Nothing threatens the meaning of life like freedom: The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali

On a plateau atop a mountain in Kurdistan, at the border of heaven and the realm of earthly reality stands a lone pomegranate tree. Known as “the last pomegranate tree in the world,” it is an enchanted and symbolic point of intersection for a handful of boys and the man whose life is bound to all of them although he will only meet one in person. His story—and, through him, their stories—recounted night after night to an audience of fellow refugees on a ferry riding dangerous dark waves, is one of hope, despair and the immeasurable price war exacts.

No, tonight I’m not going to tell you about Muhammad the Glass-Hearted, Saryas-i Subhdam, Nadim-i Shazada, and their connection to a pomegranate tree that heals the blind. It’s too early to reach the heart of our story. It seems as if we’ll be out at sea for many more nights. And if God comes to our help and our story is cut short because we’ve reached some country’s shores, if the coast guards detain and separate us, don’t worry that you haven’t heard the end of the story. You are right there at its end. This ferry marks the very end of the story.

The road to autonomy for the Kurdish people has been long and bloody, marked by insurgency, uprising, genocide and civil war. This is the reality of Bachtyar Ali’s The Last Pomegranate Tree (originally published in Kurdish in 2002), but the tale he gives us is one filled with magic, mystery and philosophy. Unfolding over the last decades of the twentieth century and just into the twenty-first, amid the dark, violent years of Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, it is as much a story about orphans, oaths and glass pomegranates, as a testimony to the brutality of warfare and the hollowness of victory. Yet above all, it is a story about the power of storytelling.

With his captive audience, our narrator, Muzafar-i Subhdam, is an unlikely Scheherazade, weaving his tale, not to save his own life, but to preserve the memory of a story beyond anything he ever expected to encounter—one he has now has committed himself to carrying. He begins with the account of his sudden release from prison after twenty-one years confined, alone with only the vastness of the desert for company. However, rather than finding himself a free man, he is taken to a luxurious mansion surrounded by a dense forest, where he soon learns that his old childhood friend, Yaqub-i Snawbar intends to keep him hostage so that they may grow old together apart from a world ravaged by destruction and disease. Years earlier when they were fellow Peshmerga freedom fighters, young men dreaming of a new future for the Kurdish people, Muzafar had forfeited his freedom to allow his friend to escape. He emerges from the desert, long thought dead and nearly forgotten, while Yaqub has amassed great wealth and power. But the wounds of conflict and corruption run deep, and Yaqub sees Muzafar as pure soul whose presence will ultimately cleanse his sins. But our hero has no desire to trade one prison for another. He has only one goal—to learn the fate of the infant son he left behind when he was captured so many long years ago.

Like a seasoned raconteur, Muzafar-i Subhdam entwines the story of his own search with the stories he acquires along the way, offering his audience hints at what lies ahead, but making them wait as a rich mythological tapestry slowly takes shape. Whenever he asks about his son, he is told that he is dead though no one can or will tell him how or when he died. Again and again he is advised not to seek answers, to accept the truth and move on. But for the decades he spent surrendering himself to the world of sand, letting all other memories be swept away, the one thing he held fast to was the thought that somewhere on earth there was someone named Saryas-i Subhdam. His son.

In these unusual times, fathers have become estranged from their sons.

Slipping into what at first seem to be magical detours, we learn about Mohamed the Glass-Hearted killed by love and two mysterious sisters who have sworn to never marry and always wear white. As Muzafar will discover when he conspires to return to the outside world, the life of Saryas-i Subhdam is bound to their lives and to the lives of many others. His efforts to piece together the clues he uncovers blends fantasy with the very real horrors of a series of conflicts that are, at the time, still ongoing and unforgiving. The chronicle he shares with his ferry companions is filled with memorable characters and strange coincidences, interspersed with philosophical musings as in the following testimony from Ikram-i Kew, the giant-sized,  soft-hearted fixer who agrees to help free Muzafar from the mansion and assists him as needed on his journey:

“I served the revolution for many years,” he said. “I’ve done everything except kill for it. I often regret it, and often I don’t. Muzafar-i Subhdam, innocence creates two feelings in us: on the one hand, you feel you’re nothing, you’re weak, and your innocence is like a rabbit’s in the middle of a pack of wolves. At other times, you have the opposite feeling – that you have encountered every kind of war and filth but retained your innocence. You tell yourself: that’s good, that’s beautiful, it’s a great achievement. Muzafar-i Subhdam, the revolution is a great big lie. You’re fortunate – you’re a revolutionary without having been in the revolution. And that’s divine grace. I had thought that the success of the revolution would automatically bring about paradise on earth. And yet, from the next day, the very next morning, when you opened your eyes and washed your face, you could see that everything was starting all over again. I saw that devil being reborn day after day, a devil that was only small to begin with. At first you say, So what? That devil is part of all of us, it’s only small, a natural part of any human being. But you can see it gradually grow bigger, sweeping everything away. Everything.”

