It’s in your genes: The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif

Cairo can be an inspiring city, especially in winter. So I think to myself as I come home one evening. The microbus stops where the overpass descends to the street, rain pouring, Road 10 running beneath, the taste of a damp cigarette. Winter is, even so, like religion: both fit spaces for expressing emotion, sadness above all. A whistle lengthening then broken off: a soundtrack to the scene; a perfect summons to tender feeling for a tableau that has been generated thousands of times before and embedded in memory and which, when tickled by the tune, comes back to life.

The Law of Inheritance, by Egyptian poet and writer, Yasser Abdellatif, originally published in Arabic in 2002, and now available in Robin Moger’s crystalline translation, is a delicate, filmic ode to emerging adulthood set against the tumultuous political environment of Egypt in the 1990s. Drawing on his own memories and on mythically-toned stories from his Nubian family history, Abdellatif manages to spin, in a mere 94 spare pages, a richly textured tale.

The opening section, “Introductions,” sets the stage, sketching in fragmentary, third person passages, images of a young man, at various ages from childhood through adolescence, from grade school to high school, from cigarettes to hashish, to the University of Cairo where both creative and Leftist political energies will be sparked. His father is absent, forced abroad to find work, his mother fragile, and the weight of being the older brother rests uneasily on his small shoulders. This brief, cinematic prelude paints a minimalist portrait of the narrator who will soon step out of the shadows to carry forth his own account, framed within a multi-stranded evocation of contemporary Egyptian identity distilled to its most elegiac essentials.

The narrative is moody and melancholic, evocative of time and place, infused with memory and family lore. Architecture and addresses serve as conduits to a personal past—the Lycée the narrator attended as a child, the University of Cairo where he studied Philosophy and finds himself swept up in the fervor of political protests  in the early 1990s, the roads and byways where he and his friends lingered, listening to rock and roll and experimenting with pharmaceuticals. One has the sense of a slow, directionless drifting toward adulthood, which echoes and reverberates with stories drawn from his ancestral past and woven into the tapestry of this lyrical novella. As the narrator unspools his tale, he traces his family’s intersection with the city, with its streets and neighbourhoods. Relatives, pushed into exile from their native Nubia, arrive as social outcasts in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some find the promise of a better future; others find it more difficult to adjust. Yet for all of them, even the narrator and his father who are born there, Cairo seems to be a somewhat uneasy fit.

His grandfather does well. By virtue of his education, he chances to rise from a barman to an office worker, a transition that affords his family a move up in both social standing and neighbourhood.  However, it also loosens the restraints he’d previously maintained against his own religious inclinations, an enthusiasm accompanied by periodic bouts of depression. By contrast, Fathi, a nephew to whom he is very close, has quite a different experience. Given to the pursuit of carnal pleasures, he embarks on an affair with an Italian girl in the mid-1930s. This enrages her budding Fascist countrymen who chase him through the streets and eventually force him into retreat in Rhodes. Another distant relation will fall into religious fanaticism and madness, and will ultimately retreat back to the Nubian countryside.

The Law of Inheritance is a novel of exile—from a homeland, a city, a neighbourhood—that succeeds through its lyrical precision and its measured humility. The narrator warns against vanity early on, and he is, in his own transition to adulthood, neither hero or victim. Likewise, the men in his family whose stories are told without glory or pity. The result is a powerful, moving exploration of what it means to belong in a world that is ever shifting and changing shape.

The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

Neither here nor there: Esther Kinsky’s River and a link to my review at Music & Literature

Since I finished Esther Kinsky’s magnificent novel River, it has been difficult for me to contain my enthusiasm for this work, and yet, with a major review on the way, I wanted to refrain from talking at length about my reading of this languid, mesmerizing meditation on the relationships we have with place—those we live in, pass through, or linger in uncertainly during points of transition.  That review is now live, and yet Kinsky’s book is still working its way through my system.

River is a slow read; immersive, poetic, attentive to detail. It creates an atmosphere of intimacy with the spaces the unnamed narrator traverses during a time of restless displacement in a community on the edge of London; a time of gathering and preparation for leaving the city where she has lived for a number of years. Some of these spaces are immediate, defined by the course of the river Lea. Others exist in the distance, temporally and physically. And yet, although there are clear parallels between Kinsky’s own life history and the locations her narrator visits, River occupies an intentionally indistinct borderland between fiction and memoir, focusing on experience in the moment over biographical background and detail, resulting in a narrative that flows, organically, like the rivers than run through it.

