Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susan Moreira Marques, a reflection and review

We obsess over lasts as we do over firsts. Last days, last images, last words. We want signs.

Last month, my brothers and I made a most difficult decision about our father who was, at the time facing a cluster of serious complications resulting from a stroke and car accident. Four days earlier we had gathered around our mother’s bedside as the respirator that was barely keeping her breathing was removed. Within four hours she was gone. After agreeing to discontinue treatment of our father, he would continue to live, slowly dying, for another week. As I kept vigil day after day I tried to remind myself that there was a time when death was allowed to take its course, in the home, even as so-called “normal” life would begin to spin, a troubled satellite, around the dying person. Death was part of life, not something that happened elsewhere, surrounded by tubes and machinery. Although my dad remained in the hospital until the end, he was moved to a quiet, private room where he was kept comfortable, free of pain, and cared for by the nursing staff. As a family we were supported and respected. It wasn’t easy, and we’re all still numbed and distorted in our grieving, but if there is such a thing as a good death, I think that both of my parents had good deaths, if good means having a chance to say I love you, over and over and over until the end.

nowdeathWhen I first started to read Susana Moreira Marques’ Now and at the Hour of Our Death, I wondered if I was too raw, too plagued with second thoughts about the decisions we had made, to be able to surrender to a lyrical and experimental essay about death and dying. This book had been sitting on my shelves since it arrived last year with my And Other Stories subscription, several times I had opened it but somehow the time was not right. I suppose the book was waiting for me.

Over the course of five months in 2011, Marques made several visits to a palliative care project in rural north-east Portugal. She accompanied a team of health care professionals as they traveled from village to village to assist those on their final journeys, allowing them to be able die, as comfortably as possible, in their own homes; and along the way she recorded her own observations, collected anecdotes, and listened to the stories of the people she met. The result is powerful meditation dying, as a lived experience shared by a family, a community.

The first half of the book is fragmentary in style and form, blending facts and definitions, character sketches, brief stream-of-conscious like passages, pieces of wisdom—all presented with a quiet dignity in lucid, affecting prose:

The swallows have already built their nests above the back door; this is how they do it every year. They are useful birds, and beautiful, and have always been a favourite of his. But now he watches them as he never has before, because he might not see another spring.

*

AGONY: 1. The last struggle against death. 2. [Figurative] Anguish, affliction. 3. An imminent conclusion (preceded by a great disturbance).

‘Agony,’ the dictionary does not note, is a technical term.

*

Immortal in the morning. At night, the fear of never waking.

*

Lands, roads, people, time, time, people, roads, land. What matters here is different, very different.

The second half of the book, entitled “Portraits”, offers a closer look at three individual stories. Here Marques becomes a gentle presence as she describes each situation, then she steps back and lets those involved have their say. There is Paula, a woman with a young family, who is dying of cancer. She speaks with a brave spirit about how she and her husband had taken their time, waiting to have their second child, assuming they had “all the time in the world.” She will only have another year to live at the time that her thoughts are recorded. Then we meet João and Maria, a couple in their 80s who reminisce about their years in Angola. Both are ill, yet neither feels that they are ready to die, they live for visits from their children and grandchildren, and each one fears being the one left behind.

Finally, in the third portrait, the dying person is silent by the time Marques meets the family. While their father Rui lies on his death bed, his adult daughters, Elisa and Sara, each respond in their own way in his final months, the latter driving home from France every fortnight to spend time with him and her mother. Their own accounts follow his death, capturing the early weeks of grief, anger and regret. Very different in temperament, the sisters respond in their own ways to the loss, but for each of them it is the first time they have come up against the close experience with death and it is a leveling experience. Sara realizes she had never appreciated the magnitude of what others she had known would have been going through when they lost a parent, regretting that she had failed to say anything. I can’t help but feel that that is a common occurrence. Nothing but the death of a close friend or family member prepares you for the experience. Elisa, on the other hand, is surprised to find that she is unable to shriek and scream in anguish the way her sister and mother do when her father finally passes:

. . . I couldn’t react. It must have been two months before I cried. It’s really hard for me to cry. And now I’ve finally started crying, but only because I’ll get all worked up over something minor, and then I might cry a little out of frustration. But when it happened – and the atmosphere at our house was just so strange . . . It took me a long time to realize what was going on.

The final section, a single page long, is a guide for “When you come back from the journey no healthy person wants to take,” a list of the ways “you”, that is anyone who survives the death of a loved one, can be expected to act. . . paying attention to time, the things and people that are precious, the bridges that need to be mended and, simply, endeavouring to live well. I hope I can follow this wisdom even if, at the moment, I am inclined to relate to Elisa’s reaction, with grief coming in angry outbursts more than tears.

