Remembering my father and the gift of a love of literature

My father was born on this day, April 26, in 1928. Marking his birthday for the first time since his death last July is bittersweet. My father was a difficult man, he rarely played with us or talked about his childhood—I would not even begin to appreciate why he was this way until I was in my 40s—but he gave me my love of literature. He would regularly run out on Christmas Eve and bring home books especially for me, starting me early on children’s abridged classics: Hans Brinker, Treasure Island, The three Musketeers and my very favourite, Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I have spent the past few months combing through his library as we clear out our parents’ house. I selected the books that were suitable for donation to charity, decided which were not worth saving, and brought home the books I could not part with.

My father loved history, poetry and Russian literature. Much of the poetry I had already acquired, piece by piece, over the years; the war history will, I’m confident, find new homes; and I saved for myself his Russian lit (more Gorky than I expected) and his fancy editions of Western literary classics. I have gathered his Russian collection on a small shelf in my office and hope to salvage language from these books to create an experimental composition in his memory. But, as I made my way through his library, I found a few little treasures that speak to his years in New York City in the 1950s—a magical time he was forever trying to get back, long after that New York was gone.

He was in his early 30s when he was finally able to attend university. His parents were not supportive of academic pursuits. He studied electrical engineering and would never complete his degree for lack of funds, but while he was at Columbia his great joy was to write for the student newspaper. He reviewed opera and concerts. He would have been well suited to the life of an academic if he had had the support to take an Arts degree. But that was not to be although he would go on to be a highly respected, if difficult, electrical designer and contractor. Among his books I found a program of concerts from 1950–51, along with a charming contest entry for a chance to win an “Easter outfit,” and a couple of mini pamphlets of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (the last book he gave me a few years back was a complete collection of Poe’s poetry and prose).

The process of sorting through my father’s books, left me with a clear image of him haunting secondhand bookstores throughout his life. My favourite find was a copy of a red hardcover called Modern European History by Charles Downer Hazen. Published in 1917, the first owner left his name inside the cover. I don’t know who accidentally burned through the binding, but my father left calculations inside the back cover—not simply solving math problems, it looks like he was tracking the number of pages he was reading.

My father had a thing for numbers, he tracked the temperature and the stock market figures every day right through to the end—not so much out of an interest in the markets as far as I know—but as a little bit of mental exercise. He was afraid of dying and even more afraid of mental decline. I’ll have to keep counting for him. Today he would have turned 89.

The supernatural power of forgiveness: Absolution by Aleš Šteger

Absolution, by Slovenian poet and writer Aleš Šteger, begins with a dramatic flourish, alluding to the staged performative quality of the story that is about to unfold. Like a grandly conceived morality play, the stage is set:

Silence. Darkness. The stage curtains open, and all we see is a man. He hunches behind the high collar of his winter coat, hands buried in its pockets, black briefcase dangling off his right wrist. He sways a little. The pavement has not been shovelled. The man tries to balance his way along a narrow, already beaten track. He nearly falls. Behind him stretch unkempt art nouveau façades, and in the pallor of the streetlights drizzling rain turns into snow. The few passers-by are quietly spat out by the dusk, only to be swallowed again a moment later, just as quietly. The whole time the silhouette of a woman has been at the man’s heels.

It is Carnival time in the Slovenian city of Maribor. And, with a passing nod to The Master and Margarita, the devil makes a brief cameo in this opening scene. But the man with the briefcase is a more mysterious, strangely possessed visitor than the costumed Beelzebub who stumbles on the icy street.

Returning to his hometown, after sixteen years of exile, Adam Bely is a man with a mission. Together with Rosa, his beautiful Cuban-Austrian companion, he immediately sets to tracking down a series of prominent residents, claiming to be collecting interviews for an Austrian radio special about the city which has come to be known, as the “European Centre of Culture.” Each person they meet with is hypnotized or subdued by force, prodded for information about their current and past lives, and then “absolved”—a process which sets free a host of trapped souls—ultimately leaving the “victim” either dead or a raving shadow of their former selves.

