Crossing borders and defying boundaries: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Think of a story as a living being. There are countless beings and countless types of beings. Physiques, lifestyles, screams, conversations, breaths, tremblings, horns, mutenesses, ways of living and dying, all different. So running off in the middle of a story in a huff is simply not acceptable. Let it live its life, find its own denouement. A butterfly’s tale is a few days a flutter, a bee gets four weeks abuzz, a mouse drools over a handful of crumbs; if a dog lives twenty years, good for him, and yes, if you’re a parrot, turtle or elephant, you get a full century. The wretched cockroach won’t even die when fired from a cannon.

First things first, yes this story sprawls across some 700 pages, give or take, but as the above quote indicates, it has, as all stories do, its own lifeblood, its own pace, and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, kicks up its heels, starts with bold and defiant enthusiasm, and refuses to let go from its first paragraphs to its final words—and even then it carries an advisory that no story ever really ends. Quite simply, this energetic, intelligent and engrossing novel, brilliantly translated (or is that dazzlingly transformed?) from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has the power to delight just about anyone with a pulse. Even an avowed novella devotee such as myself.

Tilted Axis, UK edition

Central, no, essential to this tale is one singular octogenarian heroine—Ma, Amma, Granny, Mata-ji, or Baji—depending on the perspective of the character (or creature) who falls into her orbit. Recently widowed as the novel opens, she spends the first, say, 175 pages or so lying in bed, defiantly turning her back to the world, ignoring the desperate entreaties of family and friends. She seems determined to remain, confined in her grief, willing herself to dissolve into the wall. Propped by her bedside is a cane, a gift of a grandson, one who engages for the most part from a distance and is thus known as Overseas Son. This collapsible cane, decorated with butterflies, is the key magical element in this oversized, yet thoroughly down-to-earth fable. What revolves and expands around Ma and her cane, is a story about borders—about women and borders we are told at the very outset—but it is also about all sorts of boundaries. Between genders (in society and within a single body and life), classes, family members, religions, nations and even between human and nonhuman communities.

Prior to her retreat from the world following the death of her husband, Ma was the typical matriarch of an upper middle-class Indian family. If there were subtle hints of a certain eccentricity, she devoted herself to the role of wife and mother, surrounded by her son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, referred to respectively as Bade, Beti and Bahu. Of the immediate family members, only the eldest grandson is known by a given name, Siddharth or Sid. The majority of the burgeoning cast however, servants, officials, Ma’s dear hirja friend have proper names of some sort—an indication that it is the core of the family that will have their prized self-identities tested the most once Ma emerges from her mourning isolation reborn, so with a fresh, almost adolescent sense of wonder and adventure.

Penguin India edition, cover illustration by translator Daisy Rockwell

However, before Ma’s new lust for life begins to assert itself, she disappears, raising all manner of panic, alarm and indignant outrage, only to turn up days later, at the police station, oddly changed, apparently confused and so much smaller than anyone remembers. Bade and Bahu are greatly relieved. He has just retired after an auspicious career in the government and will soon be moving from his official residence to a retirement flat where, as custom dictates, his mother will live and be cared for. But Ma has other plans. She intends to go home with her daughter.

Beti is, at first, pleased and surprised. She has always imagined herself as the free-spirited, bohemian member of the family. A feminist. An activist. Divorced, she lives alone in a modern flat decorated with art and stylish furniture. Her current boyfriend, KK, visits when he is not travelling. Both of them are journalists and value the ability to come and go as they please. Ma’s presence begins to upend everything Beti thinks she knows about herself, especially as Rosie Bau, Ma’s long-time hijra friend begins to spend more and more time visiting, charming everyone except Beti in the process.

The story in its second part becomes one of shifting roles and questions of identity. Bade struggles with the aimlessness of retirement, Bahu, is conflicted by her desire for individual expression and her commitment to the expectations of her place in society, and Beti by just about everything she has valued as she finds herself losing control of the world she has carefully constructed around her. She pulls away from her boyfriend. She is at once grateful for and resentful of the care and friendship Rosie offers her mother. And her work suffers as she finds herself slipping into a mothering/housewife role she had so proudly avoided. As Ma continues to shed layers of her past, to defy what others had long expected of her, her daughter acquires new, suffocating layers. One woman grows smaller as the other grows bigger, so to speak.

Finally, in the third part, Tomb of Sand enters the realm of Partition literature, heralded by an opening chapter that features a ghostly contingent of the many literary greats who have contributed to the tradition gathered at the Wagah Gate, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan where every evening a grand spectacle is held to mark the day’s end. The legendary authors and some of their iconic characters jostle for attention and much mayhem ensues, culminating with a direct, albeit invisible attack of mischief that disrupts the famed flag lowering ceremony. Of course, cellphones are duly collected by the embarrassed guards and no tangible record of the event survives. With that introduction, Ma and Beti’s adventures on the far side of the border—a border which has so bitterly divided a nation that once was one—is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected excitement, horror and heartache.

Of course, a thumbnail sketch like this hardly begins to do justice to a work like this in which the whole and its parts together create a larger-than-life experience filled with warmth, humour, and social, ecological and political commentary without skipping a beat. Ancient history and modern concerns—local, national and global—are wound together. The boisterous, omniscient third person narrative voice seamlessly drops in advice, wisdom and instructive asides along the way. There are characters we never see from the inside, Ma and Rosie in particular although they both will have their moment to speak deeply and passionately from the heart. By contrast, Bade’s and especially Beti’s tangled emotions are opened up wide. And we also cross over into the heart and mind of a crow and his community (who have some very pointed opinions on the way human creatures are fouling the planet) and are given, on occasion, the door’s eye view of the ongoing affairs because there are, after all, some things a door cannot avoid seeing. Finally, there is a guest narrator who makes several cameo appearances, a friend of Sid’s who by his own admission is not a character in this story, but happens to be on scene at the time. His brief first-person accounts stand as grounded eye witness reports of some of the more fantastic elements that others too busy with the business at hand may well have missed. This all may sound like a bit too much, but it works, the flow is smooth and swift and that the pages seem to turn of their own accord.

