Song for a stolen land: Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel

The Chagos. An archipelago with a name silken as a caress, fervid as regret, brutal as death . . .

The prologue that opens Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos presents a sharp juxtaposition: A boy in war-torn Afghanistan looks up as a B-52 bomber soars in, dropping a bomb that will tear his mother’s body apart before returning to its base far to the south on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago that rises in the Indian Ocean. Further south again, off the east coast of Africa on the island nation of Mauritius, another boy, another mother. Her eyes are fixed on the vast blue horizon, and although she stands intact, she too has been torn apart on the inside. Two scenes, bound by emptiness, confusion and pain.

What follows is a spare, unflinching fictionalized account of a piece of recent history little known to many. In the late 1960s, when Mauritius negotiated their autonomy from Britain, they agreed to  relinquish control of the Chagos Islands unaware that the US wanted it for a military base. In strategic terms the location was  perfect save for one small fact—the islands were not uninhabited. The population, primarily descendants of slaves brought to work on coconut plantations some three hundred years earlier had, after slavery was abolished, enjoyed a simple but secure, comfortable existence with guaranteed employment, a rich culture and cuisine, and a strong community life. However, once a deal was made between the British and the Americans, they were suddenly expendable. Between 1968 and 1973, all of the residents were forcibly relocated, mostly to Mauritius.

Devastated and heartbroken by this abrupt upheaval, the Chagossians have long sought to right the injustice done to them, taking their claim up to the highest levels of the International Courts but after fifty years, and several rulings in their favour, they remain in exile. Silence of the Chagos, first published in French in 2005 and now available in English in a translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is an attempt to give these displaced people a voice, to tell their stories. Author Shenaz Patel, herself a native of Mauritius, found that the Chagossians she had come to know and care about were openly willing to trust their tales to her. In turn, her words honour their spirit while the retention of elements of Kreol in this translated text reinforces a sense of existential loss and longing.

Employing a third person narrative with an unadorned yet passionate energy, the account unfolds through the thoughts and experiences of three primary characters as they attempt to cope with and understand their circumstances. Along the way, several cameo appearances fill in some of the missing perspectives—even the boat that carried the final load of confused residents away is granted a personified dream sequence within which one of the most horrifying moments—the brutal destruction of the islander’s pet dogs—is recounted. The result is a tale that rides on a rolling wave of sorrow and bitter nostalgia, a persistent soul deep melancholia—“lasagrin”—that claimed the lives of many transplanted Chagos Islanders and has carried on into a generation denied any actual experience of their ancestral land.

The novel begins with the 1968 Independence Day celebrations on Mauritius. We meet Charlesia who, with her family, were brought to stay in a slum in Port Louis on the pretext that her husband would receive the medical care he needed there, but now, with his health restored she cannot understand why a boat has not come to carry them back to Diego. The place she has found herself in is strange, unnatural, alien.

Nothing was right here. Streets with tight curves, cul-de-sacs, stopping people in their tracks as they headed downhill. Walking here made no sense. Back there, she had glided down the natural slope of the sand with her eyes shut, the sea before her, the sea behind her, calm and beautiful, caressing and stroking their land like a languid body held close by its lover.

Her memories will fuel her stubbornness and ultimately her activism. In the following chapter we learn why. It takes us back a few years, to 1963 on Diego Garcia, when life was normal and Charlesia was where she belonged. Her life sounds a little odd on first encounter—every morning, the adults of the community would rise and head down to be assigned their tasks for the day, either in the administrator’s quarters or on the coconut plantation. But the workday ends early; Charlesia is able to go home, spend the afternoon fishing while the children are still at school, and lovingly prepare a coconut curry for supper. On Saturday evenings community groups would gather to sing and dance and celebrate well into the night before hurrying church on Sunday morning. All of that is lost, when she lands on Mauritius.

Midway through the novel, the narrative shifts away from Charlesia’s story. When we meet Désiré, a young man completely unaware of his origins; Mauritius is the only home he has known. But there is something odd. Something missing. Confused by a strange nickname he is often given, Nordver, or Nord, he finally confronts his mother, Raymonde. After having long protected her youngest child from the truth of his origins, she confesses that the name refers to the Nordvaer, the boat on which he was born. But who was she protecting? Him or herself? She hardly knows where to start:

His birth, the boat, the land, the other land. The real one. The one that spreads outward in her mind and her heart, in her belly and her guts, every night. The land before.

Before fear, incomprehension.

Before loneliness and the sea’s wild anguish.