Šteger’s fantastical Maribor is striving to be an ideal model of perfected sterility, but it is a false façade—as false as the masks donned by revellers during Carnival. Corruption runs deep and close to the surface. The threat that Bely has come to confront is the Great Orc, a network of “thirteen bodies inhabited by hundreds, thousands, millions of souls which protect the world from change.” These bodies belong to a cluster of powerful, influential individuals, but none of the members know the identity of all of their twelve cohorts. The octopus is the creature that symbolizes and binds this network. Bely is determined to absolve all of the members, effectively freeing the city from a most unusual curse. His conviction is derived from his involvement with Scientology. Although he claims to have left the sect, he still holds to Hubbard’s contention that people are but human animals inhabited by “flocks of murdered souls.”

I have to confess that I am at a loss to know exactly what Šteger was hoping to achieve with this novel. It is either a piece of speculative fiction, or a parody of the same. The characters are caricatures, intentionally so, but there is something decidedly odd and distasteful to the tone and execution. This is not my genre, so either I am missing the point, or this ambitious idea has missed the mark.

It must be noted that Šteger is a very gifted poet. The translation of his collection The Book of Things won the 2011 BTBA award for poetry and his wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Berlin, was long listed for the 2016 BTBA fiction award. And when he steps away from the forced dialogue and strange plot, poetic moments find their way into the text of Absolution, but for a reader coming to this book from his earlier work, those traces are few and far between.

I am not comfortable writing negative reviews. I am always ready to admit that a book that does not work for me, might be perfect for someone else. After all, this book was well received in Germany. And, for all its awkwardness, there are some very interesting ideas here. In my mind, the most striking is the sense of the compounded layers of death the lie beneath so many cities in Europe. It is tempting to reframe the human costs of centuries of conquest and war in Judeo-Christian shades of good and evil. To take an angle like Scientology (which notably emerged from the mind of the creator of some pretty questionable science fiction) is at least daring, if not entirely successful. When Bely and Rosa visit one of their target citizens, Magda Ornik, the Director of the Maribor Funeral Home, she reflects on the artificially symbolic nature of any designated cemetery:

“First, our entire country is nothing but one big burial ground. We all know that whenever you start digging with a shovel you’ll hit a grave or even a mass grave. The Romans, the Middle Ages, the Ottoman invasions, the First World War, the Second World War, the post-war massacres. Slovenia is at a crossroads. Everything comes together and mixes here, and every era provides its share of the dead.”

As a reader living in Western Canada, where the ground beneath my feet contains a long but much more sparsely distributed human history, the densely compacted strata built of the detritus of war and peace (a dramatization of Tolstoy’s novel also features in Absolution) is virtually unknown. Perhaps, then, Bely’s drive to free his city from the weight of so many murdered souls does not seem so far-fetched. As he says:

“I believe in beginnings. Every moment could be the start of something new, something fateful. If I didn’t believe that it’s possible to change the course of our destiny at any given moment, then I’d no longer be on this planet. And I’m still here. Here and now.”

Absolution by Aleš Šteger is translated from the Slovenian by Urška Charney and Noah Charney, and published by Istros Books in collaboration with Belatrina Academic Press.

Multi-lane manifesto: Expressway by Sina Queyras

My hometown does not do expressways very well. In places where it would be obvious to have them, we are late to the game. And each one is a crap shoot, even if you know it well. The first time you have to exit and cross three lanes of traffic in very short order, your head swivelled 180 degrees, just to travel from the expressway to the road you were trying to access you have to wonder: did anyone try this out before they opened it to the public?

When I was still in university I had a summer job where I sat in a building the size of an outhouse, just off the Trans-Canada highway and tourists, just entering the city limits, could pull over and ask for directions. This was long before the era of google maps, GPS, even cell phones. We’re talking printed maps and a highlighter pen. I did my best to give instructions but, to be honest, there was—and still is—so little consistency I was often at a loss to say more than: Watch for the signs. I developed a theory that year that I still hold to. I reasoned that every civil engineering student at risk of a failing grade was given a chance to redeem themselves by designing a single interchange along one of the major thoroughfares. And that’s why no two are alike and some simply defy the imagination.

