Who’s there? Who’s there? Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger

Question: How many roads can be used to enter Switzerland? Answer: Several hundred.

Imagine a novel that refuses an ordinary logic but contains within its pages a multitude of overlapping narrative accounts from a cluster of speakers sharing a space vaguely defined in place and time.

Imagine a novel that exists on the threshold. A performance art piece rendered in writing. With a cast of characters who bring their memories, experiences and unbound images (The place I’m thinking of is a common refrain) weaving in and out of one another’s stories, through accounts that are sometimes offered within reported letters or phone calls, even though that same character is also apparently present. Or perhaps not.

Born in 1985, Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Kelag Prize in 2010 for her first novel Invitation to the Bold of Heart. Her second novel, Shift Sleepers, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Megan Ewing, is a bold and breath taking approach to story telling that defies expectations, but does so in a seamless and engaging manner that, under a heavier hand, could have read terribly forced and artificial.

Set in a house in some unspecified location, presumably in Switzerland, a seemingly eclectic group has gathered. It includes a translator troubled by dreams of collapsing mountains, a logistics expert suffering from prolonged insomnia, a travelling writer, a female academic named A.L. Erika who talks of a significant period of time spent in Los Angeles, a journalist, a student from Glendale, California, and the restless Fortunat Boll whose pursuits have taken him to Texas, Portugal and other locales. On the sidelines, so it seems, are the logistic expert’s sister and brother-in-law and Mr. and Mrs. Boll. Although a few of the characters carry the bulk of the narrative, their stories are not only interrelated, but as listeners they are actively engaged with and attentive to one another—questioning, urging the speaker on, offering supplemental detail. If that sounds odd, well it is. But it is remarkably effective. This is not a random multilevel conversation so much as it is an orchestrated, open ended meditation on a number of vital, and difficult inquiries that affect us all on personal and political terms.

Their conversations touch on art, music, writing, justice, migration, trade, and belonging. Their discourse rises as a polyphonic hymn to the nature of movement across borders—ideas in language, language to language, country to country, wakefulness to sleep, sleep to dreams, life to death.

But is it readable? I found it endlessly fascinating myself, but I imagined it as a play, as a performance art project rather than any kind of conventional narrative. The voices and their stories are what matter and the author wants to ensure that you listen to what they say. Thus, more than a house, the setting is akin to a stage, or a room into which many doorways or thresholds converge. Characters come and go, retire to their rooms, assemble to share a meal. But the action, if it can even be called that, is minimal. Movement happens elsewhere. In memories and dreams. And it is in these reflections, and the questions that arise, that the novel’s power lies.

Shift Sleepers is a fragmentary work, but one in which the fragments blur and blend into one another. In the course of one paragraph, a number of voices many pick up a thread, carry it for a sentence or two and step back. The key characters slip in and out of singular accounts that go on for a several pages at a time, continually resurfacing through the course of the book.

Each person is essentially exploring the same issues that, in different contexts, ask: What does it mean to be alive? In this moment? At any moment or place in time?

It is human to want to know where one fits in and with whom: Who’s there? the opening words of Hamlet, form a frequent refrain.

The figure of central concern, the one who embodies within himself, the primary focal point of engagement for this ensemble, is the logistics expert who has a background in customs, monitoring the transport of goods across borders. In his recent state of extreme sleeplessness, he describes no longer being able to distinguish between events near or far, or to determine what is relevant. Caught in a state of strange alertness, detached hyperawareness, he experiences himself wandering through streets and towns, bombarded with images from North Africa, particularly Djerba, an island off Tunisia, seeing an owl, images of bees and being routinely distracted by a child playing a flute. Strangers sit in his apartment, people come and go, but he is unable to fall asleep himself. He describes his desperation:

even the attempt to remove myself from the city and the events led nowhere, these things were happening everywhere, I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t imaging things, I was continuously awake and saw everything with my own eyes. In Djerba too, in Athens too, in Florida too everything would have continued the same way, everything actually behaves this way, the Customs manager produces risk analyses, two men allow their bodies to be rolled up in rugs to cross the border, the Swiss farmer has no more use for the asylum seeker when he fails to understand for the third time how to pick crops, the mountains form a natural border, the shift sleeper is in search of a new domicile.

