Words on the wind: Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig

If this has been a year of poetry for me, that is, of extending my ear to listen to the voices of contemporary poets, the greatest lesson has come in the form of an understanding that I, as a non-poet, must come to each collection with a willingness to be open to both the language and the silences a poet employs. I have also learned that poetry that leans too closely into the confessional is not as rewarding as that which reaches toward the human condition, be that political, historical or personal. And I’ve found that, like a good essay, a poem should leave space at its centre for questions and meanings to take shape, shift, and re-form. It is that space that pulls me, as a reader, back into my favourite poems, again and again.

At first blush, the work of German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig may seem deceptively simple. One could slip through quickly and miss the musicality, the odd fantastical turns, and the political undertones. Born in 1979, in a rural part of what was, at the time, East Germany, Sandig first emerged as a radical poet, posting poems on lampstands and distributing them as flyers. From the beginning she has been drawn to experimenting with the presentation and delivery of poetry, intent on opening the form to those who might be unfamiliar with or resistant to it. This has led to collaborations with musicians, and visual and sound artists on CDs, audiobooks and multimedia presentations. Her work invites the reader, or listener, into a world of familiar images and shadowy ambiguities.

Thick of It, recently released from Seagull Books, marks the first appearance of Sandig’s work in English. In her generous introduction, translator Karen Leeder, calls attention to the poet’s transformative approach to language:

Blisteringly contemporary, but with a kind of purity too; by turns comic, ironic, sceptical or nostalgic, it is also profoundly musical. The poems explore an urgently urban reality but are splintered with references to nightmares, the Bible, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, hymns, Goethe, Emily Dickinson and Kafka. Sandig abandons the traditional upper-case for sentences and end-of-line punctuation so as to exploit multiple meanings, stretches syntax, plays with idioms… and surfs on patterns of sound…

Titles at the top of pieces are uncommon, rather, the title, as such, is often woven into the poem, indicated by boldface type. As well, she frequently sets her poems in pairs that echo, reflect and undermine one another. The original title Dickicht which means “thicket”, speaks to this intertwining of meanings. Leeder extends this one step further, by bending the English title to “thick of it”.The poems in this collection, which draw heavily on images of nature—trees and birds—and movement—migration and travel—are separated into two sections “North” and “South”, set apart by the “Centre of the World” which contains a single six-line poem. Loss, and certain measured melancholy, runs through her poetry, things and people are misplaced, slipping from memory. Birds, seasons, and people are ever leaving and returning. Throughout the collection, poems often address a “you”, an other. Sometimes an intimacy is implied, but as the translator indicates, Sandig often plays the formal “Sie” against the informal “du”, a distinction lost in translation, so “you” encountered here is allowed an openness that can be understood as specific or general, individual or plural.

The first part is more firmly rooted, as much as any of these poems are ever rooted, in nature and fragments of the everyday, real and dreamed:

behind my eyes the others sit and watch
everything I see. I only see what I can see.

at night I see the marten in the porchlight
under the foxglove tree, not moving a muscle,

becoming invisible in the fading light. I see
no comets, no satellites. I see nothing but

the scrap of moon and my own reflection
in the glass…

— from “behind my eyes”

The second section, “South”, is a less clearly defined space, sometimes more fantastical—visited by ghosts, a centaur and a gardening John the Baptist—other times more personal, although that atmosphere is frequently strained. Nostalgia and sadness run deeper in this part of the world:

can you still see me? you won’t
recognize me. already we are almost
not there. were you the one who looked right
through me?
try again, hard as you can, look closely:
we were
never that pale.

— from “this photos of us”

The world evoked in Thick of It is one that expands with every return visit. Translator Karen Leeder’s enthusiasm for Sandig’s creative and performative energy is palpable—it comes through the more one reads across this collection, moving with and against its currents. Encountering it, as I have, as winter settles in and the year draws to a close has been especially fortuitous. I cannot leave this short review without a poem,  “denuded trees,” perfect for the season, that deserves to be heard in full:

when I left the afternoon was already over. straggling
children tidied themselves from the playground into the
houses. the first rockets hissed invisibly, still almost inaudible
the throb of the bass. the roadside for quite some distance
was overcast with the haze of denuded trees, they smelled

of cuckoo flowers in the woods, and dozing above them the real
clouds in the wind hole, polar light, biting ice. once a chunk
of milk glass fell to the ground in front of me. before I could
tread on it, it melted away. that’s when I finally left. after that
I forgot everything here.                          I was back by new year.

Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is published by Seagull Books.

Winter solstice 2018: From now on each day gets brighter

It seems as if each year, as I come to my customary winter solstice year-in-review post, I am looking back at another bleak year—not entirely bleak of course, but on the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, it’s easy to allow the dark days to slide into one’s imagination. Last year, I ended my post on a high note, enthusiastic about my son’s sobriety. It did not last, but a solid alcohol-free stretch is a start. I was at once cautiously optimistic and typically cynical, knowing how my life has been playing out in the recent past.

And so, yet another year of ups and downs nears an end.

2018 began with the excitement of getting ready to head to India, to spend two weeks in Kolkata. I was, I told myself, going to get some serious writing done. I gathered all of my fragments and half-finished pieces of work, backed up in the cloud, and packed a stupid number of books and too many warmer clothes “just in case”. I wrote little, read nothing, bought even more books to drag back home, and had the time of my life. If the city’s particular character overwhelmed me for the first few days, it won my heart before long. I was able to spend time at the office of Seagull Books, taught a class at their school of publishing and met Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. I had a chance to meet and spend time with friends, contacts from blogging and Twitter, reinforcing my experiences in Australia the year before—this online space can translate into real life contact, contact that sometimes builds into deeper lasting friendships. As I write this, I am looking forward to returning to India this coming February, this time for a full month, visiting  Calcutta for a week, but expanding my journey to include Kochi, Mumbai, and wherever else time and circumstance affords.

However, my failure to meet any of my, perhaps unrealistic writing ambitions during my stay in India turned out to be prophetic for the rest of 2018, especially with regard to my ability to make progress on the increasingly phantom memoirish project I keep fretting over. I’ve spent much of the year doubting the value of writing about the self at all, and then wondering what, if any, stories I have worth telling. So, apart from a few photo essays, a short poem and a handful of reviews, I’ve published no significant personal work at all. Instead, I channelled a fair amount of my writerly energy into editing for 3:AM Magazine. Admittedly there is an element of productive procrastination at play, but I truly find editing, especially for such a respected and unclassifiable journal, to be a highly rewarding activity. Over the year, I’ve had the honour of working on some really fascinating and original projects with a wide range of gifted writers.

I also had the honour of being invited to San Francisco this past summer to host an event in honour of translator Isabel Fargo Cole and the release of The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig. Meeting Isabel and having the opportunity to visit the offices of Two Lines Press and the Center for the Art of Translation was a thrill. The trip also afforded me a chance to catch up with my cousins whom I had not seen for close to forty years. Our mothers, now both gone, were sisters making this precious opportunity extra special.

On a personal level, 2018 was another year of upheaval. I have lived without income for several years, a result of a series of unanticipated  traumas and a reconsideration of what is really important at this point in my life, but well aware that this is unsustainable in the long run. So I decided to sell my house, move to a smaller, more manageable space, and invest the proceeds (just in time for markets to plummet, as would be my luck). The sale and purchase went well, but the move was devastating. My son and I made the time-honoured mistake of thinking that because we were moving less than a kilometer, we could handle most of it alone. Downsizing from a house I lived in for twenty-four years to a two-bed apartment condo was impossibly heartbreaking—especially for my son who was grieving the recent overdose death of his best friend, someone who had spent a lot of time at our home over the last dozen years—and the physical stress of trying to unload and move a quarter-century of life and living.

As I settled into my new place, an older low-rise building above an embankment of Douglas fir trees, just steps away from one of my favourite natural areas in the city, I was hopeful that the change of environment would mark a new beginning. I hoped for a fresh surge of creative energy, a renewed focus, and an opportunity to move beyond the losses and loneliness of the past few years. But, of course, when you are facing challenges deeply rooted within, your problems simply move with you.

Over the fall, as the days grew shorter, my world grew darker. I found myself feeling increasingly isolated socially and emotionally. When I did go out with others, I would come home and feel like gouging my heart out. Online I often pulled away so as not to post anything as dark as the thoughts I was harbouring. Cautiously, much of this was released in a post I published in late November, Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness. It stands as the most popular new post on my blog this year—misery loves company? I’m not sure. Ostensibly a brief essay about the difficulty of trying to address a truth of experience, however subjective, in a world—and for me that world is queer and differently gendered—that only values certain truths. The subject, hardly a new one on this blog, is still valid. But some friends heard the acute pain just beneath the surface and reached out.

