From both sides now: A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

There is a glow, a particular confidence that emanates from the poetry of German essayist and writer, Hans Mangus Enzensberger. It is manifested in his uncanny ability to take the smallest, even mundane, observations and transform them into poems that catch one unaware. I want to call it an earnestness, but it is more than that, it is the  capacity to reflect with equal humility and humour on both the simple and the profound  moments, an ability  that can only come with time and a long, full life. The second of the ninety-nine poems or meditations that comprise his collection, A History of Clouds, is an early example. “Sins of Omission” is a confession of sorts—a list of presumed shortcomings that begins with the aging narrator admitting to being absent, not hurrying over “when the need was greatest,” but closes with a wide range of “sins”:

Forgot to confess,
shied away
from improving the world,
never dropped out or in at the right time,
failed to take my pills
three times a day.

Yes, I abstained from
killing people. Yes,
I didn’t call.
For the time being I have even
refrained from dying.
Forgive me, if you can.

Or just let it be.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

From the outset then, the appeal of his clear uncomplicated verse and his gently sarcastic tone is clearly evident; making it easy to see why he is generally considered to be Germany’s most important living poet.

Born in Bavaria in 1929, Enzensberger’s poetry covers a vast range of subject matter, and he is also an editor, translator, and  a vital, often controversial, essayist. This collection was published in its original German in 2003, in the early years of a new century, when the poet was in his seventies. The opening section frequently touches on private moments and emotion, and includes some wonderful images of the simple intimacies of long-term relationships, of shared beds and lives—the wonder of a breath, a touch, proximity—while the second turns its attention to the lives of others, conjuring portraits that are historical, political or literary.  A particularly poignant piece is the haunting elegy to fellow countryman WG Sebald “Who touched us, / who seemed to have come from afar / to the sinister, unhomely homeland. / Little kept him here. / Nothing but the search for traces / with a divining rod of words / which twitched in his hand.” (From “For Max Sebald”, trans. by Martin Chalmers)

Enzensberger’s curiosity for the world, his far flung interests and experiences provide fertile backdrops for his wry commentaries on life. In later sections, he often appeals to science, philosophy and cosmology to illustrate an idea, making his poems them feel at once timely and out of time. One of my favourite pieces is the rather beautifully blunt “At Times” which begins:

When you meet someone
who is smarter or more stupid than you—
don’t make too much of it.
The ants and the gods,
believe me, feel just the same.

And goes on to remind us of our humble place in nature, insisting we are all relatively average in the grand scheme of things, insisting that is good, because:

Somewhere or other you’re always discovering
an even more radiant beauty,
someone even more worse off.
You’re mediocre,
luckily. Accept it!
Seven degrees centigrade more
or less on the thermometer—
and you would be beyond saving.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

Unassuming, but delightfully perceptive, it is possibly the single entry I return to more than any other. But this book is filled with many such everyday wisdoms. An appreciation of irony is, perhaps essential for the full impact of Enzensberger’s poetry, however, I have come, over the years, to believe such an appreciation is almost a basic life skill.

And then there are, of course, the clouds. In various of incarnations, clouds pass through many of these poems, often unexpected, but in the twelve-part title piece that closes out the collection, their presence is rendered more explicit:

Their wanderings high up
are quiet and inexorable.
Nothing bothers them.
Probably they believe
in resurrection, thoughtlessly
happy like me,
lying on my back and
watching them for a while.

(trans. by Esther Kinsky)

This meditation on clouds, or an “Archaeology of clouds—a science for the angels,” explores the wonder, the wanderings, and human response these meteorological phenomenon, cursed and loved for both their presence and their absence, one that is ultimately “A separate species, transient, but older than our kind.” A fitting end to a book that begins with the most essential and down-to earth aspects of life, and through ninety-nine short poems, reminds us that we are bound to this planet, and then leaves us, in the end, quite literally  hanging in the air.

A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger is translated by Martin Chalmers and Esther Kinsky, and published by Seagull Books.

A second-hand melancholy: Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos

At the beginning of Argentinian writer Mariana Dimópulos’ unsettling novel Imminence, it is immediately evident that there is something oddly off-balance here—a softly-hued disconnect that instantly sets the tone for one of the most finely realized representations of what it feels like to be oddly out of step with the world around you. The narrator, alone for the first time with her infant son awkwardly reaches out to touch him. She strokes a foot and waits for something to stir inside her chest as she had been assured it would. Nothing. Her partner Ivan comes into the room and, for the moment, rescues her from any further responsibility. Relief.

She was, we soon learn, hospitalized for a month with a serious infection following the baby’s birth, so young Isaac has been attended to by Ivan, her sister, and the nurses up until this point when she is deemed well enough to venture home. She does not even know her child has been named until that first night in the apartment.  His Russian father has chosen his own grandfather’s name, an appellation sadly devoid of Spanish musicality. But that’s okay.

