The loneliness of the Norwegian writer: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal

During the day he knows nothing but dreams.

During the day he knows only the lethargy the white, billowing curtain and the humming fan give him as a kind of comfort.

At night he’s wakeful.

At night he knows only the loneliness that lies down beside him in the bed and keeps him awake.

It was not until I finished Bergeners, that I stopped to take a closer look at the biography of its author, Tomas Espedal. I had sensed we were close in age, this introspective Norwegian writer and I. The eponymous narrator of this novel is in his early fifties during the period that frames this wandering meditation which opens in Paris during the dying days of a serious love affair and closes two years later, in Berlin, where he is still carrying  a lingering, immersive heartache and loneliness that won’t abate. So deeply did I connect with the protagonist’s emotional exile, even though my own life and shades of loneliness take on different hues, I could not help but wonder how closely our timelines align. Rather closely, as it turns out, we are only a year apart.

There is, throughout this work, a certain vulnerability that permeates the narrator’s musings. He bemoans his losses; he knows well that he is wallowing. Yet, in contrast to Knausgaard, the friend and fellow countryman whose name is synonymous with intense navel gazing, Espedal’s autobiographical fiction is spectral. He is there and not there. More spare and varied in style, the narrative has an erratic quality, shifting in perspective from first person to second, third and back again, incorporating stories, poetry, fragments and a fair share of modest, self-deprecating humour. And for all the deeply personal emotional moments, the heart of this novel is occupied by Bergen and its residents. The narrator does travel, for work or pleasure, but at this mid-point in his life, suddenly abandoned by both his grown daughter and his girlfriend, he seems intent on staying put, on burrowing himself into the familiar haunts and securites of his family home and community.

Espedal has a sober affection for his native city that comes through in his wonderful observations, character studies, and anecdotes. He argues that the city is difficult to live in, that the persistent rain and dampness enforces a confinement that creates an urban existence conducted almost entirely indoors, or perhaps, in vehicles travelling from place to place. As such, he claims that one could “empty the city of all its inhabitants and fill it up with entirely new people, but the city would remain the same.” However he captures its interior and exterior spaces, and the characters who occupy them, so memorably:

Eerland O. Nødtvedt smokes like an athlete. He’s dressed in a white shirt, a light brown cashmere sweater, the jacket of a green-check suit and light trousers. Good shoes. At night, he plays pieces he’s composed himself on a pump organ which he got from Yngve Pedersen. During the day he writes poetry. In a small one-roomed flat in Lodin Leppsgate, he writes poetry that is bigger than the city he lives in but maybe not as big as the room he inhabits.

The central part of Bergeners reads like a series of entries in a scrapbook—portraits and sketches of a place that contains all that is rooted and central to his existence, except that now, as he walks its streets, plumbing his memories, it is absence rather than nostalgia that weighs on him, pushing him to retreat further into his small house. His narrative, as the book progresses, is freighted with a loneliness no words will write away.

That first evening I sat alone in the living room, both my daughter and my girlfriend had moved out of the house, almost simultaneously, and gone to Oslo, I sat with my head in my hands feeling sorry for myself. I wept, repeating out loud (there was no one who could hear me after all): How could both leave me like this? I, who’ve done my best for you all these years, I said, who’ve given you all my love and nearly all my time, and you just move out  and leave me sitting here all alone like this.

How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house?

How can you adapt to your own loneliness, what can you fill it with?

On a trip to Albania, Tomas meets a German writer who, at one point, asks him what he writes about. He answers: “Monotony.” That is not quite accurate, but he does have a gift for capturing the ordinary and seeing in it the universal and the exceptional.  His loneliness is not unique, but it is caught in the prism of middle-age. His characters are often eccentric, settled into their habits, their singular lives. However, for our protagonist, the attempt to redefine himself without the two women who meant most to him is an uneasy process. He has lost his anchor and does not know where he belongs. He tries to adapt to his newly defined life, but finds that Bergen, which he knows so intimately, cannot assuage his restlessness. He tries to escape, but finds foreign locales too alien to his own nature:

You can’t anticipate growing old here
age was not formed in you as a child
and now it’s too late
to grow old

Bergeners is my first encounter with Tomas Espedal. There is something very attractive about his autobiographical fiction, a form that can be too claustrophobic at times. The varying perspectives, the passing portraits of people and places, the fragmentary fugues, brief stories and snatches of poetry that are worked into this wandering meditation make for an unusual and absorbing read.

