Survival, but at what cost? The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

Okay, first a warning. After all you, the reader, deserve to be warned. Nature, in blind disregard, does not grant that privilege. Survival affords no foresight. But here it is: If you require a sympathetic, likeable protagonist this is not your novel. If you want a story with redemption, turn away. But if you want to read a book that is intelligent, darkly satirical, and beautifully illustrated, The Giraffe’s Neck (Bloomsbury), the second novel from the young German author Judith Schalansky, is an original, engaging and, ultimately, gut wrenching read.

giraffeInge Lohmark is a biology teacher at a school in the former East Germany, where reunification has shifted the economic environment so rapidly that the native inhabitants are struggling to adapt. The population is declining. Within four years the school where she has taught for the past three decades will close its doors for good. For all her passion for natural history, teaching is not a vocation for Inge so much as a call to arms, a battle in which she faces down the enemy year after year, employing the tools of the evolutionary biologist – define, classify, and label the specimen who pass through her classroom with the faint hope that she can force some knowledge into their adolescent heads.

Outside the classroom her life is similarly ordered and seemingly devoid of compassion. Her husband Wolfgang has become obsessed with ostriches, tending to his beloved flock, expanding his business, and frequently going days without crossing paths with his wife. Their daughter Claudia is in America, she left for study years earlier but has always found a reason to stay. Inge is clearly emotionally conflicted as she looks forward to looming retirement but her resolute, stubborn nature leaves little room for cracks to form in her tough facade. Until a curious attraction to a female student sets her off balance.

Much of The Giraffe’s Neck takes the form of a misanthropic monologue. The language is spare, direct. Human beings, individually or collectively, take much of the brunt of her bitter and darkly humourous rants (think Thomas Bernhard with short clipped sentences):

“Marie Schlicter was standing at the bus stop. Head thrown back. Stuck up. High horse. The brain a windfall, ideally packaged in the shell of a skull. Doctor’s daughter. Moved here to get some fresh air. But Marie Schlicter didn’t take the air. Did she breathe at all?”

Balanced against Inge’s internal tirades are truly lyrical passages describing the countryside and clear indications that her self control is hiding pain rather than pride, interspersed with delicately beautiful illustrations by the author. The overall effect is original and impressive. Evolutionary biology, in Schlansky’s hands, serves as a metaphor for the challenges facing the former GDR as it struggles to adjust to a rapidly shifting environment. Adaptation is critical for survival, but even successful strategies come with advantages and costs. Change the circumstances too fast and yesterday’s asset is today’s weakness.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: This is my fifth read from the longlist. Again it strikes an entirely fresh tone from the books I have read to date. The translator, Shaun Whiteside, has translated a wide range of German authors (as well as also working with French, Italian and Dutch). The distinctive and fresh character of this exciting young German author comes through nicely. Some readers are likely to find the narrator’s character difficult but with a strong affection for Beckett and Bernhard I found it to be a delight. There is, after all, a deeper and important thread beneath the surface, as in all good dark satire.

Forged by suffering: Bloodlines by Marcello Fois

“All they have is their love: Obstinate, unyielding, banal and blind.”

I am not one for family trees. My parents met and married in New York City and moved to settle in western Canada almost 3000 kms from the rest of our extended family. I have changed my own name twice, and through my unique life history I have redefined my relationship with the tree from which I have fallen. In our modern era I suspect that is not an entirely uncommon experience for many. But in Sardinia at the turn of the twentieth century, family history – a bloodline – was a critical measure of a man’s place in his community and his corner of the world.

untitledAt the heart of Bloodlines, an epic tale told with charm and affection by Italian novelist Marcello Fois, lies a love story between two orphaned souls who endure a familial version of the Divine Comedy set in the author’s native Sardinia spanning the years from 1889 to 1943. Theirs is a tale of hard times, success, joys and unbearable losses – uniting their family and tearing it apart – as modernization, world wars and fascism mould and shape the world in which they live.

Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai are both orphans. He was rescued from an orphanage by a widowed blacksmith who saw in the boy someone who might provide companionship and an apprentice to his trade, while she had been taken into domestic employment at an early age. Their first encounter, in the chapel, is love at first sight. Their union, with no history behind it, holds the promise of building a new family line, a fresh start at the dawn of a new century.

“The Chironi family was the fruit of outcasts, of two negatives combining to make a positive, in itself enough to condemn their union as a rash one.”

