Comic relief: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, Illustrated by Nicolas Mahler

Anyone familiar with the unbroken, single paragraph monologues that characterize the typical novel by late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, might find it hard to imagine how his work could be realized in the medium of the graphic novel. I mean wouldn’t there be too many words to corral on the blank page? How could the intensity of the original be translated? For Austrian cartoonist and animator Nicolas Mahler it’s simply a matter of focusing on the essentials of the story and letting his quirky illustrations and creative use of space do the rest. As a result, his graphic interpretation of Bernhard’s Old Masters: A Comedy is, well, something of a small masterpiece. One suspects that the author himself, and his alter ego characters, Reger and Atzbacher, would secretly agree, despite their shared conviction that a true artistic masterpiece is impossible to achieve, let alone imagine.

Rendered in stark black and white drawings playing on extremes—massive architectural details, characters who are tiny and squat, elongated and thin, or large and corpulent, often grotesque, appear against golden yellow highlights (a distant echo of the artwork in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series)—Mahler allows his images to complement and amplify the ridicule, humour and disgust so intrinsic to this and the majority of Bernhard’s idiosyncratic prose. Frequently recurring of images—the museum security guard, Irrsigler, seems to spend an inordinate amount of time disappearing into the men’s room—visually mimic Bernhard’s fondness for repeating phrases and motifs. As the blurb on the back of the newly released English language translation of this comic-book take on a comic classic states: “The Master of Overstatement meets the Master of Understatement.”

And it’s a match made in, well, the Art History Museum in Vienna.

There is precious little action in Old Masters and little obvious plot. It is, however, a spirited takedown of Bernhard’s favourite targets: the Catholic Church, the State, the arts and artists—his characteristically dark, satirical look at the world in general and Viennese society in particular. But it is also, in the end, a touching, sad and surprisingly romantic tale.

The story unfolds, if you will, at the musem, on a bench in the “so-called Bordone Gallery” directly across from Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Here sits Reger, as he is wont to do every other day. Meanwhile, the narrator, his long-time friend Atbacher, observes him, just out of sight, from the “so-called Sebastiano Gallery” waiting for exactly eleven thirty, the time at which the two men have agreed to meet. Reger’s invitation is out of character because the they had met there just the day before and this second consecutive rendezvous was not in keeping with the typical pattern of either man. Curious as to the reason for Reger’s invitation to break from habit, Atbacher has arrived an hour early so as to watch his friend undetected. Naturally, this provides him the opportunity to launch into a lengthy account of Reger’s family history, his opinionated views, and his predilection to spend every other day at the museum, seated across from Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. In the novel this monologue consumes the bulk of the text. The same is true in this version which contains roughly the same number of pages, but much, much fewer words!We learn that Reger, the museum regular, has been visiting the Art History Museum for over three decades. Yet his attitude toward great art, the work of the “so-called” old masters, is one of disdain. Philosophically, he muses that a detail might be perfected, but the whole of any painting, sculpture, or other artwork ultimately leaves us appalled:

There is no perfect painting and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music, said Reger, that is the truth.

None of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter who did them, is actually something whole and perfect. That reassures me, he said. In essence, this makes me happy.

Only when we unswervingly come to the realization that there isn’t this whole or perfect thing do we have a possibility of survival.

And that has been the reason why I have gone to the Art History Museum for over thirty years…

As one might a expect, a number of artists, writers, and thinkers are subject harsh, and often hilarious, criticism as Reger, speaking through Atbacher’s account, expresses his unbridled opinions. Nineteenth century Austrian author, Adalbert Stifter, for example, is written off as a “kitsch master” with “enough kitsch on any random page to satisfy more than one generation of poetry-thirsty nuns and nurses” and then, strangely, compared to Heidegger, that “National Socialist, knickerbocker-wearing Philistine.” No one tosses out an insult like a cranky Bernhard character!There is, of course, much more below the surface than insults and irritation. That is where his peculiar wisdom lies. And, in this story, we learn that our irascible main character Reger’s antipathy to the old masters, and artists in general, has its roots in an emptiness they cannot fill. One that speaks to his, and our, need for love.One does not need to be familiar with Old Masters in its original form to enjoy this book (I wasn’t), but exposure to Bernhard in his full verbal intensity probably is. The satire, the heartbreaking warmth of the ending, and the sheer feat of rendering the mood and spirit of the Austrian writer’s pessimism and bleak humour into a graphic novel is not likely to be fully appreciated otherwise. I am a huge admirer of Bernhard, but I confess I’ve never really been drawn to graphic novels (pardon the pun). But the other night, when my son found this book on the doorstep of my old house where it had been left by a courier, I was immediately captivated. It has been a difficult few weeks and Bernhard’s misanthropic humour, oddly, is always strange comfort at such times. The beauty of this book is that it is not only a delight to read and look at, but I can imagine myself returning to it and rereading it many times (after all it doesn’t take very long—it’s akin to an instant hit of Bernhard relief).

Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, illustrated by Nicolas Mahler, is translated from the German by James Reidel, and published by Seagull Books. Essential medicine for any Bernhard fan, I’d say.

This is my first offering for German Literature Month 2018.

Honouring a singular Slovak voice: The Bloody Sonnets by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav

Before it came to an end one hundred years ago this November, The Great War, that rapidly escalating clash of empires—the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian—would not only reshape the map of Europe and impact the distribution of power on a global scale, but fuel a new sense of national purpose and identity among the citizens of the countries pulled into the conflict either directly or by virtue of pre-existing alliances and obligations. It also unleashed, in very short order, the potential for destruction and violence on a scale previously unknown. With Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, nations started to line up with their allies and declare war against one another. By the end of August, Germany, Russia, Britain, France and Japan were drawn in to a battle that was immediate, bloody and exhausting. And, as everyone soon realized, it was only just beginning.

It is easy to look back with hindsight, knowing the costs of this war and the ones that have followed, but in the opening moments of, and well into, what would become known as the First World War, the fervor of patriotism and passion to fight for God and country ran high. And this was well reflected within a realm one wants to imagine associated with “higher” ideals:

Despite its unparalleled horrors, the war had already produced something of immense value to humanity: namely, unforgettable poetry. This, at least, was one rather amoral commonplace from the early months of war. If poets had all too often been shut in their ivory towers, they were now quick to see that they could and must speak with the voice of the people. As Europe’s nations rediscovered their souls, they also rediscovered poetry. [1]

With few, cautiously voiced exceptions, the poets who responded to the unfolding drama of war, many of whom were themselves conscripted, were aroused with a new sense of purpose. Much has, of course, been written about this literary movement. Many collections and anthologies have been published over the years. However, one prominent, remarkably prescient poetic voice was raised against the prevailing sentiment, and his name is curiously absent from most of the annals and assessments of World War I poetry, such as the relatively recent text quoted above. In August and September of 1914, Slovak poet Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav composed a sequence of thirty-two poems, The Bloody Sonnets, expressing his passionate response to the growing hostilities into which his native country, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was bound. It has been largely overlooked. Now, a handsomely presented volume, published by the Centre for Information on Literature in Bratislava, seeks to bring renewed attention to this important collection of anti-war poetry as the centenary of Armistice approaches.

Born in 1849, Hviezdoslav  (a pseudonym appended to his birth name) worked as a lawyer and banker in Dolný Kubín in northern Slovakia before leaving his administrative career behind to devote himself entirely to poetry and translating. Writing in his native, endangered language, he was formally and thematically ambitious, exploring questions of Slovak society and culture, while weaving neologisms and elements of dialect into his work. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was sixty-five years old. While the poets and artists of Europe turned their attentions to creations charged with nationalistic rhetoric, his reaction was decidedly different. As one who aspired to a feeling of shared kinship between Slavic nations, the notion that Slovak and Czech soldiers would be called into action against Russia was deeply upsetting. With The Bloody Sonnets he set out first to decry the mounting bloodshed, and then to venture beyond that to imagine how the conflict might end.

In his introduction to this special edition, translator John Minahane marvels at the acuity of Hviezdoslav’s vision and his willingness to engage in a polemic against the prevailing poetic climate:

Hviezdoslav has such a powerful sense of the war’s scale and destructiveness that at first I found it difficult to believe that the Bloody Sonnets could have been written in August and September 1914. Surely, in their final version at least, they must be from 1916 or even 1917, when the full horrors had unfolded? Today when we read that “the human slaughterhouse is [everywhere: / on earth, upon the ocean,] in the air”, we are bound to think of how World War I introduced the most appalling form of modern warfare, aerial bombing. Already by 1916 there were signs of its potential: at least twice airmen killed almost one hundred people in single missions. But the aerial campaigns, though long-prepared, got underway only in 1915.

