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.