My review of River can be found at the online site of the singular journal Music& Literature. The opening passages are reproduced below, you can read the rest of it here.

A mood, an atmosphere, rises up from the opening pages of Esther Kinsky’s River—a melancholy that unfolds so softly, so insistently that I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading words that originally existed in German. I found myself wondering: What would the German feel like in my hands? How would its texture taste, guttural tones against the back of my throat? These are questions that, in their asking, underscore how River is a text to linger in, to touch, to absorb, and recognize one’s self in. We follow the narrator as she temporarily suspends her life, settling for a time in a marginal community on the edge of London, so she can slowly disengage herself from a number of years spent in the city, and prepare, mentally and emotionally, to take her final leave. The process she details seems to be one we, too, undergo in reading River.

Under a pale sun and in the whitish, shadowless light peculiar to this place and these seasons, I took to following tracks which, time and again, led me back through the alder grove. This partly mutilated wetland wood with its childhood flowers and wild birds secretly appealing to my memory was my gateway to the lower reaches, to the path downstream that gradually taught me, during the final months of my stay, to find my own names for a city I had already spent many years labouring to decipher—names only walking and looking could force me to extract and reassemble from a web of trickling memories, a debris of stored images and sounds, a tissue of tangled words.

 

River by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Iain Galbraith and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and Transit Books in North America.

To make the invisible visible: Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

Brother In Ice is an exercise in trust—a risky venture, not unlike the expeditions  into the  blank canvas of the polar regions that Alicia Kopf traces in the early chapters of her ambitious hybrid novel. There is a distinct sense that the Catalan artist and writer is thinking out loud, mapping her own haphazard journey across the page. She could have lost her way, slipped into a crevasse and disappeared beneath the weight of her own icebound mission. But no. What she has produced, in the end, through an eclectic and inventive blend of autobiographical fiction, arctic-inspired scientific detours, and historical diversions, is a thoughtful meditation about identity, family, and the challenges of trying to explore one’s self through art.

To dissect  Brother In Ice is to risk making it sound strange, possibly unreadable, but Kopf’s balance and restraint hold its often disparate pieces together. The opening section of the book, “Frozen Heroes”, reflects the narrator’s obsession with all things polar: shipwrecks, penguins, the anatomy of snowflakes, and, above all, the heroic, often reckless, rush to explore the furthermost regions of the globe and endure extreme conditions, all with the desire to lay claim to undefined spaces, explain mysteries and achieve impossible goals. To be the first. Grainy black and white archival photographs add to the accounts, but what allows such brief, nonfictional excursions to work is the author’s light hand and thoughtful voice. In these early pages we are also offered our first glimpse into the narrator’s family and personal life. In particular we are introduced to her autistic older brother:

My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while.

He is interested in planes, trains, cars, cats, dogs and birds, inclined to watch them carefully and intently, but he is consistently unable to carry out ordinary tasks without  being cued or asking what he should do. His presence, in what is ultimately a broken family, is significant.

The scientific diversions continue into the second section, “Library Atop an Iceberg” but gradually the autobiographically toned fiction moves to center stage. After a rather defiant adolescence, complicated by negotiating the rough terrain between her divorced parents, the narrator makes her way to university where she persists in studying art and literature, worrying about the practicality of pursuing endeavours that are likely to be less than self-sustaining. She supports herself, first in retail and then with odd teaching jobs, has her first serious romance, and ultimately, her first art show. She travels, struggles to get along with her mother, and worries about what will become of her brother and her responsibility for him as he ages. The chapters, if you can call them that, are short, vignettes and reflections, played out against glacial motifs.

Finally, in the third section, she visits Iceland.

Throughout this unusual novel, the narrator herself is on a quest. She is not even certain what it is that she is searching for. Like the polar explorers, in pursuit of a shifting point on the ice, in a vast white terrain, she is writing in an effort to render the invisible visible. This is the artist’s quest—one in which the question may be as elusive and ill-defined as the answer. Near the end of the first part, the narrator admits:

I often find myself getting stuck in this project. I see nothing before me, just white. Yet beneath there are many things. The shrieking of seals. Was it the poles I wanted to talk about? Or is it just the image of the snow that fascinates me? Instability, confusion, cold (it’s hot), determination. Sensations that were the constant companions of the polar explorers, as well as those of us who work with the blank white page. Because I’m not interested in the polar explorers in and of themselves, but rather in the idea of investigation, of seeking out something in an unstable space. I’d like to talk about all of that as a metaphor, because what interests me is the possibility of an epic, a new epic, without foes or enemies; an epic involving oneself and an idea. Like the epic that artists and writers undertake.

