The detective and the end of the world: The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis

If you are a bit of a news junkie like I am, there is a lot of bad news on our TV screens and computers each day. Violent political upheaval, deadly viruses, floods and fires. But it is scattered and for so many of us our complaints are relatively minor, isolated. What if the signs suddenly started to rapidly multiply and spread across continents and communities. Would it herald the end of the world? Would we know or even agree on the meaning of the signs? Assign them to God, reduce them to science?

Translated by Will Firth Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America
Translated by Will Firth
Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America

The Coming, a wonderful novella by Montenegrin novelist Andrej Nikolaidis explores such questions from a rather unconventional perspective. Our hero is a private detective, a small town Philip Marlowe based in the ancient city of Ulcinj. He finds himself most comfortable providing his clients with the answers they want, regardless of whether or not he even manages to find the truth behind a crime or infidelity. This approach makes him popular with the locals who prefer to approach him  rather than the authorities. Consequently the quiet life he seems to desire tends to allude him. As the book opens he has become obsessed with the particularly brutal murder of an entire family which appears to have coincided with the burning of the local library.

Yet even stranger phenomena begin to threaten his routine. Snow starts to fall in June and does not let up. Around the world catastrophes – earthquakes, floods, raining amphibians – are reported with alarming intensity. Is this the Apocalypse, is the Second Coming finally at hand?

For our poor detective who faces this most peculiar string of circumstances with cynical humour and frustration, there is an added factor. Emmanuel, a child he fathered during a brief affair with an irresistible client, is now grown and has tracked him down from an asylum in the Alps where he has been confined after some serious mental breakdown. Through a series of emails Emmanuel shares details of his childhood with the father he has never met and offers his curious knowledge of messianic mystics, millennial cults and numerous attempts to calculate the date of the end of the world throughout western history. Perhaps because he himself has a mental illness, Emmanuel interprets the reported behaviours of many cult members or their charismatic, wildly erratic leaders in reference to what would be probable modern psychiatric diagnoses.

For myself, personally, in the months that followed my diagnosis with bipolar, I struggled to make sense of the role of my illness in the intensely spiritual experiences that I had periodically encountered growing up. During full blown psychosis, I could imagine that the frantic notions that I had the answer to the meaning of life were indeed in keeping with mania. I had the cramped and panicked nonsensical documents to prove it. But what about the earlier visions and spiritual experiences? Far less dramatic, frequently beautiful, these moments had filled me with such an assurance of the existence of God that I completed an honours degree in philosophy without once being troubled by any ontological questions. I could argue for or against the existence or nature of God while my own personal spirituality remained intact.

However, as I started to read about psychotic symptoms, I began to recognize similar features in the visions of Biblical prophets, the martyrdom of saints, the trance states of mystics and other ostensibly spiritual experiences. I could not divorce my own experiences from an underlying framework of biochemistry. My sense of personal faith crumbled.

Over the years as I have watched good people of faith rejected by their churches following mental breakdowns, I have been increasingly concerned by the double standard. After all who draws the line between mystical vision and clinical madness?

The Coming sees no need to draw those distinctions. I loved the way the pragmatic emails from the detective’s estranged son reach out to a world that may well be facing its final hours with the observation that the human desire for an Apocalypse can be compared to our urge to fast forward through a detective movie because we can’t wait to see how it ends.

We want answers – but we those answers to come from God or from science, not from the visions of those who are determined to be not in their right minds.

Literary prescription: The Sound of Things Falling

I am now a few weeks beyond the significant manic episode that has ground my life and work to a halt and precipitated a sudden crash into depression, anger and frustration. The crisis did not happen overnight and the healing will take time but I feel some measure of relief that my ability to lose myself in a book has been returning. Some additional anti-anxiety meds are helping too but I am trying to remain open to literary whims – reviews, suggestions from readers I respect, stray quotes that catch my attention. It seems to be critical medicine for me.

