For all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.
Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.
These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”
I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.
The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.
Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man Imagine all the people Sharing all the world…
Church music? Apparently and rightly so. Last week I emerged from the church I have been attending, despairing that a deep ambivalence about my own ability to connect with faith may stand in the way of my search for community. This morning I remembered why, if there is a church that I can connect with, the one I have been attending may be as close as I can get. John Lennon’s Imagine, performed by a soloist set the framework for the reflections of the pastor.
Imagine? Yes, imagine hearing a pastor admit that in the 25 years since his ordination in the United Church of Canada, he never thought he would be looking at the works of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and think, maybe they have a point there. One does not have to look far to see how religion is perpetuating hatred, within families and communities, between ethic groups and countries. And it is not a new phenomenon. Is the problem religion? An atheist does not hesitate to answer, but what causes a pastor to ponder? And what does that mean for churches like Calgary’s Hillhurst United? My own anxieties about faith aside, it is a church that practices what it preaches: welcome and advocacy for the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalized; outreach and full acceptance of everyone regardless of age, ability, sexuality or gender identity. Yet the pastor, John Pentland, is accustomed to meeting newcomers who share that they have no problem telling someone that they are gay, but don’t want anyone to know they go to church.
Is religion always at odds with all that could be positive and affirming about faith?
I am not sure yet. But I did spend Saturday at the church helping set up for a performance by Australian-Canadian queer trans artist, Sunny Drake. In the evening as the church hosted homeless families in the gymnasium, the pews of the Sanctuary were filled with a diverse audience treated to an outrageously funny performance about the trials and tribulations of a gay transgendered man trying to quit his addiction to romance. Honest in language and content that one would not generally not expect to find in a church, but together with the panel discussion that followed, this partnership with the city’s only queer theatre, Third Street Theatre, offers a vital opportunity to improve communication and understanding within and beyond the LGBTQ community. And yet another indication that at this church Affirming means much more than hanging a rainbow flag in the corner.
As someone who often feels as alienated within the LGBTQ community as within a larger community of faith, this weekend was an important indication of just what a church that seeks to embrace rather than exclude, can be.
It is, of course, a harsh coincidence, perhaps no more than that, but the first two murders of the year in my city took the lives of two young members of our 5,000 strong Somali community. The first of the two unrelated incidents occurred just ten blocks from my home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, the second the following day. To many here in Canada, Somalis, if they are thought of at all, are conflated with pirates.
I have watched with dismay, the rise of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the increased visible ethnic diversity that has spread across the country, changing the face of a city that was, when I was young, predominately white. My city that is only 130 years old, most of us have come from elsewhere recently or within a few short generations. And those who were here before, our First Nations, still have to struggle to call attention to their circumstances. But we are lucky, this is a land of peace, a land of promise.
Against this context, a review in The Observer drew my attention to A Man of Good Hope, a new book by South African writer Jonny Steinberg. In my work I encountered and supported many young men from the troubled Horn of Africa, but the depth and complexity of the political and human realities that have been endured by many of the refugees who ultimately make their way to our shores are far beyond my imagining from my safe space. However, I was not quite prepared for just how difficult that journey can be.
The life of Asad Abdullahi, the young Somali man at the heart of this biography, is changed forever when his mother is shot by militiamen in Mogadishu when he is 8 years old. As he flees with relatives he begins a long, at times circular, journey of hopes and repeatedly dashed dreams. Lacking formal education he is gifted with determination, a proud sense of identity, an unflagging work ethic and an ability to assess any situation to determine where a living can be made. But at every turn there are losses, challenges and continued threats to life and limb that mount and threaten to drag him down. He is forced to grow up fast. Eventually he makes his way to South Africa seeking the wealth and security he hears fellow Somalis talk of only to find that even for the successful migrant, the end can be sudden and brutal.
Economic opportunities for newcomers like Asad, who are forced to live with temporary documents, are limited and often place them into the hostile and difficult environment of the townships where loyalties can turn on a dime. His beloved wife, unwilling to face the rising danger, heads home to family with his children. He stays, holding on to the dreams of America that have long called to him and endures the rising xenophobic violence perpetrated by black South Africans against the tide of incoming African migrants. His diligence will be rewarded, but not without great sacrifice.
Steinberg recounts, with care and compassion, a tale that has more breath taking twists than a thriller but exists on a plane on which dreams, hopes, memories and regrets blend to create a story that is at once deeply human and ultimately elusive. On a more immediate level, the view into the the ancestral dynamics of Somali history and culture that provides a background to Asad’s story has added, for me, extra poignancy to the recent New Year’s Day killing near my home. The victim shared the family name Abdullahi.
