Addressing a captive audience: A Slap in the Face by Abbas Khider

Set in the earliest years of the twenty-first century, Abbas Khider’s A Slap in the Face confronts the complicated realities of the mass migration driven by conflict, poverty and the hope for a better life that has become such a definitive and disruptive feature of this new century. The novel opens with an actual slap across the face. The narrator, Karim, a young Iraqi refugee facing deportation from Germany, has accosted his caseworker in her office and taped her to her chair. Frustrated, anxious and unable to consider returning to his home country, what he really wants to do is force her to listen. Karim rolls himself a joint and launches into his story. Bound and silenced, Frau Schulz, as a representative of a dispassionate bureaucratic system, will now have no alternative but to hear him out:

Here you are. Helpless. All trussed up like a parcel. Sitting there in your expensive black leather chair. You were a goddess, a force of nature, exercising your authority over other people. I was at your mercy, but like a mythical hero I have risen up and stormed Olympus. And soon I’ll leave you to your tiny pen-pusher’s office again. You’ll be left sitting here, a lonely as a creator whose creatures have forgotten him. A god without believers doesn’t exist. That’s true of goddesses too. I’ll leave you behind and go away to a distant land.

What unfolds is one very human account of the complicated forces that can drive one man to leave his home and family behind, taking on, at great cost and risks, with uncertain hopes of success, a flight to a new land, together with a broader portrait of the haphazard expat communities that form in the limbo of an asylum system that can be painfully slow and impersonal. It is a story Khider is well suited to tell. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he was a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. Upon his release in 1996, he fled, making his way through a number of countries before landing in Germany where has been living since 2000. Writing in German, A Slap in the Face (originally published as Ohrfeige; translated by Simon Pare) is his fourth novel.

Karim’s intended destination upon setting out from Baghdad is Paris where he has a relative, but in submitting to the whims of people smugglers, he finds himself dropped off on a rural road in Germany in the dead of winter. He manages to make his way to a train station where he is immediately picked up and placed in a windowless cell in Dachau. In retrospect he is relieved that he naively does not know the association of that location beforehand. He is terrified enough. From that point, he is funnelled into the confusing, often tedious, administrative  system that will determine his fate, ultimately ending up in a small Bavarian town. Here he will build connections with a small group of fellow Iraqis, each carrying their own pasts and burdens that remain unshared. They exist as loose association of men bound by common country of origin, amid a fractious community of other refugees.

Woven into his account of the trials and tribulations that arise as he navigates the complicated asylum application process, periodically reminding Frau Schulz where she has played a role, Karim shares childhood losses and adult longings. Despite his momentary position of power, he comes across as a vulnerable figure, focused and determined but cautious to try to play by the rules. When he reveals the deep secret that lies beneath his initial desperation to head to Europe—an unexpected circumstance that I personally connected with in a way others might not—the space he occupies, slightly offside that of his peers makes perfect sense. He has a very unique reason to want to stay—one he has revealed to no one, least of all the officials at his asylum hearing.

However, 9/11 and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq upends his dreams. Everything changes almost instantly:

From that accursed day onwards, the main term used to describe us Arabs in Germany was ‘suspicious’. I would never have thought that terrorists hiding in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains could, by their attacks in the United States, plunge my life in the Bavarian town of Niederhofen into such disarray. That’s what you call globalization.

Caught up in the confusion of this rapidly changing atmosphere, Karim and his friends struggle with conflicted emotions as they watch broadcasts of the destruction being wrought on their homeland and worry about the safety of their families. Yet around them, fundamentalist passions rise among some, fueling bitter divisions within the expat community itself and further anxiety among the German population. But, once Saddam Hussein is neutralized, Karim finds that his contrived claim for refugee status no longer carries any weight, and his asylum status is revoked, but going back is not an option. He has too much invested in his hopes for a better—even normal—future. So with Frau Schulz as his silent witness, he is unburdening himself as he prepares to take flight again after three years in Germany.

A Slap on the Face offers a look at the reality of arriving in a strange land with little more than the hope for a better future. It does not glamourize the experience. The administrative roadblocks, the uncertainties, the poverty, the prejudice, the appeal of drugs or petty crime for some, and the loneliness or isolation for others all ring true. Karim’s story tumbles out—part confession, part diatribe—fueled by the frequent joints he rolls and his controllled contempt for Frau Schulz and the system she represents that has so heartlessly decided that his years of waiting and working hard mean nothing. It’s difficult not to like Karim, to feel his frustrations, and it is this connection that lends his narrative a such compelling, earnest urgency.

A Slap on the Face by Abbas Khider is translated by Simon Pare and published by Seagull Books.

