The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

Waxing lyrical and irritable: QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard

French writer Éric Chevillard opens QWERTY Invectives, his contribution to the Cahier Series, with a short reflection on translation, its importance and its limitations. Although any text will invariably suffer certain mutations on its passage from one language to another, these changes need not be met with certain despair. The re-imagining required to facilitate the journey can offer, he suggests, a well-needed breath of fresh air. Case in point, the present text, derived from his book Le Désordre AZERTY, “a primer arranged according to the layout of the French keyboard.” Not only does this short, beautifully presented cahier, represent a “radical abridgement” of the original text, the sections selected necessarily reflect a new order—that determined by the Anglophone keyboard.

What follows then, are six short treatises inspired by words beginning with the first six letters of the keyboard with a little linguistic gymnastics, no doubt, to line up an English word with a word compatible with the exercise at hand. And, given the words, or rather themes that feature, one must wonder what other liberties were taken to extract six pieces from what one assumes was a selection of at least twenty-six offerings, not allowing for diacritics and accents. In this slender volume we are treated to Chevillard, or his fictional alter-ego, waxing lyrical and irritable on reaching the age of fifty (“Quinquagenarian”); the “Water Closet” (or more explicitly the product one deposits in such facilities); the nature of one’s metaphorical “Enemy”; the “Return” to home or, more exactly, to routine and fresh promise in the fall; the photographer’s art (“Technician of the Darkroom”); and finally, gross human anatomy—especially the foot—in the final installment that opens “You, Eyes!” (or, I would suspect “yeux” in the original).

The narrator is never afraid to examine a subject from a most unlikely angle, employing language that is colourful and inclined to hyperbole. This is evident from the opening offering, a meditation on the misery of attaining the ripe age of fifty, dished out with a healthy dose of melancholic satire:

‘Half a century!’ people say, all smiles, thumping me on my osteoporosis-ridden shoulder-blades.

A little respect would be welcome; a little consideration wouldn’t hurt. Balzac writes somewhere of a ‘fifty-year-old codger’. That’s Balzac for you, who died of exhaustion one year after celebrating the same sinister birthday. I tell myself: Times have changed, today’s fifty is the nineteenth century’s thirty. Thirty year-olds back then were eighteen, and ten-year-old urchins weren’t even born yet.

And more often than not, his starting point, or apparent subject, is rarely more than a launching pad that can potentially take him anywhere. R’s entry which opens “Return Home?” begins with a description of the end of the summer holiday and the beginning of the school year, but his dissertation soon wanders into speculation about the flood of new books that arrive each year with the publishing houses’ autumn offerings. Here our narrator’s cynicism is barely held in check:

Where once there was the book, now there is the public figure of the author, duly dramatized, whose only real use turns out to be to provide a caption for the photo of the artiste who is the one really being featured. All the author can hope for is a meagre compensation in a currency that is already so outdated that it works only in public payphones and slot machines.

Each year sees a glut of new releases, so what of the game, the publishing lottery, into which eager authors enter?

The author of the present lines, given he contributes to full-bloodedly to the current literary over production, may not be ideally placed to complain. But nonetheless: six hundred novels published between September and October? It’s a figure that must be far in excess of the thirst for reading displayed by our contemporaries; it’s akin to pouring an ocean onto a piece of blotting paper, then peeing on it for good measure. Booksellers will soon have to surround themselves with ramparts and equip themselves with flame-throwers in order to repulse writers—those supernumerary writers. No matter! it will surely be educed that the phenomenon serves to demonstrate the surprising vitality of the literary landscape in France!

It would be fair to say that Chevillard’s humour might not whet everyone’s whistle. As a reader who found Author & Me, his book-length diatribe against cauliflower gratin which served as the pretext for a greater meta-fictional reflection, an endlessly hilarious exercise, I find his wit with even the most unlikely of subjects to be a treat. And this Cahier, lavishly illustrated by French artist Philippe Favier, is a perfect introduction to this energetic, imaginative writer. As ever, woven into his literary escapades are some very astute observations about life, the world, and our uneasy navigation of all the joys and obstacles we encounter every day.

QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard is translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty. It is the 31st title in the Cahier Series, a joint project of the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

The restless traveler in an imaginary world: Invisible Countries by Sylvia Brownrigg

Each edition to the Cahier Series, the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions, is a short meditation that, like the gatefold illustrations within, opens up to encompass a larger, wider world of ideas, words, and meaning. Running to less than forty pages apiece, half typically given to specially selected images, these small volumes  invite the reader to slow down, take a little time, enjoy the journey. The reward is a story, fable, or essay that lingers in the imagination.

