No promised lands: Canzone di Guerra by Daša Drndić

Each time I come back to Croatia, I see that it is not the Croatia I left, that I am not the person who left. Today, every lengthy departure from Croatia promises a still more difficult return, an ever more remote chance of establishing a firm, tenuously secure basis for living. Today, when I leave, I no longer know who I will find alive when I come back.

Croatian writer Daša Drndić was singular literary force, able to deftly weave facts—often gathered and presented in an unapologetic, even confrontational manner—with fiction to create compulsively readable, powerful works. Her novels incorporate lists, historical details, interview excerpts, documentary asides and lengthy footnotes into a character-driven story to achieve more than what either fiction or nonfiction could do alone. In Canzone di Guerra, recently released in English translation from Istros Books, we see an early form of this distinctive approach to storytelling, deeply political yet strikingly novelistic, echoing the author’s own experience in Toronto, Canada, as a single mother escaping conflict as the former Yugoslavia was falling apart in the early 1990s. Given this context, this work also stands as an increasingly relevant portrait of the immigrant experience—one in which my own country does not come out too well.

Originally published in 1998, Canzone di Guerra’s opening chapters zero in immediately on the narrator’s decision to leave Croatia and the varied circumstances immigrants and refugees face in Canada after the collapse of “Socialist Yugoslavia.” Framed by short digressions about the origin and fate of certain varieties of pigs—parables of culture, dislocation and loss—Drndić quickly shatters idealistic illusions and hints at the embedded inequalities and ethnic divisions that her superficially homogenous community carries with it to new shores. Imagined, in part, as the transcript of a radio documentary we hear the voices of an array of characters struggling to find work, dismayed at the lack of recognition for their professional credentials, and coping with loneliness and alienation:

Here we sleep peacefully, there’s no shelling, but we’re waging a different war. A war in the soul, a war in the head. Why did we come? We thought Canada was a country of great possibilities. I don’t know why no one told us the truth.

Beneath the dialogue, footnotes discuss the disappearance of trees in Sarajevo parks, coping strategies for stretching food or resources, even quote George Orwell. Throughout the text, such notes offer the opportunity for a multilayered discourse. There is always more going on beneath the surface.

Of the migrants, seeking a better life, some will thrive, some will not. The narrator, Tea Radan (“my name in this story” as she later says), has her young daughter Sara, to consider. She has to hope for the best. But what is she really hoping for? That is, at best, uncertain. Prior to moving to Canada, Tea and Sara had lived in Belgrade before moving to Rijeka in her native Croatia. Her sister lives in Slovenia, her brother is restless but goes nowhere. Those she knows want to leave but most don’t get far. However, the distance that her ability to migrate affords her seems to focus her attention back on her family, her parents and grandparents, and their actions and political associations during and after the Second World War. Her grandfather’s letters and mother’s diary entries help flesh out the story, but questions remain unresolved.

A romance with a fellow Croatian immigrant sets her off on an extensive, obsessive search through archives and records available in Canadian libraries, triggered by the notion that his family’s circumstances may have been connected to her own, most particularly to a betrayal of her mother during the war. It is not a healthy basis for a relationship, but it spurs a journey that leads Tea from one rabbit hole to another, as she delves into the history of Croatian communist and fascist movements, through the treatments of Jews in Canada, to tragic accounts of the concentration camps Theresienstadt near Prague and Jasenovac in Croatia. It is a gut-wrenching whirlwind tour, one that invites readers to slip down their own rabbit holes. Yet the intensity of her investigations, only trigger more questions:

The more I read, the less I knew. No one was entirely innocent, no one was entirely guilty: not the cardinals, nor the bishops, nor the popes, nor the churches, nor the Vatican. Nor the communists. As for the Ustasha ‘truths’, I read them too, but I didn’t believe them. They all had their version of history. Those who survived. The CIA had its truth as well. America and Great Britain their own.

Uncomfortably, for a Canadian reader, Drdnić, through her narrator, is unsparing in her critique of Canada’s failure to deal with a number of high profile war criminals who found their way here—something I was not unaware of but was chastened to review it all again.

This novel is, nonetheless, more than a vehicle to delve into past darkness. It is charged with a certain humour and warmth as Tea and her daughter navigate life in a new country. It is not easy. Along with other migrants they are forced to seek social supports, take degrading work under the table, and scour second hand shops for clothing and shoes. It sounds bleak, but Tea’s defiance and Sara’s spirit carry them through the endless bureaucratic mazes of the modern capitalist state.

Entertaining, intelligent and disturbing, to read Canzone di Guerra today, thirty years after the time when it was set, is enlightening. Immigrants still face the same frustrations finding support, resources, and work that recognizes their training. Yet, as refugees from the war in Ukraine flow into Canada and many other countries—often moving ahead of those waiting in line much longer—it is clear that all refugees and immigrants are not treated equally. The migrants arriving from the collapsing Yugoslavia note at one point that they are invisible compared to other more “obvious” newcomers. But visibility is not an asset, as long-time Canadians from visible minorities can attest. Racism and xenophobia has grown even more over the past few decades, buoyed by the same kind of nationalist sentiments that played such a key role in World War II and the Balkan Wars alike.   Daša Drndić’s work remains, as ever, clear-eyed, critical and timely.

Canzone di Guerra by Daša Drndić is translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books.

i am so pure and lonely: My Jewel Box by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

infinite energy borrowed from the future
founded everything
out of nothing

like debt  (45)

It has been four years since my first encounter with the work of Danish experimental poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen through her book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. I was, at the time, grieving the death of my mother a year and a half earlier, and in a process of coming to understand the nature of the particular absence her loss had left in my own sense of identity.