Canadian poet Sina Queyras completed her 2009 collection Expressways while here at the University of Calgary on a residency. I’m curious as to whether our ad hoc roadway system coloured this poetic critique of the social and ecological impact of the spreading network of asphalt arteries and veins that criss-cross our nations.  Her poems speak to the memory of a romanticized landscape of the past on a collision course with an increasingly isolated, technologically driven future. The opening piece “Solitary” sets the tone, with the call to consider what is a risk with the continued push to interconnect places, at the cost of connection to the land and to one another. The final stanzas read:

Wagon train, trail of tears, what aggregate composition,
What filleted history, what strata, what subplates,
What tectonic metaphor, what recoil, what never

Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, then endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the clover leaf,

Perspective of elevation, the royalty of those views,
The Schuylkill, the Hudson, the Niagara, the skylines,
The people in their houses, passing women, men

Dressing, men unearthing, smoke pluming, what
Future? What the apple tree remembered? Not
Even the sound of fruit. If a body is no longer a body,

Where is memory? If a text is no longer a text,
Where is body? If a city is no longer a city, what road?
If future no longer has future, where does it look?

She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back.
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.

As ever, I am not an effective critic of poetry. I like it, I read it. Sometimes, but entirely by accident, I write it. But I do know when poet’s work works for me. This collection is a strong, cohesive, and passionate manifesto evoking the poem as a means to challenge the ethics of the expressway—in its concrete and abstract context. A call to recognize what is at stake:

This poem resembles urban sprawl. This poem resembles the freedom to charge a fee. The fee occurs in the gaps. It is an event. It is not without precedent. It is a moment in which you pay money. It is a tribute to freedom of choice.
(from “Acceptable Dissociations”)

At times Queyras echoes of the Romantic poets, even borrows their words. The text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals provides the material for “Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere” which, falling mid-way through the collection, casts a pastoral mood, a look back to the dream of a simpler time, closer to nature. But it is an ideal. The Industrial Revolution was, by 1800, set the groundwork for the technological and economic developments that would ultimately allow for the building of major roadways, and the vehicles to fill them. Other pieces are firmly bound to the present, most notably “Crash” which is assembled from fragments salvaged from google searches. Others stare directly at the future—here darkly, there with a vision of reclamation.

Expressway works as a rhythmic, lyrical cautionary tale. A call to undo harm. But, roads seem to be growing wider, interchanges multiplying. Especially here in North America where spaces are wide and the car is still king. That is, Queyras argues no reason not to strain to hear above the din of the traffic.

I am weary. I walk and walk and meanwhile the expressway hums . . .

What for weary? We all hum.

I am weary. I have so little hope.

Weary, maybe. But, no hope? For that there is never an appropriate time.

Sina Queyras lives in Montreal. Last fall I had the opportunity to hear her read from her latest work. This reflection/review was written in recognition of National Poetry Month in Canada and the US.

Expressway is published by Coach House Books.

Dream on: Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris

I am lying in bed exactly as I would in reality, except that my forehead is pressed against the white powdery wall of a large cylinder made of lime, a cistern of sorts, exactly my height, and which is nothing other than myself, actualized and exteriorized. I feel this other exterior forehead pressing against my own, and thus I imagine my head is pressing against the very substance of my mind. [Undated]

A curious thing happened as I ventured into the dream writings of French author, Michel Leiris. I expected, perhaps, a surrealist-inspired fascination with the stuff of dreams, the settings, the strangeness, and the symbolism of nocturnal (or aided hallucinogenic) adventures. And there are, among the fragments and the longer descriptive accounts he collected between 1923 and 1960, many vivid images and observations. But this is not a self-indulgent, introspective endeavour. Nights as Day, Days as Nights demonstrates a psychoanalytical restraint, and an observational interest in the quality of dream life (and its echoes in the half-awake and “real life” realms). Consequently, as I made my way through his recorded recollections, I could not help but reflect on my experience of dreamed realities. In sharing Leiris’ journey, I caught glimpses of my own.

