Suspended between human and animal: In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin

The sounds I hear are enhanced. I hear like a wild animal, I am that wild animal. I wonder for a moment whether the bear will come back to finish me off, or to be killed by me, or indeed for us both to die in a final embrace. But I already know, I sense, that this will not happen: he is far away now, he is stumbling through the high steppe, blood dripping down his pelt. As he is farther away and I look deeper into myself, we each regain our self-possession.

The opening passages of French anthropologist, Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild are strangely surreal. She has just had a violent encounter with a bear on the Kamchatka Peninsula region of the Russian Far East, awaiting rescue. She is in a lucid state, numb, acutely aware. but her preternatural sense of connection with the animal who has wounded and disfigured her sets the tone for the account of physical and psycho/spiritual recovery that follows. Devoid of pathos, it is a tale of self-observation, ethnographic insight and the drive to understand what has happened—not from the angle of Western medical science, but from that of the Evens, the Indigenous people she had lived among and worked with in Siberia for four years.

Martin’s voice is most striking. Throughout her often quite horrific hospital ordeal, first in Russia and later in Paris, she does not hide her anger, frustration and physical agony. Her injuries are extensive, to her face and leg. Her jaw needs to be reconstructed—twice because the French doctors don’t trust the Russian work—and there are serious complications. Following a visit from the surgeon after a successful operation, she reflects on her body, her being, as an occupied territory under siege:

Recovering from this clash is not only an act of self-focused metamorphosis, it is a political act. My body has become a territory where Western surgeons parley with Siberian bears. Or rather, where they try to establish communication. The relationships being spun within the little country my body has become fragile, delicate. It’s a volcanic country, landslides can happen at any moment. Our work, hers and mine, and that of the indefinable thing the bear has left deep in my core, consists from now on of “maintaining the lines of communication.”

Existential questions drive the narrative—not why did I survive?—but a deeper examination into the intrinsic meaning of the experience. In this, dreams become essential to piecing together an understanding and acceptance of the relationship she has forged with the bear.

As soon as she is allowed, Martin retreats to the solitude of her mother’s home in Grenoble. Here she reads, speaks with her therapist on the phone, and tries to articulate the symbolism of what has occurred. She seeks precision in her choice of words—an attention that shines through in Sophie R. Lewis’ translation—but something deep has been destabilized that is not conforming to her intellectual instincts. She is not, as her therapist has advised, at peace. In truth she knows that she has not been inclined to seek to facilitate peace in her life or social interactions. “I have never known what to do with peacefulness or stability; serenity is not my strong suit,” she says. This self-evident prickliness, casts the narrative in a light not typically found in survival memoirs while her years spent among Indigenous communities, first Alaska and then Kamchatka, and her academic study of animism, have informed her encounter with the bear in a way another unfortunate hiker on a short excursion into the mountains would likely not. There is a notion of destiny and an element of suspension at the threshold of human and animal that cannot be explained by the park warden or naturalist. The anthropologist can only begin to heal by returning to the wild.

Her mother is decidedly unenthusiastic when she announces that she must go back to Russia. Barely recovered physically from her multiple surgeries, she is determined to leave. So, only a few months after the original incident, Nastassja Martin is again deep in the forests of Kamchatka, staying in a small cabin with Daria and her son Ivan who have become like family over the years, and other relatives that come by. It is the middle of winter; she joins in the necessary tasks and activities of the day, fetching water, setting traps, and gathering the wisdom and answers she needs to finally begin to process the journeys—internal and external—she and the bear have taken since their paths first crossed.

In the Eye of the Wild is an account that captures the way that the intellectual and the emotional can be at odds in the attempt to put meaning to a major trauma or loss. Martin is, by turns, angry, philosophical, and numb. The ethnographic has suddenly become profoundly personal and no amount of book knowledge can resolve it. The boundary has been blurred. This fuels her relentless determination to face down, if not the bear itself, the dreams he has bequeathed her. The result is an inspiring account that demonstrates an abiding respect for both the animal and the only people she knows can truly help her understand not what happened, but why.

In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin is translated by Sophie R. Lewis and published by New York Review of Books.

Each to his own “green truth”: Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies is more than a simple tribute to French poet and essayist Francis Ponge by fellow poet Philippe Jaccottet, it is a deeper examination of the way creative influences sift through a writer’s own process of literary development. The two men first met in 1946, when the latter was barely twenty years-old and, as Jaccottet recounts, he imagines that, though he said nothing, the older man likely had his reservations about his youthful lyric enthusiasms. Nonetheless, a friendship between them would form and continue for over forty years. When Ponge died in 1988 at the age of 89, Jaccottet was among the mourners at his funeral in a rustic graveyard in Nîmes. It is with his reflections that day—a piece intended to stand alone—that this small, special book has its origin.

The funeral was a modest affair on a bright summer day, but it was not one without qualities that seem to Jaccottet oddly fitting for his friend. The pastor arrived quietly by bicycle and chose to recite the 23rd Psalm beside the family vault, “because the deceased was a poet.” King David’s ode to his heavenly shepherd and “green pastures” was followed by a simple reading of Ponge’s “The Meadow” by actor Christian Rist:

“Carried away suddenly by a sort of peaceful enthusiasm / In favor of a truth, today, which is green. . .” This kind of albeit distorted echo, over some thirty centuries, was thus perhaps even stranger and more striking than the rest (the vast, noble, abandoned cemetery and this burial, as if for an unknown person, of a writer so legitimately famous).

