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.

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.