The courage to write

For some 30 years I have packed and unpacked, shelved and reshelved a library full of books that I have not yet read but would not dream of carting off to a charity sale. Naturally I assume that the day will come when that book will come to my attention and, conveniently I will have it at hand. Of course, in the meantime a wealth of new books have joined my libraries, actual and electronic, so that all those long held treasures run the risk of absolute obscurity. I suspect more than a few book addicts can relate.

And sometimes the tendency to hoard a book pays off, though sadly that time is too often heralded by the death of the author.

20140809_222130I must have purchased Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, in the very early 1980s. I was studying anthropology and working part-time in a bookstore. South Africa and the struggles against Apartheid would have held a particular resonance for me through the presence of a number white South African ex-patriots who had found their way to the Anthropology department of a Canadian university for their own safety. However, had I read this novel when I first bought it, I am not sure if I would have been able to fully appreciate this powerful testament to those men and women, white and black, who risked their freedom and too often their lives to fight for justice. But with 30 year’s perspective, the hard won experience of middle age and the political changes that have marked South Africa in deeply complicated ways both positive and negative – as history tends to unfold in real life – this is one of the most rewarding reads of the year for me to date.

Ms Gordimer’s writing is rich, complex and worthy of a careful read. The shifting perspectives take the reader in and out of internal monologues that Rosa Burger, the daughter of a doctor and Communist activist who has died in prison, holds with the many individuals she encounters or remembers as she struggles to find an identity for herself in the huge shadow cast by her famous father (a fictionalized tribute to the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela). In the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, Burger’s Daughter is described as historical fiction. Of course, it is no such thing. Rather it is a time capsule, a deliberately political novel, but written without the advantage of knowing that Mandela would walk to freedom, become President, and pass away leaving a society where so many still live on a razor’s edge even if the tapestry has changed.

The final pages of Burger’s Daughter paints an uncertain future. Yet like life itself, the novel is brimming with vibrant, colourful characters brought to life with keen and loving detail.  The complexity of the politics presented at the time of writing combined with the critical distance of three decades impressed me deeply. It takes courage to speak to injustice. Nadine Gordimer herself knew that her work not only took risks but would also be forever defined by her colour. Moving beyond colour, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, ability, orientation or the myriad of other divisions we seem to be able to construct as to divide us as humans is a seemingly impossible task. But by taking that one piece to which a writer, by virtue of fate or circumstance, is able to address and telling the stories that matter, small changes may be possible.

“Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” (Nadine Gordimer)

Nadine Gordimer was a writer of courage and I am ashamed that it took her death to bring her into my focus.

Reflections on a most intriguing Booker nominee – The Wake

6898212431_742cf14ae7_zSo the Booker Prize Longlist for 2014 was announced this week and, as much as I like to think that this is a list that does not hold quite the same seal of approval and impact that it once had for me I must confess that I am a sucker for these lists all the same. Generally, over time, I do manage to read more more than a few of the long and or short listed titles, and in doing so, I am invariably exposed to authors I might not have otherwise read. I am not likely to radically alter my looming to be read list just to have a go at a few of these titles in advance, but I did want to take a moment to look back on the most unlikely contender and, as it happens, the only one of these books that I have already read. The Guardian review that brought this title to my attention was so deeply intriguing I just had to read it as soon as possible. I have only just learned that it was a crowd sourced project, a factor that makes its appearance on the Booker Longlist that much more, shall we say, against the norm.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is an historical novel set in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings from the perspective of the very ordinary and simple farm and townspeople who were watching the world they knew turned upside down by a foreign invader. The magic of this amazing tale comes through a very creative and effective use of language. It is written entirely in a shadow tongue designed to evoke the feel and mindset of Old English while retaining accessibility for those of us who are not OE scholars. It may sound like a gimmick but the approach actually affords a unique immersive experience.