They bring neither money nor prestige to the union but they have a certain advantage:

“…when they looked at each other, they had no inheritance to protect and not even a story to tell; they were at the beginning of everything: he an apprentice blacksmith and she already made of iron.”

Over the years, the family enjoys apparent successes; their business thrives as the town expands and the demand for wrought iron railings increase, their family grows and they have to expand their house. No small amount of envy is felt by townsfolk who resent their lack of claim to heritage in the area, while Michele Angelo fears that God is also expressing His displeasure at their worldly success as they suffer a series of cruel loses. He feels his efforts to build a strong family history continually threatened. Is it fate? Or is it simply that life is harsh?

The fledgling Chironi bloodline is granted a chivalrous element of glory through the “discovery” of an elaborate and exciting tale of a knight and a an Inquisitor which explains the origin of the family name from De Quiròn via Kirone to Chironi. This transmutation is facilitated though a story created, told and retold by the youngest son, Luigi Ippolito, the only educated member of the family. As he regales his parents and siblings with these heroic accounts, his father sees no need to admit that his last name is accidental, acquired from the Inspector General at the orphanage where he was raised.

“Though illiterate, he knew one fact that can never be taught: that it doesn’t matter if a story is true or false; the only thing that is really important is that someone should tell it.”

At just over 200 pages, the scope of this novel is epic. The spare, crystalline language is translated with poignant beauty by Silvester Mazarella. The landscape, the art of working metal, and the many measures of love – romantic, parental, filial and forbidden – shape the storytelling. There is much sadness and heartache here, but also an acknowledgement that the pleasures of life are many and essential, even if they tend to slip to the sidelines in the favour of the pains and horrors that dominate our histories. As such Bloodlines is a testament to memory, or rather, the act of remembering: choosing to remember or refusing to accept what has happened. The characters engage closely with their dreams, their ghosts, and their imagined selves as they attempt to forge a bloodline against all odds.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I knew nothing of this book until I saw the longlist. It is a seemingly simple tale that has worked its way into my affection the more I reflect on it. I am not certain whether it will make the short list but I am glad to have been introduced to this author and his novel.

A childhood of magic and darkness: By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

“Every man on our Atlantic Ocean island has his own canoe, and if he doesn’t have one, a new canoe is brought into the world so that he does, so that nobody on the island has to borrow one from anyone else.”

A detailed account of the traditional construction of a canoe on the tiny island of Annobón, an activity that gathers the resources of the entire community, opens By Night the Mountain Burns by Equatorial Guinean writer and political activist Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. Immediately we are drawn into an engaging, personal, conversational tale. The narrator is a deeply sensitive, if not well educated, man. His voice is fresh, at times naive, frequently looping back to revisit details, questioning the reader or foreshadowing events but deciding to hold off so that he can best share his childhood experiences, as he remembers them, on this remote island where natural resources are limited, life is difficult.

2015-03-14 02.11.35As a young boy, our narrator, lives in a large home with his grandparents and a number of mothers and siblings. Any fathers have long since disappeared to a land across the ocean, so no necessary distinction is made between birth connections, he sees all of the mothers as belonging to all of the children. His grandmother rules the roost while his grandfather is a curiosity to his many grandchildren. For some reason he has built his house facing the away from the sea and he sits watching the mountain that rises above the town day after day. He does not fish or go down to the beach to visit with the other men. In fact he does not come downstairs at all and the children never see him eat.

For our storyteller, the secrets of his his grandfather and a sense of the danger and misery adults must learn to live with begins to become clearer as a series of devastating events sweep his island community, beginning with a fire that starts on the mountainside destroying plot after plot of precious crops and threatening the town itself. Officially a Catholic community, the roots of superstition, folklore and mythology run deep and are intertwined with Christian saints and celebrations. In the wake of the fire, an especially violent act of retribution is carried out against a local woman assumed to be a she-devil, and then, before the community can heal, a plague of cholera sweeps through exacting a devastating toll on the population. Curiously, in this tale in which most characters remain nameless, every adult who dies is named in in full, and a cluster of crosses are inserted into the text to represent the numbers of dead who now crowd the sole cemetery on the island.

Even without the tragedies that run through the core of this account, daily life on the island is filled with challenges. Shortages of kerosene, among many other provisions – salt, soap, matches, tobacco, spirits, fish hooks, nylon rope, clothing – necessitate a careful rationing of light and flame. As a result, this novel is infused with a haunting darkness that is literal, metaphorical and even lyrical. Night brings both security and vulnerability. But moonlit nights are seen as even more threatening:

“… on moonlight nights we felt exposed, for the moon lit up the whole village and advertised our helplessness. I always felt that moonlight nights revealed our skeletons, our defects.”