Dramatic and intense, the poem follows an expectant mother-figure like no other, her language pulsing like blood through arteries and veins, her vision pushing beyond patriarchal capitalist dynamics toward a new conception of the body and the kind of life it can nurture and contain.

As I described it in a blog post, “we are held captive by a demanding chimeric voice, witnesses to the realization of a possible future reality which, not unlike the mechanistic hive-mind typically associated with cyborg imagery, envisions a hive-heart existence.” I was so swept up in the flow of this epic, inventively translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, that I was moved to create an experimental poetic response of my own which was published at Minor Literature[s]. (The PDF is reproduced here.)

Last year, a follow-up volume, Outgoing Vessel was released in translation. Reading, perhaps, more like a companion piece, rather than a continuation, the enigmatic speaker here is a more isolated, inward focused figure. Through an atmosphere heavy with grief, anger, pain and existential disconnect, her rhythmic chants progress toward the articulation of a radicalized technological ontology. Now, in the place of a new life/lives, the poet talks of an orb, an indestructible object that she carries within her body—a planet of her own that ultimately figures in a re-imagining of a new human beingness. The tone, often harsh and seemingly unforgiving, ultimately leads to an affirming vision, even more boldly futuristic than that of the preceding cycle.

Now, a third work—My Jewel Box—has arrived, bringing with it another striking shift and a remarkable sense of closure. That is, at least in my experience, the three volumes form an echoing, interconnected epic, with a grand operatic arc, one in which the speaker/singer evolves through different ways of seeing and understanding herself—in society, in the universe, and finally as vital link in the ongoing chain of life. She returns to earth, one might say, but as an ever-dynamic force, she bends earth (along with air, water and fire) to her own imagination. The connection with Third-Millennium Heart is possibly the most obvious, but in the move from a gestational to a generational reality, I would suggest that the strongly internalized, starkly solitary exploration of Outgoing Vessel can be read as a necessary recalibration of the individual self in contrast to the communal self that is governed and influenced by our interpersonal and transactional relationships with others. Now, the self is redefining herself once again.

interrupt me in my work

i sat there and

i’m in the deep laboratory
connecting myself to
the unrest, how it feels
it has a pronounced gravity
soft, possibly smooth, and heavy
it calms the body, even though
it isn’t still

is it my child, is it my mother
is it myself

is it alive

an incredible labor (18)

Like its predecessors, My Jewel Box is comprised of a series of poetic sequences that together form a single, book-length poem. Photographic artworks by Sophia Kalkau mark each section, the continuation of creative partnership that has enhanced the entire trilogy. Olsen employs reiteration, chant-like passages, shifts in tense and intention, neologisms and a distinct sonic intensity to propel her poetry forward. Motifs and themes from the earlier works also reappear, drawing on threads that run throughout the trilogy. In Danish, she is lauded for her daring use of language, so, as ever, the trust and chemistry that exists between poet and translator is critical. Olsen sees herself as the first translator of the ideas, and Jensen as the second, granted the freedom to work with the language to capture the inventiveness and spirit of the original. The result is a collaboration that is very special.

My Jewel Box opens with a surreal poem that involves the speaker’s sister and their mother’s body. Her parents and her child will also appear later in the longer poems that close out each sequence, hinting at a somewhat more intimate tone than admitted in the previous works. We catch a glimpse of the dynamic central figure as daughter, sister and mother. Nonetheless, the poetry resounds with bold statements, sharp contrasts—love/hate, pleasure/pain, blame/guilt/innocence, supply/demand—and harsh indictments, but the tone is somehow wiser; the debt ratios and mechanisms of balance are changing. What has been borrowed must be repaid. And the payment will be realized in a new understanding of the relationship between the body and the material world. It will be emotionally and physically painful.

to keep the spirit inside
force it to stay inside the body
despite physical discomfort
despite almost endless physical discomfort

i place the body inside the world
and breathe in
i place the world inside the body
and breathe out
that is what i do
i am

griefbody
ragebody
joybody
lovebody

i identify with everything, with
(fire, water, earth, air)  (131)

The preparation occurs at all levels of the body, from the cellular to the surface and beyond—fleshy and metallic imagery are interwoven leading, ultimately, to what is the beating heart of this poetic epic, the longest sequence, named, like the book, “My Jewel Box.” Here we move into a quieter, more organic, melancholy space, one that increasingly embraces a connection to the natural world, as the speaker enters a new phase of life—the post-fertile. This menopausal suite is, in its early movements, charged with loneliness and loss. Rivers of sweat run, the uterus is reimagined as a container for what? Air? Water? The blood now bled out is invisible.

i am a mother
who does not turn anyone into siblings
who will not be turning anyone into siblings  (183)

Yet, as before, Olsen’s poetic vision is fundamentally life-affirming and, as her speaker begins to come to a fresh appreciation of her newly defined integration with the material world, her language explodes with the most vivid array of colours painted onto a tapestry of stars, gardens and forests. In contrast with the limited palettes of Third-Millennium Heart and Outgoing Vessel, it is blinding and exhilarating. The sadness lingers, the transition is pained, but possibilities are awoken, to be reclaimed as the work draws to a close at the end of the final sequence.

The power of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s trilogy lies, for me, in her ability to move from the restrictive to the expansive, the biological to the cosmic, and back again. Her enigmatic speaker seems to be seeking a grounding in a vast universe, either pulling it all inside herself or holding herself close against its emptiness. At last, with My Jewel Box, there is a sense that she has reached a more solid footing, at once tentative and secure, a place where she belongs, somewhere between eternity and eternity.