Delirium, desire and despair: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

The Blind Owl is a not an easy book to read. A hallucinogenic, opium-soaked account of a lonely pen case illustrator’s decent into madness, it is disorienting. Unpleasant. Consumed with death, decay, sexual obsession and frustration. After finishing the last page it sits heavy in the gut. And then, as you start to unwind the experience, it takes on an eerie, impressive, surreal quality—no less dark—but unlikely to easily slip from the imagination once wedged there.

A classic of twentieth century Iranian literature, The Blind Owl was composed during the latter years of the oppressive reign of Reza Shah and first published in 1936 in Bombay where the author, writer and intellectual Sadegh Hedayat was studying. On the first page, Hedayat famously wrote: “The printing and sale [of this work] in Iran is forbidden.” Although the setting of the story the Iranian city of Rey, and, briefly, in India has a classical atmosphere, there is a strong, idiosyncratic modernist feel. The influence of writers like Jung, Rilke, Poe and most notably, Kafka is strong, but this absurdist tale seems to be driven by its own cluster of existential horrors. It can, and has been analyzed, symbolism examined, but that seems less interesting to me having finished the book. It does not matter how much of the author’s own psychology is embedded here (he will commit suicide in 1951 in Paris at age 48), the real power of this work lies in its ability to create a tortured, internal irreality that spins on its own frenzied axis to reach a bizarre climax that, in the end, leaves more questions than answers.

The novella is presented as a confession, the narrator feverishly scrawls out his account, addressing it to an imagined confessor, a shadow on the wall of his room that resembles an owl. In the West, the owl is commonly associated with wisdom, but in Iran and India the bird is considered a bad omen and, as the translator notes, Hedayat was likely aware of both of these contexts—the pen case painter seems to be uncertain if he hopes to understand or exorcise the demons he carries, the macabre dreams and visions that haunt him, and the crime he may, or may not have committed. A delusional narrator driven beyond despair is hardly reliable.

But he can be hard to forget.

To attempt to describe the course of events laid out in this story would be pointless. The same images are endlessly cycled and recycled throughout. The first section appears to recount a vision, a strange visit, and an unexpectedly gruesome event which is echoed but not explained in an extended surreal, feverish central sequence that makes up the core of the book—a relentless nightmarish account of delusions and bitter memories dominated by a preoccupation with death, decay, and decomposition. What appears, at first, to be the narrator’s attempt to fill in his background history, his childhood and miserably unhappy marriage, quickly loses chronological sense. Boundaries between memory, dream, hallucination, and obsessive paranoia melt and blur. The motifs that recur in varying forms—bruised morning glories, clotted blood that can’t be washed off, characters shaking with a harsh convulsive laughter, a butcher chopping up an animal, the narrator’s inability to recognize his own changing face in the mirror, houses with odd, uninhabitable geometrical shapes and shadows that stretch, bend and distort—lend the work a distinctly Expressionist quality. At times I found myself picturing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari re-imagined in a Persian context. But with a much, much darker undertone:

I saw that pain and suffering existed but they were devoid of any purpose or meaning—Amongst the rabble I had become an unknown and unfamiliar breed, so much so that they had forgotten that before this I was a part of their world. What was frightening was that I felt I was neither completely alive nor completely dead, I was but a moving corpse that could neither join the world of the living nor partake in the oblivion and peace of death.

It is hardly surprising that this book has frequently been censored in Iran, attacked by Islamists, and has served as the unfortunate inspiration for suicide among some readers. It is a vital, if disturbing, piece of literature all the same.

However, a discussion would be incomplete without a word about translation. Several versions of The Blind Owl have been published in English over the years, D. P. Costello’s (1957) being the best known. I chose the 75th Anniversary Edition translated by Naveed Noori, the first to be based on the original Bombay Edition. As a native Persian speaker fluent in English, Noori examines a number of significant inconsistencies in Costello’s text, relative to the original, and considers the likelihood that he was working at least in part from a French translation and a typed Persian version that contained errors and typos. This is, for those interested in debates about translation, where the rubber hits the road.

Those familiar with Persian will benefit most from Noori’s detailed introduction, but he brings up a very interesting matter. “Costello’s translation,” he tells us, “is entirely fluent and reads well;  however, in doing so, the narrator’s voice is changed, and the text has become domesticated.” Domesticated. An example is offered where tones and subtleties are missed, not without admitting that it is always a challenge to balance the tendency to domestication against the risk of foreignization. Smoothness is frequently championed as the hallmark of success in a translation. But at what cost? Noori chose to begin with a foreignized bias and work toward the centre with repeated edits to improve the flow. That means, at times, employing more unconventional English usage, to retain a meaning closer to the original Persian. As well, whereas Costello’s translation is apparently relatively calm and controlled, Noori follows Hedayat’s practice and employs the repetitive use of dashes to heighten the agitated discomfort of the narrator’s collapsing mental state as he frantically scribbles his confession:

Before I leave I only want to bring out on paper these pains that have devoured me in the corner of this room, bit by bit, like leprosy or a festering wound—for in this way I can make my thoughts more orderly and organized—Is it my aim to write a will? Never. I have neither money that the court can swallow up, nor religion that the devil can take away, besides what on this  earth can have the least bit of value for me—that which was life I have lost, I let it and wanted it to slip away, and after I am gone, to hell with it, whether someone reads my scraps of writing, or whether they go unread for seventy black years—I only write for this need to write has now become vital for me—I am in need, more than ever I’m in need of connecting my thoughts to my imaginary being, my shadow—this sinister shadow that, in front of the light of the tallow-burner, is bent over on the wall, as if it is carefully reading and devouring that which I write—This shadow must surely understand more than I!

Now, I cannot compare Costello’s well-loved version, and The Blind Owl is available in at least three English translations along with many more in other languages. However, as a reader interested in the art of translation, I am very glad I happened to select this one for my first introduction to Iranian literature.

The Blind Owl by Sedegh Hedayat, translated by Naveed Noori, is published by l’Aleph under the auspices of The Sadegh Hedayat Foundation.

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.

Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.

The music of silence: Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar

Charged with a mournful, aching beauty, the opening passages of Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar’s 2007 novel, Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, clearly set the tone for the story that will follow. The scene is one drenched with misty melancholy. It is late March, 1945. A grey, foggy sky hangs low over the landscape, and a sense of weary dread has settled over the residents of Sóbota, a quiet town, or varaš, nestled on the plains of an otherwise forgotten region of eastern Slovenia, lying between the Mura River and the Raba Valley. The area which had, until the implementation of the Final Solution almost exactly one year earlier, been home to the majority of Slovenia’s small Jewish population, is presently under Hungarian occupation. Now, with rumours that the Russians are advancing and the Germans retreating, no one is certain what to expect next; no one knows what the currents of history are carrying their way.

That night the story of good men and women could barely stand up to the devious wind dispassionately erasing the words on the faded monuments of the law. This mysterious force was stronger than the storms and deeper than the floods that were once talked about here. It came as a vague feeling, or a long, harrowing dream, which burrowed into people’s souls even before they fell asleep or drank themselves into a stupor.

Available in English for the first time in an attentive and sensitive translation by Rawley Grau who also translated Šarotar’s Sebaldian-styled  epic Panorama, this earlier novel is a tale of remembrance, told from a distinctly cinematic perspective, that of a timeless all-seeing eye hovering above the earth, capable of taking in good and evil alluded to in the brief prologue. Not unlike the lens of a camera.

The result is a simple, painfully human story that revolves around two key dates in 1944 and 1945. Touching on critical moments in the lives of a handful of characters — an Auschwitz survivor and former shopkeeper’s return in search of some semblance of home, a young girl’s first infatuation, the secret an aging prostitute has kept from the only other woman still left at the Hotel Dobray, the complicated emotions of the arrogant but ill-prepared leader of a sorry group of fatigued Hungarian soldiers awaiting certain defeat, and an ambitious and prosperous businessman’s unlikely twist of fate – it is a narrative that glances into hearts but never settles for long. The effect is a slowly simmering evocation of the impact of war on a community ground down, torn apart and ultimately upended by events orchestrated from afar. Inevitable because, in the end, we all know how this story ends, the sleepy varaš is ever altered, its Jewish population is all but decimated, and its national identity rewritten. However, unwinding the story as he does, employing careful repetition, connecting events and characters forward and back in time, and gradually revealing a little more with each passage, Šarotar creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of poetic tension.

Central to the story is Franz Schwartz whom we first meet on the road to Sóbota. It has been almost exactly a year since he and his fellow Jewish citizens had been rounded up and sent off, the men to work themselves to death in camps, the women and children to more immediate termination. He knows he will never see his wife and son again, but having escaped the camp he has no place on earth to return to than the town where he was once a proud and successful retailer.

The cold, gaseous sphere hung motionless over the town. The houses, the plane trees and poplars that lined the streets, the bell towers, the man – all were left without shadow. The sharp, blinding light had painfully imprinted an image of the morning on the consciousness of Franz Schwartz. In a succession of short exposures, one after the other as if he was blinking his eyes, the pages of a large photo album were being turned inside him. He stood in the middle of the intersection, entirely alone.

Images of all the familiar streets, buildings and structures return to him, but he carries neither joy nor despair at the prospect of being back. The town has changed and he knows he cannot risk being seen until he gets his bearings.

