The supernatural power of forgiveness: Absolution by Aleš Šteger

Absolution, by Slovenian poet and writer Aleš Šteger, begins with a dramatic flourish, alluding to the staged performative quality of the story that is about to unfold. Like a grandly conceived morality play, the stage is set:

Silence. Darkness. The stage curtains open, and all we see is a man. He hunches behind the high collar of his winter coat, hands buried in its pockets, black briefcase dangling off his right wrist. He sways a little. The pavement has not been shovelled. The man tries to balance his way along a narrow, already beaten track. He nearly falls. Behind him stretch unkempt art nouveau façades, and in the pallor of the streetlights drizzling rain turns into snow. The few passers-by are quietly spat out by the dusk, only to be swallowed again a moment later, just as quietly. The whole time the silhouette of a woman has been at the man’s heels.

It is Carnival time in the Slovenian city of Maribor. And, with a passing nod to The Master and Margarita, the devil makes a brief cameo in this opening scene. But the man with the briefcase is a more mysterious, strangely possessed visitor than the costumed Beelzebub who stumbles on the icy street.

Returning to his hometown, after sixteen years of exile, Adam Bely is a man with a mission. Together with Rosa, his beautiful Cuban-Austrian companion, he immediately sets to tracking down a series of prominent residents, claiming to be collecting interviews for an Austrian radio special about the city which has come to be known, as the “European Centre of Culture.” Each person they meet with is hypnotized or subdued by force, prodded for information about their current and past lives, and then “absolved”—a process which sets free a host of trapped souls—ultimately leaving the “victim” either dead or a raving shadow of their former selves.

Šteger’s fantastical Maribor is striving to be an ideal model of perfected sterility, but it is a false façade—as false as the masks donned by revellers during Carnival. Corruption runs deep and close to the surface. The threat that Bely has come to confront is the Great Orc, a network of “thirteen bodies inhabited by hundreds, thousands, millions of souls which protect the world from change.” These bodies belong to a cluster of powerful, influential individuals, but none of the members know the identity of all of their twelve cohorts. The octopus is the creature that symbolizes and binds this network. Bely is determined to absolve all of the members, effectively freeing the city from a most unusual curse. His conviction is derived from his involvement with Scientology. Although he claims to have left the sect, he still holds to Hubbard’s contention that people are but human animals inhabited by “flocks of murdered souls.”

I have to confess that I am at a loss to know exactly what Šteger was hoping to achieve with this novel. It is either a piece of speculative fiction, or a parody of the same. The characters are caricatures, intentionally so, but there is something decidedly odd and distasteful to the tone and execution. This is not my genre, so either I am missing the point, or this ambitious idea has missed the mark.

It must be noted that Šteger is a very gifted poet. The translation of his collection The Book of Things won the 2011 BTBA award for poetry and his wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Berlin, was long listed for the 2016 BTBA fiction award. And when he steps away from the forced dialogue and strange plot, poetic moments find their way into the text of Absolution, but for a reader coming to this book from his earlier work, those traces are few and far between.

I am not comfortable writing negative reviews. I am always ready to admit that a book that does not work for me, might be perfect for someone else. After all, this book was well received in Germany. And, for all its awkwardness, there are some very interesting ideas here. In my mind, the most striking is the sense of the compounded layers of death the lie beneath so many cities in Europe. It is tempting to reframe the human costs of centuries of conquest and war in Judeo-Christian shades of good and evil. To take an angle like Scientology (which notably emerged from the mind of the creator of some pretty questionable science fiction) is at least daring, if not entirely successful. When Bely and Rosa visit one of their target citizens, Magda Ornik, the Director of the Maribor Funeral Home, she reflects on the artificially symbolic nature of any designated cemetery:

“First, our entire country is nothing but one big burial ground. We all know that whenever you start digging with a shovel you’ll hit a grave or even a mass grave. The Romans, the Middle Ages, the Ottoman invasions, the First World War, the Second World War, the post-war massacres. Slovenia is at a crossroads. Everything comes together and mixes here, and every era provides its share of the dead.”