Or, perhaps, that might just be my own translation of my experience of reading this trilogy.

My Jewel Box by Ursula Andkjær Olsen is translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen and published by Action Books.

Note: I will be in conversation with the poet and her translator on Sunday, May 15, 2022 at 1:00 pm CST. If interested, you can register to attend this virtual event at Brazos Bookstore.

“a translation of myself”: distant transit by Maja Haderlap

is there a zone of darkness between all languages,
a black river that swallows words
and stories and transforms them?
here sentences must disrobe,
begin to roam, learn to swim,
not lose the memory that nests in
their bodies, a secret nucleus.

(from “translation”)

Maja Haderlap was born Carinthia, the southern-most province of Austria, into the Slovenian-speaking minority community that served in the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. As a result, they suffered repression during the war and ongoing persecution in the decades that followed. Haderlap was raised in this hostile borderland environment and educated in both Slovenian and German, two languages burdened with conflicting histories and dynamics in the region. She first established herself as a poet with several Slovenian-language collections before releasing, at the age of fifty, her acclaimed German-language novel, Angel of Oblivion. According to her translator, Tess Lewis, her decision to write about her family and community history in German, was controversial, but guided by a desire to reach as wide an audience as possible with a story that was largely ignored or unknown. Now, with distant transit, she has returned to poetry, but, for the first time, through the medium of her second language.

The fact that these poems were composed and published in German adds an extra layer to the themes Haderlap explores. Language and the translation of identity and self-understanding inform the poet’s reflections on home, relationships, and belonging—experiences grounded in her Slovenian culture and heritage, but examined through German and all that that language has afforded her beyond her rural roots. The tension between the two forms of expression comes through in Lewis’ perceptive translation, heightening the emotional impact of this work.

Haderlap’s poetic diction and simple, lowercase form, reward careful engagement. I found that the style encourages a close reading to follow the rhythm and the division of thoughts or sentences. Her imagery is rich, inspired by the natural beauty of her native countryside, yet filled with longing and questioning. Language is an ever present element—what does it contain, preserve and lose as one grows and moves between vocabularies and grammars? And what does it mean to be at home in any one place or community?

                                 language opens
rotted doors, thrusts the dusty boards
from their brackets, reveals the buried stone.
it flies at my face like a flock of startled
swallows, confronts me as the smell of mold,
drops from the jagged armor and
hulls of kids’ stuff like silt shed from all that was.
as soon as its bird heart beats calmly,
it shows its skin, appears unscathed and
hardly used. keep me safe, language,
wall me off against time.

(from “home”)

This collection is steeped in the landscape and mythologies of Haderlap’s Slovenian youth, carrying that foundation into adulthood in an evolving relationship with language—hoping and trusting words to carry memories forth into another time and tongue. It is an uncertain faith. Yet her poetry so vividly captures the possibilities and limitations of translation, that I would suggest that one does not need to likewise live between two languages to recognize the nature of the dilemma. Any one of us who trusts our own memories, emotions and experiences to the vagaries of words—even if in our sole language—worries those same words onto the page. The writer is always recognizing the permeability of the borders and boundaries within their own experiences, translating and transcribing themselves into being, seeking to find preservation and refuge in words. Haderlap speaks to this so acutely.

the shore path is now built up, shifted,
torn out of the meadow and discarded.
i, too, have emerged repeatedly
as a translation of myself,
transferred and rewritten
i appear in a new transcription
although in similar form.

(from “on the shore path in the evening light”)

The poems that comprise distant transit speak to a personal political reality in intimate, yet recognizable terms, echoing the transitions we all experience as we grow into adulthood, away from home and search to find ourselves in the world. More specifically and powerfully though, Haderlap animates the mystery, power and baggage that a language can carry with it, how words and sentences are laden with implications for understanding the past and the present, to articulate one’s identity as an individual torn between two tongues.

distant transit by Maja Haderlap is translated from the German by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books.

There are no roads here: Ghost Variations by John Brian King

The images are dark, indistinct, deep shadows lurk behind rock, ground and grasses caught in the harsh glare of the flash of a simple black-and-white instant film camera. The sky, if visible, holds varying shades of light. Ghost Variations by photographer, filmmaker and writer John Brian King, is an invitation to explore the nocturnal landscape of California’s Coachella Valley without a guide or obvious frame of reference.

King, whose work over the years has examined a range of topics, focusing on such themes as airports, punk scenes, horror film and crime, turns his attention, in this photobook, to a desert landscape almost completely devoid of obvious human elements. The intentionally crude method of photography leaves the possibility of presence open. There are no words to provide interpretation or orientation so the narrative—or a multitude of narratives—is left to arise within the viewer. The scenes carry mystery and a bleak beauty, while the isolation of the flash’s illumination heightens the surrounding darkness, evoking the sensation of trying to navigate an unfamiliar terrain with insufficient light.

Photographs by John Brian King, Ghost Variations, Spurl Editions, 2022

The apparent repetition of some images—or lack of distinctiveness—enhances a feeling of being lost. Some scrub here, a rising wall of rock there, a deepening shadow swallowing the edges of the scene. An empty, noncommittal sky. Anyone who has camped out in a natural area will know how radically distorted the landscape becomes in the dark. But here, of course, one never gets the opportunity to reorient by light of day—this book contains an endless night. A night and a world to disappear into.

Ghost Variations by John Brian King is forthcoming from Spurl Editions who have also published three of King’s earlier photobooks: Riviera, LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84, and Nude Reagan. 