WakeKingsnorth relies on much authentic vocabulary without being unnecessarily rigid, while recreating the syntax and common spellings of Old English (using only the letters in use at the time). As a reader it takes a while to develop a feel for the language. At the beginning I found myself translating the directly in my head, the way I do with my rudimentary French, but soon that process fell away. It helped when I discovered that there was a most illuminating author’s note on the reasons for his approach to creating this language and I would suggest that a reader review this early on. I read the book on a Kindle as that was the only edition readily available in Canada at the time so I did not realize the supplementary sections, glossary and extensive bibliography existed until I was well into the book!

What takes this small novel beyond a purely literary or historical exercise is the skill with which Kingsnorth brings his chosen narrator to life. Buccmaster of Holland, is a proud socman or freeman landholder, who leads a small band of self-styled greenmen in guerilla warfare against the Norman invaders. They make for a rather motley crew and our leader is no Hollywood inspired superhero. As the tale unfolds we become increasingly aware that this coarse, paranoid, prejudiced man is clinging to a deeply superstitious tradition that was on its way to being replaced by Christianity long before the French arrived. We find ourselves bound to an increasingly delusional man with dark secrets of his own. Kingsnorth himself describes this novel (his first) as a post-apocalyptic tale set 1000 years in the past. Of course it also has strong echoes in the vast number of occupations and conflicts, large and small, that continue to haunt communities and cultures throughout the world today.

I first read this novel three months ago and loved it. However I look back on it with some measure of discomfort as I now continue to come to terms with the fall out of from a serious manic episode. In the leadership role I held at my workplace I became increasingly stressed under mounting pressure and, although I can’t remember, I must have seemed erratic, irritable and well, unstable. The truth of madness, is that you cannot see it from inside. For a long time you may sense that something is wrong but in the end you lose all insight and judgement. The narrator who guides us though The Wake, is a complex troubled character, but given his challenges and his panic at seeing his world – on the fundamentally economic and spiritual level – slipping out of his grasp, his sanity is at stake. I cannot imagine I would have fared any better.

Literary prescription: The Sound of Things Falling

I am now a few weeks beyond the significant manic episode that has ground my life and work to a halt and precipitated a sudden crash into depression, anger and frustration. The crisis did not happen overnight and the healing will take time but I feel some measure of relief that my ability to lose myself in a book has been returning. Some additional anti-anxiety meds are helping too but I am trying to remain open to literary whims – reviews, suggestions from readers I respect, stray quotes that catch my attention. It seems to be critical medicine for me.

Fortunately there is also that wellspring of rewarding fictional riches, The International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Each year nominations are commissioned from public libraries around the world to create an extensive longlist from which a shortlist of 10 titles is ultimately drawn. It is inevitable that works in translation tend to feature prominently both  in the shortlist and among the archive of winners. Purists can argue over the Booker all they want, this is the award I watch.

winner_slide_2014This year’s winner, just announced in June, is The Sounds of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. This book had been waiting on my ereader for some time, but in light of its recent honour, I thought it might be time for a closer look. A few pages in and I was hooked. Billed as a literary thriller I was expecting a perhaps an entertaining diversion from my own troubles but in truth I soon found myself  deep in a remarkably intimate account of the impact that traumatic experiences have on those directly effected and those around them in ways we often are powerless to predict or prevent. Whether the trauma results from actions chosen or events over which an individual has little or no control the fallout over days, month and years can lead to fateful decisions, ruptured relationships and deep wounds. At the core of this novel are two strangers, brought together through an act of violence who find temporary refuge in a sharing their own experiences of coming of age in Bogota at the height of the drug fueled wars of the 1970 and 80s.

Personally, as I struggle to make sense of the pressures, stresses and events that collaborated to make such a mess of my recent months, it is difficult not to vacillate between anger and regret. Although I know that mood disorders play havoc from the inside out and that the person who is suffering knows something is wrong, they may be slow or even unable to define the nature of the condition, and most certainly incapable of stopping it on a dime. Playing the “if only” card serves no significant benefit. As Vasquez’s narrator Antonio muses as he sets to record the experiences he wishes to share:

“There is no more disastrous mania, no more dangerous whim than the speculation over roads not taken.”

