Easing back into reading

As soon as I was coming around a few days after my recent near death encounter (and I don’t mean that in any mystical tunnel of light sort of way) I told my kids that I wanted them to bring me books. I could barely stay alert long enough to get an entire sentence out but I wanted books. They obliged me. Wisely I asked for one of the few books on my shelves which might count as a mystery – Lost Ground by South African author Michiel Heyns – which has proved to be fine company indeed though I have only been able to read attentively for a few days now. They also brought along one of my endless stream of incoming purchases, a gem from Twisted Spoon chosen for Women in Translation Month – Primeval and Other Times by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. A surreal and fantastic work it looks good but I may have to push it a little further down the month. Reading is tough work after cardiac arrest. Go figure.

Now that I am at home, facing three blood tests each week and a host of other medical appointments all over the city when I have been told I can’t drive for 6 months, I find myself reading and re-reading my discharge report. I am living on warfarin – rat poison – afraid of bleeding too much or worse, clotting too easily and having a stroke. The devious little pulmonary embolism that triggered this whole adventure (a likely souvenir of a hellish 24 hours of flight time packed tightly into 28 hours on my recent return from Cape Town) is still sitting in my lung and will, they say, eventually be absorbed. My left leg is swollen and bruised due to a hematoma, a probable complication of the resuscitation process. I watch people jogging by outside on this hot summer day and feel like some sort of Frankenstein creature, dragging this heavy black and blue leg around.

Even though my friends have been amazing – I had a steady stream of visitors throughout my hospital stay and have no shortage of offers for rides around town – I feel a despair settling in. I don’t know where to turn, where to dig into the towers of books surrounding me. I wonder what would have happened had I slipped off this mortal coil two weeks ago. What would my family say about all these books on which I have squandered my limited funds? For heaven’s sake my open shelved coffee table loaded with books and stacks of journals – Granta, Paris Review, Music & Literature – came apart when the paramedics tried to pull it out of the way. I feel overwhelmed rather than excited about diving in to all the new books I have acquired in the past month. I had to buy an extra bag, after all, to get my haul of books home from South Africa and now they too sit on the shelf taunting me.

Will the magic of reading come back with my health?

2015-08-09 17.37.38I have also wondered if this experience is that final kick in the behind that I need to get serious about my own writing. I’m in my mid-50s. I’m not getting younger. Coincidentally while in the hospital I signed my first contract for the publication of an essay in a book coming out next Spring. It is a niche project – a collection aimed at gay, bisexual and transgender men – but my first professional publication credit all the same. So how much life with all its mess, joy and agony does one have to drag his or her sorry self through before there is enough fodder for a story? I wrote throughout my youth, being a writer was always my dream, a strength in every course I completed in university and every job I have ever held. But when it came down to creative writing I always insisted that I had to live a little first.

At this moment I feel that I lived so much that I don’t know where to begin. And now I have almost died too.

Last season in paradise: Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren

1951. In an apartment on the Rue Delta in Alexandria, a young boy plays a game to wile the hours away, recording and cataloging the makes and license plate numbers of the cars that pass on the street below. Inside, his mother, grandmother and an assortment of matrons gather and gossip over a game of rummy. Tourists flock to the city, to the beaches and warm waters. A rich mixture of languages play across the tongues of residents and visitors alike. But on the ground tensions are building, political frustrations run deep, threatening to fracture the tentative ties that have bound Muslims, Jews and Christians in this cosmopolitan playground. For thousands of families clinging to a fragile petit bourgeois existence, this may be one of the last glorious seasons of romance, horse racing and cool drinks served by discreet and obliging servants.

“True, Alexandria was rotten to the core, but its rot had roots, was saturated in history. Dig deep through the muck and you’ll find the remnants of a crumbling papyrus, or a lock of hair from the shrunken head of a mummy. Something is rotten, truly rotten in the kingdom of Alexandria. That’s why I love her so much, Alexandria. A city that lets you live like a carefree lord without even being rich. Of course you had to be European, or at least Jewish, and of minimal intelligence, and even that wasn’t always a staunch demand.”

GorenFrom the opening pages of Alexandrian Summer, the newly translated novel by Israeli author Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, the author’s deep affection for the city in which he spent the early years of his life is unmistakable. His narrator makes it clear that the story he is about to share is, in fact, his own. He is that 10 year old boy watching the cars pass. But he debates how best to tell the tale, admitting that he is looking back with the perspective and wisdom of an adult. First person, third person, real names, fictitious identites with the standard disclaimer? He opts to shift his focal length, like a photographer adjusting the depth of field of his lens, moving in and out of a series of scenes that collectively recount the visit of the Hamid-Alis, family friends from Cairo, who have come to spend the summer. Young Robby does not know it at the time but by the winter his family will leave for Israel. It is his mature self who is able to look back and sift through the events of his final summer in this magical city. Through Robby and a colourful canvas of characters – immediate family, extended family, friends and neighbours – he unfolds a story that is at once intimate and personal, and part of a broader political sea change.