The story that unfolds—or to be more precise, unwinds—belongs to that first evening home from the hospital, and to another evening with strong and increasingly ominous echoes—the last with her pervious lover, Pedro. Woven in and out of her careful accounts of those two evenings, are a flow of memories tied to her past and a number of key people in her life. There is Celeste, the relative she comes to stay with when she moves into Buenos Aires from the smaller rural community of Los Flores in her teens, and her friends, Mara the actress, and Ludmilla who was tragically killed young. These are the women she tries to measure her own insecure sense of womanhood against. And then there are the men: Ivan and Pedro, of course, and the Cousin, a mysterious distant relative with whom she has an occasional sexual relationship—a manipulative, distasteful character with an uncanny sense of timing.

Her account is not chronological, she foreshadows and repeats herself as if slowly filling in a fluid, watery tapestry. There is a dreamlike quality to her stories that bounce off one another, gradually taking on greater shape and form. Her observations are strange, often almost mechanical as if existing in the world is not something that comes naturally. She tries to take her cues from others. Mara and Ludmilla are especially important as early role models:

They were masters of subtlety, and both possessed a scathing wit. And as the stars of the night I would feel a great admiration for the two of them, and I would swear alongside them the sacred oaths of their master plan: I would never get married; I would never cry a single tear over a man who didn’t deserve it; I would never have children, nor would I attend to any other such calls of nature, if indeed nature were ever to call.

As her story is gradually fleshed out, her differences become more explicit, and more intriguing. Socially she struggles. She is, it appears, truly unable to interact with reality, if there is such a thing, with the same ease others seem to demonstrate. Aware of this shortcoming, she has learned, as she puts it, to disappear “inside the parenthesis”. She cannot even recall when it first happened—as a child or as an adult in response to loss perhaps—but either way she has found a refuge, first in the comfort of numbers and if that fails, in a private ritual:

In order to pull off the trick, all I had to do was imagine a beautiful derivative. If that didn’t work, I would make a little ball out of a stocking or a scarf and place it where I imagined my stomach to be, then spin around on the floor or the bed and wait for a few seconds, and soon enough it would start working, and any feeling remotely like an emotion was swiftly eliminated.

This ability to push emotion aside, one that could well be deeply embedded in the narrator’s personality, is a double-edged sword. If it eased the trauma of Ludmilla’s death, or Celeste’s difficult final years; it impairs her resistance to the Cousin’s inappropriate attentions, and undoes her relationship with Pedro, an academic who had visions of a future she could not share. In close proximity to others, her capacity to “perform herself” tends to fall apart and she becomes the architect and the audience of her own misfortune, watching from the impassive default position she continues to fall back into.

But when Ivan unexpectedly comes into her life, the ground suddenly shits beneath her feet. She feels. Unprepared, she is secretly pleased at this thing stirring inside. However, he is a doctor, called back to Minsk at least temporarily, and she has to act fast on this rising tide:

I was triumphant: I made promises, I sent signals, I invested all my energy into calculating what Ivan was really trying to tell me, rummaging for the hidden meaning beneath every sentence, in a feverish kind of hermeneutics, trying to enthrall him, letting myself become enthralled.

Ivan does return, their relationship blossoms, and ultimately they are sitting over soup on this first night together as a family while their child sleeps in his cot. She and Pedro likewise had had soup for dinner on the night their relationship ended. Is the stage set for another repetition, like the many coincidental duplications our number-obsessed narrator has previously noted? As the trajectories of the two accounts at the core of this tale threaten to converge, the tone becomes increasingly measured, disturbed. Tensions rise.

Imminence is an exceptionally well crafted novel. The narrative winds forward and back in time, but never loses its focus. The compelling voice of the narrator is the key, the magic that pulls this work together. Translator Alice Whitmore allows the full beauty and the strangeness of her reminisces and reflections to come through. Lyrical, but odd, the narrative strikies a tone somewhere between that of  Fleur Jaeggy’s SS Prolterka and Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. Some may find her detachment difficult to forgive, but she herself is aware of a lack, a disconnect—a something that sets her apart from other people, especially women. She will frequently assert that she is not a woman, but this is not an indication of an inherent gender insecurity, so much as a failure to play by the normal rules of human engagement which, because she is female, she assumes are those of a woman. Yet, with less of a record to set straight than Jaeggy or Frisch’s protagonists, her story is one with many more undefined edges. This is not just a confession, but a sombre self-examination, a mess of complicated emotions muted, repressed and viewed through a haze of time and physical fatigue. And it is a narrative that holds you in its spell until the very end.

Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos is translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore, is published by Giramondo.

For whom do we hold our memories? Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević

Early in the wonderfully original Singer in the Night, the narrator asks:

And what’s left for death if you forget everything before it? Is there anything left to die? When things turn the wrong way round and oblivion precedes death instead of death oblivion?

