is evident, one senses that the poet both welcomes the company and wants to be alone. Needs the comfort and doesn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, the death of her companion and creative partner did not silence Mayröcker. She continued to write startling, challenging and innovative poetry and prose right up until her death last year at the age of ninety-six. Jandl continues to appear and inspire along the way but never in such an open, unabashed lament as in this Requiem—one that fittingly closes with one of his best known poems, the humorous sound poem ottos mops complete with Mayröcker’s original reflection on the composition written in 1976, long ago she admits, adding that if she could have one single year from that now distant time back, “how intensively I would live it, how tenderly and how happily.”

Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker is translated from the German by Roslyn Theobald and published by Seagull Books.

Writing toward a dark hope: The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha

In the nearly three years since the first reports of a novel coronavirus emerged from China, this new SARS variant has caused illness, death and division across the globe. Seems the stuff of speculative fiction is not as interesting to live in as it is to imagine in a novel or film. So, while the early months of the pandemic inspired a flood of lock down essays and memoirs (I was editing for a magazine at the time and it seemed endless), the topic has been one that often has to be raised cautiously as so many are simply determined to move on, content to accept a certain level of weekly death and disability as a price society has to be prepared to pay. However, as the virus continues to circulate, fill hospitals and kill, its greatest weapon seems to be its ability to deepen hostilities and inequities within communities and around the world.

Yet, if I hit a point of poetic saturation in the first year of Covid, I now find myself curious to see how this global phenomenon is being responded to at this point, more than two years in. Thus, The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha, newly released by Seagull Books, immediately caught my attention. Subtitled Reflections on the Pandemic through Photography, Performance and Public Culture, this is not a journal, a memoir or a clinical analysis, rather it is an extraordinarily thoughtful meditation on the depiction of illness, death and displacement, the expression of loss and grief, and the possible positive potential of the pandemic experience for the future. As a writer, cultural critic and dramaturg based in Kolkata, India, he does not concern himself with the details of the virus itself, epidemiology or the ongoing debates around vaccines. Instead he is interested in offering a personal response to “the turbulent state of a world that seems to have gone awry.” What sets this essay apart, then, are the questions Bharucha is led to ask and the resources he draws on in his exploration—he turns to photography, theatre, literature, dance and critical thought.

India famously reacted to the initial spread of Covid 19 in 2020 with a strict three month lock down that within hours had those with homes and some security retreating indoors, and forcing vast numbers of migrant workers to try to find a way back to their home villages across a country that had suddenly shut down. However, for Bharucha and his country, it is the second wave between April and October 2021, that struck as a harsh and heart-breaking demonstration of the ferocity of the disease which they had mistakenly fancied they had survived relatively unscathed. This book engages with four realities emerging from the crisis of this brutal wave of illness: death, grief, mourning and extinction.

The first section, “Photography in the Pandemic,” is primarily concerned with death. A number of communities and countries around the world experienced exceptionally high levels of infection and death in the early months of the pandemic, but much of it happened out of the sight of the general public. Streets were emptied and ICUs were closed to visitors, rendering the suffering invisible. Families said good-bye to loved ones over the internet. Refrigerated trucks backed up to hospitals were received as an abstracted image, and even expansive burial sites tended to blur with any number of other tragedies of nature or war. But the photographs coming out of India somehow seemed more real, more difficult to excuse as “fake.” Bharucha focuses on three striking, widely seen photographs: the image of two men sharing a bed in a public hospital, the tops of two oxygen cylinders just visible in the foreground; a photo of a man fleeing a cremation ground that looks more like a hellish scene of destruction than a place of funeral ritual; and a drone shot of bodies covered in saffron cloth lying on the shore of the Ganga, the final resting place of those too poor to afford cremation. The discussion of these iconic images calls on Barthes and Debord, contrasts the ordered depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak in Bombay and considers the question of ownership. Today corporations and media houses own and control the distribution of the depictions of war, famine and disease, but their human truth cannot be forgotten:

[W]e cannot deny that these images, many of them too searing in their impact to be witnessed in a dispassionate mode, represent real events. One may question their mode of representation and capitulations to sensationalism and voyeurism, but, at a purely empirical level, the two men lying in a hospital bed, the man running through a cremation ground, and even the most extreme image of dead bodies on the banks of the Ganga were not fictions.”