Hers is a journey that resonated deeply with me. Especially as a writer working in the uneasy territory of memoir, I loved the openness, the questioning, the self-doubt Kopf allows her narrator (and presumably herself) as this odd creation takes shape. As her own questions and explanations start to come into focus, the layers of inspiration that preceded her quest, finally start to make sense. The beauty of this book is not simply that it is an intriguing and original account of one woman’s coming to terms with some of the unresolved fractures in her own history, it is a challenge to other explorers who venture forth with pen or paintbrush in hand to forge their own paths as they seek to tell their stories.

Brother In Ice by Alicia Kopf is translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, and published by And Other Stories.

Civil war up close: Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez

“Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.”
.                                                                  MARX

 So begins Blood of the Dawn, the devastating debut novel by Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez. This slender volume that captures, at gut level, the horror of the “Time of Fear”, the years when the Shining Path insurgency was at its most intense is tightly bound to the intimate feminine experience. It is an exercise with little narrative distance—one that takes three women from very different backgrounds, closes in on their unique perspectives, backgrounds, and motivations, and weaves back and forth between their stories. When their disparate trajectories intersect, their individual fates, at least in that time and place, become shockingly similar.

In 1980, a  fringe group of Maoist terrorists stole ballot boxes and burned them in the public square of the town of Chuschi, setting off a time of fear and violence that would, over the next twenty years, leave 70,000 dead. Set primarily during the first decade of this “People’s War,” Salazar Jiménez’s novel is a bold attempt to give voice to those not often heard. On both sides of the conflict.

There is Marcela, a disillusioned, yet idealistic teacher who is seduced by the message of the Shining Path and its charismatic leaders. Abandoning her husband and young daughter, she joins the battle. Her first person account is reported from prison, where she looks back at her childhood, early adulthood and her time with the guerilla group. In the face of regular interrogation she is still defiant, still holding on to a loyalty that cannot quite be dissolved despite the atrocities she has observed, participated in and experienced. Hers is a complicated narrative that takes the reader right into the conflicted reasoning, force of conviction, and group dynamics that shape a terrorist.

The women advance, marching along the gray patio. The first of them holds a banner with the image of Comrade Leader. Honor and glory to the proletariat and the people of Peru. Hair trained under green caps. Red blouses. Aquamarine skirts to the knee. Marching in formation. Educated in the shining trenches of combat. Jail others call it; prison. All at the same pace. Give one’s life for the party and the revolution. Banners of red flags with a yellow star. Torches in hand. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Drum one. Drum two. Drum three. The feminine ferment rising. We travel a shining path. We struggle without truce to the end.

The second character is Melanie, a young photojournalist in love with a female artist who has moved to Paris. She imagines that the conflict in the mountains holds the story she is meant to record. A city dweller, she is quite unprepared for the harsh realities she finds. Her story is told in a first person present that highlights both her passions and her naivete. She will discover that her camera is neither welcomed by the villagers she meets, nor does it provide a shield against the sights, sounds and smells that will come to permeate her very being.

The next hamlet is a cloud of smoke. It’s hard to make out anything clearly. My camera feels heavier than usual. That’s fine; its weight anchors me to reality in this spectral place. What’s left when everything is done? Nothing. Where should I go look now? What should my lens focus on?

Finally, the truly innocent victim in the situation is the Indigenous peasant woman Modesta, who will lose everything as insurgents and soldiers repeatedly cross through her village, leaving a trail of rape, torture and murder. Her account is reported in the second person—a startling powerful perspective—until, toward the end when she finds her own voice and picks up her own thread. By then we see her slowly finding a resilience and strength that is fragile and determined at once, caught in war that makes no sense to her.

Every day at exactly four in the afternoon, new words parade into your ears just like the terrorists parade every morning. That if the class, they say, that if the proletariat, they say; that if the revolution, they say, that if the people’s war, they say, are saying, say. You only nod in agreement, already tuning out. They speak of people you don’t know, a certain Marx, a certain Lenin, a certain Mao, and a certain President Leader who is boss of them all. We’re all going to be equal, they say.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Wound through the plaited threads of the women’s stories are episodes of unattributed stream of consciousness and short quotes from political and philosophical sources. Repetition is employed to reinforce the relentlessness of the savage violence, and the point at which the narratives of the three protagonists blur in identical experiences of excruciating violation. The anonymity of the moment is in sharp contrast to the differing paths that lead each woman to that point, and the diverging courses their lives follow afterward. In an interesting Translator’s Note, Elizabeth Bryer brings to light some of the challenges of reflecting, in English, the different voices through use of rhythm, ideological focus and cultural references as appropriate to each woman.