This juxtaposition sets the scene for Jaccottet’s homage to Ponge—a poet whose domain was the minute examination of the everyday—calling attention to his commitment to a “green truth” and the remarkable vigour with which he defended it. A sketch of a strong character, given to both “excessive intolerance” and “most generous enthusiasms” emerges, composed in the emotion of the moment of loss. It is not surprising, then, that despite the many formal arguments he had offered in praise of his friend over the years, Jaccottet felt a personal need to articulate what essentially separated him from Ponge’s work. So he started to write a follow up.

However, the expansion of this text into its final form was not an immediate or obvious project. In his Postface, written in 2013 when he was preparing for the original French publication, Jaccottet admits that he was not inclined to work his sentiments through to a natural end. Others encouraged him to think otherwise, but still he delayed, out of laziness or, perhaps, out of fear that entertaining his reservations might be disrespectful to a man he had continued to admire and think of with great affection. But this recognition of the complex interplay of influence and divergence, explored with a perspective stretching over more than two decades lends depth to this slender volume.

Jaccottet begins with a consideration of two of Ponges’ heroes: François de Malherbe (1555-1628), the French poet and critic who insisted on strict form, restraint and purity of expression, and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whom Ponge proclaimed as the artist who interested him more than any other with a style “of the kind that awakens: male, energetic, and  ardent.” If these men spoke to the inspiration that charged his friend, Jaccottet takes care to look at how his own response and tendencies diverge. As he moves on to discuss the way their approaches to writing start from contrasting points of view or ways of looking—one precise and object-oriented, the other lyrical trial-and error experimentation open to the “fleeting impression.” However, even if the origin and ends differ, he can acknowledge that his thinking on questions, such as the “enigma of purity” has been influenced by Ponge’s concern with that which is “pure” or “true.” One’s questing can be furthered, after all, in discourse with those whose creative inclinations deviate from one’s own. And throughout this text, Jaccottet is careful to reiterate his respect and fondness for Ponge, a feeling that he is assured in reviewing the volume of correspondence they exchanged over the years, was returned.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies offers a tribute and a uniquely honest, yet sensitive critique. Jaccottet writes very thoughtfully, entertaining ideas about poetry, death, and the particular dynamics of the relationship between himself and Ponge in a manner that does not require a deep familiarity with the work of either man. In this regard, the extensive footnotes, based on Jaccottet’s own but expanded by translator John Taylor, are helpful and informative. I will confess that I have acquired more than a few volumes of Jaccottet’s work over the years, but until this time I’ve not seriously engaged with any, feeling, perhaps, a little intimidated or uncertain where to start. This book has ignited my interest and opened the door or, as Jacottet might say, a crack in that wall.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet is translated by John Taylor and published by Black Square Editions.

Words are rocky tears: Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta

Where do words come from?
from what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths

Their past is the rustling of stifled silences
the trumpeting of molten elements
the grunting of stagnant waters

– from “Words”

My first encounter with Vénus Khoury-Ghata was with her novella, The Last Days of Mandelstam, a spare, poignant portrait of the Russian poet’s life and lonely death that I read several months ago. It left me keen to explore her poetry and prose further. I soon discovered that American poet and translator Marilyn Hacker has released translations of several collections of her poetry and one novella, so, uncertain where to begin, I opted for the evocatively titled Alphabets of Sand (2009) from UK publisher, Carcanet. A wise choice it turns out, because this collection draws on material from three of Hacker’s earlier US translations along with an insightful introduction.

If poets dwell in language, Khoury-Ghata exists in a world threaded with letters of alphabets scattered like sand in the wind or like stars cast against the blackness of the sky. Born in Beruit in 1937, into a French-speaking Maronite Christian family, the dual French and Arabic cultural and linguistic influences of her childhood animate her poetry and colour the world that she imagines—a place filled with magic and marred by misery. Although she has lived in Paris since 1972, much of her writing looks back to the country of her birth and its tragic history.

Alphabets of Sand gathers five poems or sequences and selections from a sixth. The title of this collection comes from the wonderful piece “Words” which plays with and celebrates language as a primal life form, born and nurtured in the soils of the continents of the earth, taking shape, searching for and finding tongues, mouths and speakers to breathe words into being. As such, language is a collaborative magic between nature and humankind:

Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds
the letter ‘i’ was the cleft of a hummingbird
‘h’ a ladder with one rung necessary to replace a charred sun before nightfall
‘o’ a hole in the sole of the universe

Unlike the consonants with their rough garments
the vowels were naked
all the weaver’s art consisted of humouring them
in the evening they counted each other to make sure no one was missing
in the rocky countries men slept without dreaming

Khoury-Ghatta’s native Arabic and French speak to one another in the course of this sequence, their respective alphabets moving from left to right and right to left, but the Word she evokes, belongs to neither language but to all languages living and lost.