Longlisted for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award, Bergeners is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

Our way of being in danger is our way as poets: Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalos

If this poem is filled with the beating of wings
It’s because you hear birds
                                            You don’t just see them

—from “The Meaning of the Blind” (1962)

I confess to be rendered speechless, or is that wordless, at the prospect of saying anything that can do justice to the experience of reading Before Lyricism by Greek poet Eleni Vakalos. This collection is comprised of six book length poems from early in her career, is misleading upon first glance. Some pieces are broken into subtitled sections, elsewhere fragments hang in mid-air, continuing from page to page or changing course midstream. But each book is an intended whole, meant to be read as such. And the collection, presented together, contains cross references, themes that reappear, and an open-endedness that is echoed throughout. As the translator, Karen Emmerich, tells us in her essay that closes out the book, Valakos intensifies the grammatical features her language affords in unexpected ways:

Present active participles such as following, watching, leaving, grasping resembling, normally rare in Greek precisely because of the ambiguity they invite, allow the poet to systematically  obscure the subjects of her verbs: one might say that nearly all Vakalos’ particles dangle.

Punctuation is either absent or minimal, numbers of subjects and objects and verbs may not match, main verbs may be missing altogether, whereas several potential subjects may emerge. Yet the opacity that arises creates its own allure, its own space for reading into meaning. For the translator, the challenge is allow a process of unfolding to occur. The poems, as presented, represent a decade’s worth of work and as she admits they are “less an end product than a resting point in a process that could easily have continued for another decade or more.” It a tribute to Emmerich’s skill and sensitivity, that sense of being in flux comes through. And that is, I think, what catches the words in my throat or rather in my fingers on the keyboard, as I attempt to capture a sense of this book.

Dating from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, natural elements have a dominant presence in the poems that comprise Before Lyricism. Engagement of the human (poetic) experience with the nonhuman is fluid and often undefined, boundaries blur. There is a sense of being inside the reading, an effect of the frequently shifting subject, incompleteness of many passages, and the poet’s use of space on the page. It is a sensation impossible to reproduce with a selection abstracted from any one of the poems, a task which, in itself, is antithetical to the way the poet wanted these pieces to be encountered:

Because I dwell in the abyss as in my poem, always hidden,
 .         dwells not a word but a sob

How many times hunched in his boat does the fisherman
        list with it over the abyss

Fishing for the dark life of my soul

And when at last the fish rises seized on the bait it seems a
       stream begins to run from the darkness to the waters

 

of the sea
                        Where could you find for it seasons
In bloom, so many gardens brimming
With despair, with incredible eros
Now in spring as they spun slowly lifting the coolness
I sat at night and watched the gardens becoming
Deep in a way, reminding me of the listing embrace
Of all those who become lovers
Of a breathtaking fall that lasted
The whole of that deadly sky

—from “Our Way of Being in Danger” (1966)

There is, within Vakalo’s poetry an intimation of the deeply unsettling potencies at play in the natural world. The images evoked are beautiful and threatening. “Plant Upbringing” (1956), as a particularly striking example, casts the garden as a place of nocturnal conspiracies, paints flowers and trees as defiant, even rebellious monsters. And yet, plants, as she sees them are entirely recognizable and imaginable, it is the poet’s engagement with the vegetative reality that is intuitive and alarming:

Which habits of plants frighten me
When shoots burst from dry branches
folded inside are tiny green leaves
—Perhaps that’s why you can’t ever be sure a plant
is really dead—
because a new stalk
strong
and blooming
sprouts from the very root
replacing the weathered trunk
other plants drop seed before they die
in the proper season you’ll see them sprout
or the root remains
and the next year will give us more and fuller