As a reader living in Western Canada, where the ground beneath my feet contains a long but much more sparsely distributed human history, the densely compacted strata built of the detritus of war and peace (a dramatization of Tolstoy’s novel also features in Absolution) is virtually unknown. Perhaps, then, Bely’s drive to free his city from the weight of so many murdered souls does not seem so far-fetched. As he says:

“I believe in beginnings. Every moment could be the start of something new, something fateful. If I didn’t believe that it’s possible to change the course of our destiny at any given moment, then I’d no longer be on this planet. And I’m still here. Here and now.”

Absolution by Aleš Šteger is translated from the Slovenian by Urška Charney and Noah Charney, and published by Istros Books in collaboration with Belatrina Academic Press.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

Panorama by Dušan Šarotar—My Numéro Cinq review

My most recent review for Numéro Cinq is now live.

I have only been writing critical reviews for a year and this particular piece represents my most ambitious review to date. The ability to reach into a literary work, to tease out what makes it interesting, what makes it tick, or perhaps what does not quite gel, is a function of a certain chemistry. As a reviewer, when I find that hook— that angle—it is a wonderful feeling. But sometimes the surface is too smooth and I find it difficult to get a critical foothold, and it has nothing to do with how much I might have enjoyed a particular book. I can still write a review, but I wonder if I have done the book justice.

Panorama, by Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar, is a book that, as a writer, I feel I was meant to read and write about. At the end of the day there was so much I wanted to explore that I wondered if I could pull it off. This is a work that owes an admitted debt to W.G. Sebald; it is a novel that straddles the sensibilities of what we, in English language literature, insist on dividing into fiction and nonfiction—as if one is more true or more valid than the other. This book has, for me, finally opened up and challenged my resistance to blurring those lines in my own writing.

When I think about it now, I am beginning to see this novel as a series of narratives (or if you like vignettes and short stories) recorded by an unnamed narrator. But the narratives function as meditations on a number of key themes, and the stories shared by the characters encountered are neither discrete nor chronological. The narrator’s journey provides an overarching framework, but his account closes, not at the end, but in the middle, and some threads are never fully resolved. Like life, they are left to be.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

At the Crossing of Words, Landscape & Memory: Review of Dušan Šarotar’s Panorama — Joseph Schreiber

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Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

Innocence betrayed: My Father’s Dreams by Evald Flisar

Adolescence is, at the best of times, a period of turbulence. Hormones take over, driving hopes, desires and emotions. For Adam, the fourteen year-old narrator of My Father’s Dreams puberty becomes a twisted, surreal experience as he finds himself swept up in a world in which the line between dreams and reality becomes dangerously blurred. In this dark multi-faceted tale, Slovenian author Evald Flisar sets the stage for a story that is oddly out of time and place—a contemporary novel that evokes, in its backward rural setting and naive tone, a feeling of gothic horror or psychological drama that would be perfectly at home in the literature of the early twentieth century. But themes running through the narrative that are distinctly modern in their context and execution create an atmosphere that is eerily discordant and profoundly disturbing.

fathersdreamsAdam is a loner. He lives with his parents in a small rural village in an unnamed country. He describes his mother as shrill, over emotional and unduly concerned with social appearances. But he adores his father, the local doctor, unreservedly. He is the centre of his universe and he cannot imagine that he would ever cause him any harm. Adam spends his free time devouring books borrowed from his father’s library, a wide range of classic literature that runs the gamut from Zane Grey to Goethe to de Sade and Kafka and more. Not one to make friends easily, his sole confidant is his assumed brother Abortus, a jarred fetus who “lives” in his father’s secret laboratory in the basement of the health centre.

As puberty hits, Adam is increasingly beset by vivid dreams. He is unaware of just how odd and unnerving the content is until he allows it to fuel a school assignment. His teachers and his mother respond with shock. However, his rich dream life quickly becomes an object of fascination—or perhaps manipulation—for his father. Before long Adam finds that he is losing the ability to define the intersection of dreams and ordinary life:

. . . soon I was having too many dreams, and they began to suffocate me. Daily hallucinations merged with nightmares so imperceptibly that I was finding it harder and harder to draw the line between them. Afraid that I would sink in the burgeoning swamp of my own imagination, I began to flee in the direction of hard reality, grasping at anything that could be seen, felt, heard, or smelled. Soon I became so oversensitive that I registered the slightest rustle, the tiniest change in light, the least noticeable smell.