As translator Marilyn Hacker describes it: “Khoury-Ghatta’s work bridges the anti-lyrical surrealist tradition which has informed modern French poetry since Baudelaire, and the parabolic and communal narrative with its (we might say Homeric) repetitions of metaphors and semi-mythic tropes of poetry in Arabic.” She writes, as she herself puts it, “in Arabic through the French language.” The confluence of these traditions is especially evident in the poetry collected here. “The Darkened Ones,” for example, written during the 2006 war in Lebanon, adopts a communal voice of unfathomable depth—a chorus of women speaking to generations of the dead, displaced and disrupted—echoing the unanswered questions that accompany the sorrow and pain of senseless conflict.

An idiosyncratic personal mythology permeates the most powerful works here, a magical sense of place that pays tribute to a world where ghosts mingle with a shifting present. “The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom” paints a portrait—by turns affectionate, coarse and funny—of the eccentric cast of characters who people a village where time is “in a hurry,” but the river “turns back toward its source.” The hairdresser, cemetery caretaker, beggar, shepherdess, prostitute, schoolmasters and others appear, alongside saints and spirits and a host of struggles and dreams.

However, it is the sequence of poems from “Early Childhood” that carry, for me, the most weight and shimmering energy. Central to these pieces, most of which are dedicated to individuals including the author’s sister, the writer May Ménassa, is an enigmatic mother figure:

I write Mother
and an old woman arises in the uncertainty of evening
slips into a wedding dress
stands on tiptoe on her windowsill
calls out to the hostile city
addresses the haughty tribe of streetlights
bares her chest to the clocks
shows them the precise site of her sorrow
disrobes gently for fear of creasing her wrinkles
and unsettling the air

My mother had her own way of undressing
as one would strip the medals from a disgraced general

The poems that comprise this sequence move from a familial to a wider universal sense of mother as teacher, keeper of wisdoms and memory. Language again features prominently, not simply as a alphabets deciphered in books, but as read in nature:

The books we browsed in came from the forest that watched us read
from the peeled bark’s shriek which continued under the pages’ skin
We read in the darkness of August
when the galaxy disposed of its excess stars
when, without  margins, night stretched itself out until night.

As presented, the lasting sensation that this collection leaves me with is one of the kindling of a connection with the roots of Khoury-Gatta’s poetic sensibility. Her love of language and her comfort with repeated metaphor—dead leaves, pebbles, wind, streetlights, stars, trees, alphabets—make sense within the context of her dual language, culturally rich upbringing. Again, I am left wanting to read more and know more. Now in her 80s, she has many honours and an extensive body of work to her name, most of which is yet to be translated into English. Nonetheless, I plan to explore more of what is out there in the new year.

Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta is translated by Marilyn Hacker and published by Carcanet Press.

Bedtime stories for insomniacs: To See Out the Night by David Clerson

In 2016, a feisty new imprint, dedicated to introducing English speaking audiences to a new generation of young Quebecois writers, emerged with their first release. Over the past five years, this small Canadian publishing venture has maintained an annual three-title season, their books garnering nominations, awards and international attention along the way. QC Fiction has now introduced their 2021-2022 line-up with To See Out the Night, a short story collection by David Clerson, the same author whose novella Brothers closed their first season.

A work of haunting minimalism, Brothers is a stark fable about the adventures of two misshapen boys who live with their mother in a desolate world—a place that exists somewhere between epic childhood fantasy and post-apocalyptic despair. Together the siblings craft a ramshackle boat and set off in search of their father, a wild dog. The tale that unfolds is one of tragedy and resilience, played out on a stage that is spare, surreal, and yet strangely alive. With broad brush strokes Clerson creates a work of such visual energy that I cannot help but imagine it as an animated film or graphic novel.

His new work, first published in French in 2019, carries some of the same qualities or tendencies as Brothers. Although the characters and settings have greater density—they are fleshed out a little more—but there is still much left unsaid. A porous line separates the real and the unreal. The narratives, if grounded in a more recognizable world, explore the middle ground between primal and modern energies. In keeping with its title then, one could think of the dozen short fables of To See Out the Night as bedtime stories for insomniacs, those caught between waking and sleep. As it turns out, night—alternate dream realities, night shift workers, the exploration of strange nocturnal spaces—feature in many of the stories.

Clerson has a fondness for the socially awkward character, someone who tends to isolate or struggle with finding a balance between the disparate elements of their life. He typically places most of his protagonists in distinctly Quebec settings, both urban and rural, but in most cases a weirdness awaits, one that warps otherwise ordinary existences, perhaps mildly, perhaps stretched far beyond the norm. This may even involve, as with the boys’ animal/human parentage in Brothers, a crossing of boundaries between man and beast. In the opening piece, “The Ape Within,” an unemployed night watchman experiences a compelling sense of connection with an orangutan on a nature documentary and soon becomes convinced he is possessed, from inside, by the ape. On vacation, the protagonist of “Jellyfish” is entered by an aquatic creature that will completely transform his life. In “The Language of Hunters,” the narrator’s encounter with a bear carcass, killed by a hunter but abandoned to the birds and forest animals, leads into an account of the impact his father’s suicide has left on him:

I felt like I couldn’t leave, like I wanted to dig a grave for the bear or take it with me, gut it, cut through its flesh, remove its animal skin and put it on. The hunter hadn’t bothered to take the fur or the meat, and I wondered why we taxidermied animals but not humans, why we tried to preserve animals in some approximation of life but hid the bodies of our loved ones until we forgot about them, until there was nothing left.

