Forty-nine days of the spirit: Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon

The attempt to voice to the experience of reading Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death echoes the challenge she found as the project began to take form for her. Death, as much as we may wish to avoid thinking about it, is a fundamental and natural part of life. But sometimes death arrives in unnecessary, violent, and horrifyingly tragic forms. Or simply when it is unexpected, or worse, unwarranted. The forty-nine poems that comprise the core of this work—one for each day during which the spirit wanders before re-entering the cycle of reincarnation—were written in response to those moments when Hyesoon felt the presence of death in some way. Although her intense reaction to the catastrophic collapse of a ferry carrying high school students bound for an island field trip—an event in which the crew escaped in lifeboats while the youth, ordered to their cabins, drowned—was a trigger, Korea’s recent history is rife with unjust deaths. How to reconcile all this? As an assembly of poems began to take form, she came to understand that her existence begins with death, not birth, and that we live our lives within the structure of death:

I thought to myself that I needed to sing to death, perform a rite for death, write death, then bid farewell to it. The way to send death away was to sing with my own death all the death in the sky and on the ground.

In essence, to sing to death, she had to allow her own death to take the poetic voice. To let it tell its story. How then are we to hear the songs gathered here? Quite simply, to read this book, is to listen.

As one might imagine, the language and imagery is not always easy to encounter.  Heartbreaking, often disturbing, death does not necessarily come gently, and the spirit does not effortlessly shed its fleshy anchor. Verses infused with sad and tender tones mix with horror-filled prose poems and gruesome nursery rhymes, while songs of mournful remembrance turn strange and surreal. To move through this post-death journey is an odd and deeply compelling experience. At moments it is even exquisite:

Like the failing frail twilight and
the rising frail dawn
certain light caves in, certain light soars and embraces

Something like the silvery alligator in your throat
Something like the silvery mosquito on your face

Something like the abrupt opening of the windows of the sea after waking
.                 up from a lifetime of sleep

You’ll see the mornings of the world all at once

– from “Naked Body” (Day Sixteen)

Death is a bodied, intensely physical presence in this sequence of poems. Visceral and graphic at times. Certain images reappear throughout including water, dolls, winged beings—birds, insects and angels—mothers and children, coffins and burial. The space between death and rebirth is an icy, wintery one. Hyesoon shifts and builds on this imagery as the body is slowly and, seemingly reluctantly shed, transforming and decaying as the spirit is increasingly cut off from the world. The poetic perspective invites an intimate engagement with death:

The shape of a woman appears in the mirror. Now you’ve become toeless feet. Now you’ve become fingerless hands. You’ve become a noseless, mouthless face. Your insides that are so far away yet close, the forest in your hair, light enters the rocky moon, and the sea wavers in your shoes. Birds fly up your sleeves and a horse weeps in your pants.

– from “A Face” (Day Forty-Three)

As the forty-nine day passage draws toward a close, faces lose their distinction. Death erases names and identities. “You” lose the ability to recognize yourself or your place in the world. But who exactly is this “you”? In the conversation with her long time translator, Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi, that closes out the book, Hyesoon explains that she could not call her own death “I”, thus her death became “you”, but not as in a simple second person narrative. It is an intrinsically poetic space, such that “you” was “not I or you or he/she.” She goes on to describe how she began to wonder if the narrator might be a sixth or seventh-person narrator, and the “you” who is being addressed is “my death”—“I” has been killed. This she insists, is in keeping with what she sees as the only way to ethically practice poetry, by practicing the death of “I”. Of course, in reading, “you” also feels like “my” or “our” death. At times, especially with the poems that have a sing-song or nursery rhyme feel, it is not unlikely that one might be inclined to want to sing along.