Over the course of the summer, the content of his dreams continue to haunt his days and nights. They regularly feature a familiar theme. Time after time he finds himself observing his father engaged in sexual activity with Eve, an attractive young teenaged girl from the city who is staying with her grandfather for the school holidays.

His father had warned him not to discuss his dreams, but encouraged him to record them. In his journals, Adam documents his thoughts and dreams which, with the blurring of his sense of reality, he has come to understand as being one and the same… the dream context granting immunity from the content of his thoughts which are peppered with images of sexual arousal and a desire for revenge against his parents. He quickly learns that these diaries are better kept hidden. And he has the perfect location—behind his jarred little brother, with whom he shares all of his secrets without reservation. With adults he is cautious to edit his responses to their queries about his dreams which are then subjected to Freudian and Jungian inspired debates. The only adult with whom he dares to approach an honest account is Eve’s kindly grandfather, who listens with a sharp concern that Adam notices but fails to appreciate.

During his strange dreams, Adam sometimes questions his ability to fall in and out of a hallucinatory state as well as his peculiar ability to exercise some agency, but he invariably seems to be able to assure himself that he is dreaming and, as a result, safe from any real danger. He continues to trust his father implicitly even when during an intentional “shared dream” proposed as a potential cure, he finds himself abandoned in a strange town with two young women:

The mist is now all around us, I can feel it on my cheeks; it is cold. The church clock delivers eleven strikes. There is no sign of Father. They are closing the inn, we have to leave. Like shadows we slink off along the the road leading into the centre of the town. It’s a very small town, almost a village. I am tired and sleepy. I am beginning to worry that Father might not return. Where will I sleep? It’s a strange thought, asking oneself where one will sleep in a dream, but the night is cold, and my worry is almost real. We roam around, passing houses, shuttered shops, and silent buildings. The church clock announces the time: half past midnight. And still there is no sign of Father.

Curiously (or not), the dreams involving his father and Eve cease as soon as the latter returns to the city in September. With autumn’s arrival his mother makes increased efforts to salvage the family, while his father’s behaviour becomes more erratic and threatening. Adam’s “dreams” begin to seem more like a protective psychological suggestion or even a defense mechanism evoked to cloud his perception of the events he observes or experiences. But again, he never openly contemplates this. His narrative, offered from a future perspective, looking back, belies a folkloric sense of innocence that cannot entirely be trusted. It casts a strange shadow across the work contributing to the odd tone. Dark topics such as addiction, suicide and pedophilia lurk at the heart of this tale amid the supernatural, surreal and grotesque elements. As a result the reader is left to navigate a slippery substrate that, even as tensions build to to a horrifying conclusion, refuses to yield to clear interpretation. The result is a complex, unnerving, unforgettable novel.

Novelist, playwright, essayist, and world traveler, Evald Flisar is one of Slovenia’s best known writers. Translated from the Slovene by the author and Alan McConnell-Duff, My Father’s Dreams is published by Istros Books. In their new collaboration with Peter Owen Publishers, they will be releasing Flisar’s Three Loves, One Death in November.

Twenty-first century flâneur in the German capital: Berlin by Aleš Šteger

‘Berlin separated me from my body. I searched for it as for a torn-off calendar page while scenes, streets, faces slowly migrated into me. Time doesn’t exist outside these streets, scenes and faces. Only in their lavish self-obliteration in space do hours acquire some meaning.’

Yesterday I spent a year in Berlin. I didn’t mean for the year to pass so swiftly, I intended, as has been suggested, to linger a little, take time to reflect, to let the sense of place sink in. But I could not refrain from inhaling the city in one fevered sitting. I walked, for a few hours, in the company of Aleš Šteger, a modern day flâneur, shadowing Walter Benjamin, through the German capital, experiencing it with an outsider’s eye and a poet’s soul – at once filtered and enhanced – emerging at the end, altered as only one can be, from the chance not just to visit but to inhabit a foreign space for a period of time.