Then there is the language which necessarily involves a discussion of the translation. This book is liberally littered with Hindi (along with some and even a little Sanskrit) sometimes translated, obviously as with quoted poetry or, obliquely as in a clever comments like: “And no one will say, but these are good days, acche din! Except for the government, that is.” But more often than not,  Hindi words are simply worked directly into the text without any effort—or need—to explain though I will confess that as a reader with a basic Hindi vocabulary it was fun to recognize and understand them.

The original Hindi version of this book was known for its exuberant wordplay and this is where the translator’s careful attention to the spirit and the energy clearly shines. Onomatopoeia is liberally employed and generally transferrable, but the puns, layered meanings and alliteration possible in one language cannot be reproduced directly. The author and her translator established a good rapport that openly encouraged wordplay in the target language, and, as Rockwell describes in her Translator’s Note, she endeavoured to evoke an echo, a resonance, a dhwani of the source text. The result is work that embodies mood and emotion so effortlessly that even the smallest moments seem charged with life’s joys and sorrows:

No one noticed when the leaves changed the season of the heart yet again. When the monsoon was at its peak. The leaves grew fat. Hanging heavy on the trees. They hung, dripping sadness. Even when they’re quiet they hang heavy. There’s beauty in their fullness, but there’s a core of grief, dark and deep. The raga of grief in slow tempo, extremely slow, a despondent alaap, a prelude. Or is it a vilaap, a lamentation?

Finally, I want to say something of the portrayal of the hijra character Rosie who is key to the turning of the events that drive this novel. She is an independent figure, standing apart from many of the common activities that have so often defined hijra existence—begging and sex work. But that makes her an enigma and a perceived threat to Beti for all of the latter’s assumed hipness and LGBTQ-allyness. Rosie has a hold and influence on her mother that she cannot appreciate and this heightens her obsession with the hijra’s body, her otherness and the secret alliance Ma and Rosie seem to share:

What was all this topsy-turvy talk? Perhaps there was some clue to help Beti understand this topsy-turvy body. Strange how whatever one said of Rosie, the opposite was also germane. Like a body engaged in challenging all stereotypes and definitions. A body unrecognizing of the legitimacy of any borders. Flowing this way and that.

When Rosie eventually begins  to appear at times in male presentation, Beti is unable to cope with the dissonance that does not seem to bother her mother, KK or anyone else in her housing society. Yet, ultimately Rosie will be given the opportunity to take up the issue of her reality from her own perspective, as one who is not considered to exist, to be of value, to belong to anywhere. In this character, in her fabulousness and her tragedy alike, is a strong statement that I, as a legally and socially transitioned person who has crossed from one side of the gendered border to the other, can relate to. It is a recognition, not always acknowledged in fashionable transgender discourse, that we never really belong to either side. Some boundaries we carry within us forever.

Tomb of Sand is a huge novel, a story that celebrates the best of storytelling as an art form and as part of a cultural tradition.  Packed full of historical and literary figures and references, snatches of Bollywood song lyrics, and a wealth of culinary delights, it does what translated literature should do at its best: Invite the reader in, welcoming them to cross linguistic boundaries and experience a story that is filled with the scents, flavours and tones of its home country yet recognizable and relatable in the very human and global concerns it explores. Defying borders, at least for a time.

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree is translated by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis in the UK and by Penguin in India. It has been longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, the first Hindi translation to be nominated for this award.

The stars used to be on our side: Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets

There is a very eerie atmosphere that envelopes the stories in Yevgenia Belorusets’ collection, Lucky Breaks. This is a collection that examines the impact years of covert military action on civilians, in this case the conflict in the impoverished Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been ongoing since 2014. But, by terrible coincidence, the release of this work in English came on the heels of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and these tales of loss, displacement and trauma have suddenly been cast into sharper relief. This slender volume has become more vital than it already was. As I write this I am following the author’s daily diary updates from Kyiv and her words have become an essential aspect of my emotional connection to a situation that seems to so difficult to understand. That is in no small part because she is deeply interested in ordinary people whose stories are so often unheard, caught up in events they did not choose and cannot control, detailing her character’s situations with a measure of ironic humour and serious respect for the remarkable resilience that keeps them going against the odds.

Fate delivered her to Kyiv. She didn’t know what to do about it. She came from Donetsk, where she had lived her whole life in her parents’ small one-family house. She had enough money in her purse. That’s what they say, “in her purse,” although her actual purse was empty, full of wind. The wind part, really, is a hyperbole. She simply possessed something in her name, that’s it. That’s how they say it around here, “to her name,” although her name had nothing to do with it; she was not a name brand. In short, she had some inviolable reserves that she had to unseal and start systematically spending.  (from “The Lonely Woman”)

Belorusets is a photojournalist and writer whose work is informed by political activism. Her intention is to call attention to communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in the media. Her writing is an extension of this practice. In her collection Modern Animal (reviewed here) she worked with people she had interviewed during her years in the Donbas to reimagine their painful experiences in stories and allegories involving animals. In her “Note Before the Preface”, she indicates that in this volume, her activity with the tales she tells is still a form of documentation, not of the conflict itself, but “the surmounting of the conflict through a dialectical process—by means of phantasmagoria, narrative, conversation, and the disclosure of certain situations to the viewer.” Alongside the stories there are two photographic sequences: But I Insist: It’s Not Even Yesterday Yet and War in the Park. The grainy black and white images are not labeled and are not related to any of the stories, rather the three threads are presented as a means of showing how different contexts collide and unsettle narrative certainty. I will also mention, and I don’t know if it is intentional, but the font used is unusually small, effectively slowing the reading process and forcing the reader to remain longer in each of these relatively short stories.

