Neither here nor there: Esther Kinsky’s River and a link to my review at Music & Literature

Since I finished Esther Kinsky’s magnificent novel River, it has been difficult for me to contain my enthusiasm for this work, and yet, with a major review on the way, I wanted to refrain from talking at length about my reading of this languid, mesmerizing meditation on the relationships we have with place—those we live in, pass through, or linger in uncertainly during points of transition.  That review is now live, and yet Kinsky’s book is still working its way through my system.

River is a slow read; immersive, poetic, attentive to detail. It creates an atmosphere of intimacy with the spaces the unnamed narrator traverses during a time of restless displacement in a community on the edge of London; a time of gathering and preparation for leaving the city where she has lived for a number of years. Some of these spaces are immediate, defined by the course of the river Lea. Others exist in the distance, temporally and physically. And yet, although there are clear parallels between Kinsky’s own life history and the locations her narrator visits, River occupies an intentionally indistinct borderland between fiction and memoir, focusing on experience in the moment over biographical background and detail, resulting in a narrative that flows, organically, like the rivers than run through it.

My review of River can be found at the online site of the singular journal Music& Literature. The opening passages are reproduced below, you can read the rest of it here.

A mood, an atmosphere, rises up from the opening pages of Esther Kinsky’s River—a melancholy that unfolds so softly, so insistently that I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading words that originally existed in German. I found myself wondering: What would the German feel like in my hands? How would its texture taste, guttural tones against the back of my throat? These are questions that, in their asking, underscore how River is a text to linger in, to touch, to absorb, and recognize one’s self in. We follow the narrator as she temporarily suspends her life, settling for a time in a marginal community on the edge of London, so she can slowly disengage herself from a number of years spent in the city, and prepare, mentally and emotionally, to take her final leave. The process she details seems to be one we, too, undergo in reading River.

Under a pale sun and in the whitish, shadowless light peculiar to this place and these seasons, I took to following tracks which, time and again, led me back through the alder grove. This partly mutilated wetland wood with its childhood flowers and wild birds secretly appealing to my memory was my gateway to the lower reaches, to the path downstream that gradually taught me, during the final months of my stay, to find my own names for a city I had already spent many years labouring to decipher—names only walking and looking could force me to extract and reassemble from a web of trickling memories, a debris of stored images and sounds, a tissue of tangled words.

 

River by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Iain Galbraith and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and Transit Books in North America.

The interconnectedness of being in the world: Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

One thing that struck me as I threaded my way through Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream—the first part of his three-part Nocilla Project—in this second year of the Trump presidency is that a new level of unreality has descended on this sorry globe rendering some elements of this inventive blend of fiction and nonfiction decidedly quaint, like a relic of another time. In this exercise, fragments drawn from literary, scientific and technical sources form the web or framework around which a clutch of stories featuring eccentric characters circulate. The centre point is rooted in a distinctly European-imagined American west. But this web was woven in the early/mid-2000s (the original Spanish language release was published in 2006) and now, in 2018, we’re not in in the same American, let alone global, landscape anymore. Ours is one more bizarre than any Fernández Mallo imagined.

In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, the Spanish writer—and trained physicist—explains the philosophy underlying his approach to his work, something he describes as “complex realism”:

…what I’m suggesting is that the writer must be realist, always realist, but not realist in the sense we have usually used the term in literature. If reality today is different from the reality of 30 years ago, we can’t keep describing reality in the same way as we did 30 years ago. Today we understand that reality corresponds to a model — or, even better, the sum of various models — which in science are termed “complex systems” — not complicated or difficult, that’s a different thing! This complexity is what creates that which we all know — the World — is connected in a system of networks — and I’m not referring only to the internet but also to thousands of analog networks in which we are all immersed at every instant. Until a short time ago, we knew the world in parts, whereas now we know that those parts are all connected through a system of networks with a very concrete topology.

The fundamentals that hold this project together are still every bit as valid, but the consequences of interconnectedness are just that more unnerving in light of the disturbing, current state of the United States.

Nocilla Dream unfolds over a series of 113 segments. One encounters fragments drawn from computer science, physics, literature, filmography, and more woven into a series of stories, character sketches and narratives that diverge and dovetail to form one multifaceted, strangely cohesive whole. Even the most random pieces fit somewhere into a larger zone of interconnection, in time, place, or theme. It is, in a sense, a conceptual novelistic experience. And, rather than being showy and intertexually obscure, it is a highly readable book that becomes even more engaging the further you move into it, as odd connections are made, strange eccentric characters emerge and pass through, and the assorted references and reflections begin to add up to some logic of their own.

