“Quiet the evening through till dawn.” The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker

Whenever a story began, he never quite understood where it was supposed to go.

After my father died I found, in his office, a journal he kept for the last full year of his life. He recorded each day’s trips, chores and purchases with occasional comments about my mother’s health, the quality of a restaurant meal, or some other personal detail like a book he was reading. He also tracked the weather and key stock market statistics. It demonstrates just how unwilling he was to let a day pass without a set of accomplishments, but captures none of his opinions, worries or hopes. However, it is one of my most precious possessions, a diary I read as a man in his eighty-eighth year trying to hold on to the passage of time.

There is an element of this kind of reporting the mundane ordinariness of the everyday in Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, a fragmentary novel stripped to its most essential elements. Within the series of isolated sentences, phrases and brief passages that comprise this work, a regular report of the day to day flow of weeks, seasonal tasks, and observations of nature not only contribute to an atmosphere of place but speak to the desire to believe that some things stay the same, hoping that as long as this flow continues, the story will not end and one can defy death a little longer. But this novel does not recreate a diary as such, rather it constructs a picture of a village or community, past and present, as its residents age and face the end of life, as memories and images surface from a dark history that has left its mark on a generation that spent their childhood and youth during the war.

A train station appears in the course of everyone’s life.

Poet, writer and radio dramatist, Becker was born in Cologne but spent the war years in Thuringia. He was a participant in Gruppe 47, a collection of important German writers, from 1960 until their dissolution in 1967 and has long been involved with PEN Centre Germany and the German Academy for Language and Poetry. He is known for an open form of experimental literature set in opposition to narrative conventions. The Sea in the Radio (2009), perhaps the first of his prose works to be translated into English, reflects the importance of landscape seen in his later works as well as the tendency to cast side-long glances at the experience of growing up during the Second World War that drives so much of his prolific literary output.

This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts. It begins with bucolic imagery—snow in the winter woods, owls that call at night, the glow of the light—but an ominous tone appears early: the trains off behind the woods that one never saw, the off-road vehicle that is always moving from place to place, photographs showing people or houses that are gone, allusions to secrets lurking. Grammatical tense can be misleading. Is this a statement about the present or the past? Outside the odd quoted statement there is no “I,”, the closest one gets is with the indefinite, gender neutral pronoun “one,” otherwise we move between second, third, and first-person plural perspectives. Wordplay and aphoristic observations also appear, contributing to the overall poetic feel of the text. As we move through the three parts—three orchestral movements that each end with the acknowledgement of the relevant conductor—the story that emerges is dramatic and vivid, despite the fact that so much of it lurks in the silences and spaces between the sentences.

Fine, if you know everything already.

When it is hot and dry, you don’t see any snails in the garden.

What should one do? One does what one can. One does what one can’t.

Motorcycles whining through the village. It’s Sunday.

Watching TV for hours. And then what?

After the storm the sun, immediately humid again, the next storm.

A hissing. Gravel sliding of the loading bed.

He says, Night’s shorter when you can sleep.

The pace is not slow, but charged with a kind of quiet restlessness. This is a novel that invites you to listen closely. An acute awareness of the passage of time and circumstances permeates the work, seeding it not with nostalgia but melancholy. Motifs recur and sentences play off one another, often contradicting what has recently been said, small themes build across a page or two then fade into the background, and there is a knowing humour to some of the observations: “In the waiting room there are magazines that one would never read otherwise.” There is, decades after the years that haunt the aging children that people this landscape, no closure, only increasing decline, illness and loss. And a little wisdom.

When you are old yourself, you treat the old people who are already dead in a friendlier fashion.

Translated by Alexander Booth with an ear to maintaining the rhythm and flow of this fragmentary work, The Sea in the Radio is presented with a design of subtle beauty that features detail from Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa and a pattern simulating water that runs across the lower edge of every page.

The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

The disquieting terrain of loss: Grove by Esther Kinsky

I arrived in Olevano in January, two months and a day after M.’s funeral. The journey was long and led through dingy winter landscapes, which clung indecisively to grey vestiges of snow. In the Bohemian Forest, freshly fallen, wet snow dripped from the trees, clouding the view through the Stifteresque underbrush to the young Vltava River, which not had even a thin border of jagged ice.

As the landscape past the cliffs stretched into the Friulian plains, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had forgotten what it is like to encounter the light that lies behind the Alps and understood, suddenly, the distant euphoria my father experienced every time we descended the Alps.

The unnamed narrator of Grove arrives in Italy, fresh from the loss of her long-time partner, planning to spend three months contemplating the possibility of forcing her life “into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown.” As she travels down from Germany, she stops in Ferrara, a town she had and M. had planned to visit on the Italian trip they would never manage to take together. But the literary landscape of Georgio Bassani will have to wait, at this time her destination is further south, a small village south-east of Rome. There she will walk the streets and roadways of the rolling landscape, orienting herself in relation to the house where she rents an apartment, the nearby cemetery and grove of trees. An anchor for an unanchored time.

German author and translator Esther Kinsky’s books cannot be rushed. They unfold slowly and linger in the imagination. Like her acclaimed novel, River, this meditation on grief offers an intimation of autofiction but I prefer to see her work as fiction bound to real-life experience and location that conceals as much as it reveals. Intimate yet not overtly confessional in nature. The focus is on immediate response to encounters, observations and memories, while autobiographical details tend to be limited, leaving both the author and her protagonist in the shadows. The narrator has recently lost her husband after a serious illness; Kinsky’s husband, Scottish-born German translator Martin Chalmers, died in October, 2014. The grief, the loss, is palpable, yet still too recent to be fully articulated, not only in the first section chronicling those early months alone, but in the third part set exactly one year later. M.’s memory haunts the narrator’s dreams, her attachment to an article of his clothing, his image. However, we learn very little of anything about him or their life together. Likewise, what the narrator is looking for and what she finds is unclear—as in River, it is the journey, or rather journeys, not the destination that guides the narrative.