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore (and a few words about Seagull Books for World Book Day 2022)

As I write this, it is World Book Day, April 23, 2022 and it seems the perfect time to call attention to a man who has dedicated his life to making important, challenging books available to eager readers and celebrating the book itself as a work of art, an object as delightful to look at and hold as it is to read. And now, that man, Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, has a book of his own, Knotted Grief—a collection of piercing, spare poems that turns its attention to sorrow and anguish as experienced in both national and intimate spaces.

Poetry is, for Kishore, as I understand it, the product of a daily practice of writing—of putting words to the page every day, regardless of available time or present situation. As a friend, it is a discipline he has recommended to me, rather insistently in fact, but I fear I fell off the page some time ago and am only just climbing back on. His poetry has also been shared with those around him, appearing online here and there, even arriving on occasion in my own email inbox. One could even say that poetry tends to inform and permeate his prose and his speech—as if it has become, not a vocation or an exercise so much as a way of being in the world.

Knotted Grief, coalesces around “Kashmiriyat,” an extended cycle inspired by the devastating events in Kashmir in recent years. Across 105 spare verses Kishore paints a pained portrait of violence, misery and loss. The flickering light of candles, personified shadows, cold winter winds, bloodied earth, strangled silence—images of war fold in on one another, frozen by the photographer-poet’s eye and trimmed to their bare essentials, then revisited again and again.

6
bird stripped
of sight
seeking
refuge
in a sky
full
of bullet wounds

Most of the verses are short, a handful of lines, but midway through the sequence—50, 52, 55—stretch out, with anger and desperation rising:

elsewhere the echoes
of a candle flame muffled
by fingers that knew no pain

the stone floor
beginning to feel the cold
as bare footsteps walked over its grave

like a whisper
the angel gliding past
its silhouette fighting shy of the firelight

on a clear and blue sky is heard
the song of the winter wind
utterly and completely silent

a child’s memory of the future? (from 55)

Sadly, armed conflict and occupation are not unique to any one place or time and to read this poem as war rages in Ukraine and elsewhere, the words are not in any way diluted. Rather they dig deeper, strike closer to the core. In the following sequence, “Street Full of Widows” the painful universality of the human cost of war strikes hard:

Go gather the flowers               for the wreaths
go                   from door to door
                      gathering
.                            sheets for the shrouds

 

there is no time to grieve

When, then, we might ask, is the time to grieve? Grief is a fundamental part of life and living, complex and compounded as we grow older, and this theme in its more intimate sense guides the balance of the poems in this collection. The weight of sorrow is, at times, heavy, and Kashmir still lingers in the shadows, while the interplay of memory, dreams and desires carry the later pieces in a more fanciful and uplifting direction. Throughout, an unmistakable energy lifts and carries the poetry, rising and falling in mood and intensity, the weight and balance of each line carefully measured. One might imagine that the poet’s background in stage lighting serves him well. Certainly Naveen Kishore’s deep association with theatre, literature and photography stretching back over more than four decades fuels this moving debut.

Writing about books these past few years has opened for me a network of independent publishers I might never have encountered had I continued to let the literary bestseller lists guide my fortunes. It is, I suppose, one of the small gifts of having to leave my profession earlier than planned. I bought my first Seagull Book in 2015 and made my first pilgrimage to Calcutta in 2018. I’ve been back to the city once but hope that, if all goes well—as the world conspires against us daily—I will be able to visit Naveen and the rest of the Seagull family on this, the fortieth anniversary year of operations for a publisher that believes in the power and beauty of literature.

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore is published in India by Speaking Tiger and in Australia by Gazebo Books

Love is blind too: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Lina Meruane’s compelling novel, Seeing Red, envelopes you from the first lines. The narrator, Lucina, is distraught. Sentences end mid-thought. Unfinished. A party is in full swing, only a room away, but she is suddenly alone, isolated.

I had to give myself an injection at twelve o’clock sharp but now I wouldn’t make it, because the pile of precariously balanced coats let my purse slide to the floor, because instead of stopping conscientiously, as I should have, I bent over and reached to pick it up . And a firecracker went off in my head. But it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying.

A diabetic diagnosed with a serious condition affecting her eyes, Lucina had been warned against leaning over and now one thoughtless movement has left her eyesight, her work and her normal connections to the external world threatened by a curtain of blood. What follows is a deeply internalized monologue that builds in neurotic intensity, narrated by a woman struggling against her worst fears with a rapidly diminishing reserve of dignity and grace.

Inspired by her own real-life episode of blindness, Seeing Red is not exactly an autobiographical novel. In an interview, the Chilean author and essayist explains that she began writing what she thought would be a memoir, but as the relationship with truth began to interest her less, it quickly became a piece of fiction. She was, however, keenly interested in capturing the experience of blindness as “seen” from the perspective of the unseeing person—something raw that would be in contrast to the tendency in Latin American literature to present blind characters from view of the outsider.

Set in the early 2000s, Lucina, the protagonist of Seeing Red is, like her creator, a writer (writing under the name “Lina” Meruane) who lives in New York City with her boyfriend Ignacio, an academic. Their relationship is only about six months old and they are just about to move to a new apartment when her sight starts to rapidly disappear. She faces an uncertain prognosis, and a delay before the doctor will be able to consider operating, but they are bound to one another by the intense emotion of a new romance. That’s a good thing, because Lucina will test it, especially when she flies home to Chile to visit her parents—both of whom are doctors—while Ignacio attends a conference in Argentina. He soon joins her as they to try to salvage a vacation they’d planned, one that is now restricted to Chile, primarily to her family’s Santiago home, because of her fragile condition. Relying on her memory, she guides her partner through a city he has never visited, trying at the same time to blindly negotiate an emotional minefield of complicated family dynamics and past relationships.