From the moment that the Hamid-Alis pull up in their Topolino, an aura of glamour descends on the apartment on the Rue Delta. The father Joseph, a small man with his characteristic fez, is a former jockey who tasted fame and glory until the sudden and tragic death of his beloved mare. But rumours persist that, in his Turkish blood is a Muslim past that he abandoned to convert to Judaism when he fell in love with Emilie, his full bodied and patient wife. David Hamid-Ali, their 17 year-old son, is a perfectly pressed and groomed specimen of athleticism, a rising star on the horse racing circuit who has been groomed to take on his father’s sport. But the dedication is dependent on a strict diet to combat the tendency to weight gain inherited from his mother. And the one true desire of his heart, Robby’s older sister, is playing with his emotions. Finally the youngest son, 11 year-old Victor, is overlooked by his parents, subject to frequent pummeling at the hands of his older brother and, thus neglected, he occupies himself by engaging in sexual play with Robby and his friends. By the time they climb back into the Topolino to return to Cairo, the Hamid-Ali family will be reduced, weakened and irrevocably changed. Before long Egypt and Alexandria will also undergo a revolution.

By evoking small snapshots of the emotions, interactions, observations and events of this steamy summer, Gormezano Goren paints a heartbreaking and tender portrait of family dynamics complete with his own “Greek chorus” of rummy playing matrons. At the core of this story is the racetrack rivalry between David and the lightening fast Muslim jockey Al-Tal’ooni. Although he triumphs in the first race of the season, David’s loss in the second begins a series of conflicts between father and son, and spiraling self doubts and depression in the aging Joseph. Against the backdrop of a legendary city at a moment when the life that the Jewish and other European residents is about to unravel and dissolve, this one last summer blends the nostalgia of childhood with the disillusion of age to create a timeless tale, beautiful and sad.

Originally published in Hebrew in 1978, Gormezano Goren worked closely with translator Yardenne Greenspan to prepare this first English edition. In an interesting essay on Lit Hub, he recounts the challenges of preserving the polyglot quality of discourse in Alexandria and the value of being able to revisit the original text after so much time. Alexandrian Summer is published by New Vessel Press.

Ireland in the imperfect tense – Past Habitual: Stories by Alf MacLochlainn

A short story collection can be a curious beast, for the reader who may have a defined expectation about structure and form and for the reviewer who endeavours to capture the encounter with a writer who embraces and defies form as it pleases him. Having emerged from Past Habitual, the newly released collection of stories by Irish writer Alf MacLochlainn, the most helpful advice I can offer is: prepare to encounter narratives that will, at times, ramble and diverge into detailed accounts of practical matters: the treatment of scarlet fever, the options for constructing toilet facilities, the systemic way to approach the assessment of a corpse, the history and development of the stereoscope and more, but if one surrenders to the voices of the narrators, imagining a story recounted over a pint, such excursions prove remarkably compelling and, more often than not, fall imaginatively within the broader arc of the story unfolding around it.

pastThat is not to say that each of the twelve stories in Past Habitual follows the same formula – far from it. There are more traditional stories – “A stitch in time”, Demolition of a gnome-house”, “Why dd I volunteer to kill the kittens?” – that explore with a striking sensitivity, a budding love affair, a boy’s creation of a cardboard house in the garden as a symbolic retreat from the tensions inside his real house, a young man’s clumsy effort to impress his girlfriend and it’s disastrous outcome. His narratives are, however, frequently more complicated and sometimes very experimental in form and varied in style. Yet his keen ear and eye for the tenderness and brutality of human interaction surfaces throughout.

My preference often favoured the more unconventional narratives such as “Dot-and-carry-on” in which the segments of the story are offered as a series of linked dots connecting scenes like a child’s drawing activity as the narrator ties together key events in his personal and family history reaching back to the Easter Week rising and forward to a curious encounter with a Nazi spy living in the officially neutral Ireland during the Second World War. “Imagined monologues at a college function yield some explanation of the survival of the fittest” is, as the title suggests, a flow of conversational fragments that captures latent biases and prejudices that were not uncommon among mid-century intellectuals.

