Searching for a future in a devastated landscape: Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Ellmiger

There were no maps, no more accurate maps for the northern coal district. It was absent on all the plans, it was one large absence, so to speak, the course of the roads had long since slightly shifted, hills diminished, towns abolished.

Beneath the surface of a once prosperous coal mining district, flames from a fire in the tunnels has been smouldering for decades; above, the land has largely been laid to waste. Pit frames dot the horizon while in some places the land has caved in, sometimes taking livestock or an unfortunate human resident with it. Towns stand nearly abandoned, home to only the stubborn and the eccentric who have held fast. In one such community, two young women—daughters of the police commander and the last remaining youth—have never known anything but this desolate territory. It is their sole inheritance, all they have to look forward to. Their future is bleak, but they are determined to salvage some sense of optimism.

For Margarete and Fritzi, the protagonists of Swiss writer Dorothee  Elmiger’s award winning debut Invitation to the Bold of Heart, an old map indicating that a long-forgotten river once flowed through the region offers a spark of hope that drives a determined search for evidence that it still exists somewhere—even if it has temporarily disappeared below ground. If they can locate this elusive Buenaventura River, they believe they may be able to begin to make sense of a past, including their own family history, that no one wants to talk about and create a base from which they can start to look forward on their own terms. It’s an ambitious and enormous goal.

Bookish and studious by nature, Margarete is the official archivist. She devours the books she finds in the apartment above the police station where she and her sister live with their father. Natural history, science, and literature. On a Remington typewriter lifted from one of the policemen she types her account and makes notes of details that seem relevant. Facts about rivers and deserts, about mines and mining appear and reappear throughout. Moodier and more carefree, Fritzi makes little direct contribution to the narrative. She is the restless explorer. What she adds, however, through her reported observations is thoughtful and wise, such as this reflection on their surroundings:

For a long time, she said, I have been trying to comprehend the landscape here. She said, I look at the pit frames rising up to the sky, and I look at the railway lines running deeper and deeper into the ground because they’re sinking and sinking. I look at the sky, because the sky might also be symptomatic, the sky is also part of this landscape. I count, she said, I count the colours; my vocabulary is exhausted after brown, olive and black, and when I think about it those are all the colours that are here.

Of course, to affect a thorough search both girls have to head out, together or apart, on foot, by motorcycle or car, and eventually, in the company of a horse named Bataille that Fritizi finds and brings home. Meanwhile, the policemen who have little need to patrol, spend most of their time glued to the television set, hardly noticing the sisters’ comings and goings.

Characterized by a spare disjointed style, the novel most often resembles an attempt at record-keeping, a report for a future that is vague and uncertain, set in a surreally dystopic present that seems willfully disconnected from its own past, or simply exhausted by the weight of the space it occupies. The adults are either oddly apathetic or completely absent, like their mother who holds an almost mythological place in their imaginations. A female Hemingway-like character, she smoked cigarettes, cut her hair short, and one day simply drove off into the distance. Together they fantasize a series of daring adventures for her. On the other hand, they typically refer to their father as simply Heribert Stein or H. Stein, reflecting a relationship that seems cool, even antagonistic.

The fractured, loose-limbed narrative is, at one level, rather unsettling. It is, not unlike the sisters own place in the world—ungrounded, suspended somewhere in a geological timeline between oceans and deserts. They have facts and coordinates and maps, but no direct knowledge beyond the borders of the territory they’ve always lived in. One has the sense it has been intentionally cut off, guarded to keep outsiders at bay. This uncertainty which reflects the sisters’ own isolation is never resolved. A wealth of intertextual references woven freely into the text further offset the environment of the novel. It is a daring approach and, for the most part, very effective. Yet, in the innovative voice of Invitation to the Bold of Heart, one in which the narrative often appears to wander, ramble and repeat, pulling in facts drawn from a variety of interconnected sources, one can hear the qualities that Elmiger will develop and refine in her more mature and startlingly impressive second novel, Shift Sleepers. Without question, she is an author to watch closely.

Invitation to the Bold of Heart, by Dorthee Elmiger, is translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and published by Seagull Books.

“We are creatures of this world”: Reflections on Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”

Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”

I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t  that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?

Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic  influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:

Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”

Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:

She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.

This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.

Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:

I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.

—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”

At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.

Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement  work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.

