A few thoughts about reviewing Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson for TQC

I’ve been busy reading and writing reviews lately, but everything seems to be directed at the future, scheduled for publication at online literary journals. It’s all good, but you put so much work in and then have to wait to share your thoughts and engage in conversation about the book. My review of Darran Anderson’s monumental Imaginary Cities, published earlier this week in the Spring 2017 issue of The Quarterly Conversation is a case in point. This extended essay on the idea of the city, in all of its possible and impossible incarnations, does not readily lend itself to the confines of a critical review… I know, I’ve had a look around. Originally published in the UK in 2015 (Influx Press), my piece has been written in anticipation of the North American release from University of Chicago Press next month. As I struggled to beat this essay into submission, I cast an eyeball at prior reviews. After all, it is already a well-known and well-loved work. And I was relieved to see that the best anyone can do is skim the surface of Anderson’s rambling, eclectic, and immensely readable tome.

So, without further ado, here is a link to my attempt to review Imaginary Cities. I wrote it back in early January—I think it took about two weeks, and even then I still felt I was sending Scott Esposito a bundle of superlatives at the end of the day.

And while you’re over there, have a look around, there are some great articles and reviews to check out!

Thoughts on writing about Witness by Robert Rient for Minor Literature[s]

For all its sins, Twitter is still a terrific way to connect with readers, writers, translators and small publishers and, in the process, hear about books you might otherwise miss. Witness by Polish writer and psychologist, Robert Rient, is a case in point. I came to know of it by way of the translator, Frank Garrett, and was immediately intrigued by this story of a man who grew up gay and Jehovah’s Witness in Catholic Poland. I ordered the book and, as soon as it arrived, I had a quick look and immediately knew it was the type of book for which I would want to pitch a critical review.

I am intrigued by original approaches to memoir writing, that is, rrient-witnessintentional writing about ones’ own experience. In Witness, the story is carried by Luke, the writer’s younger self—the boy and young man torn between his faith community and his sexuality—and Robert, the grown man who marks his break with his past and his rebirth as a whole person, true to himself, by taking a new name and identity. Woven through these two narratives is a fascinating look inside the Jehovah’s Witness church. As someone with a dual identity history, albeit different in nature, I found a lot to admire in the telling of this story, as well as in Robert’s honesty and the powerful transformation he chooses to make to mark his move forward into a new authentic life.

My review is now live at Minor Literature[s]. Thank you to Tomoé Hill for entertaining my contribution.

Light in form but not impact: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

When God, disgusted with man,
Turned towards heaven,
And man, disgusted with God,
Turned towards Eve,
Things looked like falling apart.

But Crow Crow
Crow nailed them together,
Nailing heaven and earth together-

So man cried, but with God’s voice.
And God bled, but with man’s blood.

Then heaven and earth creaked at the joint
Which became gangrenous and stank-
A horror beyond redemption.

The agony did not diminish.

Man could not be man nor God God.

The agony

Grew.

Crow

Grinned

Crying: “This is my Creation,”

Flying the black flag of himself.

– Ted Hughes, “Crow Blacker than Ever”

I am carrying three griefs—three “conventional” griefs, if there is such a thing. I carry more, I am a walking inventory of grief, but the three “expected” griefs are those that I, and others, anticipate; I lost both of my parents and one of my closest friends within the span of two months last summer. And yet, no two griefs, no two losses are alike. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s bravely unconventional novel about the impact of a woman’s sudden death on her husband and young sons, is a book that speaks to me—not as a bereaved child, my parents were in their eighties and ailing—but in the loss of my friend Ulla, who ended her life burdened by an unremittent depression and her own private, unresolved griefs.