This first part also looks back to the great displacement of the first wave with an examination of the depiction of families making the long journeys home and the way these internal migrations were recorded and presented.

The second section of The Second Wave, “No Time to Mourn,” opens with a discussion of the interrelationship between grief and mourning, and an acknowledgement of the disruption of the critical ritual practices associated with death and dying. This was, of course, a widely experienced phenomenon, but in Hindu and Islamic traditions  a physical connection with the body of the deceased is vitally important. Hospital death, fear of infection and the intense pressure on cremation and burial services left survivors unable to mourn and articulate their grief. Here again we see the power of photography with the inclusion of the image of Rampukar Pandit, a migrant worker making his way home from Delhi, learning that his infant son has died. Clutching his cellphone, his expression is one of absolute despair and it is impossible to look at him without feeling his pain. This single photograph speaks to the extraordinary grief and loss that, because grief is so often private, seems to have been scrubbed from so much of the discourse around the pandemic that aims to minimize its impact in many communities. But how can grief be expressed publicly in a meaningful way? Bharucha turns to several Euro/American efforts to capture grief though performance art before turning to literary and dramatic representations from Indian writers and artists. Helpfully, throughout this essay, he tries to chose material that can be readily accessed, in whole or in part, online. As well, detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography catalogues the academic, dramatic and related resources that he references.

It is with the final section, “Endings / Beginnings,” that The Second Wave moves beyond any pandemic themed essays I’ve encountered to date. Bharucha writes with passion and a cautious but hopeful optimism, as he explores how  we might live after the pandemic, fully aware that an ending is, at the time of writing, still elusive and wanting to avoid the hopeless despair that the “seemingly endless postponement of ‘the end’” can fuel.

Instead, what comes to mind is ‘dark hope’, which is how Sanskritist and peace activist David Shulman has characterized the larger context of struggling for peace on the West Bank. It is this hope that shadows my reflections on the interstice between endings and beginnings which is the subject of this chapter.

He begins his analysis with the theatrical concept of “exit” and a discussion of the darkness and destruction at the end of the Mahabharata. He wonders what moment of time we might be entering, with the consideration of two possible modalities that could contribute to the shaping of a fatal end in our times—genocide and extinction—drawing on ancient and modern imagery and sources. The darkness is easy to imagine, given the record of human history on this planet, so where does the hope lie?

Bharucha proposes that within the possibility of destruction the possibility of rebirth or reinvention may be found. From here he embarks on a wide-ranging discussion, a sort of thinking out loud, that takes into account in his own Zoroastrian identity, then moves to the ethics of waiting with a look at Samuel Beckett’s most famous play and Gandhi’s message of restraint, admitting that waiting is not going to be an acceptable response to many who are tired of waiting and staying put. But, if the pandemic, which has most certainly arisen from an animal host, has taught us anything, he argues, it is “how intimately the animal world intersects with our own.” So the question then becomes one of how to inhabit the planet moving forward. Bharucha proposes that an answer might be found in an enhanced bodily awareness—stillness, movement and breath—explored in the context of dance, theatre, yoga, freediving and critical thought.

There is, of course, much more to this thoughtful book than I can begin to touch on in this review. It is ultimately a very personal journey tinged with sorrow, anger and a commitment to making sense of a global pandemic that has carved two years or more out of our “normal” existences, cost countless lives and left many more with serious lingering effects. The attention breath and breathlessness that closes out the essay is especially poignant in light of the rush for ventilators in the early stages of the pandemic and the scenes of lineups and desperate calls for oxygen canisters so ubiquitous as the second wave struck India. But a loss of breath is not strictly a feature of earlier variants, even if ICUs are not filled to capacity so much at this time. Talking to my thirty year-old daughter tonight, several weeks after her recovery from Covid, she admitted that her lungs are just not the same in a way she has never experienced before, and hers was not an unusually difficult bout. Those struggling with Long Covid are even more aware of how easily movement and breath can become strained, leaving them stranded on the cusp of an uncertain ending and an undefined beginning.