Magical and evocative in the telling, mixing childhood wonder with reflective adult wisdom, Ávila Laurel introduces a place few will likely have heard of – the island where he grew up. He has been compared to Achebe and Marquez among others, but his account has a much more contemporary edge. When his character speaks of evil on the island, it is difficult not to think of the very brutal reality of the extreme poverty and social inequity that exist in his country as a whole, despite great resource wealth. Rooted in traditional story telling, this is a story for our modern times. It is exactly the type of important story that literature in translation should be bringing to a wider audience and a clear example of the vital role that independent publishers like And Other Stories play in this regard.

Finally, Jethro Soutar’s translation from the original Spanish is fluid, maintaining difficulties that the narrator, who is sharing his tale in Spanish, has finding words to express what Spanish cannot capture of his native island language. The quirks and qualities of his oral account are intact, the humour and insight shine through. Quite an accomplishment given that Ávila Laurel’s involvement in a hunger strike against the government of Equatorial Guinea that led to his ultimate exile to Spain added challenges to the communication between translator and author during the translation process.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: By Night The Mountain Burns is the first long listed title for And Other Stories, and I confess my bias in that I have developed a great affection for this publisher so I am thrilled. I had in fact just purchased this title along with several others and it was sitting at the very top of my TBR list so it was a happy coincidence that it was selected.

Ah look at all the lonely people: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

“Kind of a major paradox, wouldn’t you say? As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.”

After his last novel, 1Q84, which spread out across three volumes and over 900 pages, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has reigned himself in to about a third of that length with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel). Many of the hallmark features familiar to readers of his work – lonely protagonists, idiosyncratic obsessions, surreal dreams and fantasies, musical reference points – are all present here. But is it enough to satisfy fans who might have drifted away or, at least, have been overwhelmed by his previous offering?

colorlessThis time out our hero, or rather anti-hero, is Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man from an upper middle class family in Nagoya, Japan, who is part of an especially close group of five friends throughout his high school years. The only thing that sets him apart from his friends, two other boys and two girls, is that they each have a name that incorporates a colour while he does not. His “colourlessness” is a huge source of distress for him as he seems destined to continue to encounter people who also have colourful names. When his friends inexplicably cut him off one year after he moves Tokyo to pursue his dream of constructing train stations, Tsukuru falls into a deep depression and his long years of pilgrimage begin (cue the Franz Liszt). No matter what success he achieves in his career, his friends’ rejection not only haunts him, but continues to create a barrier to his ability to form long term friendships or relationships.

There was a time when I eagerly devoured Murakami’s work, delighting in its dreamlike quirkiness. I don’t know whether I have changed or he just isn’t trying as hard. I found it difficult to engage with the main character or any of his friends or acquaintances. The long straightforward descriptive passages of each character’s personality, appearance, clothing seem indicative of what I would expect from a much less accomplished writer. I wanted to shout “show, don’t tell”. I will admit that about halfway through, the story did become more engaging as Tsukuru began to actively seek explanations to the cause of his estrangement from his friends once he was well into his 30’s. And on a personal level I found moments of connection with the underlying themes of loneliness and alienation, but I still found myself less satisfied than I might have hoped.

It saddens me to reflect that, more than anything, this novel appears to make a great effort to live up to its title – Colorless. The charm of Murakami’s earlier work – birds, cats, surreal spaces are gone. There are dreams and odd connections but none sustain a significant element of magic for me. I was left with the sense that its spare, fable quality would have been far better suited to a work half the length.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Many predicted this would make the longlist and so it did. (Published in the UK by Harvill Secker.) My feelings may be ambivalent but I do know that many other readers thoroughly enjoyed this book so we will see how it fares going forward.

A song of the 20th century in five parts: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

“Some are destined to stay behind, some are destined to depart, and yet others to arrive.
That’s how life works.”

The metaphysical truth that binds the five overlapping narratives that tell this story of one German woman’s life is simple: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from the end of days.

end1Like waves crashing upon the shore and retreating again, in each section of this mesmerizing novel by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, the unnamed female character at its centre dies. Born in Galicia, in 1902, to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, the first section imagines her dying before her first birthday. While her mother sits shiva, her father escapes to America in his grief and the young family never recovers.