In reading The Bloody Sonnets, one is continually impressed by the vivid images painted, at this early juncture, of the blood-drenched reality of warfare. The first seventeen sonnets resound with an angry, at times despairing, evocation of the brutality, agony and immorality of this escalating tragedy—one so fundamentally at odds with the Christian values its perpetrators and champions are claiming to profess. The poet’s contempt is palpable, heightened by his adherence to a formal structure. The sonnets follow course, each one building on the intensity of the one before. His view is strikingly, terrifyingly universal. Take, for example, “Sonnet 13” where Hviezdoslav asks:

What caused this wreck, this brutal and ignoble
collapse of morals? What provoked the breach?
What led mankind, in spirit grand and noble,
to plunge in the mud? What vampire? Oh, what leech,

sucking the sap of life out of the breast,
constantly thirsting bloody parasite?
Ah, selfishness! — and to destroy this pest
today we have no troops, no heroes to fight.

Yes, it will twist and tear and rend, and fall,
a tyrant, on the weak and innocent;
although the world is wide enough for all,
it would have sole control of earth’s extent
and even possess the universe, no less,
pitching the other into emptiness —

Leading into “Sonnet 14”, his imagery, and his scorn, is unambiguous:

This puffed-up arrogance that’s dressed in iron
and, armed with lethal weapons, lurks in wait;
that bulks like stormy clouds on the horizon,
each move a threat, with wide eyes full of hate;

that hangs above the earth like punishment
and keeps peace powerless: it coarsely swears
that it fears God alone! — But this is meant
contemptuously: in truth it does not care…

Then, midway through the sequence the tone and energy shifts as Hviezdoslav turns his attention to the possibility of peace and the role that his own people, the Slavs, and most specifically his disadvantaged Slovaks, might have, in days to come, as a voice for justice. “Sonnet 17” marks the transition, as the poet wonders aloud if there is anyone who will stand up and call for ceasefire:

Whether your wisdom comes of silver years
or you’re a man in bloom, cry to them all,

“Enough!” — and you’ll be a champion of the world.
Offer your enemy a brother’s hand,
a white flag over red ruin unfurled!
Or… must the violence constantly be fanned

till it burns out?

It is not a question easily resolved, in real life or in verse. From this point onward, Hviezdoslav directs his queries to the Lord, looking to God for answers and guidance. These poems are filled with a Biblical humility that stands in direct contrast to the self-righteousness he challenges in the first half of The Bloody Sonnets. Cautiously he ventures to question whether lessons may be learned from this legacy of conflict and carnage. Yet, however sceptical he is about the salvation progress and civilization might offer, he wants to believe that God has higher plans:

— forever save the Slavs (Lord, hear my prayer!)
from being nothing but a heap of dung
on foreign fields, where the thin native layer,
craving fertility would have them flung. (“Sonnet 27”)

The fate of Slavdom, and of Slovaks in particular, is of abiding concern. He belonged to a tradition that had, during long years of cultural suffocation under Austro-Hungarian occupation, looked to Russia as their hope for liberation. But, because Russia had never committed itself to justice, he feared that smaller Slavic populations would be absorbed and lost within the larger entity. Ideally Hviezdoslav wants to see a Slavic Europe emerge in which each of the nations is allowed to maintain its uniqueness while benefiting from the association afforded by their shared kinship—a future in which the Slavic streams are allowed to follow their own courses without, as Pushkin envisioned, necessarily being merged into the Russian sea.

This powerful sequence comes to an emotional climax as, in “Sonnet 32”, as the poet bids his own bloody cycle of songs good-bye with the wish that that they may be “read by many a tearful eye”. As much a patriot as his fellow poets who were at this time still trumpeting the glories of war, his own desire is simple:

I too have had my inward battleground,
I too am wounded, and my heart’s pierced through;
just once to see my people and feel proud:
redress for all their injuries long due

As an opponent of the war, Hviezdoslav was at risk of being branded as pro-Russian and, thus treasonous. Consequently, The Bloody Sonnets existed only in limited manuscript and presented as performance pieces during wartime. It was not until 1919, two years before his death, that the sequence was finally made available in print. However, in the decades that followed, his work fell out of fashion and was forgotten. It is only in more recent years that Hviezdoslav’s rightful position of respect has been restored in his homeland.

This English edition of The Bloody Sonnets will hopefully go a long way to ensuring this important Slovak poet is finally recognized for his contribution to anti-war poetry more than one hundred years after he poured his heart into this cycle—his last great poetic project.  Translator John Minahane has taken on a formidable challenge here. Hviezdoslav, working within the constraints of the Petrarchan sonnet, was trying to express the intense emotions welling up inside. Rhymes are never easy to accommodate across linguistic borders but the results sing with overwhelming power, energy, and passion.

And then there are the illustrations. Artist Dušan Kállay’s black and white drawings practically burst with violence and depictions of evil. They speak to the senseless destruction of war without uttering a word—a perfect complement to a cycle of poems unjustly silenced for so long.

This title can be obtained through the Martinus online bookstore in Slovakia. The site is in Slovak but they are able to communicate in English and ship anywhere.