I’m happy to report that my psychiatrist heard that pain too and recognized it for more than my usual seasonal blues or the lingering effects of a bad cold. To be honest I was more concerned than I dared to admit. By early December I had become so weak that I was wondering if I’d even have the energy to manage my trip to India. Yet, I was reluctant to believe that a small increase in my psych meds would help. With my doctor’s encouragement I agreed to give it a try. Within days, the pain in my arms and shoulders lifted and the world looked brighter. I celebrated the renewed energy and focus. Depression is an insidious foe, fooling you into believing it’s all your own fault. I was diagnosed bipolar in my thirties, but until recently elevated moods were my demons; serious downswings are still a new territory.

So, although the core concerns visited in my Who Am I? post still exist, the creative juices have started flowing again after almost two years in abeyance. I am reading and writing with purpose. With luck (knock on wood) it will continue for a while.

And so, at last, to my year in books.

This year was a little different. I read a lot of strong books, including a fair number that I didn’t end up reviewing, most often simply due to lack of time. However, when it came to prose—fiction and nonfiction—there were fewer standouts, whereas with poetry, I had a hard time narrowing down my favourites. Poetry was a constant and essential companion this year. At times it was the only literature that could hold my attention.

The best two books I read in 2018—and no matter what else might slip into the final days this will not change—are Esther Kinsky’s wonderfully evocative novel, River (tr. Iain Galbraith) which I reviewed for Music & Literature and Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s awesome collection of experimental poetry, Third-Millenium Heart (tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen) which I responded to experimentally and poetically at Minor Literature[s].

Beyond that, these are some of the books that I have continued to think about often since I read them:

Fiction:
Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)
The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig (tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan
Murmur by Will Eaves

Poetry:
Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun (tr. Catharine Codham)
Brink by Jill Jones
The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli (tr. John Taylor)
Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote
Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

In most parts of the planet, winter solstice is likely over, but where I am, this post makes it under the wire. Regardless, best of the season to all.

The expansive possibilities of Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote

As someone who has lived a landlocked existence with an endless sea of prairie grass stretching to the east and the high cresting waves of the Rocky Mountains rising to the west, oceans have long held an inexorable pull on my imagination. Every family holiday that brought me close to either the Atlantic or the Pacific was magic. When I was younger I was drawn to stormy seascapes, images of rugged wave-ravaged shorelines, and stories filled with high sea adventure and intrigue. Now it is something else, something quieter, more metaphysical, that possesses me. From the far shores of Vancouver Island to a lonely beach on the eastern coast of South Africa, I’ve welcomed, however briefly, the untethering afforded by the impossible emptiness expanding beyond me, and revived that longing that no river, lake or landbound body of water has ever been able to fully resolve.

And so, I come to Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote’s  astonishingly rich, endlessly engaging Jonahwhale, a collection of poetry that returns, again and again, to gather inspiration, stories and imagery from the watery depths. For Hoskote, who grew up in Goa and Bombay, proximity to the sea has been a constant, one which he admits informs his life, his awareness and his writing. But as an accomplished translator and cultural curator with a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity that extends beyond boundaries, disciplines and art forms, his work cannot be confined to any specific thematic template. His poetry welcomes a wide array of influences, follows maps and legends that navigate an extensive territory, and resounds with an eclectic musicality. The poems in this collection run from multi-voiced epics taking their cues from historical, literary, or artistic starting points, to one line aphoristic pieces and everything in between. This book has accompanied me these past six months, and yet every time I open it I discover a line, a passage, or a verse that pulls me in anew, to reread, refresh, and reconsider.

I cannot assess or review such an impressive collection, I can only respond, which is perhaps the best I can manage with any of the poetry I have read this year.

Divided into three parts, or movements, the first section, “Memoirs of the Jonahwhale” summons voices from a wealth of historical, literary, and linguistic resources, some self-evident, others detailed in the poet’s endnotes, which, I understand, reflect Hoskote’s desire to honour his scholarly self rather than an obligation to explain his allusions. Some of these notes, crafted with a curator’s attention to detail, are fascinating in themselves and may well inspire a reader’s further exploration, but, as one would hope, context, background, and intertextual sources simply enrich the reading experience. They are not essential to the appreciation of the rhythms, images and intensity of his poetry.