Fortunately there is also that wellspring of rewarding fictional riches, The International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Each year nominations are commissioned from public libraries around the world to create an extensive longlist from which a shortlist of 10 titles is ultimately drawn. It is inevitable that works in translation tend to feature prominently both  in the shortlist and among the archive of winners. Purists can argue over the Booker all they want, this is the award I watch.

winner_slide_2014This year’s winner, just announced in June, is The Sounds of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. This book had been waiting on my ereader for some time, but in light of its recent honour, I thought it might be time for a closer look. A few pages in and I was hooked. Billed as a literary thriller I was expecting a perhaps an entertaining diversion from my own troubles but in truth I soon found myself  deep in a remarkably intimate account of the impact that traumatic experiences have on those directly effected and those around them in ways we often are powerless to predict or prevent. Whether the trauma results from actions chosen or events over which an individual has little or no control the fallout over days, month and years can lead to fateful decisions, ruptured relationships and deep wounds. At the core of this novel are two strangers, brought together through an act of violence who find temporary refuge in a sharing their own experiences of coming of age in Bogota at the height of the drug fueled wars of the 1970 and 80s.

Personally, as I struggle to make sense of the pressures, stresses and events that collaborated to make such a mess of my recent months, it is difficult not to vacillate between anger and regret. Although I know that mood disorders play havoc from the inside out and that the person who is suffering knows something is wrong, they may be slow or even unable to define the nature of the condition, and most certainly incapable of stopping it on a dime. Playing the “if only” card serves no significant benefit. As Vasquez’s narrator Antonio muses as he sets to record the experiences he wishes to share:

“There is no more disastrous mania, no more dangerous whim than the speculation over roads not taken.”

I was able to lose myself in this novel but it did not serve as quite the distraction I expected from a “literary thriller”. There was a disturbing real world resonance that I could not have anticipated. The Sounds of Things Falling is more than simply a title, it is an experience repeated and echoed throughout the novel. From a airshow stunt gone terribly wrong, to a fatal drive by shooting, to the devastating crash of a jetliner. Because a key character was a pilot, de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince also features as a beloved childhood tale. It was disturbing to imagine the little prince asking the pilot if he also fell out of the sky when bodies were literally falling out of the sky as Malaysia Airlines MH17 exploded over a disputed region of the Ukraine.

Trauma, small and personal or wide-reaching and global and all shades in between have always marked human existence. It divides and unites us in large and small ways. the complexity of that experience is, for me, one of the primary themes explored in this worthy literary award winner.

Terrors, somewhere inside we all have them

I tend to think of myself as someone who treasures solitude, perhaps because my normal work world and home context, offer scant moments when I am ever truly alone. Now I suddenly find myself in a situation where I am recovering from a near breakdown, unable to travel far without being overcome by fatigue and vertigo and, so it seems, my work colleagues are under instruction to refrain from all contact with me.

Now if I was off work due to some tangible medical ailment, oh you know, a physical injury or illness or some other condition necessitating tests, scans and possible surgery, I would be able to expect calls, cards, hospital visits. Instead I am in a virtual isolation chamber. I have a mental illness and suddenly the years of highly productive contributions I have provided to my employers seem to have been rendered null and void. A crushing ball of loneliness to which I am entirely unaccustomed sits in the pit of my stomach. Would anyone even notice if I failed to return save for the mass of paper I left behind on my desk?

One might wonder how the workmates of the unnamed narrator of Seven Terrors made sense of his failure to return to the office when, after the dissolution of his marriage, he took to his bed and refused to emerge from the confines of his bedroom for nine long months. That is exactly where this dark gothic tale by the Bosnian author Selvedin Avdic begins.seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r

Long listed for the brilliant Impac Dublin Award for 2014, I read this book a few months back but I find its haunting mystery and curious endnotes continue to resonate with my present frame of mind. Translated by Coral Petkovich and published by Istros Books in 2012 (re-released in 2018 with an introduction by Nicholas Lezard), it is the sudden visit from the daughter of a former colleague that drags our apparent hero from his self imposed exile. She beseeches him to help her locate her father who has been missing for years and intrigued, perhaps more by the young lady than any curiousity about his friend’s fate, he agrees. Thus he embarks on a most dingy and disorienting detective adventure.

Set in 2005, the war in Bosnia a decade earlier is a constant presence throughout the book. Although few events are recounted directly; the memories, mythologies and  human losses linger in the bitter winter wind, seep through cracks in the plaster and creep across the floorboards. With a clear nod to Borges, Kafka and others this dark tale is an entirely contemporary fantasy. Yet as the investigations turn to the missing journalist’s interest in coal miners, Bosnian mythology begins to play a strange role and our narrator’s sanity (already questionable one might argue from his bedsit starting point) becomes increasingly  ungrounded; even as he tries to make sense of himself and the truth behind the dissolution of his marriage.