The endurance of plants astonishes me
some slip their roots beneath the foundations
Advancing beside the garden
A poplar sprouted that way by the house and grew big
You can’t hem plants in
You just prune them when necessary
Those plants we all think so simple

There is a persistent element of danger in the most obvious and the most innocuous moments. That is, for Vakalo, where the poet rests. Allusions to hidden meaning, misunderstanding, decay, loss and distortion all reflect the challenges that interrupt linguistic interaction with perceived realities. With the world. The natural elements—forests and deserts, moonlight and darkness, birds and fish, bodies and sensations—are all wound with multiple threads of possibility. And those threads make their way back to the spark of human existence within this interrelated network, with the desire to step outside to articulate truths, but ever inside and unable draw distinctions that hold hard and fast.

Nothing holds firmly in these poems. Everything hangs in the air.

Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, is edited and translated by Karen Emmerich and published by Ugly Duckling Press. At this time of writing it has been shortlisted for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award.

The Best Translated Book Award 2018: Some reflections about the fiction and poetry nominees

In advance of the announcement of this year’s BTBA finalists for fiction and poetry, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the nominated titles I have had a chance to read. I read almost half of the poetry long list and almost six of the 25 fiction titles—I say “almost” because there is a title on each side that I have not yet finished. I don’t have posted reviews for all, but I do have a few favourites going forward.

What I love about this award is that it invariably draws my attention to a few titles that I might never have encountered and, because it is based on titles released in the US, I can generally get my hands on the books that interest me. This year, because I turned my focus to poetry, the experience has been especially rewarding. Here are the books I’ve read, in whole or in part, with links to the reviews I wrote (where applicable) and some thoughts about the books read and not yet reviewed:

Fiction:

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

I have not quite finished this book, and therefore cannot judge it fully. I am pleased to see it on the list; it’s an interesting blend of genre and so far I am enjoying it. However, as it is my first experience with Espedal, I have no context to place it against.

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

 The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press) Also see here.

Hands down this is my favourite title of all that I have read, a book that I absolutely adore. Above I have linked the argument in its favour that I wrote for the Three Percent site. I would have to say that this and My Heart Hemmed In are two books I really love and hope make the cut. Both, it happens, are from the same publisher, in this case Two Lines Press—a circumstance echoed on the poetry side of the equation.

*

Poetry:
Because this is where I spent most of my energies, this is where my attention will focus.

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Raining. Winter wet pluries of southern hemispheric June in the beach town. Dense fog, tick, a sort of paste of days when the rains start to soak even gardens and streets. An evocation of fairies through the windows: all marrying winter, leurs sombreros s’embracent in an orgy of wet leaves. I swear.

I have not yet finished this most unusual book—an extended prose poem that employs a delicious blend of languages to tell a strange narrative tale. Very intriguing, it would be good to see it make the cut.

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

I am
inside you
Where nobody expected
Looneysingapore
Hovered down through
The Phillipine
storm

cat-soft
toxoplasma
schizosex

Endorphoria
never kills
its host world

Of the poetry I read, this book was the least successful for me. The imagery—parasites, computer viruses, hackers, movie and pop culture references—did not resonate with me. I could admire it, the translation is slippery and solid, but I don’t feel I would be drawn back to it so readily. It is a quick read, so another visit is likely in order. But not yet.Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling)

The plants in the garden
Give a first impression
Of peace
Even more so than pets
But that impression changes
As evening falls
And the garden seems to have multiplied
In the movement
Of proportions of changes
You understand
At such times I try not to look
In case someone is hiding there
As it often seems
Though in morning the garden
Will be once more
Like the slanting line on the cheeks
Of very young girls
When the light strikes them from the side

—from “Plant Upbringing”

I did not have time to review this book, but probably will write more soon. This is a magnificent collection of six early book length poems by Eleni Vakalo, presented with great attention to placement and space on the page, and intended to be read as complete pieces. One of the exciting encounters of my recent BTBA poetry excursions.