A strong musical sensibility underscores the entire collection, and here Hoskote draws on an abiding interest in modern avant-garde music—composers like Brian Eno, Terry Reilly, and Steve Reich—a passion rekindled for me in recent years. It is, then, not surprising that my favourite piece is “Baldachin”. In memoriam Bruce Conner, the American filmmaker whose masterwork Crossroads combines classified footage of nuclear weapon tests with an eerily sublime soundtrack by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleason, the poem also incorporates the looped trigger line of Steve Reich’s Cuban Missile Crisis inspired composition “It’s Gonna Rain”. The result is an extended prose/verse piece that pulses with the energy of an impending storm:

You are the company the name is you poisoner you cannot pretend you cannot hide you cannot swim in these neon currents I am become Death the destroyer of worlds this ocean one open mouth swallowing islands this art of making things disappear in a glow that throbs in the eye that cannot sleep this frame that’s come apart leached the colour from every drifting current this voice that shakes the continents no earthly thing trembles on its breath this baldachin of milk-white smoke has nothing to hide no crystal globe no night of mean knives no shallows no depths all ploughed bare all punctured all furrowed It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain

Beyond the sheer scope and wealth of Hoskote’s poetic vision, it is his keen sensitivity to rhythm, pacing, and visual space—the music and the architecture of a poem—that makes this collection so impressive, so endlessly engaging. If the first section contains some of the most ambitious epic offerings, complete with choral arrangements and refrains, the ten-part poem “Poona Traffic Shots”, which forms the second part, stands as sort of land-bound counterpoint tracing a cycle of rain-soaked ground voyages through countryside and memory, that calls back to the sea in its imagery:

The kick-starter has whooping cough, won’t purr.
.       A dead crow’s beak
points from the trash heap like the tip of a schooner
.       sunk in a shallow bay, a bruise
at first only grazed, then scooped by nautical furies
.       from the coast’s offered skin.

Moving into the final section, “Archipelago”,  the tone turns more intimate, not personal as these are not explicitly autobiographical or confessional poems, but smaller, sometimes quieter more focused, often inspired by art or classical themes. Like finely imagined poetic miniatures echoing history, the unforgiving beauty of nature and, as ever, rarely far from the water.

If literature can evoke a sensation so undefinable and expansive as that which I feel at the ocean’s edge, this wise and elegant collection comes close.

Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote is published by Penguin India.

 

 

 

It is difficult to imagine what can’t be described: The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza

That, with time, I had become accustomed to the hollow moments of an investigation is true. There are hours, days even, sometimes months or years when nothing happens. Those are the gaps in an investigation. In other words, those moments are life. The detective who wins a case, who solves it, is usually the one weathers those lapses. Resources are needed, of course. But above all, you need patience, that rare gift; or you need something else to think about—a certain capacity for distraction. You need a place inside yourself, your own language where you can hide. You need a refuge, yes. Any refuge.

The work of Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza is, I would suggest, best entered with as scant a road map as possible. I cast no more than a passing glance at any reviews of The Taiga Syndrome, before venturing into the intoxicating and unsettling environment of this, her latest release in English translation. Not that her books can be given away in any straightforward terms, but to lose oneself in the oddly off-centre worlds she creates is the true pleasure of reading her fiction. So much so that, you might find yourself dragging your readerly feet to prolong your sojourn through the pages of this slender volume.

What, then, can one say by way of review? This is the same dilemma I faced when I sat down to write about her novel, The Iliac Crest, which came out last year.

The Taiga Syndrome, a subtle twist on the Latin American detective novel is, in a sense, less of a mystery and more of an dreamlike exercise in mysteriousness. The unnamed narrator is a detective who, with a string of unsuccessfully resolved cases behind her, has taken to writing noir novellas under a pseudonym. When she is approached by a man who wants her to find his second wife and bring her back to him, she almost dismisses the case as dull and hopeless. The man’s wife has disappeared, in the company of another man, into an area known as the Taiga, but the fact that she has been sending missives—telegrams from far off locations—like a trail of bread crumbs to mark a path, have led her husband to believe that she wants to be found. For our enigmatic protagonist there is something almost sensible emanating from the creased paper of the telegrams themselves that inspires her to accept the assignment. The same empathetic curiosity will guide her on her journey into the anomalous environment of the Taiga.