Born in Dublin in 1926, MacLochlainn was a career librarian. He has published a previous story collection and a novella. His stories extend a broad sweep across 20th century Ireland, from the Easter Rising, through the Second World War, to the political upheavals that have marked more recent times. Some stories are set against the backdrop of WWII, while others explore the role of memory in shaping and distorting the communal folklore within which pivotal events are recorded, remembered and passed on. As the sergeant instructing officers on the careful and appropriate use of a newly arrived shredder in one the most wonderfully inventive stories warns:

“without that evidential support, Guard, are we not entirely dependent on memory? And memory can be so fallible, can it not? – Or perhaps in some cases I should call it imagination…”

In Past Habitual, MacLochlainn skillfully blends remembrances, facts and imagination to offer a collection that surprises, challenges and delights. This recent release from Dalkey Archive Press is part of their Irish Literature Series.

Variations on a tragedy: Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska

The longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare began on April 5, 1992 when Bosnian Serb nationalists surrounded Sarajevo. The assault would last for 1,425 days, almost four years. Inside the blockaded city, citizens tried to pull together as their city was bombarded with mortars and artillery fire, cut off from access to food, power and communication. Families were driven from their homes, faced the real possibility of detention, rape, torture and slaughter. And yet, in small corners of daily life, small embers of humanity were kindled and nurtured. Death in the Museum of Modern Art is a testament to the fragility and the resilience of the ordinary people trapped in the city, an evocation of beauty in the face of unspeakable horror.

museumThis slim collection of six short stories by Bosnian writer Alma Lazarevska reads like a quiet musical meditation, a set of variations on a theme. Most of the stories are narrated by an unnamed woman, married, usually with a single child, a boy. The stories are imbued with a quiet humanness that is as comforting as the death and destruction that surrounds the characters is terrifying. To those of us who can only faintly imagine what it must be like to endure such conditions the effect is startling.

There is not a weak entry in this collection and despite the themes that do recur (in fact at times I wondered if the same family was at the core of some of the stories) each tale shines a light on a different angle of the experience of the residents of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

As a parent myself I was especially moved by the story “Greetings from the Besieged City”. Framed through a series of imagined picture postcard scenes this is a meditation on the desperate desire for a happy ending despite the awareness that in literature as in life, happy endings are elusive. While the knowledge of this truth drives a former classmate of the narrator mad, she herself tries to protect her own son from fictional unhappiness by changing the ending of the book she reads to him, The Seville Fan, a love story in which the hero dies:

“And so Pablo succeeded in not dying, which he was, after all, not accustomed to. Because, when I exhaled and put the closed book down, in its printed pages he was still dead. As I was pronouncing the sentences that were not in the book, it seemed to me that, for the first time in our reading sessions, our boy turned his eyes away from their fixed point. He glanced suspiciously at the book then at my face. A pedagogue would say that he was beginning to get used to the fact that parents tell lies. Or that they become accustomed to sentiment!”

The mother is conflicted by her need to prepare her child for the reality of death – of unhappy endings – and the desire to protect. But when “red-hot balls” start to fall on the besieged city, instantly transforming “human bodies into bloody heaps of flesh” the effort to create some variation of a picture postcard greeting against a landscape of horror is increasingly distorted. The impact is deeply unsettling, yet poignantly human.

The siege is a persistent presence in these tales. It drives the tenants of an apartment block from the odd niceties of shared accommodation to huddle in the basement in fear, or to flee the city if possible, in “Thirst in Number Nine”. The superstitious belief that each used match is a saved soul, leads a couple to use and collect precious matches to light cigarettes, rather than the candle that is equally vital in “How We Killed the Sailor”. This represents a perverse and symbolic luxury as civilian casualties mount around them. The wife wonders about these souls they pretend to protect as each day new faces grace the obituary pages of the paper: “Do they know that there is a besieged city somewhere in the world with the saviours of their souls in it?”

The title story “Death in the Museum of Modern Art”, features a narrator who muses on her involvement in a curious project. Bound for publication in a glossy magazine and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, photographs of 100 inhabitants of Sarajevo are to be paired with their answers to a survey which includes the haunting question: How would you like to die? In a besieged city how does one begin to answer a question like that?

Upon its publication, this collection received the “Best Book” award from the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzogovnia. In this lovely edition from Istros Books, the translator, Celia Hawkesworth, brings the gentle and shocking power of Lazarevska’s unique voice to life. I am extraordinarily grateful to Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the editor of the wonderful Istros Books for selecting and passing this moving, haunting collection on to me. I can recommend it without reservation, these are stories that need to be read. After all, the Bosnian War only came to an end twenty years ago later this year and today, in so many parts of the world, ordinary families are still struggling to survive under the conditions of unimaginable conflicts.

Sadly the happy ending continues to be elusive.