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I am so pleased to see an Indian author in translation on each list. This collection strikes a melancholic tone and speaks to very human emotions—loneliness, loss and nostalgia. It speaks to the diversity represented by the BTBA selections.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

If it isn’t clear from my recent review, I love this book. It is a vital collection and so very timely. I would be quite happy to see this take the award. I certainly hope it makes the short list, along with my other favourite, also from the same publisher, Action Books (in this case a joint publication with Broken Dimache Press in Europe).

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Action Books & Broken Dimanche Press)

You were inside me like I was a house; that does not
mean I know what’s going on inside you. A house
does not know the interior of its resident.

That is the other wall for loneliness.
To irradiate.

My x-ray/loneliness.
Your loneliness/grass.

If you are to be tortured, I must
teach you to sing: as I walked out one midsummer’s morning
it will keep them out.

You make me think, as I walked out, I must learn to sing
double with one voice,

whose song will fan in to seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices, whose songs will

make the air solid and prevent any movement. No one can move.
No one can harm you.

I have read this book many times, my copy is exploding with marginalia and sticky notes, and in response, I wrote an experimental review that will be published at Minor Literature[s] on May 24th. In the meantime, I will say it is at once spare and epic. A post-human vision that moves beyond patriarchal and matriarchal physical, social, and political dynamics—edgy, unnerving and ultimately inspiring. A challenging work, I love it as a piece of literature, and find it endlessly fascinating as a person with a bi-gendered life experience and a history of heart-stopping re-awakening (in literal terms).

So, now to see the short list…

“The city is bigger than a poet’s heart and smaller than his poem”: Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun

We who are strewn about in fragments, whose flesh flies through the air like raindrops, offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilized world, men, women and children, because we have unintentionally appeared in their peaceful homes without asking permission. We apologize for stamping our severed body parts into their snow-white memory, because we have violated the image of the normal, whole human being in their eyes, because we have the impertinence to leap suddenly on to news bulletins and the pages of the internet and the press, naked except for our blood and charred remains.

—from “We”

There is an eerie and uncomfortable synchronicity in coming to Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin while, on the TV, a reporter stands against the skeletal structures of the besieged Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now a ghostly battleground where Syrian government forces are closing in on the last remaining Islamic State fighters in the capital region. That is because this devastated neighbourhood is also the birthplace of the Stockholm-based, Palestinian poet whose first collection to be published in English is one of the titles long listed for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. From a part of the world that has been producing poetic visionaries for more than a millennium, Almadhoun offers a powerful twenty-first century testament that reinvents earlier forms and imagery to create a vivid, contemporary lament for the futility of war and the costs it extracts.

I was going toward death when the fighters stopped me. They searched me and found my heart on me. It was a long time since they had seen a heart with its owner. One of them shouted ‘He’s still alive,’ and they decide to condemn me to life.

—from “Schizophrenia”

His is a poetry about dying or not dying or being dead already too many times to count. About that which death can neither ennoble, nor ensure. In history, in the recent past, and in the ever present. In the world he conjures up, massacre and Damascus are personified, grief and angst are objects that can be purchased, new or second hand, and “suicided” is a verb. Employing a mix of prose poetry and free verse, the images he draws are coloured with unexpected juxtapositions and observations. It is a poetic reality at once modern and ancient, speaking to displacement as does the poetry of an earlier generation of Palestinian poets, but bound with the more recent flow of  refugees who have fled the Middle East and North Africa seeking new lives in Europe.

He is among those refugees, whether he fled or was lured away by love, the place he left behind lies in ruins. Yet, he is aware that the safe quiet space he has found in Stockholm confers upon him a privileged perspective and particular responsibility to be a voice for those people and places who have been rendered mute by conflict. And that elegy extends beyond Damascus, and yet is ever beholden to her—at once his mother and his first lover—and to his Palestinian identity. Take, for example, “Schizophrenia” a poem written following a visit to Ypres on the 100th anniversary of the first chemical weapons attack. Among the visitors to the reconstructed city he notes the contradictions and the burdens his presence represents:

I am the Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish refugee, wearing Levi’s jeans invented by a Jewish immigrant from Germany in San Francisco, filling my camera with pictures like a Russian peasant woman filling a bucket with milk from under her cows, nodding my head like someone absorbing a lesson, the lesson of war: I am the Palestinian distributed over many massacres, standing here naked, trying to wear my poem in the hope that it will hide my wounds, confusedly gathering pieces of me from here and there in order to become a witness.