In each tale, an oddness of motivation or intent colours the engagements between the characters and the worlds they find themselves in. Clerson’s gift lies in taking apparently ordinary actors, setting them in an environment, real or surreal or both, and twisting the circumstances to see not simply how, but if they will respond. The touch is light, the tone is matter-of-fact regardless of context, be it realistic or fabulist in nature and, beneath the surface, existential questions percolate. Quietly yet consistently off-centre, To See Out the Night offers a charismatic collection of apocryphal tales for our times.

To See Out the Night by David Clerson is translated by Katia Grubisic (who also translated Brothers) and published by QC Fiction.

The living dead man: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.

Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.

Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.

After the first month he stopped counting.

Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.

The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:

The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.

He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.

Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.

The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.

The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.

Rise, fall, and redemption: The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi

“With us, everything begins with a song and everything ends with another song.”

Or, one could say: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was put to Music and Song was born, and thus the song came to be the driving creative force of the universe.  This is the nature of the world as we are invited to experience it in French-Djiboutian writer, Abdourahman A. Waberi’s imaginative novel The Divine Song. Yet, it is clear from the outset, that this is no ordinary musical journey we are about to embark on—it is, instead, the story of one man’s life  with its genius and its frailties, woven into the broader tapestry of African American literature, music and history, orchestrated by one singular feline. Yes, you heard that right, the narrator of The Divine Song is Paris, “an old bachelor cat on the threshold of his last life.” A Sufi cat, no less.

In an earlier incarnation Paris was a Persian named Farid, companion to Mawlana, a venerable Sufi master whose teachings continue to provide guidance in his present role as the self-described guardian angel to a most unlikely soul. He knows he does not possess the power to protect his charge from adversity, but he can, and will, bear witness—a mission he attends to, from the opening pages, with a blend of spiritual wisdom and street (cat) sense:

Life is beautiful despite its vagaries and my nine lives show this clearly. Life is beautiful on the condition that you serve it. In other words, helping others, the brothers and sisters you meet along the way. And for me, that other brotherly face is above all Sammy, the mage who burned his life at both ends.

This Sammy, to whom Paris is devoted, is the brilliant, yet deeply troubled, musician Samuel Kamau-Williams, a man whose life shares the outlines of that of African-American singer, composer and writer, Gil Scott-Heron—an echo, an homage, a point of reference perhaps, but with a story of his own.  And a most unusual biographer prepared to tell it.

The course of the impassioned account Paris proceeds to deliver is framed against the closing months of Sammy’s life: his last musical adventures in Europe, and his final days back home in New York. Against this canvas our narrator sketches out the details of his subject’s life, his family, and his influences. We meet his self-sufficient mother and his Jamaican-born father, a soccer player who disappears early in his son’s life to play abroad, first in the UK and later in Brazil. And we are granted a close, affectionate view of Lily Williams, his grandmother, who cared for him until he was twelve. Sammy’s time with her in Savannah, Tennessee proves formative for the future musical prodigy while Lily herself provides a spiritual and historical link her young grandson’s roots in the depths of Africa generations earlier. By his teens, Sammy is back with his mother in New York City attending good schools on the strength of his excellent grades, playing sports and exploring rock and blues with friends before starting to chart his own course as an artist and politically-minded poetic force. The road from there on will be marked by success and marred by drugs and illness.

Mind you, Paris’ narrative is anything but straightforward. It winds its way back and forth, casting Sammy’s biography against a wide mystical landscape. He sees the magic—good and evil—casting it into a broader backstory at times, and frequently draws on the Sufi traditions that are so intrinsic to his being. Most of the time he speaks directly to his readerly audience, but at one point he steps into a journalistic mode, bringing in the views of several of Sammy’s school mates, documentary style, and on a few occasions he turns his attention directly to his subject, addressing him in second person, often with some of his most critical words. And, of course, he regularly weaves in elements of his own story—his early ninth life on the thankless New York streets, and his years living and travelling with Sammy—frequently reinforcing the very unique connection he shares with the man he calls the Enchanter. Here, for example, he describes his morning ritual:

I let silence settle into my carnal envelope; I pay attention to my breathing. In complete awareness. Then I send my whole being into orbit, I simply point it in Sammy’s direction. And wherever he may be on this earth, inside or outside the territory of the United States, I’m at his side or more exactly at his back. My soul sticks to his coattails. I hear his breath coming out of his throat in little jerky exhalations. I do not relax my attention. My breath superimposes itself on his. Gently. That’s the way it’s been since the beginning of our relationship. There’s no reason for it to change.

Not a pet, this cat. But a wonderful narrator.

Leaving the narrative in the hands, or rather, paws of an animal can be a risky venture, but Paris not only carries this tale like a seasoned raconteur, he can take a perspective and a tone that an ordinary human could not. Clearly he is a magical character, but for all his un-animal-like abilities and his enthusiasm to put right his dear Sammy’s tale, he remains conscious (and perhaps relieved) that he is a cat. He is not naïve, but he holds, in comparison with his human subjects, a certain universality. And most critically, Paris is a storyteller with the soul of a poet and a timeless story to tell.

Rise, fall, redemption.

As a novel, then, The Divine Song is somewhat of a literary chameleon. With a tragic hero woven into so deeply into African American history and  musical heritage, it is easy to forget that this is the work of a francophone author from Africa. The ghosts, the magical energy, and the enigmatic feline narrator arise in the Old World, freed from chronological constraint to focus themselves in the person of  one musical genius whose own life shadows that of a real person. It’s a heady mix. But it’s more than that. The Divine Song is a hymn, an exaltation of the power of music to redeem a nation, a people and a man.