[1] Geert Buelens. (2015) Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. (Trans, David McKay) London: Verso Books

Disembodied desire: Murmur by Will Eaves

The price of consciousness, of power, is choice.

 Mathematician Alan Turing is remembered as much for his critical role in the development of computer science , his contributions to code-breaking during the Second World War and his work on artificial intelligence as for being a man whose homosexuality led to a charge of gross indecency and a period of enforced chemical castration. His life has been examined in print and film, his character analyzed and debated, and his death mythologized, but to truly venture deep into the recesses of the mind of such a complex and extraordinary character is to invite challenge, scrutiny and dissension. After all, what can we ever truly know of another person’s internal processes? Or, for that matter, our own?

In his latest novel, Murmur, British writer Will Eaves takes the key elements of Turing’s career and ultimate predicament, and creates a shadow character, Alec Pryor, slips inside his skin and inhabits his dreams and anxieties while the state takes control of his body. This audacious approach stays close to the outlines of Turing’s life, even borrowing first names and specific details like his fiancé or his fondness for Snow White, but avoids the constraints of conventional biographical fiction. Presented through journal entries, letters and a feverish dream chronicle, Murmur offers a poetically charged reading experience that is at once scientifically astute, philosophically engaging, and emotionally disturbing. It imagines a rational minded man pushed beyond the edges of rational existence who still manages, we assume, to hold the surface still, controlled and humane.

So much of real life is invisible.

The novel begins with Pryor’s recorded reflections on the circumstances that led to his charge and conviction, his dalliance with a young man and subsequent reported robbery echoing Turing’s misadventure. Choosing one year’s probation with hormonal treatment over jail, he begins therapy with a psychoanalyst, Dr. Stallbrook, and weekly injections to turn him “into a sexless person.” Analytical by nature, he cannot resist the temptation to filter his situation through scientific, historical, and philosophical musings. As if he wants to quantify a situation that clearly has left him concerned and uncertain about what lies ahead.

The central section, which comprises the bulk of the narrative consists of extended dream sequences and an ongoing epistolary correspondence between Alec and June, a former colleague and friend to whom he was once engaged. It begins with a disassociation, a stepping away into third person, which leads to a recognition of a division, necessary perhaps to observe the self, but also speaking to the effect that the treatments are beginning to have on Alec’s relationship to his own physical being:

I am a thinking reflection. He is the animal-organic part, the body unthinking. I am a searching mechanism with a soul. I’m him, but only when he’s near the glass, metal, water, the surface where I’m found. I search for some way to express this separation which feels all the wrong way round.

A bird is puzzled by its reflection; not, surely, the reflection by the bird. And yet I’m one with him. I’m one and separate. I search for ways to describe this. I live and think within all glass. He only has a body and can’t hear this murmuring; sees himself in a mirror—doesn’t know that it is me.

From his detached vantage point, the dreaming Alec revisits his younger self at school, observes a schoolmate whom he once loved, and watches as the two boys swim naked across a lake where they will spend a night together. This other boy, Christopher, has a counterpoint in name and fact in Turing’s biography, a close friend and object of an affection most likely unreturned in the same nature. In both realities, Christopher dies young. But in Alec’s dreamscape, his psychiatrist is conflated with his former schoolmaster, and his friend’s post corporeal essence becomes an abiding presence. His intellectual preoccupations, such as the limits of machine intelligence are personified in bizarre interactions with a real life associate who visits him as a computational illusion. His mother and brother appear as cartoon effigies straight out of Snow White. By opening this vast and increasingly distorted space where, as is common in dreams, people known and events experienced become the scenarios that are continually replayed in response to current waking affairs, Eaves is able to twist Alec’s past and present together to create a complex, introspective character who is both troubled by and curious about the impact of  the unnatural situation in which he has found himself.

With his sex drive disabled, Alec admits to June that he is plagued by dreams and desires, a “coded overcompensation” for a reality supressed. Ever the scientist, he understands these dreams as a means of functional storage and processing:

My dreams are candid with me: they say I am chemically altered. They are full of magical symbolism! At the same time, they are enormously clear—where there is high reason and much thought, there will be much desire and many imaginings. Urges. I can be given drugs and hormones but they will only work as drugs and hormones work. They cannot get at excess desire. Take out libido and another drive replaces it. Materialism and determinism define me through and through, and yet there is more than they allow. And if that illusion of more—call it free will—is itself a mere effect, then an ‘effect’ suggests, does it not, a real cause, as a film ‘suggests’ a projector?