Meanwhile, Budapest has recently fallen and the Hungarian occupation is on borrowed time. The small military unit presently housed at the Hotel Dobray, under the incompetent command of József Sárdy, secretary of the Office of the Special Military Tribunal, is despondent and all but defeated. They await the advancing Red Army with apprehension. About the only townsperson holding out optimism for the future is Josip Benko, the owner of the local meat factory, former mayor and indefatigable entrepreneur.

As the story unwinds, evidence of a network of complex emotions, complicated loyalties and chronological connections begins to emerge. When the narrative eventually slips back to April of 1944, Franz’s family background and the heartbreaking magnitude of his loss is illuminated. Piece by piece a portrait of the slow motion tragedy that spread over this part of central Europe is brought to life. It is, at once, part of a much larger story and yet distinct and, to the author, inherently personal.

The power of this tale lies in the telling. The somber but lyrical narrative is allowed, when needed, to “creep along like a low-flowing river.” Words are chosen carefully, emotions are numbed, stifled sounds speak volumes. The strains of a song that can no longer be sung or performed permeates the memories of a number of the characters. The music of silence is a recurring motif.

The omniscient, distanced third person perspective of the all-seeing eye only serves to heighten the emotional intensity. Šarotar masterfully maintains this intensity, letting it reverberate like the a violin strung too tight, right through to the end, as all the threads and stories are wound together but ultimately left unresolved, hanging in the air. He ends his narrative with a timeless, unanswerable question. One that, as nationalism is making a resurgence, we would do well to attend to.

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau, is published by Istros Books.

Searching for a future in a devastated landscape: Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Ellmiger

There were no maps, no more accurate maps for the northern coal district. It was absent on all the plans, it was one large absence, so to speak, the course of the roads had long since slightly shifted, hills diminished, towns abolished.

Beneath the surface of a once prosperous coal mining district, flames from a fire in the tunnels has been smouldering for decades; above, the land has largely been laid to waste. Pit frames dot the horizon while in some places the land has caved in, sometimes taking livestock or an unfortunate human resident with it. Towns stand nearly abandoned, home to only the stubborn and the eccentric who have held fast. In one such community, two young women—daughters of the police commander and the last remaining youth—have never known anything but this desolate territory. It is their sole inheritance, all they have to look forward to. Their future is bleak, but they are determined to salvage some sense of optimism.

For Margarete and Fritzi, the protagonists of Swiss writer Dorothee  Elmiger’s award winning debut Invitation to the Bold of Heart, an old map indicating that a long-forgotten river once flowed through the region offers a spark of hope that drives a determined search for evidence that it still exists somewhere—even if it has temporarily disappeared below ground. If they can locate this elusive Buenaventura River, they believe they may be able to begin to make sense of a past, including their own family history, that no one wants to talk about and create a base from which they can start to look forward on their own terms. It’s an ambitious and enormous goal.

Bookish and studious by nature, Margarete is the official archivist. She devours the books she finds in the apartment above the police station where she and her sister live with their father. Natural history, science, and literature. On a Remington typewriter lifted from one of the policemen she types her account and makes notes of details that seem relevant. Facts about rivers and deserts, about mines and mining appear and reappear throughout. Moodier and more carefree, Fritzi makes little direct contribution to the narrative. She is the restless explorer. What she adds, however, through her reported observations is thoughtful and wise, such as this reflection on their surroundings:

For a long time, she said, I have been trying to comprehend the landscape here. She said, I look at the pit frames rising up to the sky, and I look at the railway lines running deeper and deeper into the ground because they’re sinking and sinking. I look at the sky, because the sky might also be symptomatic, the sky is also part of this landscape. I count, she said, I count the colours; my vocabulary is exhausted after brown, olive and black, and when I think about it those are all the colours that are here.

Of course, to affect a thorough search both girls have to head out, together or apart, on foot, by motorcycle or car, and eventually, in the company of a horse named Bataille that Fritizi finds and brings home. Meanwhile, the policemen who have little need to patrol, spend most of their time glued to the television set, hardly noticing the sisters’ comings and goings.

Characterized by a spare disjointed style, the novel most often resembles an attempt at record-keeping, a report for a future that is vague and uncertain, set in a surreally dystopic present that seems willfully disconnected from its own past, or simply exhausted by the weight of the space it occupies. The adults are either oddly apathetic or completely absent, like their mother who holds an almost mythological place in their imaginations. A female Hemingway-like character, she smoked cigarettes, cut her hair short, and one day simply drove off into the distance. Together they fantasize a series of daring adventures for her. On the other hand, they typically refer to their father as simply Heribert Stein or H. Stein, reflecting a relationship that seems cool, even antagonistic.