The latest Cahier, the thirtieth, is Invisible Countries by American novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, an author new to me. Evoking a mood reminiscent of Calvino’s guide to fantastic metropolises, this contemporary fable traces a female traveler’s visits to seven imaginary destinations. Each encounter is unsettling and unnerving in its own way; each locale hovers somewhere between the realistic and the impossible; and each country embodies a concern of our modern global existence. Samarkind, for example, is an island nation with boundaries that are shifting and threatened by rising ocean waters. It might seem counterintuitive, but the response to their shrinking land mass, has been to construct a tunnel under the waves to serve as a connection to the mainland, and that is how we see our traveler warily making her way to the island:

The train dips, a singsong announcement is made in a pair of languages – the distinctive Samarkind full of hiss-clicks and spirants spoken with native confidence; the other, romance-influenced but hesitant, uttered with deliberation, for profit – and then the visitor watches the world go dark. The moment gives an inkling of the planet’s approaching apocalypse; she shudders. She is in a lit moving bullet that penetrates the ground. Down, gradually, down; then level. Above the visitor’s head, though it hardly bears thinking about, is a tremendous body of water, alive with sea creatures, ocean vessels, corpses, aquatic plants, and debris – plastic bags, shipwrecks, messages in bottles that will never reach their intended shores.

We will learn that this far-seeing island state, once reticent about visitors, is planning to recreate themselves as a modern-day Atlantis in an inevitable underwater future.

Thanistan is, as its name implies, is a harsh, silent country that is likely more appealing to the dead (and philosophers seeking peaceful reflection), whereas Alluria, a land promoted with bright and inviting posters promising relaxation and fun in the sun, is but a façade, briefly enjoyed, of a dismal, impoverished world. The exact nature of the place is only hinted at. Lured there once, no one returns for a second visit. One can, of course, travel to a disadvantaged society and stay safely ensconced within the environment of an inclusive five-star resort. Isn’t that what “getting away from it all” promises?

These encounters with foreign spaces, fraught as they are with anticipation and disillusion, anxious border crossings, and concern about understanding and being understood communicating in foreign tongues within cultures with different mindsets (“as she mentally formulates her response, the visitor becomes uncertain whether the agent indeed said to her, ‘Don’t worry,’ or whether it might have been ‘You would worry, you could worry,’ or possibly even the command – ‘Worry!’”) are delivered with such a delicate touch that a strange, haunting beauty comes through. The allusions are offered and allowed to lie as they are, each trip only touches the surface of the visitor’s experience, leaving the reader to wonder how each adventure unfolds and reflect upon what these strange, evolving, troubled landscapes have to say to us now, travelers as we are, together on a finite planet.

Accompanying Brownrigg’s imaginary travelogue are a series of vivid chalk and charcoal illustrations by British artist Tacita Dean. Lush bright scenes alternate with grey, abstract, stormy images to reinforce a sense that this journey has taken us to places that, if nowhere, could be anywhere at all.

Of reality and imagination: To Begin at the Beginning by Javier Marías

In the opening paragraph of her “Postface” to Javier Marías’ recently released contribution to the Cahier Series, To Begin at the Beginning, famed translator Margaret Jull Costa confesses that every time she starts to work on a new Marías novel, she thinks: “I can’t do this.” His work, with its long, convoluted sentences, and its precise, but shifting, language lies ahead of her at the outset of each project, and until she gets back into the flow she feels a sense of anxiety. I must admit that similar sort of uncertainty faces me as a reader. I wonder, am I ready to commit to Marías again right now? Unfortunately, with a few efforts since I was first swept away by A Heart So White many years ago, the answer has been no, not now.

beginSo imagine my delight with this short, reflective essay about the art of taking the stuff of life—the truths and myths that arise from one’s own family history—and using, even re-using them, to tell stories, create literature. I found this Marías, talking about his family, and his approach to the art of writing, so wonderful to read that I’ve mentally added his trilogy to my list of books to read. And that is one of the absolute joys of the Cahier Series: the opportunity to meet, or meet again, a writer or translator, and spend a little time with them as they explore writing or translating, or the intersection of both, in unique and original ways.