The protagonists of Belorusets’ stories are almost exclusively women, told either directly through the character’s voice, presented as conversations or interrogations, or recounted as the experiences of someone the narrator knows or knows of. As such, the author’s own voice may be reflected in some of the accounts. Refugees and others displaced by war are common. Many find themselves lost and disoriented in Kyiv, longing for a past life or trying to build some kind of existence in the city. They look for work where they can find it. Others belong to an uncertain fate. Like the story of a florist so attuned to her art that she hardly exists outside her shop in Donetsk, but what happens to her when her home and shop are destroyed? Some characters arrive in Kyiv bearing the scars of the traumas they’ve endured, like the woman who keeps trying to rid herself of a broken black umbrella she carries only to rush to retrieve it, scolding it, pouring her pain into this tattered object. There are dreamers and horoscope readers and a woman who visits a cosmetologist as one might a therapist, in the belief that her hands can somehow massage, however temporarily, the griefs she carries right off her skin. Through their troubled, often eccentric circumstances, the characters who inhabit these thirty-two stories contribute to a narrative of life under hostilities in a state of persistent, slow burn. The heat has since been turned on full and these tales become at once more affectionately folkish and more disturbingly real. The stakes are even higher. One recurring character advises the narrator that she wants her identity hidden, and challenges her motives for recording her story at all:

“At least this is why it’s better for you and me if no one knows about me. I could be called to account, couldn’t I? But is there anything I can change? Not only can I not change anything, I don’t dare to. You’re taking my words down, you must be counting on something. Maybe a tearjerker about how we’re all full of hope for a new future, or how the country that we loved became our prison. We’re left to eke out a life in small towns, to die in plundered hospitals, in dirty public wards, or in empty little apartments where there’s no hot water for months and the lights go out at night. Someone will want to hear about us, and then you will be the one invited to a grand festive table, you will be the one they’ll raise a toast to.” (from “Lilacs”)

In allowing such passionate, disaffected voices to come through, Belorusets has, in Lucky Breaks documented a mood existing in Ukraine before  the barrage of headlines that have come to dominate our understanding of her country. That is what a documentarian does. And she is still doing it as bombs fall.

In his informative Afterword, translator Eugene Ostashevsky describes Belorusets’ writing as being most indebted to the early stories of Nikolai Gogol and early Soviet era avant-gardist Daniil Kharms. Elements of the supernatural and the absurd normalized within the realm of the everyday and a concern with narrative fiction appear in her work. Ostashevsky also discusses her controversial choice to write in Russian which raises political and logistical challenges for a Ukrainian writer in a country where most people can speak both languages, but Ukrainian is increasingly favoured and protected. He does admit, however, that her Russian is subtly different from that spoken in the Russian Federation: “it is based on the rhythms and intonations of the Russian of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and continues the Russian-language line of Ukrainian literature.”

Despite the grim subject matter that underlies (and sometimes surfaces) in this collection, Lucky Breaks is filled with warmth and humour. Belorusets’ characters exhibit much the same mix of anxiety and resolve that can be seen in the people she meets today as she wanders the streets of Kyiv and compiles her journal that is, at this time, being translated and shared with followers around the world on a daily basis. However, I can only hope that a wartime diary is not required too much longer.

Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and published by New Directions in North America. It will be released in the UK by Pushkin Press in May.

Some thoughts about two months of reading Norwegian literature

I started 2022 with a personal decision to focus on Norwegian fiction for at least January and February. There was no particular reason apart from a couple authors I wanted to visit or revisit and a general sense of Norwegian literature fitting nicely into a Canadian winter. Canada is a similarly northern country, albeit much larger, and I have often felt “at home” in the climate and landscape that emerges in much of what I’ve read from Norway. Of course, although I had a number of Norwegian books already on my shelves, this little project inspired the purchase of more, a trend that continued during the reading.

So, I have some thoughts about this experience. I read a total of seven novels or short story collections by five male and two female writers. This was the first issue. I had difficulty finding female authors of interest, although I have since become aware of a number I’d like to explore. My initial searches brought up a predominance of writers of noir and historical fiction—neither genres of particular interest. And then I inadvertently purchased a few titles that turned out to be Danish, not Norwegian, enough that I could probably do a month of reading female Danish authors. I will confess, though, that I was curious to read recent work by male authors my age or a little older, and in that respect, four of the novels I chose fit the bill.

I really enjoyed five of my selections, had a few minor issues with a sixth and was decidedly underwhelmed by a seventh. I decided not to review that title, as I felt there was little to gain by dissecting a novel I found so disappointing—I’m ready to accept that the problem is probably with me—but my response does deserve a few words here. The book is The Other Name: Septology I–II by Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls–Transit Books/Fitzcarraldo). I have yet to read anything but praise for this work which extends for seven parts over three volumes and I honestly expected it to be a book I would have liked. But, not so.

It’s the story of an aging artist, a widower, who is a misanthropic loner with a rather religious temperament. In the nearby city lives another artist with the same name, matching the same description, whose life has followed a very different course. He is drinking himself to death. Other characters in this small cast also echo one another in name and biographical details but live different lives. Or so it seems, because our narrator, Asle #1 as I thought of him, and no one around him, appears to notice the duplication beyond the name. The story unfolds in a ponderous leaden prose—a glacial stream of consciousness—ostensibly a single sentence, but one that reads more like “sentences” with an absence of full stops. Other punctuation occurs and any dialogue is off-set in the text. However, I could not help but feel that the author has given himself too much runway for the story he is trying to tell. It not only drags on, but his imagined memory episodes, like two sections where Asle watches (and listens to) a young couple (obviously himself and his late wife) in a park, made me irritated rather than impressed. The general narrative style and the potential metaphysical questions at play appeal to me, but the execution did not. I did finish it, if only to see if I caught the spark others have felt, but although the second part was an improvement, I can’t imagine going any further.

I could not help but wonder if The Other Name suffered in part from the fact that I picked it up, halfway through this project, after beginning with two books that I loved, my favourites overall as it turned out. Tomas Espedal’s The Year is a stream of consciousness novel in verse about aging and loss that is intelligent, humorous and sad, whereas The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is likewise a deeply internalized narrative, dark and meditative that also deals with grief and matters of faith. These first two reads were so strong—that is, perfect for me at this moment—that I filled in the rest of my Espedal collection and bought Ørstavik’s earlier novella Love. It’s worth noting that I was not put off Fosse altogether either, but rather than looking ahead to complete his Septology, I bought one of his very short novellas. I think I might appreciate his work more in a very tight space.

The balance of my Norwegian project featured three new-two-me authors, Thorvald Steen (The White Bathing Hut), Ingvild H Rishøi (Winter Stories), Kjell Askildsen (Everything Like Before)  and one long-time favourite, Per Petterson (Men in My Situation). When I think about it, the one theme that binds every one of the  books I read is isolation. That is, perhaps, a significant aspect of the appeal for me.