The fractured, loose-limbed narrative is, at one level, rather unsettling. It is, not unlike the sisters own place in the world—ungrounded, suspended somewhere in a geological timeline between oceans and deserts. They have facts and coordinates and maps, but no direct knowledge beyond the borders of the territory they’ve always lived in. One has the sense it has been intentionally cut off, guarded to keep outsiders at bay. This uncertainty which reflects the sisters’ own isolation is never resolved. A wealth of intertextual references woven freely into the text further offset the environment of the novel. It is a daring approach and, for the most part, very effective. Yet, in the innovative voice of Invitation to the Bold of Heart, one in which the narrative often appears to wander, ramble and repeat, pulling in facts drawn from a variety of interconnected sources, one can hear the qualities that Elmiger will develop and refine in her more mature and startlingly impressive second novel, Shift Sleepers. Without question, she is an author to watch closely.

Invitation to the Bold of Heart, by Dorthee Elmiger, is translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and published by Seagull Books.

Writing one’s self out of romance: Balla’s Big Love

Big Love by the self-deprecating and humorously misanthropic Slovak writer, Balla, is an anti-love love story in which the hapless protagonist fumbles around in the dark, imagining he knows what love is while perhaps the best relationship he will ever have slips from his clumsy grasp. This short novella is not only a sharp witted critique of contemporary post-socialist society in Slovakia, in the form of a fondly satirical take on its bureaucratic ineptness and literary pretensions, but it is also an endearing and all too recognizable romantic comedy of the kind that actually exists in real life more often than in the movies.

Our hero, Andrič, as is typical for Balla, is a thinly veiled version of the author himself—a writer at heart but a bureaucrat by day. Not unlike another absurdist author from the other side of what is now, once again, the Czech-Slovak divide. And like Kafka, his protagonists tend to exist in isolation, unable to communicate with or understand the world around them. In this case Andrič is trapped in such a strangely off base circle of reasoning about human nature and his own place within it that he routinely and consistently misconstrues his unnecessarily patient girlfriend’s cues until, of course, it is finally too late.

The first time Andrič sees Laura she is wearing a neck brace. She has been injured in a car accident. A strange impetuous for a budding attraction. A single mother with a young daughter, Laura seems to be everything he is not. She is boisterous, outgoing, physically active, responsible and capable of looking after herself and her child, even if it means being creative in seeking out opportunities and resources. It’s hard to imagine what she sees in Andrič. But somehow their relationship, albeit a long distance one, manages to survive for two years. She is, however, one of the least developed characters in the book, a function of how limited Andrič understanding of her truly is.

The supporting cast, if you like, is wonderful. In fact, it is these two unlikely, eccentric characters, who play well against the two aspects of Andrič’s life, the professional and the literary, and serve to challenge his limitations while furthering the overall satirical intent of the novel as a whole. Panza is his office mate and best friend. Unmarried, he lives with his sister, a fact that inspires a healthy amount of curiosity around the office. Even more than Andrič, he exists in isolation, formed and informed by his long bureaucratic career which has left him vacillating between paranoia and despondency. He exhibits a practiced form of engagement with the world that reflects his rejection of ordinary human interaction:

Panza is sitting, listening to Andrič and nodding, or rather, he’s not listening, only nodding, his eyes and his whole face make it clear that he doesn’t understand, and how could he, since he’s not listening, it’s not that he is stupid, he just can’t be bothered to listen, he’s had bad experiences in the past  when  he  used  to  listen  and  got nothing  in  return,  so  now he  professionally  and  routinely  doesn’t  listen,  especially  when a sentence begins in a complicated way.

Because how could such a sentence possibly end?

Panza, whose tendency to express panic about the state of affairs within the system to which he has dedicated his career and within which he should long been disavowed of any ideals or illusions of freedom promised by the collapse of Communism, fuels the younger Andrič’s own fears. And fascination. Together they are a misfit pair, with Panza consuming more of Andrič’s attentions than Laura even if it is, again, difficult to figure out if their bond is more than circumstantial, because they never seem to enjoy each other’s company. Or perhaps these are two men for whom enjoy and company are not natural counterparts.

By contrast, Laura’s mother Elvira, is a former school teacher with an apartment filled with books and a string of former husbands, one for any necessary anecdote or discussion point. An ethereal being who almost floats around the jumbled space she shares with her daughter and granddaughter, her disaffection with contemporary society comes from a different angle than Panza’s. Reading and everything associated with it seems, so far as Andrič can tell, to be the source of her particular melancholy, her “sadness beyond words.” She views her nation as a country of sleepwalkers, dulled into a state of semi-consciousness—a state which has extended to Slovak writers. She is especially harsh on them claiming they all, even the female writers, lack experience with women. Without experience, how can anyone write? But, as she says:

Fortunately,  writers  don’t  exist  anymore.  Because to exist is to mean something. But they don’t mean anything. We  should erase them from our diaries, we should stop phoning them on their name day. They are nobodies. Yet these nobodies haven’t even noticed.