2016-04-16 18.26.37Berlin is a collection of short stories, very short in fact, that emerged from a year that the Slovenian writer spent in the city. Illustrated with Šteger’s own black and white photographs, these stories, two to three page single-paragraph pieces, tread the blurred line between fiction and essay, prose and poetry, and contain some of the most arresting urban imagery I have ever encountered in such a tight and concise format. With themes that run from the extravagant, to the insightful, to the mundane; this collection holds fast to the spirit of the epigraph from the German poet Durs Grünbein that opens the book:

‘Essentially every city is merely an extension of your own room, you are never entirely homeless/ . . . /The ideal city, which I see in all cities, is nothing but the brain turned inside out.’

Thus it is a book explicitly about Berlin, but implicitly about every city. Native son Walter Benjamin is a clear and present inspiration, and Bertolt Brecht figures, but a range of literary ghosts from antiquity through to the present day, visit the city through Šteger’s imagination. Their voices slide through German, into Slovenian, and back, in the book at hand, into English. The play of language is critical, it marks the experience of the outsider who not only shifts meanings but translates currencies, cultures and habits as he or she dwells in a strange place. In “Crack Berlin”, a story whose title refers to the map-like system of cracks running across the ceiling of an apartment bedroom, the narrator rests in the poetic arms of Ingeborg Bachmann to sketch out his space in this, his temporary home:

‘Translating words, I carry them from German into Slovenian, break them, spin them, just like I spin the map of Berlin, it turns me, searches me, moves me from place to place. The words of someone who died the year when I was born. Words of despair in some city, which has the same name as the city in which I am now alone. Words of despair and loss, which could also be mine, which could be from everyone.’

Berlin is as much a book about a city as it is a book about the language of being. Placing oneself in a foreign place, be it for a week or a year, and finding in the resulting otherness an ability to be present to the moment away from the routine demands of family, responsibility and commitments that pile up around us in those places we come to think of as home, can be an opportunity to open up to the small details, the sounds, the angle of light, and, yes, the people we might otherwise overlook.

Šteger, whose poetry collection The Book of Things, won the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) for poetry in 2011, is a sensitive observer of objects and emotions, and of the relation between the two. Items that he (or his narrators, though the two seem indistinguishable) covet beckon with the allure of a lover – he looks, he resists, he panics and purchases the moment it appears that his beloved might have another serious suitor. The anxiety that wells up when it appears that he has tarried too long is captured deliciously in “Flea Markets”: ‘I looked at the spot where the object of my desire had stood before and didn’t see it. I dawdled and glanced around me like an abandoned bride, melted butter, a cracked bell. And finally I spied a pair of its elegant legs jutting from beneath a pile of old records.’ His pride is beyond him when he rides the subway home seated on his precious purchase, an antique chair/chamber pot.

For those seeking stories with more conventional style and narrative arc, this collection may bemuse, even disappoint. However, the compulsive appeal of the pieces in Berlin, for this reader at least, is largely a function of form. The single paragraph first person narratives unfold with the rhythm and restless energy of incantations, whether Šteger’s alter ego is observing animals in the zoo, describing an infestation of ladybugs in his apartment, or speculating about the potential, in a city of museums, for the creation of a museum of museum guards. His Berlin is a city marked by the wounds of war, bearing the scars and the monuments of its divided history. As a visitor from a land more recently ravaged by war, Šteger is acutely sensitive to this element, but he resists dwelling there. His Berlin is more importantly a city of infinite detail, a play of light and shadows, an intersection of bakeries and kebab sellers, a point bound by countless threads to the rest of Europe and beyond – a central hub, a beating heart.