“I live dangerously; I stand in front of the microwave and watch food revolving.” SPRAWL by Danielle Dutton

I dramatize small moments of my life on the phone or in a public restroom. I am all sorts of things in themselves: I am in character, I am in mint condition, I am in my head, I am in luck, I am in need, I am in vogue, I am in the red, I am in deep, I am in tune, I am in trouble, I am in control, I am in the way.

It feels oddly fortuitous or serendipitous to come to this book (truth be told, it came to me, but so be it) at a time when a healthy amount of literary oxygen is being consumed by an enormous novel which, depending on how you wish to slice it, consists of one sentence unfolding over 1000 pages. The narrator of Lucy Ellman’s ambitious Ducks, Newburyport is a housewife who stands, according to reviews, and thinks—about the mundane details, matters of political curiosity, family affairs and, apparently, Little House on the Prairie though I’m not certain if it’s the television series or the books on which it was based. I haven’t read it and likely won’t for the simple reason that 1000 pages, no matter how compelling, no matter how many sentences it is divided into, is a good 750 more than my typical comfort zone. 500 if I really feel inclined to tackle the length. But, it does serve as a fitting counterpoint to Danielle Dutton’s SPRAWL, a tidy 115-page single-paragraph narrative also centred around a suburban housewife.

However, Dutton’s unnamed narrator exists in a strangely self-contained universe. In an unbroken monologue her observations, desires, interactions, and actions—often broken down to distinct poses or placements of her body in relation to space or other objects—spill across the page. But we know little about who she really is beyond what we can glean from some childhood memories and odd comments about her marriage. She is an abstracted everywoman, existing in a series of tableaus, described with precision like a still life painting, in a community of (preferably) identical lawns, tedious backyard get togethers, nameless kids, and collections of objects on tables or countertops. Imagine flipping through copies of Oprah and Woman’s Day and piecing together fragments of an idealized suburban reality and trying to step into it. The absurdity of the two dimensional American dream subverted into a wonderfully surreal, almost otherworldly narrative. One that is disturbingly recognizable if not especially desirable: “While it’s been proposed that we are more interesting than characters on television, one day soon we will be characters on television.”

SPRAWL’s narrator is invested in a kind of performative domesticity, a search for a certain model of feminine perfection measured against the other women in her neighbourhood (with their pies, casseroles and perfect flower arrangements), and executed with the assistance of her husband Haywood who seems equally adrift in this world of prefabricated products, crumpled paper napkins, passionless sex acts and strange stilted allusions to conversation. Like real-life distorted through a glass of water. Fragmented and elongated at once.

In one sense, the town in which the narrative (can it really be called a story?) is set, is understood in historical and geological terms. It was not always there. And what presently exists has moved farther and farther from what might have been the natural state of the land.  The strata of geological time is mirrored in the (perfectly iced) layers of a cake as the inexecrable pressure of conformity takes hold. It’s a world of gossip and prejudices and peculiar notions of social cohesion and natural preservation. At the same time, there is a sense that chronological time is at once stretched out and bunched together, as if this town, all of America perhaps, is perched on the edge of a black hole. Dutton’s narrator, in her suburban technicolour irreality knows that feeling well and delights in these exaggerated bubbles of time. Her days are compressed, distorted and often very lonely:

We identify with metaphors about need and space. It is central to our values, which range from sexual depravity to temperance to melodrama. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, someone sends a rake against the asphalt. I grab my hat, full of enthusiasm, and head outside seeking kinship with others, but the street is deserted. Instead, I continue to function alone in the house. I am essentially productive and genuine and important. I bake banana bread and paint the ceiling. On the TV is an interview with a young woman saying loudly “Could I? Could I?” Later, a little boy in a driveway tells me he has three superpowers: eating yogurt with his eyes closed, reading upside down, and breathing warm air. A smaller boy drops a plastic gun and runs over to say: “Even my superpower is jumping on one foot.” But anyone can do that. So I jump on one foot for fifteen years, and he jumps too, and the other boy watches blandly from the seat of his bike, and no one walks down the sidewalk or drives down the street at all. I might as well think of this as the period of jumping.

Because there is an intentional feedback loop quality to the days that unspool and blur into one another in this most unusual novel, this Walden for an increasingly sterile modern age, it may be easy to wonder what it is like to read. With its compendium of lists and descriptive vignettes, the real or imaginary letters the narrator composes to various neighbours—generally to gently express her concerns about their behaviour—and her own endless efforts to coordinate herself, like any another object, with her environment, SPRAWL is enchanting, uncanny and unsettling. And, of course, it’s also very funny.

