The ties that bind: The Promise by Damon Galgut

Apartheid has fallen now, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

South African author Damon Galgut is back. It has been a long seven years since the release of Arctic Summer, his fictionalized imagining of the creative block that filled the space between EM Forester’s conception of an “Indian novel” and the publication of A Passage to India eleven years later. It is a tale of unrequited love, rich with historical detail and Edwardian literary flavour. With The Promise, Galgut has returned to his native soil with a work that traces the cumulative misfortunes of an Afrikaner family across three decades of national transition and turmoil. Thematically and stylistically this novel echoes his earlier work, but this ambitious, original effort rises to another level, casting a critical eye at his nation’s troubled history with the insight, confidence and sly humour of a seasoned writer.

Central to The Promise are the Swarts—mother Rachel, father Manie, daughters Astrid and Amor and son Anton—their small farm outside of Pretoria, and a shifting assortment of relatives, partners and community members who come and go along the way. The first section opens with a death, Rachel has lost her battle with cancer, and the family gathers. Astrid, the middle child, is living at home, but her thirteen year-old sister Amor has been sent away to lodge at her school and nineteen year-old Anton is doing his military service. The year is 1986. Rachel’s recent return to her Jewish faith complicates the funeral proceedings and stokes existing tensions between both sides of the deceased woman’s family. But there is something more. Two weeks earlier, Amor had been present in her mother’s room when she begged Manie to promise that he would give Salome, their housekeeper, the small house that she lived in. Reluctantly he agreed. Of course Amor’s parents did not remember she was present at the time; she was, as she puts it, as invisible as a black woman to them. As invisible as Salome herself. Within her family Amor is the odd one—injured as a in a lightning strike as a child, she is seen as slow and plain and, as such, set apart from her older siblings, the golden ones.

Across the years, the members of the Swart family drift apart, each following their own path, to be pulled together only by a sequence of funerals, each separated by roughly a decade. It is by no means a spoiler to reveal that every gathering reduces the Swart clan by one. The section titles even give the victim away, but in itself that tells you little because as life and death takes its toll on the family, the children grow up and South Africa changes, for better and for worse. The promise of Independence, the strangeness of seeing racial boundaries bend, even blur, the rising crime, and the ultimate political disillusion colour the world within which the primary characters fall in and out of love, succeed and fail, and meet their ends. Guiding the entire drama is a rambling omniscient (mostly) third person narrator who is, by turns, playful, sarcastic, critical, and compassionate.

The narrative voice is exceptional, orchestrating a drama which is at once far reaching and intimate. James Wood in his review for The New Yorker says:

Technically, it’s a combination of free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a specific character) and what might be called unidentified free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a shadowy narrator, or a vague village chorus).

This is a helpful way to describe what Galgut is doing, but it doesn’t begin to capture what it feels like to ride the narrative wave, or the skillful way that the narrator engages with his audience echoing views of an extended cast of characters, some almost incidental, others central to the story, to call moments of historical value into relief and to further personality development with passing commentary and sideways glances. The line between the narrator and the characters is porous; it is, at times, impossible to tell if we are hearing a character’s thoughts or words, or if we are hearing the narrator’s direct response to that individual, an editorial aside, or the reflection of a group or societal opinion. One also finds moments where names are forgotten, mistakes are made and quickly corrected, and where metafictional observations step out to question the logic of novel writing/storytelling in process. However, these are not mere gimmicks, rather they underscore the willful blindness that so many of the characters, and by extension, white South Africans, cling to as their reality is challenged. And, of course, the promise at the heart of the novel, unkept and as such symbolic of this shifting terrain, is a constant stumbling block:

Not even Salome is around as she normally would be. You might have expected to see her at the funeral, but Tannie Marina told her in no uncertain terms that she would not be allowed to attend. Why not? Ag, don’t be stupid. So Salome has gone back to her own house, beg your pardon, to the Lombard Place, and changed into her church clothes, which she would have worn to the service, a black dress, patched and darned, and a black shawl, and her only good pair of shoes, and a handbag and a hat, and like that she sits out in front of her house, sorry, the Lombard Place, on a second-hand armchair from which the stuffing is bursting out, and says a prayer for Rachel.

The Promise is, all told, a rather bleak novel, though the boisterous narrator keeps it afloat. As the family falls apart, so does the farm. Everyone seems to have an interest in the house, or its presumed value, but no one is prepared to maintain it and, as we reach the closing section, it’s 2017, and there are competing claims on the land. The only person to keep a degree of distance is Amor, the youngest. At first she travels, returning home transformed, no longer the ugly duckling. She goes on to become a nurse and remains in touch with Salome while avoiding the rest of her family. If she is the Swarts’ moral compass, the price she pays is perhaps no less than that of her siblings, Astrid who marries young and has twins, and Anton who also marries but remains recklessly without a rudder. Religion, or lack thereof, a necessary feature of a tale built around four funerals, proves insufficient to hold anyone’s life intact, yet in various incarnations faith forms an important thread running through this book. But on an individual and a national level there are no easy answers and, true to form, Galgut offers no absolutes. The promise to Salome that goes unfulfilled is not the only unmet expectation—the promise of a new South Africa blooms and gradually falls apart as the book progresses. In the end, only one promise will finally be honoured, at the risk that it is, like so many things in life, too little, too late. One can only hope that for the two main characters remaining it will be enough.

The Promise by Damon Galgut is published in North America by Europa Editions.

And so it goes: Nancy by Bruno Lloret

Nancy, the debut novella by Chilean writer, Bruno Lloret, is a curious read. Somewhere in northern Chile, a woman is dying of cancer. She is looking back over her adolescence and early adulthood—a rather unusual existence marked by poverty, encounters with gypsies, Mormon missionaries, and itinerant filmmakers. Some readers have imagined her an old woman, but even though time references are not reliable, it seems likely that she is only in her late twenties or thirties. At least that is what the nature of her aggressive cancer and the compressed quality of her adult experience would suggest. But I could be wrong. Hers is a tale filled with holes.These holes are made manifest in a most ingenious manner. The landscape of Nancy Cortez’s mind is framed within a sea of X’s. A flood of the symbols open and close her story, and mark sentences and spaces—gaps or silences—along the way. Between these X’s the language is notably stilted, there is little effort to set a scene, descriptive details are offered only as required to provide a basic context for the experience Nancy wishes to share, lending the text a spare, often awkward, quality. This is intentional. The author has claimed that his goal was to allow readers to engage with the work in different ways and to that end the X’s, and I would suspect, the embedded images of x-rays and other objects, are intended to break up the reading.

