Fans of Fleur Jaeggy rejoice: A link to my review of I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Lives at Numéro Cinq

Any one who has fallen under the spell of the shimmering spare prose of Swiss-born Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy is well aware of her uncanny ability to evoke subtle shades of darkness and weave tales that linger in the imagination. However, for English speaking readers it has been a long wait for new work to emerge in translation. Fourteen years to be precise. That patience is finally rewarded, as this month sees the highly anticipated release of not one, but two recent collections: I Am the Brother of XX, a compilation of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three hyper-condensed biographical essays.

These works, not surprisingly, reflect a more personal, reflective quality than her earlier fiction, directly featuring, at times, other writers with whom she became friends over the years. Familiar themes are also revisited, lines between light and dark are blurred. Her prose is, as ever, sharp, essential, charged with spine-tingling beauty. And applied to biographical subjects—De Quincey, Keats and Marcel Schwob—it is quite wonderful indeed.

I invite you to read my full review of these new releases at Numéro Cinq. Here is a taste. Please link through at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Sacred Inertia | Review of I Am the Brother of XX & These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy — Joseph Schreiber

One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Continue reading here:

Read the story “The Black Lace Veil” here:

Pride goes before a fall: My Heart Hemmed In by Marie Ndiaye

I once had a job that entailed, as part of my regular duties, selecting an inspirational quote from a directory and changing a roadside sign, usually standing in the dark, in the beam of the headlights of my car, sliding the plastic letters onto a ridged board. The motley selection of letters on hand limited the choice of sayings, but one of my favourites was:

A person who is all wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package.

As I spent the last day or so in the head of Nadia, the narrator of My Heart Hemmed In by French author Marie NDiaye, that line kept coming back to me. Poor Nadia. So self-centred that she truly can’t see beyond the narrow reality she has constructed around herself.

And the reckoning will be harsh. We sense that from the opening pages.

Originally published in 2007, now released from Two Lines Press in a translation by Jordan Stump, My Heart Hemmed In is an exquisite exercise in narrative restraint. The tension is immediate and sustained. Nadia and her husband Ange are middle-aged school teachers in Bordeaux. Theirs is a life of smug, self-righteous isolation. They delight in their moral superiority, their cultured good taste and ostentatious frugality; they appreciate quality and reject base, popular forms of entertainment, including television. They select their few friends carefully, while judging anyone who offends their delicate sensibilities to be beneath contempt.

Their marriage is a perfect union of souls.

But something is threatening that bliss, something dark and insidious. The couple, afraid to acknowledge it, share the sensation that they have become the object of a simmering hostility in their community. Once admired, they cannot imagine what they could have done to warrant this growing contempt. And then, one day, a mysterious open wound appears on Ange’s stomach. He refuses treatment and retreats to his room. As an aura of disease and decay spreads from his bedside, threatening to overwhelm the entire apartment, Nadia fights to save him amid the waves of concern, fear, and disgust that appear to be driving a wedge between them. Aggravating the divide is the presence of a disheveled and despised angel of mercy—their downstairs neighbour, a certain Monsieur Noget. Once the object of their mutual scorn, he now arrives daily, bearing gourmet delights, insisting it his “honour” to help care for Ange and tend to the couple’s needs. Nadia is torn between her distrust of this stranger—whom everyone else seems to insist is a famous author—and the irresistible temptations of the glorious, fat-laden meals he prepares daily.

Nadia’s neatly defined world rapidly begins to shift around her. The very fabric of reality seems altered, threatening her rational self-control, but she is determined to push her anxieties aside. Ignoring the warnings of others, she attempts to return to work after Ange’s strange injury only to discover, with horror, that she too has been victimized. She arrives home in a state of shock:

My knees buckle. I collapse in the doorway. I must lie prostrate like that for some time half conscious (because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of a tea kettle, the clink of silverware), unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream. How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by that complaint. My weight is resting on my right hip, and it’s very painful. I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans.