As the end nears, the narrative grows increasingly abstract and existential, cracks start to appear in the domestic veneer, but Dutton’s hand is so steady, her language so endlessly surprising that one is, as Renee Gladman notes in her Afterword, reluctant to leave this bright and brilliantly realized world behind. It is akin to living, for a time, in a painting—a still life at once realist and surreal—that contains within its frame, a sharp and insightful commentary on contemporary suburban life in America.

SPRAWL by Dorothy Dutton is published by Wave Books.

Poetry as personal ad? Human Tetris by Vi Khi Nao and Ali Raz

If dating in the era of online personals and dating sites intimidates you, especially if you lack the necessary surface appeal to ensure that your desired target will be inclined to swipe right, a space that will allow you to describe succinctly a lover with the exact shape to match your own twisted shape, you might wish a network like Human Tetris really existed. If you’re sexually squeamish, you might not. But in the way that old-fashioned newspaper-printed personals provided plenty of entertainment even if you were not on the hunt, shall we say, this playful poetic collaboration that boldly satirizes aberrant desire is great fun.

Within the pages of this game-shaped book with a stubbornly neck-twisting layout, unspoken (primarily) queer longings are given voice with a healthy measure of “no boundaries” internet exhibitionism. (I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want—and exactly what I expect you to do to realize my exceptional expectations.) Gleefully playful or painfully doleful this uncensored imaginary/imaginative collaboration between the incomparable Vi Khi Nao and the amazing Ali Raz injects a double-barrelled dose of estrogen into the—to date—male dominated catalogue of one of the most promising innovative publishing projects to arise in the past few years, 11:11 Press.

This tag team creative duo has dreamed up a collection of sometimes delightful, sometimes disturbing personal ads suffused with the hopeful desperation of a world in which we are simultaneously more connected and more isolated than ever.

Be My Beehive, Be My Boner & Clyde:

I need someone sexy to blame
for all the great things
that are happening in my awesome life.
Or, you could be ugly & and this is how it will roll: Do you want vacation
days or do want my Sundays? Do you want happiness or do you want décor
What if I offer both?
I’m beautiful and I’m happy.
I need a soulmate who aren’t either.
@hitmebabyhitthisdamnbabyrightaway

ALABAMA (where else?)

Mutated pop-culture pleasures, kinky quirks, and a plethora of identities (which honestly should almost come with a glossary—subject to change without notice, of course) rise in these poetic pleas that run down, rather than across each page. But don’t fear. It’s not all unexpected terrain. There is @papabear, a beach-loving “30-something hardworking exec” seeking his cute and totally together beach bunny for some shared mind exploring and world expanding interaction. Would a collection of personals be complete without at least one of these missives of implied perfection?

Most, however, veer off the well-trod path:

Looking for My Panadol:

curl up with me like a leaf. be my wellness dog. i’m always sick (but don’t let that scare you!)

who isn’t sick in these days of anomie? indeed, if you are perennially well—I don’t trust you.
be sick with me, let’s be sick machines.
@stickfiguresex

Soeul, South Korea

Every poem exists as an integrated unit. The content of the romantic (or unromantic) call for companionship plays against the title, avatar name, and location; the elements of each poem bounce off each other like, well, the tiles in a game of Tetris. A complete picture depends on the interaction of all these pieces.

But where do I stand? I haven’t been on a date in forty years. Since that time, as a marriage ended, there was another relationship, one that started in the time honoured fashion—introduced by a mutual acquaintance  albeit at a distance. Today I’m as uncertain about my identity as a potential partner as I am about what that imagined “other” might look like. And if years of being single accomplishes anything, it raises your standards to the point that a forty-page questionnaire might just barely suffice to guide my search.

I could write an entire book of poems myself and just crack the surface. So maybe I’ll adapt this one (substituting the cheeseburger for something vegetarian and the bar for a coffee shop).

Partner Wanted for One Date:

It’s been raining all day where I am.
It’s romantic; the rain, cool wind, winter.
I want to go for a long drive with the top down.
We’d stop at a restaurant (your choice) and have a coffee and cheeseburger each.
Then we’d watch a movie (my choice). We cuddle a little. On the way back,
before I drop you home, we stop by a bar for a single drink each.
You pay for my drink, I pay for yours. I drive you home. We never see each other again.
@hamster

Detroit, MI

Ah well, Human Tetris is a quirky jaunt over what is, in the end, a familiar space—the longing for love, and the desire to be seen, validated, and known. Open this collection with a  confident queerness and find inspiration for your next conquest; peek between the covers with a history of unrequited love and perpetual unmatchablity and discover, amid the puns and pathos of passion-starved misfits, that you are not alone.