If this sounds cluttered and disruptive, at times it is, but the actual story reads easily and  smoothly. Nancy is an eccentric narrator, with a voice that is sarcastic yet notably flattened in affect. Her account opens with her escape from life with her sad, troubled father at the age of seventeen. She arranges to be smuggled into Bolivia where she meets the gringo Tim, quickly gets married, and ultimately ends up back in Chile. The marriage is less than happy, and ends with Tim’s bizarrely tragic demise after Nancy’s cancer has already taken a toll on her body. She describes the ravages of the disease quite vividly, talking about the fear of dying, and the loneliness of waiting for nature to take its course.

And then she retreats into her past. The X’s retreat too, leaving more room for words to fill the page. Her mamá, she advises us, was erratic and abusive, her papá quiet and oppressed by life, her brother Pato a refuge. She reports on adolescent experiences with sex, social outings to the beach, and periods of isolation at home. Everything starts to shift when her brother disappears and her mother walks out, leaving her at home with her bereft father who, in his distress, soon falls prey to the advances of a pair of Mormon missionaries:

But the Brothers really had managed to get my papa interested X X The Word of God had done its work, and via those missionaries with their tanned necks and yellowing armpits it moved him, drawing him slowly into their embrace X Damn the Word and damn the sneaking Truth, taking advantage so cruelly, so mockingly of a man who up until a few minutes ago believed he had no soul X X

This conversion, the transformation of papá tonto into papá santo, will have a significant impact on Nancy’s teenage years—in strange and unexpected ways the missionaries and other local Latter Day Saints will feature in the adventures of our heroine and her hapless father moving forward. Until, of course, the story circles back on itself, completing its narrative loop in a thickening pool of Xs.

Throughout, this narrative has a certain unevenness. Details are sometimes mentioned out of place, and there is a conversational coarseness and odd tone that surfaces. Nancy is not well read or particularly engaged in school, so her account does not have a literary flourish. This is an appropriate quality, given the protagonist’s background and deteriorating health, but does it work? Clearly for many enthusiastic readers it does, but I confess that I found it difficult to care about Nancy or the characters who people her tale. No one, not even the narrator, feels real. The eccentricity of the overall story was not in itself a problem; the disconnect lies in the fact that very little emotion is registered. Nancy typically shows an odd detachment and lack of concern for anyone, even for herself. The veracity of her account cannot be taken for granted if her memory has gaps, but people who confabulate to compensate for memory loss tend to show engagement with their stories all the same. I respect the attempt to create a first person narrative that defies typical lyrical expectations that can feel artificial given the narrator’s life circumstances, but as X’s filled the final pages, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Nancy by Bruno Lloret is translated by Ellen Jones and published by Giramondo in Australia and Two Lines Press in the US.

Memory is a record book of errors: The Town Slowly Empties by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

We take the everyday for granted. The history of the everyday, as Gandhi said, is never written. We don’t write the history of harmony. We write of history with a capital H. The history of strife. The history of the everyday is the history of a time that exists in the blurry lines between memory and forgetting. The days we remember are the days of events, personal, social or political.

It seems such a long time ago that the world slipped into lockdown as a strange, invisible threat began to spread causing illness and death. Where I am in Canada, our first lockdown was the strictest even if it was considerably less severe than in many places. Dramatic charts were hauled out, ominous predictions were made and the outside world suddenly seemed to become a dangerous place. Yet, the feared explosion of cases never materialized except in nursing homes and long term care. We slipped out of confinement into a summer of somewhat reduced freedoms but plenty of elbow room. The consensus: the lockdown was extreme and unnecessary. Of course, it’s impossible to convince a skeptic of the success of a measure by the absence of the thing you set out to prevent.

So we became our own control group. Winter brought a second wave and only when cases and deaths started to rise exponentially were some restrictions brought back. Protestors took to the streets to decry their loss of freedom in the name of an imaginary illness that, even if it existed, was primarily taking only the oldest and weakest among us. Nothing but the flu.

Now as Spring slowly settles in, we are into a third wave, fuelled by variants, striking a much younger cohort and rapidly expanding. The government is responding with weak-kneed measures—even less intense than the last round—figuring we will vaccinate our way out while ICU beds fill up with the sickest group of Covid patients yet. Yes, perhaps fewer of them will die. But anyone who arrives with a serious condition that would normally warrant an ICU bed will have to be weighed for worth, for likelihood of survival, against some young, otherwise healthy Covid patient presently gasping for breath. And people will die who would not have died otherwise. How serious are things? Today the case rate in my city was more than twice that of India.

India. A country that has come to mean a lot to me these past few years is presently on fire—metaphorically and factually. It is painful to watch, heartbreaking to think of. Here in the West, even when things are bad and resources are stretched beyond reason, illness and death is sanitized, hidden behind closed doors, underestimated, forgotten.

All of this is but a long, yet timely, introduction to my review of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Indian poet and writer Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. This has proved a very difficult book to write about. In fact, as the present crisis in India began to escalate, I found it increasingly difficult to read. Not that it isn’t good. It is a most wonderful, personal engagement with the early weeks of the sudden, strict lockdown imposed on India last March. Exactly a year ago as I was reading. At first there was a definite sense of déjà vu, but soon the altered routines, unexpected observations, and thoughtful reflections began to feel, quaint, otherworldly, against the horrific backdrop of the second wave now battering the country. Yet, the current state of affairs should in no way undermine the merit of this chronicle of adjustment to the limitations and possibilities of mandated isolation. In truth, it makes it all the more relevant.

The Town Slowly Empties—the title comes from Albert Camus’ The Plague—unfolds as a series of journal entries beginning on Monday, March 23, just after a complete lockdown has been declared in Delhi. Within days the entire nation will follow suit with only four hours’ notice. The daily reflections continue until April 14, the end of the first phase of restrictions. Each day’s record is a melange of domestic activity, pandemic progress reporting, political and social contextualizing, philosophical musing, and the sifting of memories, all woven together with  literary references, film commentary and a passion for food. Lockdown life offers an uncanny blend of the exceptional and the ordinary. Something frightening is lurking close at hand, just outside the door where the streets have grown quiet, while inside time has expanded, leaving even more empty space to fill, more anxious thoughts to fill it, especially supercharged in those early days.

