“Some are destined to stay behind, some are destined to depart, and yet others to arrive.
That’s how life works.”
The metaphysical truth that binds the five overlapping narratives that tell this story of one German woman’s life is simple: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from the end of days.
Like waves crashing upon the shore and retreating again, in each section of this mesmerizing novel by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, the unnamed female character at its centre dies. Born in Galicia, in 1902, to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, the first section imagines her dying before her first birthday. While her mother sits shiva, her father escapes to America in his grief and the young family never recovers.
But then, the narrator steps in and asks us to reconsider the possibility that the infant’s life might have been saved and that another fate unfolds. Now, a second daughter follows the first and the father relocates his family to Vienna in hopes of improving his ability to support his wife and daughters. But war breaks out and life is cold, unimaginably cold, and meagre provisions are meted out to the hungry residents who line up each night, through the night, clutching their ration cards. As her father obsessively copies out earthquake reports brought home from his work in the department of meteorology and her mother assumes she is leading a questionable life, our heroine is simply in her late teens, trying to understand all of the normal passions of adolescence in an atmosphere that seems to hold out little hope. This time she will lose hope and conspire to take her own life.
In her third incarnation we find her in Moscow, having aligned herself with the Communists and trying to write and re-write her own story in a desperate attempt to save herself and, if possible, her husband who has already been arrested. This central section, the longest and densest, forms the axis upon which 20th century European history and the life of the woman at the heart of The End of Days seems to turn. Her own allegiances are complicated, everything she had believed in is tested, and the ground shifts so quickly that holding fast to moral or political ideals is like, well, surviving an earthquake. Her fate, like so many of her relatives is seemingly inescapable.
Or is it?
As well as being a writer, Erpenbeck is also an opera director; and the hypnotic, haunting images and motifs that arise, disappear, and resurface throughout this exquisite novel are reminiscent of the phrases that are repeated and built upon in an extended piece of classic music. The mood is mournful, as themes of loss and the experience of death and grief are revisited, each time within vastly different contexts. Susan Bernofsky’s deft translation sustains the rhythm and music of the language. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seem contrived, but here, the bones are bare, the emotions raw and the result heartbreaking, horrifying and beautiful in its sheer humanity. The prose is spare, evocative. It gets under the skin, works its way right into the reader’s heart.
I could say so much more, but quite honestly, this book deserves to be experienced not described.
International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I finished this book on the eve of the announcement of the IFFP long list and I am thrilled to see it included. (Published by Portebello in the UK, I have the New Directions edition.) I feel confident that it will be one of my personal top reads of the year and I will be looking to read more of Erpenbeck’s earlier work in the future.
The damaged hero of Italian author Diego Marani’s first novel New Finnish Grammar, which was originally published in 2000, but only released in English in 2011 (translated by Judith Landry), is a mystery to himself and to those who find him. World War II is raging, when a badly beaten man is found on a dock in Trieste with no clue to his identification beyond a Finnish name sown into the collar of the naval jacket he wears. When emerges from a coma with, what would presumably be a severe traumatic brain injury, he has no memory and no ability to use language. He does know who he is or where he comes from but, by coincidence, the doctor who attends to him is a Finnish-German who has never overcome his own longing for his homeland. He becomes convinced that the best medicine for his amnesiac patient is to send him to Finland so that he can connect with what is assumed to be his land and language, and in doing so, retrieve the past that has escaped him.
As much as I wanted to love this book, this is where I started to have problems. Firstly, the storytelling approach is awkward. It is the doctor who takes on the task of
curating a selection of notebooks, journal entries and letters belonging to “Sampo”, our erstwhile Finnish patient, to both honour him and make amends. He frames and fills in the tale with his own reflections, corrections and assumptions. Somehow, we are asked to believe that a man with a brain injury severe enough to trigger such a complete loss of memory and language could manage to develop sufficient facility in a notoriously complex language to be able to report his earliest memories post injury, or even find his way around a strange city. Yes, his mastery of the language is never comfortable, he relies on his notebook and endless practice, and he is emotionally lost and eventually unable to find a grounding or the past he seeks. Meanwhile, the language and mythology of Finland were clearly chosen by the Italian linguist author as a template for the exploration of memory and identity, but I could just not suspend disbelief long enough to fully surrender myself to the story.