Human Tetris by Vi Khi Nao and Ali Raz is published by 11:11 Press.

Tales within tales: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

Oh, she serenades me so lovingly in the crepuscule of the park, the last lark. Does she really want to fraternise with this fluorescent shade? You are from the social services, Mevrouw? What? Come closer chincherinchee, I’m hard of hearing. You’re from the service that does the annual census of rough sleepers? She looks at me! Oh what an expert gaze rests upon me! Diva of the indolents in the catacombs of Krijtberg, sleep-counter of the stone-broke in the Heiligeweg!

At the end of July I shared a few thoughts about translation, arguing that a translated text need not be cleansed of all the linguistic flavour of the source language, especially slang, vernacular or wordplay woven into the original narrative. It may not always be possible or desirable to maintain certain elements, and sometimes transferring the rhythm and feel of an idiosyncratic expression may require the creation of a new word or the unconventional use of English, but it’s a balancing act. Strip away too much and, unbeknownst to the reader, the smooth sounding rendition they hold in their hands may have come at the cost of much of the energy and charm of the original. It might arrive prechewed, if you like, as if to make it more digestible. And unless you know the source material and language, who’s the wiser?

With Marlene van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, you will have no doubt that you are dipping into the slippery terrain between languages. Originally published in Afrikaans, and translated into Dutch and English, it almost feels as if more than one language is meant to interact on the page at times. As a collection of four longer short stories—two set in Amsterdam, and two in South Africa but with a significant connection to the Dutch capital—there is room for a little playful linguistic overlap. And English language translator Marius Swart is quite comfortable allowing that to happen, when appropriate.

Of course, this approach is entirely in keeping with the text at hand. This set of loosely intertwined tales is concerned with storytelling—with language, translation, sound, and images. With what can be told and what cannot. With what should be said—that is, the storyteller’s social obligation—and what should not. And with how to open oneself up to what is being shared.

The opening story “The Swan Whisperer” will be familiar to anyone who chanced to read it in a slightly different form in The Cahier Series edition which featured the striking images of William Kentridge. Rereading it again I was as captivated as ever. Presented in the form of a lecture by a South African teacher of Creative Writing who shares the author’s name; it is an account of Kasper, a misfit student who unexpectedly sends her a long missive from Amsterdam where she had secured him a writing bursary. He is in the hospital, but wishes to explain why he is dropping out of his degree, and recount the most unusual and transformative occurrences which he has experienced. She is not impressed. No, she is even a bit angered. Reads a little and tucks his letter away. When a second package arrives, this one filled with cassette tapes and a so-called Log Book of a Swan Whisperer, she retrieves the letter, reads further and learns about her student’s infatuation with a drifter who appears to be able to communicate with swans. Reluctantly she finds herself drawn into the strange and compelling mystery her former student represents, and caught up in the project captured on his tapes—one where translation leads beyond the structure of ordinary language, grammar and meaning.

The second tale, set in Amsterdam, takes the form of a lengthy, rambling eulogy for Willem,  a writer of some renown. Jacob, his best and perhaps only friend, is a clockmaker who sets out to describe the last day of Willem’s life, one they spent together. The writer had been seeking feedback on his latest story, “The Percussionist,” and now Jacob has brought the unfinished manuscript along. It forms the unlikely backbone to his address to the gathered mourners. He reads from it, imploring the restless assemblage to help him complete the tale. As with all of Willem’s stories it was inspired by someone he had become fixated on and studied through his binoculars:

I would always know when he was having a crush on someone new, and that he’d write it up as soon as it was over, and that I’d once again be called as his witness. Not to witness the infatuation, but to attest to the fantasy. Because nothing meaningful ever came from these so-called great loves of Willem’s. The stories were all he retained. He held on to them for dear life. They were his real lovers, I only realise this now.

Their final day together ended in a riotous, childlike trashing of Willem’s apartment, as if he somehow sensed it was his last, but his friend, left to gather up all the pieces is the one who now has nothing to hold on to. Even as much as he resists it, the funeral also has to come to end and he must go home in his aloneness.

