Passion and plague: Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón

He’d had no inkling that when the pestilence took hold Reykjavik would empty and convey the impression that nothing was happening at all; that the town would become an abandoned set that he, Máni Steinn, could envisage as the backdrop for whatever sensational plot he cared to devise, or more accurately, for the kind of sinister events that in a film would be staged in this sort of village of the damned–for those days the real stories are being acted out behind closed doors. And they are darker than a youthful mind can imagine.

moonstoneMoonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, Icelandic writer Sjón’s fourth novel to be released in translation, is set in Reykjavik in late 1918. This is fortuitous timing. A number of critical events converge over the course of a few months: the volcano Katla erupts in a dazzling display of fire and ash, the First World War comes to an end, and the small Nordic country achieves sovereignty. But the most devastating impact arrives in the form of the plague that is presently sweeping the globe–the Spanish flu.

At the centre of the tale is sixteen year-old Máni Steinn, an orphan who lives with an old woman who is, as far as he knows, the sister of his great-grandmother. He is an independent spirit. He wanders around town, services “gentlemen” for money, and spends hours in the cinema. For a queer boy with no family history, illiterate, and alienated from his peers, silent films offer an opportunity to lose himself in fantasy, intrigue, and drama. A theatrical imagination dominates his dreams, at night and during the idle hours of the day.

In general, his encounters with men are dispassionate, hurried and impersonal. But there are a few exceptions, men who show him affection and kindness, like the foreigner who, in a play on his name, christens him Moonstone. And then there is Sóla G–, a young woman from a prominent family, who is known for ridingmusidora through town on her red Indian motorcycle. She is, for Máni, an embodiment of Musidora, the French actress who stars in one of his favouritefilms, Louis Feuillade’s crime serial, The Vampires. He worships her and, fortunately for him, she secretly knows and understands the kind of boy he is.

The Spanish flu will alter everything. Despite warnings from Copenhagen, Iceland is not prepared for the speed with which the coming epidemic will spread or the toll it will take on the people and resources of Reykjavik. Once it hits the shore though, it is all that anyone can talk about. Our protagonist however, absorbs the news with a deeply romantic response:

He has a butterfly in his stomach, similar to those he experiences when he picks up a gentleman, only this time it is larger, its wingspan greater, its colour as black as the velvet ribbons on a hearse.

An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.

The silver screen has torn and a draft is blowing between the worlds.

Very rapidly, Reykjavik begins to resemble a ghost town. The cinema still draws those seeking comfort, community, and warmth until the last available musician of any description collapses and the films, now unbearably silent, cease. But by this point Máni himself has fallen ill.

Sjón invites the reader right into his hero’s illness with little warning. The images are brutal, harsh, surreal. From the explosive fiery heat of his fever, through his horrific delusions to the subsequent pain and bleeding, Máni’s cinematic imagination colours the account of his fragmented and distorted days of suffering. He is left drained and delerious:

The boy no longer has need of blood or bone, muscle or gut. He dissolves his body, turning solid into liquid, beginning from within and rinsing it all out, until it gushes out of every orifice he can find. He is a shadow that passes from man to man, and no one is complete until he has cast him.

Upon recovery, Máni is recruited to accompany the doctor and his driver, the enigmatic Sóla G–, on the grim task of calling on the sick, the dying and the dead. Men, women and children fall indiscriminately. Within a few weeks though, the pestilence burns itself out and the survivors pull themselves together and drag themselves back to life and, soon, to the cinema. Over the course of one month, ten thousand citizens have endured the ravages of the illness, and almost every family has been directly touched by loss in some way. Attention now turns to the coming celebration of Iceland’s independence, but Máni will still have one major challenge ahead.

Sjón has a light touch–an ability to spin a tale that unfolds with the spirit of a fable and feels lighter than air. He works in miniature with a sensibility that is poetic, weaving the strands of his tale with a glimmer of magic. But that does not mean his novels fail to explore topics of substance or create characters that live and breathe. The lingering impression is ephemeral, lyrical, haunting.

Moonstone is dedicated to the author’s uncle Bósi, a gay man who died of AIDS in 1993. This novella sheds light on the clandestine and dangerous lives of homosexual men at a time when a country like Iceland, which fancied itself too robust to face threat from influenza, imagined itself to be a place where such aberrant behaviour could not possibly exist. For Máni, the “boy who never was”, it was a desolate place, save for the refuge of cinema. Placing the story in 1918, allusions to the plague that would devastate the gay community in the 1980s and 90s are unavoidable. And that much more powerful.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is translated by Victoria Cribb and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in North America and Sceptre in the UK. Originally published in 2013, the book won the Icelandic Literary Prize.