All in all, this little Norwegian project has been a rewarding experience—I read a lot of great books and bought even more. This is the first time I have set a solid goal early in the year and met it. I have also read and reviewed several nonfiction and poetry collections and one other short story collection since the beginning of January. It feels good have been so productive, slow reader that I am, but it will also feel good now to think about reading without any strict self-imposed objectives for a change. However, I do hope it bodes well for 2022, reading wise. I mean, we’re still dealing with the pandemic despite the willingness of many governments to believe it’s over and the worsening situation in Ukraine and ongoing conflicts elsewhere are terrifying. Then, of course, there’s climate change and so much more. I would suggest we need literature and art more than ever at this time.

“I was thirty-eight years old, everything was blown, I had nothing left.” Men in My Situation by Per Petterson

There we sat in silence beneath the big wide tall trees behind the station building, breathing, each in our uneven rhythm, as if we’d all been running, but none of us the same distance. Then I said, Vigdis, I guess it’s up to you whether we should say anything about this to Mummy, about what just happened. It was quiet in the back seat, all three of them sat there looking out the windows. Vigdis sat in the middle, but it was Tine who said, no, and then Tine said, no, too, and Vigdis didn’t say anything.

Early 1990s, Oslo, Norway and Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight years old. From a later vantage point, a decade or more down the road, thirty-eight is young, but when you stand there it feels ominous, as if one is hurtling helplessly into middle age. And, at this moment, Arvid has found himself alone in the world. His wife has left him, taking their three daughters with her, and it is less than two years since his parents and two younger brothers perished in a tragic ferry accident. In Per Petterson’s most recent release in English translation, Men in My Situation, the Norwegian author places his frequent “stunt double” into a set of circumstances that will test his emotional awareness and resolve, and, as the title perhaps implies, as a man of his background, era and disposition, his resources may well be limited.

Petterson is a writer who has claimed that he is unable to detail a plot in advance; he begins with an image or a sentence and, as a result, a measure of uncertainty lingers in the finished product, a sense that the protagonist or narrator is not sure where he or she will end up. One has to give the story the time it needs. Grief and longing are also common themes in his work, as are life transitions and family dynamics (the boat accident is drawn from Petterson’s own personal history and appears elsewhere in his ouevre). All of these ideas come together in Men in My Situation, an accomplished novel from a mature, confident author. This version of Arvid is bemused and hurt to find himself abandoned. His self-awareness is of the moment; he retells his tale as if in an effort to make sense of it all—his confusion, his numbness and his blind spots all make him familiar, complicated and real.

Arvid is a writer of some renown, sometimes even recognized on the street, but he is ever conscious of his working class background. His exposure to literature was self-directed and it is only in recent years that he has been able to give up his factory job to write full-time.  But it makes him a bit of an outsider in literary circles. He and his ex-wife, Turid, met in their teens and, although she shares his background, she seems to have been able to find her place among an artistic crowd Arvid describes as the “colourful people”—a space he cannot penetrate. He senses that, seduced by her new friends, she simply grew away from him. But it hurts.

It was a cold autumn, the first after Turid. I felt cold all the time. I wrote almost nothing. I could wake up at night and not remember that her side of the bed was empty, a certain number of kilos permanently lifted from the mattress and her smell fainter with the passing days, and with the nights, weeks, and in the end completely dissolved and gone.

When, after about six months of weekend visits, his daughters announce that they no longer want to come to see him on a regular basis, he struggles to embrace the ambiguity of estranged fatherhood and a haphazard and unwelcome bachelorhood.

Alone now, Arvid does tend to spend a fair amount of time wandering aimlessly, often idly hoping to meet a woman to go home with, although he appears to be such a passive, lost soul that the women who are interested seem to drag him home as one might a stray puppy. And frequently he is a disappointing date. He attracts pity, but the rare instances suggesting real potential desire on his part generally frighten him off. He never calls back. Anchorless, he drifts without making an effort to either move on or make claims on the children he has been denied access to. As frustrating as this may be, the spiral of depression and grief he is caught in is real. Despondent, he falls short of anger which, properly directed, could be the motivating force he needs. Only his eldest daughter, Vigdis, appears to understand, but she herself has some uncertain medical or mental health concerns. And Arvid worries that she perhaps sees him all too clearly.

This is a slow moving novel, but it is beautifully realized through a narrator who has an appealing honesty and dry sense of humour. Long, winding paragraphs often extending for several pages, incorporate observations, memories, asides and dialogue without line breaks or quotation marks, echoing Arvid’s characteristic internalized processing. At the same time, great attention is paid to the urban and rural environments he travels through by bus, train or car, creating a vivid expansive sense of place and further highlighting his isolation within it:

On the way to the station along the wire fence and the railway line it began to blow and to snow again. I didn’t have a cap with me, but pulled one round of the scarf over my hair as a muffle against the snow, and the snow whirled around me in the wind and whirled over the closed-down factories by the Sagelva river, over the shopping centre up the road, over the hills beyond and over Øyeren lake and the river Glomma, over the forests toward Sweden. And I imagined I could see all this snow whirling over the treetops and then slowly falling and new snow coming, covering the timber roads, covering tracks of elk and roe deer, of hare and why not the wolf now moving in from  the forests of Sweden after a hundred years of absence, all this seen as if from a soundless helicopter, and I caught myself longing back to the Sundays when my father and I went skiing deep into the woods on the red-marked tracks in Lillomarka, his back broad and muscular ahead of me in the blue sweater my mother had knitted, just him and me breathing sharply in the sharp winter air and the dry snow and the dry cracking of trees leaning against each other in the brittle cold, and at the same time the longing for all this made me so weary. It wasn’t going anywhere. My father was dead. There wasn’t any before. There was only now.

As the novel progresses, Arvid begins to fill in some of the relevant or unfinished pieces of his past and make an increasingly resigned alliance with his new circumstances. But there is something missing. Toward the end of the novel, the depth of his compounded grief begins to become apparent, both to Arvid and his audience. The loss of four family members twice over in the span of little more than a year, first his parents and brothers then his wife and daughters, one loss quite likely setting the groundwork for the other, is a significant trauma. He never labels it as such, nor is he likely to allow himself that full recognition, at least not yet. That would be entirely in keeping with men in his situation.