She would have loved this book. It would not have saved her, but it might have granted her the comfort of wings, even for a moment.

crowTo appreciate the invention and spirit of Feathers, it is useful but not necessary, to have an acquaintance with Ted Hughes and his work Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. These poems, composed primarily in a span of time bookended by the suicides of his wife, Sylvia Plath, and his partner, Assia Wevill, give inspiration to the corvid character, who inserts himself into the lives of the grieving family. The father is a Hughes scholar, fumbling his way through the completion of a manuscript about the poet’s crow poems in the disorienting aftermath of his wife’s death. Guiding him and his young sons as they struggle to make sense of a world and a family missing such a central figure—partner and parent—is a crude, boisterous, grandiose incarnation of Crow in all his mythological glory. Real or imagined, it matters not. This surreal surrogate houseparent has arrived to ease, tease and prod the troubled family toward healing. He will stay for as long as he is required.

This short novel blurs the lines between prose, poetry and drama. It is narrated by three voices. There is Dad, who, aches for the loss of his friend and lover, and in his uncertainty about the nature of his new role in his fractured little family, questions the possible delusional nature of the presence of Crow. But he recognizes the essential value of his feathered wisdom:

There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to the be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him.

The boys, unnamed and ageless, offer contrasting individual reactions, challenging one another as siblings will, while in unison they form a sort of mini Greek chorus. They fill in gaps, and respond to the loss of their mother with their own magical thinking, express deep concern for their father, and exhibit childish delight with the company of the crusty black bird in their midst:

Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if they forgot things about their mother.

And Crow, who, in all his trickster enthusiasm, offers folktale wisdom, philosophical asides, and an abiding concern to preserve the spiritual safety of his charges as he ushers them through the initial stages of grief. At his best he is loud and irreverent:

Gormin’ ere worrying horrid. Hello elair, krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cut-out? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, motherless children in my trap, in my apse, in separate stocks for boiling, Enunciate it, rolling and turning it, sadget lips and burning it. Ooh pressure! Must rehearse, must cuss less. The nobility of nature, haha krah haha krap haha, better not.

(I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him. I think he thinks he’s a little bit Stonehenge shamanic, hearing the bird spirit. Fine by me, whatever gets him through.)

From the description of this book alone, I was uncertain how well it would work, or more precisely, how accepting I would be of the premise. I have seen reviewers comment that it is clever, but not an accurate depiction of grief. What is an accurate depiction of grief? Loss is personal; grief is unique. Grief, in this instance, is personified as “that thing with feathers.” Mythology and fable meets the urban reality of contemporary life and becomes something other. And that, I would argue, is exactly what the shock of bereavement (whether it is sudden or foreseen) feels like. Grief is jagged, distorted, time-out-of-placeness.

What insures the success of this original approach to a subject so often steeped in unbearable sorrow and self-pity, is not the absence of these emotions—they are present in measure—but rather the careful sifting of language, tone, and spirit in the magical or surreal elements. Porter employs the poetic energy of Hughes’ poetry, ramping it up and making it his own. Yet, Crow’s presence is more than that. He is aware of his role and his origin in the tale:

“Thank you Crow.”

“All part of the service.”

“Really. Thank you, Crow.”

“You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.”

“He never called you a motherfucker.”

“Lucky me.”

Hughes is the father’s hero and a project to anchor his recovery. The poet’s own complicated reputation is not ignored, nor is the shadow of Sylvia Plath’s death, yet there is a self-deprecating humour to Dad’s academic and personal obsession, echoed by Crow’s playful interchanges and his sons’ observations. Without these elements the entire set up would seem contrived, forced. With them, the reading experience is both a heartbreak and a delight.

My friend Ulla lost her mother a few short years after healing a bitter and long estrangement. Every morning she took her coffee and cigarette out to stand by the struggling thorn tree planted in her honour. She would pour a little coffee on the ground where her mother’s ashes had been spread—a daily ritual of connection. The spirit of Crow would have delighted her, I am certain. I regret I cannot share this book with her now. She too has turned to ashes, tossed to the sand and waves of the Indian Ocean along her favourite stretch of the South African shoreline.

