The ties that bind: The Promise by Damon Galgut

Apartheid has fallen now, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

South African author Damon Galgut is back. It has been a long seven years since the release of Arctic Summer, his fictionalized imagining of the creative block that filled the space between EM Forester’s conception of an “Indian novel” and the publication of A Passage to India eleven years later. It is a tale of unrequited love, rich with historical detail and Edwardian literary flavour. With The Promise, Galgut has returned to his native soil with a work that traces the cumulative misfortunes of an Afrikaner family across three decades of national transition and turmoil. Thematically and stylistically this novel echoes his earlier work, but this ambitious, original effort rises to another level, casting a critical eye at his nation’s troubled history with the insight, confidence and sly humour of a seasoned writer.

Central to The Promise are the Swarts—mother Rachel, father Manie, daughters Astrid and Amor and son Anton—their small farm outside of Pretoria, and a shifting assortment of relatives, partners and community members who come and go along the way. The first section opens with a death, Rachel has lost her battle with cancer, and the family gathers. Astrid, the middle child, is living at home, but her thirteen year-old sister Amor has been sent away to lodge at her school and nineteen year-old Anton is doing his military service. The year is 1986. Rachel’s recent return to her Jewish faith complicates the funeral proceedings and stokes existing tensions between both sides of the deceased woman’s family. But there is something more. Two weeks earlier, Amor had been present in her mother’s room when she begged Manie to promise that he would give Salome, their housekeeper, the small house that she lived in. Reluctantly he agreed. Of course Amor’s parents did not remember she was present at the time; she was, as she puts it, as invisible as a black woman to them. As invisible as Salome herself. Within her family Amor is the odd one—injured as a in a lightning strike as a child, she is seen as slow and plain and, as such, set apart from her older siblings, the golden ones.

Across the years, the members of the Swart family drift apart, each following their own path, to be pulled together only by a sequence of funerals, each separated by roughly a decade. It is by no means a spoiler to reveal that every gathering reduces the Swart clan by one. The section titles even give the victim away, but in itself that tells you little because as life and death takes its toll on the family, the children grow up and South Africa changes, for better and for worse. The promise of Independence, the strangeness of seeing racial boundaries bend, even blur, the rising crime, and the ultimate political disillusion colour the world within which the primary characters fall in and out of love, succeed and fail, and meet their ends. Guiding the entire drama is a rambling omniscient (mostly) third person narrator who is, by turns, playful, sarcastic, critical, and compassionate.

The narrative voice is exceptional, orchestrating a drama which is at once far reaching and intimate. James Wood in his review for The New Yorker says:

Technically, it’s a combination of free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a specific character) and what might be called unidentified free indirect style (third-person narration pegged to a shadowy narrator, or a vague village chorus).

This is a helpful way to describe what Galgut is doing, but it doesn’t begin to capture what it feels like to ride the narrative wave, or the skillful way that the narrator engages with his audience echoing views of an extended cast of characters, some almost incidental, others central to the story, to call moments of historical value into relief and to further personality development with passing commentary and sideways glances. The line between the narrator and the characters is porous; it is, at times, impossible to tell if we are hearing a character’s thoughts or words, or if we are hearing the narrator’s direct response to that individual, an editorial aside, or the reflection of a group or societal opinion. One also finds moments where names are forgotten, mistakes are made and quickly corrected, and where metafictional observations step out to question the logic of novel writing/storytelling in process. However, these are not mere gimmicks, rather they underscore the willful blindness that so many of the characters, and by extension, white South Africans, cling to as their reality is challenged. And, of course, the promise at the heart of the novel, unkept and as such symbolic of this shifting terrain, is a constant stumbling block:

Not even Salome is around as she normally would be. You might have expected to see her at the funeral, but Tannie Marina told her in no uncertain terms that she would not be allowed to attend. Why not? Ag, don’t be stupid. So Salome has gone back to her own house, beg your pardon, to the Lombard Place, and changed into her church clothes, which she would have worn to the service, a black dress, patched and darned, and a black shawl, and her only good pair of shoes, and a handbag and a hat, and like that she sits out in front of her house, sorry, the Lombard Place, on a second-hand armchair from which the stuffing is bursting out, and says a prayer for Rachel.