We have become watchmen, standing guard at ourselves, at our shadows. We terrorize ourselves with caution. We become extremely careful about what we touch, and if we touch, we immediately wash our hands with soap for at least twenty seconds. We are mindful of the merest hint of a sore throat, or rising temperature. We also have the time now to watch others, and not just the human species. We carry the virus in our heads, in our sleep, and some with intense paranoia, perhaps even in their dreams. Fear is our only mode of retaliation. We are brave, we fear bravely. We cannot laugh at ourselves. The absurdity of survival must be taken seriously.

For Bhattacharjee these extra hours afforded by lockdown are measured out in poetry, prose and film. A host of writers and filmmakers become his companions, offering illustrations, examples and inspiration as the days roll by. Along the way he calls upon TS Eliot, Rimbaud, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Pessoa, Kafka, Agha Shahid Ali, Zbigniew Herbert, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray and many others, engaging with their ideas and imagery. This is, then, far more than a record of news reports, readings and recipes, though there is a clear sense of the quotidian routine—waking late, securing provisions, morning tea, making lunch. Each day brings new circumstances, spectacles, and tragedies to process: face masks, Zoom meetings, lost lives translated into statistics, hungry migrant workers desperate to get home. The daily act of processing such experiences through writing opens avenues for the past to enter the stream of the present. Thus, this journal also becomes a memoir and a meditation on memory.

As the days pass into record and reflection, Bhattacharjee will recall moments of his childhood in Assam, his college years, his courtship with his partner, and his pathway to a love of cooking. But the memories he visits are as often collective as they are personal, of mutually shared experiences, or times captured in historical and literary record. For we live not only in our own pasts, but through the lives of others. Under the shadow of Covid-19, we look for meaning not only in pandemics and plagues, but also in disaster. One of the most interesting entries—and now eerily prescient given how the second wave is currently devastating India—moves through film and literature, from Chernobyl to Bhopal, tracing a landscape of disaster in the words of two writers formed in their wake—Svetlana Alexievich and poet Jayanta Mahapatra. Both chronicle the pain and destruction of scientific catastrophe as written on the body and the spirit. Both speak to the necessity of remembering. But how?

Science has no memory. Memory has no science. Science is an idea of progress without memory. Memory is a shelter. Memory looks for shelter. When a scientific experiment goes wrong, it affects nature. The sky, the sunlight, and even the silence turn toxic.

Covid-19 presents a complex interaction between nature, science and society. It is an event that has been anticipated for years, but the degree of disaster experienced reflects lack of planning and uneven response. Vaccines are welcome, if they can be produced and obtained, but the refusal of politicians and people to listen to the scientific advice they do not like—to wear masks, maintain distance, lockdown when needed—has led to unnecessary illness and loss of life around the world. What documentarian or poet will be the one to bring science and memory together to bear witness to this pandemic? For now, we can only meet the moment.

Today many people are starting to imagine a day when the pandemic finally recedes in the rear view mirror. Others are still fighting. Until the world is vaccinated, Covid will still be with us. It may always be with us. With this in mind, Bhattacharajee’s book is both uncomfortable and comfortably nostalgic. There was a sense of global unity to those early days. Yet there is much more within these pages. Reading The Town Slowly Empties is akin to spending time in the company of an intelligent, poetic friend—the sort of person who always has an interesting story to tell, a poem to quote, a book or movie to recommend. To that end, this friend has been sure to leave you, his reader, with a select bibliography, a filmography and extensive notes. You are not left empty handed.

The early months of the pandemic generated a flood of “Lockdown Diaries.” 3:AM, the magazine I was editing for last year, ran such a series as did many other venues.  A friend of mine in Bangalore dutifully maintained a daily record, with an eye to economics and social policy among other topics. He has picked up the thread again; at last count it was Day #415. Plague-themed literature also experienced a revival. For a while it seemed as if it was all too much. This warm and thoughtful work reminds me that there cannot be enough. Lest we forget. This experience will look different in a few years’ time, but already our world and our way of being in it has been altered in ways we could not have imagined when we first retreated into our homes in what sometimes feels like another lifetime.

The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, featuring a foreword by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Headpress.

Eating Cheaply: The Cheap Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

A new edition of a lesser-known Thomas Bernhard novel is, for those of us who collect his varied works, a reason to be excited. Originally published as  Die Billigesser in 1980, The Cheap-Eaters rests more than midway through the Austrian writer’s career, and offers another nourishing helping of his idiosyncratic style of long-winded, circuitous, single-paragraphed fictional expositions of human eccentricity. Now in a fresh new translation by Bernhard enthusiast Douglas Robertson, Spurl Editions has served up this novel, or novella, in a handsome, nearly pocket-sized volume—a virtual literary take-away, the perfect companion for, say, a saunter to a nearby park for a little open air reading in these days of pandemic defined recreation.

Coincidentally, it is a walk to a park that stands for Koller, the protagonist of The Cheap-Eaters, as the single most important factor leading to the discovery and facilitation of his life’s work. As our unnamed narrator, an old school friend, explains at painstaking length, his, Koller’s, chance divergence from the park that was his usual destination to another where he encountered Weller, an industrial glassmaker, and his dog was a pivotal event. A most fortunate misfortune. The dog bit Koller’s leg which in turn had to be amputated, and this injury not only provided, via a lawsuit, a guaranteed income for life, but it also caused him to happen upon the cheap-eaters when, after his release from the hospital, he stopped into the Vienna Public Kitchen, or VPK. The four regular diners welcomed him, one-legged and with crutches, into their fraternity and over time they became the subjects of what was soon to become his obsession: his so-called Physiognomy.