Now, if you have read Grief is the Thing with Feathers, you will know why, in the end, this is a book that, for me,  speaks to my loss of one of my dearest friends.

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.

You do not own life: Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe

The first thing you notice from the opening words of Phaswane Mpe’s only novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, is an unusual, and to Western readers, unconventional narrative voice:

If you were still live, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco. Of course you supported the squad. But at least now, you would experience no hardships walking to your flat through the streets of Hillbrow—that locality of just over one square kilometre, according to official records; and according to its inhabitants, at least twice as big and teeming with countless people.

This is not, as some mistakenly assume, a second person perspective, but rather a communal first person plural voice, speaking from a universal omniscient viewpoint to a character who is dead. It is a narrative form that freely moves from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. By drawing on traditional storytelling techniques, language, and expressions to tell a story that is rooted in one of the most crowded, disadvantaged, and violent inner-city neighbourhoods of post-Apartheid Johannesburg, Mpe is able to explore the intersection of complex issues—linguistic and literary marginalization, xenophobia, suicide, AIDS, and rural superstition—with a dazzling immediacy and intensity.

mpeMpe (1970-2004) was born in Limpopopo Province (formerly Pietersburg) in northeastern South Africa and, like his main character, Refentše, he moved to Johannesburg at the age of nineteen to attend the University of Witwatersrand, which had recently opened its doors to black students. Unable to afford accommodation on campus, he lived in Hillbrow. He would go on to complete an MA in publishing at Oxford Brookes in the UK—an experience that he would, in his novel, grant Refilwe, the female character whose life crosses and parallels that of Refentše. Thus, Mpe’s urban and rural experiences, informed by his modern liberal arts education, contributed to the development of a distinctive new literary voice, one which would be cruelly silenced all too early when he died suddenly at the age of thirty-four.

The voice that carries the narrative directly addresses the primary character throughout the course of this short novel, and is at once challenging and understanding. The voice recounts Refentše’s actions and emotions for him, reminding or reinforcing a memory of his experiences because he and  most of the primary characters have met untimely or unfortunate fates by end of the book (or, if you would rather, before the account even begins). This is a narrative to the dead from the dead. This unusual approach not only allows for a surprisingly effective engagement with a tragic tale of unfortunate coincidences, misunderstandings, and consequences, but it also creates a unique dialectical context for the exploration of the deep and critical issues that lie at the core of the story.

In simple terms, although it does not unfold in a straightforward manner, Welcome to Our Hillbrow, follows two main characters: Refentše, who comes to the city to study, and settles in Hillbrow, becoming a sensitive observer of the community; and Refilwe, his childhood friend and former girlfriend, who arrives in the city shortly before his death. He falls in love with Lerato, the “Bone of his Heart,” who is also an academic. But his mother and fellow villagers are not happy to see him with a city woman—urban/rural prejudices are acute. When a couple of unfortunate moments of infidelity “shatter” his enthusiasm for life and lead to his suicide, Refilwe exasperates the situation by implying that Lerato is the daughter of a Nigerian man, a curse that plays into a deep-seated xenophobia toward African migrants that still exists in some black South African communities today. Tribal justice, more suicide, and madness follow in the wake of Refentše’s death. Yet the narrator continues to address him in Heaven, where he is able to observe the action that ensues but is, of course, powerless to intervene.

I do not own life, you often said when you tried to laugh your difficulties away.

Many people could not see that you were not merely throwing jokes around. You did not own your life when you were alive. Now that you are alive in a different realm, you know for sure that you do not own life. You have watched God and Devil, gods and Ancestors, wondering whether *they* owned it, this thing called life. As far as you could see no one seemed to own it, judging by the way they too cast their eyes in the directions of our Hillbrow, Alexandra, and Tiragalong, clicking their tongues in deep sadness or grim amusement as people devoured one another. You were right there with them, still on your way to finding out whether any of them owned life.