The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha is published by Seagull Books.

“That’s how I remember it.” Postcard from London and Other Stories by Iván Mándy

Making the acquaintance of Iván Mándy, one of the most popular Hungarian writers of the post-war period, is one of the unexpected highlights of my reading year. Postcard from London and Other Stories, which gathers twenty-three stories and two novella excerpts, is the first comprehensive collection of his work to be published in English and, as with such larger volumes, there is always the risk of a certain sameness setting in. Yet, with Mándy, the appearance of the same characters and variations or extensions on related themes, is part of the appeal. His stories tend to tread the murky internal waters of his protagonists’ minds, so even when covering the same ground, one never really steps in the same stream twice.

Born in Budapest in 1918, Mándy’s parents divorced when he was young, leaving him in the care of his unconventional journalist father. He moved from school to school, but did not complete his formal education. Much of his writing draws on these early years of his life, channeled through his rather hapless alter ego János Zsámboky. He published his first work during the Second World War and, within a few years he was recognized with the Baumgarten Award. However, the advent of Communist rule in 1948 supressed his literary and editorial career until things started to loosen up in the mid-fifties. Through the sixties and seventies, his popularity grew as he published many novels and stories, often producing as much as a book a year. He died in 1995.

As a writer, Mándy focused his attention on life in the poorer communities of Budapest, on the eccentrics, the lonely and the misfits of society. But his stories often depend less on plot than on an ability to evoke mood, character and scene with a handful of words. Here, a room:

All around, the barren summer wasteland of the parquet floor. The carpets rolled up on the top shelf of the closet. Like defeated political dignitaries. Ousted statesmen.
“The Morning of the Journey” (1989)

This becomes especially apparent in his work from the 1970s onward. By employing techniques borrowed from radio plays and cinema, his narratives begin to explore the shifting textures of the narrator’s mindscape, as memories, desires and anxieties rise and fall away, carrying the voices of strange and familiar figures encountered in the past and present, sometimes leaving his protagonist treading an uneven border between daydreaming and waking states. Thus it is often less any question of getting from point A to B, than the uncertain effort of getting nowhere at all along a pathway strewn with ghosts and sly objects, as well as those surrounding individuals who are still negotiating the “real” world.

The stories collected in Postcard from London are drawn from Mándy’s writings published between 1972 and 1992, translated by John Batki. Along with a variety of assorted pieces, there are two main series of connected or related stories involving Mándy’s alter ego, János Zsámboky. The first set, mostly but not exclusively from the early 1970s, involve his parents—primarily his engagement with his memories of his erratic, unreliable father and his quieter mother. Their ghosts haunt him. In the opening story, “A Visit with Father,” as János is reluctantly preparing to visit his father in the hospital, he recalls his parents’ seemingly abrupt separation, his father’s second marriage, and more recently, his aging father’s decline into the delusional and suicidal behaviour that ultimately forced him to have the old man hospitalized. The second tale, “A Visit with Mother,” sees János once again preparing for a trip to the hospital, this time with a dress and stockings, for his final encounter with his proud and resilient mother who is lying in the morgue. These two stories are the perfect introduction to János’ somewhat anxious character, his parents, and the basic outline of their lives. Together they set the stage for “What Was Left,” the wonderful 50-page story that follows. Here our hero is sorting through documents, receipts, photographs and diary entries in an empty apartment, attempting to piece together gaps in his knowledge of his parents’ lives while Father and Mother engage him (and each other) from the beyond. Seamlessly slipping between, past and present, first and third person, Mándy weaves a portrait of a fractured family that is funny and bittersweet. This familial cast which also includes Olga, the second wife and her family, and Mother’s Aunt Vali (“with the balcony-sized bosom”) appears in a number of stories, but it is always Father who looms larger than life, determined to claim his space in his son’s imagination forever:

In my dreams, he still comes and goes, expostulates, protests. He lives his own life. Somehow, he gets wind of everything. Some old, netherworldly newspaperman must have told him that I got married after he died. In the corridor of dreams, he accosts me with a gentle reproach. ‘You didn’t even introduce me to your bride, kiddo . . .’ And he still stubbornly insists that I arrange for him to return home. ‘I’m fed up with prowling around.’
“The Original” (1974)

János’ wife Zsuzsi first appears, in this collection, in a story from 1974, “A Chapel, Afternoon” but it is in a later sequence of stories chronicling a trip to London (1989 and 1992) that Mándy’s alter ego reveals himself to have become an aging, distracted writer, unwilling traveller and obstinate companion to his sensible, patient partner. His mind is now even more prone to wandering. His dreams are fantastic, even horrific, channelling his waking fears; figures from his past—real or imagined—interrupt his conversations; and when left to his own devices he is inclined to turn the action of strangers into potential scenarios for future stories. He even encounters possible characters in his own visage as in this scene from “An Afternoon Sleeper” where he waits in a cold changing room in London:

Four mirrors around me, four mirrors and four faces. On one side, a sharp diplomat’s face. Not exactly glowing with confidence. And that deep, dark under the eyes. This diplomat is about to be relieved of his duties. Something is not quite right about him. His services are no longer needed. He’s being recalled. And God only knows what awaits him back home. . .

Facing me is a sly old greybeard. Winking. A dirty old man. Never did a stroke of work in his life. He chased little girls instead.

A superannuated actor. Face fallen apart. Eyes glazed. Forget about ever getting another part. Not even as an extra.

A haggard, leaden face. A night waiter. Not exactly seedy, but somehow unreliable. He has no steady customers. A very few strays, at the most.

The door of the booth opens.

A heather green jacket appears. Behind it, Zsuzsi and the silver-haired salesman.

Other protagonists make their way through various stories, but János continues to appear regularly, through to the end. As the above quote illustrates, Mándy can call a character into being with few brush strokes and create a situation within which he or she must respond to the everyday strangeness of life.

Finally, I would be remiss not to call attention to the way Mándy, influenced by his fondness for Buster Keaton, blurs the lines between material and human existence. Suitcases, articles of clothing and other objects are often animated, in passing, through the use of verbs or descriptions not typically applied to things. This is one of the many ways in which his prose echoes poetry, but in an excerpt from the novella “Furniture” he playfully takes this tendency one step further. Through a series of vignettes, with or without human co-stars, furniture—chairs, tables, living room suites—take centre stage. Unusual, perhaps, but not unexpected or out of place, in the literary universe Iván Mándy imagines into being. This welcome collection offers an excellent opportunity to explore that idiosyncratic space.

Postcard from London and Other Stories by Iván Mándy is translated from the Hungarian by John Batki and published by Seagull Books.

Absence is the only distance felt by the heart: Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully

Without a spurious memory,
the sole true blood, like salt
flowed around
every white seashell
wrenched from the belly of languages.

Speak so as not to forget—
isn’t this the true gift of tongues?  (p. 62)

The island nation of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean about 800 kilometres east of Madagascar, was uninhabited until the Dutch took possession of it in 1598. They named it after governor Maurice of Nassau, but despite two attempts to settle the island, they abandoned it to pirates. Mauritius was then occupied by the French East India Company in 1721 and renamed Ile de France. Over the next forty years settlement proceeded until the French Crown assumed control and established a thriving sugar cane industry, bring in African slaves to work the plantations. In 1810, the British captured the island. Four years later, their sovereignty was confirmed and the name Mauritius was restored but, in contrast to other British colonies, French customs, laws and language remained in place.