Before the thieving boat that had turned what ought to have been great pleasure into pain.

Before this land of high, indifferent mountains, of sneering, distant inhabitants.

With her family, Raymonde had been among the last boatload of Chagossians to be removed from Diego Garcia in 1973—they were given no explanation and no more than an hour’s warning to gather all they could carry. Heavily pregnant with her fourth child she is not fit to travel but clearance is given after a cursory exam. Out on the high seas, she frets about her shack back home, wondering if she turned the stove off, regretting that she hadn’t had time to tidy up. Unable to imagine she’d never return. And then her water breaks and she goes into labour.

Raymonde’s vivid account, and the agonizing details of her son’s unconventional birth hold the narrative connection—the metaphorical umbilical cord—between the Chagossian’s homeland and their exile. Yet, for Désiré, life on Mauritius is not easy, even for his (almost) having been born there. His heritage makes it very difficult for him to secure work. It is used against him at every turn.  And the peculiar circumstances of his birth and the homeland he has never known haunt him. He truly feels like he belongs nowhere. Getting to know Charlesia years later will begin to bring the cycle of longing full circle. But to what end?

As a novel, Silence of the Chagos raises more questions than it is able to answer. The story is, as yet, unfinished, even now fifteen years after it was originally published. The historical course of events is not directly dissected in the text, at least not until the end, in the final chapter, and in the author’s afterword. Rather, the narrative form which allows hints to arise both in conversation and in the agony of the main characters, effectively captures the lack of understanding, the absence of words, and the inability to express  loss—a loss that displaced peoples continue to face in a postcolonial reality that fails to take them into account.

Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel is translated by Jeffery Zuckerman and published by Restless Books.

Searching for answers to unaskable questions: The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

Some readers love nothing more than to lose themselves in vast, sprawling texts, happily admitting that the longer, the better. It’s a rare occasion that I share that sentiment—I’m inclined to insist that most of the time, less is more. Often much less. Like French author Michèle Lesbre’s The Red Sofa. At just over one hundred pages, this award winning novella is a small, quiet, perfect book—one that touches at the very heart of what it feels like to be adrift in life, to be searching for answers to questions one cannot articulate.

This is such a simple story. The narrator, Anne, is travelling by train to Siberia in search of Gyl, a man she once loved many years earlier who had suddenly given up everything to move to Russia, take up residence on the shores of Lake Baikal to paint and put on plays. The revolutionary aspirations of their youth never quite left his system. Their friendship had endured long after their relationship ended but about six months after his arrival in Irkutsk, he suddenly stopped writing. Naturally she is worried, but whereas his political passions had not dimmed, she has grown more cynical and critical over the years and finds herself without solid beliefs to cling to. It is but part of the unease that she carries with her on this journey to find—what?—she is not quite sure.

As the miles pass beyond the window of the train, Anne’s thoughts often go back to Clémence, her elderly neighbour at home in Paris—the owner of the red sofa of the title— whose memory is fading fast. Anne had regularly visited the old woman to read to her of strong eccentric women, often following up with a trip to a local café to enjoy a glass of wine. A close, if unlikely, friendship had formed between them. A former milliner with closets filled with her marvelous creations, Clémence had had a full and vibrant life, but her heart had always belonged to her first love, Paul, who was tragically killed young.

Anne is uncertain where her own heart belongs, perhaps she is looking for it. The dreamy shifting landscape of Russia, and the drift of an unanchored life give the narrative an uneasy, contemplative quality.

Most of the time I would wake up very early, at the break of dawn. Pines and birches were hardly emerging from an ocean of fog in which the train ran blindly and a few swarms of grey isbas floated—their wood, worn by the frost and the brutal summer sun, looked like papier mâché. The dull light became progressively brighter, revealing a dizzying sky. I would follow it with my eyes until it took refuge in the horizon. What horizon? Everything seemed far away, inaccessible, too vast.

As an obvious outsider on a regular commuter run, Anne enjoys her solitude among her assorted compartment-mates. The absence of reference points, her limited knowledge of Russian, and the monotony of the days allow her space to think, relax and read—that is, until Igor boards the train. She becomes obsessed with this stern, silent figure who puts her in mind of the central character of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Her attractions are not reciprocated, but she imagines him as a critical guide into her own personal Zone, her own search for meaning. The landscape reinforces the allusion:

The forests became the image of a possible paradise which men did not deserve and that only the trees knew how to incarnate. This grandiose, devastated landscape, heavy with melancholy, spoke to me of everything I already knew but with a force, a cruelty I had not expected. It would remain with me for several months after my return and settle into my life as other journeys had done, thus constructing a singular, imperfect, emotional and sometimes imaginary world—mine.