The title story “The Snow Sleeper” is the point at which the threads that tie the stories together intersect, though, the way they actually connect, or the extent to which the narratives and characters can be trusted, is not entirely certain. Here Willem’s younger sister Mevrouw, with both her father and her brother dead, is engaged in a study of Amsterdam’s homeless for her thesis. She finds herself under the spell of a “radiant vagrant,” an enigmatic and articulate jester holding court on a bench in a city park. Unfolding as a series of transcriptions from her interview with him, interspersed with memos that record her reaction to her curious subject along with memories of her own father who had similarly wandered in his later years, lost and restless until he was contained in a nursing home. She is, in guilt and grief, vulnerable to the strange charm of an eccentric drifter determined to tell her a story about a snow sleeper while she is intent on recording responses to the questions on her questionnaire.

Where I’m from, that’s what you want to know Mevrouw? Don’t they teach the art of the diplomatic approach any more, there in your lieweherehogerschool? “Where” is a vagrant “from”, did you hear that, dear listeners? Where from!

Fromness is for someone with a bed in one place, dear lady, but I sleep outside, I come from a cucumber and blow where I will, I know all the spots, the summer houses and the short stays, this park bench is my Xanadu, but I’m actually a man of snow, I drink my own thirst, with a horseradish for a nose and three chestnut buttons on my stomach, a cruel infestations of imaginings in my breast.

Among the tales he spins for his interviewer, is one of a doleful young man whom he tricked into believing he had the power to call swans, and a photographer for whom he performs the construction of a winter bed of cardboard and plastic. He has been, he implies, the ultimate jack of all trades—reciting poetry for a few coins in the park, seducing the lonely souls out of their own security and onto the streets. And for Mevrouw? He haunts and disturbs her thoughts as they share that park bench and day fades to evening:

If you’re going to split your fire for me, I wanted to tell the drifter, if that’s what your story is about, about how you consume people by whom you feel threatened, then I will burn like the wood of a plum tree, you will see all your language burn, soaked into my fibres, you will hear the echo of your impossible tale, a suitcase full of popping coals.

The interview ends when her tapes run out, but she is altered. Not even certain how. His stories nested within her own memos is a searching for answers.

The closing story, “The Friend,” returns to South Africa. The narrator is again named van Niekerk, caustic like the first one, but different in nature. She tells of a friend from school to whom she was unnecessarily cool when she was a young politically engaged activist and he was an awkward character with a stutter and an interest in photography. She encourages him to turn his lens to the injustices of the day at their country’s critical turning point. And he does, becoming a famous documentarian—then going a step too far. Does he perchance end up in Amsterdam one winter? Paths cross, but this is a softly tragic tale about a different kind of storytelling. One with images instead of words. One that ends, like the first, beyond words altogether.

Marlene van Niekerk, known for large novels like Triomf and the monumental Agaat, is equally mesmerizing in a smaller format. The stories in this collection are dense with emotion, ideas, and textual cross references, yet each one feels like magic—sad and wonderful at once.

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk is translated by Marius Swart and published by Human & Rousseau. It is my final Women in Translation Month read for 2019.

She walked alone: I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd

Wear the robe of wisdom,
brand Lalla’ s words on your heart
lose yourself in the soul’s light,
you too shall be free. (146)

For Women In Translation Month 2019, as we watch signs of escalating global turmoil—rising racist and xenophobic tensions, political insecurity, increasing inequalities, and serious environmental threats—the voice of a fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic may seem an unlikely source to turn to. Or it may make perfect sense. After all, her homeland, with its fractious and turbulent history, is in an ever more precarious state now. And eerily, some of her poems even seem to foreshadow this ongoing state of unease, one with deep and troubled roots.

There’s bad news, and there’s worse.
Autumn’s pears and apples will ripen
with apricots and summer rain.
Mothers and daughters will step out,
hand in hand, in broad daylight, with strange men. (36)

Lal Děd is Kashmir’s best known spiritual and literary figure. She has been revered by both Hindus and Muslims for almost seven centuries and, although scholars on both sides have wanted to claim her for their own and her earliest English translators wished to reinvent her through a Victorian lens, she has, and continues, to inspire those fortunate enough to come to know the body of work attributed to her. With this translation, first published in 2011, poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote offers a fresh approach to Lal Děd for the twenty-first century reader, one that is vital and alive, and supported with a thoroughly researched, detailed introduction and notes. What comes through is the spirit of a singular visionary seeker:

Across the expanse of her poetry, the author whose signature these poems carry evolves from a wanderer, uncertain of herself and looking for anchorage in a potentially hostile landscape, into a questor who has found belonging beneath a sky that is continuous with her mind.