Born in 1901, Michel Leiris is widely regarded as a pioneer of confessional literature, known for his extensive autobiographical writings. He was drawn into the sphere of the surrealists early in his literary career, and although he broke with them before long, their influence would linger. He was also an accomplished ethnographer, who participated in anthropological missions into Africa in the 1930s, and worked at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for much of his life. Given this context, his dream writings which, remarkably, span almost four decades, were nurtured in a rich, fertile soil. But, as translator Richard Sieburth indicates in his introduction, Leiris preferred to classify these notes, collected and published in 1961, among his poetic works, casting a different light on his lifelong exploration of the self. In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” written to accompany the original release of Nights, Maurice Blanchot remarks that the reserve that Leiris shows in his transcribing of his dreams—not attempting to dissect them—should be respected in the reading. What he offers here is literary, not autobiographical or analytical: “These were once dreams, they are now signs of poetry.”

For Leiris, language plays an important role, not only in the translation of the remnants of dreamed (or fantasized) experience, but in the very substance of dreams. At times he plays linguistic games to escape or alter the events unfolding in his sleeping imagination, at other times he may reflect on the words used to his record remembered scenarios:

 The word rêve (dream) has something cobwebby to it, as well as something akin to gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup. This is no doubt due to its sonority and to certain formal connection between the v and the circumflex accent that precedes it (this accent being nothing more than a smaller, inverted v); hence the idea of interlacing, of a finely woven veil. Dreams are spiderlike, given their instability on the one hand and their veil-like quality on the other. If dreams are like the croup, it is probably because they are linked to the notion of nocturnal disturbances (like those bouts of false croup from which I suffered during the night as a very small child). [July 27–28, 1924, Real-life]

Leiris’ dreams are, essentially, recognizable to anyone who remembers their own dreams (since some people seem to be unable to do so). We have all likely had dreams that were bizarre, where a reality we think we know is distorted or shifts, situations that are sexually tinged, or charged with anxiety, or so terrifying that we awake with a start. And what about those dreams that feature people or places that are familiar, but oddly out of time? Or the multi-layered dreams, those that seem to descend or surface to different levels of consciousness—dreaming you are awake, only to discover you are still asleep? The beauty that comes through (and it is not always beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word), is the sensitivity with which Leiris records his experiences. He is capturing the thoughts, images, memories or ideas that come to him, whether he is awake, half-asleep, or sleeping—his dream life is not confined to one realm of the day—with little intervention or commentary. He may muse about an interpretation of some aspect, but only in passing. Most offerings are presented raw, so to speak, and in vivid detail:

By a pool, a row of giant toads the size of chimpanzees, all covered with moss. They would appear to be part gorilla, and their colours range from green to gray to brown. The finest specimen—to the extreme left of the row—is bottle-green with huge eyes like frosted lightbulbs. They are all getting ready to dive into the water and crawl back into their shells (?). It occurs to me that if I dressed up in knickerbockers and wore a large green felt cap, I would look like a toad. [September, 1933]

Having a record, albeit at times sporadic, that spans a significant period of one man’s life, from roughly the age of twenty-two to sixty, offers insight into another important quality of the dream space. Figures from his “waking life,” as he puts it, appear—and for Leiris this is a fascinating cast, he knew Georges Bataille, Georges Limbour, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and countless other well-known writers, poets and artists. But it is his wife, Louise Godon, whom he calls “Z,” who is the abiding presence throughout, whether she is out with him, waiting to meet him somewhere, or comforting him when he awakens with a scream. Other, often anonymous, women may attract his attention in his dreams, but she is never far away, so it seems, from his heart or mind.

Of course, events in the real world also infiltrate the realm of dream and fantasy. During the war years, Leiris’ accounts show a striking amplification of military imagery and themes of impending death, ranging from the allegorical to the theatrical to the disturbingly realistic. This is to be expected, but these records collected and presented, chronologically as they are, map the interior response to exterior terror, in real time. The dreamer, now in mid-life, evolves during these years. He almost seems to become a more astute listener to his own anxious imagination. The entries recorded in the post-war years feature longer, more detailed, but no less surreal, narratives.