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Now and at the Hour of Our Death is translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches and published by And Other Stories.

 

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

 

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.

Castles in the air? The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

Imagine an empty lot. A curious stranger arrives one evening. He steps into the lot and makes his way across the dry winter grass, stopping when he hits a large anthill.

“It seemed a pity to waste this discovery, so he stood on top of the hill and turned his face ceremoniously to the four corners of his inheritance. It was a big face, with a crack of a mouth and a stump of a nose, with unfathomable sockets, craggy brows and a bulging forehead dented in the middle, altogether suited to the play of moonlight and shade. His survey revealed a single tree in the elbow of the hedge, and he chose that spot for his camp.”

As this newcomer sets up camp, the residents of the house next door are settled in front of the TV consuming prepared dinners on tray tables while they watch the usual turmoil and violence exploding on the evening news. Yet for Mr and Mrs Malgas, the quiet, unassuming domestic existence they have enjoyed is about to be changed – disturbed, unwound and distorted – by the very presence of this most unconventional new neighbour.

follySuch is the premise of The Folly. Newly released in North America, this haunting modern day fable, originally published in 1993, was the first novel by South African author Ivan Vladislavić. Mr Malgas, the owner of a local hardware store, reaches out to this oddly eccentric character who has suddenly taken up makeshift residency on the dusty patch of veld next door. He imagines the newcomer with the best intentions, excited when he learns that, true to his name, Nieuwenhuizen does in fact plan to construct a “new house” on the vacant lot. The Mrs will not be appeased. She is suspicious at every turn.

When convenient, Malgas’ enthusiastic assistance is welcomed by his fickle neighbour but the building project is unlike anything he has ever known. Nieuwenhuizen is methodical and will not be rushed. He deliberates, meditates and paces around his piece of land, frequently flinging his ungainly long frame about in the most unusual manner. Prancing, jumping, spinning and throwing himself to the ground. All the while Mrs keeps an anxious eye from behind the lace curtains of her lounge. When the “construction phase” finally gets into full swing things get even stranger.

Nieuwenhuizen is an enigmatic character, he can be pleasant and sociable one moment, suddenly turning to shower insults on his eager helpmate the next. Malgas takes it hard. Back at home his wife feels increasingly powerless against this mercurial influence. One evening when her husband, exhausted from a long day working beside his neighbour, collapses in the La-Z-Boy in front of the TV, she confronts the state she has come to:

“Mrs went into the bedroom, seated herself before the winged mirror of her dressing table, and said, ‘Although I appear to be thin and small, and fading away before your eyes, I am a substantial person. At least, it feels that way to me.’

Her pale reflection repeated the lines in triplicate.

Yet she saw through the pretence. It was clear: she was made of glass. And under the bell-jar of her skin, in a rarefied atmosphere, lashed by electrical storms and soused by chemical precipitations, her vital organs were squirming.”

Parable or fable, comparisons to Borges, Calvino and Beckett have been suggested by reviewers, but this timeless allegory owes its intensity to the brilliant descriptive power and sly humour of Vladislavić’s prose. As this tale rises (and falls?) to a stunningly surreal and dramatic climax, we are, as readers, as completely enmeshed in Nieuwenhuizen’s architectural chimera as the hapless Malgas.

Originally published at a pivotal moment in South African political history, it is tempting to read politics into the allegorical dimensions of this tale. I read it more broadly as a parable of our complex anxieties and attractions to others. Malgas is drawn to Nieuwenhuizen immediately. Mystery, curiosity perhaps, but there is a romance in his simple camp life and his creative fashioning of implements out of found objects and trash that evoke the magic of boyhood adventure. As a man ensconced in a secure, if unexciting, domestic life this appeal sets the groundwork that will allow him to be drawn into Nieuwenhuizen’s scheme. The ephemeral success of the envisioning and realization, however fantastic and temporary, of their dream mansion depends on Malgas’ desperate desire to believe and his longing for companionship. For the Mrs however, the new neighbour is a source of fear at first, of danger, and then of loss. He threatens their privacy, their way of life, and ultimately their marriage. The “other” forever holds that mixed appeal and repulsion.

The past two years have seen a growing awareness of and appreciation for Vladislavić’s work outside South Africa. It is well deserved and long overdue. The Folly was released in North America by Archipelago Books in September of 2015, the UK release from And Other Stories is due in November.