Men in My Situation by Per Petterson is translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey and published by Harvill Secker in the UK and Canada, Graywolf in the US.

Sympathy for the misanthrope: Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen

The world isn’t what it used to be. For example, it takes more time to live now. I’m well into my eighties but it isn’t enough. I’m far too healthy, though I have nothing to be healthy for. But life won’t let go of me. He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for. Maybe that’s why. (from “Chess”)

Norwegian writer Kjell Askildsen (1929–2021) is considered one of the greatest shorty-story writers of all time, a master of a spare, ascetic style in which quiet tension builds around what is unspoken. His themes tend to be sombre, with a dark, dry wit most reminiscent of Beckett, while his protagonists—all male—tend to be irritated, misanthropic and lacking empathy. Typically they find themselves isolated, often through their own behaviors or choices. There is little resolution in Askildsen’s world. Everything Like Before, gathers a selection of thirty-six of his stories spanning 1953–2015—including the entirety of his award-winning collection Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public—that offers a generous taste of his idiosyncratic, if  bleak, worldview.

In such an extensive collection, within which many of the stories are very short, only two or three pages, the strongest pieces are often the longer ones—those which give the author more room to develop a scene or scenario. Some that really stand out for me include “The Encounter,” “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” “Mardon’s Night,” “Midsummer,” “The Wake,” “An Uplifting Funeral” and “Carl Lange.” Askildsen has a wonderful way with cranky, eccentric octagenarians in particular, but I did find that his fondness for stories involving husbands caught in marriages plagued by either tedium or restlessness—at least from their own dispassionate perspectives—frustrating for the persistent lack of communication, despite the fact that some of these pieces actually rely extensively on dialogue. Couples talking a lot, saying nothing.

However, his treatment of strained or difficult dynamics between fathers and sons is more effective. In “Mardon’s Night,” an older man named Mardon makes his way through an unfamiliar town to visit a his son, also named Mardon, whom he has not seen in many years. The exact nature of their estrangement is not clear, but the son is certainly odd and difficult. Their encounter is awkward, mediated by Vera, the son’s neighbour and at least occasional lover, one of the most fully realized female characters in the entire collection. But the visit fails to ease the distance of accumulated years, as neither man can or will make an effort.

Mardon lit a cigarette and said: We can’t actually do anything about who we are, can we? We’re completely at the mercy of our pasts, aren’t we, and we didn’t have a hand in creating our pasts. We’re arrows flying from the womb and landing in a graveyard. And what does it matter how high we flew at the moment we land? Or how far we flew, or how many we hurt along the way? That, Vera said, can’t be the whole truth.

As self-centred and insensitive as the younger Mardon may be, he echoes the view so many of Askildsen’s protagonists seem to have. A motivation for improvement, of one’s self or relationships, is lacking. The women, although we rarely see their emotional perspectives, often appear to demonstrate more will, much to the dismay of the men in their lives. Genderwise Askildsen tends to view the world through an odd one-way mirror—though that may in fact be the point he is making about his male characters. We as readers do not come to know the women because the men do not care to know what they really think.

Another highlight, “Carl Lange,” a story from the Thomas F collection, is a comedy of errors driven by paranoia. When two policemen arrive on Carl Lange’s doorstep and suggest that a man matching his description has been accused of the rape of an underage girl he is shocked. But, even though there is no reason to believe he is guilty, the suggestion triggers a series of increasingly neurotic and thus incriminating behaviours. Askildsen captures the gears turning inside our hapless protagonist so vividly that, as his reckless actions and antagonism directed at the investigating officer escalates, the tale is not only funny, but increasingly distressing as we watch a man careening into his own self-created disaster.

At best, these stories—whether long or short—open up haunting, unsettled spaces inhabited by characters who fail to connect, or do so only by awkward chance. There is a variation of form, not surprising given the wide span of Askildsen’s career covered here, but, taken too many at a time, the stories can, at times, flatten out and run into one another, as a certain sameness blunts the sharpness of his wit. In that respect, this collection, like other longer volumes, may be best enjoyed a handful of stories at a time.

Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen is translated by Sean Kinsella and published by Archipelago Books.

“I am, overall, quite glad to be human” Modern Animal by Yevgenia Belorusets

The small volume fits in the palm of your hand. It opens with a series of lectures. The speakers are human or animal, the audiences composed of individuals who may be one or the other, neither or both. The line between what it means to be a human or nonhuman animal is necessarily blurred. What strange hybrid world is this? Fantasy? Allegory? Yes, no. It is, in reality, fiction extracted from raw facts and experiences too terrible to be accessed directly. This collection of stories, musings, questioning and philosophizing is drawn from real life as understood through animal metaphors. The speakers in each piece are victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas who find voice in a form that illustrates the confusion, despair, resistance and resilience of the Ukrainian people in a way that conventional reportage can only hint at. Yevgenia Belorusets wrote this book, Modern Animal, just last year in 2021 after six years interviewing those living in the contested region. Now, with a full-scale invasion underway, the strangeness and horror of life during wartime is being played out across the entire country.

Belorusets is a Ukrainian journalist, photographer and writer, writing between Russian and Ukrainian, who has dedicated herself to documenting the lives of the disenfranchised—even the non-human—who exist on the shifting borders of social, economic and political realities. As I write this she is in Kyiv, reporting daily from the street level, photographing when possible, recording her encounters, and describing her contacts with friends caught elsewhere in worse situations. Each day at 4:00 pm ET, the publisher of this volume, isolarii, posts her latest update to their site and I wait for it, just to know she is okay. This missive with its growing mix of melancholy and resolve gains new followers every day. Having read Modern Animal it feels like life imitating art imitating life, but now filtered through a lens of stark realism.

When I first received a copy of this book months ago, I confess that I was not quite sure what to make of it. Each chapter was so different that I wondered if it was building to a larger fictional construct that I needed to track, to make sense of. Mentions of war and allusions to notions of ethnic cleansing emerge early on, but foolishly I was not putting two and two together. Perhaps I was not well informed about events in Ukraine and, of course, at that point Russia had not yet started amassing forces on its wider borders. And even then, few expected full scale invasion. But as soon as the wind changed I reached for Modern Animal and started from the beginning again.