Might as well face it, I’m addicted to books…

Three weeks in South Africa and I have not blogged much, in large part due to the painfully useless little laptop I bought for the journey (sorry Windows I am in serious Mac withdrawal right now) combined with frequently slow or inconsistent wifi connections. Quite frankly I have not even read much save for a slim collection of Bosnian short stories I have been dragging around. But I have been observing, writing, journaling and taking photographs. There will be plenty of time for reading after I get back and a strict embargo on book buying for some time.

After all I have spent more than R3000 on books. Shame. Well it’s not as bad as it sounds, I spend a fair amount on books at home but not all in one shot and not with the need to transport them across the globe. I fell asleep last night mentally rearranging my bookshelves to welcome my new acquisitions home.

A selection of new titles (there are more,  confess). Trencherman, the Michiel Heyns, Tales of Metric System, Rusty Bell and The Violent Gestures of Life were all on top of my list when I arrived.
A selection of new titles (there are more, confess). Trencherman, the Michiel Heyns, Tales of Metric System, Rusty Bell and The Violent Gestures of Life were all on top of my list when I arrived.

As long as I can remember, bookshops have been a highlight of any vacation for me. Sometimes it was the chance to visit a larger centre or to access books not available at home. I mean honestly who goes to San Francisco without stopping in to City Lights? I suppose those people exist but I don’t want to know them.

This is the first vacation I have had in years, the farthest I have traveled and what I hope will be the first of many visits to South Africa. I have stubbornly had a predominately anti-tourist experience and it has suited me just fine.

But books, they were always high on my agenda. From a second hand shop in East London to The Book Lounge and Clarke’s here in Cape Town I have built piles, triaged, sorted and made my selections – sometimes price, sometime size and weight were factors. Books readily obtainable in paper format outside of South Africa were eliminated, aside from some impulse purchases. Suggestions from the friend I was staying with in the Eastern Cape, books featured on the site of a South African book blogger I follow, and advice arising from conversations with booksellers were all tossed into the mix.

A few of my second hand finds: I am looking forward to the memoir by the late Chris van Wyk and the Ettiene van Heerden on top is signed (but sadly the only one of his books I was able to locate in translation).
A few of my second hand finds: I am looking forward to the memoir by the late Chris van Wyk and the Ettiene van Heerden on top is signed (but sadly the only one of his books I was able to locate in translation).

There are still, inevitably, titles I wanted but could not find. And some I had to leave behind.

Not one given to ostentatious displays of book porn, I am showing off some of my new friends. Wish me luck packing and dragging them all to the airport on city transit!

And her name was Good: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

“Poor Agaat. What has my life been? What has her life been? How can I ever reward her for coming this far with me here on Grootmoedersdrift? How does one compensate somebody for that fact that she allowed herself to be taken away and taken in and then cast out again? And to be made and unmade and remade. Not that she had a choice. I even gave her another name.”

This is a variation on the refrain that haunts Milla de Wet’s thoughts as she lies, paralyzed in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, completely dependent on her black servant turned caregiver Agaat to attend to her every need. As Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel begins, the two women are reduced to communicating through eye movements. Eventually even that will be impossible. But Milla’s mind is sharp and brittle in her confined waking hours and Agaat, stalwart and efficient to the end, knows her mistress well. Too well.

AgaatFrom this claustrophobic perspective a remarkably expansive and complex novel of Apartheid South Africa unfolds. Van Niekerk, a nominee for the 2015 International Booker Prize, achieves this by deconstructing the traditional farm novel and weaving together a complex, poetic and devastatingly powerful epic. It is almost impossible to find the words to adequately capture the experience of reading Agaat (or The Way of the Women as it was published in the UK) without resorting to hyperbole. It is, quite simply, an inspiring, unforgettable novel. One that invites and rewards careful reading.

Despite the rolling fields and pastures, river and mountains, this is an intensely focused novel. It is not easy to exist with Milla trapped inside her immobile body, or to listen as she bitterly dissects and dismantles her life – alternately self righteous and regretful – addressing herself in the second person. It is not comfortable to be swept into the stream of consciousness of her internal ramblings that mix obsession over her current state of being with the flotsam and jetsam of her farm woman’s domestic life. Or to discover, through her notebook journals, the details of Jakkie’s childhood and, eventually, Agaat’s early years in her home. By masterfully weaving together these four distinct narrative streams in each chapter, van Niekerk creates an enduring portrait of the complexities of power as they play out within families, between races, and in a country that is in an increasingly volatile political state.

My well marked copy!
My well marked copy!