The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi is translated by David and Nicole Ball and published by Seagull Books.

 

Caught between seasons: Camille in October by Mireille Best

There is a chill that runs through Camille in October even though the seasons change—somehow it always feels like autumn, in the way that for some of us adolescence can feel like an interminable autumn. Growing up can be so complicated. And so it is for the critical, pensive, passionate narrator of this luminous novel, a young woman whose academic inclinations and sexual attractions increasingly alienate her from her working-class 1950s French neighbourhood. Familiar territory perhaps, but Camille’s distinctive voice and keen, if not entirely reliable, observations give it an undeniable energy and urgency.

Part of Seagull Books’ Pride List, this is the first English translation of a work by French author Mireille Lemarchand (1943-2005) who wrote under the pseudonym Mireille Best. Born into a working-class family in Le Havre, France, health problems kept her from attending university so she worked in a plastics factory and later as a civil servant. Known for her fiction featuring lesbian themes, Best published four short story collections and three novels with the French press Gallimard during her lifetime.

The world in which Camille and her siblings are growing up is one of relinquished dreams where the men are beaten down by hard labour and often turn to alcohol and violence, where housewives gather to trade gossip and offer criticism and support, and where few of their children will go on to complete their baccalaureate or go beyond that. The scars of World War II still run deep. And yet it is a tightly bound community.

The core of neighbourhood life is the group of women Camille refers to as the Mothers, her own included, who meet every afternoon to drink boiled coffee and talk about life. They are a regular presence throughout the book, a sort of opinionated, domesticated Greek chorus:

The Mothers should have killed themselves  Or let themselves die  It was the only logical step in the situation. But no. Very few died, of those among them. They had a stubborn resistance, animal-like  The passive resistance of things half-buried. The men climbed on top of them, knocked them about sometimes, weighed on their conscience as much as on the rhythm of their days  The kids screamed and vomited grew fell sick escaped went bad . . . The Mothers endured it all  The knocking down of days one after another endlessly  The eternal circuit house-shops-girlfriends and repeat

Yet if Camille’s cynical adolescent view of them is frequently caustic, she is often present at these gatherings, first with her siblings when they are younger, and later on her own, the misfit that everyone knows will never become a Mother like they are.

As for Camille’s family, they are strong characters, vividly portrayed. Her ever patient, loving mother harbours a dream of emigrating to Australia which her father, a veteran, refuses to even entertain. He’s a hard man, given to drink, and for a while Camille makes a few wildly unsuccessful, even humorous, attempts to kill him. Her younger sister Ariane is a firecracker, loud and fearless, possessed of resolute common sense that she never hesitates to dispense. A lively foil to her older sister’s intellectual seriousness, she is always ready to challenge anything and anyone. As one of the Mothers describes her:

—Poor little sweetie, says Gertrude. Not only does she think, but on top of that she thinks out loud . . . That age is carefree.

And finally, Abel, the youngest, has some kind of a seizure disorder of an unknown nature and his manner is oddly quiet with sudden outbursts. Camille reports that as a child he was “handsome in a strange and suspect way and it hollowed out around him an impalpable zone of emptiness.” As he gets older the strangeness comes to the fore.

Between her tough, firm sister and her soft but occasionally explosive brother, Camille describes herself as:

suspended in the atmosphere, participating in all realms. Endlessly permeable, I drifted, moved around like a fog. I was one or the other or everyone together, incapable of locating myself with certainty. I never really knew WHO I was. I don’t even know if this is a thing that gets better with time, or if I will never do anything besides wandering between contradictory solidarities, with bouts of intense haste when I become a pebble, a shell against the pain, an instrument of hatred.

This nebulous sense of identity is a quality that defines the narrative and gives it an authentic feel—this is the voice of a young adult who is increasingly out of place in her family and community. The black sheep with nowhere to go.

The central focus of Camille in October is a relationship between the protagonist and the dentist’s wife. It begins with tea and borrowing books, based on a common intellectual curiosity, but before long, Camille realizes that she has fallen for Clara. It is a deep and passionate attraction for an adolescent experiencing her first love, but one that is not so easily returned by a conflicted married woman. Theirs is a complicated friendship, beautifully and painfully executed. Camille as we come to understand her through her affection counterbalances the often harsh and cynical self defense she displays elsewhere in her account. Of course, although she is not the most reliable narrator, she is thoroughly engaging.

This novel, vibrantly translated by Stephanie Schechner, is a wonderful introduction to Mireille Best’s work. Coming of age / coming out novels often tread familiar ground. Place and personality set them apart. The 1950s working class setting would have no doubt mirrored the author’s own, but in Camille we have a contradictory and complex narrator. The intermittent use of an unusual punctuation style with dropped periods (as in the first quote above) grants a sense of urgency to some of her more idiosyncratic descriptive passages. Together with a broad, somewhat eccentric, supporting cast, Camille in October is a moving, thoroughly entertaining addition to the genre.

Camille in October by Mireille Best is translated from the French by Stephanie Schechner and published by Seagull Books.

Song for a stolen land: Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel

The Chagos. An archipelago with a name silken as a caress, fervid as regret, brutal as death . . .