The shift sleeper of the title has a historical context stemming from the second half of the nineteenth century when migration into the urban centres of Europe led to a shortage of available and affordable housing. Newcomers might be forced to rent a bed during the hours its regular occupant was out or otherwise engaged. Without an unconditionally secure place to rest, they would grasp at sleep for a few hours at a time. These individuals or transient existences were a source of public distrust. They still exist of course. Today’s homeless person, refugee, and migrant continues to live this way—in streets and alleys, couch surfing, in camps and settlement centres, and too often, wherever they can.

Not surprisingly, the body is a striking and recurring image in this novel. Several speakers admit to their own varying degrees of personal bodied discomfort, and metaphysical disconnect, while the bodies of others—of smugglers, migrants, victims of physical violence—become an object of fascination and concern. Even obsession.

Other motifs that recur throughout the conversations that comprise this work are movement, passages, across bodies of water, through forests, on foot, by train. Safely, legally, or otherwise. Falling is also a frequent image—from the crumbling mountains of the translator’s dream that opens the book, to regular references to the work of Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared in 1975 during a solo transatlantic voyage launched from Cape Cod. Encounters with his work, which often deals with falling, sit as a reference point connecting many of the characters to one another. And his fateful final “performance” is echoed with historical references to earlier transatlantic migrations toward North America. Historical themes are blended with contemporary images throughout.

Originally published in 2014 as the migrant crisis was raising alarm in Europe, Shift Sleepers is even more unsettling in light of Trump’s border detention camps and the increasing nationalism and xenophobia spreading worldwide every day. At one point, the logistics expert recounts a phone call from the journalist, wondering how he could be so complacent when so many people were risking everything everyday by simply crossing the national border that ran past his house. These people, he is warned could disappear, find themselves in remote enclaves:

He himself had tried in vain that day to enter a so-called reception centre, even though these centres and cells, these sensitive zones, were easy to find and he could go there without much issue either on foot or by car, as he explained on the telephone—at the same time it was impossible for him to ever actually enter these places for as soon as he set foot inside their rules lost all validity as concerned his person.

These spaces, he explained, essentially established two different categories of persons—and two separate categories of being. Further along, another character, speaking of a visit to the US will wonder why it is easier for some people to cross borders than others? Or rather, why can an American cross a border without changing, whereas a Mexican crossing the same border becomes a different person?

 One of the counterpoints played out against the increasing divisions between people and kinds of people, is explored in the idea of the possibility of harmonious communities. Fortunat Boll, a man who is present with his parents, speaks of his own innate loneliness, his travels to Texas and interest in La Réunion, the utopian socialist colony founded in Dallas by Victor Propser Considerant in 1855 to which his own supposed relative naturalist Jacob Boll briefly belonged, and of his father’s own bee colonies. Both the colonies, human and apian, had in this case failed. Fortunat wonders if he could ever live with others or would he always need to be apart.

Today I live alone, do I feel lonely? Hardly. Over time I have lost a certain vulnerability, I rarely have strong emotions whereas everything weighed heavy in my youth, I was driven by feelings. This tuba tone is finite and vanishes in the air, it means two things that are mutually dependent, the place of my childhood and the distance from it, such antagonisms are beautiful because they are simple, now I see the world as a complicated structure, everything possible exists within it simultaneously.

One has to wonder about unusual ensemble within which, at least for the duration of the book, he has found himself. What strange spell holds it together? There is a sense of cohesion borne of the questions asked and the answers given, in how stories are shared, often the same experience told from different angles, sometimes first- other times second-hand, stories nested with stories—like sets of personal and communal Russian dolls.

Images are echoed and revisited as the book progresses. However, rather than feeling repetitive, these returning accounts add to the density of the narrative, becoming threads woven into a self-referential intertextual tapestry. There are few answers to the uncertainties and concerns the various characters carry with them. There is no explanation as to how they all arrived at this one place or why they’ve gathered. This is a story about questions, not answers, about the personal concerns about our lives, bodies and relationships that are ever evolving, and the broader issues—migration, justice, and global trade—that threaten our ability to share this planet.

Shift Sleepers is a symphony of inquiries. Elegantly composed and executed. A very impressive achievement for a writer who is still very young.

Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger is translated by Megan Ewing and published by Seagull Books. It is my second read for Women in Translation Month 2019.

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!

From both sides now: A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

There is a glow, a particular confidence that emanates from the poetry of German essayist and writer, Hans Mangus Enzensberger. It is manifested in his uncanny ability to take the smallest, even mundane, observations and transform them into poems that catch one unaware. I want to call it an earnestness, but it is more than that, it is the  capacity to reflect with equal humility and humour on both the simple and the profound  moments, an ability  that can only come with time and a long, full life. The second of the ninety-nine poems or meditations that comprise his collection, A History of Clouds, is an early example. “Sins of Omission” is a confession of sorts—a list of presumed shortcomings that begins with the aging narrator admitting to being absent, not hurrying over “when the need was greatest,” but closes with a wide range of “sins”:

Forgot to confess,
shied away
from improving the world,
never dropped out or in at the right time,
failed to take my pills
three times a day.

Yes, I abstained from
killing people. Yes,
I didn’t call.
For the time being I have even
refrained from dying.
Forgive me, if you can.

Or just let it be.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

From the outset then, the appeal of his clear uncomplicated verse and his gently sarcastic tone is clearly evident; making it easy to see why he is generally considered to be Germany’s most important living poet.

Born in Bavaria in 1929, Enzensberger’s poetry covers a vast range of subject matter, and he is also an editor, translator, and  a vital, often controversial, essayist. This collection was published in its original German in 2003, in the early years of a new century, when the poet was in his seventies. The opening section frequently touches on private moments and emotion, and includes some wonderful images of the simple intimacies of long-term relationships, of shared beds and lives—the wonder of a breath, a touch, proximity—while the second turns its attention to the lives of others, conjuring portraits that are historical, political or literary.  A particularly poignant piece is the haunting elegy to fellow countryman WG Sebald “Who touched us, / who seemed to have come from afar / to the sinister, unhomely homeland. / Little kept him here. / Nothing but the search for traces / with a divining rod of words / which twitched in his hand.” (From “For Max Sebald”, trans. by Martin Chalmers)

Enzensberger’s curiosity for the world, his far flung interests and experiences provide fertile backdrops for his wry commentaries on life. In later sections, he often appeals to science, philosophy and cosmology to illustrate an idea, making his poems them feel at once timely and out of time. One of my favourite pieces is the rather beautifully blunt “At Times” which begins:

When you meet someone
who is smarter or more stupid than you—
don’t make too much of it.
The ants and the gods,
believe me, feel just the same.

And goes on to remind us of our humble place in nature, insisting we are all relatively average in the grand scheme of things, insisting that is good, because:

Somewhere or other you’re always discovering
an even more radiant beauty,
someone even more worse off.
You’re mediocre,
luckily. Accept it!
Seven degrees centigrade more
or less on the thermometer—
and you would be beyond saving.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

Unassuming, but delightfully perceptive, it is possibly the single entry I return to more than any other. But this book is filled with many such everyday wisdoms. An appreciation of irony is, perhaps essential for the full impact of Enzensberger’s poetry, however, I have come, over the years, to believe such an appreciation is almost a basic life skill.

And then there are, of course, the clouds. In various of incarnations, clouds pass through many of these poems, often unexpected, but in the twelve-part title piece that closes out the collection, their presence is rendered more explicit:

Their wanderings high up
are quiet and inexorable.
Nothing bothers them.
Probably they believe
in resurrection, thoughtlessly
happy like me,
lying on my back and
watching them for a while.

(trans. by Esther Kinsky)

This meditation on clouds, or an “Archaeology of clouds—a science for the angels,” explores the wonder, the wanderings, and human response these meteorological phenomenon, cursed and loved for both their presence and their absence, one that is ultimately “A separate species, transient, but older than our kind.” A fitting end to a book that begins with the most essential and down-to earth aspects of life, and through ninety-nine short poems, reminds us that we are bound to this planet, and then leaves us, in the end, quite literally  hanging in the air.

A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger is translated by Martin Chalmers and Esther Kinsky, and published by Seagull Books.