In the end, Blood of the Dawn comes very close to risking losing its impact with the bludgeoning effect of the brutal tableau that unfolds. Fortunately this a spare, tightly controlled work and, to its credit, one that raises more questions than it answers, even leaving its own characters uncertain. A brave debut, indeed.

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Deep Vellum.

 

Heat wave: Summer Resort by Esther Kinsky

It’s summertime, somewhere in the vast Hungarian plain, and this one’s a scorcher. The heat presses down on the residents of an unnamed village and threatens to reduce the river—the refuge and solace toward which the winter weary turn to enjoy what little holidays they can scavenge—into a fetid stream. But at the nearby üdülő, the local holiday site with its beach and bar and holiday homes on stilts, seasonal activities will not be curtailed:

On weekdays it was still quiet in the üdülő, but the bar already smelt of what had been left behind from the weekend: spilt beer, sweat, the girls’ summer perfumes, the exhaust clouds of the motorcyclists and helpless chlorine bleach with urine. Around midday clouds appeared over the bend in the river. The sky turned white, the river dark, the heat did not abate, became dense, bright, the poplar leaves rustled, sounded like whirring metal scarecrow strips. The small boats lay pale grey by the bank, motionless, congealed into a river panorama, from which only a powerful gust of wind or the hand of a wrangler or rower could awake them.

On the beach and back in town this will be a summer filled with drama, heartache, and melancholy—business as usual, but with a twist. This year there is a stranger in their midst, the New Woman, who has arrived from afar and settled in with Antal, the mason, who has in turn abandoned his wife and son. Such is the basic outline of Esther Kinsky’s first prose work, the novella, Summer Resort, a short, playfully poetic fable filled with a seemingly endless cast of tragicomic characters and bursting at the seams with striking and delightful wordplay.

With the attention that has come with the publication of River (see my review at Music & Lietrature), Kinsky’s only other translated work to date is likely to attract renewed interest. Compared to River, this earlier novel lacks the emotional resonance and meditative depth that one looking backward might hope for, but what it does offer deserves to be appreciated in its own terms, as an exuberant display of highly-charged linguistic energy, and a clear indication of the animated imagination, attentiveness to nature and the astute eye for detail that will characterize the prose in her longer, more serious work.

Summer Resort is an exercise in tight, contained story telling peopled with eccentric characters. Many exist almost as caricatures, like the Kozac boys who maintain a certain status in town and at the beach—admired, tolerated and resented in turn—the Onion Men, and the generic Marikas and Zsuzsas in their bikinis and glitter sandals. Others fall into closer focus. Lacibácsi the scrap yard dealer who runs the bar at the üdülő each summer aspiring to be a “manbytheriver, a poplarshadowman, a confidant of drunks,” his wife Éva (christened Ruthwoman by the New Woman) and Krisztí, the leather-clad woman who settles herself at the bar, a welcome if uninvited assistant. But at the heart of the story are Antal, his ex-wife Ildi, and son Miklós who each take a brief turn directly narrating pieces of their lives, now forever changed by the insertion of the mysterious New Woman into their midst.

More than anything though, this village and its inhabitants serves as a broad tapestry for Kinsky to weave her poetic magic. Her characters are the ordinary folk, the policeman, the railwayman, the small-time hustlers, the day labourers and the farm workers. Victims of shifting economies, closing industries and faded hopes. The üdülő is a place to lose themselves, to play and dream, but this year of heat and drought, is marked by fires, a shrinking river, and restless bodies tossing between sweat soaked sheets. There is an affectionate sadness that rolls across the surface of the narrative, and a quiet resignation that seeps into the dialogue. But the language is fierce, the imagery vivid: “Katica’s mouth was rose red with lipstick, there was so much red on it that it stood out in the üdülő like a wound.”