When Michel Leiris organized and published this collection in 1961, he would still live, and continue to dream, for another twenty-nine years. Alongside his autobiographical writings, he engaged in a rigorous and formal journal keeping project that spanned seventy years (1922-1989), but Nights as Days, Days as Nights stands as a particularly engaging poetic gift. The invitation to spend time in someone else’s dreams may seem odd, after all, our own dreams are typically of less interest to others than they are to us. But Leiris has a rare ability to transmit these imagined episodes in a way that is not only interesting, but encourages us to recall the way we experience ourselves and others in our own dreams, to become alert to the recurrences, the insecurities, and the wonder that lingers. As such, this very personal project becomes universal, enriching the nights and days of those who are open to it.

Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot, is published by Spurl Editions.

Initial thoughts on Can Xue and a link to my review of Frontier at Numéro Cinq

In the month or so since I wrote the following review, I have been thinking about Can Xue, about what it is that sets her work apart—that makes it so difficult and so addictive. There is nothing intrinsically complex about her language. Her characters are intriguing, interesting. But one can easily feel unmoored within the scope of her imagination. Borders shift; the signposts we look for as readers are missing or misleading.

But once one accepts this condition, the possibilities are endless and exciting.

After reading Can Xue, I went on to read João Gilberto Noll and Michel Leiris. In the light of this subsequent reading there is more I would like to explore with respect to the dream-like narrative/anti-narrative, but that will have to wait until after my next Numéro Cinq review.

In the meantime, here’s a taste of my review of Can Xue’s Frontier, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Life In a Northern Town | Review of Frontier by Can Xue — Joseph Schreiber

It can be said that Chinese experimental writer, Can Xue, inhabits a strange and elusive territory in contemporary literature. With an idiosyncratic approach to writing, she has created an impressive body of work that effectively explores a geography of the spirit—mapping, if you like, the space where the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, and the magical and the mundane meet. Her 2008 novel Frontier, newly released from Open Letter Books in a crystal clear translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, has been eagerly anticipated by her admirers. Yet, for intrigued newcomers, it may well offer an excellent introduction the dazzling, and baffling, world of Can Xue.

Born in 1953, in Changsha City, Hunan Province, South China; Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who took her intentionally gender-neutral penname from a Chinese expression that refers to both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the pure snow remaining at the top of a high mountain. This inherent duality is very fitting. In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, both of her parents came under suspicion for their journalistic activities and were sentenced to hard labour. Consequently, their daughter was unable to continue her education beyond elementary school. Despite the brutal hardships her family experienced and her own ill health, Can Xue showed great resilience. With her schooling cut short, she turned to reading. Largely self-taught, she read fiction, poetry, and discovered the joys of classical Western and Russian literature, eventually going on to study and read in English. At the same time, she married, started a family, and worked as a tailor before publishing her first work in the mid-1980s.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth, lies and wild allegations: The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges

In an age when climate denial, an increasing distrust of immigrants, and the epithet “fake news” dominate the headlines, the eloquent arguments ventured forth in the pages of the anonymous Refutatio major (c. 1517–1525) play neatly against the public consciousness, reminding us that, even now, there are still those who hold to a view that the world is flat and the moon landings were fabricated. But none of our contemporary doubters or conspiracy theorists who peddle their “alternate facts” would deny the existence of the New World. . . However, in the decades that followed Christopher Columbus’ fated encounter with a land mass that would soon turn long held assumptions about the geographical reality of the world on their heads, what sort of skeptics might have crawled out of the woodwork?

Well, if you accept the premise French author and playwright, Pierre Senges, is prepared to offer alongside his spirited “translation” of this curious treatise claimed by no one but attributed to Antonio de Guevara, we have a Renaissance-era Latin document that purports to call into question the veracity of the reports, artefacts, and individuals ferried across the ocean from this distant new land by a steady stream of seafaring Spanish and Portuguese adventurers, colonists, and missionaries who have disappeared and reappeared over the watery western horizon since the reported discovery of the Mundus novus. And what an imaginative and persistent defense is waged in this apparent “Epistle to Charles V,” now translated into English by Jacob Siefring as The Major Refutation.