Just before Christmas he returned to church, entertaining the hope that the community of faith, especially one welcoming to all, might help fill the emptiness he carried inside. It almost worked, for a few weeks.
After this Sunday’s service he retreated down the stone steps into the shadow of a void that no sermon could fill. It is not the church. It is him. He had hoped that faith might come back, comfort him as once it had when… well I can’t really remember when it last provided respite… but there was a time. He worried now that believing was beyond him. To be denied like other comforts. Perhaps one can only fall away from faith so many times before it is impossible to return.
You can only be lifted if you will yourself to let go, you can only be held if you allow yourself to be touched, you can only be loved if you dare to love first. But once you believe you have rendered yourself unlovable, the stalemate is long and sad and lonely.
I suppose I could say he is depressed and that this will pass. I could also admit that he is me and that there is something more fundamental at work.
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore, find another city better than this one. Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead. How long can I let my mind moulder in this place? Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look, I see the black ruins of my life, here, where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.” You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. This city will always pursue you. You will walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, will turn gray in these same houses. You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: there is no ship for you, there is no road. As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world. (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
My city was new when Alexandria which inspired these words was old but the sentiment rings across the century, speaking to me.
I live in a glass and rock cast stucco bungalow, the kind of finish that will slice your palm if you lose your balance and put a hand out to stop your fall. It sits on a 6500 square foot lot overgrown with 60 foot spruce and spiky hawthorns. The garage stands, roof sagging, without a foundation and no more than a scratch coat for stucco that was never applied, at best a large shed. It is only a matter of time before the sewer line to the street which is already oval shaped, collapses in on itself. After a few years of eager redecorating, projects remain incomplete, even though all the paint and supplies were purchased long ago.
This year my house will be 62 years old, I have lived here for 20 of those years. Due to the location, the lot size and the high property values in this city, it is assessed at a value that shocks me. I have ample equity in this house I own, but no secure income. And you can’t eat equity.
More and more the house is closing in on me. It is filled with the artifacts of 20 years of raising children. And a 25 year-old alcoholic son who seems to have taken root in the basement. After being a single parent for so long, I am done. My career prospects hanging on a thread frayed by mental illness; I feel haunted by the house, the responsibilities that weigh on me, and the fatigue of facing it alone.
And this city is no more a home than it has ever been. Without my job it holds nothing and never has. I love the pathways and wild areas, I love the wide open skies and the mountains on the horizon, the rolling foothills stretching to the west. But the city has no soul, or at least not for me. My relationship with this city, one to which I chose to return at one time, is fraught with complicated anxieties.
It may be my fault. Perhaps I am the one who failed to open up and build connections. But that has never been easy and the more I go out to meet people or attend events, the deeper the loneliness settles in on me the next day. Like it or not, there is a fundamental disconnect between me and this city of glass towers and oil executives.
As I walk these streets I am haunted by the sense that I have wasted so many years here, not certain what I have to show for it, feeling all is lost, fearing that I am, as the intended recipient of Cavafy’s advice, destined grow old in the same neighbourhood, turn grey(er) in the same house.
With no particular allegiance to astrology, I have often mused that my tendency to take on the role of the devil’s advocate fits well with a Libran temperament. My natural response to a harshly judgmental statement is an immediate inclination to flip the coin and present an argument for the other side.
I like to think that I carried this tendency into a career working in social services where the complexities that define and refine, strengthen and restrict the way that people respond to, survive or succumb to, the pressures they encounter in life cannot be understood in black and white terms. Motivation, decisions, and actions have contexts that run deeper than the actors or observers understand. When talking to clients or their families I would try to open up questioning to allow those I was supporting to look for their own answers. I was aware that I could offer suggestions but no guaranteed solutions.
Why then does literature so often try to provide answers, lead us to scenes of redemption, close out with a moment of denouement? Life, in case you haven’t noticed, is not always so neat and tidy. Sometimes we are not really sure what happened or why we might have acted in a certain manner. Our natural instinct is to explain our feelings and behaviours, to others and, most critically, to ourselves. But that is not always possible. We act irrationally, selfishly, even, as those of us with mental illnesses know, when we are not in our right minds. So why do we want our literature served up with moral certitude?