As the story is fleshed out, we meet Milla in 1948, as a young woman engaged to the dashing Jak de Wet, a trophy husband of sorts, handsome but ill suited to the farming life. Their marriage is increasingly volatile and strained, with both playing their own counterproductive roles out to the bitter end. For many years the couple is unsuccessful in their efforts to conceive. That is where Agaat comes in. The daughter of one of the labourers on her mother’s farm, she is born with a withered arm and, as a result, is subjected to horrific abuse in her early years. Milla imagines a heroic role for herself in rescuing the rejected child and bringing her into her home against the protests of her husband and the sidelong glances of her neighbours. For years Milla treats Agaat as a surrogate daughter – in so far as a segregated society will allow – teaching her to read and write, to explore and appreciate nature, and to master the fundamentals of animal husbandry. And then, suddenly, she discovers she is pregnant. Before the baby arrives, Agaat’s role is abruptly shifted. She is moved into an outside room and a maid’s uniform with strict expectations. But when little Jakkie arrives Agaat, barely more than a child herself, becomes the loving and compassionate caregiver that neither of his parents can ever manage to be.

As the end is approaching Milla is forced to weigh and reevaluate her own life and the fate to which her actions have tethered Agaat. As often as she questions her actions, it is not clear that she can ever stand back from herself and see the big picture. She is, in the end, complicit in maintaining the Afrikaner social order that Jak so proudly believes in even if, in her own mind, she is a martyr. Agaat is at once the angel in the wings, servant and nanny; and the witch still bound to her “primitive” ancestry. She has been molded and created by Milla, but her thoughts remain hidden. Not until the closing pages of the novel is her side finally revealed in the dark and heartbreaking bedtime story she that she and Jakkie shared when he was small.

Originally published in Afrikaans, the translation by Michiel Heyns is simply brilliant. Van Niekerk is first and foremost a poet and her language is filled with allusions to music, children’s rhymes, and literature. The scent of fennel, colours of flowers and foliage, the calls of birds and nosies of farm animals, the guttural g’s of Afrikaans all add to the multidimensional experience of reading Agaat. As Heyns points out in his Translator’s Note: “Agaat is a highly allusive text, permeated, at times almost subliminally, with traces of Afrikaans cultural goods: songs, children’s rhymes, children’s games, hymns, idiomatic expressions, farming lore.” The ultimate result appears effortless, mediating the boundaries where necessary but maintaining a distinct cultural experience. An interview with Heyns in Words Without Borders is an informative and entertaining exploration of the text and the translation experience that is highly recommended for interested readers.

Agaat is bookended with a Prologue and Epilogue in Jakkie’s voice. It is 1996 and he is flying home from Canada because his mother is near death at the beginning and returning after the funeral at the end. He left South Africa in 1985 to escape the political conditions in his native country, and, one suspects, his parents. As I write this, I am about to fly from Canada to South Africa myself for my first ever visit. I am aware of the fraught tensions that continue to run through the country, most recently arising in the literary community. I will be carrying the many complex currents that run through this important novel with me as I leave.

Naming the unnamed: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

“A man who’s drinking is always dreaming about a man who’ll listen,” advises Harun, the aged man sitting in a bar in Oran, Algeria, in the opening chapter of The Meursault Investigation. His companion, night after night, is a young student intent on sorting out the mystery behind the iconic text he carries in his briefcase. What unfolds over a series of encounters is the tale of the unnamed Arab murdered in the pivotal scene of  L’Etranger by Albert Camus. In presenting Harun as the fictional counterpoint to Camus’ Meursault, Algerian author Kamel Daoud sets up to name and flesh out a life not only for the victim of violence on that hot beach, but for his brother and mother as well. What follows is more than an homage; it is an active dialogue from the other side of the equation – ethnically, politically and historically.

kamelAn acquaintance with L’Etranger is not only assumed but a recommended prerequisite to The Meursault Investigation. Both are novellas so reading or reviewing the former in advance is not an arduous task. I last read Camus’ classic in late 2013 with The Guardian Reading Group so I had the advantage of being able to search the online archives for my own reflections and the discussions that ensued. I still found myself dipping back into my own copy as I started out with this book but as I fell into the story it no longer seemed necessary.

Our narrator this time around is immediately a more likable character than our old friend Meursault. He is not happy, but we have a context for our sympathies. He is seven years old when his beloved older brother Musa meets his senseless fate. Their father had disappeared before he had a chance to even form a memory of him so his brother was his hero and a surrogate father figure. His senseless death, unreported save for two obscure newspaper accounts his mother clings to, cannot be proved. No body is ever found. After all, in the novel in which he is killed he is neither named nor is the fate of his body mentioned.

His mother becomes obsessed with seeking answers. In the process Harun is reduced to a shadow of himself, he feels like an effigy of his brother. He follows his mother as she searches for clues. He is blamed for surviving and denied his own identity. He becomes a ghost in his own life. While Meursault’s relationship with his mother is, from that famous opening line – “Mother died today” – cold and flat, Harun and his mother share a complicated, emotional dynamic. “Mama’s still alive today” he reminds us repeatedly, but both are wounded and reduced, survivors of the unnamed Arab in an uncertain and shifting post-colonial Algeria.