Little is known with certainty about the historical Lal Děd, or Lalla, as she is widely and affectionately known. It is thought she was born in 1301 or between 1317 and 1320, and died in 1373. Her life has generally been understood in terms of an archetypal narrative—born into a Brahmin family she was married at the age of twelve, but was restless within these confines. As a woman, the rigid medieval society within which she existed offered little freedom. Her family eyed her meditative and spiritual leanings with suspicion, so at twenty-six she renounced her marriage, left home and sought a guru. Once her discipleship was completed she set forth into the world, becoming an itinerant wanderer and seeker. She founded no school, had no formal following, and appointed no successor, but she would have a profound influence on Kashmiri religious life and inspire generations of devotees to pick up her poems and carry them on, adding to them in a spirit of honour and devotion to her. As such, Hoskote sees the body of work attributed to Lal Děd as rooted in the life and teachings of a real person, but the product of a contributory lineage “comprising people of varied religious affiliations and of both genders”, a socially and culturally diverse living archive amplifying her voice down through the centuries. He expresses his understanding of the mystic and her poems—which he describes as “utterances” or vākhs—quite beautifully: “Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vākhs; rather she is the person who emerges from these vākhs.”

I didn’t believe in it for a moment
but I gulped down the wine of my own voice.
And then I wrestled with the darkness inside me,
knocked it down, clawed at it, ripped it to shreds. (48)

To complete this new translation, Hoskote spent twenty years immersed in Lal Děd’s teachings—working with the original material, earlier translations, and academic and religious commentaries. It was a journey of his own, one that took him from youthful  academic to early mid-life—from student to respected poet, translator, and cultural critic and curator. The intimacy of his association with the material is reflected in the extensive introduction which offers a thorough, yet fascinating, preparation for reading the vākhs themselves. He provides a background for understanding Lalla and her times, her importance, her placement within the spiritual histories and currents of Kashmir up to the present, and finally, his own approach to translating this material. The notes at the end of the book take a closer look, as needed, at each poem.

For this book, Hoskote selected 146 of the short verses that comprise the LD corpus and presents them in “a sequence that suggests the journey of an evolving religious imagination, from the phase of self-doubt to those, successively, of visionary experience, the discovery of wisdom, and the sharing of that wisdom through teaching.” This decision to order her vākhs along a trajectory that imagines the mystic’s growth and spiritual progress, while clustering companion pieces and utterances that share a common theme (often reflected in a similar image or final line), allows for an organic and rewarding initial reading—an encounter that opens up a wealth of avenues for return engagement, deeper contemplation.

My willow bow was bent to shoot, but my arrow was only grass.
A klutz of a carpenter botched the palace job I got him.
In the crowded marketplace, my shops stands unlocked.
Holy water hasn’t touched my skin. I’ve lost the plot. (12)

The imagery is sharp, often unexpected, sometimes relying on scenes and tasks from everyday life to address a wide audience in familiar terms, while at other times, the sensual and ecstatic comes through vividly:

I, Lalla, came through the gate of my soul’s jasmine garden
and found Shiva and Shakti there, locked in love!
Drunk with joy, I threw myself into the lake of nectar.
Who cares if I’m a dead woman walking! (68)

Toward the end of this sequence, as the focus turns to Lalla, the mature teacher, we find her tone more inclined to be firm, her wisdom offered with images from nature and daily life, her intention unambiguous:

I can scatter the battalions of southern clouds,
dry the ocean, play physician
to the most lingering fever and cure it.
But I can’t knock sense into a fool. (127)

I’ve finished what I can only describe as a first read-through of I, Lalla with careful attention to the introduction, and then the 146 utterances, each one a four or five-line verse. I thought I would read them all and attend to the detailed individual notes later, but that’s not possible. For each vākh that would strike me, pull me up short, or echo back to something discussed in the introduction, I would find myself looking up the relevant note.