The Promise is, all told, a rather bleak novel, though the boisterous narrator keeps it afloat. As the family falls apart, so does the farm. Everyone seems to have an interest in the house, or its presumed value, but no one is prepared to maintain it and, as we reach the closing section, it’s 2017, and there are competing claims on the land. The only person to keep a degree of distance is Amor, the youngest. At first she travels, returning home transformed, no longer the ugly duckling. She goes on to become a nurse and remains in touch with Salome while avoiding the rest of her family. If she is the Swarts’ moral compass, the price she pays is perhaps no less than that of her siblings, Astrid who marries young and has twins, and Anton who also marries but remains recklessly without a rudder. Religion, or lack thereof, a necessary feature of a tale built around four funerals, proves insufficient to hold anyone’s life intact, yet in various incarnations faith forms an important thread running through this book. But on an individual and a national level there are no easy answers and, true to form, Galgut offers no absolutes. The promise to Salome that goes unfulfilled is not the only unmet expectation—the promise of a new South Africa blooms and gradually falls apart as the book progresses. In the end, only one promise will finally be honoured, at the risk that it is, like so many things in life, too little, too late. One can only hope that for the two main characters remaining it will be enough.

The Promise by Damon Galgut is published in North America by Europa Editions.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

Round and round: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

The unnamed protagonist of 33 Revolutions, a stark, relentless portrait of life in Castros’ Cuba, is a divorced, black man—a misfit who chafes against the collective tedium of his existence until he is forced to decide, like so many before him, what, if anything, holds him to his wretched island nation. The revolutionary bloom is long off the Communist rose that once held his hopes and enthusiasm. With weary resignation, he shuffles off to his ministry job day after day, enjoying the few privileges afforded by the little bit of extra money sent to him from his mother overseas, but it is a hollow existence:

Duty and desire. Angrily, he bangs out his dilemma on the typewriter until the paper is perforated with periods and commas. His desire is to be alone in his office, in this city, in this country, and never to be disturbed. Monotony is expressed in a thousand ways and acquires various signs. Work, radio, new bulletins, meals, free time: I live in a scratched record, he thinks, and every day it gets a bit more scratched. Repetition puts you to sleep, and that sleepiness is also repeated; sometimes the needle jumps, a crackling is heard, the rhythm changes, then it sticks again. It always sticks again.

33Threaded through the thirty-three brief chapters of this slender novella, are two repeated refrains: the scratched record and the suffocating tropical heat. This imagery is employed so incessantly that it begins to wear a groove that could, in a longer or less deftly handled work, easily become irritating. Instead, the sheer beauty of the language lends the repetition a peculiar freshness. And that is exactly the intention. Tedium and repetition can be borne, can even seem bearable. Until one day it isn’t, and then all bets are off.

The author of 33 Revolutions, Canek Sánchez Guevara, inherited a proud and defiant spirit  from his grandfather, the famous Marxist revolutionary who fought alongside Fidel Castro. At the age of 22, he rejected the dictatorial politics of his homeland, and left for Mexico where he became a writer, graphic designer, and heavy metal guitarist. He was dedicated to writing and speaking out against Cuba’s single party system and its attendant human rights abuses until he died unexpectedly in 2015, at the age of 40. This hypnotically engaging novel allows his voice to continue on.

With a sense of absurdity that Kafka would appreciate, Sánchez Guevara creates, in his hero, a man who is aware that he stands at odds with the world around him. He finds refuge in books and an incongruous fondness for avant-garde music. He is aware that his life is paradoxical, verging on metaphysical weirdness that is both a blessing and a curse. And this painful self-knowledge does nothing to protect him from the monotony that curses his days or the vivid nightmares that haunt his sleep. He understands his reality all too well:

He looks down at the sea again and drinks straight from the bottle. Behind him, the dirty, beautiful, broken city; in front of him the abyss that suggests defeat…. We win by isolating ourselves, and in isolating ourselves we are defeated, he thinks. The wall is the sea, the screen that protects us and locks us in. There are no borders; those waters are a bulwark and a stockade, a trench and a moat, a barricade and a fence. We resist through isolation. We survive through repetition.

As this ceaseless repetition begins to weaken him, our protagonist’s disaffection grows. An undercurrent of protest starts to build within him, fueled by the oppressive heat and boredom. He had long managed to hold his distance, to stand apart from both the street corner reactionaries and the huddled gossips distorting what the rumours passed down to the masses—but this continual buffering against the insidious mechanisms of state control, starts to wear him down like, well, the needle on a scratched record.

The heat is criminal—it melts neurons, incites to violence, multiplies fertility tenfold. There isn’t a beer for miles around (or water, or a barley drink, or anything that can be bought with national currency). Nothing belongs to me, he thinks. And what about me, do I belong to anything? (The scratched record plays insistently.)

His rebellion starts passively, opting out and feigning sick, but in that act the course is turned.

He finds himself drawn to the shore. His experiences, not only of the city around him but the uncertain and desperate promise that waits beyond the waves, is mediated through the lens of his camera. The frame of the viewfinder becomes his means of contextualizing himself in the world and a focuses his hopes for a possible future elsewhere. Everyone seems to be leaving—his doctor, an old friend from school, groups of kids clinging to rafts of questionable seaworthiness. The camera with its ability to play with depth of field, becomes his tool in an attempt to tell an alternate story, take control of and document his own fate.