But then, the narrator steps in and asks us to reconsider the possibility that the infant’s life might have been saved and that another fate unfolds. Now, a second daughter follows the first and the father relocates his family to Vienna in hopes of improving his ability to support his wife and daughters. But war breaks out and life is cold, unimaginably cold, and meagre provisions are meted out to the hungry residents who line up each night, through the night, clutching their ration cards. As her father obsessively copies out earthquake reports brought home from his work in the department of meteorology and her mother assumes she is leading a questionable life, our heroine is simply in her late teens, trying to understand all of the normal passions of adolescence in an atmosphere that seems to hold out little hope. This time she will lose hope and conspire to take her own life.

In her third incarnation we find her in Moscow, having aligned herself with the Communists and trying to write and re-write her own story in a desperate attempt to save herself and, if possible, her husband who has already been arrested. This central section, the longest and densest, forms the axis upon which 20th century European history and the life of the woman at the heart of The End of Days seems to turn. Her own allegiances are complicated, everything she had believed in is tested, and the ground shifts so quickly that holding fast to moral or political ideals is like, well, surviving an earthquake. Her fate, like so many of her relatives is seemingly inescapable.

Or is it?

New Directions edition
New Directions edition

As well as being a writer, Erpenbeck is also an opera director; and the hypnotic, haunting images and motifs that arise, disappear, and resurface throughout this exquisite novel are reminiscent of the phrases that are repeated and built upon in an extended piece of classic music. The mood is mournful, as themes of loss and the experience of death and grief are revisited, each time within vastly different contexts. Susan Bernofsky’s deft translation sustains the rhythm and music of the language. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seem contrived, but here, the bones are bare, the emotions raw and the result heartbreaking, horrifying and beautiful in its sheer humanity. The prose is spare, evocative. It gets under the skin, works its way right into the reader’s heart.

I could say so much more, but quite honestly, this book deserves to be experienced not described.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I finished this book on the eve of the announcement of the IFFP long list and I am thrilled to see it included. (Published by Portebello in the UK, I have the New Directions edition.) I feel confident that it will be one of my personal top reads of the year and I will be looking to read more of Erpenbeck’s earlier work in the future.

Behind the photographic impulse: Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

“How can I say what these fragments mean to me? The awkward truths of my life take shape in their negative spaces. In the lengthening shadows of the official histories, looming like triumphal arches over every small messy life, these scraps saved from the onrush of the ordinary are the last signs I can bring myself to consult.”

When we first meet him, Neville Lister, the narrator of Double Negative, is a disaffected young man, uncertain and aimless in a fractured and troubled environment – apartheid South Africa. It is the early 1980s and he cannot quite find his footing, either in academic study, the political protestations of his friends, or the mixed allegiances of his parents’ generation. The stakes are high, but his ambivalence is a luxury well known to middle class youth. Being close in age to Neville and his creator, South African author Ivan Vladislavić, I could not help but chuckle at his repeated references to “Beerhunter”, (a party game we Canadians lay claim to, by the way) or recognize the insidiousness with which The Eagles’ Hotel California album seems to define our lives even if we never owned a copy of that recording. However, unlike our most reluctant hero, I did not have political unrest or the real threat of conscription bearing down on me.

Double NDouble Negative traces Neville’s evolution from long-haired, pipe smoking dropout to middle-aged late blooming artist, framed against the shifting political, cultural and socioeconomic backdrop of Johannesburg. In the first section, “Available Light”, his father arranges a meeting with a famed local photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hopes that the encounter might inspire his son to reach beyond his current employment assisting a man who spray paints lines on roadways. As Neville tags along, Auerbach and a journalist friend devise a game that will direct their photographic pursuit for the day. Standing on a hillside with a panoramic view of the city below, each man choses a roof top. They manage to visit two of the three selected homes where Auerbach charms his way in, and coaxes photographs out of the inhabitants – a poor black woman with her two surviving triplets living in a backyard shack and a white woman in a lounge suffocated with furniture and curios. But before they visit Neville’s choice, the photographer’s energy and his necessary light have faded and they head home.

When our narrator picks up the thread of his story in the second section, “Dead Letters”, he has been in London for ten years and the first free elections have just been held in South Africa. Swept up in a wave of nostalgic homesickness he flies home. By this time he is also making a living behind the lens, but as a commercial photographer. He returns to a city already morphing under new dynamics, post apartheid – street names changing, houses and entire city blocks replaced. Cities are, at the best of times, constantly re-inventing themselves, shedding their skins. The effects are more profound under the pressures that have been released and confronted in places like Johannesburg, where, by the time we catch up with Neville again for the final installment “Small Talk”, he has taken to photographing the ubiquitous walls that have arisen to close off and protect the city’s inhabitants from each other.