This is not to imply that there are not breathtaking moments in this novel. There is a heartbreaking sadness and loneliness that haunts our dislocated hero. As war closes in around him, he is the walking wounded, an invisible casualty in a place to which he so desperately wants to belong. But my practical side, the side that spent the last decade working with real survivors of traumatic and acquired brain injury, could not let go of the idea that the main character’s overall functionality did not mesh with his complete loss of identity and language. The assumption is that his memory loss is psychological in nature and that the return of language will release it. In reality though, his injuries would indicate traumatic causes and with such severe long term memory loss some elements would still typically remain intact, while short term memory would be greatly impacted hindering his ability to learn new things easily. A complicated “new” language? I find that especially hard to accept.
I suppose I will have to admit that I am not the ideal reader for this book. I don’t regret reading it and I am sure that there are moments that will continue to linger. Memory is one of the most fertile landscapes for a writer to explore. Even without the added impact of illness or injury, memory is a fleeting, nebulous and fundamentally subjective phenomenon. However, I opened New Finnish Grammar with too much experience with brain injury to fully appreciate the work. And, for that matter, I could not help but wonder how a reader with too much native experience with Finnish language and mythology would respond. Perhaps with an equivalent amount of skepticism.
“Eternal hope: it kills us as much as Hansen’s does.”
In his introduction to the second English edition of Hansen’s Children, BBC Correspondent Nick Thorpe visits a real life leper colony, the last in Europe, in the small hamlet of Tichieletsi in south-eastern Romania where a dwindling number of disfigured patients live out their final years, tended by medical professionals while enjoying the companionship and domestic tranquility of their close knit community. He then goes on to examine the way that Montenegrin novelist Ognjen Spahic re-envisions this leprosarium against the dying months of the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989; creating a perfect, if horrifying, template against which to explore questions of power, corruption and violence throughout the history of Europe – looking to the past, the present and the future.
The “children” of the title refers to the unfortunate souls infected by the bacillus first identified by Gerhard Armaeur Hansen. It is a term by which our unnamed narrator, our leprous Homer, refers to himself and his fellow inmates as he recounts the tale of life within the fenced grounds and the cold damp confines of the aging three-story building that serves to house the remaining inmates of the leprosarium. At the time he arrives they number eleven men and one ancient woman. Outside the gates, a fertilizer factory, ubiquitous on the Romanian landscape, belches out smoke and receives a rotating contingent of increasingly disgruntled workers. From his window he gazes longingly at the Transylvanian Alps, dreaming of freedom from exile and confinement. In fact we learn at the outset of his account that his dear friend and roommate, an American man named Robert, has secured false passports and made arrangements for their escape. This hope will not only feed our hero’s ego, but give him a will to live no matter what the cost, as conditions inside and outside the leper colony decline. In desperate circumstances, brutality knows no boundaries.
Perversely the leprosarium becomes a microcosm of the very divisions that divide human beings in the broader world. For example, when the inmates become aware of a new scourge on the rise outside their gates, HIV/AIDS, two men who have fallen in love will suffer the consequences because “this new disease was misunderstood and homosexual acts per se were seen as spawning the new evil. Mstislaw and Cion were shunned… like lepers. It was kind of understandable.” Mirroring the deteriorating conditions unfolding across Romania, and presaging the fate that awaits Spahic’s own Balkan homeland; power struggles, violence and death escalate within the bounds of the small community. As the conflict to free Romania approaches its final days, helicopters and gunfire splitting the air, our narrator lies in bed and imagines what such a new world could bring. He realizes the sad truth: “I knew that even in a world like that I would be where I was now. I would dream the same dreams and speak the same words. I would remain a leper.”
The picture this novel paints is not a pretty one. It is however strangely engaging and, in the end, deeply moving. The graphic, disturbing details of the progressive ravages of the cursed disease on the bodies, organs and functions of Hansen’s children is painted with a healthy serving of satire. Black humour and tragedy are deeply entwined.
Apart from this novel, only a few of Ognjen Spahic’s short stories have been translated into English although he has published three story collections. Hansen’s Children, which was originally released in 2004 when he was still under 30, has received several important European awards.His most recent story collection won the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature for Montenegro and in an interview on the site he describes himself as more of a short story writer than a novelist and speculates that prizes can increase international attention and encourage translations. I, for one, would be keen to see more.