The collection ends with an extended poem “Face of Rhythm,” a piece born out of meditation during a period of pain and illness. Filled with an aching intensity, it is a fitting follow-up to the forty-nine day sequence of Death, a laborious rebirth, release from facelessness and  namelessness. But renewal is hard won, a slow hallucinatory passage through sickness:

That feeling of my soul getting yanked
I wonder where my soul hides when I’m sick
My heart feels as if it’s getting beat up
Is it because the restless ocean is clumping up?
My heart beats regardless of the pain
It beats spewing out red thread like a red spider
A sinkful of red thread gets submerged in water
My heart beats like a girl marathon runner who only had ramen to eat

Autobiography of Death is a collection that leaves one alternately drained and exhilarated. I find it hard to imagine anyone would emerge indifferent. Translator Don Mee Choi’s strong affection and sensitivity for  Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is invaluable, while the playfully strange illustrations by the her daughter Fi Jae Lee contribute to the power and magic of this new work from one of Korea’s most important poets.

Autobiography of Death is published by New Directions.

The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

Words on the wind: Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig

If this has been a year of poetry for me, that is, of extending my ear to listen to the voices of contemporary poets, the greatest lesson has come in the form of an understanding that I, as a non-poet, must come to each collection with a willingness to be open to both the language and the silences a poet employs. I have also learned that poetry that leans too closely into the confessional is not as rewarding as that which reaches toward the human condition, be that political, historical or personal. And I’ve found that, like a good essay, a poem should leave space at its centre for questions and meanings to take shape, shift, and re-form. It is that space that pulls me, as a reader, back into my favourite poems, again and again.

At first blush, the work of German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig may seem deceptively simple. One could slip through quickly and miss the musicality, the odd fantastical turns, and the political undertones. Born in 1979, in a rural part of what was, at the time, East Germany, Sandig first emerged as a radical poet, posting poems on lampstands and distributing them as flyers. From the beginning she has been drawn to experimenting with the presentation and delivery of poetry, intent on opening the form to those who might be unfamiliar with or resistant to it. This has led to collaborations with musicians, and visual and sound artists on CDs, audiobooks and multimedia presentations. Her work invites the reader, or listener, into a world of familiar images and shadowy ambiguities.

Thick of It, recently released from Seagull Books, marks the first appearance of Sandig’s work in English. In her generous introduction, translator Karen Leeder, calls attention to the poet’s transformative approach to language:

Blisteringly contemporary, but with a kind of purity too; by turns comic, ironic, sceptical or nostalgic, it is also profoundly musical. The poems explore an urgently urban reality but are splintered with references to nightmares, the Bible, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, hymns, Goethe, Emily Dickinson and Kafka. Sandig abandons the traditional upper-case for sentences and end-of-line punctuation so as to exploit multiple meanings, stretches syntax, plays with idioms… and surfs on patterns of sound…

Titles at the top of pieces are uncommon, rather, the title, as such, is often woven into the poem, indicated by boldface type. As well, she frequently sets her poems in pairs that echo, reflect and undermine one another. The original title Dickicht which means “thicket”, speaks to this intertwining of meanings. Leeder extends this one step further, by bending the English title to “thick of it”.The poems in this collection, which draw heavily on images of nature—trees and birds—and movement—migration and travel—are separated into two sections “North” and “South”, set apart by the “Centre of the World” which contains a single six-line poem. Loss, and certain measured melancholy, runs through her poetry, things and people are misplaced, slipping from memory. Birds, seasons, and people are ever leaving and returning. Throughout the collection, poems often address a “you”, an other. Sometimes an intimacy is implied, but as the translator indicates, Sandig often plays the formal “Sie” against the informal “du”, a distinction lost in translation, so “you” encountered here is allowed an openness that can be understood as specific or general, individual or plural.

The first part is more firmly rooted, as much as any of these poems are ever rooted, in nature and fragments of the everyday, real and dreamed:

behind my eyes the others sit and watch
everything I see. I only see what I can see.

at night I see the marten in the porchlight
under the foxglove tree, not moving a muscle,

becoming invisible in the fading light. I see
no comets, no satellites. I see nothing but

the scrap of moon and my own reflection
in the glass…

— from “behind my eyes”

The second section, “South”, is a less clearly defined space, sometimes more fantastical—visited by ghosts, a centaur and a gardening John the Baptist—other times more personal, although that atmosphere is frequently strained. Nostalgia and sadness run deeper in this part of the world:

can you still see me? you won’t
recognize me. already we are almost
not there. were you the one who looked right
through me?
try again, hard as you can, look closely:
we were
never that pale.