Marías, the highly-respected Spanish novelist and translator, sets out in this piece to explain his desire to devote his energies to writing “inventions,” and why, even when he borrows elements from real life, so to speak, he is inclined to break them up, and blend them into his fictional characters and creations rather than putting them in, unaltered.

2017-01-15-02-12-11 He begins by trying to set himself apart from writers who make every effort to make their fictional offerings appear factual, and expresses his dismay whenever presented with the expression: Based on real events. His inevitable reaction? “I’m filled with a feeling of tedium and anticipatory boredom, of distrust and resistance, of suspicion and even scepticism,” he says, going on to be more exacting:

‘What is so strange and unbelievable, so extraordinarily random, arbitrary, and corny about this story that, even though it’s already happened in real life, they still want to tell me about it, even warning me that I have to believe it whether I like it or not, because this is how it was, this is what actually happened?’

2017-01-15-02-13-49Of course, in the essay that follows, he goes on to share aspects of his own family history, reaching back to his Cuban great-grandfather, pulling out some of the stories that have made their way into one or more of his novels. This abbreviated family history is fascinating in its own right (inadvertently causing one to think that any story “true” or otherwise can be magic in the hands of the right storyteller), but his discussion of his process of re-imagining and working people and incidents from the past into his fictions—and the decisions he has faced when handling elements of the real within the world of invention—is equally compelling.

2017-01-15-02-10-09Marías reports that, when he writes, he applies the same principle of knowledge that is at play in life. He does not know if what he writes at page five of a novel will prove to be a good idea at page 200 any more than we can know if what we do at age twenty will seem to have been wise from the vantage point of forty, and so on. In writing, one has the advantage of editing, adjusting events back and forth between earlier and later portions of the work, giving meaning to the capricious and superfluous, as required, so that “what had no meaning at the beginning does have meaning at the end.” Subject as it is to the unforeseeable variables that mould reality, he contends, life makes a very poor novelist. Imagination is a critical mediator—and one of the essential keys to literature— filtering the invented and the actual, rendering everything equal.

To Begin at the Beginning, the twenty-eighth addition to the Cahier Series, offers an opportunity to spend a little time in the company of a renowned novelist and his chief translator. Illustrated by the works of Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, it will likely be appreciated by Marías’ committed readers. For those who have little or no experience with his novels, it serves as an ideal introduction, or, as in my case, an inspiration to read more.

The Cahier Series is a joint publication from the Center for Writers and Translators of the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Words, the most vital gift: Translator’s Blues by Franco Nasi (The Cahier Series, #26)

Charged with the task of bringing a piece of text to life in another language, for another culture, and possibly also for another moment in time perhaps centuries after it was originally conceived and recorded, the translator stands armed with words alone: “imperfect, approximate, or a tad reductive”. But, employed with skill, sensitivity and creativity; words can facilitate a little literary magic.

2016-01-18 01.59.14Translator’s Blues, the latest addition to the Cahier Series of the American University of Paris (#26) is an imaginative discourse on the dilemma of translation – a meditation on the interplay between language and culture, facilitated through words; an elegy for what is gained and what is lost in the process. Italian translator Franco Nasi adopts the voice of a naive alter-ego who is, like his creator, a translator who hails from the province of Regio-Emilia where he was born and expects he will die. His home – with its mountains, Parmesan cheese factories, and cemeteries laid out like miniature cities behind high walls – is a place which makes sense to him, a world that is idiosyncratic but familiar. He is grounded there.

When he chances to befriend an American architect who is visiting his fabled region of Italy, he is offered an invitation to travel to the States in return. After a brief visit to Vermont, our translator finds himself in Chicago where his host is presently employed. As our erstwhile hero makes his way through the linguistic landscape of America he finds himself exploring of the boundaries of language that are blurred when one endeavors to navigate the tricky waters that lie between one culture and another. Through an account of his adventures and encounters he orchestrates, with insight and and a measure of impish delight, an argument that translation is, at its best, an inexact art form. However, rather than seeing that as a limitation, he celebrates the challenges, possibilities and rewards of bringing a piece of literature to new audiences that would otherwise be denied access by the borders of both language and culture.