Balanced against this projected, or perhaps, “reflected” reality, Alec’s correspondence with June provides a safe place for him to explore his physical and existential uncertainties. She serves as confessor, sounding board, and unconditional support. Early on, especially as the hormones begin to soften and alter his body, as the estrogen causes his breasts to grow, he expresses fear of becoming a hybrid—less the fear of change than of loss. He grieves his past, his one true, yet quite likely impossible, love for Chris, and worries that he will somehow lose himself.

The estrangement between physical and essential being continues to grow. The dreamer longs to grasp a sense of if, and how, the body exists beyond death—dispersed, yet tangible, and at the same time, its elemental links to a geological, and for Alec, icebound past. The “self” seems suspended between:

The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.

No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among asteroids. Only the world’s ship-like trembling, its great pistons concealed, attests the passage of aeons, time brakeless and unpeopled. Then, as fast as they arrived, faster, the glaciers recede, the waters rise, anoxic bile that boils away at Pryor’s still, unvoiced command—and I am either glass again, or obsidian, axe flint, my face upturned and refashioned.

The veil of night drawn back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.

There has been much controversy around the matter of Alan Turing’s death by cyanide poisoning a little more than a year after his hormonal sentence ended. Suicide was the official verdict; accident and murder have also been argued. The fortitude he is reported to have displayed throughout his ordeal, is offered as an indication that his mind was not as troubled as imagined. But, for Eaves’ shadow protagonist, there is both profound growth and insight as a result of his enforced period of introspection, and a fundamental internal loss of self that others cannot see. His perception of and relationship to his body is ever altered.

Murmur is a bold, imaginative accomplishment—one that manages to convey the strangeness of conscious experience while asking what it truly means to be conscious, pushing at the edges of its limits and constraints. It is, in many respects, a natural evolution of Will Eaves’ experimental novel, The Absent Therapist, a fragmented blend of scientific fact, philosophical reflection and fictional vignettes that read, not like snatches of overheard conversation, but as fleeting encounters with the thoughts of a wide range of characters. Murmur pulls you deep into the mental reality of one man whose rational and logical grounding is upended, but this time the therapist is present and inseparable from the subject.

However, as much as this is a novel embedded in conscious experience, it is a memoir of the body and its essentialness to being. It asks: Can a machine be encoded with emotional intelligence? What happens to the substance of the body after death? What of the self is lost or altered when the body is rendered sexless? No matter how cerebral one may be, the body matters. In my own, long-standing, welcomed and self-administered treatment with contrasexual hormones, I have experienced an evolving disassociation from the altered body I now inhabit. Yet, at face value, I look right. I am afforded the ability to live in the world in a manner that conforms with the internal gendered self I’ve always known. In a way that feels right. But I am changed. My body is othered and alien, de-sexualized. Over time that disassociation feeds existential discontent. Threatens the self in weird and curious ways I hear echoed in this book—a book which echoes my own murmurings.

Murmurs by Will Eaves is published by CB Editions and shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmith Prize. A North American release is forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in April, 2019.

To find balance in a changing world: Insomnia by Aamer Hussein

My introduction to Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein was oddly serendipitous. It came through an unsolicited essay submitted to me for possible publication at 3:AM Magazine. I had no sooner read the piece through before I ordered a copy of one of the short story collections mentioned. Then I wrote a letter of acceptance.

Born in Karachi, Hussein moved to London in 1970 when he was just fifteen years old. An accomplished writer, critic, and translator, influential in both his native country and his adopted home, his work is curiously underappreciated in North America. Yet his stories which so deftly capture the amorphous, shifting atmosphere of living a life that crosses borders and cultures in a way that feels both timeless and timely, draw on a wide and diverse range of influences:

I love classical Persian and Urdu poetry from Attar to Iqbal, from Jami to Ghalib and Mir, from Rumi to Faiz. In the Western canon, I started off being influenced by the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov; and the fiction of Pushkin, Kleist, Flaubert, Karen Blixen, Tennessee Williams, Cesare Pavese, Marguerite Duras – oh, so many. (2011 interview)

Although Hussein has more recently explored the longer novella form and has even begun to write in his mother tongue, Urdu, his short fiction is especially impressive and seemed like a good placed to begin my acquaintance.

Published in 2007, his fourth collection, Insomnia, is comprised of seven stories that feature a variety of Pakistani-born narrators or protagonists negotiating new or changing environments—travelling in Europe as Islamophobia is on the rise, adapting to life in London as a teenager, balancing political idealism fed abroad with a longing to return home, or slowly building a writing career against the backdrop of the Second World War, Indian Independence and Partition. A sense of displacement is common, as is a quiet, aching nostalgia for something that is missed but cannot quite be clearly defined.