— from “this photos of us”

The world evoked in Thick of It is one that expands with every return visit. Translator Karen Leeder’s enthusiasm for Sandig’s creative and performative energy is palpable—it comes through the more one reads across this collection, moving with and against its currents. Encountering it, as I have, as winter settles in and the year draws to a close has been especially fortuitous. I cannot leave this short review without a poem,  “denuded trees,” perfect for the season, that deserves to be heard in full:

when I left the afternoon was already over. straggling
children tidied themselves from the playground into the
houses. the first rockets hissed invisibly, still almost inaudible
the throb of the bass. the roadside for quite some distance
was overcast with the haze of denuded trees, they smelled

of cuckoo flowers in the woods, and dozing above them the real
clouds in the wind hole, polar light, biting ice. once a chunk
of milk glass fell to the ground in front of me. before I could
tread on it, it melted away. that’s when I finally left. after that
I forgot everything here.                          I was back by new year.

Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is published by Seagull Books.

It is difficult to imagine what can’t be described: The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza

That, with time, I had become accustomed to the hollow moments of an investigation is true. There are hours, days even, sometimes months or years when nothing happens. Those are the gaps in an investigation. In other words, those moments are life. The detective who wins a case, who solves it, is usually the one weathers those lapses. Resources are needed, of course. But above all, you need patience, that rare gift; or you need something else to think about—a certain capacity for distraction. You need a place inside yourself, your own language where you can hide. You need a refuge, yes. Any refuge.

The work of Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza is, I would suggest, best entered with as scant a road map as possible. I cast no more than a passing glance at any reviews of The Taiga Syndrome, before venturing into the intoxicating and unsettling environment of this, her latest release in English translation. Not that her books can be given away in any straightforward terms, but to lose oneself in the oddly off-centre worlds she creates is the true pleasure of reading her fiction. So much so that, you might find yourself dragging your readerly feet to prolong your sojourn through the pages of this slender volume.

What, then, can one say by way of review? This is the same dilemma I faced when I sat down to write about her novel, The Iliac Crest, which came out last year.

The Taiga Syndrome, a subtle twist on the Latin American detective novel is, in a sense, less of a mystery and more of an dreamlike exercise in mysteriousness. The unnamed narrator is a detective who, with a string of unsuccessfully resolved cases behind her, has taken to writing noir novellas under a pseudonym. When she is approached by a man who wants her to find his second wife and bring her back to him, she almost dismisses the case as dull and hopeless. The man’s wife has disappeared, in the company of another man, into an area known as the Taiga, but the fact that she has been sending missives—telegrams from far off locations—like a trail of bread crumbs to mark a path, have led her husband to believe that she wants to be found. For our enigmatic protagonist there is something almost sensible emanating from the creased paper of the telegrams themselves that inspires her to accept the assignment. The same empathetic curiosity will guide her on her journey into the anomalous environment of the Taiga.

Exactly where this region is located is never made explicit, but clearly it is distant, vast and remote. The presence of tundra and boreal forest suggest it lies to the north. The “syndrome,” distinct to the area, is a condition that sometimes strikes certain inhabitants who “begin to suffer terrible anxiety attacks and make suicidal attempts to escape.” Has that been the fate of the missing woman and her companion? Of course, in a place subject to its own strange rules and customs, norms are difficult to assess. Thus, this is a book about translation—of ideas and culture—the narrator and the translator she has secured to guide her into the Taiga are forced to communicate in a common language, one which is native to neither one of them, a “third space.” Translation creates distance. The reports of local residents have to be interpreted. Bizarre events defy explanation. And the faraway coastal city where a client awaits news of his second wife becomes increasingly vague and unimaginable.

