The living dead man: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.

Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.

Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.

After the first month he stopped counting.

Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.

The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:

The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.

He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.

Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.

The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.

The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.

As long as I live in poetry: Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.
.        – from “The Lamp”

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019) the much loved and highly respected Bengali author, scholar and feminist was a versatile and prolific writer whose extensive bibliography includes fiction, essays, children’s literature, travelogues, political columns and more. However, throughout her life she identified herself as a poet, first and foremost. As the daughter of two acclaimed poets, she began writing poems when she was a young child. In her comprehensive Introduction to the present collection, her daughter Nandana Dev Sen—not a poet herself, but a writer, actor and activist—reflects on the way poetry served as a vital and constant companion, one that was not always easy to satisfy. As Nandana records, in her mother’s own words:

“Poetry is like war,” she wrote. “A war with oneself. Finally, only when there is victory and peace, poetry follows. Poetry has to be earned.”

This sentiment can be felt in the clarity and precision that marks her work.

Acrobat presents a selection of poems that span Dev Sen’s career from the late 1950s through to 2019. It is very much a labour of love between a mother, the poet, and a daughter, the translator. Although she would not live to see the final publication, Nabaneeta Dev Sen was very excited about this book which would be her very first major release from a western publisher. She was gravely ill but undaunted when the project began and while translations of some of her poems already existed, she desired newer versions. A modest list of poems was compiled, but that was as far as mother and daughter could go together. Nandana translated those pieces and many more over the following months, gathering them together with a number of poems her mother had translated herself, a few that she had written in English, and one translated by her sister, Antara Dev Sen. Her Introduction includes a biography, personal in tone, and a discussion of the challenges of translating poetry and the considerations she followed when bringing her mother’s Bengali into English.

When presenting work drawn across a period of six decades, there is a common tendency to allow the date of publication to dictate the order. In Acrobat, however, the poetry of Nabaneeta Dev Sen is sorted along thematic lines. The book is divided into five sections, each named for a phrase pulled from one of the poems within it. A chronology is included at the back so one can, as I did, check to see the decade a particular poem belongs to. Such an organic approach makes for a wonderful reading experience, allowing one to appreciate the way the poet’s work visits and revisits similar subjects over the span of her life, with styles and perspectives shifting over time and place. Dev Sen married young and spent her twenties and early thirties living in the US and UK where her academic work eventually drew her away from poetry for a while. In 1974, when her marriage to economist Amartya Sen began to falter, she returned home to Kolkata. As a newly single mother with two daughters amid the scandal of divorce, poetry took on a new importance as a personal space in which to explore her pain, her identity, and her place in the world. In contrast to her scholarly writing which was primarily in English, for almost all of her creative work, she made the “political” decision to write in Bangla—not only a reflection of her feminist values and her language activism but as a voice for deeper emotional exploration and observation.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry, to my reading, is distinguished by an alertness to the moment in all its strangeness and wonder. She is attuned to the anxieties and the triumphs of life, distilling key elements into vivid images. This is beautifully illustrated in an early poem, “The Great Fair” that appears in the first section which revolves around the notion of time. The speaker is waiting with a cup of saved coins for an adult who has promised to return to take her to the Great Fair. She lists wonderous toys and treasures she expects to be able to buy, but:

As I waited on my steps
My limbs grew long
My list blew away in the wind
My cup of change became a trunk of gold.

There is nothing left for me to buy
From your Great Fair anymore.

I am going to get up from my steps now

There is a remarkable sadness and defiance in the voice of the speaker; that complicated mix of emotion that comes with growing up, letting go of, or seeing through, the illusions of childhood.

As a passionate advocate for the preservation of Indian tongues, a translator and a promoter of the voices of women, it is not surprising that poetry, words and language, frequently appear as subjects in Dev Sen’s poems. She approaches the theme with humour, with elegance and with pain. “The Year’s First Poem,” for example, begins:

Pretending
as if nothing at all has happened,
picking up the heart
from the sand, dusting it clean
pushing it back inside my blouse
secretly, the first year’s poem gets written.

Other themes that resurface include identity, relationships with others, and a search for deeper truths in life. These are, of course, not unique as poetic topics. It is the distinctive voice, the vulnerability and the openness that combine to make the poems in this collection so strong. But, more than that,  Nandana Dev Sen’s translations and her loving curation of this volume—which opens with an Introduction that is both biography and translator’s note and closes with an open letter to her mother—makes Acrobat at once a beautiful memorial that honours Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s life and spirit and a vital introduction to her poetry for English-speaking readers.

Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen is translated by Nandana Dev Sen and published by Archipelago Books.