Exactly where this region is located is never made explicit, but clearly it is distant, vast and remote. The presence of tundra and boreal forest suggest it lies to the north. The “syndrome,” distinct to the area, is a condition that sometimes strikes certain inhabitants who “begin to suffer terrible anxiety attacks and make suicidal attempts to escape.” Has that been the fate of the missing woman and her companion? Of course, in a place subject to its own strange rules and customs, norms are difficult to assess. Thus, this is a book about translation—of ideas and culture—the narrator and the translator she has secured to guide her into the Taiga are forced to communicate in a common language, one which is native to neither one of them, a “third space.” Translation creates distance. The reports of local residents have to be interpreted. Bizarre events defy explanation. And the faraway coastal city where a client awaits news of his second wife becomes increasingly vague and unimaginable.

The real magic of The Taiga Syndrome is carried through the wonderful, uncommon narrative voice. As she attempts to understand the circumstances surrounding the couple who had, for a time stayed near a village on the border of the Taiga, the narrator’s engagement with the space and the people in it—the translator, their informants, a feral adolescent, the trees of the forest—is sensual, reflective but not judgemental. Open to experience. Noting her “morbid” fascination with the wild boy who has emerged from the woods, she asks:

Who can resist observing the original body? A body without a social context? And as the minutes passed, I was also excited, no doubt, by my own incomprehension. I could never understand something like this, I told myself several times. I said it exactly like that: “I could never understand something like this.” But I couldn’t stop looking at him, fascinated, perhaps even bewitched or hypnotized by his thin figure, his exhaustion. Did he see me then, not by looking but by chance, not by directing his gaze my way intentionally but by letting his eyes clumsily meet mine? Something like that, yes. An arrow plunged into the left shoulder. A hole. And suddenly that moment produced the window. And the window produced the spectator. And those three elements together made the romance real. The passion. Someone longed for a freedom that was really an infernal abyss. Someone placed hands, now motionless, on the window. Someone who wanted to escape but couldn’t escape and could only watch.

Acutely sensitive to others, to the small details of their appearances and gestures, she finds in their words and actions, or her impressions of their words and actions, an ambiguity. Her experiences, her observations, the increasingly abstracted report she is keeping for the man who hired her are seemingly indirect—distorted in transmission and reception—but she trusts in her truths, as she typically responds when those around her ask a question: “I told him the truth. I told him yes.”

But what is she really telling us?

The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, and published by the Dorothy Project.

 

 

Rivers and railways and portals to other ways of being: The Little Book of Passage by Franca Mancinelli

Here’s the river which widens my gaze, which flows through my forehead. Each time I await it. I know when it’s coming because the rails make a different noise on the bridge. Next to my seat is a small suitcase. I packed it, knowing I was leaving.

from Ecco il fiume the mi allarga lo sguardo/Here’s the river which widens my gaze

The flow of time, seasons, energy. Movement through space, life and form. Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of PassageLibretto di transito—begins with what appears to be an evocation of the minute rituals of travel: the suitcase packing, the waiting , riding a train, walking along a river. But the journey soon becomes one that spirals through intimate encounters with the domestic and the natural, reaching toward an internal, essential experienced reality. This small, dual language Italian/English collection of brief, fragmentary prose poems contains, within thirty-three brief one or two paragraph pieces, subtly toned, ever shifting passages that extend beyond the horizon of the printed page.

In his introduction, translator John Taylor offers a perfect illustration of the ineffable quality of this work:

As in her verse poetry, which similarly points to silence as it sketches moods, daydreams, and fantasies set amid carefully observed daily scenes, Mancinelli’s short prose revolves around unvoiced centers and disturbing causes which cannot be wholly defined yet which have come to the surface, as it were. As the reader meditates on them, they reveal their intricacy and mystery. That is, wordless centers full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and even unimaginable acts—those pertaining, for instance, to the loss or lack of something or someone essential.

This is easy to acknowledge a priori; in the reading, rereading, and returning once again we are increasingly aware of the unsettling and exhilarating otherness at the heart of all that we know or think we know in the act of being and engaging with the world.

Mancinelli’s language is characterized by an exactness, pointing to the simplest of acts and the most fundamental relationships, and yet the angle of perspective shifts. The poetic voice slides from “I” to “you”, sometimes reaching toward another, sometimes reflecting back to the speaker. Other pieces take the first person plural, the speaker and another perhaps, lover or child, or a more open and general “we”? Both or neither? No matter, the effect is one of blurring distinctions and encompassing the reader in the flow of images.

