Women in Translation Month 2019: Some off-the-radar reading suggestions and my own modest proposal

Each August is Women in Translation Month, a time set aside to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English and, of course, encourage increased translation of these authors into other languages so that they may be more widely read.  This initiative, started by blogger Meytal Radzinski, is now in its sixth year.

My best ever effort to participate was during 2015, my first year as a blogger. Not only was this before writing critical reviews and editing commitments started to creep into my reading time, but I was also recovering from a cardiac arrest and could stretch out on the sofa and read without guilt. Doing much else was painful! Since then, each year I have made public or private commitments to toss a few extra appropriate titles on the TBR pile and, if lucky, read one or two.  I console myself by remembering that reading women in translation is something that naturally seems to occur throughout the year in the course of my normal reading. As so it should.

This year I have a few books earmarked for the month (fingers crossed), but I thought I would take a little time to suggest some titles that might not be so well known. They’re all taken from my own bookcases and most are (as of yet) unread.

I’ll start with those that I have in fact read and reviewed. First up, poetry:

From the bottom up:
Korean poet Kim Hyesoon won the 2019 International Griffin  Poetry Prize for this book Autobiography of Death, a cycle of 49 poems and one longer piece inspired by national tragedies and personal experience. Her daughter’s distinctive illustrations accompany this powerful collection translated by Don Mee Choi.

Thick of It by German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is a wonderful blend of the magical and the everyday. Fresh and alive.

Finally, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor, is a spare and delicate collection that invites rereading. Earlier this year she and I were able to meet and spend a few days together in Calcutta when my visit happened to overlap with a residency she was doing in the city—evidence that reading the world makes the world smaller in unimaginable ways!

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Second, I wanted to highlight a book I recently reviewed that I am afraid has not had the attention it deserves:

Croatian writer Olja Savičevič’s Singer in the Night features a wildly eccentric narrator and a highly inventive style to tell a story that paints a serious portrait of the world that her generation inherited after the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth, this book is already available in the UK and well worth watching for when it comes out on October 1 in North America.

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Third, I have an impressive stack of Seagull Books by female authors that I am ashamed to say I have not read yet (save for the poetry title tucked in here). The interesting thing for me about this selection is that although I did purchase many of these books, other titles arrived as unexpected—but very welcome—review copies by writers previously unknown to me.

Most of the above are German language writers; two, Michele Lesbre and Suzanne Dracius are French, the latter from Martinique. The review copy at the bottom of the stack is East German writer Brigitte Reimann’s diary I Have No Regrets.

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Finally, I wanted to include a couple of translated titles by Indian women writers. Two vastly different offerings.

Translated by Kalpana Bardhan and published by feminist press Zubaan, Mahuldiha Days is a novel by Anita Agnihotri, one of West Bengal’s best known writers. She draws on the decades she spent in the Indian Administrative Service in this story of a young civil servant caught between her obligations to the tribal community she is working with and the state.  By sharp contrast, I Lalla, gives a fresh voice the poems of fourteenth century Kashmiri mystic poet, Lal Děd. A detailed introduction by translator Ranjit Hoskote provides a fascinating background to her life and the tradition to which she belonged, opening a world little known to most Western readers.

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So, what are my best laid plans for this month? I would like to read one or two titles from my Seagull stack—not sure which—and I have a new Istros title Wild Woman by Marina Sur Puhlovski on my iPad in PDF format, but the following three books have been patiently waiting for August:

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart, is a recently released collection of short pieces, including “The Swan Whisperer” which was published as part of the Cahier Series.  I ordered it as soon as I heard of it—new van Niekerk is a rare and special treat.  Aviaries by Czech writer Zuzana Brabcova caught my attention when fellow readers and reviewers started talking about it so it’s another title I sought out when it was released here this spring. And last but not least, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years now. Will I fit it in this August? Time will tell. And, of course, I reserve the right to change my plans altogether…

The nice thing about books is that, at least with the old fashioned solid form variety, they don’t vanish at month’s end if you don’t get to them. They will still be there on the shelf waiting no matter how much time I do or do not have to read amid all my other projects on my plate this August!

We live in a gingerbread house: In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya

“In this house, we live relentlessly, filling eternity with our detritus.”

Life sometimes holds the smallest, unexpected surprises. Unassuming, they come along and sit there quietly waiting to catch your attention until one day…

For me, those unanticipated gifts are invariably books. When, several months ago, In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya arrived, I was uncertain what to make of this slight novella with its simple cover featuring a still-life painting of flowers and vegetables. Savitzkaya, the publicity insert advised, is a French language Belgian poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, but what caught my attention was a link to an article about the author in Weird Fiction Review. Weird? That would not have been my first impression, it looks like such a simple text, yet as Edward Gauvin argues in his essay, the prose is minimal rather than abstract, but it is as if :

something has been subtracted from it, making us work harder for a fuller picture of what is being described. The result is a certain destabilization, dislocation, an alienation that does not distance you so much from the text as lock you alone inside it. Hence the usual adjectives: hallucinatory, intense, incantatory… the feel and unease of Weird.