I was able to lose myself in this novel but it did not serve as quite the distraction I expected from a “literary thriller”. There was a disturbing real world resonance that I could not have anticipated. The Sounds of Things Falling is more than simply a title, it is an experience repeated and echoed throughout the novel. From a airshow stunt gone terribly wrong, to a fatal drive by shooting, to the devastating crash of a jetliner. Because a key character was a pilot, de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince also features as a beloved childhood tale. It was disturbing to imagine the little prince asking the pilot if he also fell out of the sky when bodies were literally falling out of the sky as Malaysia Airlines MH17 exploded over a disputed region of the Ukraine.

Trauma, small and personal or wide-reaching and global and all shades in between have always marked human existence. It divides and unites us in large and small ways. the complexity of that experience is, for me, one of the primary themes explored in this worthy literary award winner.

Stubbornly reading through a breakdown

With sincere apologies to David Mitchell, I have been reading myself through the crest and early weeks of the fall of a mental health crisis with his novel The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Probably not fair to him or me. I am not a speed reader but I can7141642 generally manage 4-5 books a month. I embarked on this voyage with the Guardian Reading Group in early June and finally closed the last page today.

I know that reviews were mixed when this book was published in 2010 but I would not suggest this as a companion for a manic episode. It was not bad or entirely uninteresting (though I confess I preferred the graphic turn of the 18th century medically graphic scenes, shades of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels where you have to wonder how anyone survived the surgical interventions, let alone the nautical warfare). Although the era and setting of this historical – and for Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame –  remarkably straighforward tale I think it could have been much more coherent and tightly paced.

I think that I stuck to this book more as a testament to myself that I could pull myself through this period of turmoil which has left me depressed, angry and confused as I sit on sick leave and wonder if my career is in shambles. I was afraid that if I stopped reading, even with the idea that I might return at a later date, I would be giving in to the mass of tangled emotions that my breakdown has left me struggling with. Some level of normalcy has to be maintained and, at this time it has meant reading.

So where now? Something shorter, something magical I should think.

Terrors, somewhere inside we all have them

I tend to think of myself as someone who treasures solitude, perhaps because my normal work world and home context, offer scant moments when I am ever truly alone. Now I suddenly find myself in a situation where I am recovering from a near breakdown, unable to travel far without being overcome by fatigue and vertigo and, so it seems, my work colleagues are under instruction to refrain from all contact with me.

Now if I was off work due to some tangible medical ailment, oh you know, a physical injury or illness or some other condition necessitating tests, scans and possible surgery, I would be able to expect calls, cards, hospital visits. Instead I am in a virtual isolation chamber. I have a mental illness and suddenly the years of highly productive contributions I have provided to my employers seem to have been rendered null and void. A crushing ball of loneliness to which I am entirely unaccustomed sits in the pit of my stomach. Would anyone even notice if I failed to return save for the mass of paper I left behind on my desk?

One might wonder how the workmates of the unnamed narrator of Seven Terrors made sense of his failure to return to the office when, after the dissolution of his marriage, he took to his bed and refused to emerge from the confines of his bedroom for nine long months. That is exactly where this dark gothic tale by the Bosnian author Selvedin Avdic begins.seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r

Long listed for the brilliant Impac Dublin Award for 2014, I read this book a few months back but I find its haunting mystery and curious endnotes continue to resonate with my present frame of mind. Translated by Coral Petkovich and published by Istros Books in 2012 (re-released in 2018 with an introduction by Nicholas Lezard), it is the sudden visit from the daughter of a former colleague that drags our apparent hero from his self imposed exile. She beseeches him to help her locate her father who has been missing for years and intrigued, perhaps more by the young lady than any curiousity about his friend’s fate, he agrees. Thus he embarks on a most dingy and disorienting detective adventure.

Set in 2005, the war in Bosnia a decade earlier is a constant presence throughout the book. Although few events are recounted directly; the memories, mythologies and  human losses linger in the bitter winter wind, seep through cracks in the plaster and creep across the floorboards. With a clear nod to Borges, Kafka and others this dark tale is an entirely contemporary fantasy. Yet as the investigations turn to the missing journalist’s interest in coal miners, Bosnian mythology begins to play a strange role and our narrator’s sanity (already questionable one might argue from his bedsit starting point) becomes increasingly  ungrounded; even as he tries to make sense of himself and the truth behind the dissolution of his marriage.