The novel opens with a vivid evocation of the riotous atmosphere of Hillbrow, an area populated primarily by migrants from the townships, rural areas, and from beyond the borders of South Africa. Unemployment and poverty prevail. Those who have arrived from other countries, especially Nigeria, are rudely referred to as Makwerekwere, and are accused of bringing drugs, crime, and prostitution. AIDS is also beginning to take a toll, but the disease is poorly understood and also seen as imported by the outsiders. Rural residents, like the villagers of Refentše’s hometown, Tiragalong, believe they are protected from this mysterious ailment because they don’t eat Green Monkey meat as some West Africans are rumoured to do, and they don’t engage in anal sex. Xenophobia and ignorance in the face of the rising AIDS epidemic are two of the key concerns that Mpe sets out to address. The distrust of immigrants is both timeless and exceptionally timely. Refentše often debates the matter with his cousin, who claims that the neighbourhood had been fine before the arrival of the Nigerians with all their drug dealing:

You, Refentše, child of Tiragalong (and, as you insisted in the days just before your death, also of Hillbrow), had never shared such sentiments. It was your opinion that the moral decay of Hillbrow, so often talked about, was in fact no worse than that of Tiragalong.

Think about it, Cousin, you would challenge. How many people are here in Hillbrow? How many of them are criminals? If you consider that the concentration of people in Hillbrow is dense, and work out the number of crimes in relation to the number of people, I tell you, you will find Tiragalong to be just as bad…. And while we’re so busy blaming [the Makwerekwere] for all our sins, hadn’t we better also admit that quite a large percentage of our home relatives who get killed in Hillbrow are in fact killed by other relatives who bring their home grudges with them to Jo’burg. That’s what makes Hillbrow so corrupt…

Refentše tries to remind his cousin that many of those coming into the country are fleeing violence and deprivation elsewhere—they are driven into exile. Yet his cousin’s response echoes that which so often meets refugees, no matter the time or place:

Cousin insisted that people should remain in their own countries and try to sort out the problems of those respective countries, rather than fleeing them; South Africa had too many problems of its own.

During his years in Hillbrow, Refentše completes his studies and becomes a lecturer at the university. He dreams of writing a novel about his neighbourhood, believing it to be the kind of place underrepresented in literature. He only manages to publish one short story, one that explores, through the fate of its female protagonist, the limitations of writing in traditional tongues in a country with eleven official languages, but where only two dominate to the practical exclusion of the others. Mpe quite effectively works his arguments into and against the prevailing dynamics in South African literature: his main character reads Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians), while later, in Oxford, Refilwe introduces an Irish barman to Zakes Mda (Ways of Dying). He can be seen as attempting to build a bridge between established authors—with novels that reflect themes in his own work—and a vision of a literature that could be more inclusive of other languages, such as his native Sepedi.

Toward the end of the novel, the narrative zeroes in on Refilwe as she finally has the opportunity to pursue her MA at Oxford, but the narrator(s) will not actually address her directly until the closing passages of the book. Several years have passed since Refentše’s death, and guilt over her treatment of Lerato, plus her experiences living and working in Johannesburg, have softened her own xenophobic tendencies. While she is overseas she meets and falls in love with a Nigerian man. However, their bliss is cut short when they learn they both have AIDS, and would have in fact been HIV positive for many years. Her fate will serve to challenge the prejudices of Tiragalong when she returns home. Subtle shifts in the narrative voice through the final chapter, serve to add power to its heartbreaking conclusion.

The critical examination of contemporary themes, within a narrative shaped by the rhythms and poetry of an African oral tradition, offers readers an experience that is both fresh and deeply moving. Echoes of Mpe’s work, together with that of K. Sello Duiker, another young and tragically short-lived black writer who emerged in the early post-Apartheid years, has continued to resonate through an entire generation of young South African writers who are producing vital and original literature today.

Welcome to Our Hillbrow: A Novel of Postapartheid South Africa, by Phaswane Mpe is available from Ohio University Press, with an excellent introduction by Ghirmai Negash.