Inside the fragmenting mind: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke

‘Bloch got sleepy. He made a few tired gestures to make light of his sleepiness, but that made him even sleepier. Various things he said during the day came back to him; he tried to get rid of them by breathing out. Then he felt himself falling asleep; as before the end of a paragraph, he thought.’

One of the first things you need to know about Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, is that here are no easy answers here. If you are inclined to believe that literature should purvey rational motivation, moral certainty, and a satisfying denouement, you might want to look elsewhere. This is a novel that dismantles everything that one expects a novel to be, but, because Handke engages in this process from within the mind of man whose own processes of perception and comprehension are unraveling, one can argue that for all its inherent strangeness, The Goalie’s Anxiety approaches a reality of experience that is startling.

goalieAfter all, how do we measure reality? The only measures we have are our thoughts and perceptions. Narrated with an almost clinical, documentary clarity from a limited third person perspective, the reader is presented with an opportunity to exist inside the mind of a dispassionate murderer and face the uncomfortable possibility that rational explanations for behaviour may not always exist–and that someone who may not be in their right mind can be disordered not only in their thinking, but in their emotional responses.

At the outset of the novel we meet Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had formerly been a well-known soccer goalie. He arrives at work one day and interprets small insignificant signs from his coworkers to mean that he has lost his job and, taking the hint, he leaves. He goes to the movies, takes a hotel room and otherwise occupies himself with random activities. Strange moods and thoughts pass through his mind. One night he decides to wait for the cashier at the movie theatre to get off work and follows her home.

When he wakes after spending the night with her, he discovers, lying in bed with his eyes closed, that an odd inability to visualize things has come over him. He tries naming objects, then making up sentences about things, all in an effort to bring the images to mind. He becomes aware of the pressure of things, distressing when his eyes are open, magnified when they are closed. His thoughts and experiences are starting to fall out of synch with the world around him. As he spends time with the cashier, he notices his irritation increasing and then, with little provocation or self-reflection, he strangles the young woman.

An unearthly calm envelopes the narration as Bloch’s actions and thinking processes are recounted with a surreal, slow motion quality. Before long he leaves the city to head out to a small town where an ex-girlfriend runs a tavern. He shows no particular desire to hide from the authorities, but as he spends time in the town his thinking continues to fall apart. Talking and communicating begins to take on a disordered quality. Bloch starts analyzing and double checking his thoughts–the words and expressions that pass through his mind catch him up and he questions the meanings he attaches to the words of others, for example in this exchange with two cape-wearing (yes, cape wearing) bicycle policemen outside a closed pool where Bloch has found himself standing:

‘The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like “got to remember” and “take off” as “goats you remember” and “take-off” and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying “Whitewash?” instead of “why watch?” and “closed, or” instead of “close door”.’

Over time his interactions with others continue to grow increasingly surreal, at least from within Bloch’s increasingly distorted perceptions of the world. We are, after all, firmly ensconced in the head of a man whose emotional and cognitive functioning is unspooling. The story may be proceeding with detached and disconnected sequences, but the tightly controlled limited third person narrative is deeply affecting for the reader. We can only see the world as Bloch experiences it, but with just enough distance to watch the internal decline. We are told what he is doing and thinking, but everyone and everything he encounters is filtered through his distorted lens–he imagines that messages are being sent to him, even if he is not certain what they are trying to indicate, objects and events hold meaning. As his paranoia grows, his sense of prescience is also heightened and he observes that his thoughts seem to proceed the words or actions of others.

At the same time Bloch exhibits an enhanced awareness of the world in small, often insignificant details that impose themselves on his consciousness to the point that he is sometimes irritated by the sensory input and his own intrusive observations. His breakdown is skillfully orchestrated. Handke captures his hyper awareness in descriptive passages that reflect the odd acuity of his attention and his internal difficulties with his own fragmenting thoughts. At one point, as Bloch tries desperately to cling to individual words, images briefly replace the terms that have abandoned him. And although, like Camus’ Mersault to whom he is often compared, he never expresses any remorse for his violent act; as the police appear to be closing in on him, his thoughts betray more than he can or will admit to himself.

‘He took a second look: no, the light switches stayed light switches, and the garden chairs in the landscape behind the house stayed garden chairs.

He walked on because–
Did he have to give a reason for walking, so that–?

What did he have in mind when–? Did he have to justify the “when” by–? Did this go on until–? Had he reached the point where–?’