Over the weeks that follow, Noget continues his patient vigil. He forces his luxurious fat-laden food on both husband and wife, but while Ange continues to waste away, Nadia rapidly expands beyond the capacity of her clothing. Eventually, her efforts to save her husband—and salvage her own dignity—drive her to attempt to reconnect with her estranged son. This will bring her into contact with her ex-husband and the vestiges of a life she was once desperate to escape. Was she so unhappy? she wonders, quickly burying such thoughts as soon as they arise.

As her distress at the disorienting disruption to her previously ordered existence mounts, Nadia finds little sympathy. Rather, she is confronted regularly, and from a variety of sources, with the insinuation that she is the source of Ange’s trials. She does not want to hear that. Her pride is virtually indissoluble. She clings to it as if it is the only quality that gives her being—her tortured soul—substance. Even as her surroundings seem to conspire against her, her defiance grows with her confusion and paranoia. She will not question her sanity. Nor does she accept any responsibility. After all, she insists, she has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this bizarre, brutal turn of events. She is determined to hold, in Ange, a mirror of her own soul. She cannot bear the possibility that it could be her own arrogance and stubborn self-regard that corrupted him.

However, an italicized internal monologue woven into Nadia’s measured narrative account, betrays a deeper train of thought—her bitter self-justification, her growing doubts and fears, her moments of despair, her desperate entreaties to herself: “My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat.” It runs at odds with what she will admit into her formal account. It is where we begin to see the fissures in her psyche that are spreading and threatening to fracture any equilibrium she is able to hold on to:

No, I’m not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can’t rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me.  And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it’s hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart. I was born right here in Bordeaux, in Les Aubiers neighbourhood; I’ve spent my whole life in this city, and I love it with a fraternal tenderness, like a human soul mate. But now I find Bordeaux slipping away from me, enigmatically shunning my friendship, its streets seemingly changing their look and direction (is it only the fog? I ask myself), its citizens grown hostile over the past few months (and I’d gotten used to that and it had, over time, become bearable), seeming no longer to hate me exactly, but to be stalking me.

Nadia is a complex, troubled protagonist. She cannot fathom what it is that others see in her face, but knows she is somehow marked. It is not easy to feel sorry for her. She demonstrates a disturbing inability to distinguish between what is legally right and what is morally decent, refusing to acknowledge the extent of the heartlessness she has shown to others. And she is so completely self-absorbed, so willfully disconnected from ordinary human engagement, that the cost of the isolation she once craved comes as a cruel shock. “The trouble with you,” her ex-husband advises her, “is that you only know what you want to know.”

Half-heartedly hoping to save Ange, and weighed down by the sense that her beloved Bordeaux, now contorted and encased in terminal fog, has rejected her, Nadia sets off to visit her adult son, now a married doctor living far away. She hopes she will be able to regain some stability, but the surreal, grotesque occurrences follow her. Haunted by losses and regrets, Nadia becomes increasingly unhinged and fragile as her sense of herself, and her place in the world, slowly unravels.

NDiaye is a master of narratives that mix the magical with the real, but she leaves the line between her fantastical landscape and her narrator’s paranoia and neuroses fluid. The result is a tightly paced, psychologically claustrophobic allegorical tale, rich with elements of gothic horror. With My Heart Hemmed In, one is invited to read and through the observations and interpretations of a myopic, damaged, and yet fundamentally recognizable narrator. She is at once frustrating and tragic. There is, after all, a little Nadia in all of us.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 2), Canada: This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Okay, so maybe I was looking the other way and missed the sheer force of poetic nature that is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but after reading her latest collection of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost, I can only sit here and think: Where have I been? To balance my review of the Australian anthology, This country anytime anywhere, I was hungry for something vital and exciting from my own country—not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t find it from an Indigenous writer here, but I didn’t know where to look. I wanted something different than the fine, but more conventional narrative novels I’ve read in the past. I wanted something passionate, something that would challenge, discomfit.

And here it is.

Simpson is an acclaimed writer, musician, academic, and activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry. She draws on the storytelling traditions of her people, merging them with elements of contemporary realism, speculative fiction, and spoken-word poetry. In turns introspective and political, her work is raw and uncompromising—shifting shape and stretching time—to bring the harsh realities of decolonization into focus through poems and stories that are vibrant, unexpected, and sometimes brutally funny.