The Last Pomegranate Tree, a modern Kurdish fable, is an immersive, entertaining tale that fuses the charm of ancient legend with the harsh reality of contemporary history. It honours a generation lost or, worse, hardened to death and disaster by years of hostility—both coming from outside the troubled region and arising from within. Resilience, as fragile as the glass pomegranates at the heart of his tale, is what Muzafar-i Subhdam cherishes and holds close as he trusts the convoluted story of Saryas-i Subhdam to a group of refugees lost at sea.

The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali is translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman and published by Archipelago Books.

Looking out toward the Horizon Line: The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas

The Horizon Line. That distant boundary between sea and sky, a path travelled by memories, traversing the great nothingness. It haunts Vicenzo Fontana, the narrator of The Last Days of Terranova by Galician writer Manuel Rivas. As the sole surviving owner of an eclectic bookshop that, after nearly seventy years of existence, is scheduled to close, he takes little comfort in the presence of the other businesses lining the streets of his hometown with similar Total Liquidation signs in their windows. A developer, it seems, has other plans for all this real estate, but he feels liable, as if he has failed in some self-appointed role as guardian of local history.

I feel responsible for all these closings. For having written my sign. A rebellion of the eyes. For having stuck my damn paw into the intimacy of words. I should stay open day and night, should hang up ship lights. It’s been a long time since I saw young people stealing books. The thrill in their bodies, in their gaze. I have to get back and open the bookstore right away. Someone might be hoping to steal a book. They’ll be so crushed. So disappointed.

As the novel opens, Vicenzo is watching a young couple illegally catching barnacles on the rocks below him while the waves threaten to rise and carry them off. He is worried for them, he is worried for his future, he is talking to ghosts. He knows he is seen as an oddity. He describes himself as “An old, fallen angel on crutches. A liquidation.” But he is not that old, no more than sixty-two, and the crutches—”Canadian crutches,” he notes—are necessary due to post-polio syndrome. The eccentricity he comes by naturally.

The story of Terranova, within which Vicenzo’s own story is inextricably bound, extends over nearly eighty years back to 1935, with the account of his maternal grandfather’s death across the Atlantic in Newfoundland. Before boarding the ship for what would be his final voyage, Antón Ponte had advised his son Eliseo, who had fallen in love with art and surrealist literature, to avoid the seafaring life. With this he was permitting a family occupational tradition to come to an end. The Galician name of his final resting place, along with money he’d earned working side jobs, would eventually fund, and christen, the bookstore Vicenzo’s mother, Comba, opened years later. His father, Amaro Fontana, was Uncle Eliseo’s best friend and a teacher of Greek and Latin until his career ended under the Purging Committees of the early years of the Franco regime. Amaro’s marriage to Comba in 1947, brought him into the bookselling business, along with Eliseo who came to live with the couple in the apartment above the shop. Over the years, Terranova would evolve into a rabbit warren of book-lined rooms, decorated with handmade globes, curiosities, posters, photographs and, often in false covers, smuggled and illegally produced copies of banned volumes.

Vicenzo, born into the Terranova world, was a reluctant convert to the family trade. As a small child he spent much of his time out in the country at the home of his paternal aunt and uncle where he was especially close to their housekeeper, the delightfully strong-willed Expectación, and her son Dombodán who is so close to him in age that his mother was able to nurse them both. Later on, Vicenzo and Dombadón will experiment with drugs and get into a little youthful trouble, but before that our protagonist will spend several years of his childhood at a sanitarium, trapped in an Iron Lung. Polio leaves him with lasting damage to his legs that further cripples him as he ages, and, to some extent, marks his self-identity for life.

In his early twenties, eager to put distance between himself and everything he thinks bookselling might promise (or threaten), Vicenzo heads to Madrid for University. That is, of course, the beginning of the road back home. In late 1975, with the death of Franco, the city is on edge. The apartment he shares with fellow students offers passing resources, like a place to develop film, to Argentinian youth escaping their own political turmoil back home. One is Garúa—or at least that is one of the names she uses. He is smitten, but their first proper encounter occurs at a café where, affecting his White Duke persona inspired by David Bowie, he is reading a contraband edition of the first Spanish translation of Catcher in the Rye. Garúa enters and, catching sight of him, comes right over:

She didn’t fall into the arms of the White Duke or admire the green lock of hair on his head or the lipstick on his lips or the makeup around his eyes. She simply stared at my book. That manner of looking. Squinted eyes squinting harder upon further scrutiny, not believing what they’re seeing, the cover absorbing her full attention, because it had an eye with an iris like a bullseye. This is from Libros del Mirasol! Let me see that, she said, as she tore it from my hands. I knew it—printed by the Compañía General Fabril Editorial in Buenos Aires! Are you…? No, I’m not Argentinian. And I’ve never been, I found it in a bookstore. I could have called it my bookstore, Terranova. But no, the White Duke liked to retain a certain air of mystery.