Memories, distant and more recent alike, haunt the narrative, woven effortlessly into a powerful evocation of the strange dislocation that being in a foreign country allows—and the gift that it offers. Anne arrives in Irkutsk ostensibly looking for Gyl, worried about his well-being. But what she discovers is complicated, at once inviting and alienating. The few days she spends alone in the city before she can fly back to Moscow help her begin to move toward freeing herself from the kind of intangible, limiting snares in which we sometimes find ourselves in life. My own rather directionless travels in recent years, walking through the streets of cities in India and Nepal, were reflected in her own urban wandering:

I was finally finding myself in that pleasant sense of abandonment, that way of breathing and thinking differently in a foreign city, in a state of weightlessness, with the feeling of belonging to the world, to that ideal humanity I was seeking in the faces, the music of the language, the gestures, and the smallest details that link us all together in spite of everything. I was letting myself be swallowed up by the sounds, the rhythm, and the invisible current that ran through the city.

Anne returns to Paris almost, but not quite, prepared to move on with her life. What awaits her will offer the final release.

This thoughtful, meditative novella is quite wonderful. The story that unfolds is filled with poetic beauty and bold personalities, but much is left untold or unknown. However, it does not feel incomplete or lacking. That is the beauty of a spare, dream-like tale such as this—a story of loss, disillusion, desire, and learning to live again.

Originally published in 2007 as La canape rouge, it seems to be the only one of her novels to be available in English to date.  The Red Sofa is translated by Nicole and David Ball, and published by Seagull Books. Curiously this is one of the books I brought home after my first trip to Calcutta several years ago—an impulse purchase from the publisher’s storefront that sat neglected on my shelf of French translations. It somehow feels right to read it now with its evocative tribute to the space—mental and emotional—afforded by travel, at a time when travel is on hold for the foreseeable future.

The theatre of the desert: Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust

Last week, as I sought a text to carry me across the midnight bridge between decades, I wanted something that might, even for a moment, turn the world on its head. What could, I wondered, be more fitting than to spend New Year’s Eve and the following day in the company of Pierre Senges. After all, a voyage with the French writer, be it brief or extended, is guaranteed to offer a taste of the unexpected. The world he inhabits exists on the edges of maps, in the margins of manuscripts, in the creases between pages, and tucked into the corners of the imagination. If it looks familiar that’s because you have been there, wandered its streets, navigated its seas, crossed its stages. But when you stop to adjust your compass, or try to align yourself with the stars, the needle tends to spin, shudder to a stop, and, then, as soon as you think you know where you are heading, a flood of literary, historical, or starkly contemporary references will slide into the narrative and lead you off track once again. To read Pierre Senges is to embark on an adventure, one that may just as easily take you travelling halfway around the world as stumbling down the block and into the local pub.

Fortunately for me, I had recent translations of two rather different texts by Senges on hand, both translated by his tireless advocate Jacob Siefrig, and published by a couple of inventive small publishers. The first, my New Year’s Eve companion, was the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis. Published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, a project that began in mid-2019  to produce original literary offerings distributed as a monthly print newsletter, this small, pocket-sized volume marks their first foray into the big world of book publishing on a manageable small scale.

Senges delights in taking characters and themes from literature and history, reimagining  them in terms that stretch from the mildly satirical to the strangely absurd, and then proceeding to fashion tales shot through with sharp, dry humour—one that can, at times, be lost on readers who like their humour to be more, shall we say, in your face. In this regard, Falstaff: Apotheosis, taking as its subject Shakespeare’s most misunderstood minor character, is an ideal bite-sized introduction to his singular style. More than a comic foil, Falstaff is presented as an ingenious master of humiliation as a heroic act. His crowning glory, or apotheosis, is his bold and daring performance of a deceased figure on the battlefield, an act that sets the stage for a treatise on the ethics of playing dead:

To be the master of one’s own death, what a timeless caprice: the trick being to lie down not just any old way, rather to adopt the humble simplicity of the sandbag, or the hieratism of the tree trunk, or the mannerist posture of a hunting dog, or an expressionism inspired by anatomies of past centuries and the bold contrasts of cinematic skills—to breathe out one’s last sigh, but exhale it negligently, instead to opt for the Romanticism of the last and lightest breath, like the breath a child turns on a dandelion. . .