The prologue that opens Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos presents a sharp juxtaposition: A boy in war-torn Afghanistan looks up as a B-52 bomber soars in, dropping a bomb that will tear his mother’s body apart before returning to its base far to the south on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago that rises in the Indian Ocean. Further south again, off the east coast of Africa on the island nation of Mauritius, another boy, another mother. Her eyes are fixed on the vast blue horizon, and although she stands intact, she too has been torn apart on the inside. Two scenes, bound by emptiness, confusion and pain.

What follows is a spare, unflinching fictionalized account of a piece of recent history little known to many. In the late 1960s, when Mauritius negotiated their autonomy from Britain, they agreed to  relinquish control of the Chagos Islands unaware that the US wanted it for a military base. In strategic terms the location was  perfect save for one small fact—the islands were not uninhabited. The population, primarily descendants of slaves brought to work on coconut plantations some three hundred years earlier had, after slavery was abolished, enjoyed a simple but secure, comfortable existence with guaranteed employment, a rich culture and cuisine, and a strong community life. However, once a deal was made between the British and the Americans, they were suddenly expendable. Between 1968 and 1973, all of the residents were forcibly relocated, mostly to Mauritius.

Devastated and heartbroken by this abrupt upheaval, the Chagossians have long sought to right the injustice done to them, taking their claim up to the highest levels of the International Courts but after fifty years, and several rulings in their favour, they remain in exile. Silence of the Chagos, first published in French in 2005 and now available in English in a translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is an attempt to give these displaced people a voice, to tell their stories. Author Shenaz Patel, herself a native of Mauritius, found that the Chagossians she had come to know and care about were openly willing to trust their tales to her. In turn, her words honour their spirit while the retention of elements of Kreol in this translated text reinforces a sense of existential loss and longing.

Employing a third person narrative with an unadorned yet passionate energy, the account unfolds through the thoughts and experiences of three primary characters as they attempt to cope with and understand their circumstances. Along the way, several cameo appearances fill in some of the missing perspectives—even the boat that carried the final load of confused residents away is granted a personified dream sequence within which one of the most horrifying moments—the brutal destruction of the islander’s pet dogs—is recounted. The result is a tale that rides on a rolling wave of sorrow and bitter nostalgia, a persistent soul deep melancholia—“lasagrin”—that claimed the lives of many transplanted Chagos Islanders and has carried on into a generation denied any actual experience of their ancestral land.

The novel begins with the 1968 Independence Day celebrations on Mauritius. We meet Charlesia who, with her family, were brought to stay in a slum in Port Louis on the pretext that her husband would receive the medical care he needed there, but now, with his health restored she cannot understand why a boat has not come to carry them back to Diego. The place she has found herself in is strange, unnatural, alien.

Nothing was right here. Streets with tight curves, cul-de-sacs, stopping people in their tracks as they headed downhill. Walking here made no sense. Back there, she had glided down the natural slope of the sand with her eyes shut, the sea before her, the sea behind her, calm and beautiful, caressing and stroking their land like a languid body held close by its lover.

Her memories will fuel her stubbornness and ultimately her activism. In the following chapter we learn why. It takes us back a few years, to 1963 on Diego Garcia, when life was normal and Charlesia was where she belonged. Her life sounds a little odd on first encounter—every morning, the adults of the community would rise and head down to be assigned their tasks for the day, either in the administrator’s quarters or on the coconut plantation. But the workday ends early; Charlesia is able to go home, spend the afternoon fishing while the children are still at school, and lovingly prepare a coconut curry for supper. On Saturday evenings community groups would gather to sing and dance and celebrate well into the night before hurrying church on Sunday morning. All of that is lost, when she lands on Mauritius.

Midway through the novel, the narrative shifts away from Charlesia’s story. When we meet Désiré, a young man completely unaware of his origins; Mauritius is the only home he has known. But there is something odd. Something missing. Confused by a strange nickname he is often given, Nordver, or Nord, he finally confronts his mother, Raymonde. After having long protected her youngest child from the truth of his origins, she confesses that the name refers to the Nordvaer, the boat on which he was born. But who was she protecting? Him or herself? She hardly knows where to start:

His birth, the boat, the land, the other land. The real one. The one that spreads outward in her mind and her heart, in her belly and her guts, every night. The land before.

Before fear, incomprehension.

Before loneliness and the sea’s wild anguish.

Before the thieving boat that had turned what ought to have been great pleasure into pain.

Before this land of high, indifferent mountains, of sneering, distant inhabitants.

With her family, Raymonde had been among the last boatload of Chagossians to be removed from Diego Garcia in 1973—they were given no explanation and no more than an hour’s warning to gather all they could carry. Heavily pregnant with her fourth child she is not fit to travel but clearance is given after a cursory exam. Out on the high seas, she frets about her shack back home, wondering if she turned the stove off, regretting that she hadn’t had time to tidy up. Unable to imagine she’d never return. And then her water breaks and she goes into labour.

Raymonde’s vivid account, and the agonizing details of her son’s unconventional birth hold the narrative connection—the metaphorical umbilical cord—between the Chagossian’s homeland and their exile. Yet, for Désiré, life on Mauritius is not easy, even for his (almost) having been born there. His heritage makes it very difficult for him to secure work. It is used against him at every turn.  And the peculiar circumstances of his birth and the homeland he has never known haunt him. He truly feels like he belongs nowhere. Getting to know Charlesia years later will begin to bring the cycle of longing full circle. But to what end?