Note: In addition to his story “Raymond is No Longer With Us – Carver is Dead” which was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press), the story “All of That” can be found on the online journal B O D Y and the title story from his latest collection Head Full of Joy can be found at the European Union Prize link above (following the original Montenegrin version).
Hansen’s Children (2nd edition), 2012
translated by Will Firth, Istros Books
There comes a moment in Andrej Nikolaidis’ novel The Son where the unnamed misanthropic narrator, confronted with a hideously deformed family of lepers who have taken up residence in an abandoned car park in the Montenegrin city of Ulcinj, imagines that he is “a piper with a funny Tyrollean cap, which Thomas Bernhard would find laughable, and (…) dressed in green knickerbockers with suspenders like Heidegger used to wear” who proceeds to march through the streets of his home town gathering a following of the wretched, desperate, and diseased denizens of the streets, dark corners and hovels and leading them right down to the seashore, where he proceeds, walking out across the water, while the “grisly army” he has amassed disappears beneath the waves.
The Son is a dark, unrelenting journey into all the misery and disappointment that life and, those who claim to be your friends, family and lovers can bring. Our anti-hero is not a warm, generous soul. Admitting to his own perverse, gruesome obsessions in the early pages, he reports that his wife has just left him and he is bitterly alienated from his father. He perseverates about the cruelty of the forgiveness his father repeatedly bestowed upon him regardless of the destructive nature of his actions. He manages to vent anger at everyone he encounters, remarking at one point that he was “reminded once again that the nicest things we can say about a person is that one day they will die and cease to bother us.” As readers we are swept along on a scotch fueled odyssey into the heart of the city where a series of old acquaintances and disreputable characters seem to fall into his path where they are treated with a curious mixture of revulsion, pity and disdain. He is, in essence, the most vitriolic Bernhard monologuist transported from Austria to Montenegro and boiled down to the meanest bare essentials. By contrast, my current Bernhard read, his early break through novel Gargoyles, seems airy and light.
Published in 1967, Gargolyes was given its title in the English translation (the original German translates closer to something like distress or disturbance) presumably drawing attention to the grotesque series of characters encountered by the narrator, a son home from school, as he accompanies his father, a rural doctor, on his rounds to a series of isolated, ill and mentally unstable patients. The themes of madness, isolation and suicide recur as they make their way to Hochgobernitz where the aging Prince Saurau takes centre stage for the second half of the book, embarking on an increasingly intense monologue, mourning his own estranged relationship with his son who is away studying in London, and philosophizing about the hopeless and inevitable destruction and collapse of human society.
For my money, the characters that inhabit the pages of The Son are every bit as grotesque as those in Gargoyles, if not more. In both cases they serve as extreme, cartoon-like voices for exploring themes that are in turn horrific, humourous and deeply human, pivoting coincidentally around the relationships between fathers and sons. Amidst the rants against man’s inhumanity to man and musings about the madness and disease of modern society; a desperate compassion comes through. That is the compulsive beauty of reading Bernhard and, for those curious but afraid of the endless single paragraph style typical of most of his work, Gargoyles is a perfect introduction. For his part, Nikolaidis seamlessly transports the energy of Bernhard to the post Balkan War reality of a country he clearly loves passionately. As with his earlier book The Coming, it is also a dark meditation on Montenegro’s rich, complex past and uncertain future.
In a guest blogpost for Winstonsdad’s Blog (a great resource for works in translation), Andrej Nikolaidis reflected on his love for Bernhard and the influence he has had on his own work. Upon his first encounter with The Loser, (also my first introduction), the Balkan war was raging and he could see timely parallels in Bernhard’s existential analysis of Austrian society in a state of decay and collapse. He also finds in Bernhard the prose response to poet Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Fugue of Death’ or ‘Todesfuge’. He hears the rhythms of Bach ring through the works of both men – and Bernhard was a musician first – envisioning Celan as a character who could have walked out of a Bernhard novel. With The Son, and a sound track updated to incorporate the noisy sound styling of Sonic Youth, Nikolaidis’ work carries the banner forward.