In the first part of Grove, “Olevano,” one has the sense that the narrator is attempting to find herself in the landscape of a place where death is never far away. Cemeteries, the sellers of fresh and plastic flowers to mark graves, the sight of a body being removed from a house, memories of the Etruscan tombs her father loved, even trees being felled to combat the spread of disease all summon thoughts of morti, followed by sounds of vii—bird song, children’s voices, the daily ordinary routines of life. It’s a slow unfolding, gradual emergence from winter to the early signs of spring, that accompany the narrator’s wandering through the village, the countryside, to Rome, to the sea and back to her temporary refuge on the hillside. She is learning how to live again, awaking in an alien place, a stranger to each new day:

When after sweeping the landscape my gaze fell to my hands on the window ledge, I thought I saw M.’s hands beneath them, in the space between my fingers – white and delicate and long, his dying hands, which were so different from his living hands, and they lay beneath mine as if on a double exposed photograph. Then the coffee maker hissed, and the coffee boiled over, and my living hands had to break away from M.’s white hands in order to turn off the stove and remove the pot, but I inevitably burned myself, and this pain made me aware that I hadn’t relearned anything yet.

The flowing language, poetic, careful and observant, traces a slow burning existential pilgrimage. Kinsky paints a rich portrait, not only of the landscape and urban areas, but of the people—from the reticent village population to the groups of African migrants who cluster around marketplaces and bus stations, barely surviving on the outskirts of society, unable to leave, with no home to return to. As in River, a novel set on the edge of London along the Lea River, her narrator here similarly is attentive to the character and quality of place; she does not simply see, she feels her way through the misty months of early disorienting grief and necessary solitude.

I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance – it presented itself differently from each side. On each side the routes drew a different script, the mountains cast different shadows, and the plains, foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds shifted. A terrain that left traces in me, without a recognizable trace of myself remaining in it. Something about the relationship between seeing and being seen – between  the significance of seeing and being or becoming seen, as a comforting conformation of your existence – suddenly appeared to me as a burning question, which defied all names and acts of naming. If on that hillside some had told me that I might die from the inability to answer or simply even phrase this question, I would have believed them.

It is clear from the beginning that she is no stranger to Italy. Her father spoke Italian, was fascinated with the history of the Etruscans, and year after year family holidays were spent exploring the country. The second section of Grove begins with her father’s death, then revisits memories of trips taken over the years. Grief, through the lens of time and distance becomes an attempt to understand a somewhat elusive man against the backdrop of his knowledge of architectural sites, landscapes and bird calls, his tendency to disappear for hours and his penchant for outings that often led to the family getting lost. In the end though, this fascinating and recognizable account of lengthy family car trips reminds anyone with a similarly enigmatic parent that we can ever fully know them when so much of our experience rests deeply in childhood. Loss and mourning is perhaps always incomplete.

So we come to the third and final part of the novel which finds our narrator returning to Italy exactly one year after her stay in Olevano. Again it is January when a certain colourlessness and frosty otherness mutes the land. She travels first to Ferrara, orienting herself by the landmarks of the life and characters of Georgio Bassani, haunted more by the fictional environs of the Finzi Continis. From there she moves to Comacchio, on the Adriatic, where she spends her days walking through the stark salt pans, observing flamingos and other shore birds, and seeking out the site of a fabled necropolis. It’s a sad and lonely time to be wandering this place devoid as it is of tourist activity, but she seems to be approaching a new, peaceful meditative relationship with loss. If she set out to consider how she might force her life into a new order one year earlier, the apparent bleakness of this last stop in Italy carries the quiet promise of moving forward anew even if where she is heading and what she has learned is not clear, or not for sharing.

Grove by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and as Grove: A Field Novel by Transit Books in North America.

Is he really gone: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

The loss, he says, the loss of someone so
close, the loss of a HAND and HEART
PARTNER is something so completely and
utterly devastating, yet it may be, we may be
able to keep right on speaking with this HEART and
LOVE PARTNER continue conversing and may
even expect a response from this person.

I’ve long had an interest in literary expressions of immediate grief, a much more elusive task than one might imagine until actually faced with the intensity of loss and the longing to express that experience at its most raw. Then it seems almost impossible, yet Friederike Mayröcker’s Requiem for Ernst Jandl may be one of the most successful unmediated responses to the loss of a loved one that I have encountered.

Paperback edition, German List

Mayröcker met fellow Austrian poet and writer Ernst Jandl in 1954. They both left marriages to be together, but did not marry or share a home. Theirs was a deeply creative lifelong partnership, they supported one another’s work and collaborated on radio plays and other projects over the next forty-six years. When Jandl died on June 9, 2000, she was devastated by the loss yet miraculously she was able to channel it into a series of poems composed within the first months after his death. The rawness and confusion of grief is evident. Her characteristic, experimental style which employs capitalization, italics and numerals, and often incorporates fragments of private conversations and excerpts from letters and diaries, serves to heighten the anxiety, confusion and emotion of this period of early grief. Also woven into the series of poems that comprise this requiem is an earlier piece that captures the nature of the interplay of the their creative energies.

There is a sense throughout this slender collection of words and emotion spilling out on the page, gathered up and coming loose again. The great love, the completeness of the loss, and the exhaustion of caring for a weak and dying man all have to be released, repeatedly, in the tumult of grief and guilt that colours these early months. Each poem approaches these conflicts, but the final long piece in the book, the prose poem “’the days of wine and roses’, for Ernst Jandl,” reflects this emotional urgency with particular power. Here Mayröcker seems to be sorting out a flux of memories, thoughts and feelings as expressed to a friend, Leo N.