It may seem a small act, but literature can bring foreign truths home in a way straight nonfiction, news media and internet interaction cannot. That is the brilliance of Belorusets’ approach, though I’m sure she would not have wished for it to be doubly necessary in this way. The entries in this book are presented as lectures, documents, accounts and fables. There is a dreamlike quality that often reminded me of the writing of experimental Chinese author Can Xue. Off-side, if you like. In one chapter, for example, called “Migetti (fourth lecture-document: interview with a viewer)” the speaker talks about being very sensitive to the emotions of animals and describes a German language animal video that she found especially moving. The film chronicled the adventures of a she-wolf named Migetti, whose entire pack was killed during an outbreak of canine distemper. As the lone survivor, she sets out in search of another pack to accept her. Her journey is difficult, the viewer is terribly worried about her fate and overjoyed when she is finally successful in finding a new community. But the final paragraph is telling:

Oftentimes, we don’t feel anything, even when major tragedies strike. We see earthquakes, explosions, wars, but we can avoid thinking about these narratives as though we’re walking down a separate road. But here, it all happened differently. She still haunts me.

Questions of fate and the nature of humanity recur. Narrators describe their connections to cats, dogs, birds, and horses. Some stories are melancholic, others cruel, but many carry a stubborn magic—like the wonderful tale of a hen who carries the soul of a woman who died in a city hospital far from her mountain village back home, but then continues to share her body with the dead woman’s soul for the rest of  her life. With the recent exodus of refugees from Ukraine, this fable bears its message of hope in a new context.

Sadly Modern Animal has become a sharply prescient text of late. One of the most striking entries, simply titled “A Small Aside” begins with mention of American interference and even reference to Afghanistan, followed by a tirade about war (and dogs) but ends with the speaker’s expression of his refusal to take up arms in the present conflict in Donbas:

I won’t go fight this time, not for this side, not for that one.

What kind of war is it when no one even calls it a war.

Only if tanks roll into Kiev, then I’ll pick up my gun and go defend my house and family! I’ll stand on the roads to Kiev! I’ll stand like a boulder, I won’t let anyone get past me.

I am aware that the attention Russia’s invasion has garnered has drawn questions about the many ongoing conflicts around the world that seem to be forever under the radar. And that is a very important issue. But as this small book demonstrates, war was simmering in this corner of Ukraine for years. We human animals are, if anything, very good at looking away.

Modern Animal is a haunting read, an often entertaining and disturbing treatise on life during war—a collaborative, animal-sensitive effort between Belorusets as author, documentarian and photographer, and the people who have already been living with conflict for half a dozen years. Important when published, it is now essential reading.

Modern Animal by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich and published as part of isolarii’s series of “island books.” It has been reissued and can be purchased here. One hundred percent of the proceeds will be donated to support Ukrainian charities.

Night / falls / slowly: Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelángel Meza

I was long asleep within me.
Emerge to keep vigil,
move.
Yes I was asleep within me.
I am truly alone.

(from “Appear”)

It may be small, but this trilingual chapbook contains an entire world in the span of ten poems. Here Guaraní poet Miguelángel Meza calls on the traditional mythology and cosmology of his Indigenous Paraguayan culture to speak to contemporary issues. This project, named in full Ita ha’eñoso / Ya no está sola la piedra Formerly and Again Known as Pyambu / Dream Pattering Soles has its origin in a dual language Spanish translation by Meza along with Carlos Villagra and Jacobo Rauskin first published in 1985. The original Guaraní was revisited and edited by the poet for this double bilingual edition which includes both the Spanish version and an English translation by Elisa Taber (each running alongside the original from the opposite end of the book). As a writer, translator and anthropologist born in Paraguay, Taber is especially well suited to take on this project. She was able to access the original poems directly and via the Spanish, check with the poet as needed, and edit the final version, allowing a uniquely interwoven translation to emerge.

The English title Dream Pattering Soles is a literal translation of the original title Pyambu, that, as the translator indicates in her Note, evokes an auditory image of “menacing presences, deities turned human.” The Spanish title that translates as The Stone is No Longer Alone calls to mind comforting presences, the “humanity of the nonhuman.” Together, the titles selected for the two translations embrace two essential elements of the grounding mythic narratives and the poet’s approach to rendering them. As Taber says:

Meza’s central figures of speech are metaphors and metonymies used in conjunction. Something substitutes another which is part of a whole. The attribute of a particular god is identifiable in a human and that of any human is identifiable in an animal or a thing.

As such, the journey of the poet, and by extension his community and the reader, is one of moving from being with to becoming in the other.

In the opening poem, Meza, takes on, as “I”, the voice of the fundamental essence—the first  ñe’ë, or world-soul, that arises with the beginning of the world. Nature is, as one would expect, an abiding presence in this sequence, and even without a detailed knowledge of Guaraní mythology, the mournful beauty speaks across a wide geographical and cultural expanse.

I suffer, moon.
Wrung firefly falls.
Earth will turn to dust, they say.
End. Then,
who will you, daughter, orbit?
I suffer:
The sky wrecks the rivers.
Sadness’ dust falls.
Ashes cover the fields and
the vast forest.
And you seem to spin back
into the sky’s depths.

(from “Moon”)

In this conception of the world, we see ancient wisdom meet modern concerns. The delicate, haunting images seem speak to our changing planet in the uncanny way traditional mythology so often does. In these uncertain times—the slogan of the 2020s it seems—this unique volume is a timely invitation to listen.

Dream Pattering Soles by Miguelángel Meza is translated by Elis Taber and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

The Kindness of Strangers: Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rishøi

Those of us who live in northern countries know that winter is not just a season, it is a state of mind. Ice and snow, cold and short days can test resources and strengthen resolve. Everything, good and bad, can be heightened at this time of year. This is the mood that permeates Norwegian writer Ingvild H. Rishøi’s third collection Winter Stories, her first to appear in English. This volume contains three stories, two almost novella length, set in winter and featuring working class characters and their children or siblings. As such it is a book about families, what to means to be a family. Each story is anchored in a strong, distinct narrative voice—a protagonist caught up in a situation he or she had not anticipated, circumstances they cannot escape. They know they have some agency, but it is not that simple—their own families of origin are damaged, wounded, marked by poverty, mental illness, violence. Yet in each case the central figure holds to the hope that they can break the cycle, that things can be better, for the sake of the young children in their lives, the children who give their lives meaning.