The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis (trans Will Firth) – Istros Books Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard (trans Richard and Clara Winston) – Vintage Books
For all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.
Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.
These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”
I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.
The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.
Every year, rather than rushing through a book before the clock strikes midnight just to push up the book count of the year that is slipping away (an inclination likely idiosynchratic only to those who of us would rather read than party on New Year’s Eve), I prefer to walk into the coming year in the company of a great writer, allowing the experience to end one year and launch the next. My companion of choice to see out a year marked by loss, the resurgence of mental illness and a recognition of not only my own isolation, but my role in facilitating that condition; was the late German writer W. G. Sebald. More specifically his haunting and heartbreaking novel The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse). As a curious coincidence, the Word of the Day email from Meriam Webster that appeared in my inbox this morning for January 1 is:
verb : to leave one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere
If you have never read Sebald, his work almost defies simple description. It must be experienced. Adjectives from admirers abound: mesmerizing, beautiful, subtle, sublime. Long evocative sentences unfold into even longer reflective paragraphs – at times running for pages – enhanced with the insertion of grainy photographs of people, scenery, pages from notebooks, objects, sketches. The reader is pulled in, guided along through landscapes, recollections, side observations and historical reflections by a narrator who is present, patient and human in the face of the incompleteness afforded by memory and the passage of time.
The Emigrants may well be the most accessible of Sebald’s work that I have read, especially because it forms its structure around the apparent biographies of four men who have emigrated or been exiled from their homelands. Three of the four have a Jewish heritage and World War I and II form a critical backdrop to the four very different accounts. Our narrator encounters each of these men, in person, even if only as a child, but in most cases he pieces together part or all of their life histories through the recollections of others, and the diaries and memoirs that he acquires along the way. In some cases he even attempts to revisit the locations that impacted the lives of his subjects, finding only decay or even complete obliteration in his vain efforts to find traces of a past that cannot be revisited.
There is such a deep and abiding melancholy that runs through these pages, that I don’t think I could have chosen a better literary companion to mark the passing of this difficult year. But it broke my heart and drove me to tears on more than one occasion. The first two chapters end with suicide. In the first we meet the eccentric Dr Henry Selwyn who, by the time the narrator and his wife come to know him, has taken to dwelling in the garden of the house owned by his wife from whom he is long alienated. He confesses to a greater sense of loss over a friend who had disappeared into the crevice of a glacier years before than any regret for the dissolution of his marriage. A Lithuanian Jew who had sought to conceal his heritage after emigrating England, the gentle doctor would eventually put his hitherto unused rifle to final lethal use.
In the second chapter the narrator revisits a beloved childhood teacher, Paul Bereyter, upon hearing of his suicide. Through his own reflections and conversations with a French woman who became Paul’s friend in his later years, an attempt is made to piece together the roots of the melancholy that had been hinted at when Paul was an unconventional but enthusiastic teacher; yet grew with the realization that even being 1/4 Jewish was sufficient to make him an exile in his own country. Meticulous and pragmatic to the end, the former teacher carefully researches his decision to end his own life. But although you know it is coming, the recounting of Paul’s final day is none the less devastating for the reader.
The narrator then traces the history of his own great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth in the third section. I found this portrait at once the most moving and the most devastating. Here the emigrant destination is North America and, for a change we are in settings with which I have some connection. Eccentric and meticulous in presentation and decorum, Ambros rises quickly in the hotel industry of the early 1900s and, once he joins his siblings in the US, secures works with a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. He is given charge for their son Cosmo, a young man driven to reckless excess and, as we will also see, its dark counterpart so recognizable to those of who are bipolar. Ambros and Cosmo embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, marked by gambling, daring aerobatic performances and a certain display of personal affection that raises the eyebrows of the elite that inhabit the rarefied world of wealth and glamour in the years just before the First World War.
With the outset of war though, Cosmo begins to plummet into despair and despite the best remedies that money and contemporary mental health care can buy, he will end his days in a private sanatorium. After staying on and looking after the family, Ambros retires to live in quiet isolation. But he is seemingly haunted by a deep unbearable grief. Suicide would be too messy, one imagines, for a man who dresses and presents himself as a formal gentleman to his dying day. Rather Ambros opts for voluntary commitment to the same sanatorium where Cosmo died, stoically submitting to an extreme regime of ECT as if the only way to truly destroy traumatic memory is through one bone blasting jolt at a time.