For years he had fraternized with the cheap-eaters and had eaten cheaply with the cheap-eaters, had eaten more cheaply with the cheap-eaters than anywhere else and actually he had never eaten both as cheaply and as well anywhere else, for in the VPK he, Koller, had always eaten cheaply and well and he had never yet been able to eat both more cheaply and better anywhere else. He said that he actually owed to the VPK nothing less than the fact that he was still alive today; nothing less actually than the fact that I still exist! he had once exclaimed in my presence, and nothing less than the fact that he had made it through so many appalling Viennese years…

More than a place to partake of the cheapest of the available cheap meals with such suitable companions, Koller credits the VPK with his bodily existence, and more critically, his very intellectual existence.

At the point in time when our narrator is winding and unwinding his long-winded account of his somewhat repellent and yet somehow appealing friend, this friend, Koller, has already devoted himself to his particular studies for sixteen years. He is now, he says, ready to begin to unveil his findings. It is, of course, perfectly fitting that a Bernhardian hero should be consumed with an appropriately outdated pseudoscience like physiognomy, the supposed practice of determining a person’s personality from their external appearance, especially facial characteristics. Koller speaks of his Physiognomy with reverence; he approaches it, as one would expect, from the altitude of his superior intellectual energies, devoting his full attention to understanding it through careful study of his constant dining companions.

If The Cheap-Eaters purports itself to be a novel about the four men who gather together, with Koller, to eat cheaply at the VPK, it is, yet it is more explicitly an expose of Koller’s own eccentricities as recounted by a narrator whose own attraction to his subject is as curious and questionable as Koller himself. And given the way our one-legged hero is portrayed, one might even suggest that the cheap-eaters who so dominate his thoughts are remarkably normal by comparison. But then, this is Bernhard and would one expect anything less?

He had always felt sorry for so-called healthy people because in his view they never emerged from the swampy lowlands of absolute intellectual torpor and moreover were condemned to languish all their lives in this brutish intellectual torpor of theirs, no matter who they were and no matter what they did, and he despised them quite openly and invariably seemed to derive a certain enjoyment from this contempt of his for these miserable, good-for-nothing, mind-damaging creatures as he had actually once described them to me verbatim.

Anyone familiar with Bernhard in his longer form work, will not be surprised to find that the narrative progresses in a doubly-, sometimes triply-nested and convoluted fashion, treading over the same well-travelled ground repeatedly, slowly adding new details and bits of commentary along the way. Robertson’s translation handles this labyrinthine movement nicely. And, of course, all this wandering is rewarded as everything begins to take shape, the cheap-eaters are finally given individual dimension, and then—well, you have to read it yourself to find out how the story concludes.

I will say that The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Douglas Robertson and published by Spurl Editions, is a welcome addition to my own curious and eclectic collection of Bernhard’s work.

Rise, fall, and redemption: The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi

“With us, everything begins with a song and everything ends with another song.”

Or, one could say: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was put to Music and Song was born, and thus the song came to be the driving creative force of the universe.  This is the nature of the world as we are invited to experience it in French-Djiboutian writer, Abdourahman A. Waberi’s imaginative novel The Divine Song. Yet, it is clear from the outset, that this is no ordinary musical journey we are about to embark on—it is, instead, the story of one man’s life  with its genius and its frailties, woven into the broader tapestry of African American literature, music and history, orchestrated by one singular feline. Yes, you heard that right, the narrator of The Divine Song is Paris, “an old bachelor cat on the threshold of his last life.” A Sufi cat, no less.

In an earlier incarnation Paris was a Persian named Farid, companion to Mawlana, a venerable Sufi master whose teachings continue to provide guidance in his present role as the self-described guardian angel to a most unlikely soul. He knows he does not possess the power to protect his charge from adversity, but he can, and will, bear witness—a mission he attends to, from the opening pages, with a blend of spiritual wisdom and street (cat) sense:

Life is beautiful despite its vagaries and my nine lives show this clearly. Life is beautiful on the condition that you serve it. In other words, helping others, the brothers and sisters you meet along the way. And for me, that other brotherly face is above all Sammy, the mage who burned his life at both ends.

This Sammy, to whom Paris is devoted, is the brilliant, yet deeply troubled, musician Samuel Kamau-Williams, a man whose life shares the outlines of that of African-American singer, composer and writer, Gil Scott-Heron—an echo, an homage, a point of reference perhaps, but with a story of his own.  And a most unusual biographer prepared to tell it.

The course of the impassioned account Paris proceeds to deliver is framed against the closing months of Sammy’s life: his last musical adventures in Europe, and his final days back home in New York. Against this canvas our narrator sketches out the details of his subject’s life, his family, and his influences. We meet his self-sufficient mother and his Jamaican-born father, a soccer player who disappears early in his son’s life to play abroad, first in the UK and later in Brazil. And we are granted a close, affectionate view of Lily Williams, his grandmother, who cared for him until he was twelve. Sammy’s time with her in Savannah, Tennessee proves formative for the future musical prodigy while Lily herself provides a spiritual and historical link her young grandson’s roots in the depths of Africa generations earlier. By his teens, Sammy is back with his mother in New York City attending good schools on the strength of his excellent grades, playing sports and exploring rock and blues with friends before starting to chart his own course as an artist and politically-minded poetic force. The road from there on will be marked by success and marred by drugs and illness.

Mind you, Paris’ narrative is anything but straightforward. It winds its way back and forth, casting Sammy’s biography against a wide mystical landscape. He sees the magic—good and evil—casting it into a broader backstory at times, and frequently draws on the Sufi traditions that are so intrinsic to his being. Most of the time he speaks directly to his readerly audience, but at one point he steps into a journalistic mode, bringing in the views of several of Sammy’s school mates, documentary style, and on a few occasions he turns his attention directly to his subject, addressing him in second person, often with some of his most critical words. And, of course, he regularly weaves in elements of his own story—his early ninth life on the thankless New York streets, and his years living and travelling with Sammy—frequently reinforcing the very unique connection he shares with the man he calls the Enchanter. Here, for example, he describes his morning ritual:

I let silence settle into my carnal envelope; I pay attention to my breathing. In complete awareness. Then I send my whole being into orbit, I simply point it in Sammy’s direction. And wherever he may be on this earth, inside or outside the territory of the United States, I’m at his side or more exactly at his back. My soul sticks to his coattails. I hear his breath coming out of his throat in little jerky exhalations. I do not relax my attention. My breath superimposes itself on his. Gently. That’s the way it’s been since the beginning of our relationship. There’s no reason for it to change.

Not a pet, this cat. But a wonderful narrator.