While in many respects Nocilla Dream is groundless—that is, it exists beyond the framework of any particular story, location or collection of facts—there are some central motifs and ideas that provide a degree of orientation and link, however loosely, a disparate set of solitary or peculiar souls spread across the globe. The primary one is a desolate stretch of road with a curious attraction:

Indeed, technically its name is US Route 50. It’s in Nevada and it’s the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260-mile stretch with a brothel at either end. In conceptual terms, only one thing on this entire route vaguely calls to mind the existence of humanity: a poplar tree, the only one that found water, with hundreds of pairs of trainers hanging from its branches.

The highway with this singular feature becomes the perfect centralizing image. One that could easily fall into cliché, or worse, a nod to magic realism, but it is not. This book is at once too imaginative and too pragmatic for that. Crossing the landscape we have an assortment of characters including a  wandering ex-boxer, lovelorn prostitutes, an Argentinian architect and devotee of Borges who suffers a crisis of faith, the self-proclaimed citizens of several scattered micronations, competitive surfers, expats in China, an elderly American artist who moves to Madrid where she secludes herself in her apartment  and, because the primary locus is America after all, an illegal immigrant who hopes to disappear in a remote place. No character takes on a leading role, if you will, though some have a greater presence than others. All are essentially portraits, photographs fleshed in a little more detail than the images in the suitcase abandoned by a dedicated collector of the photographs of strangers—but not much more. Some narrative pieces are replayed, spread out in fragments and vignettes, while others pass quickly. But in the end they stack up nicely. Meaning filters through.

Reflections, observations and quotes from articles, textbooks and literary works are woven into the flow of micro-narratives, providing a conceptual backdrop against which the novel’s construction can be understood.

If there isn’t any space there isn’t any light. The world is unthinkable without light [Heraclitus said it, Einstein said it, the A-Team in Episode 237 said it, and many others besides]. And yet, inside everyone’s bodies all is darkness, zones in the Universe never touched by light – or, if touched by light, only because of illness or decomposition. It’s unsettling to think you exist because this death exists inside you, this zone of endless night. It’s unsettling to consider that the inside of a PC is more alive than you are, that in there everything’s completely lit up.

Linking and playing with images and ideas like this, Fernández Mallo suggests, arises quite naturally from his background as a poet. He is comfortable with thinking on a symbolic level and yet “these metaphors and connections or modal links must be rich in meaning, rich in symbolism, and they must say things which haven’t been said before, they must truly ‘construct reality’.” This construction is neither forced nor superfluous. There is no obligation to fill in all the missing pieces, draw all the lines. Just the opposite. Nocilla  Dream is a novel which is richer for all its abstracted, empty space.

Of course, against the backdrop of the last few weeks of erratic policy issuing forth from the Twitter account-driven agenda of the US President, this book has an extra surreal tone. Prescient or nostalgic? Only time will tell.

Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo is translated by Thomas Bunstead and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Tracing hidden lines across the Americas: Counternarratives by John Keene

Stretching over a span of four centuries, Counternarratives is a collection of stories and novellas that defies simple description or classification. In just over 300 pages, John Keene manages to challenge and reinvent the way we think about historical fiction by subverting the conventional narratives again and again, peering into dark corners, and prying the lid off of stories not typically part of the grand narrative tradition that has dominated so much of contemporary American literature. First off, for Keene, America has a broader scope. This is the New World, primarily the United States and Brazil—the two countries most closely associated with the slave trade—but over the course of this book we also venture into Mexico, the Caribbean and across the ocean. The characters, primarily, though not exclusively, of Black African heritage, are drawn from history, the arts, and the imagination; and demonstrate a strong will to run against the currents of normative discourse within which they would have otherwise fallen under the radar or been rendered invisible. In allowing their lives to flourish on the page, Keene is effectively queering history. Many of his characters are either implicitly or explicitly queer with respect to sexuality or gender, but all of them through their stories, push up against accepted mythologies, inverting or “queering” them in the process.

CounternarrativesThe earliest narratives in this collection tend to keep some distance from the subject at hand, some even have an investigative documentary feel, complete with maps inserted into the text. Over the course of the book, the control of the voice shifts, as characters begin to take command of their own stories (mid-way through the powerful central piece, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” Carmel, the mute protagonist, starts to “speak” through the written word, abbreviated and phonetic at first, then increasingly fluid over time) until eventually, as the accounts draw closer to the present day, internalized, experimental stream of conscience narratives begin to come into play. With any collection of shorter works there is always the risk that the stories will begin to blur at the edges, losing distinction from one to another. Not so in this case. Although the themes and characters are not directly connected, this evolving style of storytelling—from the relatively dry historical reportage of the opening pieces, through more traditional narrative accounts to the disembodied, disturbing dialogue of the closing entry “The Lions”—provides a continuity that serves to create a cohesive work of astonishing depth.