And what about the pencil, I say to B., why
on the morning of his death did he draw a
pencil on a piece of note paper, I say to B.,
why did he ask for a pencil, there were
plenty of pens on the little table next to his
bed, the quill of the Holy Ghost lingered
longer on Job’s sorrows than it did on the
delights of Solomon, B. says, I tell Leo N.,
is he really gone, is he really in heaven now,
a heaven you yourself believe in, the
passageway into the other world, says Leo
N., is described as stepping through a
waterfall, and the vulture flies through the
sun, I went up to his room, up to a bed that is
empty and say to him I feel better today, but
I am thinking: I NO LONGER have any hope
for this life, at 3 o’clock in the morning…

In the crush of the weeks and months following Jandl’s death the voices of some friends and phone calls from others rise and fall. This is a loss both deeply personal and shared with a community of artists, and at times a tension is evident, one senses that the poet both welcomes the company and wants to be alone. Needs the comfort and doesn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, the death of her companion and creative partner did not silence Mayröcker. She continued to write startling, challenging and innovative poetry and prose right up until her death last year at the age of ninety-six. Jandl continues to appear and inspire along the way but never in such an open, unabashed lament as in this Requiem—one that fittingly closes with one of his best known poems, the humorous sound poem ottos mops complete with Mayröcker’s original reflection on the composition written in 1976, long ago she admits, adding that if she could have one single year from that now distant time back, “how intensively I would live it, how tenderly and how happily.”

Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker is translated from the German by Roslyn Theobald and published by Seagull Books.

“That’s how I remember it.” Postcard from London and Other Stories by Iván Mándy

Making the acquaintance of Iván Mándy, one of the most popular Hungarian writers of the post-war period, is one of the unexpected highlights of my reading year. Postcard from London and Other Stories, which gathers twenty-three stories and two novella excerpts, is the first comprehensive collection of his work to be published in English and, as with such larger volumes, there is always the risk of a certain sameness setting in. Yet, with Mándy, the appearance of the same characters and variations or extensions on related themes, is part of the appeal. His stories tend to tread the murky internal waters of his protagonists’ minds, so even when covering the same ground, one never really steps in the same stream twice.

Born in Budapest in 1918, Mándy’s parents divorced when he was young, leaving him in the care of his unconventional journalist father. He moved from school to school, but did not complete his formal education. Much of his writing draws on these early years of his life, channeled through his rather hapless alter ego János Zsámboky. He published his first work during the Second World War and, within a few years he was recognized with the Baumgarten Award. However, the advent of Communist rule in 1948 supressed his literary and editorial career until things started to loosen up in the mid-fifties. Through the sixties and seventies, his popularity grew as he published many novels and stories, often producing as much as a book a year. He died in 1995.

As a writer, Mándy focused his attention on life in the poorer communities of Budapest, on the eccentrics, the lonely and the misfits of society. But his stories often depend less on plot than on an ability to evoke mood, character and scene with a handful of words. Here, a room:

All around, the barren summer wasteland of the parquet floor. The carpets rolled up on the top shelf of the closet. Like defeated political dignitaries. Ousted statesmen.
“The Morning of the Journey” (1989)

This becomes especially apparent in his work from the 1970s onward. By employing techniques borrowed from radio plays and cinema, his narratives begin to explore the shifting textures of the narrator’s mindscape, as memories, desires and anxieties rise and fall away, carrying the voices of strange and familiar figures encountered in the past and present, sometimes leaving his protagonist treading an uneven border between daydreaming and waking states. Thus it is often less any question of getting from point A to B, than the uncertain effort of getting nowhere at all along a pathway strewn with ghosts and sly objects, as well as those surrounding individuals who are still negotiating the “real” world.

The stories collected in Postcard from London are drawn from Mándy’s writings published between 1972 and 1992, translated by John Batki. Along with a variety of assorted pieces, there are two main series of connected or related stories involving Mándy’s alter ego, János Zsámboky. The first set, mostly but not exclusively from the early 1970s, involve his parents—primarily his engagement with his memories of his erratic, unreliable father and his quieter mother. Their ghosts haunt him. In the opening story, “A Visit with Father,” as János is reluctantly preparing to visit his father in the hospital, he recalls his parents’ seemingly abrupt separation, his father’s second marriage, and more recently, his aging father’s decline into the delusional and suicidal behaviour that ultimately forced him to have the old man hospitalized. The second tale, “A Visit with Mother,” sees János once again preparing for a trip to the hospital, this time with a dress and stockings, for his final encounter with his proud and resilient mother who is lying in the morgue. These two stories are the perfect introduction to János’ somewhat anxious character, his parents, and the basic outline of their lives. Together they set the stage for “What Was Left,” the wonderful 50-page story that follows. Here our hero is sorting through documents, receipts, photographs and diary entries in an empty apartment, attempting to piece together gaps in his knowledge of his parents’ lives while Father and Mother engage him (and each other) from the beyond. Seamlessly slipping between, past and present, first and third person, Mándy weaves a portrait of a fractured family that is funny and bittersweet. This familial cast which also includes Olga, the second wife and her family, and Mother’s Aunt Vali (“with the balcony-sized bosom”) appears in a number of stories, but it is always Father who looms larger than life, determined to claim his space in his son’s imagination forever:

In my dreams, he still comes and goes, expostulates, protests. He lives his own life. Somehow, he gets wind of everything. Some old, netherworldly newspaperman must have told him that I got married after he died. In the corridor of dreams, he accosts me with a gentle reproach. ‘You didn’t even introduce me to your bride, kiddo . . .’ And he still stubbornly insists that I arrange for him to return home. ‘I’m fed up with prowling around.’
“The Original” (1974)

János’ wife Zsuzsi first appears, in this collection, in a story from 1974, “A Chapel, Afternoon” but it is in a later sequence of stories chronicling a trip to London (1989 and 1992) that Mándy’s alter ego reveals himself to have become an aging, distracted writer, unwilling traveller and obstinate companion to his sensible, patient partner. His mind is now even more prone to wandering. His dreams are fantastic, even horrific, channelling his waking fears; figures from his past—real or imagined—interrupt his conversations; and when left to his own devices he is inclined to turn the action of strangers into potential scenarios for future stories. He even encounters possible characters in his own visage as in this scene from “An Afternoon Sleeper” where he waits in a cold changing room in London:

Four mirrors around me, four mirrors and four faces. On one side, a sharp diplomat’s face. Not exactly glowing with confidence. And that deep, dark under the eyes. This diplomat is about to be relieved of his duties. Something is not quite right about him. His services are no longer needed. He’s being recalled. And God only knows what awaits him back home. . .