As a writer himself, Andrič makes the mistake of equating his ability to create with some measure of accomplishment in his personal life, no matter how obvious the messages Laura is signalling should be. Over and over he fails to see that what he imagines is, at last, “big love”with Laura, is rapidly losing its hold on her. We only have the briefest glance into her side of the equation and she comes across as unconvinced of her love forAndrič as we are. Once she slips away, he is left to slowly realize that big love is sometimes measured by the space left in your heart and life once someone is gone. And, of course, by then it is too late. But even then, he salvages a perverse pleasure that he somehow found the words, although he cannot remember uttering them, that finally severed their relationship for good:

After Laura informed him about the termination of their relationship Andrič gradually began to swell up with a kind of absurd pride about the fact that he, too, was capable of using words, that his words had consequences  – and this also applied to statements he couldn’t remember at  all  –  but Laura refused to  repeat  those  words  of  great  significance  and  merely  reminded him that he had uttered them in a wine cellar in Spišská Sobota.

Who else but Andrič would follow such reasoning?

For such a short book, Big Love offers a lot through the somewhat thick lens of its hapless protagonist. It is relentless in its critique of society, family, love and literature. Many of the references are specific to Slovak history and culture, but a lack of familiarity with the underlying intertextual content will not impair the enjoyment of this funny/tragic tale. Andrič, for all his tendency to overthink the emotions out of any reasonable situation is endearing, the humour is bitter, sarcastic and wise. Yet, as the ending nears, his own existential crisis deepens, lending more credence to that well-worn Kafka comparison.

Just released from Jantar Publishing, Big Love by Balla is translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood.

Instructions for interacting with the material world: A Users Manual by Jiři Kolář

You can always be assured that a hardcover release from Prague-based indie publisher Twisted Spoon Press will be something very special. All their books—dedicated to bringing both long neglected and contemporary writers to English audiences—offer work that is unique and engaging, but they really put a little extra effort into their beautifully presented, typically illustrated, hardcover texts.

Like Jiři Kolář‘s A User’s Manual.

One of the most important Central European poets/visual artists of the postwar era, Kolář (1914-2002) was best known internationally for his innovative collages, but within Czechoslovakia he was a aligned with other politically defiant artists. He was a member of the avant-garde Group 42 until it was disbanded after the Communists came to power and, when the police discovered the manuscript to his controversial collection Prometheus’ Liver, he was arrested and labelled an “enemy of the state.” His poetry and artwork reflects his view of the society he saw around him.

This most unusual—and handsome—volume pairs 52 “action poems”, written in the 1950s and 60s, with images from “Weekly 1967,” one of his  series of collages created as a running commentary on each week of a year. First published together in this form in 1969, the resulting book is not only very entertaining to look at, but characterized by a sly creative energy and a devious wit. Each poem in A User’s Manual presents itself a set of instructions, often nonsensical, that mimic the form of communist dicta. Week 13, “Path,” for example, directs the reader to:

Go
empty-handed
on foot or by train
to a town
where you know no one
and spend three days there
When hungry
ask for bread
when thirsty
ask for water
Spend the night where possible
and every day ask
nine people about a person
with the same name as yours
with the same destiny as yours

The collages that accompany each poem are constructed from newspaper clippings, documents, cut outs, patterns formed with words or musical notation. Some are dedicated to individuals (sometimes presented as a profile portrait), others have a stark political feel, and yet others are abstract patterns. Together with his instructional verses, the effect is an elevation of the everyday and an imagining of a specific way of reacting to the world. As Ryan Scott explains in his Translator’s Note, in this work, Kolář is explicitly engaging with the materiality of language. He is inviting direct interaction with the immediate surroundings by calling attention to “the locus of speech, action and things.”

“Homage to T. S. E.” opposite an image titled To Michel Butor

As unusual as they are, many of the poems are oddly practical enough that they could serve as inspiration triggers. The language is spare, reasons and explanations are not offered, but therein lies the charm. Some are even strangely beautiful. Like Week 47, for instance, “Poem of Silence: For Emil Juliš”:

Collect
a pile of pebbles
and from them compose
anywhere

and with a title
pebble by pebble
as word by word
line by line

as verse by verse
a poetry poem

Exiled to Paris in 1980, as were many artists of his generation, Kolář returned frequently to Prague  after the Velvet Revolution, and spent his final years in the city. But born of a response the restrictions imposed under Communist occupation, A User’s Manual stands as a creative act of rebelllion that seeks a certain dignity in absurdity.  It makes a wonderful read, a fascinating visual experience, and would be a fine gift for an artistic friend.