Nature is vital. It absorbs and infiltrates all that we are and what we do in her vision. The most basic everyday task becomes a transformative experience:

I force myself to put on clothes, shoes. I still grow in the darkness, like a plant drinking from dark soil. Getting dressed demands losing the branches extending into sleep, their most tender leaves open. You can suddenly feel them falling like an unexpected winter. At the same time you also lose the tail and the wings you had. You feel it happening somewhere in your body.

—from “Indosso e calzo ogni mattina/As if I always had another number, another size”

There is a restlessness, a yearning in these poems. Movement, travel, transience. But to where or to what, even the poet seems uncertain. Or content to leave connections unresolved. The precision of her prose casts sideways glances at implied, inferred, unspeakable sensations. And in the grasping for a language, a  grammar, to touch this point where tangible meets intangible, the threshold of the physical and the mental or spiritual, her imagery grows more dreamlike, more abstracted:

The fault line is inside you, it is widening. A chilly gust of wind blows through your ribs and is decomposing you. You no longer have an ear. Your neck has vanished. Between one shoulder and the other one opens a darkness peopled with shivers, with voices calling out from branch to branch, on a sheer slope uncrossed by human steps. (87)

—from “Nel tuo petto c’è una piccolo faglia/There is a small fault line in your chest”

Life is a series of passages. Arrivals, leavings and transitions. We often make allusions to one kind, even a profound passage like birth or death, to speak to another. This series of delicate poetic prose pieces invites you hold each one, like a shard of glass, and allow it to refract and distort reflected light and meaning.

Italian poet Franca Mancinelli is the author of two previous collections of verse poetry. The Little Book of Passages, translated by John Taylor and published  by The Bitter Oleander Press, represents the first appearance of her work in English.

Suspended in time: The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani

Although there was a time when I would read occasional police procedurals, somewhat like a palate cleanser between what I might called “more serious” reads, my reading focus has shifted over the past decade or so and, consequently, it’s been a long time since I picked up a crime novel as much for lack of time than anything. However, when The Nameless Day by German writer Friedrich Ani arrived at my home wrapped in a stunning Sunandini Banerjee-designed dustjacket, I thought that, after so long, it might be a refreshing change of pace. What I found was slower-paced, more character driven, less solution focused read than I might have expected and, in my case, it was a good fit.

Recently retired, police detective Jakob Franck is looking forward to settling into an existence that will, he hopes, no longer be haunted by the mournful presence of ghostly visitors from the past challenging him with their unresolved secrets. Instead, he is unexpectedly contacted by a living herald of a case he had not directly investigated but had never forgotten. Twenty years earlier he had been charged to deliver to a family the news that their seventeen year-old daughter had been found hanging from a tree in the park. This particular task, the bearing of unbearably painful news, had become one that Franck seemed to excel at and so he had agreed to make the call. Only the mother was home. As she registered the news, Doris Winther collapsed into the arms of the detective and he ended up holding her, just inside the doorway, for seven long hours. The sort of unprecedented, irregular occurrence that leaves its mark. A little more than a year later, mother would follow daughter, recreating the act in the yard of the family home. Both deaths were declared suicides.

Suddenly, after two decades, Ludwig Winther, widow and bereaved father, re-enters Franck’s life clinging to a desperate conviction that his daughter was in fact murdered. He beseeches the former detective to have a look at the matter just one more time. Old habits die hard, Franck’s professional instincts are readily aroused:

Once again Franck caught himself thinking like an interrogator with only the admissible conclusion of an investigation in mind. But the man sitting in front of him, broken and bent by the leaden emptiness of his life, was no witness, he was a relative, a surviving dependent, the father of a daughter, the husband of a woman who had also hung herself and left behind a man who ever since had been wandering through the cages of his questions.