This brief novella hits hard. Harder perhaps in the light of Fidel Castro’s recent passing, and in the desperation of migrants risking the seas for a better life elsewhere. The anguish that comes through personal and powerful, and it is more important than ever that we stop for a moment to listen.

33 Revolutions, by Canek Sánchez Guevara is translated  by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions.

The pursuit of happiness: Sergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto

“If happiness is not where we are, we must chase her. She sometimes lives very far away. You must have the courage to be happy.”

When it comes to the depiction of transgender individuals in literary fiction, I will confess that I am a rather cynical customer. Lets just say I know the reality too well. So much of what I have read does not even come close to scratching the surface of what it means to be at odds with one’s own birth-assigned gender. Intentions are good and, of course, the transgender or intersex character always allows for an interesting twist but the results can be misleading, even distressingly off base. That’s why Sergio Y. by Brazilian author Alexandre Vidal Porto is such a refreshing and original read. Here is a novel that treats the subject with intelligence and compassion—quite the feat for a book in which the transgender character meets an untimely and unfortunate end before the story even gets started.

SergioThe title character, Sergio Y. is the son of a wealthy businessman in São Paolo, Brazil, and the great grandson of an Armenian immigrant who escaped the tragic fate of so many of his countrymen, including the rest of his family, when he crossed the ocean in 1915, seeking his happiness in the Americas. The narrator is Armando, a well-respected seventy year-old psychiatrist. Sergio had been referred to him for therapy at the age of seventeen, described simply as “articulate, intelligent and confused.” They meet regularly for several years. This mature young man—so handsome, wealthy and talented—intrigues Armando and yet, in spite of all of these advantages, he professes to be possessed by a deep and abiding unhappiness.

Following a visit to New York City one Christmas, Sergio informs Armando that he wishes to discontinue therapy. He has had a revelation, he says, and he believes he has found a way to be happy. Our narrator is a little disgruntled to be dismissed as such but, as the years pass, Sergio Y. fades from his mind until a chance encounter with his former patient’s mother. She reports that her son has moved to New York where he attended culinary school and is now about to open his own restaurant. Armando is surprised, but pleased by this news and the praise he is afforded for his role in helping Sergio find happiness at last. However, this boost to his ego is short lived. Armando’s world begins to crumble when he learns, quite by chance, that Sergio Y. has been murdered at his home in the West Village.

Obsessive by nature, Armando becomes haunted by the need to know more. What he discovers with the help of a private investigator is completely unexpected and sends him reeling. The murder victim is identified as Sandra Yacoubian, female. Sandra and Sergio he soon learns are, in fact, one and the same person. His young patient had found his happiness as a woman and now she was dead at the age of 23! How could he have failed to recognize that Sergio was transsexual? And, even more serious, was his failure in some way responsible for this tragic outcome?

The main source of my frustration was not having detected any hint of Sergio Y.’s transsexuality. I felt I had been duped solely and exclusively by my own incompetence. I had always though that the secret to transsexuality was not all that deep, that it revealed itself in all of the individual’s attitudes, at all times, in all the decisions he or she took, since early childhood. As far as I was concerned, the pain in the patient’s soul and their inner confusion would be so visible that one did not need to be a Freudian or Jungian psychoanalyst to make the diagnosis.

Armando’s search for answers and his personal quest for understanding lie at the heart of this book. He begins with a handful of stereotyped assumptions. He labels them, admits to them, and lays them out. In the end, as he comes to a clearer,more nuanced appreciation of the decision his patient chose to take to find happiness and the determination with which she pursued it.

The narrative tone is highly idiosyncratic, dictated by the analytical, mildly obsessive-compulsive, immodest character of Armando. Even when he begins to doubt and second-guess himself as the account progresses, he maintains the matter of fact, dry, clinical delivery of a psychiatric report. The attention to detail—his clothing choices, his tendency to note the approximate height and weight of people he encounters, even his reports of his own emotional ups and downs—all create the illusion of a sterile account. But when the careful veneer cracks from time to time, we see a moody, somewhat petulant character, prone to bursts of pride, mixed with episodes of guilt and shame. He is continually measuring himself against his own successes and failures. His internal machinations are fascinating.

Ultimately, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. In his own journey to understand and set his mind at ease, the questions Armando raises and the answers he finds serve to create a moving and compassionate portrait of the transgender person’s conflicted internal experience and the search to find a way to be happy in the world.

Happiness may be an ideal; comfort or contentment might work as well. From my point on this same journey I would hasten to add that it can be a difficult and lonely path, but that does not mean it is not worth following. In fact, if it is the right path, there is no other. Semantics aside, this novel is an important, engaging read. It deserves to be written about and it needs to be discussed.

Sergio Y. is translated from the Portuguese by Alex Ladd and published by Europa Editions.