In praise of small publishers

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my growing obsession for small publishers. Once you start to turn your attention to non-mainstream literature, follow literary journals and publications online, or seek out works in translation; the world of independent publishers invariably opens up. As readers we live in a global world, and we engage in discussions with fellow readers spread far and wide, so it seems natural that you will hear about intriguing works that are not available wherever you happen to live. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of time but years can separate releases in North America from those in the UK and Australia. Here in Canada we sometimes end up in between the two. Some small publishers do not yet have distribution on one side of the planet or the other, some may never manage it, but I would argue it is still worth trying to support independent publishers no matter where they are, whenever possible.

Why? Small publishers uncover challenging, interesting works, take chances, bring long ignored literature back into circulation, or into translation. Or both.

2015-04-23 13.08.58My two favourite books last year introduced me to two small publishers: CB Editions with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist and Istros Books with Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors. Sadly both are publishers without North American distribution. That does not mean, of course that their books can’t be sourced, but the magic of a browsing reader happening to stumble across one of their titles on a bookstore shelf is lost. The joy of random discovery is denied.

After paying extra attention to the IFFP and BTBA longlists this year, I will now be watching out for titles from Pushkin, Open Letter, Deep Vellum, Archipelago among many others. Becoming more engaged as a book blogger and negotiating twitter has caused me to be distracted by some irresistible “shiny objects” – treasures like the stunning A Gothic Soul which arrived earlier this week, in a package covered in Czechoslovakian stamps, direct from Twisted Spoon Press. Oh yes, I could have downloaded it from Amazon for almost a third of what I paid but that would have been a pale substitute for what is truly a work of art and devotion from a small not-for-profit press.

2015-04-23 13.10.55And then there is And Other Stories. I don’t know how I was so late to the party but it was the release of The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé in January that put them on my radar. Dovetailing nicely with my interest in South African literature, their publication of this brilliant debut of stories translated from Afrikaans as well as their ongoing release of works by Ivan Vladislavić was an obvious draw. But as soon as I learned about their grassroots funding of initial releases with subscription support and their engagement of readers in the process of exploring potential writers from around the world… well, I was sold. I subscribed right away. My only regret is that temporary financial uncertainty led me to opt for a 4-book rather than a 6-book subscription. A number of other publishers utilize subscriber support models so I hope in the future to extend my support further and wider.

Today my biggest thrill comes from walking into one of our local indie bookstores and finding a gem on the shelves. Of course I still end up placing special orders, through the same stores or from overseas. And, when there seems to be no option I order e-books but my preference for paper copies has grown after an initial blush of affection for the digital. I am even the sort of person who, having truly fallen in love with a book read electronically or borrowed from the library, just has to own a hard copy.

There must be diagnosis for this illness. But I don’t want to be cured.

Border crossing ahead: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

signsA sinkhole opens up in the road in the opening passage of Yuri Herrera’s brilliantly inventive Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina, a streetwise young Mexican woman charged by her mother with a mission to deliver a message to her brother who has disappeared across the border in the US, just narrowly misses being swept into its depth. Or does she? She is a wary customer, old beyond her years, capable of communicating in native, latin and anglo tongue – a skill that has secured the task of manning the central switchboard in her hometown and has equipped her, as well anyone might be, for the daunting task her mother has set out.

The rules outlined above are those that Makina holds close. Securing her safe passage will require making deals with a series of shady characters and her hardened discretion will be vital if she is to reach her destination. The language matches her pace. The short chapters, clipped sentences, and unique vocabulary hurry along, sweeping the reader with it as if time is of the essence and dare not be wasted. There is no time for for frivolities, Makina – and with her the reader – must be on the alert. This is a dangerous journey. It is one that many desperate people make every day. On the far side, the world to be navigated is both familiar and strange.

“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”

But for the illegal migrant, temporary or permanent, the risks are real. The rewards often elusive, the costs high.

This slim novel is filled with passages of vivid intensity. Dark, epic in scope if not in scale, a few hours with Herrera is akin to a journey with Dante or Lewis Carroll. Right through to the final breath taking passages, I would challenge a reader to not emerge gasping for air.

Another wonderful offering from And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a deeply rewarding way to spend a few hours. In the Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, Lisa Hillman describes the joys and challenges she faced in capturing the right tone and shaping the language to preserve the magic and power of the original text. The result is an absolutely compulsive read. Highly, highly recommended.

Now, after this brief respite, back to reading the International Foreign Fiction Prize long list with my fellow bloggers on this year’s shadow jury.

A childhood of magic and darkness: By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

“Every man on our Atlantic Ocean island has his own canoe, and if he doesn’t have one, a new canoe is brought into the world so that he does, so that nobody on the island has to borrow one from anyone else.”

