“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.

Out of place in a half-made world: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

Egan always found it strange to set foot for the first time in a place he knew from the plans. It was like folding out of two dimensions into three. You could almost hear the creases popping as you broke through the barrier. Sometimes it was disenchanting. You had convinced yourself, looking at the neatly inked blocks on the paper, at the street names, the community facilities, the cookie-cutter trees, that the place was rather pleasant. You imagined gardens, shady avenues and parks. And then you got there and found rows of impossibly small houses, not a leaf in sight, dust everywhere, shadowless walls, and the immense blue well of the sky, which reduced the world to sediment.

The end of Apartheid and the process of reconciliation offered great hope to the people of South Africa. It was, and still is, held up as a major achievement, a model to other nations, even if the dream has become tarnished in the realization. The plans always look better, more achievable, on paper. The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić, newly released by Archipelago, was originally published in South Africa in 2004, one decade after the first free elections. This collection of four loosely interlinked stories examines the uneasy space in which individuals living in and around Johannesburg find themselves as they try to adjust to—or exploit—a new social order where the shifting dynamics are not clearly defined. Too many loose edges exist, lines blur.

Vladislavić’s protagonists are ordinary men: a statistician, a sanitation engineer, a conceptual artist, and a contractor. Each one is a little neurotic, bearing hints of a vague identity crisis—the doubts of early mid-life in a world where the rules are changing. Their stories overlap with respect to place, a gated suburban development and a restaurant figure more than once, but each of the main characters is marked by particular degree of isolation.

“Villa Toscana” follows the misadventures of Les Budlender, a statistician seconded to help redraft the first non-racial census questionnaire that, in 1996, had caused great confusion. Shuttling between a diverse group of volunteers, and the Development Committee, his job is to help fine-tune a new form. And that brings him to a gated, faux Italian residential complex on the outskirts of the city where he meets a young Afrikaner named Iris. He is smitten; she is oblivious and eventually irritated by his increasingly odd behavior. Awkward, obsessive about detail, he tries to quantify everything as if comfort can only be found in numbers. He demonstrates a hyper sensitivity to his surroundings that, in the presence of Iris, is magnified and, in the end, unlikely to serve him well. But it allows for some striking descriptive passages:

She seated him in the lounge and went to make coffee. The rooms in Villa Toscana were small, square and white. The furniture, sparse and spindly though it was, seemed too large. He had the unsettling impression that he had strayed onto a page in a book, one of those picture books that were more interesting to adults than the children they had apparently been written for. He had lost all sense of proportion. He stood up, half expecting that he would have to stoop, and raised his hand above his head, measuring the distance between his outstretched fingertips and the ceiling. At least a metre. Probably, there were municipal regulations. Why did it seem so low?

The second and, for my money, standout piece in the book, “Afritude Sauce,” features Egan, a sanitation engineer on a business trip. He is out to visit a new RDP (low-cost subsidy) housing project called Hani View where there have been problems with the water and sewage system. He begins to sense that he is a prop in some sort of municipal drama. It begins with a seemingly staged (and photographed) demonstration of the inadequacy of the construction and, quite comically, the toilet facilities in one of the houses, and continues later that evening at dinner with a group of local business and council men at Bra Zama’s African Eatery. He tries to pride himself in being progressive, as a white man with a group of black men—the only racially mixed group in the room:

Mazibuko was right, Egan thought, it was going to be an experience. And he had an odd sense that it would be a significant experience too, that he would remember this evening, that he would look back on it. He could already see himself looking back on it, from a tremendous distance, and understanding, at last, what it was all about. He wishes he was there now, at that reassuring remove, on a height, filled with the wisdom of hindsight.

However, as the night progresses, he is increasingly at a loss to decipher how he fits into the political posturing that gradually leaves him sidelined as the conversation shifts into Sotho and he drinks too much for his own good. Later, back at his hotel, his embarrassment and irritation builds to a level of frustrated paranoia.

“Curiouser,” is the sole story with a black protagonist, in this instance an educated, middle-class artist, who has made his name with installation art pieces. Simeon also faces questions of identity, albeit from another angle. Questions about what is, or is not, appropriate for him to present in his art take on a different tone because of his colour. His own sense of himself is, to a significant extent, a private performance. Yet, when forced to consider the possibly illegal source of a large quantity of masks and curios he has purchased, it is clear that he, too, has an uncertain sense of how, or where, he fits in.