The narrative style cleverly enhances the increasingly unreliable nature of Lucina’s connection to the world around her. Through a series of unbroken single-paragraph sections, each two or three pages long, we are held hostage to her unseeing perspective. Thoughts unspoken race through her mind, as she imagines how those around her are reacting, picturing their expressions and adding to their words her own visualized commentary. She second guesses herself. She second guesses everyone and everything. One can only imagine how her patient partner or her aloof mother really feel as everything is channelled through Lucina’s  personal filter. Her reconstructions. Her cynical digressions. Her abruptly aborted sentences.  As readers we have to trust her descriptions which are themselves coloured by her anxieties and growing agitation.

Aren’t you dying of cold? Ignacio insisted, rubbing his hands together as if lighting a fire. I was trained to resist the damp air that was seeping into his bones. His teeth chattered. He got up from the chair and bent his legs to wake them up. He rummaged quickly in a packet of cigarettes, the match scratched my ears, and I heard him suck on the cigarette in spite of his imaginary flu. I could envision him forming fragile smoke rings that his forced cough then tore apart, his dry cough and the beaten voice of a bellyaching Galician. Winter in my Santiago made him remember winter in his own, in Compostela, and he told me again how as a boy he’d slept beside a wall that let water filter in from outside, how he’d spent his whole childhood sick, covered in rashes, his ears hardened by chilblains. He exaggerated his hardships, or invented them, all so as not to talk about our own.

The question of her relationship with Ignacio, and whether it will stand the strain, haunts Lucina. She wants to give him the freedom to decide if he would be willing to stay, even if the unthinkable happens and her sight never returns, and yet they are each terrified of being alone, lost and overwhelmed by the enormous implications that hang over them both. Conversations begin but are quickly aborted. Strange sexual urges obsess her. Once back in New York, with surgery ahead, the narrative only becomes more charged and visceral and surreal. In Megan McDowell’s excellent translation, none of the energy or intensity is lost. Lucina is a complex, difficult, thoroughly compelling character. Her story vividly demonstrates the fear of losing control, the limitations of relying on the mind’s eye and the extreme pressures a person in crisis can put on those close to them.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Deep Vellum.

The weight of emptiness: The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam

This is my life, my story: it has a lot of drama, successive doses of profound distress, and a lot of peculiarity, to the extent that I continually imagine myself a mere character in the novel, choreographed by the hand of a brilliant writer, but he overburdens me with unusual loads. I don’t mean in a literary sense—that’s for the critics—I’m talking on a human and personal level. He always puts me in the most complex scenarios, boiling over with seemingly cosmic plots, or at least in pivotal points of tearful collective historical plots, always overturning places on my head.

The narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, Akram Musallam’s metafictional meditation on loss, identity and emptiness, is at the mercy of his own pen as he endeavours to commit his own story to the page, a story which finds him at the intersection of a lineage bound by village and familial legend and a series of events that define the history of Palestine in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He is his own anti-hero, haunted by successive losses, disappearances and absences that undermine his efforts to write himself into being. The resulting novel-about-a-novel-about-loss, by turns melancholic and absurd, thus becomes a mirror of much larger questions haunting the Palestinian imagination.

Born in 1972 in Talfit, near Nablis in the West Bank, Musallam is a journalist for the Ramallah daily Al-Ayyam. The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, first published in Arabic in 2008, is his second novel, his first to be translated into English. And although its premise may sound bleak, this playful tale manages to be both sorrowful and fun to read. The magic lies in its charming and determined narrative voice.

The novel opens with a dream-like account of a night in late 1988 when our protagonist, a teenager working in a hotel across the border in Israel, has his first sexual encounter with a young woman who has a freshly tattooed scorpion at the base of her spine. At one point he asks her to stand, naked, facing the mirrored wall behind the carpeted stage in the “dance hall” where he slept each night. He traces her hips on the reflective surface with lipstick. The girl, a visitor from Paris, would leave for home the next day, disappearing from his life forever. However, she and her scorpion would begin to revisit him in his dreams, lying beside him once more. As he stroked the deep-blue design on her lower back the creature would come to life, slip off her skin and struggle to climb up the mirror to find its place between the lipstick lines drawn there. This scorpion in its desperate attempts to reclaim a perch on something that no longer exists, haunts the narrator, who adopts it as an identity for his story’s hero. “Isn’t this a novel-esque dream, or a dream of a novel?” he asks himself and the answer, he knows, is yes. Which I suppose means it’s both.

It is mid-2006 when he finally commits himself to realizing this novel-esque dream. He arrives at a parking lot in Ramallah and offers to rent a particular stall although he has no car to park there. He simply wishes to sit there, on the ground or on a plastic chair, think and maybe even write a novel. The attendant is uncertain, but the parking lot manager, a former political “prisoner” jailed for his actions during the Uprising, is smitten by the idea of hosting a writer. As the author-narrator’s story unfolds—that which we are reading and/or that which he is writing—the “prisoner” becomes his audience, his cheerleader and his challenger to the truth of the narrative as presented. But, just as real-life has dictated the narrator’s story, the liberties he takes in recording it are often the only way to begin to adequately—and safely—address the huge gaping holes that fate and history keep placing in his way.