Facing me is a sly old greybeard. Winking. A dirty old man. Never did a stroke of work in his life. He chased little girls instead.

A superannuated actor. Face fallen apart. Eyes glazed. Forget about ever getting another part. Not even as an extra.

A haggard, leaden face. A night waiter. Not exactly seedy, but somehow unreliable. He has no steady customers. A very few strays, at the most.

The door of the booth opens.

A heather green jacket appears. Behind it, Zsuzsi and the silver-haired salesman.

Other protagonists make their way through various stories, but János continues to appear regularly, through to the end. As the above quote illustrates, Mándy can call a character into being with few brush strokes and create a situation within which he or she must respond to the everyday strangeness of life.

Finally, I would be remiss not to call attention to the way Mándy, influenced by his fondness for Buster Keaton, blurs the lines between material and human existence. Suitcases, articles of clothing and other objects are often animated, in passing, through the use of verbs or descriptions not typically applied to things. This is one of the many ways in which his prose echoes poetry, but in an excerpt from the novella “Furniture” he playfully takes this tendency one step further. Through a series of vignettes, with or without human co-stars, furniture—chairs, tables, living room suites—take centre stage. Unusual, perhaps, but not unexpected or out of place, in the literary universe Iván Mándy imagines into being. This welcome collection offers an excellent opportunity to explore that idiosyncratic space.

Postcard from London and Other Stories by Iván Mándy is translated from the Hungarian by John Batki and published by Seagull Books.

Absence is the only distance felt by the heart: Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully

Without a spurious memory,
the sole true blood, like salt
flowed around
every white seashell
wrenched from the belly of languages.

Speak so as not to forget—
isn’t this the true gift of tongues?  (p. 62)

The island nation of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean about 800 kilometres east of Madagascar, was uninhabited until the Dutch took possession of it in 1598. They named it after governor Maurice of Nassau, but despite two attempts to settle the island, they abandoned it to pirates. Mauritius was then occupied by the French East India Company in 1721 and renamed Ile de France. Over the next forty years settlement proceeded until the French Crown assumed control and established a thriving sugar cane industry, bring in African slaves to work the plantations. In 1810, the British captured the island. Four years later, their sovereignty was confirmed and the name Mauritius was restored but, in contrast to other British colonies, French customs, laws and language remained in place.

When abolition brought an end to slavery in Britain, pressure extended to the colonies and the replacement of slaves with indentured servants, primarily from India, began. Between 1849 and 1923, millions of men and women were brought to the island and beyond to other European colonies. Today, Mauritius, an independent Republic with administrative control of several nearby islands (including a still-disputed claim over the Chagos Archipelago), has a population reflecting its short history. Approximately two-thirds are of Indo-Pakistani origin, one-third Creole (French-African) and a small percentage of mixed Chinese heritage.[i]  A rich blend of cultures, traditions and religions have contributed to a diverse and growing economy in this small African country, but the wounds of a history of slavery and indentured servitude cannot be ignored. Countless people were torn from their homelands and transported in unsafe, sometimes deadly conditions to work in a harsh environment with little hope of ever seeing home again. Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Mauritian poet, essayist and filmmaker, Khal Torabully, is a poetic tribute to his own ancestors, and an attempt to give voice to those who made that fateful voyage, human cargo in the hold of ships, to the shores of Mauritius so many years ago.

I want to go to the grand bazaar
to seek at last the saffron of shadows
o refrain from your refrain
the hoist of spices clears the remains
o refrain from your refrain
for your bodies heaped on the wind:
cries of cumin: cries my journey’s route
cries of thyme: cries my future
cries of coriander corpses awaiting return.
And the bids of roots chased away
my terrified dreams all the way to hell.   (p. 37)

This collection moves backward, from the blended community of peoples forced into labour who not only held on to traditions carried in their memories, but, with the blending of cultures created a stronger community, through the horrors of the seabound journey, back to the point of departure from their distant motherland. Torabully’s mission is reflected in his reclamation and empowering of the word “coolie,” the pejorative term for primarily Indian and Chinese indentured workers once common throughout the colonies. Echoing Aimé Césaire’s term “Negritude,” he coins the idea of “Coolitude” to recognize the resilience, dignity and cultural and linguistic endurance of these forgotten men and women. By taking up their voices, he is at once giving them back their unique histories and setting them free:

Coolitude: because all humans have the right to a memory, all are entitled to know their first odyssey’s port. Not that this port is a refuge, but because in this place, forever unnameable, they raise those anchors that sometimes bind to their truth.

Yes indeed, all humans have the right to know the flames that ignite their dreams and silences. Even to be their own history’s moth.

By coolitude I mean that peculiar clashing of tongues which cracks the heart of hearts of millions of men for a history of crystals and spices, fabric and parcels of land.

Unsuspected music at the threshold of words from different horizons.

Within myself an encounter with those who invert the course of boats.