Although the protagonist is under forty, such oblivion is a serious concern, one that plagues her daily. But it fails to dampen her spirit or her resolve to complete the mission she has set for herself as her brain becomes increasingly clouded.

And what a story she has to share while she still can!

If Olja Savičević’s debut novel, Farewell Cowboy combined an effervescent protagonist, spaghetti Westerns, and an unresolved adolescent suicide to create a powerful portrait of a contemporary reality in her native Split not featured in tourist brochures, her most recent effort, newly released from Istros Books, is even more eccentric—with a wider, more devastating aim. Born in 1974, Savičević  is seen to be part of what is often called, in the region, a “lost generation.” Growing up in Yugoslavia, she was part of a cohort taught to believe they belonged to one united country that was theirs to live in and love, that war was something consigned to history lessons. The notion they would ever see such conditions in their own lifetimes was unimaginable. But by the time these children of the 1970s reached early adulthood they had witnessed the brutal destruction of their nation through years of bloody conflict. Many had fought, willingly or otherwise, lost friends, deserted, or ended up migrating in search of better fortunes abroad. As they waited for life to return to some kind of fabled normalcy, they would live and love and try to build lives in the newly defined, divided and demoralized reality unfolding around them.

Singer in the Night opens with a letter from a certain Nightingale, an open missive addressed to all of his neighbours. It is a passionate evocation of the wonders of the street, city and country they share—Dinko Šimunović Street in Split, Croatia—and in it he indicates that he will be leaving.  The narrative that follows begins in a rather disoriented fashion, it will take a little while to get your bearings, but what is even more evident from the outset, is that the narrator herself is having difficulty keeping track of events, of past and present, and of the passage of time. She is given to more than a little dramatic recapitulation and ever seems to be backtracking to catch up with her own story. But it’s best to just sit back and see where the ride takes you. As reader you are in the hands of—or rather in the passenger seat of a gold Mazda convertible with—the gloriously eccentric Clementine, who is, she will tell you, an orange blonde, all glamour on the outside, but, “a black orange, inside. Full of hell.” And the letter writer named Nightingale, commonly known as Gale, is the object of her pursuit.

Clementine’s search for this man—her former husband—begins properly on Šimunović, a street located in district 3, a borough of high rises raised and designed under socialism, as yet  untouched in a city that presents itself to the world as a commercial seaside holiday resort. She herself had been lured away from that place and her first marriage years earlier by the promise of a more exciting life in Zagreb. She was already becoming known as a soap opera scriptwriter and, although her reputation grew in the capital, a comradely second marriage failed to kindle the sparks of romance of the unrivaled youthful passion she had once experienced with Gale. They had kept in touch, but over time, their contact had been reduced to the occasional text message and then, finally, silence. Returning now after experiencing a serious physical trauma, with an urgent desire to try to track him down, she finds that he has been gone for over a year. Apparently he had attempted to address a period of loud lovemaking that was disturbing his nighttime work on a commissioned cartoon strip with a comic campaign of letters. His neighbours, however, were not amused. They gathered the offending materials and called the police. There was no charge that could be laid, but it seems that a defeated Gale had decided to retreat. But to where?

While Clementine had achieved fame and fortune in the unlikely career of soap opera scriptwriter, providing distraction for the masses if you like, Gale had chosen a more political and far less lucrative artistic avenue for personal expression. He was in his ex-wife’s view, a “street poet,” a lyricist who started in a fairly conventional manner but craved a broader canvas for his verse:

They were interesting poems, authentic, but he felt that he needed a new means of expression, for him paper was slow, dull and uncommunicative, while the Internet is garrulous, polluted and cacophonous, those are places that don’t offer space for development, that’s what he thought. He wrote poems with a felt-tip on walls, by night, on peeling façades, in lifts, toilets, on rubbish skips, in subways. He drew. He discovered spray paint. An excellent concept, always fashionable, he liked spray.

Her Nightingale had become a graffiti artist.

Still moored at the marina in Split, Clementine finds the boat they had shared when they were together, and inside, a box containing copies of Gale’s letters. Each penned under a different, sometimes outrageous, identity, these missives will form the skeletal structure of the narrative that follows. They provide a series of cues to keep a narrator who is losing her memory on track. More or less. What is allowed to unfold is an unusual account of love, friendship and adventure that speaks volumes to the complicated dynamics of life in the former Yugoslavia. Savičević knows exactly what she is doing.