What unfolds is a re-awakening of memories, Franck’s own and those of the various people he contacts as he moves through a re-examination of those who knew Esther Winther—her classmates, her maternal aunt in Berlin, family friends, and neighbours. The narrative holds close to his perspective, and that of her diminished father, who, having been informally held responsible for his daughter’s and his wife’s deaths, has been reduced to living in an attic flat and working as a part-time delivery driver. Both men are in their sixties, divorced and widowed, and they have each chosen to remain unattached, but their loneliness is palatable. Around them the varied secondary and peripheral characters also echo various degrees of emotional isolation, grief and guilt linked back to either Esther’s unexplained suicide or to their own private tragedies. The world Ani so skillfully brings to life is not a happy one; the depth of family trauma reverberating throughout:

The silence, Franck thought, had driven that family into an inner and unsurmountable homelessness. The time to make a wish had never arrived for any of them; not even, he thought, looking towards the door again—no sound came from the other room—for Winther’s sister-in-law in Berlin. Inge Rigah had escaped the approaching shadow in her family’s world rather early, but in the place she had freely chosen to go she had instead become a prisoner of her dream, which she refused to realize or allowed only to remain as a sketch. In Esther she saw herself as a free spirit that no one could cage; and so, after her niece’s death, all that was left was the wrinkled anger she had carried around from the very first time she ever met Ludwig Winther.

As Franck works his way through the circle of connected individuals, concerns and accusations routinely circle back to the very man who initiated the reinvestigation of his daughter’s death. If not entirely sympathetic, Ludwig Winther is the tragic victim here. He had wanted to provide a good life for his family and in the end he lost everything—his daughter, his wife, his career, and his home. He became the focal point of anger and blame, accused of being inadequate at the very least, of rumoured unspeakable acts at the worst. Twice bereaved he was never granted the respect and space to grieve. His wife, sister-in-law, his daughter’s classmates all believed that he was directly or indirectly responsible for driving Esther to the point of no return. After twenty years, a small and defeated man, his attempt to find closure by proving to himself, at the very least, that fault belonged to someone else.

Whether anyone will find closure at the end of The Nameless Day is debatable. For some crime fiction readers that may be less than fully rewarding. For me, the questions that arise from the facts that we do learn are far more fascinating for the lack of resolution, for fate, and for the things we can never know. The dead may come to visit, but they tend to keep their secrets to themselves.

In the end, The Nameless Day is a satisfying, psychologically engaging read. Translated by Alexander Booth, the language is rich and poetic, and Ani’s willingness to leave room for what is unspeakable, unknowable and unsettled makes this a novel that will potentially appeal to a wide audience.

The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani is published by Seagull Books.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.

Nameless, neutered and neurotic: The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig

Over the past four years, five works by German author Wolfgang Hilbig have appeared in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid, evocative translations, each release bringing the late writer—always a literary outsider in life—an expanded following. The most recent offering, the fourth from Two Lines Press is the earliest, chronologically speaking. Originally published in 1987, The Females is an unrepentant portrait of a man burdened by a deeply and darkly distorted sense of shame and self-loathing. Classic Hilbig protagonist on one level, yet embryonic relative to the more abstract introspective narrators who move through many of his subsequent works.

This novella is set, like so much of Hilbig’s fiction, in a small industrial community in postwar East Germany. The narrator is, by his own description, a rather foul and socially inept misfit, a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother and harbours a troubled and seemingly stunted adolescent notion of women. He is not simply unnamed, but acutely aware of having been rendered nameless. Within the context of Hilbig’s shorter works this story is more explicit in its anger toward the state with its control of desire, creative and sexual. The recent history of his country, the ruins of war and the politics of the National Socialism, looms large. The imagery is gritty, coarse and vulgar, but the narrator’s desperate search for identity lends him a level of sympathy. He feels ashamed at his own corruption—especially a youthful turn at pornography, yet feels neutered and powerless. In the bluntness of its  approach, The Females seems somewhat less refined than Old Rendering Plant and the Tidings of the Trees which follow several years later, but having this earlier work published in English at this point allows readers familiar with his oeuvre to see developmental themes at play.

True to form, this is an absorbing, compulsive read, one that slips regularly into a nausea-inducing, full-frontal assault on the senses. The opening passages are fair warning. The protagonist is working at a pressing shop in a former munitions factory. The shop floor is entirely staffed by women and, confined to a dank basement room, his task is to clean the molds. From his subterranean vantage point he watches the women work the machinery:

Through the grating above me, damp, smoldering heat flooded down with steady force. I sat on a chair beneath the grate amid this hot tide, hidden in semidarkness, several bottles of beer by my chair; when I drank the beer seemed to gush instantly from all my pores, lukewarm, not even changing temperature inside my body. It was ceaseless strain—my head constantly tilted back—to stare through the grate into the light, always hoping to see the women up there step across the bars.