A detailed account of the traditional construction of a canoe on the tiny island of Annobón, an activity that gathers the resources of the entire community, opens By Night the Mountain Burns by Equatorial Guinean writer and political activist Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. Immediately we are drawn into an engaging, personal, conversational tale. The narrator is a deeply sensitive, if not well educated, man. His voice is fresh, at times naive, frequently looping back to revisit details, questioning the reader or foreshadowing events but deciding to hold off so that he can best share his childhood experiences, as he remembers them, on this remote island where natural resources are limited, life is difficult.

2015-03-14 02.11.35As a young boy, our narrator, lives in a large home with his grandparents and a number of mothers and siblings. Any fathers have long since disappeared to a land across the ocean, so no necessary distinction is made between birth connections, he sees all of the mothers as belonging to all of the children. His grandmother rules the roost while his grandfather is a curiosity to his many grandchildren. For some reason he has built his house facing the away from the sea and he sits watching the mountain that rises above the town day after day. He does not fish or go down to the beach to visit with the other men. In fact he does not come downstairs at all and the children never see him eat.

For our storyteller, the secrets of his his grandfather and a sense of the danger and misery adults must learn to live with begins to become clearer as a series of devastating events sweep his island community, beginning with a fire that starts on the mountainside destroying plot after plot of precious crops and threatening the town itself. Officially a Catholic community, the roots of superstition, folklore and mythology run deep and are intertwined with Christian saints and celebrations. In the wake of the fire, an especially violent act of retribution is carried out against a local woman assumed to be a she-devil, and then, before the community can heal, a plague of cholera sweeps through exacting a devastating toll on the population. Curiously, in this tale in which most characters remain nameless, every adult who dies is named in in full, and a cluster of crosses are inserted into the text to represent the numbers of dead who now crowd the sole cemetery on the island.

Even without the tragedies that run through the core of this account, daily life on the island is filled with challenges. Shortages of kerosene, among many other provisions – salt, soap, matches, tobacco, spirits, fish hooks, nylon rope, clothing – necessitate a careful rationing of light and flame. As a result, this novel is infused with a haunting darkness that is literal, metaphorical and even lyrical. Night brings both security and vulnerability. But moonlit nights are seen as even more threatening:

“… on moonlight nights we felt exposed, for the moon lit up the whole village and advertised our helplessness. I always felt that moonlight nights revealed our skeletons, our defects.”

Magical and evocative in the telling, mixing childhood wonder with reflective adult wisdom, Ávila Laurel introduces a place few will likely have heard of – the island where he grew up. He has been compared to Achebe and Marquez among others, but his account has a much more contemporary edge. When his character speaks of evil on the island, it is difficult not to think of the very brutal reality of the extreme poverty and social inequity that exist in his country as a whole, despite great resource wealth. Rooted in traditional story telling, this is a story for our modern times. It is exactly the type of important story that literature in translation should be bringing to a wider audience and a clear example of the vital role that independent publishers like And Other Stories play in this regard.

Finally, Jethro Soutar’s translation from the original Spanish is fluid, maintaining difficulties that the narrator, who is sharing his tale in Spanish, has finding words to express what Spanish cannot capture of his native island language. The quirks and qualities of his oral account are intact, the humour and insight shine through. Quite an accomplishment given that Ávila Laurel’s involvement in a hunger strike against the government of Equatorial Guinea that led to his ultimate exile to Spain added challenges to the communication between translator and author during the translation process.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: By Night The Mountain Burns is the first long listed title for And Other Stories, and I confess my bias in that I have developed a great affection for this publisher so I am thrilled. I had in fact just purchased this title along with several others and it was sitting at the very top of my TBR list so it was a happy coincidence that it was selected.

Behind the photographic impulse: Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

“How can I say what these fragments mean to me? The awkward truths of my life take shape in their negative spaces. In the lengthening shadows of the official histories, looming like triumphal arches over every small messy life, these scraps saved from the onrush of the ordinary are the last signs I can bring myself to consult.”

When we first meet him, Neville Lister, the narrator of Double Negative, is a disaffected young man, uncertain and aimless in a fractured and troubled environment – apartheid South Africa. It is the early 1980s and he cannot quite find his footing, either in academic study, the political protestations of his friends, or the mixed allegiances of his parents’ generation. The stakes are high, but his ambivalence is a luxury well known to middle class youth. Being close in age to Neville and his creator, South African author Ivan Vladislavić, I could not help but chuckle at his repeated references to “Beerhunter”, (a party game we Canadians lay claim to, by the way) or recognize the insidiousness with which The Eagles’ Hotel California album seems to define our lives even if we never owned a copy of that recording. However, unlike our most reluctant hero, I did not have political unrest or the real threat of conscription bearing down on me.