In a cargo hold of stars.  (p. 18)

Given the cultural diversity inherent among the population of the workers who were brought to Mauritius, honouring their experiences demands a language of its own. As translator Nancy Naomi Carlson explains in her Foreword, Torabully developed a “poetics of coolitude” by creating “a new French, peppered with Mauritian Creole, Old Scandinavian, old French, mariners’ language, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu and neologisms.” The playfulness and musicality of his verse serves to accentuate the serious, even tragic themes that recur throughout this work, but provided a unique challenge for Carlson, whose wonderful translation of this work has been awarded the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She employed a “sound mapping” technique, identifying “salient patterns of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in the original, using a colour-coded system to help keep track within each poem, then tried to infuse this music into [her] translation without sacrificing the original meaning.” The results invite reading aloud—the resulting poems read like a cycle of songs—verses recited in the fields, on the ship, around the home fire. Songs of longing, songs of loss, songs of hope.

Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully is translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson and published by Seagull Books.

[i] Historical and population data from Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mauritius

And we’ve come full circle: Tractatus by Róbert Gál

1.103
Not every pearl of wisdom is necessarily true. Not every catharsis necessarily amounts to understanding.

The Latin title, Tractatus, is ominous, immediately conjuring images of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famously difficult text, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and indeed a quick glance inside reveals a sequence of numbered statements and passages with an epigram from the great Austrian philosopher himself: Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetry. Yet anyone who has struggled through the logical propositions and equations at the core of Wittgenstein’s critically important, if cool and austere, treatise, will be relieved to know that it is a later, less certain, more playful expression of the philosopher’s thinking that seems to be inspiring much of what unfolds in the latest work from Slovak-born writer and editor, Róbert Gál. But he is also forging his own idiosyncratic path.

Gál has, over the years, produced a collection of writings that have ranged from the fictional to the philosophical, highlighting a gift for aphorisms, a fondness for tautologies, neologisms and rhetorical questions, and a tendency to riff off ideas with the improvisational energy of a jazz stylist. Now, in what may be his shortest work (or a close tie with Naked Thoughts), he is, with a nod to Wittgenstein, engaged in surprisingly dense axiomatic exercise that endeavours to examine what we can know about our experience of truth and reality, and what that implies for our ethical and metaphysical existence in the twenty-first century. That is, of course, not to suggest that his is a rigidly structured systemic exposition—it is a much more fluid, free-flowing and varied engagement with ideas, beginning with a most unconventional approach to a first principle:

1.1
I don’t remember the day I died, but it was obviously before I’d had time to be born. And nothing had mattered more to me than that very business of getting myself born. Ideally getting myself born into the me that had been born already, discretely, corpuscle by corpuscle. Born into the ready and waiting, hence painlessly. Not being born, though born already. But what into? Shall we imagine it? Might it not play havoc with the seeming need to have one’s own outer shell, for all that it just keeps on cracking?

Ah, yes, a rather different game is afoot, and yet not so much as one might expect. Anecdotes, asides and aphorisms are woven into the exercise that follows, an investigation that begins with the self as an entity, the interface through which we interpret the experiences that shape our understanding of the world. By the second section, the discussion starts to open up to the question of what we can intuit about that which cannot be directly observed or proven, and the we are invited to slow down and work our way through the reasoning at hand. Logic, truths, reality, these are the problems that begin to surface, as they will again and again throughout. But buffered by aphorisms, reflections and anecdotes this is neither a dry nor an unduly taxing read. By contrast, this is a living philosophy. Gál is working with large concepts with his signature inventive wit and creative energy. He makes you think:

3.4
Sorrow is one of the joys. Its basis is a process of projecting. If this projecting collapses beneath the pressure of reality, joy is put to an end. However, the pressure of reality also means that our projecting is petrified—and that is the precondition for any further projecting to be possible. Reality becomes the back-up to its own power to bring pressure to bear on us. It is no less prone to being continually deformed as it is subject to being continually formed. The mind by which it is formed becomes a reflection of the mind that it itself is giving form to, and we’ve come full circle.

As we work our way through Tractatus, we are continually challenged to engage with our own assumptions about truth, thought, memory, emotion and much more. Existence becomes understood as a dance with the experience of reality, or that which we imagine reality to be:

7.11
If the truth is meant to be a possibility, then by some means it has to be imposed upon reality.

13.11
Anything is never anything. Anything is a sonorous option between nothing and something that carries weight.

16.3
Intelligence, unlike memory, selects from time only those truths, instants and items of knowledge that it finds worthwhile. Which is why memory is the more truthful.

22.12
Can interior actions have exterior manifestations if interior and exterior are but abstract notions invented by us? Or, conversely, are interior actions—and their exterior manifestations—the reason why these notions have been abstracted by us?

These scattered passages are offered simply to give a taste of the kind of musings that comprise this short volume. Some may seem self-evident, others may trigger a little dissonance. And that’s okay. As the work progresses, the axiomatic elements carry an increasing value. From an open and playful beginning, over less than sixty pages and twenty-seven brief sections of between one and twenty-four sub-sections, the material in Tractatus builds upon itself to create a loosely spiraling structure of statements, questions and extrapolations leading to, a final and important conclusion.

As with all of Gál’s previous publications, this book is small, almost pocket-sized, the kind of thoughtful companion you can easily tuck into a bag. I also want to suggest this is his most accessibly serious philosophical work to date—challenging but not heavy, wise but not dogmatic—and as ever, deceptively playful.

Tractatus by Róbert Gál is translated from the Slovak by David Short and published by Schism Press.

No one’s immune from miracles: Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

The destiny that now draws me far away from here is still called life, but I have to admit it’s like a leap into the void. They say that before he hits the ground a man falling from a great height sees all the moments of his existence come together and drain from him in batches of images.

And for me, it’s in batches of mingled words—that the life that brought me here is melting away.

In what unfolds as one final personal war of words, echoing against the darkness that surrounds him, the speaker at the heart of Shadow of Things to Come explains what has brought him to the edge of an uncertain future. Piece by piece he pulls together the memories that comprise his twenty-one years of life, essentially setting down the details of his past and readying himself to let go of all he has ever been and known. As he recounts his story, he chooses his words carefully, holding onto them in the shifting moonlight, for his is a society in which language has been reduced to meaningless nicknames and slogans. Through a spare and cautious narrative, the image of an Orwellian nightmare slowly takes shape.