Simpson’s writing erupts with an immediacy and intimacy that catches the reader off guard. The world she opens up is one where the uneasy ground between a self-centred, ego-driven contemporary culture, one with roots deep in the motivation and mentality of the colonial mindset that helped shape North American culture, meets an Indigenous worldview that values the dynamic interrelationships between family, community, ancestors, nature and the environment. This is the tension at the heart of the decolonial process. It is, at many levels, still a matter of paying lip-service, at best, to the legacy of the injustices endured by our Indigenous peoples. I may like to imagine myself “concerned” and “compassionate,” but reconciliation is meaningless unless otherwise unheard voices are truly heard.

This collection of short, often fragmented pieces does not endeavour to soft-peddle a message for easy consumption. Honest, frequently conflicted emotions—anger and bitterness, confusion and self-doubt, sadness and injury—come through; as does a deeply abiding respect and concern for the environment. As a storyteller and poet, Simpson’s power lies in the lyrical beauty of her language, and the vulnerability and sarcastic humour of her narrators. This is work that is at once engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

An underlying theme in This Accident of Being Lost, is the reality of being an Indigenous woman today and the disorientation that can create. The protagonists are searching for connection, to others and to their heritage. The poetic pieces tend to feel more political in tone, either as direct protest songs, or in a more plaintive evocation of loss and pain such as “travel to me now” which begins:

the wind has worn my edges
the cold pricked away brittle skin
bones lying here in front of you
lost before they can begin

there’s red on the ice of the lake
there’s bruises that never heal
there’s past collapsing on present
she took things i didn’t know you could steal

As much as I enjoyed the poetry in this collection, it was the prose pieces, at least on this first reading, that made me fall in love (yes, love), with Simpson’s writing. She weaves a selection of original, often fragmentary, stories, that drop the reader into the imaginations, concerns, and anxieties of her narrators in a way that is abrupt and intimate.

We see attempts to reclaim Indigenous cultural practices in altered spaces. Stories delivered with pointed sarcasm. In “Plight,” a group of women engage in the guerilla-styled tapping of maple syrup from the trees in a Toronto park (albeit marking the trees before the leaves fall in the autumn to be certain they have the right ones), while in “Circles Upon Circles,” a family tries to revive the practice of harvesting wild rice from a lake now bordered with summer cottages. In both cases, white residents have to be appeased: “Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback…. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” It is an emotionally exhausting process.

There are also a number of pieces that play with the way modern technology impacts communication. Online obsessions mediate relationships built around social media—intensifying insecurities and fragilities when texts don’t arrive, chat messages are ignored, and “real life” encounters are anticipated. But that is not where electronic interaction ends. The spirit world is also online. In the wonderful story “Big Water,” the narrator is engaged in text communication with Niibish, the surprisingly security-concerned spirit of Lake Ontario (Chi’Niibish to the Nishnaabeg people) as the lake waters rise, threatening the city of Toronto with extensive flooding. The lake is sending a message: “We’re in a mid-life crisis, out of shape and overcompensating because it’s too late to change any of that. Beaver’s doing push-ups on the soggy grass. Bear’s doing power squats and bragging about his seven-minute workout app and the option of having a hippie with a whistle to call out the next exercise.” It’s very funny, and yet it’s not. The message is serious.

Some of the narrators are delightfully sharp-witted, navigating settings—a firearms class or a daughter’s dance course—where they manage to hold their own. But it is in the more open, fluid pieces that explore the strained, breath- and bone-deep emotion of the search for connectedness with lovers, with the land, and even within the vagaries of modern society, that Simpson’s work speaks to me and to the “otherness” I struggle with. Her prose is exquisite, she handles longing and sadness so beautifully. In “Brown Against Blue,” a woman is heading out on a hunting trip with a man she loves, in the way that love is complicated and fragile. She doesn’t want to ruin the experience but fears she will. Her partner asks why things can’t just be “good” and she tells herself that one reason is because she is always “straddling the eroding edge of pathos.” But that’s not quite right:

I never teeter on the edge of things. I live there. I cheat on myself with Sad and she never abandons me. In a way that will sound awful to you, but not to me, she is the only one that loves me in the way I need to be loved. My constant lover, Sad, as muted, dysmorphic entrapment.

