The supernatural power of forgiveness: Absolution by Aleš Šteger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1914 – Goodbye to All That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, Lavinia Greenlaw, ed.

War and conflict are among the most fundamentally human motivations behind our desire to tell and share stories. Religions, mythologies and histories draw on these timeless themes. And, as human history continues to prove that we have not yet managed to learn from the past; conflicts, ongoing or marked with progressive anniversaries, will continue to to inspire artists and storytellers alike.

greenlaw_2985334aThe centenary of the advent of the “War to End All Wars” in 2014 saw a renewed focus on the contemporary writers and poets of WWI as well as a broader assessment from today’s artists of the lasting influence of that critical event on the conflicts that have followed. An interesting contribution to the discussion arrived in the form of 1914 – Goodbye to all That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, a selection of essays edited by Lavinia Greenlaw which was published in the UK last year by Pushkin Press. This collection will see its release in North America on September 1, 2015.

For Greenlaw, the First World War has a resonance that is not tied to a particular time and place but rather stands as touchstone to “reinvigorate questions we should never stop exploring.” With that in mind a variety of writers were invited to offer reflections broadly inspired by the question: “What does it mean to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict?” To that end, writers from a number of different countries were recruited.

The final compilation is, perhaps inevitably, uneven. However, the strongest entries are startling and have stayed with me long after the reading. The first essay to catch my imagination was, much to my surprise, Daniel Kehlmann’s “A Visit to the Magician”. Having read his F: A Novel with a measure of disappointment, I was drawn into his account of his own attempt to pursue the experience of being hypnotized after this same novel was released. Because a visit to the performance of a hypnotist sets the stage for the events that unfold in F he decided that he ought to have a go at the real thing himself. The exploration of hypnotism leads to an interesting reflection on the mechanisms that may help motivate individuals to rise, against their better angels, to support dictatorships and even march to war.

“(I)t’s nothing more than the most normal effort to be like everyone else, to experience what everyone else experiences, to behave the way authorities want you to behave. And then of course there’s the desire not to do anything wrong in full sight of so many other people.”

For Belgian author Ewrin Mortier and Slovanian poet and writer Aleš Šteger connections are drawn between the First World War and subsequent conflicts, WWII in the first case, the Balkan War in the latter. In “The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing”, Mortier concerns himself with the silences that remain unspoken, and the way language and lies are employed to negotiate the complicated way that both World Wars divided Belgian communities and families. His essay encompasses the story of his own grandmother and her beloved younger brother containing the painful truth that he would weave into the fabric to his debut novel Marcel. By contrast, Šteger’s tale, “Tea at the Museum” is unsettling and unusual. When Z, a woman he has not seen or heard from in years, calls and suggests that they meet to for tea he cannot imagine why she wants to see him. She is, it seems, keen to apologize for a wrong she swears she has done to him – in a previous life lived during the First World War. The encounter leads him to confront the memories of individuals and of countries, and reflect upon the way poetic imagination is employed to talk about horrors to painful to face directly:

“Only through literature can we realize how impossible it is to have any true insight into the past, any true experience of it, and what’s more we will become part of some equally incomprehensible past.”

Elsewhere, novelist NoViolet Bulawayo writes about the work of writers from her native Zimbabwe who, through their voices raised in protest in the threat of censorship and imprisonment, served to reconnect her to her community from afar, ultimately leading to a focus and theme in her own writing. Her exploration of her own identity in this context serves as a direct and deeply personal tribute to her fellow Zimbabwean artists. Another striking and powerful contribution comes from UK based Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo. Her account of the experiences and often unfortunate end of thousands of Chinese coolies imported like cargo to dig trenches and lay railway tracks along the front toward the end of WWI is at once astonishing and disturbing.

The collection is rounded out by contributions from Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Elif Shafak, Colm Toibin and Jeanette Winterson. What is most interesting is the varied and diverse ways that all of these accomplished writers respond to the theme presented for their consideration. There is plenty of food for thought here.

* Review copy provided by Steerforth Press through NetGalley.