It is strange how magic, reality, fantasy and fact can mingle in literature – and for this purpose I am excluding fiction that fits explicitly into fantasy and horror genres where such mutability is a given – but capital “L” Literature, which being a bit of a bookish geek is my typical but not exclusive, terrain. Yet in real life, that life we are forced to venture into outside the covers of a book, there seems to be some caveat on TRUTH as if that was even an objective possibility. And what is crazy anyway? When I work with a survivor of brain injury I can sense the difference between psychosis and confabulation and the inability to lay down new episodic memories. But if, under exceptional professional stress, I became agitated, overworked and frustrated is my sanity at stake? I heard no voices, had no visions but I sure was moody and irritated.

I should think that my fictional Bosnian friend burying himself in his bedsheets for nine months was in worse shape than I but as a character he is a fascinating narrator to spend time with. Or so I thought. And obviously enough people agreed to nominate Seven Terrors for the Impac Dublin Award which draws its nominations from the selections of a wide range of international libraries.

As I agonize over my eventual return to the workplace following this recent breakdown I find myself returning to the most fascinating series of footnotes and endnotes that make this Bosnian novelist’s slim volume so extraordinary. Among those notes is an actual list of seven terrors and, for those of us who are inclined to anxiety, blank pages so that you can helpfully add some more of your own. I will leave you with his seventh:

7. Fear of loneliness and darkness
Better to write and describe it like this – fear of                                                           loneliness or darkness. It’s all the same, they both devour.

Turn on the light and read this book.

Uncovering a treasure in translation – Ondjaki

“Is that what tales from before were like a long time ago?”
“Yes, son.”
“So before is a time Granma?”
“Before is place.”
“A place really far away?”
“A place really deep inside.”
-Ondjaki

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan author Ondjaki. This exuberant, magical tale re-imagines a dramatic event set in the community of Bishop’s Beach in the city of Luanda in the early years of Angolan Independence. The country’s first President, Agostinho Neto, has died and a curious, threatening project is rising on the beach. The Soviets are constructing a Mausoleum to the deceased President and, it is rumoured, the surrounding neighbourhood is scheduled to be demolished.

indexOur unnamed narrator is a young boy who lives with his grandmother in a community where a cluster of eccentric granmas are important and valued elders. Together with his friends Pi (known as 3.14) and Charlita, he embarks on a mission to save the day drawing on a worldview informed by spy movies, Spaghetti Westerns and Portuguese language soap operas. A colourful cast of supporting adults round out their adventure including Comrade Gas Jockey who mans a station with no fuel, crazy Sea Foam who is rumoured to have a pet alligator, the Cuban doctor Rafael KnockKnock and a Soviet official christened Gudafterov by the children as a result of his awkward use of the local language.

I learned of this book through the CBC radio program Ideas. In this extended interview, recorded live at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal this spring, Ondjaki spoke of his childhood from which so much of this fantastic tale is derived. He insisted that in his early years, the socialist presence was simply a fact of life – they had a lack of electricity and running water – but it was normal and his childhood was happy. He talked with infectious enthusiasm about his family, his very early introduction to literature and fondness for Marquez, and the deeply ingrained understanding of the magical in the reality of everyday life in cultural mindset of his homeland. Within the week I had obtained and read the book. The tale was every bit as engaging and entertaining as I had expected.

But the greatest find for me personally is the small Canadian publishing house Biblioasis behind Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. This book belongs to their small and select series of books in translation. Although he is recognized as one of the rising stars of African literature, Ondjaki’s work is not widely available in English to date. Biblioasis has published two of his novels, both translated by Stephen Henighan. I am very impressed by the results. A work like this depends so heavily on playing with language. Puns and intentional misrepresentations that work in Portuguese have to be re-imagined to work well in English and fortunately the translator was able to work closely with the author to bring the work to life with all its magical energy intact. As a Canadian I am embarrassed that I am only just discovering Biblioasis. I definitely intend to explore more of their offerings, both in their international series and in their English language Canadian titles.