It turns out that her father had worked as a typographer for the publisher, creating in her the sensation that the very words he touched belonged to him. Over the weeks and months to come, they bond over books and music until eventually Garúa asks Vicenzo to take her to his family bookstore.

Back in Galicia, Garúa is immediately welcomed into the Terranova family. She is captivated by Amaro’s historical knowledge, swept away by Eliseo’s stories which have the capacity come alive before his listeners eyes, stories that come from a “deep place in the memory where only that which you want to happen will happen ” and Comba, ever sensitive, is instantly aware that Garúa’s arrival at Terranova is fated. “We have to protect her,” she tells her son. “That girl is full of souls.” In return, she has much to offer to Vicenzo, his family, friends and to the store. At least until her past comes calling.

The Last Days of Terranova is rich tale peopled with singular characters driven by idiosyncratic passions and hidden secrets, haunted by personal demons. Their relationships are complicated and the risks they take are real, set against uncertain and often dangerous political realities in both Spain and Argentina. The quirky bookstore is brilliantly realized while Vicenzo is the perfect, modestly eccentric, narrator to carry a story that holds so much humour, honest emotion, and literary and historical lore. The absence of quotation marks and the tendency to fall into an immersive, wandering narrative that seamlessly incorporates the memories and stories of various actors without immediate guideposts, apart from occasional time stamps, can lead to passing uncertainty about exactly whose account is being presented, but the disorientation never lasts long. Rivas is an accomplished storyteller with strong poetic sensibilities who trusts his readers’ attention to hold and rewards it with an original story that celebrates family, friendship and the power and wonder of books. As Vincenzo says early on:

People say that books can’t change the world. I disagree. Just look at me, they’ve given me quite the beating. But I’d still forgive anything for a stack of them.

The Last Days of Terranova by Manuel Rivas is translated from the Galician by Jacob Rogers and published by Archipelago Books.

Reading highlights of 2022: A baker’s dozen and then some…

It seems to me that last year I resisted the annual “best of” round-up right through December and then opened the new year with a post about some of my favourite reads of 2021 anyhow. This year I will give in, look back at some of my favourite reading experiences out of a year in which I had a wealth to choose from and aim to get some kind of list posted before friends start hanging up their 2023 calendars around the globe. In a year with war, floods, famine, storms and still no end in sight to Covid infections, books seemed more important than ever, as a respite, a record and a reminder that we, as human beings, have been here before and must learn from the past to face the increasing challenges of the future.

As ever, it is difficult to narrow down twelve months of reading to a few favourites. One’s choices are always personal and subjective, and many excellent books invariably get left out. This year especially—2022 was a productive and satisfying year for me as a reader and as a blogger. Not much for other writing, I’m afraid, but that’s okay.

This year I’m taking a thematic approach to my wrap-up, so here we go.

The most entertaining reading experiences I had this year:

Tomas Espedal’s The Year (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson) was one of the first books I read in 2022. A novel in verse, it is wise, funny and, nearing the end, surprisingly tense as Espedal’s potentially auto-fictional protagonist careens toward what could be a very reckless act.

International Booker Prize-winning Tomb of Sand  by Geetanjali Shree (translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) looks like a weighty tome, but blessed with humour, magic and drama—plus a healthy amount of white space—it flies by. An absolute delight and worthy award winner!

Postcard from London, a collection of short stories by Hungarian writer Iván Mándy (translated by John Batki) was a complete surprise for me. In what turned out to be a year in which I read a number of terrific collections of short fiction, I was a little uncertain about this large hardcover volume some 330 pages long, but by the end of the first page I was hooked by the author’s distinct narrative voice and I would have happily read many more pages.

The most absorbing book I read this year (and its companions):

City of Torment – Daniela Hodrová’s monumental trilogy (translated from the Czech by Elena Sokol and others) is a complex, multi-faceted, experimental work that explores a Prague formed and deformed by literary, historical and political forces, haunted by ghosts and the author’s own personal past. After finishing the book, I sensed that I was missing much of the foundational structure—not that it effects the reading in itself—but I wanted to understand more. I read Hodrová’s own companion piece, Prague, I See a City… (translated by David Short) and more recently Karel Hanek Mácha’s epic poem May (translated by Marcela Malek Sulak), but I would love to have access to more of the related literary material, much of which is not yet available in English. I suspect that City of Torment is a text that will keep fueling my own reading for some time.