Our narrator’s journey of discovery starts inauspiciously on a snowy Sunday morning in Chicago when he sets out to purchase non-alcoholic beer from a nearby shop. Bemused by his inability to procure alcohol of any description before 11:00 AM, he inquires of his host as to whether this is a daily reality or one confined only to the one day. He learns that it is, in fact, a law applying only to Sundays, to what are known as the “blue hours”. Blue. This is a word that has a special impact for our translator. He had just finished reading William H. Gass’ On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. He was given the book so that he could assess its suitability for translation. Thus it was with a translator’s eye that he read it, and he found himself rather out of his range. He was inclined to wonder if attempting to translate a book like this, with its multi-layered references to the significance of the colour blue, would be at all possible. References in some instances, such as those with sexual or potentially pornographic overtones, would likely be rendered nonsensical to a culture that tended to associate the same arena with the colour red. It would, he feared, surely induce in him a state of melancholy:

“… a malady that takes hold of you whenever, after a thousand false starts, you find yourself being invested by an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and impotence. This blue-tinged malady makes the translator wish that Babel and the multiplication of languages were only a legend, and that all the various languages in the world did not exist and had never existed. With melancholy comes nostalgia for an ur-language, in which all colours and all their meanings were the same for everyone, in which plants were identical for all and sundry; in which flowers, and sounds, and ceremonies, every object and sensation, and belief was expressed in a single, universal, manner, in which a rose was a rose was a rose.”

All the culturally and linguistically entrenched peculiarities of blue aside, Nasi allows the shade to colour, if you will, much of the exploration of the art of translation that follows. His translator is led, most immediately to a famous Chicago blues bar. As he soaks up the atmosphere and the music, he reflects on the translation of African traditional music to America, facilitated through the songs that black slaves brought with them. Typically based on a pentatonic scale, these songs are echoed in the adaptation of one musical “language” to instruments designed to the specifications and precision of the chromatic scale. As a consequence, notes tend to slip a little out of tune, to bend, and acquire the nostalgic, mournful tone, the blueness, that we associate with the blues. On his way home he contemplates the resonance between the music he has been enjoying and his craft:

“Could it be that any translation, if it seeks to be more than a cold and sterile transposition, must contain blue notes? A translation needs blue notes to hint at an elsewhere, at nostalgia, and with nostalgia the tension provoked by unappeased desire for whatever is distant and unreachable. As William Gass puts it, ‘So it’s true: Being without being is blue.’”

From this point on our hero chances to meet a well-known American poet who, it turns out, is seeking a tutor to help him improve his Italian. So the two begin to meet regularly. Over the course of their acquaintance the poet gives his new friend a volume of his poems. Seeing this as an opportunity to exercise his own English skills, with the added advantage of being able to check his success against the original author’s perceptions, the protagonist asks if he might translate some of the poems. The poet seems pleased with the resulting translations, even if they might at times be less than exacting. So talk of publishing the Italian versions arises and a publisher is sought. Suddenly the poet’s self-appointed “official” translator emerges and demands that a halt be put to the fledgling enterprise – after all, audiences are accustomed to one voice, to offer an alternative would certainly be disorienting.

Nasi’s translator backs down. But at the same time he wonders about the “versions” of writers such as Homer, Sappho or Aristophanes that already exist. He envisions the silence of the library where the respective translations must sit shoulder to shoulder on the shelves, to be broken once the lights are turned off and the key turned in the lock:

“Of a night, there must be some turbulence in the library stacks, what with all those competing voices. And it’s clear that the music does indeed change according to who is playing – and just as well too: what a bore it would be to hear over and over Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony in the way it was played in public the first time, on 7 April 1805 in the Theater an der Wien. To translate is to betray – tradurre è tradire – and only through betrayal is a writer’s voice kept alive. To the liveliness of this voice in time will correspond the number of voices multiplying it, so permitting it to dialogue across the ages.”

Nasi goes on to expand on this fundamental idea. Looking at translation close to the source – that is, within the author’s lifetime – has a particular value, especially when the author is engaged in the translation process. However some authors, and Nasi points to a few of his fellow countrymen here, may run the risk of insisting on a degree of literal accuracy, as they perceive it, that could hinder an emotionally and culturally authentic transition to a foreign language. And to round out his argument he allows his alter-ego to experience the shock of receiving a copy of his own translated book, which is, in reality, the very book the reader happens to be reading. He fails to recognize it at first, his child released into the world now returning and standing at the doorstep – changed but somehow the same and possibly richer for the experience of immersion in another language and culture. Just as our Italian narrator returned from his own trip beyond the borders of Regio-Emilia informed and enlightened.