Summoning the celestial: The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven by Raoul Schrott

If absence makes the heart grow stronger, absence tinged with the uncertainty of love returned can lead the heart and the imagination to wander into realms beyond the merely mortal. To contemplate romantic perfection. To be filled with a longing for something that may no longer exist. To attempt to counter the earthly with the heavenly. To trust in angels.

The wonderfully titled The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven is essentially a series of missives from a lovelorn poet to a mysterious red-haired beauty from whom he has been separated by time, distance and, perhaps, some recklessness on his part. He is writing from County Cork in the south of Ireland, a place which is not his home, where he is exiled, or has exiled himself, sending into the nightly blackness a chain of love letters ever so loosely disguised as a sensual, passionate and mildly profane angelology accompanied by miniaturized hagiographies. Originally published in German in 2001, this extraordinary work by Austrian writer Raoul Schrott, with its arresting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O, is now available from the inimitable Seagull Books in Karen Leeder’s delicately rendered translation. Fictional, but not a conventional novel, essayistic, but meditative in style, this book is an engaging blend of philosophy, mythology, the classical sciences, saintly heroism, and earthbound human romantic longing.

Our narrator begins, as one would expect, with Dionysius the Areopagite—not the saint, but the fifth century Syrian Neoplatonist who, writing in the name and style of his sanctified predecessor was the first to craft a hierarchy of angels and demons, a celestial stepladder to God for dark times.  Within Pseudo-Dionysius’ model of an angel-sustained universe, he locates himself and his own angelic entity:

For Earth he chose only a single one, which he placed in the lower arc of my ribs where I can feel it now, hard as a little planet. I carry it with me (even now in the train it keeps to its orbit) and sometimes I can see it before me: its mouth, black brows and a storm of red hair over its freckles, an incarnation of St. Elmo’s fire.

Captive and captivated, he writes as if possessed, bringing the Aurora Borealis, Samuel Johnson, Greek and Babylonian mythology and more into his musings as he tries to make sense of his fate, this spell of infatuation under which he is labouring. His thoughts never stray far from his beloved even though his letters have yet to elicit a response. He is continues his conversation into the silence, remembering their moments together. It is not entirely clear how much he really has to build on, how much they ever had, a quality that amplifies the sense of yearning:

Then as I sat next to you in the great hall, I heard you more than saw you beside me; I listened to you; wings folding shut. Do I bore you with all these sophistries and sentimentalities? It is only because the post takes so damned long, because I don’t know whether you will ever respond, not how; because I must eke out the little that I have to create a picture of you: little stones for a mosaic. The angels help me lay it out.

As he wanders the past and waits in the present, meditating on the nature of the role of angels in the affairs of humans, especially his own, our poet paints an image of a windswept remoteness, an isolation actual and emotional. He references local towns, harbours and natural features, like the aptly named Mount Gabriel. The ocean is never far away, and water is a major presence in his memories, his sense of loss, and much of the mythology he calls on. His heartache is pervasive, and achingly beautiful:

I walk through the grass; it brushes against my shoes. All is still, and I wish your voice was with me now, whispered and low so that only I could hear it. Instead the moon starts off on a soliloquy. Where it stands, stubbornly apart, is the southwest and somewhere behind is where you are, as if only I had to concentrate to see that far, peer over the curvature of the earth. But where you are it is an hour later, I only wish I knew how to catch up that hour.

Because the distance that haunts him is temporal, in more than one sense of the word, trusting the angels, even if as he admits, he does not believe in them, has a certain logic. A comfort.

Turning to John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth century Irish theologian, best known for translating and commenting on Pseudo-Dionysius, the narrator reflects on the inverted balance existing between humans and their heavenly counterparts:

the angel finds its form within humankind through the spirit (intellectus) of the angel that is in the man; and man comes into being in the angel through the spirit of humankind within him and so on and so forth for all eternity without a single Amen being granted to us in Eriugenia’s scholastic permutations. We are nothing but the imaginings of angels; and angels exist only in our thoughts: that is our paradox not theirs.

He has entrusted his love and his beloved to the care of angels, to hold her for him in their thoughts. And yet, as her own distinction from the angels becomes less clear in his letters, one has to wonder how much she has begun to exist only in his thoughts. If she, in her epistolary silence is possibly not thinking of him, what existential questions does that raise? For him? For any of us who has ever loved hopelessly another who will never return our affection? At heart, he knows, it seems.