This year’s poetic treasures:

This is the most challenging category to narrow down. I read many wonderful collections, each so different, but three are particularly special.

Translator John Taylor has introduced me to a number of excellent poets over the years and in 2022, it was his translation of French-language Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes. I read this gorgeous book in August and it is still on my bedside table. It’s not likely to leave that space for a long time yet, and that’s all I need to say.  

I first came to know of Alexander Booth as a translator (and read a number of his translations this year) but his collection, Triptych, stands out not only for the delicate beauty of his poetry, but for the care and attention he put into this self-published volume. A joy to look at, to hold and to read.

Finally, My Jewel Box by Danish poet Ursual Andkjær Olsen is the conclusion of an organically evolving trilogy that began with one of my all-time favourite poetry books, Third-Millennium Heart. Not only is this a powerful work on its own, but I had the great pleasure to speak over Zoom with Olsen and her translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, for Brazos Bookstore in May. The perfect way to celebrate a reading experience that has meant so much to me.

Books that defied my expectations this year:

Prague-based writer Róbert Gál has produced books of philosophy, experimental fiction and aphorisms—each one taking a fresh and fluid approach to the realm of ideas and experience. His latest, Tractatus (translated from the Slovak by David Short) takes its inspiration from Wittgenstein’s famous tract to explore a series of epistemological and existential questions in a manner that is engaging, entertaining and provocative.

A Certain Logic of Expectations (you see the back cover here) by Mexican photographer and writer Arturo Soto is a look at the Oxford (yes, that Oxford) that exists a world apart from the grounds of the hallowed educational institution. Soto’s outsider’s perspective and appreciation of the ordinary offers a sharp contrast to the famed structures one associates with the city (and where he was a student himself) and what one typically expects from a photobook.

The third unexpected treat this year was The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths. This short novel about the soldiers sent to guard the tomb where Jesus was buried is an inventive work that explores questions of faith, religion, and art history. Truly one of those boundary-defying works to use a term that seems to get used a little too often these days.

The best books I read in 2022:

Again, an entirely personal assessment.

I loved Esther Kinsky’s River, but Grove (translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt), confirmed for me that she is capable of doing something that other writers whose work skirts the territory occupied by memoir and autofiction rarely achieve, and that is to write from the depth of personal experience while maintaining a degree of opaqueness, if that’s the right word. One is not inundated with detail about the life or relationships of her narrators. Rather, she zeros in on select moments and memories, allowing landscape to carry the larger themes she is exploring. So inspiring to the writer in me.

Monsters Like Us, the debut novel by Ulrike Almut Sandig (translated from the German by Karen Leeder) deals with an extraordinarily difficult topic—childhood sexual abuse. It does not shy away from the very real damage inflicted by predatory family members, nor does it offer a magical happy ending, but it does hint at the possibility of rising above a traumatic past. As in her poetry where Sandig often draws on the darkness of traditional European fairy tales, she infuses this novel with elements and characters that embody the innocence, evil and heroic qualities of folktales within an entirely and vividly contemporary story. So much to think about here.

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Pastor (translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken) was my introduction to the work of a Norwegian writer I had a lot about over the years. This slow, melancholy novel set in the far north regions of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter, was a perfect fit for me as a reader, in style and subject matter. The story of a female pastor who takes a position in a remote village following a personal loss that she does not fully understand, explores emotional, historical and spiritual questions through a character who is literally stumbling in the dark.

So, what might lie ahead? This past year I embarked on two self-directed reading projects—one to focus on Norwegian literature for two months, the other to read and write about twenty Seagull Books to honour their fortieth anniversary. I found this very rewarding experience. Both projects were flexible enough to allow me freedom, varietyand plenthy of room for off-theme reading, but in each case I encountered authors and read books I might not have prioritized otherwise. For 2023 I would like to turn my attention to another publisher I really admire whose books are steadily piling up in my TBR stack—Archipelago. As with Seagull, they publish a wide range of translated and international literature that meshes well with my own tastes and interests. I don’t have a specific goal in mind, but already have a growing list of Archipelago titles I’d like to read. Other personal projects—public or private—may arise, perhaps more focused toward the personal writing I always promise to get back to, but time will tell. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s a long uncertain road from January 1st to December 31st and it’s best not to try to outguess what the road might hold. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst once more.