‘Names aren’t that important, believe me, usually there are no names in my novel, haven’t you noticed that? Names are constraints for the characters and me, I don’t like them. I prefer to describe my characters according to what sets them apart. Then, my friend, you want a novelist to write “real-life things.” Listen: in order to be able to speak the truth, you have to wait for a lot of people to die; in the same way, speaking the truth may end up killing a lot of people.

The Scorpion’s earliest life memories are charged with absence. When he was very young his father lost his leg, the result of a workplace injury attended not by doctors but by construction site “first aid” of a much more basic sort. As the only child it would fall to our hero to scratch his father’s missing foot—not the stump, but the space where his foot once was. It was an early, tangible experience of emptiness and perhaps began to condition him for life in a time of conflict in a land under occupation, insofar as one can ever be prepared to have the places most important to you, your key touchstones, destroyed or irrevocably altered—to have your history erased. He would have preferred that the war would stay out of his life, but it kept intruding, driving the plot. For the narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, his connection to lost places may seem exaggerated at times due to the magical tone of his tale and his tendency to limit or avoid identifying details, but they are not only fundamental to his sense of self and his ability to tell his own story, they echo the broader collective concerns that haunt the Palestinian people.

This is, then, a deceptively quirky, light tale filled with eccentric characters and family legends woven against historical events—the Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Second Intifada, the 2002 Invasion—that is deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves to address loss and emptiness, to remind ourselves that we do exist. As the narrator insists “my game, our game is a game of stories.” It is also about the stories we can dare to tell, especially in dangerous times. So, as his own manuscript takes shape, it isn’t completely clear where the novel we are reading and the novel being written diverge, if in fact they do. The scorpion is an enigma. Who is the scorpion? The narrator or his self-protagonist? Or a dream symbol of the impossible? A scorpion that can sweat, struggling to hold on to a memory and an idea of a time, a place and a nation that holds an increasing amount of absence as time goes on.

The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam is translated by Sawad Hussain and published by Seagull Books.

Exploring the other Oxford: A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto

When we travel or relocate to a new city or country we inevitably arrive with expectations. We have an image in our minds of what it will look and feel like to be on the ground. Sometimes the preconceived experience bears a remarkable resemblance to the realized one. But sometimes reality blindsides us completely. Either way, any place we visit or live in can never experienced fully—engagement is always subjective on so many levels so that, even if you live in the same location all your life, you will only ever know a corner of it, or a series of images collected over a network of space and time.

In a sense that is the premise underlying this handsome photobook which came to me, in contrast to the title, without any expectations at all. I knew little of Oxford apart from a general awareness of the University and all the academic weight that it carries. As to any specific historical or visual detail—either about the University or the city that surrounds it—my knowledge was minimal. What intrigued me about Arturo Soto’s A Certain Logic of Expectations was the idea of experiencing the city through the eyes of a Mexican studying at Oxford during the Brexit years. I suspected he might have an interesting angle on such a storied place. I was not wrong.

Born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in 1981, Arturo Soto earned an MA in Art History from University College London and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York before completing his PhD in Fine Art at the University of Oxford. His fondness for the grittier side of urban landscapes developed early. His first photobook, In the Heat (2018) focuses on Panama, but eschews the travel brochure side of the country and turns its attention to “banal spaces that people rarely consider, partially because of their familiarity, but also because they contradict conservative notions of progress and economic growth.” The same social and aesthetic impulses guide his new work.

A journal in a shop window with the legend Start Where You Are on its cover is the perfect maxim for projects that blend photography with psychogeography. Instead of wishing to document faraway lands, photographers should consider examining their immediate surroundings first.

Oxford is a city with multiple realities. The Oxford Soto engages with through his camera lens, contains none of the esteemed features of the University. He talks about it, yes, but I have to admit that the mention of such architectural landmarks as the Radcliffe Camera, the Magdelan Tower or the Bridge of Sighs brought no immediate images to my mind. I had to google them to find out what they looked like and, even then, I would not have recognized or placed most of them before making a point of looking. Oxford, the University, exists as much as an idea as as a place. Yet I was captivated by, and remain much more interested in, the working class Oxford Soto’s images record—the brick buildings, boarded up shops, back alleys, and strangely vacant streets. They tell their own stories, but they also project a certain anonymity. (A selection of images from A Certain Logic of Expectations can be found on his website.)

Weaving a path of sorts between the two possible Oxford’s is the text. Memories, observations and anecdotes drawn from Soto’s time in the city are presented as discreet descriptive passages, with no connection to any particular image. He considers the dynamics that have formed Oxford as a city, and talks about some of the idiosyncrasies of the photographic endeavour. He records scenes and interactions he encounters on the streets and reflects on the student experience, recalling friends, romances and favourite watering holes. Some of his remembrances have a photographic quality of their own:

A friend and I spot a naked girl through a basement window on Rectory Road. She is sitting down on the bed with her back to us. The basil green sheets make me think of Modigliani, whom I associate with that color. The room is brightly lit, making it hard to understand why she has not drawn the curtains. My friend is equally fascinated by the incident, and we speculate about the situation for a while. She keeps referring to the girl as beautiful, even though we did not see her face.

Oxford, as Soto describes it, is a city constrained by its own history—a history that is actually confined to a very small geographic space. Beyond that, its ability to renew itself is limited. A distinct separation is maintained between “town” and “gown.” As a student, Soto has full access to the college he attends (but not the entire University). For residents of the city with no connection to that side of Oxford, the hallowed halls of the educational institution and the world it contains exist entirely outside their lived experience. Two solitudes.