The former soap opera script writer records—and she is literally recording for fear of forgetting—her experiences and recollections in an idiosyncratic retrospective style, with frequent parenthetical asides and clarifications. The tone is quirky, conversational, and entertaining. After a brief stop at Gale’s mother’s home, Clementine’s journey into her uncertain future (and fading past) takes her to rural Bosnia, toward the home of Helanka, the striking completely hairless woman who was, for a time in youth, a close friend. They had met toward the end of the war when young people would gather, as young people do even in uneasy times, seeking fun and possible romance (or at least sex):

Today (twenty years ago) everyone is on the Quay and the Quay is everything. This is the first sun after the winter and every one avoids staying inside the town walls – the best cafés inside the walls are run by dykes, they hang together and get each other jobs – that’s the theory. They’ve found some way of coping with the half-people involved in protection rackets round the cafés. They are the only ones who can do that, survive, and they are probably used to everything in order to subsist, so thought Helanka, my friend who knew everything. (Everyone was a bit crazy for her and her freedom, and she also had an appearance that opened the doors of the marginalised and marginal groups to her.)

It through Helanka that she first meets Gale and, these two decades later, it is her hope that he may have passed by on his way to wherever he has gone.

When she arrives, it turns out that Helanka is away. Her daughters, nicknamed Billy Goat and Arrow, and the odd elderly couple keeping an eye on them, welcome her into their weird world while she waits for her friend’s return. As time goes on, it becomes unclear if our poor narrator has dropped the threads of her own story altogether.

The strength of this inventive novel lies its extraordinary characters and the opportunities they and their stories offer to speak to greater realities in the former Yugoslavia, sharply, but with wit and humour. Clementine sees her professional success against the issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. She notes the surprising benefit of soap operas to Croatian language preservation and promotion:

Without any ambition, we had achieved more for Croatian culture than the Ministry of Culture had over the previous twenty or so years. [Her producer] was truly triumphant. I was awarded a medal, the president presented it to me, there’s a photo. A critic in one of the daily newspapers, the same one who had coined ‘orangeade’, compared me to the great Croatian writer, Marija Jurić Zagorka, – he called me the serial Zagorka of our times. My saccharine passages became sentimental journeys, and pathos became the new emotionality.

Speaking through the characters—including a dog, God, and a ghost—to whom his letters are attributed, Gale is given the freedom to talk directly and bluntly. The lovers keeping the street awake at night are never his real target. They are his excuse. As a young man he fought in the war for a time and then, after a break to complete his schooling, deserted. Through the voice of  a veteran who remembers the ignominy of the war experience and vows to desert if another battle comes while he is still young enough to serve, he poetically sets forth a hope for the future:

At some stage, when school text books will contain the words There is nothing heroic about war, when newspapers publish headlines saying There is nothing heroic about war, when television announcers say There is nothing heroic about war, when generals come out in public with the military secret There is nothing heroic about war, when people proclaim from pulpits and minarets There is nothing heroic about war, when a war veteran whispers to his beloved as they lie naked as children There is nothing heroic, or romantic, about war, when directors produce a Hollywood film entitled There is nothing heroic about war (because a troop of fools in a real war come off better than a troop of wise men), then it really will be, after such a long time, important news.

And the soldiers will, willy-nilly, take off their boots and emerge from war, to carry on constructing a civilian life. Wherever they are.

The unusual occurrences that mark this journey toward oblivion, whether drawn from Clementine’s past or her slowly dissolving present, play out very different kind of drama on the page, one with echoes, often disturbing and surreal, of a past that can’t be buried or neatly laid to rest. By turns strange and exhilarating, tender and ultimately very sad, Singer in the Night is much more than an absurd adventure with a larger-than-life heroine desperately seeking her first husband as her memory is slipping into the distance behind her; it is a sharp, multi-faceted commentary on the world Olja Savičević and her contemporaries inherited. While the tale becomes increasingly distorted on one level, in Clementine’s account of the war, its immediate aftermath, and the confusions and divisions that persisted, a much deeper, darker reality sits. And the fact that she is losing her memory is more than a personal tragedy, it is symptomatic of a larger national and regional tragedy. For, in the words of George Santayana, so frequently paraphrased, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

 Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević is translated by Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.

Given to thinking: Naked Thoughts by Róbert Gál

The impossible, until it proves possible, will always appear for a time to be wrong or inappropriate . The inappropriate, until it proves wrong, will always appear for a time to be possible. (XXII)

The aphorism is a literary form with a long history, reaching back to Classical philosophy. Over the centuries, the form—a sharp, memorable image speaking to some broader facticity—has appeared in literature, folklore, and scientific and political discourse. It is not enough to be witty and concise, an aphorism must also contain a truth, insight, or a piece of wisdom. It is much easier to describe than to create. But, for many, the aphorism, with a risk of appearing too clever or cliché, has no place in serious writing. What, then, is serious writing? Aphorisms, when well-crafted, hold a lasting appeal and, I would argue, that in a day when truths are suspect, the form is perhaps even more essential as an accessible opening for melancholy reflection.