The longest story in the book, “The Crane Girl,” is set in London of the 1970s. Murad has, like the author, arrived from Karachi at the age of fifteen to complete his schooling. He becomes infatuated with Tsuru, a mercurial Japanese girl several years his senior. With her he learns to smoke and listens to the music of the day—James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens. But then, without warning, she disappears. Murad is at a loss, awkwardly trying to socialize with Tsuru’s former flatmates, a Canadian boy and an Australian girl, until he meets another Japanese youth, Shigeo. Seemingly self-assured, his new friend turns out to be a moody, manipulative boy with a penchant for Spanish guitar and an uncertain attraction to Murad.

This is a story in which, like adolescence itself, meanings and desires are murky, motives and truths are unclear. A newcomer among other newcomers, Murad allows himself to drift for some time before he begins to be able to set limits and pull away when his friend’s behaviour bothers him:

Murad didn’t like asserting his views and tastes the way Shigeo did. (Recently, when the trouble had begun between the east and west wings of Pakistan, Shigeo had asked him about the situation as if he wanted to pick a fight, and Murad had uncharacteristically retaliated by bringing up Japan’s treatment of Korea. But that was a long time ago, Shigeo said, Japan had learned its lesson.) What, after all, did they really have in common, apart from their loneliness? Being foreign boys in London? Their dark hair and eyes? It wasn’t as if Murad was planning to drop Shigeo: he’d just avoid him for a while. Their friendship had become too much like a habit.

And then, of course, Tsuru returns, as suddenly as she had disappeared, and the situation becomes more complicated. Again, just like adolescence.

The political and the personal overlap in the haunting “Hibiscus Days” in which the narrator,  dedicated to translating the final poems and fables of his friend, Armaan, finds himself lost to memories, mysteries and regrets. The story retraces the relationship between four friends, two couples, all from Pakistan, who meet when they are studying in England. When Armaan and Aliza decide to return to Karachi and get married, they appear to be opting for more conventional middle class lives while the narrator and his girlfriend who stay in London become more committed to a political idealism. The complexities of exercising one’s politics at home and abroad are ultimately thrown into harsh relief, in this sad and beautiful tale.

Finally, another outstanding story, perhaps my favourite, is “The Angelic Disposition.” Set primarily in Delhi, this is a female writer and artist’s account of  her life and career, directed to her friend and mentor, Rafi Durrani, an established writer with whom she had a writerly relationship primarily conducted through letters.

Rafi was of medium height and medium colouring, and he seemed surprisingly weightless. In his world darkness seemed not to exist. And yet I could recognise compassion in him, too: his wasn’t the wit of callousness or disdain. He wasn’t a Marxist; neither was I.

But to sing so blithely about love in a time before siege? Those were strange days. We—the scholarly, the teachers and doctors and lawyers—were trying to find a place in a world that we were increasingly aware was no longer our own; and we felt obliged to write about change, to write to change it all.

Rafi encourages her to write for children, sometimes adding illustrations to her work. Theirs becomes a friendship born of mutual respect. It’s not romantic, they each are married to others, but his willingness to listen to her and share stories about his own life is critical to the support of her career, which is, at the time, quite unconventional for a woman.

In any exchange of letters there’s a writer and a reader: this is invariable. It’s hard to explain. I have something to say, to impart, to confess. You listen. And sometimes you, too, start singing, your triumphs, your failures and your little tribulations. But you could be saying all this to anyone. You’re writing to make me write, that’s all.

After his early death, fighting for Britain in the Second World War, she continues to address Rafi, as an angelic presence and inspiration. He may be her hero, but her gift and passion for art and literature are her own and will see her through the difficult years of the twentieth century. The true strength of this beautifully crafted tale, lies in the quietly dignified and powerful narrator whose presence lingers long after the story comes to a close.

This is an extremely satisfying collection and I am certain that my first experience of the work of Aamer Hussein will not be my last. And, in case you’re interested, the essay that sparked my interest, “Silence as Resistance in Aamer Hussein’s Stories” by Ali Raz, can be found here.

Insomnia by Aamer Hussein is published by Telegram.

It’s in your genes: The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif

Cairo can be an inspiring city, especially in winter. So I think to myself as I come home one evening. The microbus stops where the overpass descends to the street, rain pouring, Road 10 running beneath, the taste of a damp cigarette. Winter is, even so, like religion: both fit spaces for expressing emotion, sadness above all. A whistle lengthening then broken off: a soundtrack to the scene; a perfect summons to tender feeling for a tableau that has been generated thousands of times before and embedded in memory and which, when tickled by the tune, comes back to life.

