Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.



Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.


The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

The illusion of reality: A Dream of Horses & Other Stories by Aashish Kaul

“A book is an enigma. Words that fill its pages present a shifty, relative universe. Through a reader, they create constructs where the past attempts to meet the future, the present arranging the meeting. In this present, as the reader receives and breaks apart the text – revives the past, contemplates the future – he, unknowingly merges the two and makes the present fluid, expansive, eternal: he defeats time.”

If the author’s medium is words – words strung together to hold a story until it can be read and unleashed by the reader, the reader who ventures into A Dream of Horses & Other Stories by Aashish Kaul is well advised to be prepared to follow those words on the paths they take, the forks they chose to follow, and the dreamscapes they uncover. And, if I advise said reader that they will emerge, in the final tale, on a boat on a lake listening in, no, almost absorbing, an imagined conversation between Jorge Louis Borges and Samuel Beckett, would that offer an indication of the journey in store? It should, but take that as an enticement. This is magical book. A magical book that celebrates the magic of books and traces the joys and heartaches that are bound to the process of translating the imagination into words on the page.

dreamhorsesThis slender collection of seven stories begins with two short tales, a parable about an archer who embarks on what starts out as way to occupy down time between periods of war, and becomes a mystical quest for knowledge; and a fable of sorts about a young child soldier, who wrenched from the opportunity to continue his education, finds himself ready to kill or be killed for the sake of a book. These stories follow a traditional, almost ancient form of storytelling. But from that point on, the influence of the two literary masters whom we will eventually meet on the boat mentioned above begins to infiltrate and inform the narrators, all writers themselves, who will carry us through the remaining tales.

In his enthusiastic introduction to this volume, Scott Esposito describes this collection as “seven dreams that Aashish Kaul has persuaded us to take for reality” but, as we discover, even the narrators often have a difficult time separating dream from reality in their own existences, creating a shifting maze, or labyrinth that must be negotiated. In the end the reader (and the narrator) can do little more than surrender to this blurred line between truth and imagination, and the experience of fiction is laid bare as an act of the suspension of disbelief.

The longer stories that form the centrepiece of this collection highlight Kaul’s ability to create dreamlike environments – landscapes or cityscapes – that contain and unfold for his characters as needed. The natural settings are typically isolated, atop mountains, amid pine forests or in desolate dry locations. Several stories take place, at least in part, in Paris, a ceaselessly romantic backdrop with bridges, wrought iron railings, gardens and the looming structure of the Eiffel Tour. The former become settings of solitude and refuge from the noise, intensity and heartache of the city. Time functions on different measures in different places, compresses or expands, hanging most heavily over the writer who fears he has lost his voice.

In “The Light Ascending”, a writer who is suffering from a creative block, finds himself retracing his steps daily along paths leading from the Institute where he is staying through forests and up hills, seeking answers, inspiration, a clue to the path he should follow. The one book he has published to date had the primary benefit of connecting him with the famed, but elusive writer “JC”. One night, drawn into the woods by the sound of a flute playing he will lose his way and discover that he is “in a dream, mine or another’s, I can’t tell.” He will find himself in a cottage engaged in a most unusual game of chess with JC himself – a game in which he is compelled to begin naming the pieces: Borges, Joyce, Faulkner… Beckett. As his blockage lifts, he is overwhelmed by the enormity of what he has come to realize about his chosen craft.

There is a melancholy chord that sounds throughout these pages. The question of capturing the moment and transmitting it in the written form becomes a philosophical question and a practical concern for several of the narrators. In the title story “A Dream of Horses” and the longest entry, “Tahiti”, our authors each have a story to tell inspired, no compelled, by a lost romantic experience. In the former story, the narrator is recovering from a long illness during which he was simply unable to write. He wants to recapture a particular autumn in his life, but reflects that we “breathe in the present, but are alive only in retrospect, in a time long lost to that treacherous monster: memory.” How then to do justice to this moment in time? When he finally feels up to the task, he finds that the effort is draining:

“How easily I tire. How difficult it seems to move your pen to shape words, sentences, stories. It has become a labour, a mere physical activity. And yet, I have not written, no scribbled, more than a handful of lines. So much the better to roll out words and sentences in your memory, where they float calmly and because they are formless always retain some element of the truth.”

And here he turns, as if abandoning the pen, to address directly the woman whom he met that autumn. In second person, he is able to unfold the story he wants to tell from her perspective. By the end we see why this is the only sensible way to attempt to tell the truth of what lies ahead.

“Tahiti” also involves a writer with a woman from his past who has returned to haunt his imagination. As the story opens he has sought respite from city life in an unnamed Asian country where he has come to live in a compound high atop a mountain. Here he discovers a library perched on the edge of a precipice over a deep ravine tended by a nearly blind librarian who knows and recognizes every volume on the shelves. In this environment our writer is able to rekindle an energy for writing through his conversations with the librarian and the books he borrows. Woven against this narrative is the story of his love affair with the enigmatic woman who calls herself Tahiti. As he moves back and forth in his story, the boundaries between reality and dreams – or rather, the realistic and the fantastic – begin to blur, raising the question whether a narrator is in control of the story he tells or subject to lose his own grounding in reality, whatever that is, before the tale is over.

For the reader of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories, the lines are so subtly shifted and so evocatively rendered that the sensation, as the last story draws to a close, is one of a renewed appreciation for the power of words and the books that contain them to inform, transform, and entertain. The imagined encounter between Borges and Beckett that rounds off the collection is followed with a brief essay in which Kaul compares the two writers, drawing the parallels that he sees in their work. This concluding piece nicely places into perspective much of the imagery and ideas encountered in the preceding work and brings this book to a satisfying conclusion, leaving the reader free to explore his or her own dreams. Maybe even those dreams that are calling to be put into words.

Born in New Dehli, Aashish Kaul presently lives in Sydney, Australia. A Dream of Horses & Other Stories was published in 2014 by Roundfire Books.