And: no, I am not writing for writing’s sake; no, if my letters were in any way beautiful, there were so only on account of you; no, they are not complete in themselves; all they do is beg for the answer and conceal best they can the question (they tiptoe in stealth as I know they are trespassing on your territory). No, your cheeks were so warm that it felt as if I could have woken up next to you; no, there is nothing that could possibly dis-appoint you from the rank of the angels; no, the Amores will never run out of arrows, although I make a rather unholy Sebastian; and no, the angels will not wear themselves out with words; writing to you brought at least a few hours relief, then you started up again humming in my ears.

The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens reads like an extended meditative conversational prose poem, a playful interplay between earth and the heavens, grounded in the inescapable humanness of romantic love. The rich illustrations and micro biographies of the lives and martyrdom of the saints accompanying the text work together to form a running commentary on the interrelationship between love, spirituality, literature and art. This book could almost be, if one didn’t know better, the work of the angels themselves.

Words on the wind: Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig

If this has been a year of poetry for me, that is, of extending my ear to listen to the voices of contemporary poets, the greatest lesson has come in the form of an understanding that I, as a non-poet, must come to each collection with a willingness to be open to both the language and the silences a poet employs. I have also learned that poetry that leans too closely into the confessional is not as rewarding as that which reaches toward the human condition, be that political, historical or personal. And I’ve found that, like a good essay, a poem should leave space at its centre for questions and meanings to take shape, shift, and re-form. It is that space that pulls me, as a reader, back into my favourite poems, again and again.

At first blush, the work of German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig may seem deceptively simple. One could slip through quickly and miss the musicality, the odd fantastical turns, and the political undertones. Born in 1979, in a rural part of what was, at the time, East Germany, Sandig first emerged as a radical poet, posting poems on lampstands and distributing them as flyers. From the beginning she has been drawn to experimenting with the presentation and delivery of poetry, intent on opening the form to those who might be unfamiliar with or resistant to it. This has led to collaborations with musicians, and visual and sound artists on CDs, audiobooks and multimedia presentations. Her work invites the reader, or listener, into a world of familiar images and shadowy ambiguities.

Thick of It, recently released from Seagull Books, marks the first appearance of Sandig’s work in English. In her generous introduction, translator Karen Leeder, calls attention to the poet’s transformative approach to language:

Blisteringly contemporary, but with a kind of purity too; by turns comic, ironic, sceptical or nostalgic, it is also profoundly musical. The poems explore an urgently urban reality but are splintered with references to nightmares, the Bible, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, hymns, Goethe, Emily Dickinson and Kafka. Sandig abandons the traditional upper-case for sentences and end-of-line punctuation so as to exploit multiple meanings, stretches syntax, plays with idioms… and surfs on patterns of sound…

Titles at the top of pieces are uncommon, rather, the title, as such, is often woven into the poem, indicated by boldface type. As well, she frequently sets her poems in pairs that echo, reflect and undermine one another. The original title Dickicht which means “thicket”, speaks to this intertwining of meanings. Leeder extends this one step further, by bending the English title to “thick of it”.The poems in this collection, which draw heavily on images of nature—trees and birds—and movement—migration and travel—are separated into two sections “North” and “South”, set apart by the “Centre of the World” which contains a single six-line poem. Loss, and certain measured melancholy, runs through her poetry, things and people are misplaced, slipping from memory. Birds, seasons, and people are ever leaving and returning. Throughout the collection, poems often address a “you”, an other. Sometimes an intimacy is implied, but as the translator indicates, Sandig often plays the formal “Sie” against the informal “du”, a distinction lost in translation, so “you” encountered here is allowed an openness that can be understood as specific or general, individual or plural.