Another answer is that he lives in his own muted, dysmorphic entrapment that is slightly different than mine.

Songs and stories together, there are thirty pieces in this slim collection. They invite, and reward, re-reading. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began collecting traditional narratives and essays in her earlier publications, before releasing her first collection of fiction, Islands of Decolonial Love, in 2013. That was where I had originally wanted to start, but I could not find it locally. I now want to explore her earlier writing, her music, and see what other writers and artists this leads me to.

This Accident of Being Lost is published by House of Anansi Press.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 1), Australia: This country anytime anywhere

Over the past decade, I’d like to think that my reading has broadened in scope. I used to scour and select books from mainstream literary reviews, major award longlists, and end-of-year round-ups. Reading works in translation, turning to smaller independent publishers, seeking more experimental writing, and allowing myself to follow my own idiosyncratic fancies have all served to expand the borders of my attentions (and the limits of my bookshelf real estate). But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take stock and think: What are the gaps I might want to fill? What voices am I not listening to?

This year, when my friend Lisa of ANZ LitLovers announced her annual Indigenous Literature Week, I immediately thought of a book I picked up in Alice Springs this May: This country anytime anywhere: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing from the Northern Territory. However, if I was going to read and write about an Australian publication, I promised myself that I would balance my efforts with the work of an Indigenous writer from Canada. That review will follow in a few days.

Published in 2010, This country anytime anywhere is a joint project of the NT Writer’s Centre and IAD Press. The initial phase involved workshops and consultations with over 100 Indigenous people—some established writers, but the majority beginners interested in telling their stories. The resulting collection of poems and stories is diverse, featuring writers who range from teenagers to elders and hail from urban, rural, and remote backgrounds. Critically, eight Indigenous languages and English are represented. There are several bilingual offerings and two submissions for which no comfortable English language translator could be found. This is an indication of the precarious state of some of these Indigenous languages.

The range of offerings in this slender volume is impressive—from family histories, to traditional folktales, to poetic expressions of anger, and narrative songs and stories. The variety of styles and subject matter is impressive. Many evoke a simple, unadorned voice. Magical, or more accurately, spiritual elements are often woven into the fabric of mundane, everyday life, speaking to the connection to a heritage and land that extends back centuries, millennia. But, as one might expect, these poems and stories echo sadness, loss and grief. Fallout from the Stolen Generation, the years (1910-1970) when many children were removed from their families, is still very present. The ravages of alcohol, mental illness, injury, and suicide are not ignored. But there are also stories of hope and survival.

One of the most widely known contributors, writer and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, is represented with two bilingual (English/Pitjantjatjara) poems and two stories. “Spirit Gate,” which she describes as a “satirical work of fiction based on hope,” imagines the sudden disappearance of all the Aboriginal people from Alice Springs. The main character, Trevor, is awakened in his Melbourne home by the disembodied voice of his grandfather. The Song he hears is a summoning and he promptly leaves for Alice. Light-skinned, he arrives without attracting attention, to a community distraught by the disappearances. At a café, he listens to the clientele—“artists, social and youth workers, hippie-types and government ‘yuppie experts’”—debating the strange circumstances:

Snippets of conversation confirmed that all Aboriginal people had vacated the township region about a week ago. There had been no warning of the exile, no specific signs to the exodus, and most people had failed to notice the blackfellas had gone for several days. People had just assumed they’d gone for another funeral, or collecting royalty money somewhere.

Trevor learns that the non-Indigenous population feels “jilted and hurt.” Business and the tourist trade are threatened. Unruly behaviour on the streets and drinking on public lawns indicate that the Dry Town rules are being violated. It is a world turned upside down. Though the tone is tongue-in-cheek, Cobby Eckermann is taking a pointed stab at the industries that benefit from the Aborginal presence. In the end, the protagonist goes out to join his own people who have gathered beyond a spirit “Gate” to be renewed and regain the dignity they have lost.