Finally, the collection closes with “Crocodile Lodge,” where the elements of the “new South Africa” meet with a devastating and brutal intensity. A contractor who specializes in erecting billboards for construction sites, caught in congested traffic reflects on his childhood love of Popular Mechanics, as he makes his way back to the location where he had been working earlier to try to find his missing cellphone. He remembers how the plans he absorbed from the magazine had shaped his idea of America and his ability to imagine the diagrams into virtual three-dimensional structures, from the smallest detail of a house, to the landscape outside:

Even the pines on the shore he exploded into their parts, so that each needle quivered beside a sheath in a stalk, each cone burst into separate scales, and each trunk shucked its bark like a coat. The world, disassembled as precisely as a diagram in a biology textbook, sucked in bracing breath and expanded. The universe was expanding, we were causing it to expand, by analyzing it.

This affinity for seeing how things fit together, for appreciating the “exploded view” had never left him though he wondered about its value in the modern world. Indeed, a new kind of awareness, alertness is required, when the world is in flux. Each of the protagonists in this collection find themselves out of step to a greater or lesser extent.

These stories, which could well be considered a novel in four parts, showcase Vladislavić’s great strength—an ability to burrow into the very human idiosyncrasies of the ordinary man. His attention to thoughts, mannerisms, and subtle details allow him to create, even in relatively confined spaces, characters that are honest, and slightly flawed, in a way that one can easily recognize and relate to. And his power of description applied to settings—interior, exterior, or imagined—carries an almost photographic quality. Well demonstrated in longer works like The Folly or Double Negative, this uncanny ability is likewise evident in his short fiction. The Exploded View is a welcome addition to the growing body of Vladislavić’s work to be made available outside South Africa, and, if you have yet to encounter his writings, is as good a place to start as any.

Lament for a lost land: Journal of an Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish

A place is not only a geographical area; it’s also a state of mind. And trees are not just trees; they are the ribs of childhood. The tears flowed freely from my fingers as the bus passed quickly by. Upon our return, the sadness of my childhood came back. This dream standing before me, why didn’t I just wrap it around myself even once so I could say I have felt the joy that kills? The soldiers were guarding the dream, but I will enter it when they sleep.

2017-02-09-15-32-49Journal of an Ordinary Grief, the first of three major works of prose spanning the career of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), is a work of intense, heartbreaking loss and pain. Yet this collection of autobiographical essays is more than simple memoir. He chronicles his family’s history, meditates on the meaning of homeland, and focuses on the horror visited upon Arabs in the occupied territories. He talks about being under house arrest, his confrontations with Israeli interrogators, and his time in prison. He talks of the life of the refugee and the exile. As the translator, Ibrahim Muhawi, points out in his Foreword, Darwish makes it clear that Palestine is his cause. He equates his self with his country; the pronouns he uses—I or you—can represent his own personal experience or those of his people. Here the poetic is merged with the political, and the memoir becomes a requiem for a nation, up close and immediate: “In Journal, as in all of Darwish, we are placed in the middle of an encounter between writing and history where writing gives shape to the homeland.”

He approaches the telling, as a poet, with a lyrical force that levels one powerful image after another. The opening piece, “The Moon Did Not Fall into the Well,” sets out as a dialogue, presumably between a father and son:

—What are you doing, father?

—I’m searching for my heart, which fell away that night.

—Do you think you’ll find it here?

—Where else am I going to find it? I bend to the ground and pick it up piece by piece just as the women of the fellahin pick olives in October, one olive at a time.

In the end we realize that this is the poet’s younger self interrogating his older self. The latter speaks of his family, driven into exile in 1948, only to return to find themselves exiles in their own land. Childlike curiosity meets the sorrow born of experience and loss, wisdom and despair.

Attention to the quality and shape of the sentence informs Darwish’s poetic prose. He frequently, and efficiently, employs a dramatic dialogue in a number of his essays. The title piece is largely composed of a series of “conversations”—commonly ironic in tone—that cast light on the political dynamics of racial discrimination and oppression. The impact is strikingly effective:

—Where are you from, brother?

—From Gaza.

—What did you do?

—I threw a grenade at the conqueror’s car, but I blew myself up instead.

—And . . .

—They arrested me and charged me with attempted suicide.

—You confessed, of course.

—Not exactly. I told them the attempted suicide didn’t succeed. So they liberated me out of mercy and sentenced me to life.

—But you were intending to kill, not to commit suicide?

—It seems you don’t know Gaza. Distance there is an imaginary thing.

—I don’t understand.