It is sometimes said that Handke’s protagonist stands as an allegory for the disintegration of modern man and society, but I could not help but recognize in Bloch a striking depiction of the internal irrational rationalizing of the psychotic mind. The supercharged sensitivity, the paranoia, and the ultimate inability to string together coherent thoughts all echo my own unfortunate experience with mania and the experiences of many of the schizophrenic clients I’ve worked with over the years.

As the book nears its conclusion, Bloch has a recurring memory that seems to indicate there is an incident that may have been a mitigating factor in the progress of mental decline that plays out in the novel. It is subtly drawn and reinforced with the closing scene, but even then, one would imagine there might well have been an inherent psychological weakness that was triggered by the event. The 1972 movie based on this novel which marked the first collaboration between Handke as screenwriter and director Wim Wenders is more explicit in this regard, but the film proceeds with effectively disconnected and disorienting scenes to maintain the surreal feel of the book.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke is translated by Michael Roloff and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

The art of distilling a life lived: A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke

“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”

With this simply stated aspiration, Austrian writer and dramatist Peter Handke set out to capture the essence of his mother’s life and chronicle the painful spiral that swept her into a darkness which would lead her to take her own life at the age of 51. Written over two winter months in 1972, the result is a slight volume, 69 pages, that can be read in afternoon. But length can be deceiving. Tracing out a life that spanned the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, and the austerity and suffering that followed,  A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a spare and elegant memoir from which the reader emerges drained and aching alongside its author.

sorrowFrom the outset he admits that he is seeking an element of closure in the act of putting words to paper, but he wishes to avoid an overly sentimental account, concerned that he risks turning his mother, a real person, into a “character.” He intentionally adopts a more distanced perspective. He does not refer to her by name, and when he recounts the events of his early years he is “the child” or one of “the children”. He employs capital letters for emphasis (“she was a woman who had been ABROAD”). But there is another motive as well. He sees in her life an illustration of the social restraints that defined and limited the lives of so many women from poor rural communities such as the small Austrian village where she began and ended her life. As such he wishes to present her life story as one that is at once personal and exemplary.

The portrait he paints of his mother is one of a spirited young woman, who was denied her pleas to be allowed to continue her studies, for an education beyond the basics was not to be squandered on girls or women. So she ran away to the city to study cooking – not exactly an academic pursuit, but again the only option open for her. She thrived in her new environment: a world of new friendships, fashions, opportunity, and the heady comraderie that accompanied the rise of National Socialism.

The outbreak of war only added to the excitement as young soldiers, away from home and lonely, flooded into the city. She met and fell in love with a married man. Before long she was pregnant, but by the time her son Peter was born she had married another man. Her first romance would remain her only true experience of romantic love; what she had with her husband was a disappointing, often hostile, and very lonely existence. After the war the young family spent a few years in Berlin, living amidst the rubble. A second child is born there. (Over the years she will have two more children and secretly abort three others with knitting needles.) In 1948 they flee Germany and return to Austria, where she finds herself back in her family home, trapped again in a restricted environment, her life once more defined by the Catholic shame and guilt of village life.

Economic conditions at this time were harsh and her husband’s drinking and difficulty holding employment did not help. She responded with the only strategy available: “pure scrimping; you curtailed your needs to the point where they became vices, and then you curtailed them some more.” Necessities would be wrapped up and handed out at Christmas. As Handke recalls, “I was sincerely grateful for the most indispensable school materials and spread them out beside my bed like presents.” Yet she did not look to the possibility that life might hold more for her than housework and continually making the rounds required to keep her drunkard husband employed, creditors from the door and paperwork up to date just to assure access to the most basic benefits.

Finally, as modern appliances started to appear in her house, freeing up a little precious time, Handke’s mother took to reading. Not just the newspapers, but books he brought home from university: Fallada, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and more. She took everything she read very personally as if each book was a commentary on her life. But by doing so she began to find the words to express herself and put voice to her experiences. As she gradually emerged from her shell, her son finally began to learn about her. However they did not give her a vision of hope for her own future, they spoke only to a past:

“Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but it showed her it was too late for that. She COULD HAVE made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave SOME thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a LITTLE LESS about what people might think.”

For a while she become more engaged in the community, showed more compassion to her husband, and things might have improved but the disappointments of home life still seemed to defeat her. She began to have headaches. She started to withdraw from community life. Her spirit sagged and no one could tell her what was wrong until a neurologist in the city identified her condition as a “nervous breakdown”. With the comfort of having an explanation and medication to ease the pain, she eventually improved. There would be a respite. But in the end despair returned. In November of 1971, she wrote farewell letters to her each member of her family. Then one evening after dinner with her daughter and an evening watching TV with her youngest son, she took all of her sleeping pills and all of her antidepressants and laid down on her bed to welcome that final rest.