The new world, an enchantment? however when John Day, a good sailor no doubt, but a geographer of little import, announces that somewhere to the west islands have been found where “grass grows,” he is either smirking with deceit, or mocking our rulers, to whom he extends an offer of six square yards of lawn in the guise of a vast kingdom. These men go off into the horizon, where they lose their heads, exert themselves furiously, ravish Indian women, move mountains and entire populations, drown a thousand sailors in their wake, and then come back to us, swearing in magnificent syllables that grass grows on these lands and that in their environs, by the grace of God, rain falls from on high.

Senges is a prolific French writer, but to date little of his work is available in English. With a spirit akin to Borges and Calvino, Senges frequently exploits the possible, potential, and unfinished spaces that exist in history or literature. That porous line between fact and invention is blurred with a nimble oratorical style that lends itself to work with a sharp satirical, critical, and philosophical edge. Throughout the text, the personages and recorded events are real, but it’s the dogged determination to prove that the celebrated New World is an elaborate hoax that forms the heart and soul of this wildly entertaining feat of double imposture.

The magic of The Major Refutation lies in the delight the author (or his surrogate, shall we say) takes in language. The biting, sarcastic humour is infectious. One can imagine our Franciscan chronicler writing with a healthy measure of unholy abandon in this passionate entreaty to Charles V, king and Holy Roman Emperor. Antonio De Guevara (1480–1545), the imagined author of the manuscript at hand, was in truth, no stranger to writing in the voice of another—he infamously penned a text he tried to pass off as original by Marcus Aurelius. Granted free reign he openly attacks anyone, his clerical brethren notwithstanding, who comes within his sights in his effort to prove that the so-called New World is nothing more than a grandly orchestrated act of fraud and collusion. The concessions granted with respect to dominion over the distant vistas fail to impress him:

To the observer, these textual games and universal decrees sitting alongside and contradicting one another, these privileges to a single treasure granted to so many, these supposedly definitive treaties that are deprecated before the year is even up, that manner of signing at just two streets’ remove a couple of decrees that mutually refute one another, all the while perceiving that the world carries on under the weight of such numerous paradoxes, to the solitary witness all of this looks as much like naiveté, as much like a superior ruse. Because to adopt a proprietary attitude towards invisible islands is either proof of blindness, become lately a fashion of the courts & palaces, or it is a deliberate strategy, dictated by the crafty to the envious; to delude the people, it would hence be a question of acting as though the chimerical continents were so valuable they were worth the price of humiliations on their behalf, worth the aristocrats sharing trading posts and territories, like barkers sharing stalls in the marketplace.

With an stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world. Queen Isabella, Columbus’ sponsor, is a favourite suspect to whom the author returns repeatedly. He imagines ingenious means by which the entire enterprise could be facilitated —insisting that once beyond the horizon ships turn south to Cape Verde to hold over before sailing back with gold smuggled out of Spanish coffers and returned again. Of course, the unspoken value of fostering belief in a far off land of untold wealth and opportunity is not lost on him:

The principal reason for the invention of the new world would surely be to send off into the ocean a portion of our great surplus of useless men, who fill our countrysides, our cities, and betwixt the twain our faubourgs, with the speed of a spreading plague. . . . The new world and the enticing advertisements which speak of it so fantastically invite all these beggars & jobless, worthless players to board dinghies, strap a sail to their torso and head due west, without demerit. A steady stream of disfigured men, ugsome-faced knaves and scrawny blackguards have thus quit terra firma, this world for its beyond, in prestigious and ruined galleons.

From the opening “Editor’s Foreword” that places the Refutation into historical context, to the scholarly “Afterword” that vigorously defends the case for Antonio de Guevara, confessor to Charles V, as the probable author while considering less likely alternate candidates, Senges is essentially presenting a carefully designed meditation on the nature of truth—on that which is credible and that which is contrived, on belief and doubt. Selecting de Guevara as his preferred composer, a historical figure with an attempted forgery to his credit, and allowing him to imply that his faith in his own argument is perhaps less than genuine, adds depth to the layers of a deception designed and executed as one thoroughly intelligent and entertaining whole.

Of course, the release of the of “English Version of Refutatio major” in late 2015, ten years after the “original” French version, is especially timely. Conspiracies abound. In saecula saeculorum.

The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, translated by Jacob Siefring, is published by Contra Mundum Press. And, for the record, the book design and typesetting is exceptional.