Best wishes for the New Year and thank you for reading!

The conversation we can’t have: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik

Loss and grief are experiences that inspire and drive so much literature. For a writer there seems to be a compelling need to try to sort out the complicated flood of emotions that the injury, illness or death of a loved one releases with the only tool that makes sense—the pen. But that response typically requires a certain degree of distance before the diaries and records can be weighed against whatever it is one feels at the time and in the aftermath. The exercise of writing immediate grief is much more difficult. In his memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke seeks an element of closure by writing about his mother within two months of her death. He wants to honour her life without slipping into sentimentalism but discovers the peace he seeks is elusive, he cannot keep himself out of the story, and that is the best part of this raw, affecting meditation. More successful precisely because it was never intended for publication, is Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. This collection of fragments, scribbled on scraps of paper during the first days, weeks and years following his beloved mother’s death is entirely unselfconscious, honest and stripped to the barest essential emotions. As such it is one of the very few books a recently bereaved person can turn to for company. There are no conclusions, no prescriptions, and many unanswerable questions.

One could say that Hanne Ørstavik’s Ti Amo is also an exercise is immediate grief writing, but she turns to fiction, choosing to hold close to the details of her own life, and at the time of writing—or at least beginning to write—her ailing husband is still alive. Her unnamed narrator, a Norwegian novelist, is living in Milan with her Italian husband who is dying of cancer. The work she is writing, addressed to the man she loves, is an attempt to put some kind of meaning to a time in which their relationship, and the expectations and dreams they once had, is shifting, losing direction. It is an effort to reach out across the space that has opened up between their respective realities:

Why can’t we speak the truth? Why can’t we say things the way they are? Why do they have to hide your death from you? Do you really not want to know, not be in contact with, not feel, the truth about yourself?

“Ti amo”—I love you—is the phrase that links the narrator and her husband, becoming in moments of physical and psychological distance, a mantra that reaches out through the fogginess of medication and the void created by that which is not being said. At the time when he first became ill, they were still in the early, heady years of a mid-life romance. He was her Italian publisher and, as their desire to be together intensified, she relocated from Norway to Milan, immersing herself in a foreign culture and language. Their lives were filled with travel, literary events, social engagements. When the first indications that something was wrong appeared, they both tried to imagine it was nothing but before long his symptoms could no longer be ignored. A diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy followed but the cancer is refuses to be stayed. In the present moment of the emerging text, it is early 2020. Their relationship goes back only four years and almost half of that time has unfolded under the shadow of serious illness. Even their marriage, the formal recognition of their partnership, was a response, at his insistence, to the suddenly altered circumstances.

Tracing the onset and progression of illness against an account of their lives before and after diagnosis, the narrator is continually seeking to understand what she feels and who she is in relation to a man who often seems so helplessly far away. Through the maze of appointments and tests and endless trips to the pharmacy in the hope that the prescribed pain meds have finally arrived, small things, the simple moments together—stopping for hot chocolate, buying suet for wild birds, tea in the morning—take on an added poignancy. The narrative is nonlinear but regularly circles back to January, 2020, as the last of the normal treatment options have been exhausted. And still, they are not together in accepting the one truth that hangs in the air.

Ti Amo is novel of passion, commitment and confusion. It is an open window into the complicated, often conflicted, emotions of caregiving without the numbing effects afforded by time and distance. Details of the ravages of an aggressive cancer are laid bare, woven into a story of two people brought together by a love of literature, art and travel. Two different natures, she reasons at one point, recalling that he always exhibited a certain degree of hesitancy while she always carried “a compulsion for truth that feels like my very life force itself.” Is that why they can’t approach the topic of death?

This is, of course, a one-sided story. The narrator’s husband is hostage to pain and its pacifiers, grasping at normal whenever he has the strength, and much of the time that entails going into the office. As if a semblance of work will keep him alive. But isn’t that what the narrator turns to as well? Her own work? “I write novels,” she says, “It’s my way of existing in the world…” If he will not or cannot ease her through her fear of bereavement by bravely accepting his own death (for is that not what lies behind her sense of loneliness?), she will turn their situation into a novelized love letter.

The resulting brief novella, written in just ten days, overflows with warmth, tenderness and  grief rendered in spare, poetic prose. Through her looping narrative style, Ørstavik allows emotional tension to build, in her protagonist and her reader, as a moment of reckoning dawns for the narrator and her husband in their separate but parallel journeys. However, the end, as such, lies outside the frame of the story. The author’s real-life husband, Italian publisher, translator and painter Luigi Spagnol, died on June 14, 2020. Ti Amo, in arising so directly from her experiences and emotions in his final months, is more than autobiographical fiction or memoir—it is also a deeply personal tribute to power of love.

Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and will be published by Archipelago Books in North America and And Other Stories in the UK in September.

“a translation of myself”: distant transit by Maja Haderlap

is there a zone of darkness between all languages,
a black river that swallows words
and stories and transforms them?
here sentences must disrobe,
begin to roam, learn to swim,
not lose the memory that nests in
their bodies, a secret nucleus.

(from “translation”)

Maja Haderlap was born Carinthia, the southern-most province of Austria, into the Slovenian-speaking minority community that served in the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. As a result, they suffered repression during the war and ongoing persecution in the decades that followed. Haderlap was raised in this hostile borderland environment and educated in both Slovenian and German, two languages burdened with conflicting histories and dynamics in the region. She first established herself as a poet with several Slovenian-language collections before releasing, at the age of fifty, her acclaimed German-language novel, Angel of Oblivion. According to her translator, Tess Lewis, her decision to write about her family and community history in German, was controversial, but guided by a desire to reach as wide an audience as possible with a story that was largely ignored or unknown. Now, with distant transit, she has returned to poetry, but, for the first time, through the medium of her second language.

The fact that these poems were composed and published in German adds an extra layer to the themes Haderlap explores. Language and the translation of identity and self-understanding inform the poet’s reflections on home, relationships, and belonging—experiences grounded in her Slovenian culture and heritage, but examined through German and all that that language has afforded her beyond her rural roots. The tension between the two forms of expression comes through in Lewis’ perceptive translation, heightening the emotional impact of this work.

Haderlap’s poetic diction and simple, lowercase form, reward careful engagement. I found that the style encourages a close reading to follow the rhythm and the division of thoughts or sentences. Her imagery is rich, inspired by the natural beauty of her native countryside, yet filled with longing and questioning. Language is an ever present element—what does it contain, preserve and lose as one grows and moves between vocabularies and grammars? And what does it mean to be at home in any one place or community?

                                 language opens
rotted doors, thrusts the dusty boards
from their brackets, reveals the buried stone.
it flies at my face like a flock of startled
swallows, confronts me as the smell of mold,
drops from the jagged armor and
hulls of kids’ stuff like silt shed from all that was.
as soon as its bird heart beats calmly,
it shows its skin, appears unscathed and
hardly used. keep me safe, language,
wall me off against time.

(from “home”)

This collection is steeped in the landscape and mythologies of Haderlap’s Slovenian youth, carrying that foundation into adulthood in an evolving relationship with language—hoping and trusting words to carry memories forth into another time and tongue. It is an uncertain faith. Yet her poetry so vividly captures the possibilities and limitations of translation, that I would suggest that one does not need to likewise live between two languages to recognize the nature of the dilemma. Any one of us who trusts our own memories, emotions and experiences to the vagaries of words—even if in our sole language—worries those same words onto the page. The writer is always recognizing the permeability of the borders and boundaries within their own experiences, translating and transcribing themselves into being, seeking to find preservation and refuge in words. Haderlap speaks to this so acutely.

the shore path is now built up, shifted,
torn out of the meadow and discarded.
i, too, have emerged repeatedly
as a translation of myself,
transferred and rewritten
i appear in a new transcription
although in similar form.

(from “on the shore path in the evening light”)

The poems that comprise distant transit speak to a personal political reality in intimate, yet recognizable terms, echoing the transitions we all experience as we grow into adulthood, away from home and search to find ourselves in the world. More specifically and powerfully though, Haderlap animates the mystery, power and baggage that a language can carry with it, how words and sentences are laden with implications for understanding the past and the present, to articulate one’s identity as an individual torn between two tongues.

distant transit by Maja Haderlap is translated from the German by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books.

Sympathy for the misanthrope: Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wanted to bind up a wound”: The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik

Who was I? Everywhere I went, something broke or became distorted. What had I thought? That by travelling to somewhere else on the map I would arrive at some new place in myself? A place in me that was good and warm and worthy of love?

Set deep in the endless night of an Arctic winter, The Pastor by Norwegian writer, Hanne Ørstavik, is a novel that pushes into that darkness—on an emotional, spiritual, and historical level—in search of some glimmer of clarity, some sense of meaning in an uncertain, insensible world. Yet, rather than reaching any absolute truths, the internally focused narrative rides on a current of relentless speculation and questioning, becoming a melancholic testament to the inadequacy of language to isolate and contain our thoughts and feelings, and the barriers we often erect that keep us from being able to communicate what cannot be articulated in words. Yet out of this sombre landscape emerges a tale of quiet beauty.