The real magic of The Taiga Syndrome is carried through the wonderful, uncommon narrative voice. As she attempts to understand the circumstances surrounding the couple who had, for a time stayed near a village on the border of the Taiga, the narrator’s engagement with the space and the people in it—the translator, their informants, a feral adolescent, the trees of the forest—is sensual, reflective but not judgemental. Open to experience. Noting her “morbid” fascination with the wild boy who has emerged from the woods, she asks:

Who can resist observing the original body? A body without a social context? And as the minutes passed, I was also excited, no doubt, by my own incomprehension. I could never understand something like this, I told myself several times. I said it exactly like that: “I could never understand something like this.” But I couldn’t stop looking at him, fascinated, perhaps even bewitched or hypnotized by his thin figure, his exhaustion. Did he see me then, not by looking but by chance, not by directing his gaze my way intentionally but by letting his eyes clumsily meet mine? Something like that, yes. An arrow plunged into the left shoulder. A hole. And suddenly that moment produced the window. And the window produced the spectator. And those three elements together made the romance real. The passion. Someone longed for a freedom that was really an infernal abyss. Someone placed hands, now motionless, on the window. Someone who wanted to escape but couldn’t escape and could only watch.

Acutely sensitive to others, to the small details of their appearances and gestures, she finds in their words and actions, or her impressions of their words and actions, an ambiguity. Her experiences, her observations, the increasingly abstracted report she is keeping for the man who hired her are seemingly indirect—distorted in transmission and reception—but she trusts in her truths, as she typically responds when those around her ask a question: “I told him the truth. I told him yes.”

But what is she really telling us?

The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, and published by the Dorothy Project.

 

 

Rivers and railways and portals to other ways of being: The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli

Here’s the river which widens my gaze, which flows through my forehead. Each time I await it. I know when it’s coming because the rails make a different noise on the bridge. Next to my seat is a small suitcase. I packed it, knowing I was leaving.

from Ecco il fiume the mi allarga lo sguardo/Here’s the river which widens my gaze

The flow of time, seasons, energy. Movement through space, life and form. Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of PassageLibretto di transito—begins with what appears to be an evocation of the minute rituals of travel: the suitcase packing, the waiting , riding a train, walking along a river. But the journey soon becomes one that spirals through intimate encounters with the domestic and the natural, reaching toward an internal, essential experienced reality. This small, dual language Italian/English collection of brief, fragmentary prose poems contains, within thirty-three brief one or two paragraph pieces, subtly toned, ever shifting passages that extend beyond the horizon of the printed page.

In his introduction, translator John Taylor offers a perfect illustration of the ineffable quality of this work:

As in her verse poetry, which similarly points to silence as it sketches moods, daydreams, and fantasies set amid carefully observed daily scenes, Mancinelli’s short prose revolves around unvoiced centers and disturbing causes which cannot be wholly defined yet which have come to the surface, as it were. As the reader meditates on them, they reveal their intricacy and mystery. That is, wordless centers full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and even unimaginable acts—those pertaining, for instance, to the loss or lack of something or someone essential.

This is easy to acknowledge a priori; in the reading, rereading, and returning once again we are increasingly aware of the unsettling and exhilarating otherness at the heart of all that we know or think we know in the act of being and engaging with the world.

Mancinelli’s language is characterized by an exactness, pointing to the simplest of acts and the most fundamental relationships, and yet the angle of perspective shifts. The poetic voice slides from “I” to “you”, sometimes reaching toward another, sometimes reflecting back to the speaker. Other pieces take the first person plural, the speaker and another perhaps, lover or child, or a more open and general “we”? Both or neither? No matter, the effect is one of blurring distinctions and encompassing the reader in the flow of images.

Nature is vital. It absorbs and infiltrates all that we are and what we do in her vision. The most basic everyday task becomes a transformative experience:

I force myself to put on clothes, shoes. I still grow in the darkness, like a plant drinking from dark soil. Getting dressed demands losing the branches extending into sleep, their most tender leaves open. You can suddenly feel them falling like an unexpected winter. At the same time you also lose the tail and the wings you had. You feel it happening somewhere in your body.