What makes Senges so successful is his language—long winding sentences filled with wise and wonderful imagery, holding fast to a measure of seriousness in the narrative voices he employs.

My into-the-new-year Senges was Geometry in the Dust. Published by the bold, experimental Lawrence, Kansas-based publisher Inside the Castle, this is a longer, more elaborate ruse—a delicious anachronistic tale presented as a report to a desert-bound prince keen to construct a city in his kingdom of sand, from his loyal minister who has been sent on a mission to learn about the features of a real-life city and advise his ruler on what will need to be considered. Echoing the spirit of the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, our narrator is attentive but a step out of time, observing the modern metropolis, but not always connecting the dots completely. The result a strangely insightful and original reflection on the nature of the urban landscape.

His observations are often trapped in time. He seeks out the city scribes at one point, hoping to be able to compare his ideas to theirs and finds, rather than rows of copyists at their desks he finds that calligraphers ply their trade by night, running through the darkened streets, clutching paint, hurriedly scrawling messages on walls. The intensity of city life overwhelms him, continually exceeding his expectations, but leading to wonderful portraits as he seeks to describe the indescribable to the sheltered and isolated ruler he serves:

To define a city for you more or less: it’s a danse macabre every single day of the week: it seems to me that the idea of the danse macabre will help you put your finger on what a city is, because it communicates to you a scraping of nail on bone, as well as a gnashing of teeth. The danse tells us all we need to know about the city’s circular nature (not so long ago cities were contained within wooden circles, like certain soft-rind cheeses; although they tried hard to emancipate themselves and go over the walls, they still retain a bit of this roundness: it will be necessary to take this design into consideration)

Yet, even if the noise, chaos and moral loose edges of the city challenge our often judgemental traveller, he is determined to make sense of everything (including the curious cul-de-sac) and advise his prince on the extent to which all architectural, cultural and social intersections should be designed so as to leave nothing to chance. It’s difficult, of course, not to be struck by the degree of hubris driving the ambitions of this desert monarch and his faithful servant, especially on their shifting terrain of sand and dust. But then again, perhaps it is only in the space of pure fancy that the ideal metropolis can exist. Paired with the artist Killoffer’s grotesque depictions of the hectic, congested modern city, Geometry in the Dust offers a fantastic meditation on the impossibility of reducing a concept as complex as the city to a few lines scratched in the dirt.

For a taste of this work and Senges’ inimitable style, see this excerpt from Geometry in the Dust with illustrations by Killoffer at 3:AM Magazine.

Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges are both translated by Jacob Siefrig and published by Sublunary Editions and Inside the Castle respectively.

Women in Translation Month 2019: Some off-the-radar reading suggestions and my own modest proposal

Each August is Women in Translation Month, a time set aside to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English and, of course, encourage increased translation of these authors into other languages so that they may be more widely read.  This initiative, started by blogger Meytal Radzinski, is now in its sixth year.

My best ever effort to participate was during 2015, my first year as a blogger. Not only was this before writing critical reviews and editing commitments started to creep into my reading time, but I was also recovering from a cardiac arrest and could stretch out on the sofa and read without guilt. Doing much else was painful! Since then, each year I have made public or private commitments to toss a few extra appropriate titles on the TBR pile and, if lucky, read one or two.  I console myself by remembering that reading women in translation is something that naturally seems to occur throughout the year in the course of my normal reading. As so it should.

This year I have a few books earmarked for the month (fingers crossed), but I thought I would take a little time to suggest some titles that might not be so well known. They’re all taken from my own bookcases and most are (as of yet) unread.

I’ll start with those that I have in fact read and reviewed. First up, poetry:

From the bottom up:
Korean poet Kim Hyesoon won the 2019 International Griffin  Poetry Prize for this book Autobiography of Death, a cycle of 49 poems and one longer piece inspired by national tragedies and personal experience. Her daughter’s distinctive illustrations accompany this powerful collection translated by Don Mee Choi.

Thick of It by German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is a wonderful blend of the magical and the everyday. Fresh and alive.

Finally, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor, is a spare and delicate collection that invites rereading. Earlier this year she and I were able to meet and spend a few days together in Calcutta when my visit happened to overlap with a residency she was doing in the city—evidence that reading the world makes the world smaller in unimaginable ways!

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Second, I wanted to highlight a book I recently reviewed that I am afraid has not had the attention it deserves:

Croatian writer Olja Savičevič’s Singer in the Night features a wildly eccentric narrator and a highly inventive style to tell a story that paints a serious portrait of the world that her generation inherited after the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth, this book is already available in the UK and well worth watching for when it comes out on October 1 in North America.