—It seems you don’t know Gaza. Where are you from?

—From Haifa.

—And what did you do?

—I threw a poem at the conquerors’ car, and it blew them up.

—And . . .

—They arrested me and charged me with mass murder.

And so it goes. Thus the reader/listener is brought into the heart of the political struggle. Later on in this piece, the narrator addresses his audience directly to illustrate the losses of basic freedoms he has experienced: You want to travel to Greece? You want to rent an apartment? You want to visit your mother on a feast day? Other voices enter and play devil’s advocate. There is bitterness and defiance running through the sections of this essay, but the language carries a frightening beauty: “They place you under arrest when you are committing a dream.”

The poetic spirit and sensibility with which Darwish explores the fate of Palestine, and what it means to live, as he does, as an exile in Israel, pushes this memoir closer to the heart, generating more emotional energy than a more conventional first-person narrative essay format would typically allow. As such, the reading experience becomes more intense as one moves through the essays. And, of course, this work is sadly as relevant today, as it was when it was first published in 1973—speaking not only to the roots of the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine, but to broader concerns facing Arab refugees forced out of divided and troubled homelands throughout the Middle East, and of those who dare to speak out who risk detention, or worse, in many states:

You write to your imaginary lover: “I wish you despair for you, my love, that you may excel for the desperate are creative. Don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for anyone. Wait for the thought; don’t wait for the thinker. Wait for the poem; don’t wait for the poet. Wait for the revolution; don’t wait for the revolutionary. The thinker may be wrong, the poet may lie, and the revolutionary may get tired. This is the despair I mean.”

By making individual experience universal, and personifying historical tragedy and loss, Mahmoud Darwish—though his poetry and his prose—stands witness to the fate of his people under occupation. “The homeland,” he claims, “is always at its most beautiful when it is on the other side of the barbed wire fence.” He grieves, and his grief is anything but ordinary.

Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, is published by Archipelago Books.

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

I am very pleased to have my first review published at The Quarterly Conversation. Dreams and Stones by Polish writer, Magdalena Tulli, is a poetic meditation on the city as an organic entity, essentially an urban cosmology. I read it through twice before writing my review and in my second encounter its nonlinear, cyclical quality was even more apparent. Thinking about it now, two months later, its fantastic, mythic qualities still have a strong hold on my imagination. But there is more that haunts me when I think about this book.

dreamsstones

I had been aiming to submit this review in mid-July, my first reading was in late June, but before I could put pen to paper, so to speak, my father had a stroke and car accident and my mother became ill and died. As one might imagine, I struggled to write, let alone read. During times like this words fail us. But, as my father’s death neared I returned to this short book, for distraction, comfort and, above all, to know that I could still write. The ability to sit down and pull together a critical review was an important turning point. In times of immediate crisis and grief when family members find themselves trudging back and forth to the hospital, the advice is to try to return to some measure of routine. The answer, for me, was to write.

Dreams and Stones is translated by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. My review, originally published at Quarterly Conversation is reproduced below:

“There are more things in heaven and earth,” Hamlet famously says to Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So might Polish writer Magdalena Tulli be imagined to warn readers entering her enigmatic first novel, Dreams and Stones: to be prepared to open your minds to an urban cosmology that envisions the city—its evolution, destruction and rebirth—in the light of two seemingly opposite notions of the world. Paragraph by paragraph, Tulli’s images are startling and fresh, and they become the building blocks of a fanciful metropolitan vision that overflows with both magic and sorrow.

Born in 1955, Tulli is one of Poland’s most original contemporary writers. She has received three nominations for the prestigious Nike Prize, and four of her novels translated into English to date, including In Red which was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award

Recently re-issued by Archipelago Books in paperback (they published a hardcover edition over a decade ago), Dreams and Stones truly defies simple classification. From the opening passages, the contemplative poetic imagery reads like a re-invented Book of Genesis, sketching out the life cycle of the metaphorical tree upon which a fruit ripens, falls to the ground, and germinates; it holds in its core the seeds of a great city and the parameters of the human system that surrounds it. This archetypal city is fundamental to the vision of the world that Tulli proposes, but herein lies the tension that motivates and propels the narrative: Tulli’s calmly disconnected narrator ponders, never committing to one conception over the other, how the world is to be understood: as a tree or as a machine? Is the city borne of the dreams of its citizens? Or is it grounded in the faith and certainty of its master builders?