2016-04-17 20.51.08This is a slim volume. It can easily be read in one sitting. I found it impossible to tear myself away and reread several pieces along the way, simply to immerse myself in the flow of words, to marvel at the imagery. I read much of it aloud. It would, on the other hand, be suitable for a slower, contemplative read. Steger’s grainy black and white photographs capture the ordinary, the every day – the buildings, streets and, of course, things – that complement the view of the city that he, through his twenty-first century flâneur, experiences and brings to life. It is also worth noting that the thrity-one stories that comprise this book are translated by three translators, Brian Henry, and the team of Aljaž Kovać and Forrest Gander. Although an index at the end lists the stories and the translators, it is not evident in the reading a shift from one translator (or pair) to another.
This book is, deservedly, one of the longlisted nominees for the 2016 BTBA for fiction, standing, if nothing else, as an indication of the rich diversity of that list. This is a special and unique collection.

I would be remiss though, to end this review without offering a taste of “About Temples”, one the most unabashedly romantic entries in Berlin. It would be a cold booklovers heart that could not at least smile at this evocation of that most sacred of spaces granted the full force of Šteger’s playful fondness for religious metaphor:

‘After the tinkling of the front door, the entrant is delivered to the grace and disgrace of fallen literary demons smuggled back into heaven. He climbs humbly like some pilgrim, only two steps and he is already in the highest spheres. The air is pregnant with the smell of myrtle, bookbinding glue and dust, and before he realizes it, a shadow of an angel’s wing of one of the classics printed in small letters has stroked him. Whoever enters must leave his reading, his literary snobbery, yes, even the power of credit, outside. Two spaces, two houses of prayer, from hell to heaven, nothing but books, books, books.’

What no love can heal: Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik

Harmattan: A cold-dry trade wind that blows across the West African subcontinent from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea during the winter months bringing dust storms, low humidity and an increased risk of fire outbreaks. This is the trademark wind of the dry season.

dry-season-cover_54aff6fb99d92_250x800rAs Gabriela Babnik’s novel Dry Season opens, we find a 62 year-old Slovenian woman, Ana, lying in bed with a 27 year-old Bukinabé man, and it is immediately clear that her path to reclaim herself will defy conventions. But then, as we come to know her, we realize that she has long been resistant to the constraints of convention. Ana and the young man, Ismael, are not yet lovers, despite the fact that they awake in the same bed. Their first encounter is uncertain, tentative. Across the boundaries of age, race, class, and culture, they have been drawn to each other with their own dark histories lying twisted inside. As these two disparate individuals take turns addressing the reader – that is the most accurate way of describing the manner in which their stories are uncoiled – we gradually begin to learn more about their pasts and their feelings toward one another.

Ismael and his friend are targeting tourists to rob when he first spots Ana. He is drawn to her but does not see her as a potential mark; he does not sense that she is carrying much of monetary value. It is something else, though he is not entirely certain what that is. For Ana, her attraction to black men is rooted in an earlier time in her life: a chance encounter and subsequent affair with a Sudanese man that has left an unfilled and aching space in her memory. It is not clear that she knows, or is ready to confront, what she truly hopes this young man can heal in her:

“But this sleeping man in front of me was from another time. He had a god drawn on his face. I wanted to say that earlier but it slipped my mind. As I was walking toward him from the other side of the avenue, I felt a strong desire for him to touch the secret territory inside me. Ever since I gave birth thirty years ago, I knew I had to put it aside for a while. I mean touching the silky surface of blades of grass with my palm or licking honey slowly from a metal spoon and then looking at my face in it.”

Ana admits that she has literally walked out on her life in Ljubljana, a life she sees as reduced to the design of illustrated throw pillows, trapped an inherited house with a view of the garden. She is haunted by the suicide of her distant mother, the decline and end of her marriage, the return of her long absent father, and the descent into madness of her only child. Behind all of this is a persistent pain, a bitter groundlessness borne of the fact that she was adopted from an orphanage. It colours, perhaps even distorts, a sense of abandonment that no person, place or career can fill. Her escape to Africa is a deliberate attempt to fill this void.