If Handke had imagined that in writing this account of his mother’s life he would be able to achieve some peace himself, he discovers, in the end, that that is not the case. The story continues to preoccupy him, to haunt him. Facing memories head on is an act of confronting horror but it does not ease it. The horror arises from the persistent attempt to reflect a truth. He admits that at times he longed to be able to lose himself in a fiction, to be able to tell lies for a while, write a play instead. No longer able to stay out of the frame, he closes the book with a collection of images, remembrances, and brief personal confessions.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is, as its subtitle indicates, a “Life Story” told with simplicity and honesty. As Handke reflects in an extended parenthetical aside almost halfway through the book, he wanted to pare his mother’s story down, to present her life with a focused clarity. He sees, in the type of project in which he is engaged, two particular challenges:

“These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”

The result he achieves is a memoir stripped to its essentials, but delivered with stark, beautiful prose. His love comes through in every phrase as he recounts his mother’s story, and the emotions that arise as he sees her through the final rituals of her shortened life are real, complicated and raw.

*A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, translated by Ralph Manheim with an Introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Listening to the voices of Afghan women: I am the Beggar of the World

“In my dream, I am the president,
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

With a long history, passed down through generations, landays are traditional two line poems recited or sung by the mostly illiterate Pashtun people who live along the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are composed of twenty-two syllables – nine in the first line and thirteen in the second. For the women in this area who face social and cultural restraints that define and restrict their lives, these anonymous couplets have become an important medium for self expression. Sometimes they gather to share or perform the landays they have learned, updated or re-invented; but radio and the ubiquitous social media and cell phones have also been worked into a new modern network for sharing.

beggarI Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, a collaboration between translator and poet Eliza Griswold and photographer Seamus Murphy, is a sensitive and moving collection of landays, brief essays, and photographs. Upon hearing of the death of a teenaged poet who had been forbidden by her family to write poems and burned herself in protest, Griswold was inspired to journey to Afghanistan to explore the role of landays in the lives of Pashtun women. She returned to collect some of these poems, assisted by native speakers and a Pashta translator, Asma Safi, who sadly died of a heart condition before the project was complete. Arranging meetings as an American was not always easy – being under occupation is a difficult, deadly environment – but along the way she collected the words and stories of some very strong, fascinating women.

Divided into three sections, the first is dedicated to Love. Many of the couplets are brazenly racy, teasing and modern. Yet because landays are by their nature anonymous, no woman can be held responsible for sharing them or for the contemporary imagery has been worked into the more traditional versions:

“Embrace me in your suicide vest
but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.”

“Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.”

“”How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged. Text me.”

The second section is dedictated to the themes of Grief and Separation. Suffering and servitude are enduring features of the lives of Pashtun women. Marriage implies both. Curiously love also features throughout the poems in this section because romantic love is forbidden. If a young woman is discovered to be in love with a man she can be killed or driven to take her own life to preserve her family’s honour.

“Our secret love has been discovered.
You run one way and I’ll flee the other.”

Once married, having one’s husband take another wife is emotionally painful, but being passed over altogether or married off to an old man can be worse.

“Listen, friends, and share my despair
My cruel father is selling me to an old goat.”

The final section explores War and Homeland. Complex, mixed emotions, anger and sorrow rise up here in poems that are moving and, again, shockingly modern. A long legacy of occupation under British, Russian, and American forces has placed the women of Afghanistan in a difficult position, torn between the brutality of American protection and the combined threat and promise of the Taliban. The landays and the images in this section are especially powerful and represent sentiments that women would not be able to express so readily in any other forum:

“Be black with gunpowder or bloodred
but don’t come home whole and disgrace my bed.”

“Beneath her scarf, her honor was pure.
Now she flees Kabul bareheaded and poor.”

“May God destroy your tank and your drone,
you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.”

This slim volume is a testament to the resilience of the Pashtun women in the face of the violence, threats and restraints they live with every day. These traditional two-line poems provide a framework for illiterate women to express themselves and share their sorrows, joys and wisdom with their sisters. In Afghanistan they still face risks in committing their own poetry to paper when they are able, so this oral tradition remains important, even if modern devices like cell phones have expanded their network. This beautiful book which pairs the simple landays with muted black and white photographs documenting the people of Afghanistan, the sparse landscape and the violence of war, provides a rare opportunity to hear the intimate voices of women that might otherwise be silenced.