This novella by Togolese author and playwright, Kossi Efoui, is set in an unnamed African nation which has fallen under some kind of dictatorial rule in which, during the first stage—the “Time of Annexation”—people are disappeared and forced to work at a place known as the Plantation until relieved by death or madness. Once the “commodity” (oil) is discovered, everything shifts. The disappearances stop and a new future is imagined. Now, in the service of “Mother Rebirth,” an aggressive campaign begins to bring tribal forest dwelling peoples into the “modern” world—for their own good and to secure pipeline passage for the precious resource. Although Efoui has lived in self-imposed exile in France in opposition to the Gnassingbé regime, since 1992, it would be misleading to read this dystopic work as any kind of direct analogy for his homeland or any specific historical or political condition. The origin of the society his characters live in is never explored. As a result, this tale has an  amorphous quality that makes it widely applicable in space and time. And all the more disquieting for it.

The speaker, from the room in which he is hiding, recalls that he was five years old when his father, a saxophonist, was spirited away by two shadowy figures. The removals appeared random. Agents would arrive with the common incantation: On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest, and forcibly take their chosen target or targets away. But before they left, they would take all photographic evidence of the human forms they had come to retrieve. At the time it was unknown where all these unfortunate souls had been taken, only that “temporary,” like so much of the language employed, was devoid of meaning. Appropriate language was but another regulated item in a society in which compliance to an ever changing set of rules and guidelines was inforced:

Words themselves seemed to suffer the same restrictions as the circulation of approved commodities. The word ‘annexation,’ for example, was not to be heard anywhere. The way things were in my childhood, we kept silent a lot.

That degradation…says the speaker.

The loss of the speaker’s father drove his mother mad, she was soon committed to an institution and he was left in the care of Mama Maize, an eccentric woman who cared for a large group of abandoned or orphaned children, supporting herself by whatever means possible. Her goal was to pass on to them the tools, practical and emotional, that they would need to survive. Her moto was: No one’s immune from miracles.

And one day a miracle does occur. The speaker’s father returns, one of a minority of those who managed to survive removal. The speaker is nine years old by this point, The End of the Times of Annexation has been marked by celebrations of Independence and Rebirth, and when he has long given up hope of a reunion, out of the dust and shadows a man emerges still holding a saxophone case, “barely a skeleton, almost membraneless, wholly incapable of embracing—and voiceless.” The occasion is immediately recorded by a photographer.

The condition of the speaker’s father affords him a pension and a place to live in this new world order. Father and son move into this unit along with Ikko, an abandoned boy from Mama Maize’s home who is mistakenly added to the family group and becomes the speaker’s “administrative brother.” Our hero is a bright boy and this leads to his acceptance into the Spearhead Institute several years later. He is on his way to a promising future within the country’s societal structure but the confrontational atmosphere of the school puts him off. In time he finds himself skipping classes to hang out at Antique Editions, a bookstore run by Axil Kemal, a man who becomes a big brother or surrogate father, and offers an introduction to a world that runs against the norms of the rigid dictates of the state. It will be a mind opening relationship:

That’s what he was for me, the guide for my curiosity. At an age when you learn to believe in ‘thinking masters’, Axis Kemal was my laughing master and, sheltered beneath that laughter, my mind was kept safe from the diseases of truth, he said—that acne of the soul, he said.

It will also be a vital connection when the speaker has to make a decision about his own commitment to the future that is being laid out for him in a duplicitous society where what is said cannot be trusted and what is not being said cannot be fully imagined.

Shadow of Things to Come is, above all, a story about language and communication. The narrative itself is one step removed from a straight first person account—the protagonist’s reflections are being reported by an unknown third person narrator, who is listening to him, occasionally referring to him as “the speaker.” This undefined relationship, given the circumstances, adds a layer of uncertainty and potential threat. Whether he aware of his audience or not, the speaker is attentive to the power of words. To their use and misuse. He regularly comments on his ability, learned at an early age, to read the hidden intentions of others by the slightest creases in their faces. This is a skill that allows him to decipher the truths behind words, those spoken and left unsaid. But lack of communication, as with his mute and damaged father, troubles him deeply, as do the strange markings his adopted brother Ikko makes after returning from his conscripted service in the so-called “Frontier Challenge.” The tendency of people to fall back on slogans and stock phrases undermines communication and blurs the truth, but, of course, that is the point. When you can no longer trust what anyone says, one either goes with the program or looks for a way out. And to escape you may have to leave even your words behind.

Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui is translated from the French by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books.

At the back of the west wind: Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance  in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

These words of Marx occur twice in course of Eric Dupont’s Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution: early on, underlined in the book lying open on the lap of the protagonist’s recently deceased mother, and again as the story nears an end. But between the two occurrences it’s pure farce—even the tragic bits.

One has to wonder what goes on in the imagination of Dupont, the Quebec writer whose works have won awards and garnered impressive nominations in both the original French and in English translation. With his latest release from QC Fiction, he has defied the odds of conventional storytelling to pull folktale magic, Marxist idealism, sex work, the politics of language and culture, and a curse reaching back through the centuries into one oddly contemporary tale. From the outset it is probably best allow yourself plenty of rational wiggle room, accept the premise of the proposed wild goose chase or fool’s errand at the heart of Rosa’s grand adventure, assured that however unlikely, the novel’s internal logic will be disclosed before the last page is turned. And ten to one you won’t see it coming!

Our heroine here is Rosa, named after the famous revolutionary socialist, raised by her trade unionist mother, Terese Ost, and Aunt Zenaida, an anachronistic old woman, one hundred years behind the times, who literally emerged from a large block of ice Terese and her daughter found on the shore near their village and dragged back home to thaw before the stove. Home is Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot, a tiny hamlet “forgotten by God and all of humankind” out on the Gaspé Peninsula “where the wind can be a crutch to lean on.” Until it’s not. Little Rosa is raised on a healthy diet of Marxist ideology and regular rounds of Scrabble, but things are not good in Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot. The paper mill has closed down, and the local economy has been forced to rely on a mysterious gas called Boredom which is tapped and sold to foreign interests.