Throughout, Keene demonstrates an enviable capacity to create vivid, memorable characters and breathe life into the vital cross currents of history. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in background detail but allows the time, place, and social dynamics to come to the surface through the wide range of individuals and the varied settings and styles that he allows his narratives, or rather counternarratives, to adopt. And although it may seem strange to speak about these short stories and novellas as if they almost have an agency of their own, that is what it feels like to engage with them. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, my reading of this collection actually extended over the course of three months, but whenever I was forced to put it aside for a time I never feared that I would not return, nor did I find it difficult to lose myself, once again, right where I left off.

counterThroughout this collection, customary beliefs are routinely challenged through the presentation of lives typically discarded or seen through the lens of the dominant power, in a manner that seeks to restore a level of dignity. Black, Native American and queer characters are granted a reprieve from the more conventional historical portrayal. However, that release, or escape if it comes, is often at a cost. Some of the narratives are abruptly truncated, ending partway through a sentence. In most instances a resolution is uncertain regardless of whether it signals promise or pain.

By way of offering a taste of this collection, I’ll touch on three pieces. The epistolary novella “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” offers a report on the experiences of one Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo, sent in 1629, to attend to matters at an isolated monastery in Brazil where some disturbing occurrences had been reported. He arrives at this remote location, populated by two padres, one brother and their bondspeople, or slaves, to find himself facing what will reveal, in time, a veritable heart of darkness. The atmosphere is charged with an unusual energy from the outset, as the newcomer struggles to get his bearings in his new setting and size up his charges:

Resuming his comments about the monastery, Dom Gaspar could see that D’Azevedo was growing unsteady on his feet, and with a gesture summoned a stool, which a tiny man, dark as the soil they stood on, his florid eyes fluttering, brought out with dispatch. They continued on in this manner, Dom Gaspar speaking—Padre Pero very rarely interjecting a thought, Padre Barbarosa Pires mostly nodding or staring, with a gaze so intense it could polish marbles, at D’Azevedo—detailing a few of the House’s particulars: its schedule, its routines, its finances, its properties and holdings, its relationship with the neighboring town and villages, and with the Indians.

Before long, D’Azevedo settles into a rhythm, feels he is making progress and begins to tutor boys from the town. But strange noises and mysterious sightings inside the monastery begin to unsettle him while outside threats from encroaching Dutch forces escalate, creating an atmosphere in which an evil long brewing is brought to the surface. Dark secrets are revealed, D’Azevedo is forced to confront a truth he has long buried, and the identity of the small African servant who seems to be ever present comes to light. This piece is a strong example of evocative storytelling, reminiscent in mood of The Name of the Rose, but reframed within the context of the Catholic Church’s role in the Americas, the clash with tribal African traditions, warring colonial tensions, and questions of ethnic heritage, gender and sexuality.

By way of contrast, “Rivers” turns the tables on a classic of American literature, giving Jim Watson of Huckleberry Finn fame, an opportunity to flesh out the details of his life after the book ended. Jim, now a free man who has reclaimed his own name, James Rivers, is a tavern owner in Missouri when he chances to meet Huck and Tom on the street. Their conversation, is dominated by Tom’s racist jibes, but Jim remains circumspect. He thinks of what he could have told them but chooses not to (“I thought to say…/Instead I said…”), in this way sharing with the reader a full account of the women in his life, his children, his time in Chicago, and his return to his home state, while little is offered to his former acquaintances. There is no joyous reunion, rather the occasion is marked by arrogance on one side, bitterness and suspicion on the other. But as the Civil War looms, another chance meeting awaits.

Beyond this story, the narratives begin to take on an increasingly playful, experimental form in style and content. An especially affecting piece is Cold. Narrated from an internalized second person perspective, this short story takes us inside the troubled mind of Bob Cole, the composer, playwright and producer who co-created, with Billy Johnson, A Trip to Coontown in 1898, the first musical owned entirely by black showmen. It is now 1911, and the voice in his head taunts him, catalogs his losses, his failures, driving his desperate decision to take his life before the day is out. . .

For the last month or two, or five, has it been a year—why can you not remember?—these newest melodies you cannot flush from your head, like a player piano with an endless roll scrolling to infinity. Songs have always come, one by one or in pairs, dozens, you set them down, to paper, to poetry, like when you set the melody of the spiritual Rosamond was whistling as you walked up Broadway and in your head and later on musical paper clothed it in new robes. Then somewhere along the way after the first terrible blues struck you tried to hum a new tune, conjure one, you thought it was just exhaustion, your mind too tired to refresh itself as it always had, that’s why the old ones wouldn’t go away.