This is a startlingly sensual work. Here we find the elements that will later become so essential to the absorbing intensity of River. Kinsky has an unwavering awareness of detail, colour, scents, and sounds. Nature contains both the beautiful and the bleak, the lighthearted and the devastating. As is the case with the river that here, on this flat, unforgiving landscape, is a primal force:

What belongs to the river, what to the land? The floods come swiftly and silently. The river swells up, in the course of a night it casts of the sham cloak of gentleness, bursts its banks, spills over tops of embankments, carries off objects, animals, people. The undertow and thrust of the water changes the landscape. Sky, water, destroyed treetops, helpless house roofs as far as the eye can see. Then the river creeps back into its gentle course, trickles sweetly between the devastated rampant undergrowth of the bank which sticks this way and that, reflects the sky and sun, has long ago secretly discarded in the bushes what it has snatched away, where it is transformed, missing persons first become foul impediments, the vermin of the riverbank and water meadows gathering around them in great clouds, then pale, hollow bodies, through which the wind blows the quiet music of melancholy, which always lurks here in the undergrowth.

Esther Kinsky is a German poet, writer and translator. She has translated literature from English, Russian and Polish, including works by Olga Tokarczuk and Magdalena Tulli. Folkloric tones, reminiscent of some of their work come through here, perhaps, as does a pure poetic sensibility. A restless incantation for the loves and lives that collide in the course of one brittle, unrelenting summer, Summer Resort is a work well worth visiting for anyone interested in tracing the headwaters of River. And anyone else who simply enjoys a good tale.

Summer Resort is translated by Kinsky’s late husband, Martin Chalmers, and published by Seagull Books.

Suggestions for reading women in translation: #WITMonth 2018

One week into Women in Translation Month and I’ve yet to jump into the conversation. I’ve been reading German author Esther Kinsky, her novel River for review and Summer Resort for background. However, since the North American release of River is not until early September, I don’t know if my review will actually run this month. But then, if it isn’t possible to pack August with translations of female writers, it is a consideration that can be worked into one’s reading year round. To that end I thought I’d share some of the posts I’ve written about works by women in translation that I’ve enjoyed since last August:

A Working Woman — Elvira Navarro (Spain, tr. Christina MacSweeney)
The Iliac Crest — Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico, tr. Sarah Booker)
Malina — Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria/German, tr. Philip Boehm)
Hair Everywhere — Tea Tulić (Croatia, tr. Coral Petkovich)
Endless Summer —Madame Nielsen (Denmark, tr. Gaye Kynoch) – linked to external review
SS Proleterka — Fleur Jaeggy (Italy, tr. Alistair McEwen)

Poetry:
Before Lyricism — Eleni Vakalo (Greece, tr. Karen Emmerich)
Third-Millenium Heart — Ursula Andkjær Olsen (Denmark, tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen) – linked to an external review

This year I’ve gathered a stack of possibilities—not that I expect to get through even half of them, but I like to have choice. And, because there is a lot going on in my life these days and a handful of other English language titles vying for my attention, I’ve selected relatively slender fare. Finally, because it is still Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months, this collection includes five Spanish, one Portuguese,one Bengali, two French, and three German language books.

And because poetry occupies more of my readerly attention these days, I’ve pulled out two poetic contenders:

Negative Space is translated from Albanian, Hospital Series from Italian. Both titles are from New Directions.

Translating Wolfgang Hilbig: A link to my latest conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole

It was Wolfgang Hilbig’s story collection The Sleep of the Righteous, published in 2015 by Two Lines Press, that brought the late German author and his translator, Isabel Fargo Cole, to my attention. It might seem as if they arrived hand-in-hand, after all her translation of his novel I (Ich) appeared from Seagull Books around the same time, but of course, she has translated works by a variety of German language authors before and since those two titles emerged. But it would be fair to say that her efforts to champion Hilbig, her deep appreciation of his work, and her ability to be able to bring his  convoluted sentences and filmic imagery to life in English continue to win him more admirers with each subsequent release. Most recently, she was awarded the Helen & Kurt Wolff Prize for her translation of Old Rendering Plant.

Photo credit: Emma Braslavsky

I have had the pleasure of interviewing this gifted translator twice now, and both times, when her generous responses to my questions arrived in my email, I read them with excitement and renewed appreciation. The latest interview was published at Splice this past week. You can read it here. In this piece, we talk about the most recent Hilbig release, The Tidings of the Trees, and the ways in which this work differs from last fall’s Old Rendering Plant. My questions were derived from my own reading of the book and were not sent until my review had been submitted for publication.

In the years since our first contact, I have read and reviewed Isabel’s translations of Klaus Hoffer and Franz Fühmann, and have added the works of several other authors she has translated to my library as well. But Hilbig remains central. So I am thrilled and honoured to be  speaking with her in person in San Francisco on Tuesday night, July 24, as the Center for the Art of Translation celebrates her work, her recent award, and the release The Tidings of the Trees.

Details about that event can be found here. If you are in the Bay Area, please come out and join us!