Leaving the narrative in the hands, or rather, paws of an animal can be a risky venture, but Paris not only carries this tale like a seasoned raconteur, he can take a perspective and a tone that an ordinary human could not. Clearly he is a magical character, but for all his un-animal-like abilities and his enthusiasm to put right his dear Sammy’s tale, he remains conscious (and perhaps relieved) that he is a cat. He is not naïve, but he holds, in comparison with his human subjects, a certain universality. And most critically, Paris is a storyteller with the soul of a poet and a timeless story to tell.

Rise, fall, redemption.

As a novel, then, The Divine Song is somewhat of a literary chameleon. With a tragic hero woven into so deeply into African American history and  musical heritage, it is easy to forget that this is the work of a francophone author from Africa. The ghosts, the magical energy, and the enigmatic feline narrator arise in the Old World, freed from chronological constraint to focus themselves in the person of  one musical genius whose own life shadows that of a real person. It’s a heady mix. But it’s more than that. The Divine Song is a hymn, an exaltation of the power of music to redeem a nation, a people and a man.

The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi is translated by David and Nicole Ball and published by Seagull Books.

 

What have we done to our planet? Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change by Vinita Agrawal (ed)

The green recedes like a hairline,
blue, blue is our future. And the rains
come like an ominous doorbell. And the fire
comes like a lion devouring, and the earth’s despaired-rumble
in her belly. Under muted breath, Hindus mutter pralaya,
a continent slips through an orifice,
glaciers slide innocently into the sea like a friendly
handshake, and we leave the seventh cause of
climate change nameless.

– Usha Akella, “Adam Walking Backward”

It is either coincidental or inevitable that I started reading Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change on the same day the collapse of a Himalayan glacier and subsequent deadly flooding in Uttarakhand, India, made international news. I finished it to reports of the exceptional winter weather and power outages that left many Texans dead. Accounts of disappearing sea ice, habitat loss, raging fires, too much or too little moisture, extended tropical storm seasons and more have become a constant soundtrack, humming along beneath the chorus of a global pandemic, too insistent to ignore. Of course, countless industries and governments are doing their best to do just that, thus the importance of responses from a multitude of disciplines, including art and literature.

Open Your Eyes is one such effort. Edited by poet Vinita Agrawal and published in India, this attractive volume gathers poetic and prose reflections from a wide range of writers, from India and from around the world including Ranjit Hoskote, Ruth Padel, Abhay K, Anjali Purohit, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Barnali Ray Shukla, Esther Vincent Xueming, Indira Chandrasekhar, Kiriti Sengupta, Longbir Terang, Nabina Das, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sophia Naz and many, many more. For a concern so commonly associated with young western activists, this anthology offers a broader, more diverse response to the threats facing our planet, something that is by no means the province of the young. The oldest contributor here is ninety-two year-old Jayanta Mahapatra who offers a new poem, the mournful “I Am Today,” to the project. He joins sixty-two others raising their voices to call attention to the reality and risks of climate change.

It is November.
You know it from the susurration of light –
unclotted light, its guest-like tone
On my nephew’s face
the light is like a muscle,
quickening as he pedals.
The sweat still a secret –
armpits fold of private skin.

He’s seven,
as old as the ancient duration of exile.
The world’s grown warmer since his birth.
That is all I’m able to say
when he points to graffiti on the way –
‘What is Global Warming?’

– Sumana Roy, “’Global Warming’”

Concern about the health of our planet and its inhabitants is hardly new. When I was growing up in Canada, during the 1960s and 70s and on into my university years, we fretted about overpopulation and starvation, pollution, acid rain and holes in the ozone. Today, as manmade threats to the earth are increasingly urgent, governments such as the provincial one I live under are almost hostile to the notion of “Global Warming” as if it is a notion dreamed up yesterday by nefarious enemies of Capitalism and the Economy. It’s not that simple.

Given the theme of this anthology, it is hardly surprising that natural imagery runs a strong course through many of the poems and stories that comprise this book—birds and insects, rivers and forests, floods and drought, violent storms and heavy silence. The gathered offerings are strong; these themes are explored with fresh energy, rarely slipping toward the cliched or the overly sentimental. Sorrow crossed with anger tends to be the driving force; an inclination to preach gives way to the power of the image. In Rohan Chhetri’s “Fish Cross the River in the Rain” for instance, the speaker and his father go down to a river where electrofishing is being practiced:

To stand on the wave-nipped bank as shoal
after stunned shoal heave their nets. The fish
wake older, dreaming brief new lives huddled
in a foreign prison gasping at each other’s
gills blinded like a sack of mirrors.

The poets and writers contributing their work to Open Your Eyes bring, along with love of language, a lived wisdom that informs their varied approaches to the theme. Theirs is a passionate and often surprising engagement with the crisis at hand—a willingness to engage with the past, speak to the present and envision the all-too-likely future, as Sudeep Sen illustrates in his striking “Disembodied” which opens:

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
.                                      from minaret shards of an old mosque
.           from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
                          from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly       as they should—
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
.                            patches and etch-corrects my orientation—
magnetic pulses prove potent.

 

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
.                                                        blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by the brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
.                         echo asthmatic, a new vinyl dub-remix.

His poem ends with a portrait of an ominous near future, or nearly present. The prose pieces which close out the book take, for the most part, a more explicit glance into a possible world to come, employing elements magic and speculative fiction to imagine more anxious allegories of what could lie ahead. Open Your Eyes is an important contribution to the growing literature addressing the reality of climate change, yet one has to ask, is a project like this a call to arms, or evidence that, in the wilderness, a chorus of voices were shouting even if we refused to listen? I know what it should be.

Walking along the beach in Kochi with a friend we watched dogs searching among the refuse, trash and plastic washed upon the shore.

*

Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change is edited by Vinita Agrawal and published by Hawakal Publishers. I will confess that I ordered this book (which appears to be readily available outside India) because a number of my friends have work included within its pages, but that, in the end, turned out to be a welcome door to discovering many writers I might not have encountered otherwise.

An island to hold in the palm of your hand: Purple Perilla by Can Xue

Imagine. Islands of words, small self-contained worlds of ideas, stories, exploration. Points of reference in a sea that is increasingly uneasy, uncertain to navigate. This is the vision of isolarii, a project designed to revive the notion of “island books”—collections of literature and art united on a singular idea and bound into a single volume—that first appeared during the Renaissance, but was lost as other literary forms began to take precedence. Now, under a bimonthly subscription model, the tradition has been reborn in miniature.