And so, to my friend Róbert Gál. The Slovak writer has been proclaimed a modern master of the aphorism, a rather heavy mantle that he has worn with modesty for more than a decade. The form finds its way into all of his work, often providing more than a little poetic heavy lifting along the way. Now, with the release of Naked Thoughts from Black Sun Lit, Gál’s unadorned—yes, naked—gift for the form is on full display, presented against some of his idiosyncratic poetic prose.

Divided into five short sections, or three sets of numbered aphorisms set apart by two stylistically distinct interludes, Naked Thoughts begins, not unlike Gál’s recently released fictional work Agnomia, with the question of beginnings and endings. He appears to be setting a grounding principle—Life is a book of record, the first page of which is a stigma—and offering unsettling images of pathways, progress and temporal relativity. Toward the end of the long first entry he says: “To travel in time is pure recreation; to travel through space is an instinct born of a neurotic imbalance.” Where one finds oneself in the process of tracing the thoughts to follow, if in fact one finds oneself anywhere at all, is not prescribed.

While some of his ponderings in the “naked thoughts” segments are slightly longer, slipping into expected philosophical terrain, the brief—frequently sarcastic, wise, even beautiful—entries are, as one might expect, the ones that tend to stand out. These are aphorisms, after all:

He who seeks solutions has knots on his mind. (X)

The best school of life is a life misspent. (XXXIII)

To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately—and thereby go against it. (XXXVIII)

Unspeaking silence supplies an act with its substance. (XLV)

or

Love is like scales at rest. It weighs nothing, but it carries weight. (LVIII)

The second and fourth sections, in contrast to the numbered aphorisms, are more poetic in form—in the first instance fragmentary, the latter primarily as a set of very short prose pieces—and yet, similar themes and ideas continue to percolate in these breaks. The first of these interludes, titled “in the bosom of indifferent virtues” which features an epigraph from Antonin Artaud, is perhaps the more curiously intriguing. It consists of three sets of fragments, some complete aphorisms, others incomplete thoughts, that have a subtle theatrical resonance. One begins:

She takes her dreams as the one thing that’s sure. And even though this certainty is not of negation, she does occasionally shake her head in doubt.

Within breaks in happiness.

Tacit contiguity.

He writes the terrible out of his system, she the beautiful out of hers.

The pros and cons of one con.

A failure is a first draft. And a first draft needs no motives.

This is a small book, a slender, pocket-sized volume, but it is not insubstantial. A thoughtfulness, an attentive sense of thinking out loud welcomes the reader into the meditative experience. Rhetorical inquiries, lexical truisms, wry musings, pointed barbs, and sly juxtapositions play out across the pages. Originally published in Slovak in 2014, translated by David Short, and featuring with the spare designs of Viktor Kopasz, this is the type of book that welcomes rereading, opening up fresh insights with each visit. Sometimes serious, sometimes light, Róbert Gál has the right feel and touch for this type of writing. His experience and comfort with the form is fully evident here in these “naked thoughts.” And, what is the harm in encouraging a little thinking? After all:

The only fear of one who is given to thinking is that he will see the light. (III)

Summoning the celestial: The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven by Raoul Schrott

If absence makes the heart grow stronger, absence tinged with the uncertainty of love returned can lead the heart and the imagination to wander into realms beyond the merely mortal. To contemplate romantic perfection. To be filled with a longing for something that may no longer exist. To attempt to counter the earthly with the heavenly. To trust in angels.

The wonderfully titled The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven is essentially a series of missives from a lovelorn poet to a mysterious red-haired beauty from whom he has been separated by time, distance and, perhaps, some recklessness on his part. He is writing from County Cork in the south of Ireland, a place which is not his home, where he is exiled, or has exiled himself, sending into the nightly blackness a chain of love letters ever so loosely disguised as a sensual, passionate and mildly profane angelology accompanied by miniaturized hagiographies. Originally published in German in 2001, this extraordinary work by Austrian writer Raoul Schrott, with its arresting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O, is now available from the inimitable Seagull Books in Karen Leeder’s delicately rendered translation. Fictional, but not a conventional novel, essayistic, but meditative in style, this book is an engaging blend of philosophy, mythology, the classical sciences, saintly heroism, and earthbound human romantic longing.

Our narrator begins, as one would expect, with Dionysius the Areopagite—not the saint, but the fifth century Syrian Neoplatonist who, writing in the name and style of his sanctified predecessor was the first to craft a hierarchy of angels and demons, a celestial stepladder to God for dark times.  Within Pseudo-Dionysius’ model of an angel-sustained universe, he locates himself and his own angelic entity:

For Earth he chose only a single one, which he placed in the lower arc of my ribs where I can feel it now, hard as a little planet. I carry it with me (even now in the train it keeps to its orbit) and sometimes I can see it before me: its mouth, black brows and a storm of red hair over its freckles, an incarnation of St. Elmo’s fire.