The first part is more firmly rooted, as much as any of these poems are ever rooted, in nature and fragments of the everyday, real and dreamed:

behind my eyes the others sit and watch
everything I see. I only see what I can see.

at night I see the marten in the porchlight
under the foxglove tree, not moving a muscle,

becoming invisible in the fading light. I see
no comets, no satellites. I see nothing but

the scrap of moon and my own reflection
in the glass…

— from “behind my eyes”

The second section, “South”, is a less clearly defined space, sometimes more fantastical—visited by ghosts, a centaur and a gardening John the Baptist—other times more personal, although that atmosphere is frequently strained. Nostalgia and sadness run deeper in this part of the world:

can you still see me? you won’t
recognize me. already we are almost
not there. were you the one who looked right
through me?
try again, hard as you can, look closely:
we were
never that pale.

— from “this photos of us”

The world evoked in Thick of It is one that expands with every return visit. Translator Karen Leeder’s enthusiasm for Sandig’s creative and performative energy is palpable—it comes through the more one reads across this collection, moving with and against its currents. Encountering it, as I have, as winter settles in and the year draws to a close has been especially fortuitous. I cannot leave this short review without a poem,  “denuded trees,” perfect for the season, that deserves to be heard in full:

when I left the afternoon was already over. straggling
children tidied themselves from the playground into the
houses. the first rockets hissed invisibly, still almost inaudible
the throb of the bass. the roadside for quite some distance
was overcast with the haze of denuded trees, they smelled

of cuckoo flowers in the woods, and dozing above them the real
clouds in the wind hole, polar light, biting ice. once a chunk
of milk glass fell to the ground in front of me. before I could
tread on it, it melted away. that’s when I finally left. after that
I forgot everything here.                          I was back by new year.

Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is published by Seagull Books.

Suspended in time: The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani

Although there was a time when I would read occasional police procedurals, somewhat like a palate cleanser between what I might called “more serious” reads, my reading focus has shifted over the past decade or so and, consequently, it’s been a long time since I picked up a crime novel as much for lack of time than anything. However, when The Nameless Day by German writer Friedrich Ani arrived at my home wrapped in a stunning Sunandini Banerjee-designed dustjacket, I thought that, after so long, it might be a refreshing change of pace. What I found was slower-paced, more character driven, less solution focused read than I might have expected and, in my case, it was a good fit.

Recently retired, police detective Jakob Franck is looking forward to settling into an existence that will, he hopes, no longer be haunted by the mournful presence of ghostly visitors from the past challenging him with their unresolved secrets. Instead, he is unexpectedly contacted by a living herald of a case he had not directly investigated but had never forgotten. Twenty years earlier he had been charged to deliver to a family the news that their seventeen year-old daughter had been found hanging from a tree in the park. This particular task, the bearing of unbearably painful news, had become one that Franck seemed to excel at and so he had agreed to make the call. Only the mother was home. As she registered the news, Doris Winther collapsed into the arms of the detective and he ended up holding her, just inside the doorway, for seven long hours. The sort of unprecedented, irregular occurrence that leaves its mark. A little more than a year later, mother would follow daughter, recreating the act in the yard of the family home. Both deaths were declared suicides.

Suddenly, after two decades, Ludwig Winther, widow and bereaved father, re-enters Franck’s life clinging to a desperate conviction that his daughter was in fact murdered. He beseeches the former detective to have a look at the matter just one more time. Old habits die hard, Franck’s professional instincts are readily aroused:

Once again Franck caught himself thinking like an interrogator with only the admissible conclusion of an investigation in mind. But the man sitting in front of him, broken and bent by the leaden emptiness of his life, was no witness, he was a relative, a surviving dependent, the father of a daughter, the husband of a woman who had also hung herself and left behind a man who ever since had been wandering through the cages of his questions.

What unfolds is a re-awakening of memories, Franck’s own and those of the various people he contacts as he moves through a re-examination of those who knew Esther Winther—her classmates, her maternal aunt in Berlin, family friends, and neighbours. The narrative holds close to his perspective, and that of her diminished father, who, having been informally held responsible for his daughter’s and his wife’s deaths, has been reduced to living in an attic flat and working as a part-time delivery driver. Both men are in their sixties, divorced and widowed, and they have each chosen to remain unattached, but their loneliness is palatable. Around them the varied secondary and peripheral characters also echo various degrees of emotional isolation, grief and guilt linked back to either Esther’s unexplained suicide or to their own private tragedies. The world Ani so skillfully brings to life is not a happy one; the depth of family trauma reverberating throughout:

The silence, Franck thought, had driven that family into an inner and unsurmountable homelessness. The time to make a wish had never arrived for any of them; not even, he thought, looking towards the door again—no sound came from the other room—for Winther’s sister-in-law in Berlin. Inge Rigah had escaped the approaching shadow in her family’s world rather early, but in the place she had freely chosen to go she had instead become a prisoner of her dream, which she refused to realize or allowed only to remain as a sketch. In Esther she saw herself as a free spirit that no one could cage; and so, after her niece’s death, all that was left was the wrinkled anger she had carried around from the very first time she ever met Ludwig Winther.