And then, one day, the wind suddenly stops just as a leak occurs in one of the pipes accessing the source of the precious, albeit poisonous, gaseous commodity. Soon, people start dying of Boredom, beginning with Rosa’s mother. Without the wind to disperse the fumes, the village is doomed. Rosa tries to find solace in her socialist texts but to no avail. Instead, the potential solution comes to her when she finds a giant winkle shell on the shore, places the massive mollusc to her ear, and hears her mother’s voice advise her that the wind comes from the west—from Montreal. Immediately Rosa, who is now twenty, knows what she must do.

So off she goes. Waiting for the bus to take her into the city she meets an international troop of strippers (as one does), and much to their collective surprise, a woman pulls up in a minivan and offers to give them all a lift. This savoir is Jeanne Joyal and it just so happens that she runs a boarding house for young women where Rosa is welcome to stay. All too perfect? All too perfectly weird, I’d say. Naive and trusting, Rosa arrives in Montreal dressed like someone from a distant era and immediately finds a job in a pay-by-the-hour motel, across from a club where her new friends perform Communist infused lurid acts for an audience containing more than a few national political figures . Of course, she has no idea what she has just walked into, but her simplicity and openly accepting character inspires the strippers and hookers in her work environment to look out for her and gently educate her about the less savoury aspects of the world.

What makes this most unlikely scenario work is the central character, the fabulously innocent Rosa Ost. She evolves and hardens as time goes on, but her trust and dedication to her seemingly impossible task is endearing. At her lodgings, she learns that her landlady is tough, set in her ways and determined to educate her young charges, Rosa and three others, in the intricacies of Quebec history whether they want it or not. Our protagonist is often the one to take a risk and stand up in defense of her roommates. Like a good socialist.

There is romance, there is betrayal and there is mystery against a backdrop of political realities true to the timing of the narrative—late 2000, following the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau—and still valid today. Language and cultural tensions are growing, the climate is an increasing concern and attitudes toward women, especially those in the sex trade, are marked by double standards that still prevail. The weakest link in this wild tale is a running gag about dialects that doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly. For it to work one has to read the Gaspé and Acadian seasoned dialogue with the correct accent. In English it risks falling flat. But it’s not a huge element within the narrative overall. Playful and irreverent this improbable farce is a fun read with a strangely satisfying, if bizarre, ending that ties up the loose ends in the wildest of knots.

Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont in translated by Peter McCambridge and published by QC Fiction.

“I was a soldier and this is the nation’s soil!” No Windmills in Basra by Diaa Jubaili

Basra, in southeastern Iraq, is the country’s principle port city, best known to lovers of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, as the site from which Sinbad set sail. But over the course of its long history, from the time it was first founded as a military camp in 635 CE to the present day, it has had a rich, diverse, and often troubled history. More recent times have been marked by the repeated onslaught of violence and destruction during the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. Imagine, then, this grim reality as a back drop—sometimes distant, sometimes immediate—for whimsical, melancholy and magical flash fiction and you have an idea what Diaa Jubaili’s newly released collection No Windmills in Basra has in store. Of course, with seventy-five brief stories and one more expansive piece, many variations of joy and heartache play out across the pages of this lively, inventive volume.

Born in Basra in 1977, Jubaili has published eight novels and two earlier collections of short stories, but No Windmills in Basra is his first book to be translated into English and his first foray into the territory of flash fiction. In an interview with Chip Rossetti, the translator of his new book, he explained this move:

I chose this genre because there are ideas that can’t sustain elaboration or filling in gaps with things that don’t mean much to the reader. Getting an idea across with the least number of words is a difficult task, but just the challenge of doing it isn’t enough: the writer has to have an exceptional ability to create surprise. But I’ve loved this genre of concentrated narrative for a long time, and I read a lot about it before I tried writing the first text.

He goes on to talk about the importance of using vivid, poetic language to build a scene and provoke questions in the mind of the reader. Puns and play on meanings also appeal to him, an energy that charges his powerful, often surprising conclusions.

The stories in this collection are divided thematically—wars, love, mothers, women, children, poets and miscellaneous—but, as one might expect, key elements like war, love and family reappear throughout. Jubaili’s preparatory work serves him well—his tales are tightly woven, witty and affecting. Fantastical elements abound, a reflection of the importance of magic in Arabic folktales, often employed with humour, irony and black comedy. For instance, in one story, a man returning to his hometown after the end of the Iran-Iraq War finds his family plot of land has turned into a wasteland of salt. Tirelessly he and his sons work to rejuvenate the soil, hoping to restore it and once again harvest fruits and vegetables. But to their surprise they awaken the rotting corpses of soldiers, fallen there over the intervening years, who bitterly complain that with the salt gone they have been deprived of all they had left—the taste of death. In another, a woman suddenly loses her sense of taste after eating her first banana. As time goes on she loses her sense of smell, then she loses her colour. She grows weaker while everything else thrives around her. In the end she has become water. Elsewhere, we encounter a child who develops a plan to deal with dreaded stealth bombers, a young woman with sparrows in her ribcage and a blind woman searching for and finding a particular photo of her dead son by its scent. Ranging in length from a single paragraph to a few pages, this collection moves from the capricious to the tragic and back again.