Be it natural or mechanical, the city is created by an inextricable combination of thought and the appearance of objects. Necessity and a restless urgency drive this process onward. Tulli’s narrator describes the lines of the city as ordained to appear through the pens of the draftsmen, inspired by the builders’ unshakable belief in one possible truth.

Though it remains a supposition it is not hard to interpret. It proclaims that it is not the power of germinating seeds and not the pressure of juices circulating between the roots and the crown that give the world life, but that it is set in motion by motors, gears, and cogs, devices that keep the sun and stars rotating, pull the clouds across the horizon and drive water along the bed of the river. The clarity and simplicity of this notion may prove salutary. They will make it possible to dismantle, repair and reinstall every broken component—so long as the world is composed only of separate and removable parts . . .

However, as the narrator goes on to speculate, how can one be certain the world is a machine when it resembles a tree in so many respects? This continual pull between the two poles of this dichotomy suggests that the way one chooses to view the world influences, even governs, the way one attempts to exist in it. Both views, it is argued, are true. And both have their limitations.

Tulli spins webs of interconnected realities and counter-realities. As a tree has a network of roots that spread, like the branches of its crown, in the dark depths of the soil, the city and every object in it ideally has its counterpart. But as the inexorable progress of the mechanized world rushes forward, the city is easily separated from the counter-city and, like a tree cut off from its roots, everything begins to spiral out of control, break down, fall apart. The builders that once seemed so assured failed to leave room for fate, chance, and fatigue—not only of materials but of the legions of flesh and blood workers required to build, repair, and maintain the metroplis in its glory.

Eventually time begins to run short and the power required to hold the counter-city at bay outstrips demand. The city, and the framework of the world that surround it, enter a period of cosmic decline. Here the narrative registers a distinct shift in tone:

No one knows where sorrow comes from in a city. It has no foundations; it is not built of bricks or screwed together from threaded pipes; it does not flow through electric cables nor is it brought by cargo trains. Sorrow drifts amongst the apartment buildings like a fine mist that the wind blows unevenly across the streets, squares and courtyards. There are long streets and short ones, there are broad ones and narrow ones. The gray of some bears a trace of ochre while others are bluish from the sidewalks to the roof tiles. Each of them has its own peculiar shade of sorrow.

The city of thoughts is now precariously maintained in the dreams of its inhabitants, their memories. The city of sorrow grows increasingly disordered and fragile. When war threatens to level it forever, the survivors, like their forbearers who constructed the original city, attempt to reconstruct one of memories. For, as the narrator assures us, “nothing in the world—even imaginations—can be destroyed completely and finally.”

Although Tulli never names the city at the heart of her story, recent Polish history, the massive destruction of Warsaw during the Second World War, and the systematic rebuilding and redesign of that place all seem to be woven into Dreams and Stones; but, these threads need not be traced in a linear fashion. This is a fable, one that essentially folds back on itself, a poetic meditation on the soul and heart of a city built, rebuilt and kept alive in the imaginations of its people. A metropolis that is connected to the rest of the outside world, to those shifting, almost fantastic municipalities that exist elsewhere, and yet stands as a self-contained ideal. One has to be aware though, that such an ideal can become distorted over time. Warsaw was reconstructed, with great attention to detail on the one hand, but altered to accommodate the new pressures of a steadily increasing population on the other. Memories and the rebuilt reality do not always align:

It is possible to imagine a city perfect in its entirety, a city that is the sum of all possibilities. In it nothing is missing and nothing can perish, every china teacup comes from somewhere and is destined for somewhere. But precisely this absolute city is eaten away by the sickness of never-ending disasters. Change invariably brings confusion to the lives of the inhabitants. One has to pay attention so as not to drive accidentally onto a bridge that was demolished years ago, so as not to sit on the terraces of torn-down cafés once known for their unparalleled doughnuts.

An obvious counterpart to Dreams and Stones can be found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Tulli has translated Calvino and admits to his influence. But in so far as this book can be understood as referencing Warsaw, it retains a sharply central European feel. I was especially reminded of Pavel Brycz’s  I, City.[1] Originally published in Czech in 1998, Brycz    honors the history and people of the industrial city of Most in northern Bohemia, by giving the narrative voice to that place, setting the stage for a melancholic meditation on an urban center widely understood, at the time, to be in a state of unemployment, decline, and despair. In Tulli’s urban landscape it is the city’s inhabitants who maintain, generation after generation, the idea of their home, even as its proud stone edifices are turned to rubble. In I, City, the concept is reversed. It is the city that retains the memories and affections for its people and its past—it dreams, keeping its spirit alive despite repeated historical destruction, occupations, and finally as its neighborhoods are leveled to mine resources and replaced, not by stones, but by prefabricated concrete slabs.