Having just been out and spent time in Alice Springs and beyond (observing the town as an outsider but having an opportunity to engage with those who live and work there), this and a couple of the other pieces set in the community had an extra resonance. The desert imagery was also especially poignant for me—even after a short stay, the land gets into your system. The natural world is a common theme in much the poetry in this collection. For example, “Red Desert” by Maureen Nampijinpa O’Keefe opens:

See the thorny lizard walking along the red desert dunes.
See the snake slithering across the red desert sand.
See how high the eagle flies, hovering above the desert.

The spinifex glistens golden in the sun,
as the desert winds blow softly amongst the ghost gums.
See the leaves swaying to the desert wind.
Listen to the leaves rustle as the squawking of the white cuckatoos
breaks the desert’s silence.

This collection offers an interesting insight into contemporary writing from the Northern Territory. The poetry tends to have a plaintive, political undertone, while the prose pieces showcase the legacy of the long storytelling traditions of the Indigenous cultures. However, these are very much stories of the 21st century. And they are often brutal. Of note is “The Tree” (Gloria Daylight Corliss), a short piece that shifts between a third person narrative recounting a man’s memories of playing, camping and fishing beneath a large banyan tree, and a first person tale of personal loss and environmental degradation. What begins with a boy playing on the branches of the tree ends with the grown man hanging from the same tree. The urban-set “The Irony of that…” (Jessie Bonson) is a darkly playful tale of a teen-aged would-be writer who creates horrifying scenarios only to routinely erase them: “Edit – Select All – Delete.” But woven into the tapestry of her fantastic scenes are the very real domestic terrors that haunt her and her mother.

For the participants in this project, writing is healing. Since I traveled to central Australia to take part in a fundraising event in support of an Indigenous Women’s Council, this collection (which happens to feature female writers by a ratio of about 3 to 1) is a fitting complement to that incredible experience.

A methodical madness: Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

On a cold winter day, in a remote location high in the Pyrenees, an old man is bent over his desk intent on completing an ambitious, eccentric project. Time is against him. He is an enigma—reclusive and unknowable. And the goal of Carlos Fonseca (Suarez)’s infectious debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, is to attempt to unravel and piece together the true identity of this strange man and the circumstances that led him to this place. But it’s no ordinary investigation and the colonel at the centre of attention is a military man only in his own imagination. He is, or rather was, a brilliant mathematician, a cryptic solver of abstract puzzles, who at the height of his fame, suddenly retreated from academia, embarking on a strange journey toward isolation and obscurity.

Our guide in this inquiry is a playful voyeur who follows the aged recluse through the course of a single day, spinning a fragmented, nonlinear narrative of anecdotes, historical asides, interruptions, and discursions. At times we are invited to observe our subject as if through a lens, sometimes zooming in to a level of pixelated hyper-reality. At other times we watch as an invisible (or unnoticed) presence, slipping into the frame to rustle around in his photographs and letters when the colonel is asleep or otherwise occupied. As readers we are complicit. Curiosity is mixed with a sense that we are invading the secret world of a man lost to the caprices of a second, doomed childhood:

Where is the border of the private? Where is the sentry to tell us when we should stop, draw a line, move no closer, and have a little respect? We imagine that at some point, when we’re getting too close, we’ll no longer see him and only the pixels of the background will be left, atmosphere with no storyline.

The pleasure of the intruder.

Much more than an exercise in intellectual and linguistic experimentation, the hero of Colonel Lágrimas is loosely based on the strange life of Alexander Grothendieck, the enigmatic German-born mathematician who played a major role in the development of modern algebraic geometry before suddenly abandoning his career in mid-stride, ultimately spending his later years in seclusion. Fonseca, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, grants his colonel a Mexican birth, a Russian Jewish mother given to painting the same volcano day after day, and anarchist father who fatally throws his lot in with the Spanish Republicans. There are crossovers and echoes with Grothendieck’s life which held its own share of mystery. But here we have a character on whom the spotlight can be dialed in much closer, even if we can never get inside his head, so to speak. In an interview published in Numéro Cinq, Fonseca describes his novel as the product of an intersection of his obsessions with the elusive German mathematician, with archives and archival novels, and with Chuck Close’s large portraits often composed of “pixels” created out of mini-paintings. Stylistically he says he sees his writing as, in some sense, a product of his origins, that is, as “the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other.”