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Third, I have an impressive stack of Seagull Books by female authors that I am ashamed to say I have not read yet (save for the poetry title tucked in here). The interesting thing for me about this selection is that although I did purchase many of these books, other titles arrived as unexpected—but very welcome—review copies by writers previously unknown to me.

Most of the above are German language writers; two, Michele Lesbre and Suzanne Dracius are French, the latter from Martinique. The review copy at the bottom of the stack is East German writer Brigitte Reimann’s diary I Have No Regrets.

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Finally, I wanted to include a couple of translated titles by Indian women writers. Two vastly different offerings.

Translated by Kalpana Bardhan and published by feminist press Zubaan, Mahuldiha Days is a novel by Anita Agnihotri, one of West Bengal’s best known writers. She draws on the decades she spent in the Indian Administrative Service in this story of a young civil servant caught between her obligations to the tribal community she is working with and the state.  By sharp contrast, I Lalla, gives a fresh voice the poems of fourteenth century Kashmiri mystic poet, Lal Děd. A detailed introduction by translator Ranjit Hoskote provides a fascinating background to her life and the tradition to which she belonged, opening a world little known to most Western readers.

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So, what are my best laid plans for this month? I would like to read one or two titles from my Seagull stack—not sure which—and I have a new Istros title Wild Woman by Marina Sur Puhlovski on my iPad in PDF format, but the following three books have been patiently waiting for August:

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart, is a recently released collection of short pieces, including “The Swan Whisperer” which was published as part of the Cahier Series.  I ordered it as soon as I heard of it—new van Niekerk is a rare and special treat.  Aviaries by Czech writer Zuzana Brabcova caught my attention when fellow readers and reviewers started talking about it so it’s another title I sought out when it was released here this spring. And last but not least, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years now. Will I fit it in this August? Time will tell. And, of course, I reserve the right to change my plans altogether…

The nice thing about books is that, at least with the old fashioned solid form variety, they don’t vanish at month’s end if you don’t get to them. They will still be there on the shelf waiting no matter how much time I do or do not have to read amid all my other projects on my plate this August!

We live in a gingerbread house: In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya

“In this house, we live relentlessly, filling eternity with our detritus.”

Life sometimes holds the smallest, unexpected surprises. Unassuming, they come along and sit there quietly waiting to catch your attention until one day…

For me, those unanticipated gifts are invariably books. When, several months ago, In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya arrived, I was uncertain what to make of this slight novella with its simple cover featuring a still-life painting of flowers and vegetables. Savitzkaya, the publicity insert advised, is a French language Belgian poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, but what caught my attention was a link to an article about the author in Weird Fiction Review. Weird? That would not have been my first impression, it looks like such a simple text, yet as Edward Gauvin argues in his essay, the prose is minimal rather than abstract, but it is as if :

something has been subtracted from it, making us work harder for a fuller picture of what is being described. The result is a certain destabilization, dislocation, an alienation that does not distance you so much from the text as lock you alone inside it. Hence the usual adjectives: hallucinatory, intense, incantatory… the feel and unease of Weird.

With In Life, weird fiction is rendered domestic if you will, softly surreal, stubbornly anachronistic. In it, nothing happens and, yet, everything happens. Magical imagery, strange and wondrous, is applied to the quotidian ritual of hearth and home—cleaning,  cooking, repair and maintenance,  tending the garden, and nurturing of the soul of the house and its inhabitants. No task, no bodily function is unworthy of attention, often in unlikely detail. This is a book that revels in the minutiae of existence—the shed eyelashes and flakes of skin, the lost buttons, the crumbing walls, the weeds pushing through cracks in the walkway.

Above all, this is the story of a house surrounded by a garden, a neighbourhood, a town, hills, the sea and sky. A self-contained universe, from the crumbs that fall under the dining table to the scents that arrive on the breeze. At the heart of this universe, the house is a physical and metaphysical entity that must be maintained by those who dwell within, its contents sorted and preserved:

There isn’t only one way to tidy, but thousands—each necessary for structuring and mapping out the existence of the house, which is (well before it appears to be a system of doors, windows and walls) a whole system of alveoli. The simplicity of domestic life flows from the vast complexity of these alveoli. Just as you need a place for soap, you need a place for books. A place for sleeping and a place for sitting. A place for thumbtacks and a place for salt. A place for perfume and a place for stench. She who knows the place of each thing is capable of measuring the household’s degree of destitution or richness.