While Tulli regards Dreams and Stones as a novel, her translator, Bill Johnston, respectfully disagrees. He sees it as prose poem.[2] It is, essentially, a series of images and reflections, and there are no individual characters apart from the measured and detached narrator. Yet either way, novel or poem, the piece is endowed with an overwhelmingly orchestral quality. The dynamic life of the city, builds up speed, slows down, becomes erratic, falls into an abyss, and is reconstructed anew. Tulli is playful with her imagery, intentionally pushing her metaphors to the edge. Even the moods—pride, sorrow, nostalgia—that course through her streets are imbued with a mythic intensity. This motion and fluctuating energy, combined with the fundamental philosophical tension at its core, gives the work its flow, draws the reader in, and, in the end, offers a richly provocative experience that invites and rewards rereading.

[1] Brycz, Pavel. (2006) I, City. (J. Cohen & M. Hofmeisterová, Trans.) Prague: Twisted Spoon Press (Original work published 1998) – Link to publisher page for book: http://www.twistedspoon.com/city.html

[2] Interview with Bill Johnston on Magdalena Tulli. Polish Writing. Retreived from https://web.archive.org/web/20111106183056/http://www.polishwriting.net/index.php?id=125

Conversing in verse: Voice Over by Breyten Breytenbach

when you die, Mahmoud
when your aorta thrashing
all sluggish and crinkled
like a purple snake bursts
because the lines can no longer
slither the perfect metaphor.

A selection of stunning new translations of the poems of Mahmoud Darwish posted today, March 13, on the blog Arabic Literature (in English) marking the late Palestinian poet’s birthday inspired me to take a little time to re-read Voice Over by Breyten Breytenbach. The South African writer and painter had last seen his friend and fellow poet in France only a few weeks prior to learning of Darwish’s death during open heart surgery in Houston, Texas, on August 9, 2008. He was on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar in Senegal at the time and, as he travelled from there through Catalonia to Friesland to attend a literary festival, Breytenbach took the time to meditate on his friend’s passing and engage with his work reporting that it was “refreshing to be bathing in Mahmoud’s verses.” The twelve poems in this slender volume are a reflection on this time in the form of a poetic communion. As he notes in an afterword:

“MD had always been a prolific poet. One could interact with him forever. The present ‘collage’ touches upon transformed ‘variations’ of his work, at times plucked from different poems and then again by way of approaching a specific verse, with my own voice woven into the process. The images, and to an extent even the rhythms and the shaping, are his.”

voiceoverThe first poems play with images of death, burial and moving on, but the tone is not sombre. There is a distinct sense of a conversation not ended but continued beyond the grave, a call for a celebration of life – music, not weeping, and a glass raised high. Midway through the journey, the verses take a turn to the political with the plaintive call “we shall be a people” that echoes throughout the 6th piece and continues in the 7th where Breytenbach tells his friend:

identity is gospel talk. Mahmoud
when as in a dream you hear
what others tell
and imagine you understand/exist

to be is to move
through a spectrum of volcanoes
and the spectacle of wars
              and poetry in catastrophic times

blood
              and blood
                            and blood
in your homeland

Small but powerfully affecting, this collection of poetic engagements acts as a kindling of the spirit of a voice silenced too soon. My favourite piece in this collage, to use Breytenbach’s term, is the 8th and longest entry. Here the question of the possibility and validity of this communication across the boundaries of language, and of death itself, is explored. Here, for me, lies the heart of the grief and the expression of fellowship:

who is writing this poem face
by face      in black blood
neither raven’s ink nor voice
pressed from an errant tongue?
luck’s hand snatches everything from night

Mirage leads the wanderer through the wasting
so that he may continue hailing the holy crocodiles
Mirage seduces him with sweet words read
if you can       write if you can
read       water / water / water

and write this one line in the sand
that if it weren’t for Mirage
I’d long since have died    for it is
the traveler’s talisman that hope and despair
be twinned in the blood of poetry

Ah yes, twinned in the blood of poetry. A gift, verse to verse, this heartfelt collection is a treasure.

darwish1Voice Over: a nomadic conversation with Mahmoud Darwish by Breyten Breytenbach is published by Archipelago Books.

 

Mahmoud Darwish, March 13, 1941 – August 9, 2008