Thus, by playing the voyeuristic detective narrator’s close observations of the colonel’s daily routine and his current effort to record the lives of three imagined alchemical divas against a collection of historical anecdotes we begin to build an image of an old man racing against time to contain an essence of a history he is trying to forget. Woven into the narrative are descriptions of faded photographs, aphorisms from his father’s notebook, and postcards from a long correspondence with Maximiliano, a Mexican who gets inextricably bound in his former hero’s eccentric archival efforts. Themes repeat, patterns form. And binding it all is the regular appearance of a doodled spiral of barbed wire and a complex algebraic equation that are assumed to be connected. Gradually, layer by layer, a picture starts to take shape.  The fragments are the pixels needed to construct a fuller portrait of the life of our solitary subject.

His is a life that crosses many of the major events of the twentieth century—the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, Vietnam—albeit a step out of time or logic, forever anachronistic. We learn that our “young colonel” rejected his past and began a lifelong pattern of slipping behind masks at an early age. He headed off, on his own, to occupied Paris, when he was ten. Within a few years he had adopted the role of an orphan. Later, having earned respect as a mathematical genius, he suddenly tosses it all to teach math in Vietnam during the war. At present, on the day we spend watching him in his absent-minded pursuits, he is engaged in writing the “autobiographies of other people,” his trio of historical divas. Or are they a means of assuaging a guilt that has driven his odd behaviour? That is not an easy question to answer.

There are two ways of approaching the colonel. You can see him from a distance, his romantic profile like a tired genius who finally surrendered to the madness of endless projects. Easy to see him in this genius-like aspect, prisoner of dementia, a captive of the memory of his traumatic childhood. More difficult though to approach him to the point of belief, to where we believe in his projects. To see him up close in his more criminal profile: no longer a genius, no longer mad, but rather a man who waited, patiently, until the day came that would strip him of his talent so he could sit down to write what he always wanted.

As a portrait of our stateless colonel is fleshed out in what is more a process of questioning, refining, and focusing possibilities—attempting to solve an individual life as an algebraic equation—it is impossible not to feel pity for this man who struggles with writer’s block, has an unknown audience waiting outside his bathroom door as he sings in the bath, is observed as he dresses up in his finest regalia, and critiqued as he performs a drunken oratory in what he can only assume is the guarded privacy of his own home. Examined as a collection of data, analyzed and psychoanalyzed in his waning days, he will not be allowed to slip quietly into obscurity.

And whether that would secretly please him or not, we will never know.

Colonel Lágrimas is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books.

Immigrant tales with a difference: Tumbleweed by Josip Novakovich—My Rusty Toque review

On Canada Day it seems appropriate to call attention to a collection of stories by a Croatian born writer who immigrated, first to the US where he lived and taught for many years before moving to Montreal in 2009. He decided to settle here, and is now a Canadian citizen. Josip Novakovich is a master of the short story and his tales tend to stretch across borders, typically either stepping back into, or at least glancing at, his Balkan homeland. Yet in his latest collection, Tumbleweed, the majority of the stories are set in North America, in cities and rural locations where his migrant narrators are struggling to set down roots and build lives for themselves, often in the company of some unforgettable non-human characters. It’s a great introduction to an author with a respected international reputation who deserves to be better known here in his adopted home.

My review of Tumbleweed can be found in the latest issue of The Rusty Toque.

Consumed by the landscape: The Plains by Gerald Murnane

There is a certain futility in setting out to write a review of Gerald Murnane’s classic novel, The Plains. Like the world in which it is set, it eludes concise description, or, rather, any attempt to contain it fails to capture its rare and strange beauty.  An otherness is apparent from the earliest pages. The narrator’s account of his arrival in the vast, open lands of the central region of Australia is measured, performative. He is a filmmaker who originally traveled to the plains to gather research for a project titled The Interior. Looking back, twenty years on, he recalls his first evening in the town he has chosen as a base:

Late that night I stood at a third-storey window of the largest hotel in the town. I looked past the regular pattern of streetlights towards the dark country beyond. A breeze came in warm gusts from the north. I leaned into the surges of air that rose up from the nearest miles of grassland. I composed my face to register a variety of powerful emotions. And I whispered words that might have serve a character in a film at the moment when he realised he had found where he belonged.