The narrator is a writer, a man with a fiancé and two children, a son and a daughter, echoing Savitzkaya’s own family, but this is not an autofiction, at least not in any biographical sense. His writing seems a secreted activity, gathered in snatches. He is aware of being unusual in that he is home at all hours of the day, actively engaged in caretaking, yard work, cleaning, ironing and, with special attention, preparing meals. His voice, however, is singular and plural, and shifts between perspectives. “We” might be the family, or a more comprehensive designation; second and third person may be employed to speak of others—for example the reader as an imagined guest—or to expand the universal nature of his reflections on the simple, most fundamental elements of life and the art of living.

Reading like an extended prose poem, this novella is a sensually charged evocation of the ordinary moment at its most ephemeral and most enduring. The narrator delights in unexpected imagery, sparking everyday rituals such as the family meal with fairy tale magic:

Thus assembled, we are ready to gobble a mountain of potatoes, loads of lamb, a cow, even an elephant. Animals fear us. But eyes are always bigger than bellies. They have a good sense of excess. As for us, we content ourselves with little, but have a yen to devour the world. We live in a gingerbread house. We drink birch sap from glasses made of sugar and when grief torments us, drops of brine fall from our eyes. We need light to eat—sun, honey or incandescent light.

Victuals are a central feature of life in this house, as one would anticipate. The meditation returns repeatedly to the growing, the preparation, the sharing, the bodily elimination and the disposal of leftover food. For vegetarians like myself, the meat content is considerable and carefully detailed, but, in fairness, the question of the respectful consumption of animals is not overlooked. Still, the passages on food are some of the most wonderful. After all, more than simply seeing to the nourishment of the family, the provision of food is an act of love with existential dimensions. Take for example, the act of peeling apples:

You can watch the blade as it slides under translucent skin. And, in your hand, you see a sort of phylactery unfurl, detailing the surface area of the fruit. This is a job that, if left only to me, would be eliminated evermore from the manuals of domestic life because an apple is a whole; the skin belongs to the flesh, the flesh is complete with the skin. Be that as it may, it’s worth the trouble. No activity, apart from washing dishes, is as soothing. From the instant that children ask for their slices of apples to bestowed on them without the peel, peeling becomes necessary and eminently interesting. Peeling becomes a way of being, a way of weighing the pros and cons, of conducting yourself in relation to objects, of searching under the skin for the illumination of flesh.

Love holds the house inhabited by Savitzkaya’s alter ego narrator and his family together. But the details fleshed out are not personal. It is as present in the cement troweled into cracked walls and the odours, fair and foul, that rise into the air, as it is in children’s laughter, or lovers in their shared bed. And embracing it all, is the garden. Here, as everywhere else in the universe contained within the pages of this small novella, reality is porous. It contains us but cannot be contained.

The garden’s only goal is abandon; it lives on abandon and thrives on the smallest opportunity to liberate itself and break through its imposed limits. Where is the garden? Between four walls or around the house? In the center or surrounding? In which garden am I sitting? In my garden. I am always in my garden, even when I’m not the gardener, and I don’t need anything, neither to move nor to identify what’s mine. It’s my garden because I’m there, because I live in it for just one second. And I part with it the next.

In Life is a small miracle of a book. It is a slippery object. Although it is filled with images and reflections on the tasks of daily life, it offers nothing firm to hold on to. In a way it is exactly like everyday existence—small moments, the beautiful and the mundane alike—slip by so quickly that we struggle to grasp them lest they be lost. We cling to impressions, to bits and pieces. Sometimes, we might even capture a few on the page.

Eugène Savitzkaya’s In Life is translated by Andrew Colpitts and published Quale Press. They have previously published a collection of his prose poetry, Rules of Solitude. In life is the first of his novels to be made available in English .

Just the right touch: A few thoughts about In Every Wave by Charles Quimper and a link to my review at The Temz Review

It is a distinct challenge to attempt to write about a novel that is so delicate and spare, almost gossamer-like, without crushing it beneath the tip of your pen. In Every Wave, the latest offering from Quebec-based publisher, QC Fiction is such a novel—or rather, at just 80 pages—novella. To write too much, to attempt to over read it in the analysis, would not only spoil the emotional experience of encountering the novel without any specific expectations and, most critically, risks colouring the hauntingly open-ended conclusion which I feel can be rightfully read a number of ways.