Upon his return to South Africa, he had experimented with trying to enter a home to photograph the resident, drawn, of course, to the house he had first chosen so many years earlier. The experience almost swallows him whole but does, in turn, offer the direction that will inform his own artistic photographic ventures. He no longer wants to see what lies behind the walls that have been erected. He draws the resident out but refuses to enter. It is now 2009 and our hero is being subjected to an interview by an eager, self-promoting young reporter and blogger who intersperses her blog posts with a litany of handy household tips that would make Oprah proud. She is of a entirely new breed, neither weighed down by nor fully appreciative of the reality of her nation’s history. By contrast, Neville Lister occupies the transitional space. As photography has moved from film to digital, a medium with remarkable capacity for storage and the editing and altering of images, so is his country altering and editing its own collective memories.

More than anything, this is a story that unfolds as a series of images, captured with Vladislavić’s poetic eye for detail. He translates scenes, the photographic and the interpersonal, with a language so effortlessly descriptive that I often stopped to re-read a paragraph for the sheer pleasure. Neville describes “gumption” as a “word that stuck to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter”. A character “moulted” his jacket. In navigating the city he talks of following “the simple arguments of avenues and squares”.
This ability to transform language into imagery is nowhere more apparent than in his descriptions of the scenes, immortalized by the lens of the camera under the direction of the photographer. One of the photographs resulting from the initial outing with Saul Auerbach is described in vivid detail:

“Mrs Ditton sat in the armchair beside the fireplace. The coffee table had been dragged away – there is no trace of it in the photograph – to expose the floorboards and a corner of the rug. Looming on the left is the largest of the cabinets, so imposing you would say it belongs in a department store. The chair has wooden arms with ledges for tea cups and on each side of these lies a pie-crust of crochet work and a coaster. The chair sprawls with its arms open wide and its fists clenched, and she wallows in its lap.”

I imagine that anyone with an SLR camera and a tripod has experimented with long exposures and the creation of ghost images. It seems to be a rite of passage. Double Negative is, in many respects, a book of ghosts. Visiting with the woman living in the house he had selected so many years earlier, Neville feels weighed down by the voices swirling around her lounge. In referring to the annotated cookbook passed down from his mother, he reflects that the food “tastes better when the ghosts adjust the seasonings.” And ghosts haunt a collection of dead letters that come into his possession and, it seems, may be destined to lead him into his next “artistic” endeavour. If growing older is a process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the ghosts we carry, our narrator is older and wiser but still working away to make sense of it all by the end of this book.

And so is his country.

Note: Originally published in South Africa in 2011, Double Negative was released to an international audience in 2013 (with an introduction by Teju Cole) through the amazing publisher And Other Stories. Supported by their unique subscription model, this release was followed by the publication of an earlier title, The Restless Supermarket in 2014, and his upcoming collection of stories, 101 Detectives, will be released this year. Ivan Vladslavić was recently named one of three recipients of the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction along with Teju Cole and Helon Habila.

Addressing injustice with the pen: Reflections on Rumours of Rain by André Brink

Earlier this month I attended an inaugural PEN Canada event in my city. The purpose of bringing such discussions to locales throughout the country is to turn the discussion about censorship and freedom of expression inward where, against the outrages we see in other parts of the world, we risk falling into a false sense of complacency. The empty chair at this debate was reserved for Raif Badawi, the Saudi man sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for the “outrageous” crime of blogging. His wife and children have been granted refugee status in Canada but the Canadian government is curiously reluctant to speak out. Why? I can’t help but wonder if their foot dragging around any international injustices that involve refugees or foreign born Canadians (the non-white ones, that is) reflects the persistent attitudes of the Conservative government’s core grass root supporters. Funny how soon we forget that all non-Aboriginal Canadians are immigrants in this colonial landscape if you go back far enough. The subjugation and treatment of our First Nations peoples is often seen as justifiable, built into our collective history. That is no excuse, but somehow racial concerns carry an entirely new intensity when the matter is much more black and white, so to speak.

Or when we see it elsewhere.

RainThe recent passing of South African novelist André Brink led me to a long overdue reading of one of his classic novels, Rumours of Rain, which dovetailed nicely with the issues that have been in my mind since attending the PEN event. Published in 1978 and addressed directly to the injustices of apartheid, the echoes of this, and his other controversial novels of this period, have long reverberations that continue to ring  close to the bone in this increasingly global new world.