He has come prepared with a stack of folders bulging with notes relating to the script he is working on, confident that “no one has seen the view of the plains that I am soon to disclose.”

The landscape—definitive and incomprehensible—shapes the singular society that has evolved there. But this is an allegorical, alternative Australia. Wealth is tied to the ownership of land, longstanding and rooted in the history of exploration. But it is maintained through a currency of ideas. Every “cultivated plainsman” has an ever expanding library to accommodate the growing disciplines of thought and speculation that occupy this idiosyncratically intellectual world.

Our protagonist takes time to listen to other plainsmen and build an understanding of the history, trends, and competing concepts of the plains and their relation to the coastal areas (or “Outer Australia”) that have come and gone. It is a complex mythology. His goal is to secure the patronage of a landowner who will support his work on his film project. He succeeds, or so it seems, but the cost, if in fact that is how he ultimately would see it, is extracted gradually and steadily over time.

The prose is intoxicating. Words seem to emerge out of the shimmering stillness. The narrator’s simple account carries a sense of foreboding that continually builds and dissipates. He describes a society obsessed with its own arcane introspection, so inward looking that the direct light is a distraction, where experience of the world is mediated, filtered, and reduced to minute, intricate exploration of the smallest details isolated and abstracted from the whole. Relation to the land is one of primacy of the ideal over the real. The landscape of the plains defines the thinking, aesthetics, and values of the inhabitants—shapes their arts and sciences—but the plainsmen themselves rarely travel and never speak of life as a journey. They are, rather, more concerned with time and memory disassociated from physical experience:

Of course, the literature of the plains abounds in accounts of childhood. Whole volumes have expounded in profuse detail the topography of countries or continents as they were descried under faltering sunlight in the only hour when they were said to exist—some fortunate interval between almost identical days before they were engulfed by events too trivial even to be remembered. And one of the disciplines that most nearly resembles what is called philosophy in far parts of Australia is known to have originated in the comparative study of scenes recalled by one observer alone and accounts of those same scenes by the same observer after he had acquired the skill to attempt a fitting description of them.

Murnane is a difficult, but compulsively readable, writer. He falls quite comfortably into the company of Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, but with his own distinctive (and essentially Australian) quality. He is also slyly funny. At one point, after his would-be filmmaker has been on the plains for over a decade, still no further advanced on his plans for his project but continuing to fill file after file with notes and research, there is the intimation of a potential attraction between him and his patron’s wife. The latter comes to the library to read, day after day, sitting near the shelves where the philosophical tomes dealing the question of Time are kept. As an energy seems to develop between them, unspoken in this silent space, the narrator contemplates the possible ways he might let his feelings be known—write a book she might read, write a book and catalogue but not shelve it, and so on. In the meantime, more texts about Time continue to arrive, filling up the space between them. Ultimately, his intentions proceed no further:

I may take pleasure occasionally in the sight of her so close to the crowded shelves that the pallor of her face is momentarily tinted by a fair multiple glow from the more hectic of the jacketed volumes around her. But I myself prefer not to be seen in the places given over to Time, no matter how nearly I might seem to approach the plainsman’s view of all that might have happened to me. I have a fear, perhaps unreasonable, of finding myself beguiled by images of what almost came to pass. Unlike a true plainsman, I do not care to inspect to closely those other lives lived by men who might have been myself.

If you have lived in the plains, as I have, this novel will have a special resonance. You will recognize the ineffable qualities of space and light (although for those of us in the northern hemisphere, there are southern peculiarities—warm winds don’t come from the north here). What it means is another matter. It is a tribute to the book’s shifting opaque character, that you sense you cannot quite observe it in the right light. But this is an intelligent, provocative, fascinating work. For an Australian reader there are likely themes others might not notice and yet it does not matter. This is a book that has to be experienced to be appreciated and, I would argue, best met without preconceptions.

Nothing will quite prepare you anyway.