As Franck works his way through the circle of connected individuals, concerns and accusations routinely circle back to the very man who initiated the reinvestigation of his daughter’s death. If not entirely sympathetic, Ludwig Winther is the tragic victim here. He had wanted to provide a good life for his family and in the end he lost everything—his daughter, his wife, his career, and his home. He became the focal point of anger and blame, accused of being inadequate at the very least, of rumoured unspeakable acts at the worst. Twice bereaved he was never granted the respect and space to grieve. His wife, sister-in-law, his daughter’s classmates all believed that he was directly or indirectly responsible for driving Esther to the point of no return. After twenty years, a small and defeated man, his attempt to find closure by proving to himself, at the very least, that fault belonged to someone else.

Whether anyone will find closure at the end of The Nameless Day is debatable. For some crime fiction readers that may be less than fully rewarding. For me, the questions that arise from the facts that we do learn are far more fascinating for the lack of resolution, for fate, and for the things we can never know. The dead may come to visit, but they tend to keep their secrets to themselves.

In the end, The Nameless Day is a satisfying, psychologically engaging read. Translated by Alexander Booth, the language is rich and poetic, and Ani’s willingness to leave room for what is unspeakable, unknowable and unsettled makes this a novel that will potentially appeal to a wide audience.

The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani is published by Seagull Books.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.

Nameless, neutered and neurotic: The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig

Over the past four years, five works by German author Wolfgang Hilbig have appeared in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid, evocative translations, each release bringing the late writer—always a literary outsider in life—an expanded following. The most recent offering, the fourth from Two Lines Press is the earliest, chronologically speaking. Originally published in 1987, The Females is an unrepentant portrait of a man burdened by a deeply and darkly distorted sense of shame and self-loathing. Classic Hilbig protagonist on one level, yet embryonic relative to the more abstract introspective narrators who move through many of his subsequent works.

This novella is set, like so much of Hilbig’s fiction, in a small industrial community in postwar East Germany. The narrator is, by his own description, a rather foul and socially inept misfit, a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother and harbours a troubled and seemingly stunted adolescent notion of women. He is not simply unnamed, but acutely aware of having been rendered nameless. Within the context of Hilbig’s shorter works this story is more explicit in its anger toward the state with its control of desire, creative and sexual. The recent history of his country, the ruins of war and the politics of the National Socialism, looms large. The imagery is gritty, coarse and vulgar, but the narrator’s desperate search for identity lends him a level of sympathy. He feels ashamed at his own corruption—especially a youthful turn at pornography, yet feels neutered and powerless. In the bluntness of its  approach, The Females seems somewhat less refined than Old Rendering Plant and the Tidings of the Trees which follow several years later, but having this earlier work published in English at this point allows readers familiar with his oeuvre to see developmental themes at play.

True to form, this is an absorbing, compulsive read, one that slips regularly into a nausea-inducing, full-frontal assault on the senses. The opening passages are fair warning. The protagonist is working at a pressing shop in a former munitions factory. The shop floor is entirely staffed by women and, confined to a dank basement room, his task is to clean the molds. From his subterranean vantage point he watches the women work the machinery:

Through the grating above me, damp, smoldering heat flooded down with steady force. I sat on a chair beneath the grate amid this hot tide, hidden in semidarkness, several bottles of beer by my chair; when I drank the beer seemed to gush instantly from all my pores, lukewarm, not even changing temperature inside my body. It was ceaseless strain—my head constantly tilted back—to stare through the grate into the light, always hoping to see the women up there step across the bars.