As this series of poems and collected facts will go onto illustrate, the gas attacks of one hundred years ago, the recent sarin attacks on Damascus, and all of the wartime deaths  rendered by chemical means in between have taught us nothing. Nothing at all.

Almadhoun’s poetry is a potent blend of defiance, passion and melancholic nostalgia. It is a heady mix that produces work of raw beauty. Throughout this collection, his beloved birthplace is never far from his imagination, a bond evoked most intimately in “The City,” where Damascus is portrayed as a multifaceted female figure, timeless and complex:

She is the earliest cemetery, which people have celebrated as evidence that memories are real. I pass her, a stranger to myself, so she passes me without recognising my face. I distinguish her in the faces of strangers who have belonged to her, so she and I are briefly deluded into believing we are one. She is old like a fossil and I am new like the end of history, I hold on to her dress like a child and she holds on to my heart like a woman and we commit a poem, I the dreamer hunting down verse and she reality giving birth to children and not raising them. I the ephemeral and she the eternal, everlasting, I the fatalist stuffed with transcendental truths, she the heretical realist. There is no consolation for me, and no harm done to her, except that by chance we are lovers

The most striking quality of the poems that comprise Adrenalin is the urgency that comes through. These are fiercely intelligent political pieces that invite historical figures, philosophers and other poets into the conversation. Deeply rooted in the intertwined tragedies of recent Palestinian history and the Syrian civil war, it offers an urgent, compelling commentary presented in a style and manner that even those who tell themselves they don’t read poetry will find remarkably accessible and compelling.

Finally, if you would like an opportunity to experience Almadhoun’s poetry in the best way possible—hearing him read it himself—I strongly recommend this poetry video in which  he reads from “Details,” one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. Presented with Catherine Cobham’s piercing translation, against visual and musical accompaniment, this is the best endorsement for this book that I can think of.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun is translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham and published by Action Books.

“All the world is made of poetry”: Things That Happened and Other Poems by Bhaskar Chakrabarti

Each of us is a bird of disbelief
Flapping our wings beneath the tired water
We shall be born, we shall be born, a new life
Tomorrow or the day after—maybe even this evening

—“The Window”

An important voice in the rise of modern Bengali poetry, Bhaskar Chakrabarti was so intimately bound to the streets, alleys, and rooms of Baranagar in northern Calcutta that he was, until recently, little known beyond West Bengal. Born in 1945, his life spanned an era of tremendous turmoil and change in India and in his native state, yet his poetry touches universals of experience that transcend time and place. To spend time with his verse is to feel that one is in the company of the man himself, in the urban spaces he inhabited.

Things That Happen and Other Poems is the first cross-career selection of his poetry to be published in English. Translated by Arunava Sinha and published by Seagull Books, this volume offers the world an opportunity to become acquainted with this profound, melancholic poet. The recent inclusion of this title on the poetry longlist of the 2018 Best Translated Book Award will hopefully draw even more to discover his work.

Chakrabarti came to prominence in the late 1960s and 70s. It must have been, for him, a time of creative energy and excitement, as his nostalgia for these years, for lost friends and loves, resurfaces frequently in his later poems. However, it was also a period of political and economic upheaval. His earlier poetry often expresses a dramatic, angst-ridden intensity:

Night after night, for countless years, I’ve wanted to slice myself
open for self-examination
I have swallowed alcohol with ashes in it
I have gone up to fallen women to tell them, ‘I love you.’
Not all of this was a game.
My blood and sweat are mingled with black and white days,
brothers mine
I have forgotten nothing, none of it
The blows and the humiliation and the tears
Look—it’s so late tonight as well—still I cannot sleep.