Eventually he is led to avenge his brother’s death by taking the life of a Frenchman. It is, in itself, an act rooted in the story of Cain and Abel:

“I blame my mother, I lay the blame on her. The truth is, she committed that crime. She held my arm steady while Musa held hers and so on back to Abel or his brother. I’m philosophizing? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask.”

In an echo of L’Etranger, where Meursault is condemned to death not for killing an Arab, but for failing to cry at his mother’s funeral; Harun faces imprisonment not for an act of murder, but for killing his Frenchman one day after the Declaration of Independence rather than alongside his countrymen during the battle for freedom. Close on the heels of this new found Independence, some two decades after his brother’s death, our hero finally encounters the famous text which he instantly recognizes as explaining, complementing and mirroring his own. He is at once intrigued and dismayed.

The echoes with L’Etranger resound throughout this novel. Daoud answers the absurdity of Camus with his protagonist’s own absurd predicaments. He matches Meursault’s rejection of God with Harun’s dissolution with his faith. But his hero’s hopes and disappointments are his own, solidly grounded and charged with a power that, from the Algerian perspective 70 years out from the publication of the original inspiration, demands to be heard.

This is, of course, not the first time that fiction has been answered by fiction, untold stories have been re-imagined, or silenced characters have been granted voice. The Meursault Investigation has been met with international praise, a measure of skepticism and, in the author’s home country, calls that he be tried for blasphemy. Translated from the French by John Cullen and published by Other Press, this is a deceptively simple yet deeply important work. Time will tell how it holds up in the light of such a famous counterpoint, but, for my money, it has to be seen as a continuation of a conversation that will, because it is so deeply informed by L’Etranger, serve to draw Camus’ work forward into twenty-first century discourse while setting its own very important and timely literary agenda as we move forward.

Besides, Harun with his diversions and penchant for storytelling is much better company than poor miserable old Meursault.

We’re extras in our own stories: Atavisms by Raymond Bock

I am often at odds with the literature from my own country, in fact I’m increasingly at odds with my own country itself. When I heard about Atavisms, a newly released translation of Maxime Raymond Bock’s award winning collection of short stories it caught my attention immediately. I was keen to have a look at Canada through the lens of a contemporary Québécois writer. I don’t know what I expected, but I was hooked from the opening pages.

atavismsNot content with niceties, Bock catapults his reader into this collection with “Wolverine”, a story about a disaffected nationalist nursing his resentment long after the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec – a separatist paramilitary organization) has fallen into decline in the years following the institution of the War Measures Act in October of 1970 in response to the hostilities that had risen to a crisis point. When he happens to encounter a former Liberal cabinet minister, aged and intoxicated, he enlists a couple of friends on an adventure of revenge that turns brutally violent. It is shocking even if you come to this tale from a distance, but as a Canadian who will never separate the October Crisis from his 10 year-old imagination, I met it with intoxicated horror. Suddenly I was thrown back to my prairie schoolyard where my friends and I re-enacted events we were in no way equipped to understand – but with kidnapped officials and bodies in trunks it was infinitely more exciting, and terrifying, than anything on TV.

The horror continues to unfold in the second story, “The Other World”, but this time the reader is thrown back hundreds of years, to the early Quebec settlers and the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack by of a band of Iroquois on a couple of traders and their Huron guides. As the lone survivor lies under a thicket of pine branches hoping to remain hidden as the attackers relieve their victims of goods and scalps, he muses that, no matter what happens, he has no regrets.

From there we move, in “Dauphin, Manitoba”, to look outside the borders of Quebec, with a man’s monologue directed at a girlfriend he left behind in a prairie town. They had moved out there together. While she found herself captivated by her work, he failed to get a foothold or feel at ease in the vast empty landscape and retreated to the familiar blanketing comfort of a Montreal winter.

“You could pace back and forth a hundred years without coming close to the boredom I felt on those prairies, once sifted by antediluvian oceans, sculpted by retreating glaciers, surveyed by rambling nomads – friendly spirits, even better warriors – plowed to-and-fro by combines kicking up the dust of buffalo skeletons. You could say I caught you off guard when I left you alone to follow your path; you could say it was a nice trip, the time of your life. Lies. We’re both free now. You can study law, become a pastry chef, take up curling, or stay out there and keep up the good work; I’ll stay here and the snow will keep coming down.”

I once made a move like that in the opposite direction, albeit no further than Ottawa; but in the end made my way back west, never really at home at either end of the equation. As the narrator frames his missive to his girlfriend in terms of the generic novels he is making his way through, he does not sound any more committed to his move as something intrinsically right than as an acknowledgement of where he does not belong.