When I read a book with a dark context, whether on a large or small scale, I feel let down if an author fails to push the envelope, to take the risk of leaving the reader with a feeling of unease, a question of moral ambiguity. Oh sure, it is nice to be comforted, but more often than not, I read to be challenged, to be shaken, to be exposed to experiences, places and circumstances I have not known. That is one reason why I tend to be drawn to literature from countries other than the one in which I live.
South African author Damon Galgut is decidedly unafraid to tackle the shifting landscape of political and economic power in his own country post Apartheid and show how easily the ordinary, average individual can get swept up in situations they have neither the awareness or the initiative to appreciate. Someone like Adam Napier in The Impostor, a man who discovers, too late, that his very unimportance makes him expendable in a game he didn’t realize he was playing. Or did he just not care enough to take notice?
After losing his job and house to the new racial and social realities arising in Johannesburg, Adam finds himself cut adrift in mid-life. He seeks refuge with his younger brother Gavin who is taking calculated, ethically questionable advantage of a burgeoning property market in Cape Town. Sickened at the prospect of accepting the job his brother offers he accepts instead the refuge of a neglected house Gavin owns in an isolated town in the Karoo. Here, he reasons, he will dedicate himself to writing poetry and find himself anew. What he finds, instead is a curious figure from his past, a school friend he cannot remember even though this man Canning insists that they once shared a very special bond, one to which this bland effusive stranger is clearly indebted.
Without admitting his complete lack of recall for this supposed friend, Adam is soon drawn into spending his weekends with Canning and his alluring black wife Baby up in the lush mountain retreat Canning inherited from his father. From here on things become complicated, tragic and eventually frightening. More than one moral compass is unloosed and all of Adam’s apparent values are tested and found, well, the reader is left to decide…
Tense and brilliantly spare in the telling, Galgut draws from the hostile environment of the Karoo, to create a fable with no clear moral reckoning, no redemption, and a heaviness that sits in the stomach of the reader long after the last page is turned.
I wonder if my fondness for literature from South Africa and Europe comes from the fact that conflict is never far from the surface in lands that have known so much recent turmoil and disruption. The result is a literature that, at its best is vibrant, alive and emotionally challenging. In Canada it is perhaps too easy to affect a measure of complacency even though, if you turn a few stones and look closely enough, our history holds plenty of darkness that seeps into the present day. And as the world effectively becomes smaller, racial and xenophobic tensions rise, examination of the legacy of our treatment of our Aboriginal populations takes greater precedent, and our commitment to true acceptance of diversity is properly addressed; literature that risks posing the questions that lack obvious answers will become more critical.
Every year, rather than rushing through a book before the clock strikes midnight just to push up the book count of the year that is slipping away (an inclination likely idiosynchratic only to those who of us would rather read than party on New Year’s Eve), I prefer to walk into the coming year in the company of a great writer, allowing the experience to end one year and launch the next. My companion of choice to see out a year marked by loss, the resurgence of mental illness and a recognition of not only my own isolation, but my role in facilitating that condition; was the late German writer W. G. Sebald. More specifically his haunting and heartbreaking novel The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse). As a curious coincidence, the Word of the Day email from Meriam Webster that appeared in my inbox this morning for January 1 is:
verb : to leave one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere
If you have never read Sebald, his work almost defies simple description. It must be experienced. Adjectives from admirers abound: mesmerizing, beautiful, subtle, sublime. Long evocative sentences unfold into even longer reflective paragraphs – at times running for pages – enhanced with the insertion of grainy photographs of people, scenery, pages from notebooks, objects, sketches. The reader is pulled in, guided along through landscapes, recollections, side observations and historical reflections by a narrator who is present, patient and human in the face of the incompleteness afforded by memory and the passage of time.
The Emigrants may well be the most accessible of Sebald’s work that I have read, especially because it forms its structure around the apparent biographies of four men who have emigrated or been exiled from their homelands. Three of the four have a Jewish heritage and World War I and II form a critical backdrop to the four very different accounts. Our narrator encounters each of these men, in person, even if only as a child, but in most cases he pieces together part or all of their life histories through the recollections of others, and the diaries and memoirs that he acquires along the way. In some cases he even attempts to revisit the locations that impacted the lives of his subjects, finding only decay or even complete obliteration in his vain efforts to find traces of a past that cannot be revisited.