—from “Brothers Mine (1/107)”

In his later poems a certain concern about the state of the world continue to re-emerge, in the form of anxieties about the what he observes in his community, and on the planet. His verse tackles the transformations of modern life, ventures into outer space, and frets within the confines of his room. But in general, as he struggles with his health following a cancer diagnosis, death becomes an ever more present companion, one he seems to entertain as much as he wishes it away and admonishes his audience to live well.

Cut off this thing that has bothered you all your life.

You are alive because of one simple reason, that you’re inhaling and exhaling. Keep this task up.

—from “Come, Let’s Talk of Some Things”

Along with this sense of mortality, a deep, abiding loneliness settles into his words, trails his footsteps, becomes the heart of his careworn song. The predominant mood of these poems is quiet, sad.

The one thing that is clearly evident  in all of Chakrabarti’s poetry is that he was a poet through to the very core of his being. It is the essence of his life’s work, all he ever wanted to do and he talks about his art with eloquence and passion. As he declares in the essay that opens this collection:

All the world is made of poetry. On some days the doors and windows within are flung open. All that I see and hear, all that I get a sudden smell of, turns to something new in a moment. My body feels light. I have had glimpses of the astonishing world of poetry, and I have been astounded every time. So many wilting conversations, fragrances, glances and dreams are happily tacked up on its walls.

How wonderful! He goes on to admit that his love of poetry never abandoned him, even if it did interfere with his ability to worry too much about employment or a steady job, likely to the dismay of some of those around him. And although he came of age in a time of upheaval, he is content to be a poet of the small, the simple, and the everyday. “I am a poetryist.” he writes, “I love ordinariness. Rejected, pedestrian conversations and scenes, days and nights left behind are all things that move me.”

True to this poetic spirit, many of his poems address the act of writing. He writes into silence and frustration with persistence:

I stay here in Baranagar, in Calcutta
Everyone here wants their fortune read
They want to know what life holds for them
They want to know when they’ll come into money

And I, an ancient ghost
Keep struggling with imagery, symbol and resonance
To hell with day before yesterday’s poems
All women with large breasts are better than them

Conjuring up thoughts about Panskura is better
Even writing four or five ordinary lines
About tender blades of grass is better

—from “Panskura”

Chakrabarti’s poetry is, on first encounter, simple. Calm, measured, pensive. His work is personal, mentioning places, addressing people directly, while speaking to emotions—attraction, loss, and loneliness—in tones that are intimate and human. But his poems invite the reader to fall into them, again and again. To read the verses aloud. And here is the junction where the magic of the translation comes into play. Without knowing the original language, vision and meaning must be trusted, but in listening to Chakrabarti reading from his work in Bengali, the cadences of his speech are clearly echoed in the way this poetry sounds and feels in the English.

And that is a remarkable achievement, and an endorsement for this evocative collection, this celebration of Calcutta in its uniqueness and its universality.

As it is in our house: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.

India is a linguistically diverse country, with twenty-two scheduled languages, thirteen different scripts, and over 720 dialects. Yet when Western readers think of contemporary Indian literature, the work that most readily comes to mind  is typically written in English, whether by India-based or diasporic writers. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, which has garnered much attention over the past year, has been, for many English readers, their first introduction to a book originally written in the South Indian language, Kannada. As one of the long listed titles for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), even more readers will now have a good excuse to meet this established Indian author through this novel, his first work to be translated into English.

At first blush, Ghachar Ghochar seems an unassuming short novel—the story of a family whose financial circumstances take a turn for what should be the better, and the impact of their newfound fortune on their household dynamics. And so it is, but it is much more. Complicated undercurrents run through this tale, building to an ending with uncertain and disturbing implications. What makes it especially unsettling, and affecting, is the strangely passive, rationalization of the narrator. He practices a willful ignorance.