When I write a review of a piece of fiction, I try to offer a way into the text—enough I hope for someone else to know if it might be of interest to them—but I try to be careful not to explicitly state how I understood the book. That kind of discussion is fine for a book club, even for a friendly online debate, but not for a review. There are several reasons for this. One is that my own feelings toward a work might not fully gel until weeks or months after I’ve finished reading it. The other, more important, is that the books I am most inclined to want to review, especially for publication elsewhere, have a level of ambiguity, an openness to multiple interpretations. That is what makes me want to go to the extra work involved in reading a text, often several times, and attempting to bring to it to life—just a little—on the page.

The premise of Charles Quimper’s In Every Wave (translated by Guil Lefebvre) is simple. After his young daughter is tragically lost on a summer holiday outing, a father’s world starts to crumble. The narrative, presented as an internalized monologue directed at the protagonist’s missing daughter, is fragmented, nonlinear, painfully realistic and disturbingly surreal in turns. Nothing is entirely certain—nothing but the aching, overwhelming grief that consumes the bereaved parents and destroys their relationship, altering their lives forever.

This brief, but indelible story is best approached without too many preconceptions, so I felt that writing about it necessitated the lightest touch. I hope I achieved that. My review, for the latest issue of The Tℇmz Review, is now online here.

Waxing lyrical and irritable: QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last glance back at 2017, as 2018 dawns

A little more than a week ago I marked the solstice on a rather positive note after another difficult year. The holiday season has been, however, more painful than I had anticipated. The weather has been brutal—as I type this, the temperature is in the low minus twenties, think -28 or -29C with a wind chill factor approaching -37C, and we’ve received about 30cm of snow or more—which has contributed to a marked degree of cabin fever. But what has weighed on me most heavily is a peculiar loneliness, a very personal emptiness, and a measure of anxiety about some of the changes I thought I was looking forward to, like selling my house and moving into an apartment. I’m feeling a little conflicted now, oddly because if my son manages to stay sober, I think less of escaping a bad situation and think more about the advantages of having someone else around, at least until he is well stabilized and ready to move on. (Okay, there’s also the fact that he saved my life a few years ago…)

Taken this afternoon. Does it look cold? Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

However, now that the end of 2017 is upon us, I can distract myself for a moment by looking back over my year in blogging. Although I started this blog in mid-2014, I did not begin to seriously write about books, or venture into the realm of mini personal essays until the end of that year. In the three years since, my blog has grown steadily and, I hope, developed a bit of a reputation for being unclassifiable. This year I noticed a marked increase in traffic from Canada and Australia, a result, I suspect, of my increased engagement with readers and writers from both countries. Still the largest number of viewers came from the US and the UK, followed by Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India. My most popular review written this year was, by a wide margin, of Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe. Mine must be one of the only reviews of this book online; it was even cited in an extensive overview of post-colonial African literature—the only blog review cited in the entire article. This book is a classic of early post-Apartheid South African black literature and I can’t understand why it hasn’t attracted more attention—clearly it was being studied extensively this year judging by the traffic generated. The second highest number of views for a 2017 review was for The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (tr. Jacob Siefring), the third, My Heart Hemmed In by Marie N’Diaye (tr. Jordan Stump) and the fourth for Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (tr. Tim Parks). The 50/50 split between new releases and older titles in this selection highlights one of the advantages of blogging—not being bound to focusing exclusively on recent releases as is so often the tendency in other literary venues you can read and write about whatever books catch your fancy. Or not. This year I read much more than I reviewed here or elsewhere.

My own occasional reflective posts, which always make me feel mildly self-conscious, tend to be very well received, generating more hits than the majority of my reviews. Considering that the reviews typically take me much longer to write, it never ceases to surprise me that people actually want to read my idle ramblings… something to hold on to as I start to finally (yes, finally) tackle my memoir project in the year ahead. I’ve been piddling around on this front, to be honest. But it’s so terrifying to put one’s own life on the page. However, I trust I’m not the only personal essayist to struggle with this conflict. As I’ve mentioned several times in recent months, the work of French poet, essayist and ethnologist Michel Leiris has occupied much of my attention this past year (with much to keep me going in 2018). I had expected I would write some kind of a “review” of Scratches, the first part of his four-part autobiographical project Rules of the Game, yet I can’t quite imagine how to write about this book. It has become embedded in my consciousness, and interwoven with my reading of his dream diary, Nights as Days and Days as Nights, and his massive travel journal, Phantom Africa.