The Law of Inheritance, by Egyptian poet and writer, Yasser Abdellatif, originally published in Arabic in 2002, and now available in Robin Moger’s crystalline translation, is a delicate, filmic ode to emerging adulthood set against the tumultuous political environment of Egypt in the 1990s. Drawing on his own memories and on mythically-toned stories from his Nubian family history, Abdellatif manages to spin, in a mere 94 spare pages, a richly textured tale.

The opening section, “Introductions,” sets the stage, sketching in fragmentary, third person passages, images of a young man, at various ages from childhood through adolescence, from grade school to high school, from cigarettes to hashish, to the University of Cairo where both creative and Leftist political energies will be sparked. His father is absent, forced abroad to find work, his mother fragile, and the weight of being the older brother rests uneasily on his small shoulders. This brief, cinematic prelude paints a minimalist portrait of the narrator who will soon step out of the shadows to carry forth his own account, framed within a multi-stranded evocation of contemporary Egyptian identity distilled to its most elegiac essentials.

The narrative is moody and melancholic, evocative of time and place, infused with memory and family lore. Architecture and addresses serve as conduits to a personal past—the Lycée the narrator attended as a child, the University of Cairo where he studied Philosophy and finds himself swept up in the fervor of political protests  in the early 1990s, the roads and byways where he and his friends lingered, listening to rock and roll and experimenting with pharmaceuticals. One has the sense of a slow, directionless drifting toward adulthood, which echoes and reverberates with stories drawn from his ancestral past and woven into the tapestry of this lyrical novella. As the narrator unspools his tale, he traces his family’s intersection with the city, with its streets and neighbourhoods. Relatives, pushed into exile from their native Nubia, arrive as social outcasts in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some find the promise of a better future; others find it more difficult to adjust. Yet for all of them, even the narrator and his father who are born there, Cairo seems to be a somewhat uneasy fit.

His grandfather does well. By virtue of his education, he chances to rise from a barman to an office worker, a transition that affords his family a move up in both social standing and neighbourhood.  However, it also loosens the restraints he’d previously maintained against his own religious inclinations, an enthusiasm accompanied by periodic bouts of depression. By contrast, Fathi, a nephew to whom he is very close, has quite a different experience. Given to the pursuit of carnal pleasures, he embarks on an affair with an Italian girl in the mid-1930s. This enrages her budding Fascist countrymen who chase him through the streets and eventually force him into retreat in Rhodes. Another distant relation will fall into religious fanaticism and madness, and will ultimately retreat back to the Nubian countryside.

The Law of Inheritance is a novel of exile—from a homeland, a city, a neighbourhood—that succeeds through its lyrical precision and its measured humility. The narrator warns against vanity early on, and he is, in his own transition to adulthood, neither hero or victim. Likewise, the men in his family whose stories are told without glory or pity. The result is a powerful, moving exploration of what it means to belong in a world that is ever shifting and changing shape.

The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

Neither here nor there: Esther Kinsky’s River and a link to my review at Music & Literature

Since I finished Esther Kinsky’s magnificent novel River, it has been difficult for me to contain my enthusiasm for this work, and yet, with a major review on the way, I wanted to refrain from talking at length about my reading of this languid, mesmerizing meditation on the relationships we have with place—those we live in, pass through, or linger in uncertainly during points of transition.  That review is now live, and yet Kinsky’s book is still working its way through my system.

River is a slow read; immersive, poetic, attentive to detail. It creates an atmosphere of intimacy with the spaces the unnamed narrator traverses during a time of restless displacement in a community on the edge of London; a time of gathering and preparation for leaving the city where she has lived for a number of years. Some of these spaces are immediate, defined by the course of the river Lea. Others exist in the distance, temporally and physically. And yet, although there are clear parallels between Kinsky’s own life history and the locations her narrator visits, River occupies an intentionally indistinct borderland between fiction and memoir, focusing on experience in the moment over biographical background and detail, resulting in a narrative that flows, organically, like the rivers than run through it.

My review of River can be found at the online site of the singular journal Music& Literature. The opening passages are reproduced below, you can read the rest of it here.

A mood, an atmosphere, rises up from the opening pages of Esther Kinsky’s River—a melancholy that unfolds so softly, so insistently that I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading words that originally existed in German. I found myself wondering: What would the German feel like in my hands? How would its texture taste, guttural tones against the back of my throat? These are questions that, in their asking, underscore how River is a text to linger in, to touch, to absorb, and recognize one’s self in. We follow the narrator as she temporarily suspends her life, settling for a time in a marginal community on the edge of London, so she can slowly disengage herself from a number of years spent in the city, and prepare, mentally and emotionally, to take her final leave. The process she details seems to be one we, too, undergo in reading River.