A User’s Manual by Jiři Kolář with illustrations by the author, is translated by Ryan Scott, and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

The allure of a simple black ribbon for a writer who was anything but: A few words about my essay about Michel Leiris for The Critical Flame

The recent release, in English translation, of the final major work by French poet, essayist, critic and ethnographer  Michel Leiris served as a welcome excuse for me to spend part of my summer in the company of one of my very favourite writers. A related, but indirectly connected, follow up to his masterful four part autobiography, Rules of the Game, The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat is a fragmented, often playful meditation on Eduard Manet’s infamous painting Olympia. But it is more than an intuitive assessment of the timeless appeal of an important piece of art, it is also an opportunity for Leiris to return to themes that are woven throughout his singular autobiographical works—writing and language, sex and fetish,  aging and death.  Though he would live another nine years after its publication, Olympia is very much the work of a writer nearing the end of his life, worried not only about his own fate, but that of the world he fears he might be leaving behind.

With a politically and intellectually engaged life that spanned the better part of the twentieth century, and intersected closely with some of the most important thinkers, artists, and writers of French and Parisian society, Leiris, in his autobiographical writing, turned a remarkably modest, at times even self-deprecating, lens on the world. He is a deeply internalized writer armed with an abiding affection for the power and subtleties of words, sounds, and meanings, but it is his humanity, insecurity, and intelligence that make him wonderful company.

The result of my summer spent revisiting Leiris, is an essay that has just been published at The Critical Flame. This is the first major work I have written in over a year, and stands, for me, as a counterpoint to my analysis of Phantom Africa, the extensive journal a young Leiris maintained over the course of a two year journey across North Africa in the early 1930s with an anthropological mission. It was this project, his first major published work that, as I argue in essay published at 3:AM Magazine in 2017, not only made him an ethnographer—the profession he would practice for the rest of his life—but also set the groundwork for his influential autobiographical writing. With The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat, the threads of Michel Leiris’ literary finally life come together, as well as they ever can.

My new essay, “The rope that keeps me from floundering”: On Michel Leiris is intended as an overview Leiris’ work and an analysis of Olympia in light of his varied career. My affection for him as a writer is hard to disguise.

The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris is translated by Christine Pichini and published by Semiotext(e).

Tales within tales: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

Oh, she serenades me so lovingly in the crepuscule of the park, the last lark. Does she really want to fraternise with this fluorescent shade? You are from the social services, Mevrouw? What? Come closer chincherinchee, I’m hard of hearing. You’re from the service that does the annual census of rough sleepers? She looks at me! Oh what an expert gaze rests upon me! Diva of the indolents in the catacombs of Krijtberg, sleep-counter of the stone-broke in the Heiligeweg!

At the end of July I shared a few thoughts about translation, arguing that a translated text need not be cleansed of all the linguistic flavour of the source language, especially slang, vernacular or wordplay woven into the original narrative. It may not always be possible or desirable to maintain certain elements, and sometimes transferring the rhythm and feel of an idiosyncratic expression may require the creation of a new word or the unconventional use of English, but it’s a balancing act. Strip away too much and, unbeknownst to the reader, the smooth sounding rendition they hold in their hands may have come at the cost of much of the energy and charm of the original. It might arrive prechewed, if you like, as if to make it more digestible. And unless you know the source material and language, who’s the wiser?

With Marlene van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, you will have no doubt that you are dipping into the slippery terrain between languages. Originally published in Afrikaans, and translated into Dutch and English, it almost feels as if more than one language is meant to interact on the page at times. As a collection of four longer short stories—two set in Amsterdam, and two in South Africa but with a significant connection to the Dutch capital—there is room for a little playful linguistic overlap. And English language translator Marius Swart is quite comfortable allowing that to happen, when appropriate.

Of course, this approach is entirely in keeping with the text at hand. This set of loosely intertwined tales is concerned with storytelling—with language, translation, sound, and images. With what can be told and what cannot. With what should be said—that is, the storyteller’s social obligation—and what should not. And with how to open oneself up to what is being shared.

The opening story “The Swan Whisperer” will be familiar to anyone who chanced to read it in a slightly different form in The Cahier Series edition which featured the striking images of William Kentridge. Rereading it again I was as captivated as ever. Presented in the form of a lecture by a South African teacher of Creative Writing who shares the author’s name; it is an account of Kasper, a misfit student who unexpectedly sends her a long missive from Amsterdam where she had secured him a writing bursary. He is in the hospital, but wishes to explain why he is dropping out of his degree, and recount the most unusual and transformative occurrences which he has experienced. She is not impressed. No, she is even a bit angered. Reads a little and tucks his letter away. When a second package arrives, this one filled with cassette tapes and a so-called Log Book of a Swan Whisperer, she retrieves the letter, reads further and learns about her student’s infatuation with a drifter who appears to be able to communicate with swans. Reluctantly she finds herself drawn into the strange and compelling mystery her former student represents, and caught up in the project captured on his tapes—one where translation leads beyond the structure of ordinary language, grammar and meaning.