The power of Rumours of Rain lies in the narrative voice. Martin Mynhardt, a successful Afrikaner businessman, has stolen a rare week of solitude in London to exercise his literary ambitions while attempting to exorcise any measure of guilt in the unfolding of a recent series of events that have torn apart the lives of some of the people who were once closest to him. Driven solely by his own over inflated sense of self worth and an endless internal cost-benefit analysis, Martin is a ruthlessly blind apologist for apartheid. He imagines himself sufficiently enlightened to know what is best for his country and his family. He focuses his attention on the events surrounding a weekend visit to the family farm with his son where his goal is to convince his mother to approve the sale of the land, an urgent deal to which he is already deeply committed. But nothing is simple. Violence not only intrudes on his visit to the farm, but back home in Johannesburg, a violent series of riots is about to erupt in Soweto.

In a long winded, self indulgent, but oddly engaging account, he chronicles his complicated relationships with his best friend, his wife, his son, and his mistress. He honestly feels personally affronted by the revolutionary political passions he is witness to, especially in his friend Bernard – after all, he does not want them to reflect badly on him.  But he is unable to acknowledge any responsibility for the role any of his own action or inaction may have played in the end results; he can justify every selfish choice he makes in marriage, love, sex, business and friendship. No matter the cost.

Yet, in committing his story to paper, Mynhardt inadvertently succeeds in giving an eloquent voice to the very views he claims to disdain. He manages this by including transcripts from Bernard’s trial for treason, his son’s bitter reflections on his recent experiences with the army in Angola and through passionate exchanges with Charlie Mofokong, an educated black South African and childhood friend of Bernard’s whom he reluctantly employs to assist him in managing his mine interests.

Throughout the novel two interwoven refrains recur: Martin’s grandfather’s favourite Biblical passage “And have not love”(1 Cor:13) and the anthemic Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

What we end up is with is the voice of a deeply flawed, myopic (literally and figuratively) anti-hero; not surprisingly one who must have made more than a few attentive readers shift uncomfortably in their armchairs. Literature is often at its most effective when it gives voice to the under dog, but in skillful hands, like Brink’s, turning the narrative over to the less sympathetic side of the equation can have a resounding impact. Especially when we feel a moment of empathy with a man we want to despise, catch a glimpse of him in ourselves.

Fittingly, a month that started with a local PEN event, has ended with Freedom to Read Week in Canada. The opportunity to honour an author who used his voice, together with many of his fellow writers, to raise a chorus to question and challenge apartheid, seems appropriate. Today the intrinsic messages against racism, classism and greed still need to be heard by a wide audience.

The fiction of remembering, the realities of forgetting: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

The damaged hero of Italian author Diego Marani’s first novel New Finnish Grammar, which was originally published in 2000, but only released in English in 2011 (translated by Judith Landry), is a mystery to himself and to those who find him. World War II is raging, when a badly beaten man is found on a dock in Trieste with no clue to his identification beyond a Finnish name sown into the collar of the naval jacket he wears. When emerges from a coma with, what would presumably be a severe traumatic brain injury, he has no memory and no ability to use language. He does know who he is or where he comes from but, by coincidence, the doctor who attends to him is a Finnish-German who has never overcome his own longing for his homeland. He becomes convinced that the best medicine for his amnesiac patient is to send him to Finland so that he can connect with what is assumed to be his land and language, and in doing so, retrieve the past that has escaped him.

maraniAs much as I wanted to love this book, this is where I started to have problems. Firstly, the storytelling approach is awkward. It is the doctor who takes on the task of
curating a selection of notebooks, journal entries and letters belonging to “Sampo”, our erstwhile Finnish patient, to both honour him and make amends. He frames and fills in the tale with his own reflections, corrections and assumptions. Somehow, we are asked to believe that a man with a brain injury severe enough to trigger such a complete loss of memory and language could manage to develop sufficient facility in a notoriously complex language to be able to report his earliest memories post injury, or even find his way around a strange city. Yes, his mastery of the language is never comfortable, he relies on his notebook and endless practice, and he is emotionally lost and eventually unable to find a grounding or the past he seeks. Meanwhile, the language and mythology of Finland were clearly chosen by the Italian linguist author as a template for the exploration of memory and identity, but I could just not suspend disbelief long enough to fully surrender myself to the story.