There is such a deep and abiding melancholy that runs through these pages, that I don’t think I could have chosen a better literary companion to mark the passing of this difficult year. But it broke my heart and drove me to tears on more than one occasion. The first two chapters end with suicide. In the first we meet the eccentric Dr Henry Selwyn who, by the time the narrator and his wife come to know him, has taken to dwelling in the garden of the house owned by his wife from whom he is long alienated. He confesses to a greater sense of loss over a friend who had disappeared into the crevice of a glacier years before than any regret for the dissolution of his marriage. A Lithuanian Jew who had sought to conceal his heritage after emigrating England, the gentle doctor would eventually put his hitherto unused rifle to final lethal use.
In the second chapter the narrator revisits a beloved childhood teacher, Paul Bereyter, upon hearing of his suicide. Through his own reflections and conversations with a French woman who became Paul’s friend in his later years, an attempt is made to piece together the roots of the melancholy that had been hinted at when Paul was an unconventional but enthusiastic teacher; yet grew with the realization that even being 1/4 Jewish was sufficient to make him an exile in his own country. Meticulous and pragmatic to the end, the former teacher carefully researches his decision to end his own life. But although you know it is coming, the recounting of Paul’s final day is none the less devastating for the reader.
The narrator then traces the history of his own great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth in the third section. I found this portrait at once the most moving and the most devastating. Here the emigrant destination is North America and, for a change we are in settings with which I have some connection. Eccentric and meticulous in presentation and decorum, Ambros rises quickly in the hotel industry of the early 1900s and, once he joins his siblings in the US, secures works with a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. He is given charge for their son Cosmo, a young man driven to reckless excess and, as we will also see, its dark counterpart so recognizable to those of who are bipolar. Ambros and Cosmo embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, marked by gambling, daring aerobatic performances and a certain display of personal affection that raises the eyebrows of the elite that inhabit the rarefied world of wealth and glamour in the years just before the First World War.
With the outset of war though, Cosmo begins to plummet into despair and despite the best remedies that money and contemporary mental health care can buy, he will end his days in a private sanatorium. After staying on and looking after the family, Ambros retires to live in quiet isolation. But he is seemingly haunted by a deep unbearable grief. Suicide would be too messy, one imagines, for a man who dresses and presents himself as a formal gentleman to his dying day. Rather Ambros opts for voluntary commitment to the same sanatorium where Cosmo died, stoically submitting to an extreme regime of ECT as if the only way to truly destroy traumatic memory is through one bone blasting jolt at a time.
The final chapter, one which Sebald admitted was based on the amalgam of a landlord he once had and a well known artist; finds our narrator in Manchester, England. The city centre is in rapid decline. Here he meets Max Feber, an artist who, having emigrated from Germany, has for decades been single-minded in his efforts to find refuge through art. He devotes himself to this task seven days a week, drawing and erasing his work repeatedly, beyond the patience of his models. The narrator is curiously drawn to this anti-social, unusual character and they form an odd friendship but it is not until he revisits Max 25 years later that he realizes that there is here another story of loss to be fleshed out. But the lasting impression of the emigrant experience is as one in which both the realities from which emigrant has come and those to which he arrived (in this case in Germany and in Manchester) are both subject to decay, dissolution and the vagaries of memory and time.
I have never been one for family history. My mother’s family emigrated from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in the mid 1800s, my father’s mother’s family would have arrived in Toronto from England probably around the turn of the 20th century whereas his father’s family were United Empire Loyalists, making him a 7th generation Canadian. My parents met in New York City in the late 1950s, an era to which my father repeatedly tried to return long after it had ceased to exist. My brother and I were born in New Jersey but, after exploring a variety of options, my family pulled up stakes and moved to western Canada away from everyone they knew and settled here when I was only a few years old, soon adding another son.
Apart from that rough sketch, I am not inclined to family trees, I have only two photos of myself as a child and by the time my own children were born I had developed such a strong aversion to having my picture taken that I sometimes worry that I may have failed to take enough photos of my own children when they were growing up. Many years ago I finally understood why the person I saw in pictures or in the mirror was so at odds with the person I knew myself to be and started on a journey to correct the discord. Having reached my intended destination I no longer know how I fit into my family tree. In a very fundamental way I am an emigrant who has become exiled in his own life, still seeking to define what that means for me.
As the richly imagined portraits in The Emigrants illustrate there is a melancholy, anxiety and despair that can haunt the emigrant experience. I found myself wondering about origin, that is, how much of the melancholy was carried into the experience and how much owed its origin to dislocation and loss? As a person with bipolar disorder recovering a from a serious breakdown, questions of cause and effect always simmer. In the end it is impossible to distinguish loss leading to despair from despair that enhances a sense of loss. Having experienced both this past year I enter 2015 with a cautious mix of anxiety and anticipation.