When abolition brought an end to slavery in Britain, pressure extended to the colonies and the replacement of slaves with indentured servants, primarily from India, began. Between 1849 and 1923, millions of men and women were brought to the island and beyond to other European colonies. Today, Mauritius, an independent Republic with administrative control of several nearby islands (including a still-disputed claim over the Chagos Archipelago), has a population reflecting its short history. Approximately two-thirds are of Indo-Pakistani origin, one-third Creole (French-African) and a small percentage of mixed Chinese heritage.[i]  A rich blend of cultures, traditions and religions have contributed to a diverse and growing economy in this small African country, but the wounds of a history of slavery and indentured servitude cannot be ignored. Countless people were torn from their homelands and transported in unsafe, sometimes deadly conditions to work in a harsh environment with little hope of ever seeing home again. Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Mauritian poet, essayist and filmmaker, Khal Torabully, is a poetic tribute to his own ancestors, and an attempt to give voice to those who made that fateful voyage, human cargo in the hold of ships, to the shores of Mauritius so many years ago.

I want to go to the grand bazaar
to seek at last the saffron of shadows
o refrain from your refrain
the hoist of spices clears the remains
o refrain from your refrain
for your bodies heaped on the wind:
cries of cumin: cries my journey’s route
cries of thyme: cries my future
cries of coriander corpses awaiting return.
And the bids of roots chased away
my terrified dreams all the way to hell.   (p. 37)

This collection moves backward, from the blended community of peoples forced into labour who not only held on to traditions carried in their memories, but, with the blending of cultures created a stronger community, through the horrors of the seabound journey, back to the point of departure from their distant motherland. Torabully’s mission is reflected in his reclamation and empowering of the word “coolie,” the pejorative term for primarily Indian and Chinese indentured workers once common throughout the colonies. Echoing Aimé Césaire’s term “Negritude,” he coins the idea of “Coolitude” to recognize the resilience, dignity and cultural and linguistic endurance of these forgotten men and women. By taking up their voices, he is at once giving them back their unique histories and setting them free:

Coolitude: because all humans have the right to a memory, all are entitled to know their first odyssey’s port. Not that this port is a refuge, but because in this place, forever unnameable, they raise those anchors that sometimes bind to their truth.

Yes indeed, all humans have the right to know the flames that ignite their dreams and silences. Even to be their own history’s moth.

By coolitude I mean that peculiar clashing of tongues which cracks the heart of hearts of millions of men for a history of crystals and spices, fabric and parcels of land.

Unsuspected music at the threshold of words from different horizons.

Within myself an encounter with those who invert the course of boats.

In a cargo hold of stars.  (p. 18)

Given the cultural diversity inherent among the population of the workers who were brought to Mauritius, honouring their experiences demands a language of its own. As translator Nancy Naomi Carlson explains in her Foreword, Torabully developed a “poetics of coolitude” by creating “a new French, peppered with Mauritian Creole, Old Scandinavian, old French, mariners’ language, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu and neologisms.” The playfulness and musicality of his verse serves to accentuate the serious, even tragic themes that recur throughout this work, but provided a unique challenge for Carlson, whose wonderful translation of this work has been awarded the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She employed a “sound mapping” technique, identifying “salient patterns of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in the original, using a colour-coded system to help keep track within each poem, then tried to infuse this music into [her] translation without sacrificing the original meaning.” The results invite reading aloud—the resulting poems read like a cycle of songs—verses recited in the fields, on the ship, around the home fire. Songs of longing, songs of loss, songs of hope.

Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully is translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson and published by Seagull Books.

[i] Historical and population data from Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mauritius

And we’ve come full circle: Tractatus by Róbert Gál

1.103
Not every pearl of wisdom is necessarily true. Not every catharsis necessarily amounts to understanding.

The Latin title, Tractatus, is ominous, immediately conjuring images of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famously difficult text, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and indeed a quick glance inside reveals a sequence of numbered statements and passages with an epigram from the great Austrian philosopher himself: Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetry. Yet anyone who has struggled through the logical propositions and equations at the core of Wittgenstein’s critically important, if cool and austere, treatise, will be relieved to know that it is a later, less certain, more playful expression of the philosopher’s thinking that seems to be inspiring much of what unfolds in the latest work from Slovak-born writer and editor, Róbert Gál. But he is also forging his own idiosyncratic path.