This is not to imply that there are not breathtaking moments in this novel. There is a heartbreaking sadness and loneliness that haunts our dislocated hero. As war closes in around him, he is the walking wounded, an invisible casualty in a place to which he so desperately wants to belong. But my practical side, the side that spent the last decade working with real survivors of traumatic and acquired brain injury, could not let go of the idea that the main character’s overall functionality did not mesh with his complete loss of identity and language. The assumption is that his memory loss is psychological in nature and that the return of language will release it. In reality though, his injuries would indicate traumatic causes and with such severe long term memory loss some elements would still typically remain intact, while short term memory would be greatly impacted hindering his ability to learn new things easily. A complicated “new” language? I find that especially hard to accept.

I suppose I will have to admit that I am not the ideal reader for this book. I don’t regret reading it and I am sure that there are moments that will continue to linger. Memory is one of the most fertile landscapes for a writer to explore. Even without the added impact of illness or injury, memory is a fleeting, nebulous and fundamentally subjective phenomenon. However, I opened New Finnish Grammar with too much experience with brain injury to fully appreciate the work. And, for that matter, I could not help but wonder how a reader with too much native experience with Finnish language and mythology would respond. Perhaps with an equivalent amount of skepticism.

I don’t know.

Finding allegory in an ancient disease: Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic

“Eternal hope: it kills us as much as Hansen’s does.”

Hansen'sIn his introduction to the second English edition of Hansen’s Children, BBC Correspondent Nick Thorpe visits a real life leper colony, the last in Europe, in the small hamlet of Tichieletsi in south-eastern Romania where a dwindling number of disfigured patients live out their final years, tended by medical professionals while enjoying the companionship and domestic tranquility of their close knit community. He then goes on to examine the way that Montenegrin novelist Ognjen Spahic re-envisions this leprosarium against the dying months of the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989; creating a perfect, if horrifying, template against which to explore questions of power, corruption and violence throughout the history of Europe – looking to the past, the present and the future.

The “children” of the title refers to the unfortunate souls infected by the bacillus first identified by Gerhard Armaeur Hansen. It is a term by which our unnamed narrator, our leprous Homer, refers to himself and his fellow inmates as he recounts the tale of life within the fenced grounds and the cold damp confines of the aging three-story building that serves to house the remaining inmates of the leprosarium. At the time he arrives they number eleven men and one ancient woman. Outside the gates, a fertilizer factory, ubiquitous on the Romanian landscape, belches out smoke and receives a rotating contingent of increasingly disgruntled workers. From his window he gazes longingly at the Transylvanian Alps, dreaming of freedom from exile and confinement. In fact we learn at the outset of his account that his dear friend and roommate, an American man named Robert, has secured false passports and made arrangements for their escape. This hope will not only feed our hero’s ego, but give him a will to live no matter what the cost, as conditions inside and outside the leper colony decline. In desperate circumstances, brutality knows no boundaries.

Perversely the leprosarium becomes a microcosm of the very divisions that divide human beings in the broader world. For example, when the inmates become aware of a new scourge on the rise outside their gates, HIV/AIDS, two men who have fallen in love will suffer the consequences because “this new disease was misunderstood and homosexual acts per se were seen as spawning the new evil. Mstislaw and Cion were shunned… like lepers. It was kind of understandable.” Mirroring the deteriorating conditions unfolding across Romania, and presaging the fate that awaits Spahic’s own Balkan homeland; power struggles, violence and death escalate within the bounds of the small community. As the conflict to free Romania approaches its final days, helicopters and gunfire splitting the air, our narrator lies in bed and imagines what such a new world could bring. He realizes the sad truth: “I knew that even in a world like that I would be where I was now. I would dream the same dreams and speak the same words. I would remain a leper.”

The picture this novel paints is not a pretty one. It is however strangely engaging and, in the end, deeply moving. The graphic, disturbing details of the progressive ravages of the cursed disease on the bodies, organs and functions of Hansen’s children is painted with a healthy serving of satire. Black humour and tragedy are deeply entwined.

Apart from this novel, only a few of Ognjen Spahic’s short stories have been translated into English although he has published three story collections. Hansen’s Children, which was originally released in 2004 when he was still under 30, has received several important European awards.His most recent story collection won the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature for Montenegro and in an interview on the site he describes himself as more of a short story writer than a novelist and speculates that prizes can increase international attention and encourage translations. I, for one, would be keen to see more.