The second tale, set in Amsterdam, takes the form of a lengthy, rambling eulogy for Willem,  a writer of some renown. Jacob, his best and perhaps only friend, is a clockmaker who sets out to describe the last day of Willem’s life, one they spent together. The writer had been seeking feedback on his latest story, “The Percussionist,” and now Jacob has brought the unfinished manuscript along. It forms the unlikely backbone to his address to the gathered mourners. He reads from it, imploring the restless assemblage to help him complete the tale. As with all of Willem’s stories it was inspired by someone he had become fixated on and studied through his binoculars:

I would always know when he was having a crush on someone new, and that he’d write it up as soon as it was over, and that I’d once again be called as his witness. Not to witness the infatuation, but to attest to the fantasy. Because nothing meaningful ever came from these so-called great loves of Willem’s. The stories were all he retained. He held on to them for dear life. They were his real lovers, I only realise this now.

Their final day together ended in a riotous, childlike trashing of Willem’s apartment, as if he somehow sensed it was his last, but his friend, left to gather up all the pieces is the one who now has nothing to hold on to. Even as much as he resists it, the funeral also has to come to end and he must go home in his aloneness.

The title story “The Snow Sleeper” is the point at which the threads that tie the stories together intersect, though, the way they actually connect, or the extent to which the narratives and characters can be trusted, is not entirely certain. Here Willem’s younger sister Mevrouw, with both her father and her brother dead, is engaged in a study of Amsterdam’s homeless for her thesis. She finds herself under the spell of a “radiant vagrant,” an enigmatic and articulate jester holding court on a bench in a city park. Unfolding as a series of transcriptions from her interview with him, interspersed with memos that record her reaction to her curious subject along with memories of her own father who had similarly wandered in his later years, lost and restless until he was contained in a nursing home. She is, in guilt and grief, vulnerable to the strange charm of an eccentric drifter determined to tell her a story about a snow sleeper while she is intent on recording responses to the questions on her questionnaire.

Where I’m from, that’s what you want to know Mevrouw? Don’t they teach the art of the diplomatic approach any more, there in your lieweherehogerschool? “Where” is a vagrant “from”, did you hear that, dear listeners? Where from!

Fromness is for someone with a bed in one place, dear lady, but I sleep outside, I come from a cucumber and blow where I will, I know all the spots, the summer houses and the short stays, this park bench is my Xanadu, but I’m actually a man of snow, I drink my own thirst, with a horseradish for a nose and three chestnut buttons on my stomach, a cruel infestations of imaginings in my breast.

Among the tales he spins for his interviewer, is one of a doleful young man whom he tricked into believing he had the power to call swans, and a photographer for whom he performs the construction of a winter bed of cardboard and plastic. He has been, he implies, the ultimate jack of all trades—reciting poetry for a few coins in the park, seducing the lonely souls out of their own security and onto the streets. And for Mevrouw? He haunts and disturbs her thoughts as they share that park bench and day fades to evening:

If you’re going to split your fire for me, I wanted to tell the drifter, if that’s what your story is about, about how you consume people by whom you feel threatened, then I will burn like the wood of a plum tree, you will see all your language burn, soaked into my fibres, you will hear the echo of your impossible tale, a suitcase full of popping coals.

The interview ends when her tapes run out, but she is altered. Not even certain how. His stories nested within her own memos is a searching for answers.

The closing story, “The Friend,” returns to South Africa. The narrator is again named van Niekerk, caustic like the first one, but different in nature. She tells of a friend from school to whom she was unnecessarily cool when she was a young politically engaged activist and he was an awkward character with a stutter and an interest in photography. She encourages him to turn his lens to the injustices of the day at their country’s critical turning point. And he does, becoming a famous documentarian—then going a step too far. Does he perchance end up in Amsterdam one winter? Paths cross, but this is a softly tragic tale about a different kind of storytelling. One with images instead of words. One that ends, like the first, beyond words altogether.

Marlene van Niekerk, known for large novels like Triomf and the monumental Agaat, is equally mesmerizing in a smaller format. The stories in this collection are dense with emotion, ideas, and textual cross references, yet each one feels like magic—sad and wonderful at once.

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk is translated by Marius Swart and published by Human & Rousseau. It is my final Women in Translation Month read for 2019.