The pieces I have briefly touched on just graze the surface of this book. Its relatively short length can be deceiving. Counternarratives offers a demanding, immersive reading experience. It is, at the same time, compulsively engaging and deeply satisfying. I heard reverent talk of it long before I finally picked up my own copy earlier this year and I can fully understand the respect it has garnered even I find myself at a loss to do it justice. Bold and expansive, this is a haunting, unsettling, important work.

Counternarratives by John Keene is published by New Directions in North America and by Fitzcarraldo in the UK.

Collector of Corpses: Zone by Mathias Énard

Where to start with Zone by French author Mathias Énard?

“I climb into the trans-Italian express that must have been the zenith of progress and technology ten years ago for its doors were automatic and it went faster than 200 kilometers per hour in a straight line on a good day and today, a little closer to the end of the world, it’s just a train”

Imagine you are on a train bound from Milan to Rome, trapped inside the head of a French Intelligence Service agent, hung over and pumped up on amphetamines, who by reckless dalliance has missed his fight and is, as a result, having to make this critical trip by rail. Which gives him plenty of time to perseverate while he clutches a suitcase filled with documents graphically detailing war crimes, witnessed or reported to him during his time in the “Zone”, an area stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Europe. At the end of his journey he intends to sell the secrets he has collected, effectively resigning with a final act of treason, and disappear into a new existence with an identity assumed from a man long condemned to an asylum. And as the reader you are bound to the narrator, Francis Servain Mirković, for one breathless 517 page sentence.

zoneAs he streams forth a catalogue of brutal visions from his own memories, from history, art and literature, there is no respite. Even his love affairs are recounted with a desperate intensity. This not a book of bitter humour, it is a chronicle of horror, a memoir of regret. Francis is longing to be released from the burdens of his experiences, but that end is all very vague, growing even more so as he nears Rome. In the meantime, unable to sleep, to turn off his fevered brain, he is assaulted by grotesque images of his time on the battlefields of Bosnia with a Croatian militia unit. His lost comrades haunt him, his lost lovers loom large and through it all run threads of historical violence – decapitation is a particular obsession that he sees in, yet seemingly shares with, Caravaggio. Warriors of antiquity, martyred saints, Nazi war criminals all cast long shadows across the path of his racing thoughts. Violence is vividly described, and is often up close and personal.

This is not a leisurely read.

As a small concession to the reader, the single sentence is divided into chapters and periodically broken with segments of a novel about a female Palestinian fighter but there are times where one gets the distinct feeling that facts, and at times, streams of words words words are being employed as filler, as if anything less punishing than 500 pages would have been unthinkable. The risk however, is that the power of the images will be diluted, reduced to noise, numbing the reader, or worse, driving him or her away. Even the literary detours that turn toward Cervantes, Malcolm Lowry, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Cavafy are typically delivered as measured portraits of ugliness and depravity.

If you have ever been in a room with someone who is in a manic state, you will know that they fill the space, suck up all of the available air. Such is the sensation of spending time in the presence of the narrator of Zone. Left to my own devices I am not sure I would have been inclined to open this book (sometimes size matters) or at least may well not have ventured past the first 150 pages or so. I may have disembarked at the next available station. And that would have been a shame.

Somewhere, two thirds of the way in maybe, the pressure begins to dissipate, perhaps as the drugs wear off, and the pace of the monologue eases, opening up space for more personal reflection and musing, more meaningful literary diversions and a sober assessment of his last serious love affair gone wrong. Even a little touch of humour. Mind you we are not exactly tripping through fields of daisies but the relentless deluge of decapitated heads, eviscerated corpses and raped women does ease to a slower flow of grisly images, as the full weary weight of the life Francis is longing to step away from settles in on him.

Zone 2

This novel, ably translated by Charlotte Mandell, was added to our IFFP Shadow Jury longlist when several members of the group argued that it had been sorely overlooked by the official jury. And it made the cut for our version of the shortlist. Given what I know now about the difference between the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award, I feel that this is the type of book that more appropriately belongs to the latter. However in North America, Zone was released by Open Letter in 2011 (and, in fact, another Énard title was longlisted for the BTBA this year) whereas its eligiblity for the IFFP is based on the 2014 UK release from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

So what did I really think? My overwhelming first impression is that this book is one of style and literary merit but that at times it feels contrived. Perhaps, someday, when I look back I will think, yes, that was quite the experience. I may think back on Francis stepping forth at the end of his journey, reborn or perhaps beaten into the pavements of the Eternal City, with a sympathetic fondness of sorts.

I don’t know.