With In Life, weird fiction is rendered domestic if you will, softly surreal, stubbornly anachronistic. In it, nothing happens and, yet, everything happens. Magical imagery, strange and wondrous, is applied to the quotidian ritual of hearth and home—cleaning,  cooking, repair and maintenance,  tending the garden, and nurturing of the soul of the house and its inhabitants. No task, no bodily function is unworthy of attention, often in unlikely detail. This is a book that revels in the minutiae of existence—the shed eyelashes and flakes of skin, the lost buttons, the crumbing walls, the weeds pushing through cracks in the walkway.

Above all, this is the story of a house surrounded by a garden, a neighbourhood, a town, hills, the sea and sky. A self-contained universe, from the crumbs that fall under the dining table to the scents that arrive on the breeze. At the heart of this universe, the house is a physical and metaphysical entity that must be maintained by those who dwell within, its contents sorted and preserved:

There isn’t only one way to tidy, but thousands—each necessary for structuring and mapping out the existence of the house, which is (well before it appears to be a system of doors, windows and walls) a whole system of alveoli. The simplicity of domestic life flows from the vast complexity of these alveoli. Just as you need a place for soap, you need a place for books. A place for sleeping and a place for sitting. A place for thumbtacks and a place for salt. A place for perfume and a place for stench. She who knows the place of each thing is capable of measuring the household’s degree of destitution or richness.

The narrator is a writer, a man with a fiancé and two children, a son and a daughter, echoing Savitzkaya’s own family, but this is not an autofiction, at least not in any biographical sense. His writing seems a secreted activity, gathered in snatches. He is aware of being unusual in that he is home at all hours of the day, actively engaged in caretaking, yard work, cleaning, ironing and, with special attention, preparing meals. His voice, however, is singular and plural, and shifts between perspectives. “We” might be the family, or a more comprehensive designation; second and third person may be employed to speak of others—for example the reader as an imagined guest—or to expand the universal nature of his reflections on the simple, most fundamental elements of life and the art of living.

Reading like an extended prose poem, this novella is a sensually charged evocation of the ordinary moment at its most ephemeral and most enduring. The narrator delights in unexpected imagery, sparking everyday rituals such as the family meal with fairy tale magic:

Thus assembled, we are ready to gobble a mountain of potatoes, loads of lamb, a cow, even an elephant. Animals fear us. But eyes are always bigger than bellies. They have a good sense of excess. As for us, we content ourselves with little, but have a yen to devour the world. We live in a gingerbread house. We drink birch sap from glasses made of sugar and when grief torments us, drops of brine fall from our eyes. We need light to eat—sun, honey or incandescent light.

Victuals are a central feature of life in this house, as one would anticipate. The meditation returns repeatedly to the growing, the preparation, the sharing, the bodily elimination and the disposal of leftover food. For vegetarians like myself, the meat content is considerable and carefully detailed, but, in fairness, the question of the respectful consumption of animals is not overlooked. Still, the passages on food are some of the most wonderful. After all, more than simply seeing to the nourishment of the family, the provision of food is an act of love with existential dimensions. Take for example, the act of peeling apples:

You can watch the blade as it slides under translucent skin. And, in your hand, you see a sort of phylactery unfurl, detailing the surface area of the fruit. This is a job that, if left only to me, would be eliminated evermore from the manuals of domestic life because an apple is a whole; the skin belongs to the flesh, the flesh is complete with the skin. Be that as it may, it’s worth the trouble. No activity, apart from washing dishes, is as soothing. From the instant that children ask for their slices of apples to bestowed on them without the peel, peeling becomes necessary and eminently interesting. Peeling becomes a way of being, a way of weighing the pros and cons, of conducting yourself in relation to objects, of searching under the skin for the illumination of flesh.

Love holds the house inhabited by Savitzkaya’s alter ego narrator and his family together. But the details fleshed out are not personal. It is as present in the cement troweled into cracked walls and the odours, fair and foul, that rise into the air, as it is in children’s laughter, or lovers in their shared bed. And embracing it all, is the garden. Here, as everywhere else in the universe contained within the pages of this small novella, reality is porous. It contains us but cannot be contained.

The garden’s only goal is abandon; it lives on abandon and thrives on the smallest opportunity to liberate itself and break through its imposed limits. Where is the garden? Between four walls or around the house? In the center or surrounding? In which garden am I sitting? In my garden. I am always in my garden, even when I’m not the gardener, and I don’t need anything, neither to move nor to identify what’s mine. It’s my garden because I’m there, because I live in it for just one second. And I part with it the next.

In Life is a small miracle of a book. It is a slippery object. Although it is filled with images and reflections on the tasks of daily life, it offers nothing firm to hold on to. In a way it is exactly like everyday existence—small moments, the beautiful and the mundane alike—slip by so quickly that we struggle to grasp them lest they be lost. We cling to impressions, to bits and pieces. Sometimes, we might even capture a few on the page.

Eugène Savitzkaya’s In Life is translated by Andrew Colpitts and published Quale Press. They have previously published a collection of his prose poetry, Rules of Solitude. In life is the first of his novels to be made available in English .

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

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

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

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

Or just let it be.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

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

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

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

(trans. by Esther Kinsky)

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

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

A second-hand melancholy: Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Nightingale had become a graffiti artist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given to thinking: Naked Thoughts by Róbert Gál

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

Within breaks in happiness.

Tacit contiguity.

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

The pros and cons of one con.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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