—from “Indosso e calzo ogni mattina/As if I always had another number, another size”

There is a restlessness, a yearning in these poems. Movement, travel, transience. But to where or to what, even the poet seems uncertain. Or content to leave connections unresolved. The precision of her prose casts sideways glances at implied, inferred, unspeakable sensations. And in the grasping for a language, a  grammar, to touch this point where tangible meets intangible, the threshold of the physical and the mental or spiritual, her imagery grows more dreamlike, more abstracted:

The fault line is inside you, it is widening. A chilly gust of wind blows through your ribs and is decomposing you. You no longer have an ear. Your neck has vanished. Between one shoulder and the other one opens a darkness peopled with shivers, with voices calling out from branch to branch, on a sheer slope uncrossed by human steps. (87)

—from “Nel tuo petto c’è una piccolo faglia/There is a small fault line in your chest”

Life is a series of passages. Arrivals, leavings and transitions. We often make allusions to one kind, even a profound passage like birth or death, to speak to another. This series of delicate poetic prose pieces invites you hold each one, like a shard of glass, and allow it to refract and distort reflected light and meaning.

Italian poet Franca Mancinelli is the author of two previous collections of verse poetry. The Little Book of Passages, translated by John Taylor and published  by The Bitter Oleander Press, represents the first appearance of her work in English.

Suspended in time: The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani

Although there was a time when I would read occasional police procedurals, somewhat like a palate cleanser between what I might called “more serious” reads, my reading focus has shifted over the past decade or so and, consequently, it’s been a long time since I picked up a crime novel as much for lack of time than anything. However, when The Nameless Day by German writer Friedrich Ani arrived at my home wrapped in a stunning Sunandini Banerjee-designed dustjacket, I thought that, after so long, it might be a refreshing change of pace. What I found was slower-paced, more character driven, less solution focused read than I might have expected and, in my case, it was a good fit.

Recently retired, police detective Jakob Franck is looking forward to settling into an existence that will, he hopes, no longer be haunted by the mournful presence of ghostly visitors from the past challenging him with their unresolved secrets. Instead, he is unexpectedly contacted by a living herald of a case he had not directly investigated but had never forgotten. Twenty years earlier he had been charged to deliver to a family the news that their seventeen year-old daughter had been found hanging from a tree in the park. This particular task, the bearing of unbearably painful news, had become one that Franck seemed to excel at and so he had agreed to make the call. Only the mother was home. As she registered the news, Doris Winther collapsed into the arms of the detective and he ended up holding her, just inside the doorway, for seven long hours. The sort of unprecedented, irregular occurrence that leaves its mark. A little more than a year later, mother would follow daughter, recreating the act in the yard of the family home. Both deaths were declared suicides.

Suddenly, after two decades, Ludwig Winther, widow and bereaved father, re-enters Franck’s life clinging to a desperate conviction that his daughter was in fact murdered. He beseeches the former detective to have a look at the matter just one more time. Old habits die hard, Franck’s professional instincts are readily aroused:

Once again Franck caught himself thinking like an interrogator with only the admissible conclusion of an investigation in mind. But the man sitting in front of him, broken and bent by the leaden emptiness of his life, was no witness, he was a relative, a surviving dependent, the father of a daughter, the husband of a woman who had also hung herself and left behind a man who ever since had been wandering through the cages of his questions.

What unfolds is a re-awakening of memories, Franck’s own and those of the various people he contacts as he moves through a re-examination of those who knew Esther Winther—her classmates, her maternal aunt in Berlin, family friends, and neighbours. The narrative holds close to his perspective, and that of her diminished father, who, having been informally held responsible for his daughter’s and his wife’s deaths, has been reduced to living in an attic flat and working as a part-time delivery driver. Both men are in their sixties, divorced and widowed, and they have each chosen to remain unattached, but their loneliness is palatable. Around them the varied secondary and peripheral characters also echo various degrees of emotional isolation, grief and guilt linked back to either Esther’s unexplained suicide or to their own private tragedies. The world Ani so skillfully brings to life is not a happy one; the depth of family trauma reverberating throughout:

The silence, Franck thought, had driven that family into an inner and unsurmountable homelessness. The time to make a wish had never arrived for any of them; not even, he thought, looking towards the door again—no sound came from the other room—for Winther’s sister-in-law in Berlin. Inge Rigah had escaped the approaching shadow in her family’s world rather early, but in the place she had freely chosen to go she had instead become a prisoner of her dream, which she refused to realize or allowed only to remain as a sketch. In Esther she saw herself as a free spirit that no one could cage; and so, after her niece’s death, all that was left was the wrinkled anger she had carried around from the very first time she ever met Ludwig Winther.