As the stories in Atavisms unfold, stretching back and forward in time, common themes, from history to politics to parental anxiety, reoccur, reflecting off one another. It can be argued that these thirteen stories are interconnected although they do not explicitly share any repeating characters and range from historical to surrealist to speculative fiction. Some of the contemporary stories are deeply universal and could almost be set anywhere, like “The Bridge” in which a depressed history teacher muses about his fate should he give in to his suicidal whims; or “Room 103”, a son’s one sided conversation with his dying father:

“It’s the end, Antoine, there’s nothing left to be done. You’re so light you don’t even make a dent in the mattress. It’s just you all alone with your obsolete quarter-million dollar machines, your network of tubing, your probes and dreams.”

Like a fragmented block of glass, each story in Atavisms offers a view of the Québécois experience through a different prism until the final tale, “The Still Traveler”, pulls all the threads together into a time and place in a precolonial reality dating back to the legends of the earliest residents and visitors to the Americas. After all, atavism refers to the tendency to revert to an ancestral type and that, more than anything is the underpinning theme of this collection: fathers and sons, family histories, political legacies, the identities that contain and define us.

Outside of Quebec, a sense of identity is diluted. I was struck by the depth of the colonial commentary that runs through a number of these tales and how the early days of New France are revisited with a harsh measure of reality. This is a conversational point sadly under played in Canada as a whole. As a new level of racism and xenophobia directed at new Canadians grows across this country, we would do well to remember how recently white Europeans made their way onto these shores.

Newly released by Dalkey Archive Press under their Canadian Literature Series, Pablo Strauss’ translation very effectively maintains the distinctive flavour of Bock’s richly varied stories. Supplemental endnotes fill in some essential language and historical references to enhance the reading experience.

I would strongly recommend Atavisms to anyone interested in knowing more about the Quebec experience, whether inside or outside Canada. Not only because the perspective is not as widely known or understood as it should be, but because this is simply a collection of very good stories. Period.

Small, quiet tale with a dark heart: Marcel by Erwin Mortier

In turning serious attention to the awards for translated and international literature that have dominated this spring, I have had pleasure of encountering many authors whose work I am looking forward to exploring at greater length. Belgian author Erwin Mortier is one such writer. His stunningly beautiful and moving account of a one woman’s experience coming of age in Flanders during the First World War, While the Gods Were Sleeping, was, truth be told, my personal favourite from the IFFP shortlist. A second installment of his epic WWI project has been released in Dutch, but until it sees an English translation I decided to turn my attention to his earlier novels which have recently been re-released by Pushkin Press.

MarcelI’ve started with his debut Marcel, originally released in Dutch in1999, followed by Ina Rilke’s English translation in 2001. This novella is a subtle and quiet work. The narrator is a sensitive ten year-old boy who lives with his grandparents, in a house that is sagging under the weight of time, literally and figuratively. From the opening paragraphs Mortier paints an image of the house as repository of secrets:

“Most of the rooms harboured a limbo of darkness, cool in summer, chilly in winter. In some the walls had absorbed the smell of generations of cooked dinners, as in the kitchen, where grease clung to the rafters. The cellar stored, the attic forgot.”

The grandmother, as he refers to her, is a dressmaker, tending to the sartorial needs – modest or grand – of the womenfolk of the small Flemish village where they live. But she is also her own family’s guardian of souls, helping to usher the dying to the afterlife, tending to their resting places in the nearby cemetery and, most critically, curating a parade of photographs of the deceased on display in a large glass cabinet. Four times a month, her grandson assists with the ritual removal, cleaning, naming, and replacement of generations of family portraits:

“When all the pictures had been properly dusted the grandmother closed the glass wings of her cabinet. She had reflected, reassessed and rearranged. She had piled proof upon proof, for and against Death, who was both her enemy and her most loyal ally. Death robbed her of her relatives, but he also fixed them in still poses ensuring they would meekly undergo her domestic ministrations.

When I saw my face reflected in the glass it was a fleeting glimpse, with far less substance than the images of the dear departed.”

The insubstantiality of his reflection is telling. The young narrator is routinely compared to Marcel, his grandmother’s youngest brother who died during the war. He is haunted by this spectral relative and, in a sense, never allowed to be seen for himself. He is routinely reminded that he is “Marcel to a tee, but for the eyes which I got from my mother.” Others remark that he takes after Marcel in nature: “Marcel always kept to himself, too.” But the exact circumstances of Marcel’s death are shrouded in mystery. Regular comments are made about the Germans, the aftermath of the war, implications about allegiances – but for all his perceptiveness, our narrator is too young to understand politics and history. It is not until he tries to impress his teacher, a buxom woman with whom he is utterly besotted, that a dark and ugly truth finally comes to light.