Of course, this book’s not finished with me yet. I need to spend some more time with Lal Děd. At the moment, one of the most striking features is that, in light of the current state of affairs in Kashmir, her voice (and those of the others who, in devotion, contributed to and transmitted her teachings down through the years) is especially vital and important. Hoskote’s care, attention to detail, and obvious deep personal and political interest in the material, make this a valuable addition to the understanding of this revered mystic, and an inspiring volume for contemporary readers from all backgrounds.

Who’s there? Who’s there? Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger

Question: How many roads can be used to enter Switzerland? Answer: Several hundred.

Imagine a novel that refuses an ordinary logic but contains within its pages a multitude of overlapping narrative accounts from a cluster of speakers sharing a space vaguely defined in place and time.

Imagine a novel that exists on the threshold. A performance art piece rendered in writing. With a cast of characters who bring their memories, experiences and unbound images (The place I’m thinking of is a common refrain) weaving in and out of one another’s stories, through accounts that are sometimes offered within reported letters or phone calls, even though that same character is also apparently present. Or perhaps not.

Born in 1985, Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Kelag Prize in 2010 for her first novel Invitation to the Bold of Heart. Her second novel, Shift Sleepers, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Megan Ewing, is a bold and breath taking approach to story telling that defies expectations, but does so in a seamless and engaging manner that, under a heavier hand, could have read terribly forced and artificial.

Set in a house in some unspecified location, presumably in Switzerland, a seemingly eclectic group has gathered. It includes a translator troubled by dreams of collapsing mountains, a logistics expert suffering from prolonged insomnia, a travelling writer, a female academic named A.L. Erika who talks of a significant period of time spent in Los Angeles, a journalist, a student from Glendale, California, and the restless Fortunat Boll whose pursuits have taken him to Texas, Portugal and other locales. On the sidelines, so it seems, are the logistic expert’s sister and brother-in-law and Mr. and Mrs. Boll. Although a few of the characters carry the bulk of the narrative, their stories are not only interrelated, but as listeners they are actively engaged with and attentive to one another—questioning, urging the speaker on, offering supplemental detail. If that sounds odd, well it is. But it is remarkably effective. This is not a random multilevel conversation so much as it is an orchestrated, open ended meditation on a number of vital, and difficult inquiries that affect us all on personal and political terms.

Their conversations touch on art, music, writing, justice, migration, trade, and belonging. Their discourse rises as a polyphonic hymn to the nature of movement across borders—ideas in language, language to language, country to country, wakefulness to sleep, sleep to dreams, life to death.

But is it readable? I found it endlessly fascinating myself, but I imagined it as a play, as a performance art project rather than any kind of conventional narrative. The voices and their stories are what matter and the author wants to ensure that you listen to what they say. Thus, more than a house, the setting is akin to a stage, or a room into which many doorways or thresholds converge. Characters come and go, retire to their rooms, assemble to share a meal. But the action, if it can even be called that, is minimal. Movement happens elsewhere. In memories and dreams. And it is in these reflections, and the questions that arise, that the novel’s power lies.

Shift Sleepers is a fragmentary work, but one in which the fragments blur and blend into one another. In the course of one paragraph, a number of voices many pick up a thread, carry it for a sentence or two and step back. The key characters slip in and out of singular accounts that go on for a several pages at a time, continually resurfacing through the course of the book.

Each person is essentially exploring the same issues that, in different contexts, ask: What does it mean to be alive? In this moment? At any moment or place in time?

It is human to want to know where one fits in and with whom: Who’s there? the opening words of Hamlet, form a frequent refrain.

The figure of central concern, the one who embodies within himself, the primary focal point of engagement for this ensemble, is the logistics expert who has a background in customs, monitoring the transport of goods across borders. In his recent state of extreme sleeplessness, he describes no longer being able to distinguish between events near or far, or to determine what is relevant. Caught in a state of strange alertness, detached hyperawareness, he experiences himself wandering through streets and towns, bombarded with images from North Africa, particularly Djerba, an island off Tunisia, seeing an owl, images of bees and being routinely distracted by a child playing a flute. Strangers sit in his apartment, people come and go, but he is unable to fall asleep himself. He describes his desperation:

even the attempt to remove myself from the city and the events led nowhere, these things were happening everywhere, I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t imaging things, I was continuously awake and saw everything with my own eyes. In Djerba too, in Athens too, in Florida too everything would have continued the same way, everything actually behaves this way, the Customs manager produces risk analyses, two men allow their bodies to be rolled up in rugs to cross the border, the Swiss farmer has no more use for the asylum seeker when he fails to understand for the third time how to pick crops, the mountains form a natural border, the shift sleeper is in search of a new domicile.