The final chapter, one which Sebald admitted was based on the amalgam of a landlord he once had and a well known artist; finds our narrator in Manchester, England. The city centre is in rapid decline. Here he meets Max Feber, an artist who, having emigrated from Germany, has for decades been single-minded in his efforts to find refuge through art. He devotes himself to this task seven days a week, drawing and erasing his work repeatedly, beyond the patience of his models. The narrator is curiously drawn to this anti-social, unusual character and they form an odd friendship but it is not until he revisits Max 25 years later that he realizes that there is here another story of loss to be fleshed out. But the lasting impression of the emigrant experience is as one in which both the realities from which emigrant has come and those to which he arrived (in this case in Germany and in Manchester) are both subject to decay, dissolution and the vagaries of memory and time.
I have never been one for family history. My mother’s family emigrated from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in the mid 1800s, my father’s mother’s family would have arrived in Toronto from England probably around the turn of the 20th century whereas his father’s family were United Empire Loyalists, making him a 7th generation Canadian. My parents met in New York City in the late 1950s, an era to which my father repeatedly tried to return long after it had ceased to exist. My brother and I were born in New Jersey but, after exploring a variety of options, my family pulled up stakes and moved to western Canada away from everyone they knew and settled here when I was only a few years old, soon adding another son.
Apart from that rough sketch, I am not inclined to family trees, I have only two photos of myself as a child and by the time my own children were born I had developed such a strong aversion to having my picture taken that I sometimes worry that I may have failed to take enough photos of my own children when they were growing up. Many years ago I finally understood why the person I saw in pictures or in the mirror was so at odds with the person I knew myself to be and started on a journey to correct the discord. Having reached my intended destination I no longer know how I fit into my family tree. In a very fundamental way I am an emigrant who has become exiled in his own life, still seeking to define what that means for me.
As the richly imagined portraits in The Emigrants illustrate there is a melancholy, anxiety and despair that can haunt the emigrant experience. I found myself wondering about origin, that is, how much of the melancholy was carried into the experience and how much owed its origin to dislocation and loss? As a person with bipolar disorder recovering a from a serious breakdown, questions of cause and effect always simmer. In the end it is impossible to distinguish loss leading to despair from despair that enhances a sense of loss. Having experienced both this past year I enter 2015 with a cautious mix of anxiety and anticipation.
April 7, 2016: The post below was composed when I was debating the extent to which I wanted to turn toward reviewing books. As a result it is primarily personal and reflective in nature. Since writing it my reviews rapidly moved to more serious and critical efforts, many of which now appear on other sites.
I recently wrote a piece for the Three Percent blog on why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award for 2016. It offers a more critical view of this work.
The novel opens with the chance meeting of Jim and Tommy, two childhood friends, now in their mid-50’s on a bridge at the break of dawn. More than 30 years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to return to work. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, to find himself in a high level financial position in the city. But his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them and over the course of the day that follows this early morning encounter each one finds himself facing a deep sense of grief and loss over the close friendship they shared growing up in semi-rural Norway.
As spare and luminous as the northern landscape that grounds this exploration of time, friendship, family and dysfunctional parents – themes Petterson has returned to continuously – I Refuse follows a winding chronology and employs a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide at 18 initiates events that drive them apart. Brought to life through the blistering translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (of Knuasgaard, Loe and Nesbo fame) this is simply Petterson’s broadest, darkest and most complex work to date. If his brilliant Out Stealing Horses has long occupied a space in my top ten all time favourite books, this new work is even more striking and mature.
Or maybe I am simply more mature myself.
At this moment in time, at roughly the same age as the men at the core of this novel, and currently engaged in my own pursuit of disability supports following an unexpected return of a mental health disorder after more than a decade of stability, I could relate to the essential theme of the slowly eroding and distorting impact of the passage of time on our selves and our relationships with friends and family. Apart from a failed marriage and a childhood in a similarly semi-rural setting; my life and circumstances are different than those portrayed here. But the true power of this work lies in the author’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries.
Kind of like the way we have to navigate life itself.