Gál has, over the years, produced a collection of writings that have ranged from the fictional to the philosophical, highlighting a gift for aphorisms, a fondness for tautologies, neologisms and rhetorical questions, and a tendency to riff off ideas with the improvisational energy of a jazz stylist. Now, in what may be his shortest work (or a close tie with Naked Thoughts), he is, with a nod to Wittgenstein, engaged in surprisingly dense axiomatic exercise that endeavours to examine what we can know about our experience of truth and reality, and what that implies for our ethical and metaphysical existence in the twenty-first century. That is, of course, not to suggest that his is a rigidly structured systemic exposition—it is a much more fluid, free-flowing and varied engagement with ideas, beginning with a most unconventional approach to a first principle:

1.1
I don’t remember the day I died, but it was obviously before I’d had time to be born. And nothing had mattered more to me than that very business of getting myself born. Ideally getting myself born into the me that had been born already, discretely, corpuscle by corpuscle. Born into the ready and waiting, hence painlessly. Not being born, though born already. But what into? Shall we imagine it? Might it not play havoc with the seeming need to have one’s own outer shell, for all that it just keeps on cracking?

Ah, yes, a rather different game is afoot, and yet not so much as one might expect. Anecdotes, asides and aphorisms are woven into the exercise that follows, an investigation that begins with the self as an entity, the interface through which we interpret the experiences that shape our understanding of the world. By the second section, the discussion starts to open up to the question of what we can intuit about that which cannot be directly observed or proven, and the we are invited to slow down and work our way through the reasoning at hand. Logic, truths, reality, these are the problems that begin to surface, as they will again and again throughout. But buffered by aphorisms, reflections and anecdotes this is neither a dry nor an unduly taxing read. By contrast, this is a living philosophy. Gál is working with large concepts with his signature inventive wit and creative energy. He makes you think:

3.4
Sorrow is one of the joys. Its basis is a process of projecting. If this projecting collapses beneath the pressure of reality, joy is put to an end. However, the pressure of reality also means that our projecting is petrified—and that is the precondition for any further projecting to be possible. Reality becomes the back-up to its own power to bring pressure to bear on us. It is no less prone to being continually deformed as it is subject to being continually formed. The mind by which it is formed becomes a reflection of the mind that it itself is giving form to, and we’ve come full circle.

As we work our way through Tractatus, we are continually challenged to engage with our own assumptions about truth, thought, memory, emotion and much more. Existence becomes understood as a dance with the experience of reality, or that which we imagine reality to be:

7.11
If the truth is meant to be a possibility, then by some means it has to be imposed upon reality.

13.11
Anything is never anything. Anything is a sonorous option between nothing and something that carries weight.

16.3
Intelligence, unlike memory, selects from time only those truths, instants and items of knowledge that it finds worthwhile. Which is why memory is the more truthful.

22.12
Can interior actions have exterior manifestations if interior and exterior are but abstract notions invented by us? Or, conversely, are interior actions—and their exterior manifestations—the reason why these notions have been abstracted by us?

These scattered passages are offered simply to give a taste of the kind of musings that comprise this short volume. Some may seem self-evident, others may trigger a little dissonance. And that’s okay. As the work progresses, the axiomatic elements carry an increasing value. From an open and playful beginning, over less than sixty pages and twenty-seven brief sections of between one and twenty-four sub-sections, the material in Tractatus builds upon itself to create a loosely spiraling structure of statements, questions and extrapolations leading to, a final and important conclusion.

As with all of Gál’s previous publications, this book is small, almost pocket-sized, the kind of thoughtful companion you can easily tuck into a bag. I also want to suggest this is his most accessibly serious philosophical work to date—challenging but not heavy, wise but not dogmatic—and as ever, deceptively playful.

Tractatus by Róbert Gál is translated from the Slovak by David Short and published by Schism Press.