Mortier is a slow and patient writer, he allows his stories to unfurl in their own time. His love of language is evident – colours, patterns, textures, qualities of light, scents and sounds are all vividly evoked. But in contrast with his more recent work with its rambling, hypnotic Proustian sentences; the attention to detail is offered with a delicate restraint. The prose is spare and haunting, the mystery unfolds gently. Marcel stands as a most confident debut which, in hindsight, clearly points to great work to come.

Roughghosts is one year old today: Looking back and ahead

Today I received a notification from WordPress congratulating me on my first anniversary. Well happy anniversary to my alter ego roughghosts who was born on this day from a scarp of creative writing I uncovered in one of my endless unfinished notebooks. I never was very clever with user names; most of my aliases amount to little more than my initials and the first 5 letters of my last name.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

I have become quite fond of roughghosts. It suits me, more than I might have imagined, or at least been willing to admit on May 31st of last year. To be honest, I created this blog to engage with other WordPress blogs and, I don’t know, maybe reflect a little, and explore some creative writing. At the time, a little voice I the back of mind said this looks like a rather manic move. After all I was under a soul crushing amount of stress at my workplace, had a major fundraiser and annual report due, and had not slept for more than a few hours a night since the previous November. But I shrugged it off, forged ahead only to crash and shatter into a thousand pieces a few weeks later.

Today, I have managed to rebuild myself to a point. There is still a lot more glue, stitching and healing required. Mania has subsided to a simmering depression with doses of anxiety and a pill that I do not like but is presently necessary as a sleep aid. And roughghosts the blog has evolved from a space to moan about the shock of realizing that, yes, I still have a mood disorder and all the fallout that a major breakdown entails, to a book based blog with a strong focus on translated and international literature.

Over the past few months I became involved with a jury shadowing the International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP), a challenging and highly rewarding experience. It taught me to read faster – still no speed demon, I – and read more deeply with a specific goal to being able to rate and write a constructive review for each book. I have started scribbling in margins and filling notebooks when I read. As a reader and a writer this has been invaluable. The camaraderie of reading and discussing the books together was an added bonus, introducing me to a great group of book bloggers. My subsequent expansion of activity on twitter has further enhanced this community of readers, publishers, authors and translators.

Then, close on the heels of the IFFP came the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) with a challenging and exciting longlist and a selection of small North American independent publishers to discover. Adding to this embarrassment of riches for lovers of translated literature was the conjunction of the biannual International Booker and the writers I want to explore from that list of finalists. And, on top of all this, my longstanding interest in South African literature will be further nourished by a trip to that county in a few weeks with a list of books I hope to obtain.

I am, I hope, reading my way back to wholeness. Preparing to write my way back into the world, or rather document my very real journey into the world in a full and honest way for the first time in more than half a century of living.

This past week’s awarding of the 2015 IFFP and BTBA prizes saw the celebration of female authors and translators. The IFFP honoured Jenny Erpenbeck and Susan Bernofsky for The End of Days, a decision that coincided with our shadow jury’s esteemed choice. This is a most important book with a timeless theme spanning the whole of the 20th century. About an hour later the 2015 BTBA was awarded to The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue and translator Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. I encountered this book as a longlisted IFFP title and simply fell in love with the surreal, dream-like tale. Notably, Can Xue was also named that same day with six other women and two men as finalists for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. I’ve been decidedly excited by this celebration of female writers and for those who know me, that is a huge shift in my own approach to literature.

Back in late January I wrote a pot in response to a discussion on the Tips, Links and Suggestions blog of the Guardian which had caused me to reflect on the abysmal ratio of female to male authors in my reading and on my shelves. However, my more explicit focus on literature in translation is slowly beginning to shift that balance. Especially if one considers how many of the works I read, if written by men, were translated by women. And I am taking serious note – not only should I endeavour to read more female writers, I can easily fall under the spell of Can Xue, Anne Garréta, Marlene van Niekerk, Olja Svačević or Valeria Luiselli, just to name some of the authors that have really impressed me of late. And I am pleased to report that an increasing number of the books I am currently reading or planning to read feature female writers and/or translators.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

So, on my first anniversary as a blogger, I look back over an ad hoc journal chronicling an ongoing passage from a terribly messed up state, struggling to make sense of a sudden shock to my self esteem, my confidence and my identity to a place where I have a strong real life community, solid mental health support and a creative environment where I am proud of the work that I publish in this space. Moving forward I hope to explore further writing opportunities, continue to recover and, with luck, make my way back into productive employment.

And keep reading a lot of terrific, exciting and challenging literature from around the world.