As a novel, Silence of the Chagos raises more questions than it is able to answer. The story is, as yet, unfinished, even now fifteen years after it was originally published. The historical course of events is not directly dissected in the text, at least not until the end, in the final chapter, and in the author’s afterword. Rather, the narrative form which allows hints to arise both in conversation and in the agony of the main characters, effectively captures the lack of understanding, the absence of words, and the inability to express  loss—a loss that displaced peoples continue to face in a postcolonial reality that fails to take them into account.

Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel is translated by Jeffery Zuckerman and published by Restless Books.

Searching for answers to unaskable questions: The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

Some readers love nothing more than to lose themselves in vast, sprawling texts, happily admitting that the longer, the better. It’s a rare occasion that I share that sentiment—I’m inclined to insist that most of the time, less is more. Often much less. Like French author Michèle Lesbre’s The Red Sofa. At just over one hundred pages, this award winning novella is a small, quiet, perfect book—one that touches at the very heart of what it feels like to be adrift in life, to be searching for answers to questions one cannot articulate.

This is such a simple story. The narrator, Anne, is travelling by train to Siberia in search of Gyl, a man she once loved many years earlier who had suddenly given up everything to move to Russia, take up residence on the shores of Lake Baikal to paint and put on plays. The revolutionary aspirations of their youth never quite left his system. Their friendship had endured long after their relationship ended but about six months after his arrival in Irkutsk, he suddenly stopped writing. Naturally she is worried, but whereas his political passions had not dimmed, she has grown more cynical and critical over the years and finds herself without solid beliefs to cling to. It is but part of the unease that she carries with her on this journey to find—what?—she is not quite sure.

As the miles pass beyond the window of the train, Anne’s thoughts often go back to Clémence, her elderly neighbour at home in Paris—the owner of the red sofa of the title— whose memory is fading fast. Anne had regularly visited the old woman to read to her of strong eccentric women, often following up with a trip to a local café to enjoy a glass of wine. A close, if unlikely, friendship had formed between them. A former milliner with closets filled with her marvelous creations, Clémence had had a full and vibrant life, but her heart had always belonged to her first love, Paul, who was tragically killed young.

Anne is uncertain where her own heart belongs, perhaps she is looking for it. The dreamy shifting landscape of Russia, and the drift of an unanchored life give the narrative an uneasy, contemplative quality.

Most of the time I would wake up very early, at the break of dawn. Pines and birches were hardly emerging from an ocean of fog in which the train ran blindly and a few swarms of grey isbas floated—their wood, worn by the frost and the brutal summer sun, looked like papier mâché. The dull light became progressively brighter, revealing a dizzying sky. I would follow it with my eyes until it took refuge in the horizon. What horizon? Everything seemed far away, inaccessible, too vast.

As an obvious outsider on a regular commuter run, Anne enjoys her solitude among her assorted compartment-mates. The absence of reference points, her limited knowledge of Russian, and the monotony of the days allow her space to think, relax and read—that is, until Igor boards the train. She becomes obsessed with this stern, silent figure who puts her in mind of the central character of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Her attractions are not reciprocated, but she imagines him as a critical guide into her own personal Zone, her own search for meaning. The landscape reinforces the allusion:

The forests became the image of a possible paradise which men did not deserve and that only the trees knew how to incarnate. This grandiose, devastated landscape, heavy with melancholy, spoke to me of everything I already knew but with a force, a cruelty I had not expected. It would remain with me for several months after my return and settle into my life as other journeys had done, thus constructing a singular, imperfect, emotional and sometimes imaginary world—mine.

Memories, distant and more recent alike, haunt the narrative, woven effortlessly into a powerful evocation of the strange dislocation that being in a foreign country allows—and the gift that it offers. Anne arrives in Irkutsk ostensibly looking for Gyl, worried about his well-being. But what she discovers is complicated, at once inviting and alienating. The few days she spends alone in the city before she can fly back to Moscow help her begin to move toward freeing herself from the kind of intangible, limiting snares in which we sometimes find ourselves in life. My own rather directionless travels in recent years, walking through the streets of cities in India and Nepal, were reflected in her own urban wandering:

I was finally finding myself in that pleasant sense of abandonment, that way of breathing and thinking differently in a foreign city, in a state of weightlessness, with the feeling of belonging to the world, to that ideal humanity I was seeking in the faces, the music of the language, the gestures, and the smallest details that link us all together in spite of everything. I was letting myself be swallowed up by the sounds, the rhythm, and the invisible current that ran through the city.

Anne returns to Paris almost, but not quite, prepared to move on with her life. What awaits her will offer the final release.

This thoughtful, meditative novella is quite wonderful. The story that unfolds is filled with poetic beauty and bold personalities, but much is left untold or unknown. However, it does not feel incomplete or lacking. That is the beauty of a spare, dream-like tale such as this—a story of loss, disillusion, desire, and learning to live again.