2017 Africa Reading Challenge.

Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan

She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.

From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.

ghassan_zaqtanZaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.

The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.

And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:

At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.

The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.

As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:

He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.

Our house, our village, our land.

There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.

And it leaves you with chills.

Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.

Of reality and imagination: To Begin at the Beginning by Javier Marías

In the opening paragraph of her “Postface” to Javier Marías’ recently released contribution to the Cahier Series, To Begin at the Beginning, famed translator Margaret Jull Costa confesses that every time she starts to work on a new Marías novel, she thinks: “I can’t do this.” His work, with its long, convoluted sentences, and its precise, but shifting, language lies ahead of her at the outset of each project, and until she gets back into the flow she feels a sense of anxiety. I must admit that similar sort of uncertainty faces me as a reader. I wonder, am I ready to commit to Marías again right now? Unfortunately, with a few efforts since I was first swept away by A Heart So White many years ago, the answer has been no, not now.

beginSo imagine my delight with this short, reflective essay about the art of taking the stuff of life—the truths and myths that arise from one’s own family history—and using, even re-using them, to tell stories, create literature. I found this Marías, talking about his family, and his approach to the art of writing, so wonderful to read that I’ve mentally added his trilogy to my list of books to read. And that is one of the absolute joys of the Cahier Series: the opportunity to meet, or meet again, a writer or translator, and spend a little time with them as they explore writing or translating, or the intersection of both, in unique and original ways.

Marías, the highly-respected Spanish novelist and translator, sets out in this piece to explain his desire to devote his energies to writing “inventions,” and why, even when he borrows elements from real life, so to speak, he is inclined to break them up, and blend them into his fictional characters and creations rather than putting them in, unaltered.

2017-01-15-02-12-11 He begins by trying to set himself apart from writers who make every effort to make their fictional offerings appear factual, and expresses his dismay whenever presented with the expression: Based on real events. His inevitable reaction? “I’m filled with a feeling of tedium and anticipatory boredom, of distrust and resistance, of suspicion and even scepticism,” he says, going on to be more exacting:

‘What is so strange and unbelievable, so extraordinarily random, arbitrary, and corny about this story that, even though it’s already happened in real life, they still want to tell me about it, even warning me that I have to believe it whether I like it or not, because this is how it was, this is what actually happened?’

2017-01-15-02-13-49Of course, in the essay that follows, he goes on to share aspects of his own family history, reaching back to his Cuban great-grandfather, pulling out some of the stories that have made their way into one or more of his novels. This abbreviated family history is fascinating in its own right (inadvertently causing one to think that any story “true” or otherwise can be magic in the hands of the right storyteller), but his discussion of his process of re-imagining and working people and incidents from the past into his fictions—and the decisions he has faced when handling elements of the real within the world of invention—is equally compelling.

2017-01-15-02-10-09Marías reports that, when he writes, he applies the same principle of knowledge that is at play in life. He does not know if what he writes at page five of a novel will prove to be a good idea at page 200 any more than we can know if what we do at age twenty will seem to have been wise from the vantage point of forty, and so on. In writing, one has the advantage of editing, adjusting events back and forth between earlier and later portions of the work, giving meaning to the capricious and superfluous, as required, so that “what had no meaning at the beginning does have meaning at the end.” Subject as it is to the unforeseeable variables that mould reality, he contends, life makes a very poor novelist. Imagination is a critical mediator—and one of the essential keys to literature— filtering the invented and the actual, rendering everything equal.

To Begin at the Beginning, the twenty-eighth addition to the Cahier Series, offers an opportunity to spend a little time in the company of a renowned novelist and his chief translator. Illustrated by the works of Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, it will likely be appreciated by Marías’ committed readers. For those who have little or no experience with his novels, it serves as an ideal introduction, or, as in my case, an inspiration to read more.

The Cahier Series is a joint publication from the Center for Writers and Translators of the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.