The novel, set in Bangalore, opens at our protagonists’ favourite haunt, Coffee House, with a description of Vincent, the attentive waiter and quiet confessor who tends to his customers’ need and listens to their woes with sensitive discretion. He is not an audience so much as a pretext for the unnamed narrator to unfold his account. Something is troubling the young man. But his concern is distracted. He seems to harbor a conflicted attitude toward women—lack of understanding even—that hints at but does not betray the depth of what we will eventually learn is the true nature of his anxiety.

What follows is a portrait of a joint family bound at all costs to the well-being of the bread-winner, a holdover from their earlier days when resources were limited and they learned to stick together, “walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.” However, that which once insured their survival in the face of financial distress, stands to destroy them once money is no longer a pressing concern. The story unfolds in terms of status, beginning in the present. The narrator who lives with his wife, his parents and his sister, and all are expected to defer to Chikappa, his father’s younger brother, the founder of the successful spice distribution company that has afforded the ascension of the family from a cramped, dirty house in a lower middle class area of the city to a smart, two-story dwelling across town. Although it is officially a family business, in practice there is little need for the other men to have more than perfunctory roles. The uncle manages it all and the family lets it be. Everyone except Anita, the narrator’s wife, who comes from a very different background and ethic.

Moving down through the family hierarchy, the narrative steps back in time to the years when the narrator’s father, his Appa, struggled to look after his family and put his brother through school on a modest salesman’s salary. Yet, even if money was ever in short supply, he placed great value on good honest, hard labour:

He was inordinately proud of being a salesman. “What do you think a salesman is . . .?” he’d boast, especially when launching into stories about his prowess—how, for instance, he’d managed to sell to a shop whose shelves were always brimming with tea. He polished his shoes every morning and put on an ironed shirt. He’d leave looking like an officer and return at night, wilted from the day’s sun, his clothes rumpled. One glance at his scuffed, dusty shoes was enough to betray the nature of his day’s work.

Everything changes when Appa is unexpectedly forced into early retirement. This is the impetuous his brother needs to act on a business scheme he has been contemplating and, although both brothers are co-owners, they soon find themselves ideologically at odds and as the spice firm takes off, Appa drops into the role of a silent partner, slipping into an increasingly defeated mood. His family worries about his sanity, but not for his sake so much as their concern about their right to his share of Sona Masala’s assets.

The narrator, who with his mother and sister all fall in place, more or less on level, below the two older men, makes much of the interdependence of his family, financially bound in poverty, emotionally bound in wealth. They are all at odds, in their own ways, with the world into which they have ascended almost overnight:

It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control the money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The sister, Malati, has a particularly disastrous, short-lived marriage. Amma, the matriarch, tries to mediate between family members and maintain their honour against an outside community she no longer knows how to negotiate. Meanwhile, the narrator seems to lose any drive or motivation he may have once aspired to. He too is given a title in the family business, complete with an office and income, but soon realizes there is little for him to do. His uncle has everything under control and no one dares to question what that really means. He takes to lazing around in bed and frequenting Coffee House, showing little ambition, afraid or unwilling or perhaps unable to break away and create a future for himself. With the addition of Anita, his bride by arranged marriage, the precarious household harmony is set completely off balance. The daughter of a professor, she comes from a different background with different expectations and little inclination to suffer fools gladly. She also brings the book’s title, a nonsense expression unique to her family meaning “tangled beyond repair” that she shares with her husband on their wedding night. Yet, it is unclear whether he understands the full relevance of this image before it is too late.

Told with a carefully weighted tone and an economy of words, Ghachar Ghochar is a deceptively easy and enjoyable read. It is not until one nears the latter pages of the book that a creeping unease enters the narrative. The protagonist notices many troubling signs, but repeatedly neglects to act. It is unclear if he shares his father’s tendency to despondency or is simply too self-focused. The troubling factor is that this type of opting out, is not an uncommon response for young men when they cannot find their footing under shifting socio-economic conditions that they feel, rightly or wrongly, are beyond their control. In the Indian setting, the complications of family dynamics and expectations exacerbate the situation. And this, for me, is the real strength and tragedy of this slender volume. There are no easy answers, no heroes, no clear resolutions.

Too much like real life.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag is translated by Srinath Perur, and published by Penguin Books.