Soto’s camera brings the otherwise unseen Oxford into focus; his crisp, clear images highlight its absolute ordinariness. To his eye, and given his own background, even its “dodgiest” neighbourhoods appear orderly. His prose passages and vignettes are precise, admittedly subjective and charged with a deadpan humour. It all came together when I learned (also on his website) that his artistic practice:

owes a great deal to the work of the French writer Georges Perec, whose fragmentary and often absurd projects offer a methodology for the study of the infraordinary, the term he coined to describe the nothingness that comprises the bulk of our lives. Perec highlighted the complexity of micro-events and banal spaces, exposing the partiality and selectivity of our attention and making us question why we grant significance to certain things while overlooking others. Perec’s writings provide a fitting analogy for documentary images, which give a realistic impression of the world while also connoting an authorial vision.

In the background throughout this project looms the tensions around Brexit. Soto is a careful observer, noting, for example, party signs pasted up in a window. Yet, as an outsider, without a vote or a particular stake in the matter, it is still impossible to remain entirely neutral. He recounts a friendship that dissolves when he learns of the other’s political leanings. There is inevitably a spark in the air that one senses when in a foreign country at a time of voting or campaigning that fuels an interest and a disconnect at once. It seeps into the memories you take away. There may be a level of discontent in the air, but as Soto reflects on returning to Mexico as his studies draw to a close, he knows he will miss the freedom and safety he enjoyed on the streets of Oxford. That comfort also seems to inform his photographs and his observations such that this Oxford, the one that defies a certain logic of expectations, is perhaps one that can only be seen by an outsider open to all its possibilities.

A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published in a limited edition by The Eriskay Connection.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

Crossing borders and defying boundaries: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Think of a story as a living being. There are countless beings and countless types of beings. Physiques, lifestyles, screams, conversations, breaths, tremblings, horns, mutenesses, ways of living and dying, all different. So running off in the middle of a story in a huff is simply not acceptable. Let it live its life, find its own denouement. A butterfly’s tale is a few days a flutter, a bee gets four weeks abuzz, a mouse drools over a handful of crumbs; if a dog lives twenty years, good for him, and yes, if you’re a parrot, turtle or elephant, you get a full century. The wretched cockroach won’t even die when fired from a cannon.

First things first, yes this story sprawls across some 700 pages, give or take, but as the above quote indicates, it has, as all stories do, its own lifeblood, its own pace, and Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, kicks up its heels, starts with bold and defiant enthusiasm, and refuses to let go from its first paragraphs to its final words—and even then it carries an advisory that no story ever really ends. Quite simply, this energetic, intelligent and engrossing novel, brilliantly translated (or is that dazzlingly transformed?) from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has the power to delight just about anyone with a pulse. Even an avowed novella devotee such as myself.

Tilted Axis, UK edition

Central, no, essential to this tale is one singular octogenarian heroine—Ma, Amma, Granny, Mata-ji, or Baji—depending on the perspective of the character (or creature) who falls into her orbit. Recently widowed as the novel opens, she spends the first, say, 175 pages or so lying in bed, defiantly turning her back to the world, ignoring the desperate entreaties of family and friends. She seems determined to remain, confined in her grief, willing herself to dissolve into the wall. Propped by her bedside is a cane, a gift of a grandson, one who engages for the most part from a distance and is thus known as Overseas Son. This collapsible cane, decorated with butterflies, is the key magical element in this oversized, yet thoroughly down-to-earth fable. What revolves and expands around Ma and her cane, is a story about borders—about women and borders we are told at the very outset—but it is also about all sorts of boundaries. Between genders (in society and within a single body and life), classes, family members, religions, nations and even between human and nonhuman communities.

Prior to her retreat from the world following the death of her husband, Ma was the typical matriarch of an upper middle-class Indian family. If there were subtle hints of a certain eccentricity, she devoted herself to the role of wife and mother, surrounded by her son, daughter, and daughter-in-law, referred to respectively as Bade, Beti and Bahu. Of the immediate family members, only the eldest grandson is known by a given name, Siddharth or Sid. The majority of the burgeoning cast however, servants, officials, Ma’s dear hirja friend have proper names of some sort—an indication that it is the core of the family that will have their prized self-identities tested the most once Ma emerges from her mourning isolation reborn, so with a fresh, almost adolescent sense of wonder and adventure.

Penguin India edition, cover illustration by translator Daisy Rockwell

However, before Ma’s new lust for life begins to assert itself, she disappears, raising all manner of panic, alarm and indignant outrage, only to turn up days later, at the police station, oddly changed, apparently confused and so much smaller than anyone remembers. Bade and Bahu are greatly relieved. He has just retired after an auspicious career in the government and will soon be moving from his official residence to a retirement flat where, as custom dictates, his mother will live and be cared for. But Ma has other plans. She intends to go home with her daughter.

Beti is, at first, pleased and surprised. She has always imagined herself as the free-spirited, bohemian member of the family. A feminist. An activist. Divorced, she lives alone in a modern flat decorated with art and stylish furniture. Her current boyfriend, KK, visits when he is not travelling. Both of them are journalists and value the ability to come and go as they please. Ma’s presence begins to upend everything Beti thinks she knows about herself, especially as Rosie Bau, Ma’s long-time hijra friend begins to spend more and more time visiting, charming everyone except Beti in the process.

The story in its second part becomes one of shifting roles and questions of identity. Bade struggles with the aimlessness of retirement, Bahu, is conflicted by her desire for individual expression and her commitment to the expectations of her place in society, and Beti by just about everything she has valued as she finds herself losing control of the world she has carefully constructed around her. She pulls away from her boyfriend. She is at once grateful for and resentful of the care and friendship Rosie offers her mother. And her work suffers as she finds herself slipping into a mothering/housewife role she had so proudly avoided. As Ma continues to shed layers of her past, to defy what others had long expected of her, her daughter acquires new, suffocating layers. One woman grows smaller as the other grows bigger, so to speak.