It is strange how magic, reality, fantasy and fact can mingle in literature – and for this purpose I am excluding fiction that fits explicitly into fantasy and horror genres where such mutability is a given – but capital “L” Literature, which being a bit of a bookish geek is my typical but not exclusive, terrain. Yet in real life, that life we are forced to venture into outside the covers of a book, there seems to be some caveat on TRUTH as if that was even an objective possibility. And what is crazy anyway? When I work with a survivor of brain injury I can sense the difference between psychosis and confabulation and the inability to lay down new episodic memories. But if, under exceptional professional stress, I became agitated, overworked and frustrated is my sanity at stake? I heard no voices, had no visions but I sure was moody and irritated.

I should think that my fictional Bosnian friend burying himself in his bedsheets for nine months was in worse shape than I but as a character he is a fascinating narrator to spend time with. Or so I thought. And obviously enough people agreed to nominate Seven Terrors for the Impac Dublin Award which draws its nominations from the selections of a wide range of international libraries.

As I agonize over my eventual return to the workplace following this recent breakdown I find myself returning to the most fascinating series of footnotes and endnotes that make this Bosnian novelist’s slim volume so extraordinary. Among those notes is an actual list of seven terrors and, for those of us who are inclined to anxiety, blank pages so that you can helpfully add some more of your own. I will leave you with his seventh:

7. Fear of loneliness and darkness
Better to write and describe it like this – fear of                                                           loneliness or darkness. It’s all the same, they both devour.

Turn on the light and read this book.

Uncovering a treasure in translation – Ondjaki

“Is that what tales from before were like a long time ago?”
“Yes, son.”
“So before is a time Granma?”
“Before is place.”
“A place really far away?”
“A place really deep inside.”
-Ondjaki

Last week I had the pleasure of reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan author Ondjaki. This exuberant, magical tale re-imagines a dramatic event set in the community of Bishop’s Beach in the city of Luanda in the early years of Angolan Independence. The country’s first President, Agostinho Neto, has died and a curious, threatening project is rising on the beach. The Soviets are constructing a Mausoleum to the deceased President and, it is rumoured, the surrounding neighbourhood is scheduled to be demolished.

indexOur unnamed narrator is a young boy who lives with his grandmother in a community where a cluster of eccentric granmas are important and valued elders. Together with his friends Pi (known as 3.14) and Charlita, he embarks on a mission to save the day drawing on a worldview informed by spy movies, Spaghetti Westerns and Portuguese language soap operas. A colourful cast of supporting adults round out their adventure including Comrade Gas Jockey who mans a station with no fuel, crazy Sea Foam who is rumoured to have a pet alligator, the Cuban doctor Rafael KnockKnock and a Soviet official christened Gudafterov by the children as a result of his awkward use of the local language.

I learned of this book through the CBC radio program Ideas. In this extended interview, recorded live at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal this spring, Ondjaki spoke of his childhood from which so much of this fantastic tale is derived. He insisted that in his early years, the socialist presence was simply a fact of life – they had a lack of electricity and running water – but it was normal and his childhood was happy. He talked with infectious enthusiasm about his family, his very early introduction to literature and fondness for Marquez, and the deeply ingrained understanding of the magical in the reality of everyday life in cultural mindset of his homeland. Within the week I had obtained and read the book. The tale was every bit as engaging and entertaining as I had expected.

But the greatest find for me personally is the small Canadian publishing house Biblioasis behind Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. This book belongs to their small and select series of books in translation. Although he is recognized as one of the rising stars of African literature, Ondjaki’s work is not widely available in English to date. Biblioasis has published two of his novels, both translated by Stephen Henighan. I am very impressed by the results. A work like this depends so heavily on playing with language. Puns and intentional misrepresentations that work in Portuguese have to be re-imagined to work well in English and fortunately the translator was able to work closely with the author to bring the work to life with all its magical energy intact. As a Canadian I am embarrassed that I am only just discovering Biblioasis. I definitely intend to explore more of their offerings, both in their international series and in their English language Canadian titles.