The first and shortest story “We Can’t Help Everybody” features a very young single mother and her sensitive observant kindergarten-aged daughter as they make their way home from school on a rainy, cold afternoon. The mother, down to her last 60 kroner, is worried about how they will make it through the weekend. She is overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenthood, the weight of poverty, and, one gathers, little support from the child’s father. As her daughter argues that they must help a young man begging on the street, the narrator thinks back to her own childhood, growing up in a caravan. The picture she sketches of a troubled mother, and emotional instability, is scant but telling. The insecurities linger, but:

Now everything is so different.  One thing after another has changed, and now I have a job and a daughter and days like this, and here I sit on the pavement and she is five years old and shakes her head, and squeezes her eyes shut, but the sound of the rain creates something light in me.

That everything can be different again.

Everything can be fine.

On the surface, the challenges that emerge in this short piece may seem small—the decision to help a beggar, the desire to buy a new pair of underpants—but if you have ever faced the inability to meet basic expenses for your children, as I have, you know the feeling of despair can be crushing. And the smallest of miracles pure magic. This story captures a reality many know too well.

The second and third stories, each running to about 70 pages apiece, also take place over a short span of time, but offer the space for a greater development of the protagonist’s character, background and the circumstances behind the immediate events. In “The Right Thomas,” a man recently released from prison is preparing for his young son’s first overnight visit in over a year. He has studied the recipe he plans to cook, and with only a few hours to spare, sets out to buy a pillow for his son’s bed. Only thirty-three himself, Thomas’ route to fatherhood is a little unconventional. A one-night stand led Leon’s conception, and when the panicked mother-to-be manages to track him down, she makes it clear that she expects him to take on the role of co-parent, but she neither wants a relationship nor does she need his financial support. Thomas has a difficult past, with an abusive, violent father and a troubled recent history, but he longs to be a better man, a new man.

Now, back in the outside world, ready to make good on his resolution, Thomas still reads threats and accusations into even the most mild interactions. What he fears most is his own anger, that it will be triggered, erupt, be uncontrollable. It is a legacy he wishes to leave behind, but it stalks him everywhere, mitigated only by the words of his prison psychologist that echo in his thoughts:

‘You want to buy a child’s pillow,’ she says.

But this isn’t an attack. This is just something I don’t master, if you’ve felt under attack for your entire life, this is how you react, that is Stone Age biology, the psychologist said, the fear is embedded in the brain, but I’m not going to behave like a caveman, because I live in a time period with pillow shops and psychologists and traffic lights and if I continue to feel suffocated and lose it, then the same things will happen to Leon, my father scared the bejesus out of me, and I scare the bejesus out of him, but I don’t want to.

I want Leon to sleep peacefully in his bed.

His sincere wish is that his son can enjoy the confidence and success he feels his upbringing and failures have denied him. But will he even manage to make it through to this important opportunity to start over again?

The final story, “Siblings,” opens with seventeen year-old Rebekka ready to run away, essentially from social services, with her two young half-siblings. The children have no idea what is going on, but they trust her, even if she is not sure she trusts herself. She picks up the children after school, dumps their books in the garbage, fills their rucksacks with clothes she has stashed, and hurries them off to catch a bus out of town. As the story unfolds and the challenges that threaten her careful plans mount, the complexity of the underlying factors behind this sudden flight are revealed.

This is excellent classic story telling; as a reader it is impossible not to become invested in each scenario as it plays out. With empathy and a keen poetic sensibility, Rishøi creates deeply human, interesting characters and gives each one a compelling voice. She excels at building narrative tension, fueled as much by the outside circumstances that arise as by her protagonists’ own insecurities and growing doubts that they will fail those who depend on them most. They take risks, stumble and pull themselves together again. Success is not certain, there are no happy endings, but there is promise. And, sometimes, promise is enough.

Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rostøi is translated by Diane Oatley and published by Seagull Books.

Dreams distancing: Triptych by Alexander Booth

When you open a book like Alexander Booth’s Triptych and you know you have encountered something special—not just the poems within but the entire production—it almost seems like its route from poet to your hands is one that was destined to be. It is one that, by fate or circumstance, has bypassed conventional publishers. Yet, this collection is not your average DIY project; it is a beautiful object, crafted with an elegant simplicity, featuring fine textured paper, and an original artwork gracing the cover. For Booth, an American poet and translator living in Berlin, the decision to put together his own publication rather than furthering the endless cycle of submission and rejection, offered a way to guide the creative process and reach out directly to interested readers.

I first became acquainted with Alexander Booth through his translations, but I’ve also encountered excerpts of his poetry here and there over the years. His work is spare, filled with a pale light, silent shadows, distant landscapes, winding streets and dusty rooms. His translucent imagery allows a sense of intimacy and distance at once, a blurring of the internal and external environment. The first person pronoun is rarely used, much is left unsaid, or open.

Triptych, as the title implies, is comprised of three sequences, each composed at a different time in the poet’s life. The first, “Roman Hours,” Booth describes as “miniatures or mourning songs” mostly located in Italy. They are minimalist portraits:

Slim sun-edged thumb
Of Roman brick

Umbered, undone

This late valley dozing
Under a late spring sun

You still want what will not last

– from “Eveningsong”

The second section, “The Little Light that Escaped,” is a blend of fragmentary verse and prose-like passages that “explores metaphorical and literal dislocation against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, twinned with Berlin.” It evokes a feeling of exile, of migrants moving into Europe desperately seeking a better, safer life, and of the author’s own sense of foreignness, living away from his home country. The experience of detail is heightened but often disconnected in a new or strange land. That sense is captured in this extended intertextual work:

Days passing, just out of reach of the sun. Days passing, in a basement room, watching the arc of the sun through a small square of sky. Tides of no turning. Blocks of light mosaic and slow days taste like mineral, copper, rust.

How much of the other side is one allowed to see? Shadow. Half shadow. Night barely impastoed before the distant blue of the country’s spine once again appeared. Mallow, poppy, thistle. Streets like veins tracing a story through the heart, the city a map of a narrative. What hands, what fingers worked the threads, and who gave voice to whom.