Captive and captivated, he writes as if possessed, bringing the Aurora Borealis, Samuel Johnson, Greek and Babylonian mythology and more into his musings as he tries to make sense of his fate, this spell of infatuation under which he is labouring. His thoughts never stray far from his beloved even though his letters have yet to elicit a response. He is continues his conversation into the silence, remembering their moments together. It is not entirely clear how much he really has to build on, how much they ever had, a quality that amplifies the sense of yearning:

Then as I sat next to you in the great hall, I heard you more than saw you beside me; I listened to you; wings folding shut. Do I bore you with all these sophistries and sentimentalities? It is only because the post takes so damned long, because I don’t know whether you will ever respond, not how; because I must eke out the little that I have to create a picture of you: little stones for a mosaic. The angels help me lay it out.

As he wanders the past and waits in the present, meditating on the nature of the role of angels in the affairs of humans, especially his own, our poet paints an image of a windswept remoteness, an isolation actual and emotional. He references local towns, harbours and natural features, like the aptly named Mount Gabriel. The ocean is never far away, and water is a major presence in his memories, his sense of loss, and much of the mythology he calls on. His heartache is pervasive, and achingly beautiful:

I walk through the grass; it brushes against my shoes. All is still, and I wish your voice was with me now, whispered and low so that only I could hear it. Instead the moon starts off on a soliloquy. Where it stands, stubbornly apart, is the southwest and somewhere behind is where you are, as if only I had to concentrate to see that far, peer over the curvature of the earth. But where you are it is an hour later, I only wish I knew how to catch up that hour.

Because the distance that haunts him is temporal, in more than one sense of the word, trusting the angels, even if as he admits, he does not believe in them, has a certain logic. A comfort.

Turning to John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth century Irish theologian, best known for translating and commenting on Pseudo-Dionysius, the narrator reflects on the inverted balance existing between humans and their heavenly counterparts:

the angel finds its form within humankind through the spirit (intellectus) of the angel that is in the man; and man comes into being in the angel through the spirit of humankind within him and so on and so forth for all eternity without a single Amen being granted to us in Eriugenia’s scholastic permutations. We are nothing but the imaginings of angels; and angels exist only in our thoughts: that is our paradox not theirs.

He has entrusted his love and his beloved to the care of angels, to hold her for him in their thoughts. And yet, as her own distinction from the angels becomes less clear in his letters, one has to wonder how much she has begun to exist only in his thoughts. If she, in her epistolary silence is possibly not thinking of him, what existential questions does that raise? For him? For any of us who has ever loved hopelessly another who will never return our affection? At heart, he knows, it seems.

And: no, I am not writing for writing’s sake; no, if my letters were in any way beautiful, there were so only on account of you; no, they are not complete in themselves; all they do is beg for the answer and conceal best they can the question (they tiptoe in stealth as I know they are trespassing on your territory). No, your cheeks were so warm that it felt as if I could have woken up next to you; no, there is nothing that could possibly dis-appoint you from the rank of the angels; no, the Amores will never run out of arrows, although I make a rather unholy Sebastian; and no, the angels will not wear themselves out with words; writing to you brought at least a few hours relief, then you started up again humming in my ears.

The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens reads like an extended meditative conversational prose poem, a playful interplay between earth and the heavens, grounded in the inescapable humanness of romantic love. The rich illustrations and micro biographies of the lives and martyrdom of the saints accompanying the text work together to form a running commentary on the interrelationship between love, spirituality, literature and art. This book could almost be, if one didn’t know better, the work of the angels themselves.

Lost in the endlessly circular experience of Agnomia by Róbert Gál

Stories that begin at the end don’t need beginnings that would convict them of making a point, that is, of committing a falsehood. A falsehood that loses its falsehood, being turned inside out by the truth, as if that were possible at first sight. But in any subculture there are other rules and privileges accorded to others that permit them to fire off viruses at everyone else, as if all that was at issue were the odd truth. As indeed is the case.

After what seems an impossible delay, and an unthinkable series of detours, Agnomia by Slovakian writer Róbert Gál is finally available in English, only a decade after its original release. I originally encountered Róbert’s writing in 2015 with what was, at the time, his first published work of fiction in English, On Wing (Dalkey Archive). After that I slipped back  to what was, at the time, his only other available translated book, 2003’s more explicitly philosophical Signs & Symptoms (Twisted Spoon Press). I have to confess that these two volumes served as important inspirational triggers for my own writing, and Róbert has become part of my far-flung circle of literary friends. He is, however, stubbornly reticent to talk about his own work, so I have no advantage in crafting my response to this text which fits, chronologically speaking, subsequent to Signs & Symptoms and On Wing, holding thematic ties to both, but standing uniquely as an attempt to offer a solid, singular prose piece, albeit one that disrupts the lines between fiction, memoir, and philosophy.