As Ismael takes up his side of the narrative in turn, it becomes evident that these two unlikely lovers share some common demons. His father is unknown to him and this status defines him and his mother in the village in which they live. They are subject to open shaming and abuse until the day when they are finally rescued and removed to a longed for but equally uncertain life in the big city. They take up residence for a while with a man he calls Baba, and who becomes, over time, a sort of surrogate father whose albino son, Malik, will grow to be both a friend and a recklessly dangerous influence. But in the meantime, Ismael’s increasingly unstable mother will flee to the streets. Together they beg on the roadside and sleep under a bridge until his mother is suddenly killed when he is seven years old.

“Not long before they told me that a lorry had run her over – that it was really her, and not one of the night women or morning women – we had grown apart. Or maybe she had grown apart from me, I am not sure. It is possible that I was a burden to her. In our village seven-year-old boys are already responsible for themselves. They bite into green fruit, never meet their mama except in dreams, and eventually get used to her not being around and start paying attention to the things that are around.”

Suspended between an aborted childhood and a tenuous adulthood, Ismael seeks to fill the mother-shaped hole in his life through several women who look after him for a time. He is eager, hungry to learn to read and write, but his opportunities are limited by his circumstances. He drifts back to the street scene, takes on odd jobs, works for a while fixing up old cars, and eventually falls into the pattern of robbing tourists with his friend Malik. Ana is, for him, a respite, possibly even a path out of a life marked by poverty, loneliness, neglect, and extreme brutality.

Dry Season is, in no small way, a sharp break from what one might expect from the literature of a small central European country. Eschewing a linear narrative and conventional storytelling, we are confronted with an unusual blend of metafictional devices – the fact that the action is occurring within the context of a novel is evoked repeatedly, as is a magical realism common in so much African literature, as a way of seeing and accepting ghosts and magic in the world. It is not the Balkan Wars but the tumultuous recent history of Burkina Faso that forms the critical political backdrop. Sex and sexuality are presented with an overt frankness, from the innocent masturbatory explorations of a young boy to the full fleshed desires and needs of a mature woman. Loneliness drives both Ana and Ismael to seek refuge in one another’s bodies, where they find, for a time at least, an intensely passionate release.

The open relationship between a white woman and a black man less than half her age does not go unnoticed on the streets of Ouagadougou. Ana, as the outsider, is forced to confront the reality of the African society against the mythology that has drawn her to the continent and into Ismael’s arms. Once the veil begins to drop in the aftermath of an attack on a cab in which they were riding, she says:

“I was wrong about you, Ismael. I thought you were a quiet, withdrawn fellow, who still walks in a world of timelessness, of gods, of moral certainties and natural laws, and even such constraints as religion and gender, but now I see you are one of them, one of the bandits.”

He counters:

“I am not what you think. I am a man who walks on a reddish road, the man you saw from the cab. I saw you seeing him. You thought, how backward they are, poor things, they learn on the ground, make love on the ground, eat off the ground, but that ground, that earth, which you take in your hand and let crumble through your fingers, it is all we have.”

She finds herself relying on the assistance of street children, who in turn taunt and mock her. She depends so closely on Ismael to be her guide and protector that she easily loses her way in his absence. The risks that they both ultimately face are significant and potentially devastating. There is no escape to a magical wonderland. Especially when the true trauma, the denied reality, lies inside rather than outside of the person longing to escape.

This novel is a demanding and startlingly rewarding read. Both Ana and Ismael have stories that they urgently need to share, that are weighing them down. Both stories contain hidden corners that must be turned, secrets that are difficult to bear. The narrative threads move back and forth in time, building on past experiences repeatedly to flesh out more detail. The novel that is being created in the present moment, if you will, becomes a space of self-examination and revelation for the two narrators. The separate strands become entwined, creating the effect of a tightly braided cord that then begins to fray as the relationship falls apart. The magic fades but the telling grows increasingly surreal, leading up to an exhilarating and shocking revelation in the final pages.

Another stunning release from UK-based Istros Books, Dry Season will be released on November 16, 2015.

This review has been posted on the blog of the Free Word Centre in London.

In partnership with Istros Books, the Free Word Centre is hosting an evening with Gabriela Babnik and translator Rawley Grau on Monday, November 9, 2015. See details here.