Purple Perilla by Chinese experimental writer Can Xue is the third offering in this series. Beautifully presented, complete with a translucent dust jacket, this tiny book is about the size of a deck of cards and contains, in just under 150 pages, three delightful short stories: “An Affair,” “Mountain Ants,” and “Purple Perilla.” Xue offers these tales, which move from an urban to a wild setting, as a lyrical reaction to our contemporary condition. Her trademark measure of unreality permeates each piece.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Can Xue is a very idiosyncratic writer. She allows her fiction to spill forth in what will be its finished state—she writes, one hour a day, without rereading or edits. As a result, her stories and novels have a wandering quality, with a real, yet unreal atmosphere. Much like a dream. The best way to approach such work is to read as Xue writes, one word at a time. This is against an attentive reader’s natural instincts, but looking for patterns and clues will not help. However, this is not to say there is no form, no direction, no meaning—only that one is forced to be patient, to listen and see where the story takes you, not worrying if it seems to tumble along freely at times. Reader and author are essentially on a journey together. As Can Xue says:

Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s.

“An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a thirty-six year old teacher, living in a city, who receives a most unusual love letter from a man who claims he has seen her on the bus. He neither reveals his name nor provides a return address, admitting he does not expect she would want to write back. This odd, enigmatic correspondence haunts Fay, leading her to wonder what kind of hold this mysterious man has on her imagination. Eventually she sets out to find him, or find out more about him, by travelling to the far end of the city where he told her he works at a cigarette factory. What she discovers on her strange, convoluted mission seems to tell her more about herself than any mysterious suitor.

The second tale, “Mountain Ants,” is set in a small city surrounded by mountains. Lin Mai lives with his parents in a mansion which is oddly isolated despite being surrounded by buildings. Visitors are rare. The boy spends much of his free time interacting with a large nest of ants in his yard. One day an old man appears at his gate. He tells Lin Mai that he lives in the mountains and has followed the ants to his home. This man, who is called Grandpa Wu, shares some knowledge about the ants and promises that one day he will take Lin Mai up a mountain. As this magical story unfolds, Lin Mai learns some curious information about his parents, the beggar known as Grandpa Wu, and the importance of tending to his own and several other mountain ant colonies in the city.

The final story “Purple Perilla,” the most dreamlike and magical of the three, ultimately carries the narrator into the wilderness, where a friend and his grandma have gone to live among the wolves. To young Chickadee this friend, a boy he has long admired, has uncanny qualities:

Unwittingly, I followed Nigu. He was so profound that he wasn’t like a child, but like … what was he like?

“I’m my grandfather’s grandfather.” Nigu turned around and spoke to me. I was stunned—he actually knew what I was thinking!

“I’m really like my grandfather’s grandfather. I think I am. Chickadee, don’t be afraid of me; I won’t hurt anyone…”

Read as a cycle, these short stories walk headfirst into the unknown. Here, questions are transformative in themselves—it’s less a matter of securing answers than of finding comfort in mystery. Bound together in this portable format, they offer a direct engagement with the magic and vision of one of China’s most inventive writers.

Each volume in the isolarii series is accompanied by several forewords. Presently, Scholastique Mukasonga’s prose riffing in response to a sentence or two from each of Can Xue’s stories is available online. It can be found here. Reading this small volume is a uniquely pleasurable experience. And, it’s worth noting that although the book is small in size, the font is not nor do the stories feel compressed or compromised in any way. It has been a while since I last wandered in Can Xue’s world and my first encounter with her short fiction, but I am now keen to return, before long, to her dreamscapes in a longer work or collection.

Purple Perilla by Can Xue is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. It is the third volume in the isolarii series published by Common Era Inc.

Love is at the heart of everything. Everything except for love itself: The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović

“We only know their story as they told it. Like in books. The only way their story can be told is the way they want to tell it. Isn’t that beautiful? Like a fairy tale. The only pictures we’re left with are the ones our minds created, as we listened to their storytelling.”

The back cover of Slovenian writer Goran Vojnović’s award winning novel, The Fig Tree, promises a “multigenerational family saga…spanning three generations”—exactly the type of description that typically has me thinking twice if not turning away altogether. However, trusting on the strength of Vojnović’s Yugoslavia, My Fatherland—a tightly woven tale of a young man who discovers that his father, long thought dead in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s, is not only alive, but a fugitive war criminal—I had no hesitation to take on this newer (2016) work, recently released from Istros Books in a translation by Olivia Hellewell.

The Fig Tree is an ambitious undertaking. It is multigenerational in the sense that we all exist within the framework of those who came before us and those who will follow. Here the central concern is that of the narrator, Jadran Dizdar, a man in his 30s who is, it seems, adrift within his own life. His grandfather has just died, perhaps under curious circumstances, his father has been gone for many years, his mother is bitter and resentful, and his wife has just walked out on him and their young son. He is trying to make sense of himself by coming to understand the decisions and actions of those around him. But is he avoiding asking the questions only he can answer?

The story begins in 1955, in Buje, Croatia, close to the Slovenian border where a young Aleksandar Đorđević is due to take up a post as forest warden. Arriving from Ljubljana in Slovenia, the newcomer bears a Serbian name and birthplace, but his heritage is complicated and uncertain. He soon takes a fancy to the nearby village of Momjan where, against the concerns of his pregnant wife, Jana, he decides to build a home—the house where they will raise their two daughters, and where one day the garden will be graced by a huge fig tree. It is also where the very next chapter opens. Moving ahead to the present time, Jana is gone, having faded away in a steady loss of memory, and now Aleksandar, Jadran’s Grandad, has also died. That event and its consequences—his daughters’ differing reactions, his grandson’s suspicion that he may have taken his own life, and his cremation and burial—form the backbone upon which will Jadran flesh out the story of his family’s near and distant history.