Note: In addition to his story “Raymond is No Longer With Us – Carver is Dead” which was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press), the story “All of That” can be found on the online journal B O D Y and the title story from his latest collection Head Full of Joy can be found at the European Union Prize link above (following the original Montenegrin version).

Hansen’s Children (2nd edition), 2012
translated by Will Firth, Istros Books

A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Valentines Day. It has been many years since I have had a true object of romantic affection. This annual occasion tends to come and go without my notice. Even my children are too old to warrant the heart shaped candies and chocolates I used to purchase. And yet I have to stop and wonder why I do not feel the absence.

I am not sure it is coincidental, but romance does not seem to figure highly in the work I tend to read. Lost love, dysfunctional relationships, misplaced attempts to find affection, yes; but it tends to be the underlying elements of discord that create dramatic tension and literary interest for me. Tolstoy’s unhappy families and all that. So in thinking about today’s exaltation of romantic love I decided to turn to a book I read last year but did not review, a novel that holds, at its heart, the account of a deeply felt but unrequited love: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

In this fictionalized biography of EM Forster, Galgut re-imagines the eleven years of frustrated creative blockage that spanned the time between Forster’s initial conception of his “Indian novel” and the final product, A Passage to India. Along the way we meet Syed Ross Masood, the Indian man with whom Forster will fall passionately in love – a love that will shape, define and haunt his romantic sensibilities – but which will remain one that the heterosexual Masood is unable to return in anything but platonic terms. During the World War I years in Alexandria, Forster finally loses his own virginity at the age of 37 but his meagre intimate relations will remain a sorry, even pathetic, attempt to achieve the emotional and physical comfort he longs to find in another man’s arms. Sexually repressed and closeted until his death, he is, nonetheless, able to channel his affections and experiences in India into one of the finest English novels of the early 20th century. It would be the last work of fiction Forster would produce though he would live and continue to write and engage actively in the literary world for another 45 years.

arctic summerIn my first encounter with Arctic Summer last fall my reactions were mixed. I was a great fan of Galgut’s more typical pared down, ambiguous and haunting novels and I was immediately struck by the more claustrophobic atmosphere he had created to evoke the sensibility of the world in which Forster lived and wrote. At times I felt it weighing on me as a reader. Having the good fortune to hear Damon speak in person and meet him when he passed through my home town with our writer’s festival while I was in the midst of my reading, I was aware that he had found the process of writing a historical novel rewarding but not one he would be anxious to repeat. That awareness may have been a factor but I suspect there was also something more at play. After all, as readers, we enter into any work with our own issues, histories and expectations.

At the timel I was still struggling to break down the barriers that I had constructed over the preceding decade or so to keep those around me from getting close. By that point I was painfully aware that I had re-closeted myself in the world to avoid emotional risk and vulnerability. At one point, despairing of ever experiencing desire in the way he longs, Galgut’s Forster reflects:

“His own sterility was apparent to him and would soon, he felt sure, be visible to others. Curiously, he didn’t feel depressed at the prospect. He was almost intrigued by the idea of giving in to his oddness, turning into one of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to normal people.”

I was struck by that passage, I remember where I was when I read it and the page number in my paperback American edition is burned into my memory. Although I had been, oddly enough, a single male parent for years, through my determined unwillingness to express romantic interest or engagement with anyone, female or male, I had stubbornly sought to neuter myself in the world. Unpeeling those layers of defense and reclaiming an identity, especially one that falls outside the default mainstream, is not easy. Forster’s dilemma was hitting too close to home.

As I have since learned to re-embrace my identity and sexuality, I did briefly imagine that I was ready to open myself again to the possibility of falling in love. The result was in influx of a emptiness and longing. I began to feel the absence and did not like the void. So I have decided to turn my focus to building an emotional support network based on common interest and experience. It is, I realize, a much better place to start. If, somewhere along the way, the potential for romance arises I would not necessarily reject it, but it cannot be the grounds for meaning and value in my life.

Now, four months after I first finished Arctic Summer, I have occasioned to revisit A Passage to India, and have found myself dipping back in and out of Galgut’s novel simply to savour the restrained beauty and sensitive recreation of the writer’s inner personal and creative journey against the lush landscape of India. The work has simmered in my consciousness and increased in the power that it holds for me as a reader. I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Forster’s love for Masood had been reciprocated. I am not sure he would have ever been able to even crack open the closet doors and I suspect that he might have ended up even more deeply torn between his homosexuality and his attachment to his mother. For better or worse he was able to channel his energy into writing, friendship and a long life.

Well lived? For his sake I hope so.