Unfolding in a single, unbroken paragraph, Agnomia runs to just under 80 pages. The narrator is, as one would expect, a Slovak writer named Róbert Gál. But where the enigmatic author and his fictional alter ego converge and diverge is unclear; it’s not even clear that they know:

For the author wants to tell his tale, but doesn’t know where to begin, and he doesn’t even know if there is a tale to be told at all. He tries to get inside it, as if any entrance on his part would automatically coordinate with the context in which the tale is being played out. Coordinate with what is being played out, whatever that might be, on a parasitical basis, though it’s erroneously taken to be symbiotic.

This metafictional segue that arises in the early pages of the book is not sustained, the narrative “I” soon takes centre stage, such as it is, but he is an impatient, introspective, and alternately obsessive and ambivalent participant/observer/chronicler, inclined to lapse into philosophical musings. If the story does, in fact, have a beginning and end, it seems to be in New York City, with plenty of Prague in between. But this tale is circular rather than linear. Our author appears to be piecing together his account as he goes, fueled by memories and dreams, however ambiguous and unformed. The result is an meandering prose poem, regularly folding back on itself as if to take stock of its own ability to write itself into being, a post-punk Bernhard monologue set to an erratic thrash jazz soundtrack, playing out inside the mind of a mildly neurotic writer.

And that mindscape is a busy place. Old friends and passing acquaintances, former girlfriends, fellow artists, even the author’s parents pop in and out, arising in fractured conversations, their off-hand gestures observed, their habits briefly dissected, their otherness serving as springboards for the narrator’s digressions. The men are analyzed and compared, while women are allowed a certain magical leeway, like L., a former lover whose diaphanous nudes he’d “used in another book of aphorisms” (see Signs & Symptoms). But between them all, the narrator, seems to be navigating ghosts, remembering encounters, propelled by his own recurrent personal and philosophical obsessions. Nothing is fixed fast in time, lines of thought spin off in all directions, always circular in motion with a relentlessly engaging force.

Driving the narrative are several persistent themes: an underlying bitterness about the futility of being involved in the creative process, especially as a purveyor of words, and more explicitly as the citizen of a small, insignificant country like Slovakia (where “a poet is dead before he’s even born”) ; a fascination with the curious dynamics of romantic and sexual involvement; and a penchant to wander down metaphysical and epistemological wormholes, get tangled up in tautologies, and play with words:

I’m gazing at a tree-shrub hastily planted in a demolished square. I want to tie the moon in with it so that the image I’m creating looks fully formed. It’s a full moon. Is it fulfilled? My room is inhuman. It isn’t accessed by a door, but by clockwork, with a key poking from outside in. A bit like a deep intake of breath whose exhalation and exhaustion are identical. Music has an instant effect. That’s something it shares with a drug or a telling aphorism. Circular self-relocation, each time a total gyration round one of a pair of aching legs. Oneness with pain like a fly with a wing torn off. The whirling of a whirligig beetle. Extirpation of redundancy by stretching it on the rack of a thing that at that instant is no longer a problem.

The flow of accounts, anecdotes, aphorisms, and anxieties continues unabated from end to end of this slender, philosophical fiction, inviting and rewarding rereading—as is typical of all of Gál’s other writing. The abiding presence of his holy trinity of influences is increasingly evident with each re-encounter: Thomas Bernhard, Georges Bataille, and the wildly prolific and ambitious avant-garde composer John Zorn. Readers familiar with the author’s aphorisms and other published work will recognize strong cross currents running throughout Agnomia, but the tone here is lighter, the logical challenges more accessible, and more of Gál’s spirit and humour comes through. The “truth” of fiction? Who knows?

The “stories” or memories that form the loose, fractured framework of this book support what is, in fact, its beating heart—the endlessly unanswerable questions about the nature of thought, truth, and the possibility of adequately representing reality. The balance of narrative—fiction or memoir, it matters not at all—against the narrator’s musings and meditations is pitch perfect. An account of an evening out with a woman, for example, leads to further considerations:

“We’re going now,” I say. I might have helped her break free from certain stereotypes, but she didn’t need my help. She might have helped me break free from certain stereotypes, but I didn’t need her help. Repetition is reminiscing ahead. Ineffectual dreams don’t exist, so the unconscious is more effectual than consciousness. And since my pain doesn’t follow from the findings of philosophy, the question is: In what respect can clarification of the cause of my pain be aided by the findings of philosophy? In being accountable for anything’s enduring, since for what else can one be held accountable? This raises more questions: To what extent can the consciousness’s accountability for something enduring be its consistent monitoring of it, and to what extent is the monitoring of what endures even conceivable and admissible? Is every story a manipulation? And so forth.

At the end of the story we have more questions than answers and that’s the point. After all, what truths lie in the thoughts we think we have?  And is it possible to express them, or is all creative process dependent on our own inherent ignorance?

Agnomia by Róbert Gál is translated from the Slovak by David Short, and published by Dalkey Archive.