At times Jubaili calls on traditional folklore and stories from the Quran (briefly explained in translator’s notes, as needed), but he also references and often invokes a wide range of western and international literary figures, sometimes even making them central characters as in the story “Death Stones” where Mrs. Woolf, collecting stones to fill her pockets for her fateful final walk, keeps setting her collection aside to pursue more, only to return and find her stash gone. Eventually she crosses the river, sets down a new collection, and watches from behind a tree as a young girl, also named Virginia, picks up the stones and skips them across the water’s surface. In another, Flaubert and Tolstoy meet and decide to exchange characters. And on it goes. It is impossible to offer more than the most minimal sampling of what this endlessly surprising collection contains, but across seventy-six brief stories, there is much to delight and entertain. At the same time, we are also granted a vision of Basra and life during wartime in a fashion that only flash fiction can deliver.

No Windmills in Basra by Diaa Jubaili is translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti and published by Deep Vellum.

A chronicle of pain: Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi

The pain had come at eight in the evening. Hem with all her experience had said, It won’t take time, Ma. The womb has started pushing it out. Hem held her hands and said, Let all be well. Let God bring you back, the two of you separate.

Sujata’s story is framed and defined by pain. As it opens she is asleep, her dreams have transported her back twenty-two years, to the morning following an agonizing night of labour and emergency surgery when she gave birth to her fourth child and second son, Brati. Now she is awoken by searing pain once more, on the same date, January seventeenth, but this time an inflamed appendix is to blame. Once her abdominal distress begins to settle, a glance at the calendar takes her back to the early hours of yet another January seventeenth, just two years earlier, when the telephone suddenly rang. At the other end of the line, a voice summoned her to the morgue. There she would find her beloved son reduced to a numbered corpse, 1084.

Set over the late sixties and early seventies, during the first phase of the Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgency in West Bengal, Mother of 1084 by Indian writer and activist, Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016), is a focused examination of the impact of targeted violence on those left behind through the story of one woman stranded in her loss and grief. Sujata comes from a background of privilege, raised in a wealthy Calcutta family and afforded an education, but in marriage her life is constrained by the roles her social class expects of her. At the time of the critical events in this novel, she is in her early fifties. Her oldest son and daughter, Jyoti and Neepa, are both married and each have one child. Jyoti and his family, as custom would have it, lives in the family home. The younger daughter, Tuli, has a serious boyfriend. Her husband, Dibyananth—or as he is often described, “Jyoti’s father”—is a successful businessman with, once his wife decided she wanted no more children, a string of mistresses on the side. Sujata also has a job at a banking office, taken on her own initiative when her mother-in-law was still alive and commanding the daily affairs of the household. It is something she has refused to give up.

Brati, the youngest son, had always been unlike his other siblings. Imaginative and sensitive, he was easily frightened and deeply attached to his mother. From his earliest years on through adolescence, their bond was close while there was little love lost between Dibyananth and his second son. Naturally Sujata was blamed for spoiling him and making him weak. When Brati is killed with a group of young Naxalite revolutionaries, his father’s immediate concern is to assure that no one knows of his involvement. He pulls a few strings and Brati’s name is omitted from the news reports while at home all evidence of his existence is cleared away and locked in his bedroom on the uppermost floor. Sujata finds herself on the wrong side of her own family, on the side of the dead man who had failed to consider the shame and embarrassment he would cause. She is left alone to try to make sense of why her son had been drawn to such a radical movement and to understand the events of the night on the eve of his twentieth birthday that had cost him his life. It was a death that could not be classified in any of the usual ways—illness, accident, crime:

All that Brati could be charged with was that he had lost faith in the social system itself. Brati had decided for himself that freedom could not come from the path society and the state offered. Brati had not remained content with writing slogans on the wall, he had come to commit himself to the slogans. There lay his offence.

Extending from morning to evening over the course of a single day, exactly two years after his death, Mother of 1084 chronicles Sujata’s attempt to honour her son’s memory and perhaps find some sense of closure. At home, Tuli is preparing to hold her engagement party. Although it is her brother’s birth anniversary, the date has been determined by her future mother-in-law’s American guru—her own mother’s feelings be damned. Between attending to the necessary arrangements in the house, Sujata will make two excursions that will help fill in some of the missing information she craves, but not necessarily bring any peace.

In the afternoon she travels out from central Calcutta to the colony where the mother of Somu, one of Brati’s friends, lives. The young men killed had spent their last hours in her house. Sujata had first met Somu’s mother when she went to identify her son’s body and she had found in this poor woman a kind of a kindred spirit, another mother who understood the loss. But face to face with the graphic details of that fateful night and the absolutely devastating effect it has had on this impoverished family, she is reminded that her social status will forever be a barrier that cannot be wished away. The two women, brought together in shock and pain at the morgue and the crematorium, share an affinity that can never be more than temporary:

Time was stronger than grief. Grief is the bank. Time the flowing river, heaping earth upon earth upon grief.

Later that afternoon, Sujata makes another outing, this one closer in location and class, but again one with a divide that cannot be breached. For the first and last time, she visits Brati’s girlfriend Nandini who has recently been released from prison, bearing the injuries of torture and incarceration. In this encounter there is a bitter demonstration of the activist’s unshakable resolve, something the grieving mother will never fully appreciate. Upon returning home to where guests are gathered, Sujata is clearly affected by her experiences, and all of the memories and details that have come back to her over the course of that day. But even as pain rips through her abdomen, she must once more attempt to play her role as wife and mother. At least for the moment.

One of Devi’s most widely-read books, Mother of 1084 is not explicitly concerned with the broader political context of the Naxalite insurgency, rather it turns its attention to the intimate human experience—the appeal of the movement to individuals from different backgrounds, the reality of betrayal, the brutality of the violence, and the wide range of responses from the families and communities affected. That is not to suggest that this is not an intensely political work, but by centring an apolitical protagonist who finds herself navigating the space between the shocking indifference of her family and social class, the devastation of the bereaved who exist in the midst of conflict and destitution, and the anger of the activist committed to the cause at all costs, Devi crafts a powerful, unforgiving narrative. Sujata is the troubled conscience of this tightly woven novella but one is ever aware how very small she is against society’s pretense of normality in a time of upheaval.

Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi is translated from the Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay and published by Seagull Books.