The troubled narrator, Liv, is a theologian who has abruptly abandoned her PhD studies in Germany, following the tragic death of her friend, Kristiane, and accepted the position of adjunct pastor in a small town in the far north region of her native Norway. When we meet her, she has been in this new role for one year. She seems to have achieved a certain state of equilibrium with her skeptical parishioners, and a companionable relationship with the recently widowed woman she has invited to live on the main floor of the parsonage with her two daughters. As well, the relative proximity to the site of the 1852 Kautokeino Rebellion, the Sami uprising against Norwegian settlers, allows her to continue her longstanding academic investigations into the events and the role the understanding of Biblical language might have played in inspiring the Sami’s attack. But it has not been easy. Her brief friendship with Kristiane and the circumstances surrounding her suicide continue to haunt her while she worries that she will always be an outsider, emotionally distant from others and from God.

Unfolding over the course of one week, the novel opens with our unlikely pastor officiating communion. Her thoughts go back to Kristiane, to her decision to move, her hopes for her new home, and the very unfortunate first impression she made in the church. This continual cycling of memories, sometimes shifting from present to past and back in the same paragraph, drive the narrative forward, slowly filling in more of the details, discomforts, and unresolved doubts she carries. An imagining of the Sami rebellion, augmented with historical records, is also woven into the broader tapestry. In the present moment though, it is a call to attend to the parents of a suicide victim, a nineteen year-old girl who has hung herself from a fish drying structure out on a barren piece of land, that triggers Liv’s immediate crisis of identity and faith. By the end of the week, she will have been tested, or rather, will have tested herself against a variety of circumstances that she  struggles to meet.

The challenges Liv faces all revolve around her inability to physically bridge the gap between herself and others—to reach out a hand to a grieving parent, respond to a man to whom she is attracted, recognize signs of depression in someone close to her—a skill she perhaps imagined the priesthood would magically confer upon her. She recognizes what she wants to do or say, imagines it, but fails to follow through. Again and again. Key to understanding her crippling inhibition, she believes, is her brief friendship with Kristiane. At forty-one, seven years her senior, the German woman was a puppeteer with her own workshop and theatre. A definite counterpoint to the serious theologian. Liv saw in Kristiane a lightness of spirit, and an apparent self-confidence that she craved. She seemed at ease in her body and her being, quick to laughter, her crooked teeth flashing—an image Liv cannot forget. They only knew each other for forty days, but Liv is obsessed by the fear that she failed her friend:

Weightless. I was so heavy myself, and all I saw in her was what I needed. Was that it? I didn’t realize that the light in her was turned up too bright, like a film going completely white until the image disappears. Was that the way it was?

If she was aware of an intrinsic “heaviness” before encountering Kristiane, her death untethers her completely. She carries this disconnect with her all the way back to Norway. Recollecting the long drive north she says:

I drove slowly. The flat, open vista seemed to make everything so plain, but still felt like I couldn’t get a hold on anything, as if I was so very far away. The road, stretching out in front of the car, the landscape, the steering wheel I gripped between my hands. My mind was a haze, as if there were no thoughts left to think. It was like I was driving over the back of some great beast that could get to its feet at any moment and shake me off. I wasn’t attached to anything, wasn’t a part of anything.

Liv is wounded. She is ever aware of her failure to connect, feeling outside, separate. She reminds herself that she is a pastor, that people depend on her for comfort, and then wonders again whatever possessed her to choose the ministry as a career when she herself is so uncertain, so ungrounded, so afraid that she will fall and that there will be nothing or none there to catch her. Isn’t that what everyone needs to have? Some kind of faith?

As it moves through the vast, eerily lit northern Norwegian landscape, The Pastor relies on the reader’s ability to connect with a protagonist so estranged from herself. Some might find Liv frustrating, but in its winding, lyrical passage, her narrative contains great depth and mounting tension. As someone who has experienced difficulties with mood regulation, I found Ørstavik’s portrait oddly familiar. I was not surprised to hear in an interview that the author was coming out of a serious depression when she wrote the book almost twenty years ago—she captures the disjointedness of thought so well. And it’s a sensation most people have probably known at some point or another. For example, when Liv is rushing back to town having learned of another tragic incident, this one much closer to home, her thoughts are suspended, frozen: “I tried to think about what I was thinking about. My thoughts wouldn’t think.”

Martin Aitken’s sensitive translation maintains an atmosphere of profound longing for connection and contact, for the touch to fill the unspeakable space, a gesture that can be so hard to give or accept. That is at the core of Liv (and her name means “life”)’s existential discontent. There are many unanswered questions in The Pastor, but small cracks appear and spread slowly, and there is the hope that what one tragedy broke open, a second tragic occurrence a year later might finally begin to heal.