As a novel focused on family dynamics, it is natural that relationships—especially those between husbands and wives, parents and children—should be the primary focus of The Fig Tree. And so it is. This is a novel about all the complicated facets of love. Jadran is intent on retracing his parents’ early romance, his own love affair with Anya, and the factors that shaped his grandparents’ final years. But his connection to his father, Safet, who has made himself so strangely absent, is possibly the most nebulous element of all, one that haunts both him and his mother. When Safet disappears to Bosnia in 1992, my immediate thought was that he would get caught up in the war. However, his existence in Otoka where he assumes residence in his grandmother’s empty house, is at once mundane and mildly eccentric. He is perhaps trying to connect with his own family’s past, while escaping the family and life of his present. Five years after his departure, his son comes to visit. In his father’s absence, Jadran had created a Bosnian dad fantasy that Safet could not even begin to live up to. He has to come to terms with the truth of the man who is not an idealized hero but:

just like the person who was waiting for me at the bus station in Bihać: scrawny and greying, oddly dressed, the sort of person who offered his hand and asked how my journey was, and whether I was hungry, the sort who, after I replied that I was, glanced around confusedly, not knowing where to take me to get something to eat; unprepared, lost.

Their brief reunion is awkward and strained, both parties are uncomfortable, but the reader may well wonder if there is discomfort in the son finding an unwelcome reflection of himself in the father.

Some of the most powerful passages of The Fig Tree trace the gradual decline of Jadran’s grandmother Jana following a likely stroke. Aleksandar’s complicated reactions as his wife gradually slips away from him—loss, guilt, frustration, redefined love—is wonderfully imagined. It is also one of the spaces in which the wars which tore apart the Balkans enter the narrative:

I know who that is, she said to him, turning away. It was of no interest to her that the country was collapsing, because that was beyond her comprehension. And what she didn’t understand didn’t interest her. The present became increasingly demanding, and one evening she got up, said that she couldn’t watch any more of it, and left the present behind.

Her world no longer extended beyond the walls of their house, and Aleksandar was left alone with the impending times, with a sense of dread, alone with everything that was happening on the outside.

The conflict and its implications are echoed in personal concerns about ethnic identity and nationality. Jadran’s family is rooted in Slovenia, but he and some of the characters have a complicated heritage—something which always matters on some level but holds greater relevance as the former Yugoslavia comes apart and borders take on new importance. The arc of this story may extend beyond the war, before and after, but underlying tensions and repercussions cross into the everyday throughout.

The Fig Tree is a deeply immersive, highly rewarding novel. However, I would suggest that it might take a little time to find one’s footing within the narrative flow. This is, perhaps, because Jadran can be a somewhat difficult narrator to warm to. At times he seems colourless, willing to slip into the background or even slip offstage altogether, allowing accounts drawn from his parents’ and grandparents’ lives to be told from afar. At other times, when he is front and centre, he can get bogged down in his own mix of blame, bitterness, and limited self-awareness, on occasion even falling into unbroken passages of running thoughts, a near stream of consciousness. Early on, shifts in the storyline seem a little odd, characters and situations are often introduced in a sideways fashion, with explanations and clarifications arriving only in time. Yet, once one gets accustomed to the manner of telling, the characters and their stories become increasingly compelling. And if there is a strong current of uncertainty running through Jadran’s account, it is not surprising, there is so much he is trying to resolve, so much that may never be known:

The coffin is no longer visible. The cranking of the mechanism that lowered it down has stopped. The sound of the furnace, however, grows louder. I hear the last of Grandad’s secrets burning, I hear it all disappear. All that remains is doubt, for doubt is the only thing that’s eternal.

Then, as the novel nears a close, Jadran makes a confession that I did not see coming, but one that reveals what I had already sensed. It’s a twist that brilliantly reframes everything—not only the text that has just been read, but the notion of writing a family history at all.

The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović is translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell and published by Istros Books.

A city no one ever sees unveiled: Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland by Sarah M. Miller

When the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Queens, New York, its motto, “The World of Tomorrow,” invited visitors to look to the future, to embrace the wonders that technology was expected to deliver in the coming years. Of course, with the Second World War still in its early days, the horrors that technology would make possible could not yet be envisioned. Building on a theme conceived at the height of the Great Depression, the Fair’s forward-looking mission was focused on a dazzling world of exciting possibilities.

As one might imagine, a bevy of brochures and books were published to celebrate the event and tie into its theme. Of these, one of the best known is Changing New York, a stunning collection of photographs by Berenice Abbott paired with captions by her life partner, esteemed art critic Elizabeth McCausland.  It would serve as Abbott’s career defining work. However, the book that met the public was a faint echo of the project the women had proposed. Their visionary design, a visual documentary of the city’s changing face in image and text had, against their protests, been reworked to conform to the format of a conventional guidebook.

The fact that the publisher, EP Dutton, along with the Federal Arts Project, had interfered with Abbott and McCausland’s intentions was not a secret, but until now the original manuscript has never been released in full. Over eighty years after Changing New York was first published, art historian Sarah M. Miller has restored the women’s intended text and image selection, presenting it together with a thorough exploration of the motivations behind Abbott’s extensive and impressive photographic project and an examination of the factors that lay behind its ultimate fate. The resulting book, Documentary in Dispute, a co-publication of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and MIT Press, is a detailed and fascinating work of artistic reclamation.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott (1898 –1991) moved to New York to study sculpture in 1918. There she met important members of the American avant-garde such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. These connections proved critical. In 1921, she headed across the Atlantic to continue her studies and would remain in Europe for the better of the decade. Here she made the artistic shift to photography while working as Man Ray’s assistant at his Paris studio from 1923 – 1926. Although she learned her craft there, she absorbed the foundations of her own creative philosophy from the Surrealist artists to whom she was exposed. However, it was in the work of French architectural photographer, Eugène Atget, that she discovered an understanding of documentary that would shape her vision and become the driving force behind her landmark study of New York—a city that was, during the 1930s, in a state of flux and change. MoMA has an good online collection of 75 of Abbott’s photographs, from early portraits (such as James Joyce) taken in the mid-1920s through to her abstracts of the late 1950s. The bulk of the images on the site feature her signature subject and include many of the photographs that appear in Changing New York and in the much more expansive, text at hand. (Note: I will link to images in collections rather than reproducing images that may be copyright protected.)