Caught in a vicious circle: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović

As Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, the intensely powerful new release from Istros Books opens, it is the summer of 1991 and 11 year-old Vladan Borojević has, to date, enjoyed an almost idyllic existence in the seaside town of Pula. He and his young friends view the realm of adults as something separate, of interest only if someone is missing an arm or leg, or sports a long beard, excessive tattoos or some other particular curiosity. None of them are aware of the deep seated tensions within their native Yugoslavia that are about to start to fracture and begin a long, bloody period of unrest that will ultimately tear the uneasy Socialist state apart. On the day that he and his friends find the local men gathered around the TV set shouting at the politicians on the screen with an intensity normally reserved only for critical sports matches, Vladan senses something is amiss. His anxiety increases when his father arrives home looking empty and distracted:

“My father never drank at work, and I heard him say, countless times, that only in Yugoslavia would people drink more while at work than after work, and that this would send the country to an early grave. But that day he held me so powerfully in his muscled arms that I thought, in all seriousness, that he must be drunk.”

Vladan’s father Nedelko, of Serbian background, is a proud member of the Yugoslav People’s Army. His mother is a strong willed Slovenian woman, who, against her parents’ wishes, left her homeland and married her young soldier. The stirrings of political insurgency put an immediate end to their happy domestic life in Pula as Nedelko is seconded and the family is moved to a hotel in Belgrade. When it becomes clear that this little trouble is not about to just blow over, Vladan’s father disappears from his life. He and his mother will eventually end up in Slovenia, and within a few years news will come that his father, now a General, has died. Or so he is led to believe.

yugoslavia-my-fatherland_5595627fccf62_250x800rSeventeen years on, Vladan is still living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but restless and unable to find his footing. He tosses his father’s name into Google. What he discovers turns his fragile world upside down. General Borojević is not dead, but rather he is a fugitive, wanted for war crimes. Rattled by this news Vladan sets out to find his father tracing a trail that links figures from his father’s past, a relative, an assumed identity, and clues to where he lived or may yet be. When his search leads him back close to home, the bits and pieces he gathers raise even more questions, and force him to look deeply inside himself to determine if he even wants the answers he had craved.

This is one of the most impassioned novels I have read in a long time. The author, Goran Vojnović, is a Slovenian poet, screen writer, and film director. He draws on this background to roll out a complex story that deftly weaves back and forth in time, negotiating the highly charged ethnic and geographic divisions that have long defined and divided the Balkan region. With Vladan he has created a recognizable, contemporary narrator who welcomes the reader into his journey with a mixture of vulnerability and wry humour. Traveling on the cheap in a car that just barely manages to cough from point A to point B, his descriptions are often priceless, like this stop at a roadside café:

“I sat at a table covered in a white cloth, as well as aged coffee stains, which lay over an even dirtier red tablecloth. A plastic ashtray sat in the middle, alongside a vase containing plastic flowers from the Yugoslav Mesozoic period. I had to wait, of course, to earn the right to pay for a sour coffee, hand-mixed with a disposable thin plastic spoon, amidst this particular ambience. It was my first time in such a setting.”

Whether he is looking back to his troubled childhood and adolescent years and his increased alienation from his mother, or looking forward to what truths may or may not lie ahead; his emotions are painfully open and honest. Even if he sometimes leans toward the melodramatic, it is hard to resist being pulled into his account of a life torn apart twice over and the pain of the very difficult dilemma he will ultimately face.

Yugoslavia, My Fatherland tells a multi-layered tale. The tragic dissolution of the Borojević family is traced out against the trauma and conflict that would rend the states of the Balkan region apart and still threatens further division in certain areas. He encounters many who bear wounds too deep to heal. But it is much more than that. Questions of personal and national identity are central. Vladan is not only seeking an understanding of himself and his relationship to his ethnic heritage, but he is striving to reconcile his memory of a loving father with a fugitive war criminal. A very human longing for closure and healing drives him to seek out and confront the man who used to be his father, whoever he is. However, somewhere along the way he will have to stop to measure the costs and decide what he is willing to risk.

Translated from the Slovene by Noah Charney, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland is original, ambitious in scope, and another welcome addition to the catalogue of independent UK publisher Istros Books.