Double NDouble Negative traces Neville’s evolution from long-haired, pipe smoking dropout to middle-aged late blooming artist, framed against the shifting political, cultural and socioeconomic backdrop of Johannesburg. In the first section, “Available Light”, his father arranges a meeting with a famed local photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hopes that the encounter might inspire his son to reach beyond his current employment assisting a man who spray paints lines on roadways. As Neville tags along, Auerbach and a journalist friend devise a game that will direct their photographic pursuit for the day. Standing on a hillside with a panoramic view of the city below, each man choses a roof top. They manage to visit two of the three selected homes where Auerbach charms his way in, and coaxes photographs out of the inhabitants – a poor black woman with her two surviving triplets living in a backyard shack and a white woman in a lounge suffocated with furniture and curios. But before they visit Neville’s choice, the photographer’s energy and his necessary light have faded and they head home.

When our narrator picks up the thread of his story in the second section, “Dead Letters”, he has been in London for ten years and the first free elections have just been held in South Africa. Swept up in a wave of nostalgic homesickness he flies home. By this time he is also making a living behind the lens, but as a commercial photographer. He returns to a city already morphing under new dynamics, post apartheid – street names changing, houses and entire city blocks replaced. Cities are, at the best of times, constantly re-inventing themselves, shedding their skins. The effects are more profound under the pressures that have been released and confronted in places like Johannesburg, where, by the time we catch up with Neville again for the final installment “Small Talk”, he has taken to photographing the ubiquitous walls that have arisen to close off and protect the city’s inhabitants from each other.

Upon his return to South Africa, he had experimented with trying to enter a home to photograph the resident, drawn, of course, to the house he had first chosen so many years earlier. The experience almost swallows him whole but does, in turn, offer the direction that will inform his own artistic photographic ventures. He no longer wants to see what lies behind the walls that have been erected. He draws the resident out but refuses to enter. It is now 2009 and our hero is being subjected to an interview by an eager, self-promoting young reporter and blogger who intersperses her blog posts with a litany of handy household tips that would make Oprah proud. She is of a entirely new breed, neither weighed down by nor fully appreciative of the reality of her nation’s history. By contrast, Neville Lister occupies the transitional space. As photography has moved from film to digital, a medium with remarkable capacity for storage and the editing and altering of images, so is his country altering and editing its own collective memories.

More than anything, this is a story that unfolds as a series of images, captured with Vladislavić’s poetic eye for detail. He translates scenes, the photographic and the interpersonal, with a language so effortlessly descriptive that I often stopped to re-read a paragraph for the sheer pleasure. Neville describes “gumption” as a “word that stuck to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter”. A character “moulted” his jacket. In navigating the city he talks of following “the simple arguments of avenues and squares”.
This ability to transform language into imagery is nowhere more apparent than in his descriptions of the scenes, immortalized by the lens of the camera under the direction of the photographer. One of the photographs resulting from the initial outing with Saul Auerbach is described in vivid detail:

“Mrs Ditton sat in the armchair beside the fireplace. The coffee table had been dragged away – there is no trace of it in the photograph – to expose the floorboards and a corner of the rug. Looming on the left is the largest of the cabinets, so imposing you would say it belongs in a department store. The chair has wooden arms with ledges for tea cups and on each side of these lies a pie-crust of crochet work and a coaster. The chair sprawls with its arms open wide and its fists clenched, and she wallows in its lap.”

I imagine that anyone with an SLR camera and a tripod has experimented with long exposures and the creation of ghost images. It seems to be a rite of passage. Double Negative is, in many respects, a book of ghosts. Visiting with the woman living in the house he had selected so many years earlier, Neville feels weighed down by the voices swirling around her lounge. In referring to the annotated cookbook passed down from his mother, he reflects that the food “tastes better when the ghosts adjust the seasonings.” And ghosts haunt a collection of dead letters that come into his possession and, it seems, may be destined to lead him into his next “artistic” endeavour. If growing older is a process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the ghosts we carry, our narrator is older and wiser but still working away to make sense of it all by the end of this book.

And so is his country.

Note: Originally published in South Africa in 2011, Double Negative was released to an international audience in 2013 (with an introduction by Teju Cole) through the amazing publisher And Other Stories. Supported by their unique subscription model, this release was followed by the publication of an earlier title, The Restless Supermarket in 2014, and his upcoming collection of stories, 101 Detectives, will be released this year. Ivan Vladslavić was recently named one of three recipients of the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction along with Teju Cole and Helon Habila.