The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and published by Archipelago Books.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

A map of your absence: If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani

Some novels greet you at the door—or in this case, just beyond the baggage claim—engage your attention, and hold you, sentence by sentence, through the past and the present, until you reach your final destination. If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Italian writer Andrea Bajani, is such a book. Yet the magic of this story lies entirely in the telling—in the delicate balancing of select, sharply depicted images within a spare, measured narrative that simmers with barely restrained emotional tension. On the surface, it’s the tale of a young man grieving his mother’s legacy of repeated departures and arrivals, the mainstay of his childhood, while he attends to her final dispatch in Romania, the ultimate faraway destination from which she would never return. His prospect of achieving closure, however, is tenuous for beneath the surface, complex and conflicted feelings remain unresolved.

The novel opens with Lorenzo’s arrival in Bucharest and his initial contact with Christian, the driver who will serve as his guide to the city and his means to understanding some elements of his mother’s life. Although she is dead, she is never far away—Lorenzo’s account is essentially directed toward her—but his tone speaks to an unbreachable distance. After enough time, absence no longer to makes the heart grow stronger. Addressing her is perhaps the only way to make sense of his loss:

You started leaving when I was young. The first trip was for pleasure, to go meet some friends who were off trying to strike it rich. You drew the world on a sheet of paper the night before, to show me where you were going. We’re here, you said, and tomorrow I’ll be right down here, in this spot. You drew a line with a red marker from home to there. It’s a bridge, you said, it’s like crossing the river to the other side. And under the bridge we colored everything blue; we filled in the water of Europe. Then we taped the picture to the refrigerator, and that’s where it stayed for years to come.

His mother’s trips became more frequent. Promotion of her egg-shaped, sweat-inducing weight loss machine takes her around the world. The souvenirs she brings home multiply in her son’s room, mapping her absence. When she is home, the increasing presence of her business partner in her life begins to put a strain on her marriage. Before long, the partner and the promise Romania holds as the ideal base for their enterprise is too strong and finally she is gone for good. Left behind in Italy, Lorenzo and his dad will never see her again; even the phone calls will dwindle as the years pass.

Now grown and finally in Romania himself, Lorenzo is reunited with Anselmi, his mother’s business partner, a loud, brash Italian who has clearly found a level of success and self-importance that would have eluded him at home. He is of a breed, not uncommon in the country—latter-day middle-aged foreign opportunists—and Lorenzo will encounter more than a few men of this type, including another long-time friend of his mother who reveals to him the shocking and sorry state of her final years. No one is exactly forthcoming with details, but Anselmi has taken up with a young Romanian woman named Monica who seems less than thrilled with her circumstances and rather attracted to the young Italian she has been ordered to attend to. Lorenzo, however, is seemingly most comfortable in the company of Christian, his mother’s long time driver. With him he is able to be present without pressure. Together they visit Ceausescu Palace, spend time in the city, share both laughter and silence. Lorenzo is gently attentive to the hidden strengths Christian seems to carry, leaving a faint erotic tension in the air.

If You Kept a Record of Sins offers an account that rides as much on what is unspoken as on what is shared. The narrative is economical and precise, moving from one finely honed image to another. Lorenzo’s mood is lonely, detached. He is cautious in his engagement with others. The abandonment he felt at a young age comes through even as he recalls tender moments of play or adventure with his mother. As an adult he appears to be grasping at something to feel for someone he hardly ever knew. Her own family, he is aware, were oddly unforgiving and remote themselves, while her final years in Romania were marked by romantic betrayal and self-destruction, but how to make sense of the damage she was responsible for between those two ends? A mixture of love and ambivalence fuels this bereaved son’s ongoing one-sided conversation with this mother as, for example, in this account of his first night in her apartment:

The mirror was too low—it cut off my head—and to think there was a time you used to lift me up, to look into my eyes. I was still wet when I left the bathroom, a trail of droplets behind me. I turned off all the lights, except the nightstand lamp. I took my pajamas from my bag, put them on, and went over to your bed. I dropped onto it, tried to bounce, then slipped under the covers. And it was almost as if I felt your bones, under there, that I was lying between bone and muscle and had to stay very still, or else I’d hurt you.

This is a novel at once sombre and hopeful. Beautifully translated by Elizabeth Harris, it never falls in to oversentimentality. Grief is idiosyncratic, sometimes elusive, and Bajani captures this complexity well. The cast of complicated secondary characters add depth to Lorenzo’s experiences without ever distracting or weighing them down. Reading fiction this well-crafted is a joy.

If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Andrea Bajani is translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and published by Archipelago Books.

Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.