The final part, “Insulae” is a series of fifteen short pieces featuring rooms recollected from Booth’s past—in Rome, Berlin, and in the US—“a memory of architecture an architecture of memory.” These sketches are unique and yet familiar, and set off images in my mind the uncommon spaces I’ve inhabited over the years. How sharply they come back after so long.

Most of the time you were in the kitchen. It was narrow, and looked onto a couple of trees, a few pre-fab high-rises tinged in blue. Bluish evenings. Haunt, hope, hue. Still the light was warm despite winter’s grey monotony: ice-rain, snow, frostblooms before your morning mouth, all the way up through May.  (from VII)

In an interview with Tobias Ryan on Minor Literature(s), Booth discusses Triptych, his influences, and his reasons for putting this collection together on his own. With a small, targeted project he was able to focus on quality, understanding, as he says, “I can do this and control everything, and the people who will, will and those won’t, won’t and what difference does it really make?” It is not an approach all poets would want to, or could afford to follow, but as someone who was excited to be able to purchase a copy, I feel that this lovingly produced volume is worthy of attention for its own value and as an example of what “self-published” can be.

Triptych by Alexander Booth was published with a limited run of 150. I’m not sure if copies are still available, but for more information check his website: http://www.wordkunst.com/

“We know something of ourselves, but not much.” The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen

Beneath my clothes there is 1.8 square metres of skin stretched over five litres of blood, thirteen billion nerve cells and twenty-five billion red blood corpuscles.

I’ve got twenty-three chromosomes in each cell.

The chromosomes in each pair are the same length, apart from the fourth. There, one of the chromosomes is fractionally shorter than the other.

That’s why I can’t get up and walk out of this text.

One might hope that, at this point in time, especially more than two years into a global pandemic, that illness and disability might be understood as something that could strike anyone, at any time, even you or someone you love. But, as we have seen, human beings have a stubborn capacity to blame those who fall ill, experience extended symptoms or die for their outcomes, citing age, lifestyle, or co-morbidities. The stigma and shame well known by those of us who live, love someone and/or work with people who have a disability, has been replayed and reinforced  during this extended period of co-existence with a persistent, evolving virus with unknown long term consequences.

The events chronicled in Norwegian writer Thorvald Steen’s The White Bathing Hut illustrate the extent to which societal attitudes toward disability can lead to deception and family dissolution. The unnamed narrator is a man nearing sixty whose deteriorating physical condition has left him dependent on a wheelchair. One day, with the Christmas season approaching, he receives a call from a woman who identifies herself as his cousin, the daughter of his mother’s brother. The existence of an uncle and a cousin come as a complete surprise to him, but, as this woman, Eline, explains, his family had refused to have anything to do with hers and she had only come to know of him by chance. She also reveals that her father and their mutual grandfather both died of the same disease he has. This unexpected information leaves him wondering if his entire life was constructed on a web of lies and sets off a chain of urgent inquiries. His account unfolds through a spare, tight narrative reported from an unusual perspective, so to speak.

Several weeks after Eline’s call, while seated at the table trying to find a location on a map of Norway, our narrator leans forward, realizing too late that he’s forgotten to apply the brakes of his wheelchair, and he and the chair topple over as if in slow motion, each movement described and dissected in poetic and anatomical detail. “I land in a heap. / Soft and hard. / Textiles, hair, flesh and bones. / That’s all there is.” His wife has just left for a week-long business trip, his daughter is away for the weekend and his caregiver is off for the holidays. His phone and alarm are on top of a shelf out of reach and he is now consigned to a new vantage point… the floor.

Unable to get up, his thoughts turn to his own past, to the development of his disease, and the more recent investigations and interrogations triggered by his cousin’s phone call. He had been diagnosed in his teens with a progressive form of muscular dystrophy that causes gradual muscle degeneration and eventual paralysis—news that was a terrible blow to him as an athletic young man with a promising future as a ski jumper. But the reaction of his parents was even worse. They warned him to tell no one. They refused to speak about it. Tried to wish it away. So he was burdened with a secret that slowly unveiled itself as his muscles weakened. Now, armed with new information there is a further significance to his desire to better understand his place within the broader context of his family history: his daughter Karoline appears to have inherited the same crippling condition.

The spare, tight narrative proceeds in short, nonchronological chapters that move between the protagonist’s childhood, youth and adult years, and the few weeks that have just passed. He has recently made two visits to his recalcitrant mother who informs him she is dying of cancer but refuses to answer his questions. What little he can glean guides his search through archival sources for biographical details about his uncle and grandfather. As he looks back over his personal life experiences, his efforts to conceal his pain and growing weakness—often by putting himself at risk—is contrasted against the demonstrations of physical strength that marked his earliest years. The increased awareness of body difference and stigma lead him to believe he will be forever unloveable. As a young man, his future, as he sees it, looks bleak:

How could I make a plan of any kind? I didn’t know what I’d look like or be able to do in a few years’ time. I hated my body. If anyone had told me that I ought to think positive, I’d have hit them. The weekends were the worst. Sometimes I lay in bed the whole of Saturday and Sunday without the energy to sit, eat or drink. In the mirror I could see that a few of the little muscles around my eyes and mouth had completely disappeared.

This is a very physical text. A story that is bound to the body. Driving this physical aspect home are the poetic interludes, often containing minute skeletal and cellular descriptions, that regularly relocate the narrative in the immediate space, on the floor, where the narrator observes his surroundings and struggles to shift his reluctant limbs into a position that might enable him to push himself up. It is an exhausting, futile effort. With a steady resolve he returns to his account.

Although the disability central to this novel is explicitly visible, The White Bathing Hut manages, without ever exercising a heavy hand, to call attention to the extent to which any disability—physical, cognitive or mental—is met with a social stigma that extends beyond the afflicted individual to the family and their contacts. It also alludes to an even darker subtext, that of Norway’s difficult historical relationship with eugenics. Of course, neither of these factors are unique to Norway, nor are they entirely behind us. Shame associated with disability still exists, and the ability to selectively control for desired sex, against congenital conditions, or even for other qualities raises serious ethical questions. Through this book’s very honest, resilient and endearing narrator, many of these critical issues are brought to light.

The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.