2016-01-18 01.57.27An essay within a most charming story, Translator’s Blues offers an entertaining, thoughtful reflection on the relationship between translators and the works they attempt to realize in another language and culture. With humour and a gentle wisdom, Nasi explores what can be preserved, what is lost, and the responsibilities that, he would argue, have to be surrendered in the process of translation.

Franco Nasi is a writer and translator who has taught Italian language and literature in the United States, and has translated into Italian a number of writers and poets including S.T. Coleridge, William Wordsworth, J.S. Mill, Billy Collins and Roger McGough. Translated by Dan Gunn and paired with illustrations taken from a notebook kept by Italian artist Massimo Antonaci, Translator’s Blues will be released in February, 2016.

What can or should a story be? The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk is the literary equivalent of an impossible space – that is, this 40-page sewn paperback, lush with illustrations by fellow South African, famed artist William Kentridge, contains a tale much larger than its size would suggest. It begins modestly. Subtitled An Inaugural Lecture, van Niekerk opens with a series of questions for her imagined audience:

“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”

Voluminous texts have been penned to examine questions such as these, and yet within the 18 pages that lie ahead once the illustrations have been accounted for, is our esteemed professor at the lectern is planning to explore them all? No, she is going to tell a story, offer a fable within a fable, share an experience that she claims rendered these questions irrelevant for her.

2015-11-11 03.16.04What plays out in this inventive and thoughtful allegorical tale is an exploration of the relationship between language and meaning, meaning and truth, truth and the stories we tell which, in turn, leads back to language. Van Niekerk casts herself in the role of the skeptic. At the outset she is busy with the final revisions on a novel that is almost complete. Around her, the rest of her life and responsibilities have been suspended while she survives on frozen dinners and ignores her untended house and garden. The last thing she is prepared to welcome at this moment is a 67-page letter from a former student who, she discovers, is writing from a hospital bed in Amsterdam. She had recommended him for a student fellowship in the city with the thought that the change of place might finally help this pale, anxious young man finish off his MA and move on. But she is certain without reading beyond the first few paragraphs that there is little hope for him and most certainly nothing in his massive missive for her.

And so it goes. After reading a little further, she tucks his letter into a drawer and forgets about it until an unusual package arrives: a dummy of her new novel in which he has written notes and dates, along with 16 cassette tapes. Gradually she will be drawn into the story he wants – no, needs – to share. Cynically she reads about how her student, Kasper Olwagon, believes he has discovered, quite magically almost, an unusual homeless man who seems to have an uncanny ability to summon swans to himself. He watches the man for a while and ultimately takes this vagrant home. He longs to know how this apparent ‘swan whisperer’ calls to the magnificent birds, but for all of his efforts, Kasper is unable to encourage or help him to speak.

2015-11-11 03.18.55In his long letter, Kasper anticipates his professor’s reaction, but he persists and over time, as she is drawn into the mystery and returns repeatedly to his letter for clues. She reads about his attempts to extract meaning from the murmurings he believes he heard, his desire to translate the language of swans. She hears in his efforts echoes of Afrikaans. Slowly she will begin to understand the meaning of the cryptic note that accompanied his parcel containing the book and tapes. The last words he wrote to her were: “Farewell to the worlds of will and representation!” As readers we are invited to follow the entwined journeys of student and teacher to that place where all of those questions posed at the beginning seem to be archaic, irrelevant. And once those rhetorical questions are left behind, one begins to appreciate the expanse of the impossible space contained in this small book.

2015-11-11 03.21.17The Swan Whisperer is the latest addition to the “Cahier Series”, a joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. Eminent writers and translators are invited to offer their reflections on writing, on translating, and on the intersection between the two activities. Each volume is accompanied by illustrations. Here, the striking black and white drawings by William Kentridge act almost as a visual soundtrack. His work has a tendency to explode off the page. The images complement the story by exploring the relationship between artists, animals and language. The text is translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart and the author.

2015-11-11 03.13.44I have to add that this particular volume held a special appeal for me. This spring I read, for the first time, Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel Agaat. Not only is this a complex, deeply moving story; but the way that language is evoked and brought into play presented a challenge well met by the translator, Michiel Heyns. Not long after this encounter I made my first visit to South Africa and I had the singular pleasure of experiencing William Kentridge’s installation “The Refusal of Time” at the National Gallery in Cape Town. It was, I felt, like a command performance as no one else even ventured into the room beyond a quick glance at the door. Their loss and one of my fondest memories of my stay in the city.

And now I have both artists together in this enchanting and thought provoking book.