Finally, in the third part, Tomb of Sand enters the realm of Partition literature, heralded by an opening chapter that features a ghostly contingent of the many literary greats who have contributed to the tradition gathered at the Wagah Gate, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan where every evening a grand spectacle is held to mark the day’s end. The legendary authors and some of their iconic characters jostle for attention and much mayhem ensues, culminating with a direct, albeit invisible attack of mischief that disrupts the famed flag lowering ceremony. Of course, cellphones are duly collected by the embarrassed guards and no tangible record of the event survives. With that introduction, Ma and Beti’s adventures on the far side of the border—a border which has so bitterly divided a nation that once was one—is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected excitement, horror and heartache.

Of course, a thumbnail sketch like this hardly begins to do justice to a work like this in which the whole and its parts together create a larger-than-life experience filled with warmth, humour, and social, ecological and political commentary without skipping a beat. Ancient history and modern concerns—local, national and global—are wound together. The boisterous, omniscient third person narrative voice seamlessly drops in advice, wisdom and instructive asides along the way. There are characters we never see from the inside, Ma and Rosie in particular although they both will have their moment to speak deeply and passionately from the heart. By contrast, Bade’s and especially Beti’s tangled emotions are opened up wide. And we also cross over into the heart and mind of a crow and his community (who have some very pointed opinions on the way human creatures are fouling the planet) and are given, on occasion, the door’s eye view of the ongoing affairs because there are, after all, some things a door cannot avoid seeing. Finally, there is a guest narrator who makes several cameo appearances, a friend of Sid’s who by his own admission is not a character in this story, but happens to be on scene at the time. His brief first-person accounts stand as grounded eye witness reports of some of the more fantastic elements that others too busy with the business at hand may well have missed. This all may sound like a bit too much, but it works, the flow is smooth and swift and that the pages seem to turn of their own accord.

Then there is the language which necessarily involves a discussion of the translation. This book is liberally littered with Hindi (along with some and even a little Sanskrit) sometimes translated, obviously as with quoted poetry or, obliquely as in a clever comments like: “And no one will say, but these are good days, acche din! Except for the government, that is.” But more often than not,  Hindi words are simply worked directly into the text without any effort—or need—to explain though I will confess that as a reader with a basic Hindi vocabulary it was fun to recognize and understand them.

The original Hindi version of this book was known for its exuberant wordplay and this is where the translator’s careful attention to the spirit and the energy clearly shines. Onomatopoeia is liberally employed and generally transferrable, but the puns, layered meanings and alliteration possible in one language cannot be reproduced directly. The author and her translator established a good rapport that openly encouraged wordplay in the target language, and, as Rockwell describes in her Translator’s Note, she endeavoured to evoke an echo, a resonance, a dhwani of the source text. The result is work that embodies mood and emotion so effortlessly that even the smallest moments seem charged with life’s joys and sorrows:

No one noticed when the leaves changed the season of the heart yet again. When the monsoon was at its peak. The leaves grew fat. Hanging heavy on the trees. They hung, dripping sadness. Even when they’re quiet they hang heavy. There’s beauty in their fullness, but there’s a core of grief, dark and deep. The raga of grief in slow tempo, extremely slow, a despondent alaap, a prelude. Or is it a vilaap, a lamentation?

Finally, I want to say something of the portrayal of the hijra character Rosie who is key to the turning of the events that drive this novel. She is an independent figure, standing apart from many of the common activities that have so often defined hijra existence—begging and sex work. But that makes her an enigma and a perceived threat to Beti for all of the latter’s assumed hipness and LGBTQ-allyness. Rosie has a hold and influence on her mother that she cannot appreciate and this heightens her obsession with the hijra’s body, her otherness and the secret alliance Ma and Rosie seem to share:

What was all this topsy-turvy talk? Perhaps there was some clue to help Beti understand this topsy-turvy body. Strange how whatever one said of Rosie, the opposite was also germane. Like a body engaged in challenging all stereotypes and definitions. A body unrecognizing of the legitimacy of any borders. Flowing this way and that.

When Rosie eventually begins  to appear at times in male presentation, Beti is unable to cope with the dissonance that does not seem to bother her mother, KK or anyone else in her housing society. Yet, ultimately Rosie will be given the opportunity to take up the issue of her reality from her own perspective, as one who is not considered to exist, to be of value, to belong to anywhere. In this character, in her fabulousness and her tragedy alike, is a strong statement that I, as a legally and socially transitioned person who has crossed from one side of the gendered border to the other, can relate to. It is a recognition, not always acknowledged in fashionable transgender discourse, that we never really belong to either side. Some boundaries we carry within us forever.

Tomb of Sand is a huge novel, a story that celebrates the best of storytelling as an art form and as part of a cultural tradition.  Packed full of historical and literary figures and references, snatches of Bollywood song lyrics, and a wealth of culinary delights, it does what translated literature should do at its best: Invite the reader in, welcoming them to cross linguistic boundaries and experience a story that is filled with the scents, flavours and tones of its home country yet recognizable and relatable in the very human and global concerns it explores. Defying borders, at least for a time.

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree is translated by Daisy Rockwell and published by Tilted Axis in the UK and by Penguin in India. It has been longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, the first Hindi translation to be nominated for this award.