He obsesses over every movement the women make, sexualizing the physical routine of the manufacturing activity, longing for a fleeting taste of femininity, and masturbating in his gloomy enclosure. Needless to say, he is employed on borrowed time. “I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness,” he tells us, one that is characteristically “utterly excessive; an agony not quite human, it was no longer that of an animal either.” Dismissed from his job, he takes to wandering the streets at night and notices, that something has suddenly been drained from the atmosphere. As an aspiring writer, the only vocation he has ever truly desired despite the disdain this ambition evoked in his family and society alike, he had once been able to look at the dismal world around him and, as he puts it, “make the filth glitter”. Now, either in reality or in his madness, his environment had been altered.

Much to his dismay, he becomes convinced of a most horrifying truth:

It was no help at all to sense I was possessed by an obsession, in my overpotent head a cascade of letters blazed: all the females had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity.—Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use; I thought I suddenly noticed people in town referring to trash cans as der Kübel instead of die Tonne. When I saw those trash cans from afar, set up in long rows along the curbs that summer—something unlikely to change, as the trash collection service was still more dysfunctional then than in the winter—at first I’d think a line of unshapely females was loitering there, dully iridescent in the bluish streetlights, and I’d hurry toward them. I’d realize they were just the trash cans I saw every night, from their gaping orifices hung rubbish that looked hairy, that had an undefinable evil about it.

His desperate, guilt-ridden efforts to make sense of this situation, to set it right somehow, drives the nonlinear, obsessive, self-deprecating and bitter narrative of The Females. Some of the imagery is harsh, off-putting, and sexist. In his defence the protagonist blames the psychopathology of the state under which he was raised, one in which “the sex drive was declared to be abnormal…and sex to be capitalistic”. He clearly has had no real, substantial and healthy relationships with women. He wants to be loved, longs for normal human contact, but fears that his anxious desire will drive others away, that as his desperation becomes evident, he grows increasingly hideous—“A monster with putrefaction written in the crannies of its skin as hectic red blotches, with uric acid drying and itching on its pate, a madness no longer stoppable as damp tufts of hair began painlessly detaching themselves.” His frustration is redirected back at women—his mother included—and it his inability to conform to the expectations of those around him. To see the world as he is supposed to see it.

At the core of this novella lies a crisis of masculinity. Hilbig, like many of his generation grew up fatherless. His father had disappeared at Stalingrad and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. His characters often struggle with the rigid expectations of manhood in their closed society. As men who are naturally drawn to creative pursuits, they react against the predetermined factory life by trying to find their missing role models among the social outcasts—garbage men or the workers at a rendering plant. In the world Hilbig presents in The Females, the State is the all-powerful progenitor, women are brutish and masculine, men are soft and delicate, psychologically castrated. His protagonist is criticized by his family for failing to live up to an ideal set by his father, though it is not clear that his father is more than a myth he has no real memory of. He is seeking an absolution through the women who have controlled, avoided and now eluded him, longing to heal a wound with roots, ultimately, deep in childhood memory and buried national history. He chooses to work in a factory staffed by females to try to be near their presence and feels cut off from a vital reality when he is cast out. In the shadowy depths of the town’s laneways he is searching for a feminine presence which he can only vaguely remember, distrusting his imagination and distorting reality into misplaced freakish phallic and vaginal imagery.

His is a strange, and strangely fascinating existential pursuit. “The world outside my window,” he is inclined to tell himself, “lacks the gaze that is mine”:

But I’d had to realize that I was no one.—I didn’t know whether I existed; the fact of my birth had been kept secret from me. They kept it secret to punish me, for I hadn’t turned out to be the thing they’d hope to bestow upon the world. Yes, I’d made the mistake of having myself be born, having myself be raised by the state and its pedagogy, by pedagogy and its state—I’d practically volunteered for it—but then I turned out differently. And so I had to be nullified, voided; there was neither a womb nor a pedagogy nor a state for the creature I’d become. I didn’t even have a name to lay claim to.

The Females is a challenging read in today’s climate of gender sensitivity. But emerging at a time when Germany was still divided (though Hilbig was by this time already living in west Berlin), its message’s bold, brutal delivery possibly reflects a more immediate frustration. Either way, it is a powerful short work that takes no prisoners.

Deftly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig is published by Two Lines Press.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.