Long before Knausgaard starting dissecting the minutiae of his experience, Leiris was reflecting, musing, analyzing, and agonizing over the stuff of his life and, more accurately, his emotional and intellectual engagement with the world as mediated by language and memory. Scratches begins with his earliest recognition that language held magic and secrets that he could unlock as he came to understand the meanings of words. Throughout the book his discourses, which range widely from childhood amusements to recent events and back again, hinge on the associations he has for certain words or phrases. (Lydia Davis’ remarkable translation seamlessly weaves the French words into the text so that the layers of sound and meaning ring through.) It can be quite wonderful to get swept up in his winding and circuitous streams of thought. However, what I love about Leiris is his idiosyncratic emotional volubility. He easily swings from being proud and confident, to wallowing in despair and self-doubt. If the contemporary “journey of self-discovery” model of the memoir enforces the notion that life has a narrative arc that leads to growth and improvement, Leiris is not the model. In fact, much of the time he simply seems to be travelling in wide sweeping circles without getting anywhere at all. Nor is he wretched enough to stand as a forerunner to the popular misery memoir. But he doesn’t hesitate to indulge in a little morbid excavation of his weaknesses and failures when his mood plummets. I well imagine this annoys some readers, but as someone who has struggled at length with mood regulation, I adore the honesty and the way he somehow manages to drag himself out to firmer ground. Toward the end of Scratches he very nearly gives up his entire autobiographic endeavour worrying that he has reduced himself to “a sort of aged child, a prisoner of a bygone period and henceforth shut off from all action—even thought—involving the future.” In his anxieties, I see reflected my own insecurities about committing to a long term project. He justifies his decision to break off work on his book saying:

Since the literary work to which I am devoting myself with such difficulty seems less and less uplifting and no longer necessary (since it gives me nothing beyond what I put into it myself more or less deliberately), it would be better to abandon it and wait for a more favourable time. And right now the most serious hope I have for recovery is to let everything lie dormant until the anecdotal illness ailing me… and my brain cleansed by this period of repose, I can shed my old skin. To come into a new skin after a long period of obliteration in blankness, like a drum one has beaten too persistently and which, even though its body may still seem in pretty good shape, absolutely must have its vibrating skin replaced by a fresh one.

Of course, he not only recovers his enthusiasm but will go on to produce three more volumes after this.

So, looking ahead to 2018, I have a small selection of books that I am especially keen to read, but I know better than to make any public lists. I do want to continue a steady diet of poetry, learning how to read it more deeply, and write some of my own. But writing and photography have to take centre stage. Most immediately, I am heading to India in February to spend a couple of weeks in Kolkata where I hope to be able to find some distance from home, a wealth of inspiration and a little quiet time to write.

Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Happy New Year to all. Here in my hometown, and in many cities across Canada it is so cold that outdoor celebrations have been cancelled. But if the meteorologists are right, we should start to climb out of the deep freeze tomorrow as 2018 rolls in.

Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM

It’s no secret to my literary friends that I have been somewhat obsessed with French writer Michel Leiris this year. I will address this fact further at a later date, but essentially, it is his autobiographical writing that fascinates me—it’s a very internalized, yet sharply observant form of writing about language, memory, and experience. In his epic journal project, Phantom Africa, a detailed, personal record of his experience as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition in the early 1930s, one see him develop as a writer as the weeks and months past. With a background as a Surrealist poet and an essayist, he was a strong writer at the outset; what evolves over the course of the journey is an uncanny ability to lay himself open on the page with a distinct, idiosyncratic honesty. A discussion of this development forms the primary thread of my review of this critical work, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine.

However, the publication of this valuable document  in English, at this point in the ongoing post-colonial narrative, holds an importance that I only allude to in my critique. Leiris’ primary role on the expedition was as secretary-archivist. Ethnographic study was, for all intents and purposes, a mechanism of colonial control and exploitation. Thousands of artifacts, many with profound cultural and spiritual meaning, were collected for display in museums back in France. Some items were purchased, others taken by force or deceit, but in the end, it was all facilitated by an exercise of the power of the colonizer over the colonized. Leiris is not unaware of this fundamental inequity and he does express considerable concern and discontent with the ethics of the entire colonial enterprise, but he also admits to enjoying the thrill of the raid. Of course, it is not appropriate to measure a man outside the context of his times. Leiris’ true gift here lies in is his candid, unedited, record of the events he knows of or takes part in. It forms a vital contribution to the argument in favour of the repatriation of lost art and artifacts to Africa.

Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, is published by Seagull Books. My 3:AM review can be found here.

Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.