As Franck works his way through the circle of connected individuals, concerns and accusations routinely circle back to the very man who initiated the reinvestigation of his daughter’s death. If not entirely sympathetic, Ludwig Winther is the tragic victim here. He had wanted to provide a good life for his family and in the end he lost everything—his daughter, his wife, his career, and his home. He became the focal point of anger and blame, accused of being inadequate at the very least, of rumoured unspeakable acts at the worst. Twice bereaved he was never granted the respect and space to grieve. His wife, sister-in-law, his daughter’s classmates all believed that he was directly or indirectly responsible for driving Esther to the point of no return. After twenty years, a small and defeated man, his attempt to find closure by proving to himself, at the very least, that fault belonged to someone else.

Whether anyone will find closure at the end of The Nameless Day is debatable. For some crime fiction readers that may be less than fully rewarding. For me, the questions that arise from the facts that we do learn are far more fascinating for the lack of resolution, for fate, and for the things we can never know. The dead may come to visit, but they tend to keep their secrets to themselves.

In the end, The Nameless Day is a satisfying, psychologically engaging read. Translated by Alexander Booth, the language is rich and poetic, and Ani’s willingness to leave room for what is unspeakable, unknowable and unsettled makes this a novel that will potentially appeal to a wide audience.

The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani is published by Seagull Books.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.

Nameless, neutered and neurotic: The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig

Over the past four years, five works by German author Wolfgang Hilbig have appeared in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid, evocative translations, each release bringing the late writer—always a literary outsider in life—an expanded following. The most recent offering, the fourth from Two Lines Press is the earliest, chronologically speaking. Originally published in 1987, The Females is an unrepentant portrait of a man burdened by a deeply and darkly distorted sense of shame and self-loathing. Classic Hilbig protagonist on one level, yet embryonic relative to the more abstract introspective narrators who move through many of his subsequent works.

This novella is set, like so much of Hilbig’s fiction, in a small industrial community in postwar East Germany. The narrator is, by his own description, a rather foul and socially inept misfit, a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother and harbours a troubled and seemingly stunted adolescent notion of women. He is not simply unnamed, but acutely aware of having been rendered nameless. Within the context of Hilbig’s shorter works this story is more explicit in its anger toward the state with its control of desire, creative and sexual. The recent history of his country, the ruins of war and the politics of the National Socialism, looms large. The imagery is gritty, coarse and vulgar, but the narrator’s desperate search for identity lends him a level of sympathy. He feels ashamed at his own corruption—especially a youthful turn at pornography, yet feels neutered and powerless. In the bluntness of its  approach, The Females seems somewhat less refined than Old Rendering Plant and the Tidings of the Trees which follow several years later, but having this earlier work published in English at this point allows readers familiar with his oeuvre to see developmental themes at play.

True to form, this is an absorbing, compulsive read, one that slips regularly into a nausea-inducing, full-frontal assault on the senses. The opening passages are fair warning. The protagonist is working at a pressing shop in a former munitions factory. The shop floor is entirely staffed by women and, confined to a dank basement room, his task is to clean the molds. From his subterranean vantage point he watches the women work the machinery:

Through the grating above me, damp, smoldering heat flooded down with steady force. I sat on a chair beneath the grate amid this hot tide, hidden in semidarkness, several bottles of beer by my chair; when I drank the beer seemed to gush instantly from all my pores, lukewarm, not even changing temperature inside my body. It was ceaseless strain—my head constantly tilted back—to stare through the grate into the light, always hoping to see the women up there step across the bars.