Originally published in 2007 as La canape rouge, it seems to be the only one of her novels to be available in English to date.  The Red Sofa is translated by Nicole and David Ball, and published by Seagull Books. Curiously this is one of the books I brought home after my first trip to Calcutta several years ago—an impulse purchase from the publisher’s storefront that sat neglected on my shelf of French translations. It somehow feels right to read it now with its evocative tribute to the space—mental and emotional—afforded by travel, at a time when travel is on hold for the foreseeable future.

The theatre of the desert: Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust

Last week, as I sought a text to carry me across the midnight bridge between decades, I wanted something that might, even for a moment, turn the world on its head. What could, I wondered, be more fitting than to spend New Year’s Eve and the following day in the company of Pierre Senges. After all, a voyage with the French writer, be it brief or extended, is guaranteed to offer a taste of the unexpected. The world he inhabits exists on the edges of maps, in the margins of manuscripts, in the creases between pages, and tucked into the corners of the imagination. If it looks familiar that’s because you have been there, wandered its streets, navigated its seas, crossed its stages. But when you stop to adjust your compass, or try to align yourself with the stars, the needle tends to spin, shudder to a stop, and, then, as soon as you think you know where you are heading, a flood of literary, historical, or starkly contemporary references will slide into the narrative and lead you off track once again. To read Pierre Senges is to embark on an adventure, one that may just as easily take you travelling halfway around the world as stumbling down the block and into the local pub.

Fortunately for me, I had recent translations of two rather different texts by Senges on hand, both translated by his tireless advocate Jacob Siefrig, and published by a couple of inventive small publishers. The first, my New Year’s Eve companion, was the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis. Published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, a project that began in mid-2019  to produce original literary offerings distributed as a monthly print newsletter, this small, pocket-sized volume marks their first foray into the big world of book publishing on a manageable small scale.

Senges delights in taking characters and themes from literature and history, reimagining  them in terms that stretch from the mildly satirical to the strangely absurd, and then proceeding to fashion tales shot through with sharp, dry humour—one that can, at times, be lost on readers who like their humour to be more, shall we say, in your face. In this regard, Falstaff: Apotheosis, taking as its subject Shakespeare’s most misunderstood minor character, is an ideal bite-sized introduction to his singular style. More than a comic foil, Falstaff is presented as an ingenious master of humiliation as a heroic act. His crowning glory, or apotheosis, is his bold and daring performance of a deceased figure on the battlefield, an act that sets the stage for a treatise on the ethics of playing dead:

To be the master of one’s own death, what a timeless caprice: the trick being to lie down not just any old way, rather to adopt the humble simplicity of the sandbag, or the hieratism of the tree trunk, or the mannerist posture of a hunting dog, or an expressionism inspired by anatomies of past centuries and the bold contrasts of cinematic skills—to breathe out one’s last sigh, but exhale it negligently, instead to opt for the Romanticism of the last and lightest breath, like the breath a child turns on a dandelion. . .

What makes Senges so successful is his language—long winding sentences filled with wise and wonderful imagery, holding fast to a measure of seriousness in the narrative voices he employs.

My into-the-new-year Senges was Geometry in the Dust. Published by the bold, experimental Lawrence, Kansas-based publisher Inside the Castle, this is a longer, more elaborate ruse—a delicious anachronistic tale presented as a report to a desert-bound prince keen to construct a city in his kingdom of sand, from his loyal minister who has been sent on a mission to learn about the features of a real-life city and advise his ruler on what will need to be considered. Echoing the spirit of the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, our narrator is attentive but a step out of time, observing the modern metropolis, but not always connecting the dots completely. The result a strangely insightful and original reflection on the nature of the urban landscape.

His observations are often trapped in time. He seeks out the city scribes at one point, hoping to be able to compare his ideas to theirs and finds, rather than rows of copyists at their desks he finds that calligraphers ply their trade by night, running through the darkened streets, clutching paint, hurriedly scrawling messages on walls. The intensity of city life overwhelms him, continually exceeding his expectations, but leading to wonderful portraits as he seeks to describe the indescribable to the sheltered and isolated ruler he serves:

To define a city for you more or less: it’s a danse macabre every single day of the week: it seems to me that the idea of the danse macabre will help you put your finger on what a city is, because it communicates to you a scraping of nail on bone, as well as a gnashing of teeth. The danse tells us all we need to know about the city’s circular nature (not so long ago cities were contained within wooden circles, like certain soft-rind cheeses; although they tried hard to emancipate themselves and go over the walls, they still retain a bit of this roundness: it will be necessary to take this design into consideration)

Yet, even if the noise, chaos and moral loose edges of the city challenge our often judgemental traveller, he is determined to make sense of everything (including the curious cul-de-sac) and advise his prince on the extent to which all architectural, cultural and social intersections should be designed so as to leave nothing to chance. It’s difficult, of course, not to be struck by the degree of hubris driving the ambitions of this desert monarch and his faithful servant, especially on their shifting terrain of sand and dust. But then again, perhaps it is only in the space of pure fancy that the ideal metropolis can exist. Paired with the artist Killoffer’s grotesque depictions of the hectic, congested modern city, Geometry in the Dust offers a fantastic meditation on the impossibility of reducing a concept as complex as the city to a few lines scratched in the dirt.

For a taste of this work and Senges’ inimitable style, see this excerpt from Geometry in the Dust with illustrations by Killoffer at 3:AM Magazine.

Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges are both translated by Jacob Siefrig and published by Sublunary Editions and Inside the Castle respectively.