Under a pale sun and in the whitish, shadowless light peculiar to this place and these seasons, I took to following tracks which, time and again, led me back through the alder grove. This partly mutilated wetland wood with its childhood flowers and wild birds secretly appealing to my memory was my gateway to the lower reaches, to the path downstream that gradually taught me, during the final months of my stay, to find my own names for a city I had already spent many years labouring to decipher—names only walking and looking could force me to extract and reassemble from a web of trickling memories, a debris of stored images and sounds, a tissue of tangled words.

 

River by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Iain Galbraith and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and Transit Books in North America.

To make the invisible visible: Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

Brother In Ice is an exercise in trust—a risky venture, not unlike the expeditions  into the  blank canvas of the polar regions that Alicia Kopf traces in the early chapters of her ambitious hybrid novel. There is a distinct sense that the Catalan artist and writer is thinking out loud, mapping her own haphazard journey across the page. She could have lost her way, slipped into a crevasse and disappeared beneath the weight of her own icebound mission. But no. What she has produced, in the end, through an eclectic and inventive blend of autobiographical fiction, arctic-inspired scientific detours, and historical diversions, is a thoughtful meditation about identity, family, and the challenges of trying to explore one’s self through art.

To dissect  Brother In Ice is to risk making it sound strange, possibly unreadable, but Kopf’s balance and restraint hold its often disparate pieces together. The opening section of the book, “Frozen Heroes”, reflects the narrator’s obsession with all things polar: shipwrecks, penguins, the anatomy of snowflakes, and, above all, the heroic, often reckless, rush to explore the furthermost regions of the globe and endure extreme conditions, all with the desire to lay claim to undefined spaces, explain mysteries and achieve impossible goals. To be the first. Grainy black and white archival photographs add to the accounts, but what allows such brief, nonfictional excursions to work is the author’s light hand and thoughtful voice. In these early pages we are also offered our first glimpse into the narrator’s family and personal life. In particular we are introduced to her autistic older brother:

My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while.

He is interested in planes, trains, cars, cats, dogs and birds, inclined to watch them carefully and intently, but he is consistently unable to carry out ordinary tasks without  being cued or asking what he should do. His presence, in what is ultimately a broken family, is significant.

The scientific diversions continue into the second section, “Library Atop an Iceberg” but gradually the autobiographically toned fiction moves to center stage. After a rather defiant adolescence, complicated by negotiating the rough terrain between her divorced parents, the narrator makes her way to university where she persists in studying art and literature, worrying about the practicality of pursuing endeavours that are likely to be less than self-sustaining. She supports herself, first in retail and then with odd teaching jobs, has her first serious romance, and ultimately, her first art show. She travels, struggles to get along with her mother, and worries about what will become of her brother and her responsibility for him as he ages. The chapters, if you can call them that, are short, vignettes and reflections, played out against glacial motifs.

Finally, in the third section, she visits Iceland.

Throughout this unusual novel, the narrator herself is on a quest. She is not even certain what it is that she is searching for. Like the polar explorers, in pursuit of a shifting point on the ice, in a vast white terrain, she is writing in an effort to render the invisible visible. This is the artist’s quest—one in which the question may be as elusive and ill-defined as the answer. Near the end of the first part, the narrator admits:

I often find myself getting stuck in this project. I see nothing before me, just white. Yet beneath there are many things. The shrieking of seals. Was it the poles I wanted to talk about? Or is it just the image of the snow that fascinates me? Instability, confusion, cold (it’s hot), determination. Sensations that were the constant companions of the polar explorers, as well as those of us who work with the blank white page. Because I’m not interested in the polar explorers in and of themselves, but rather in the idea of investigation, of seeking out something in an unstable space. I’d like to talk about all of that as a metaphor, because what interests me is the possibility of an epic, a new epic, without foes or enemies; an epic involving oneself and an idea. Like the epic that artists and writers undertake.

Hers is a journey that resonated deeply with me. Especially as a writer working in the uneasy territory of memoir, I loved the openness, the questioning, the self-doubt Kopf allows her narrator (and presumably herself) as this odd creation takes shape. As her own questions and explanations start to come into focus, the layers of inspiration that preceded her quest, finally start to make sense. The beauty of this book is not simply that it is an intriguing and original account of one woman’s coming to terms with some of the unresolved fractures in her own history, it is a challenge to other explorers who venture forth with pen or paintbrush in hand to forge their own paths as they seek to tell their stories.

Brother In Ice by Alicia Kopf is translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, and published by And Other Stories.