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.
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
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Our 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.