He obsesses over every movement the women make, sexualizing the physical routine of the manufacturing activity, longing for a fleeting taste of femininity, and masturbating in his gloomy enclosure. Needless to say, he is employed on borrowed time. “I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness,” he tells us, one that is characteristically “utterly excessive; an agony not quite human, it was no longer that of an animal either.” Dismissed from his job, he takes to wandering the streets at night and notices, that something has suddenly been drained from the atmosphere. As an aspiring writer, the only vocation he has ever truly desired despite the disdain this ambition evoked in his family and society alike, he had once been able to look at the dismal world around him and, as he puts it, “make the filth glitter”. Now, either in reality or in his madness, his environment had been altered.

Much to his dismay, he becomes convinced of a most horrifying truth:

It was no help at all to sense I was possessed by an obsession, in my overpotent head a cascade of letters blazed: all the females had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity.—Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use; I thought I suddenly noticed people in town referring to trash cans as der Kübel instead of die Tonne. When I saw those trash cans from afar, set up in long rows along the curbs that summer—something unlikely to change, as the trash collection service was still more dysfunctional then than in the winter—at first I’d think a line of unshapely females was loitering there, dully iridescent in the bluish streetlights, and I’d hurry toward them. I’d realize they were just the trash cans I saw every night, from their gaping orifices hung rubbish that looked hairy, that had an undefinable evil about it.

His desperate, guilt-ridden efforts to make sense of this situation, to set it right somehow, drives the nonlinear, obsessive, self-deprecating and bitter narrative of The Females. Some of the imagery is harsh, off-putting, and sexist. In his defence the protagonist blames the psychopathology of the state under which he was raised, one in which “the sex drive was declared to be abnormal…and sex to be capitalistic”. He clearly has had no real, substantial and healthy relationships with women. He wants to be loved, longs for normal human contact, but fears that his anxious desire will drive others away, that as his desperation becomes evident, he grows increasingly hideous—“A monster with putrefaction written in the crannies of its skin as hectic red blotches, with uric acid drying and itching on its pate, a madness no longer stoppable as damp tufts of hair began painlessly detaching themselves.” His frustration is redirected back at women—his mother included—and it his inability to conform to the expectations of those around him. To see the world as he is supposed to see it.

At the core of this novella lies a crisis of masculinity. Hilbig, like many of his generation grew up fatherless. His father had disappeared at Stalingrad and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. His characters often struggle with the rigid expectations of manhood in their closed society. As men who are naturally drawn to creative pursuits, they react against the predetermined factory life by trying to find their missing role models among the social outcasts—garbage men or the workers at a rendering plant. In the world Hilbig presents in The Females, the State is the all-powerful progenitor, women are brutish and masculine, men are soft and delicate, psychologically castrated. His protagonist is criticized by his family for failing to live up to an ideal set by his father, though it is not clear that his father is more than a myth he has no real memory of. He is seeking an absolution through the women who have controlled, avoided and now eluded him, longing to heal a wound with roots, ultimately, deep in childhood memory and buried national history. He chooses to work in a factory staffed by females to try to be near their presence and feels cut off from a vital reality when he is cast out. In the shadowy depths of the town’s laneways he is searching for a feminine presence which he can only vaguely remember, distrusting his imagination and distorting reality into misplaced freakish phallic and vaginal imagery.

His is a strange, and strangely fascinating existential pursuit. “The world outside my window,” he is inclined to tell himself, “lacks the gaze that is mine”:

But I’d had to realize that I was no one.—I didn’t know whether I existed; the fact of my birth had been kept secret from me. They kept it secret to punish me, for I hadn’t turned out to be the thing they’d hope to bestow upon the world. Yes, I’d made the mistake of having myself be born, having myself be raised by the state and its pedagogy, by pedagogy and its state—I’d practically volunteered for it—but then I turned out differently. And so I had to be nullified, voided; there was neither a womb nor a pedagogy nor a state for the creature I’d become. I didn’t even have a name to lay claim to.

The Females is a challenging read in today’s climate of gender sensitivity. But emerging at a time when Germany was still divided (though Hilbig was by this time already living in west Berlin), its message’s bold, brutal delivery possibly reflects a more immediate frustration. Either way, it is a powerful short work that takes no prisoners.

Deftly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig is published by Two Lines Press.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.