The shift sleeper of the title has a historical context stemming from the second half of the nineteenth century when migration into the urban centres of Europe led to a shortage of available and affordable housing. Newcomers might be forced to rent a bed during the hours its regular occupant was out or otherwise engaged. Without an unconditionally secure place to rest, they would grasp at sleep for a few hours at a time. These individuals or transient existences were a source of public distrust. They still exist of course. Today’s homeless person, refugee, and migrant continues to live this way—in streets and alleys, couch surfing, in camps and settlement centres, and too often, wherever they can.

Not surprisingly, the body is a striking and recurring image in this novel. Several speakers admit to their own varying degrees of personal bodied discomfort, and metaphysical disconnect, while the bodies of others—of smugglers, migrants, victims of physical violence—become an object of fascination and concern. Even obsession.

Other motifs that recur throughout the conversations that comprise this work are movement, passages, across bodies of water, through forests, on foot, by train. Safely, legally, or otherwise. Falling is also a frequent image—from the crumbling mountains of the translator’s dream that opens the book, to regular references to the work of Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared in 1975 during a solo transatlantic voyage launched from Cape Cod. Encounters with his work, which often deals with falling, sit as a reference point connecting many of the characters to one another. And his fateful final “performance” is echoed with historical references to earlier transatlantic migrations toward North America. Historical themes are blended with contemporary images throughout.

Originally published in 2014 as the migrant crisis was raising alarm in Europe, Shift Sleepers is even more unsettling in light of Trump’s border detention camps and the increasing nationalism and xenophobia spreading worldwide every day. At one point, the logistics expert recounts a phone call from the journalist, wondering how he could be so complacent when so many people were risking everything everyday by simply crossing the national border that ran past his house. These people, he is warned could disappear, find themselves in remote enclaves:

He himself had tried in vain that day to enter a so-called reception centre, even though these centres and cells, these sensitive zones, were easy to find and he could go there without much issue either on foot or by car, as he explained on the telephone—at the same time it was impossible for him to ever actually enter these places for as soon as he set foot inside their rules lost all validity as concerned his person.

These spaces, he explained, essentially established two different categories of persons—and two separate categories of being. Further along, another character, speaking of a visit to the US will wonder why it is easier for some people to cross borders than others? Or rather, why can an American cross a border without changing, whereas a Mexican crossing the same border becomes a different person?

 One of the counterpoints played out against the increasing divisions between people and kinds of people, is explored in the idea of the possibility of harmonious communities. Fortunat Boll, a man who is present with his parents, speaks of his own innate loneliness, his travels to Texas and interest in La Réunion, the utopian socialist colony founded in Dallas by Victor Propser Considerant in 1855 to which his own supposed relative naturalist Jacob Boll briefly belonged, and of his father’s own bee colonies. Both the colonies, human and apian, had in this case failed. Fortunat wonders if he could ever live with others or would he always need to be apart.

Today I live alone, do I feel lonely? Hardly. Over time I have lost a certain vulnerability, I rarely have strong emotions whereas everything weighed heavy in my youth, I was driven by feelings. This tuba tone is finite and vanishes in the air, it means two things that are mutually dependent, the place of my childhood and the distance from it, such antagonisms are beautiful because they are simple, now I see the world as a complicated structure, everything possible exists within it simultaneously.

One has to wonder about unusual ensemble within which, at least for the duration of the book, he has found himself. What strange spell holds it together? There is a sense of cohesion borne of the questions asked and the answers given, in how stories are shared, often the same experience told from different angles, sometimes first- other times second-hand, stories nested with stories—like sets of personal and communal Russian dolls.

Images are echoed and revisited as the book progresses. However, rather than feeling repetitive, these returning accounts add to the density of the narrative, becoming threads woven into a self-referential intertextual tapestry. There are few answers to the uncertainties and concerns the various characters carry with them. There is no explanation as to how they all arrived at this one place or why they’ve gathered. This is a story about questions, not answers, about the personal concerns about our lives, bodies and relationships that are ever evolving, and the broader issues—migration, justice, and global trade—that threaten our ability to share this planet.

Shift Sleepers is a symphony of inquiries. Elegantly composed and executed. A very impressive achievement for a writer who is still very young.

Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger is translated by Megan Ewing and published by Seagull Books. It is my second read for Women in Translation Month 2019.