Folktales for a new world: Rain and Other Stories by Mia Couto

In the preface to his newly translated collection, Rain and Other Stories, Mozambican writer Mia Couto tells us that the stories we are about to read were written after his country’s long and bloody civil war. The conflict which erupted in 1977, two years after the African nation achieved independence from Portugal, would last for fifteen years, leaving over one million dead and devastating the country’s infrastructure. As the majority of the white Portuguese fled, they left behind an impoverished, uneducated population. Yet, where Couto had anticipated total ruin and destruction, he found that seeds of life and hope had survived. Not all was lost.

These tales speak to this land we are remaking and where we soak our faces in this rain of hope, this water of benedreamtion. Of this land where each man is the same, like this: pretending he’s here, dreaming of going away, imagining his return.

The twenty-six stories that follow are very short—most are but a handful of pages—and although they spring from the immediate aftermath of a contemporary battle, signalling the end of both Soviet-backed Cold War alliances and white domination in Southern Africa, the roots and spirits of these tales seem to run deep into the very bedrock of the earth. They are uniquely Mozambican and yet timeless. These are the fables, folktales, comic and magical imaginings of human folly and resilience. They are a telling of a shattered world back into being.

Couto, the winner of the Neustadt International Prize, and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, has an uncanny ability to create miniature worlds peopled with wonderful characters, images and happenings. In some tales war is still a present quantity, in others it is past but only barely. These are the people caught in the “transition from the tragedy of war to the misery of peace.” We encounter ordinary folk trying to deal with love, its loss, infidelity, old age, even an errant hippopotamus. Some tales are apocryphal in tone, others tragic, yet others simply enchanting. Throughout the collection, the accounts are seasoned with witticisms, aphorisms, and gentle wisdom.

“Blind Estrelinho” is an early and particularly captivating example. The title character is a “man of no moment,”entirely dependent on his guide Gigito Efraim to lead him through the world and open it to his unseeing eyes. And what a world it is! Little Gigito:

described what wasn’t there. The work he detailed was fantasies and fine-lacery. The guide’s imagination bore more fruit than a papaya tree. The blind man’s mouth filled with waters:
What marvellousity, this world. Tell me everything, Gigito!

When his young guide is taken away to war, the blind man’s world falls dark. Gigito’s sister arrives to take her brother’s place but she describes the world as it truly is, and Estrelinho’s loss is magnified. Until he discovers that a girl offers other, shall we say, insights. But the story does not end there.

Some tales are disturbing, like “The Flag in the Sunset” about a boy who, needing to bleed to dream, would ask his grandma to cut him. For his failure to salute the flag he meets an untimely and bloody end, taking another life with him, and haunting all who pass where the flagpole once stood—a resounding comment on forced allegiance, and the degree to which flags “detract from the celestial blues.” “Lamentations of a Coconut Tree” recounts the report, verified by the Nation’s newspaper, of the experience of the narrator’s friend Suleimane Ibraimo who, upon splitting the shell of a coconut finds that:

the fruit didn’t gush the usual sweet water, but blood. Exactly so: blood. But that wasn’t the only astonishing thing. The fruit cried and lamented in a human voice. Suleimane took no exaggerated measures: his wide-open hands dropped the coconut, the red stains spread. He stood there, dumbfounded and overwhelmed, spent. The shock made his soul vanish into the low tide.

The narrator rushes to help, finding his friend sunken but with all traces of the incident cleaned away. Naturally he is distrustful: “Doubt, we know,” he says, “is the envy that the unbelievable hasn’t happened to us.”

One of Couto’s real strengths lies in his ability to sketch out larger-than-life characters in the span of a few pages, like the man who worries about what his enjoyment of his formerly frigid wife’s newfound manly intensity says about him, the night watchman who confronts a hippopotamus ravaging a schoolroom or Professor Novesfora, the protagonist of “The Hapless Calculus of Happiness,” a mathematically minded man who weighs and measures everything, allowing algebraic operations to guide his world view:

He also divided out his affections in calculated doses, limiting love to its numerical equivalent. Love affairs, women, children: all those things were null hypotheses. Feelings, he was fond of saying, have no logarithm. For that reason, there was no reason to even solve the equation. Since he was a child, he’d abstained from affection. From an algebraic point of view, he would say, tenderness is absurd. Like a negative zero.

Until the day he falls for an underage student and all the calculations change!

Rain and Other Stories, is a rich and rewarding collection of fables that capture the cultural and ethnic diversity of post colonial Mozambique rebuilding itself after prolonged conflict between the Marxist government and right wing insurgents, each backed by outside players with their own agendas, had nearly torn the fledgling nation apart. Translator Eric M. B. Becker captures the sheer magic of Couto’s playful Portuguese, and his simple but powerful imagery. This is writing toward healing, toward a celebration of life, but with a clear caution that darkness is never far away.

Rain and Other Stories is published by Bibioasis.