Documentary in Dispute is the latest addition to RIC Books’ series on the history and theory of photography. As a work of scholarly research, however, it is engaging and fully accessible for anyone interested in photography, social history or the politics of publishing. The book opens with a brief Preface wherein Miller outlines the fraught publishing history of Changing New York and the intentions and objectives of the current photographic project and the essays that comprise the study. Central to the reading experience is, of course, the reconstructed manuscript—the images of Berenice Abbott and the words of Elizabeth McCausland are presented as they proposed, made all the more fascinating and frustrating by the inclusion of the published captions, final book placement and, in certain cases, the point at which a photograph was eliminated.

Abbott’s approach to documenting the urban landscape is evident from the very first image in the intended manuscript, a photograph that holds its place essentially by virtue of its title, Brooklyn Bridge, Water and New Dock Streets, Brooklyn. Abbott insisted on ordering her work alphabetically by title within broader subject categories. This unusual practice introduces a certain randomness and avoids a tendency to fall into a contrived order. An immediate contrast to the desired guidebookishness that would ultimately transform the finished book where this same image is number 87. However McCausland’s text also speaks to the photographer’s vision. In the photograph the skyscrapers of the distant city skyline are framed by an older building, a segment of the bridge, and a construction project. The caption reads:

The taut cables of the first bridge to link Manhattan with Brooklyn visibly soar above the brick warehouse. Every molecule of steel in the fine-woven strands and in the interlacing girders and beams contributes to the perfect equilibrium of the suspension. At the same time, this tension (invisible to the eye, which scientists have been able to photograph at speeds of one-millionth of a second) is a living element in the picture. Between the power of steel and the pull of gravitation, the photograph achieves its own equilibrium, powerful and dynamic.

Here McCausland paints an unexpected organic image of steel—a material that fascinates again and again—while calling attention to the subject and to the energy within the photograph itself. What an opening! By contrast, in the published volume (where the image appears toward the end), the text begins with an accounting of the date and costs of the bridge construction—dollar and dates are detailed wherever possible—and then goes on:

Brooklyn Bridge is the technological ancestor of all the great steel cable suspension bridges which connect Manhattan Island with the world. The Roebling’s success in devising a steel cable strong enough to support the strain of its mighty spans opened the way for the Williamsburg, Manhattan and George Washington Bridges.

And that’s just the beginning. The original manuscript of Changing New York featured 100 photographs. Drawing on her interest in book design, Elizabeth McCausland offered a proposed layout that challenged the time-honoured conventions of photographic publications—one photograph per two-page spread with the caption on the facing page. In the end, of course, tradition won out over innovation. Some images were replaced; several others were removed in the final stage without replacement. It’s interesting to speculate about just what it was that inspired the publisher to pull an image. Too controversial, too political, too abstract?

The New York that Abbott uncovers is, intentionally, not the one most tourists, and many residents, never see. She captures humble businesses, vendors, neighbourhoods, many of which are on borrowed time. Modern skyscrapers soar above the city skyline, the point of interest is typically an older structure in the foreground or a feature in the distance. Statues survey their domains, in contrast with their backgrounds or, in one deleted image, stand shrouded, awaiting reveal. Simple scenes come alive through the play of light and shadow, seemingly insignificant architectural details are highlighted, storefronts are packed with goods, roads are often curiously quiet and, of course, bridges and elevated train tracks are approached from unexpected angles. If a bridge detail could be granted life, Abbott in her choice of subjects and McCausland in her captions did not shy away from social commentary or from expressing a sense of loss as architecture of the past (and the history it represented) was disappearing from the urban landscape.

However, the documentary imperative in Changing New York was not restricted to tracing a mutable city alone—the viewer was to be encouraged to see and understand what that might mean. Abbott, together with McCausland, imagined a work that would not only invite the viewer to observe locations they might not have ventured into, from perspectives unnoticed or unavailable, they wanted to illuminate the limitations, challenges and possibilities facing the photographer and her camera. Consider, for example, Broadway to the Battery: Manhattan, which looks down on the road from on high. The caption talks about how “20th century steel frame construction, skyscrapers” allowed a new elevated view of the city:

The human eye is more flexible than a camera eye, it makes an accommodation (psychological) which the lens cannot in this new vision, in this new range of sight, the 20th century artist—specifically the photographer—has a new world to conquer. Broadway to the Battery, by its inhuman perspective, distorts the scale of human life. The ant-like people in the street, the liner in midstream dwarfed to a fictitious tininess, the almost infinitesimal dots of human beings in Battery Park—these are the humanistic equivalents of the lens’ distortion imposed on the artist by the new morphology of the city.

This type of conversation elevates the manuscript, as intended, beyond what the viewers photographic books in the 1930s would have anticipated. The photographer’s dialogue with her subject, and the writer’s dialogue with her reader, would have promised an interactive experience sadly lost as the publisher stripped and shoehorned the envisioned project into the shape of an acceptable guidebook for the World’s Fair visitor. Apparently, “The World of Tomorrow” was not to apply to textual material.

The reconstructed presentation of Changing New York, is followed by a presentation of archival materials that shine light on the publication that Abbott and McCausland had envisioned, from the photographer’s 1935 pitch to the Federal Arts Project to sample commentaries prepared for the publisher, to a document that reveals the extent of the conflict over the design changes. Finally, the third part of the book is comprised of two generously illustrated essays. The first, “Archiving Abbott” by Julie Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante offers a look into the extensive amount of material Abbott collected and organized documenting herself. “She archived nearly every aspect of her career, from newspaper notices and reviews to drafts of talks and magazine articles, ideas for projects and inventions, and her business correspondence.” She was, it would seem, preparing for future biographers. She did not doubt her own worth. The second essay, Sarah M. Miller’s “Documentary in Dispute” is an in depth examination of Abbott’s artistic and philosophical development, the vision and aims behind the manuscript as originally proposed, and the editorial process that ultimately produced a volume deemed to meet the interests of the publisher and the FAP.

A slow, careful engagement with Abbott’s images of a shifting New York together with both the intended captions and the reduced, revised replacements is the best way to entertain this book. The essays that follow will then enhance one’s appreciation of Abbott as an artist and understanding of how and why Changing New York was itself changed in the process of publication. The final book was, it must be noted, met with great critical acclaim and stands as an important photographic text. Now, however, its creators original project can be appreciated, and full power of Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland’s documentary vision can be understood.

The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.