He obsesses over every movement the women make, sexualizing the physical routine of the manufacturing activity, longing for a fleeting taste of femininity, and masturbating in his gloomy enclosure. Needless to say, he is employed on borrowed time. “I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness,” he tells us, one that is characteristically “utterly excessive; an agony not quite human, it was no longer that of an animal either.” Dismissed from his job, he takes to wandering the streets at night and notices, that something has suddenly been drained from the atmosphere. As an aspiring writer, the only vocation he has ever truly desired despite the disdain this ambition evoked in his family and society alike, he had once been able to look at the dismal world around him and, as he puts it, “make the filth glitter”. Now, either in reality or in his madness, his environment had been altered.

Much to his dismay, he becomes convinced of a most horrifying truth:

It was no help at all to sense I was possessed by an obsession, in my overpotent head a cascade of letters blazed: all the females had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity.—Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use; I thought I suddenly noticed people in town referring to trash cans as der Kübel instead of die Tonne. When I saw those trash cans from afar, set up in long rows along the curbs that summer—something unlikely to change, as the trash collection service was still more dysfunctional then than in the winter—at first I’d think a line of unshapely females was loitering there, dully iridescent in the bluish streetlights, and I’d hurry toward them. I’d realize they were just the trash cans I saw every night, from their gaping orifices hung rubbish that looked hairy, that had an undefinable evil about it.

His desperate, guilt-ridden efforts to make sense of this situation, to set it right somehow, drives the nonlinear, obsessive, self-deprecating and bitter narrative of The Females. Some of the imagery is harsh, off-putting, and sexist. In his defence the protagonist blames the psychopathology of the state under which he was raised, one in which “the sex drive was declared to be abnormal…and sex to be capitalistic”. He clearly has had no real, substantial and healthy relationships with women. He wants to be loved, longs for normal human contact, but fears that his anxious desire will drive others away, that as his desperation becomes evident, he grows increasingly hideous—“A monster with putrefaction written in the crannies of its skin as hectic red blotches, with uric acid drying and itching on its pate, a madness no longer stoppable as damp tufts of hair began painlessly detaching themselves.” His frustration is redirected back at women—his mother included—and it his inability to conform to the expectations of those around him. To see the world as he is supposed to see it.

At the core of this novella lies a crisis of masculinity. Hilbig, like many of his generation grew up fatherless. His father had disappeared at Stalingrad and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. His characters often struggle with the rigid expectations of manhood in their closed society. As men who are naturally drawn to creative pursuits, they react against the predetermined factory life by trying to find their missing role models among the social outcasts—garbage men or the workers at a rendering plant. In the world Hilbig presents in The Females, the State is the all-powerful progenitor, women are brutish and masculine, men are soft and delicate, psychologically castrated. His protagonist is criticized by his family for failing to live up to an ideal set by his father, though it is not clear that his father is more than a myth he has no real memory of. He is seeking an absolution through the women who have controlled, avoided and now eluded him, longing to heal a wound with roots, ultimately, deep in childhood memory and buried national history. He chooses to work in a factory staffed by females to try to be near their presence and feels cut off from a vital reality when he is cast out. In the shadowy depths of the town’s laneways he is searching for a feminine presence which he can only vaguely remember, distrusting his imagination and distorting reality into misplaced freakish phallic and vaginal imagery.

His is a strange, and strangely fascinating existential pursuit. “The world outside my window,” he is inclined to tell himself, “lacks the gaze that is mine”:

But I’d had to realize that I was no one.—I didn’t know whether I existed; the fact of my birth had been kept secret from me. They kept it secret to punish me, for I hadn’t turned out to be the thing they’d hope to bestow upon the world. Yes, I’d made the mistake of having myself be born, having myself be raised by the state and its pedagogy, by pedagogy and its state—I’d practically volunteered for it—but then I turned out differently. And so I had to be nullified, voided; there was neither a womb nor a pedagogy nor a state for the creature I’d become. I didn’t even have a name to lay claim to.

The Females is a challenging read in today’s climate of gender sensitivity. But emerging at a time when Germany was still divided (though Hilbig was by this time already living in west Berlin), its message’s bold, brutal delivery possibly reflects a more immediate frustration. Either way, it is a powerful short work that takes no prisoners.

Deftly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig is published by Two Lines Press.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.