Hardly at a loss for words: Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas

Imagine this: a novel about a would-be novelist, a writer of “so-called” fictions, or stories inspired by his life in Bogota, Colombia, now living in California, who steals time to write, avant-garde music flowing through his headphones, in the cubicle he occupies at Prudential Investments where he works as a data analyst. When the work day is done he heads home, no not Home, but to The Other Home, a studio apartment in building adjacent to the building (containing Home) and joined to said building by a shared laundry room. This arrangement allows our “hero” to maintain a connection and an illusion of family life with his former wife, Ida, and his daughters, Ada and Eva. Add an unstable sister and a mother, both across country, and a selection of past and present girlfriends, serious and casual, and you have the psychological landscape in which one Antonio Jose Jiménez exists (and sometimes tries to pretend he does not exist).

Aphasia opens during Summer #8 of Antonio’s semi-domesticated or post married life, and his former wife has, as is her custom, taken the girls to her native country, Czechia, to spend time with her parents. Normally their absence would be a green light for him to engage with previous lovers and/or pursue new romances. But this year he is worried about the potential threat such romances might pose to his precariously balanced family life, so he signs up for Your Sugar Arrangements, a site for wanna-be Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies to connect under the name Arturo Ventanas. What could possibly go wrong? Or rather, what does this piece of information, offered on the very first pages of the book, tell us about our friend Antonio? Well, that he is quite capable of reasoning at cross purposes—in fact the entire novel could be described as an exercise in the tangling and untangling of his thought processes through an ongoing stream of remembrances, distractions and denials. A conventional narrative it is not, an absorbing reading experience it is.

This is the second novel by Mauro Javier Cárdenas featuring Antonio though the two Antonio’s don’t line up exactly. In The Revolutionaries Try Again he is an avant-garde music loving data analyst in California who returns home to Ecuador (which, rather than Colombia, is the author’s own native country) where, together with a school friend, he attempts to rekindle the political dreams of their youth. It is a boisterous experimental endeavour with multiple threads and an explosion of narrative styles. By contrast, the present incarnation of Antonio with his creeping middle-age anxieties is a quieter affair, but no less ambitious. Unwinding in a feast of long sentences that extend for pages without a break, Aphasia reads almost like a transcription of its protagonist’s thoughts and experiences shaped by what he thinks, knows and what he thinks he knows. Along the way, the incorporation of transcriptions of conversations he has taped with his mother, his former wife and his sister expand the world in which he exists.

This Antonio-centred world depends on a healthy amount of distraction, imagination and avoidance. His writing and reading drive much of it, his former girlfriends, Dora and Silvina, still occupy his mind, his occasional sugar arrangements complicate matters, his daughters command his affections, Nicola Carati, the hero of the Italian family saga, The Best of Youth, provides him an idealized alter ego, and, when required, Antonio even submits to his role as a data analyst. It’s a busy existence, one that clutters up the file cabinet in his cubicle at Prudential Investments because, if anything, Antonio is a master at compartmentalization. There is plenty he’d rather not think about, including a volatile family life with his father back in Bogota. However, the major elephant-in-the-room element is the current affairs of his sister Estela who, suffering from what seems to be schizophrenia, involve serious medical and legal challenges that continue to surface throughout the course of this novel:

—I don’t intend to write about my sister here, Antonio writes, among my so-called sugar arrangements—nor do I want to give you the impression my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion from thinking about my sister’s misfortunes, Antonio writes, because of course my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion, but so are all other activities that allow me to pass the time without thinking of the misfortunes that have happened are still happening to my sister—and although of course Antonio’s ashamed of his avoidance, no one needs to know, he won’t tell anyone, and thankfully he no longer believes in a god that can strike him for avoiding his sister’s misfortunes…

So, what will Antonio write about? Everything he insists he won’t write about and more. What he won’t/can’t write about the third person narration carries because what he writes and what he thinks and feels are often at odds. The recordings worked into the text allow key people in his life to speak for themselves to bring their own realities into the mix although not without Antonio’s questions influencing their disclosures. The narrative shifts perspectives multiple times within the same extended sentence yet remains internally driven by Antonio’s thoughts and experiences.

The style with its long circuitous sentences, intentionally repetitive and often uncertain and self-contradictory, will immediately call to mind Thomas Bernhard, and he is among the many literary presences in this book. Antonio, as a writer, tends to perceive and frame things in terms of literature, film and music, so writers and their works—including Sebald, Krasznahorkai, Beckett, Chekov, Virginia Woolf and many more—appear among these pages, sometimes employed in the most unlikely contexts. Encountering these elements is part of the fun of reading this work. And Aphasia is fun to read, falling into the rhythm of the long passages, and riding the waves of Antonio’s contradictory thinking and overthinking.

Essentially, this is a novel about what is going on in the presumably ordered if cluttered mind of its central character and, as somewhat of a counterpoint, in the disordered, psychotic mind of his sister. What has happened and what might happen is secondary to what Antonio thinks about these things, consequently he often acts without seeming to think at all which is, of course, what we all do so much of the time, for better or worse. Yet, this is, at heart, a book about family—the family histories that form us, the obligations they bring, and the complicated emotions involved in creating our own families whether accidental (as for poor Antonio) or otherwise. These are, of course, the themes troubling much of Antonio’s mental real estate. Whether he reaches any insights or not is secondary to the journey itself.

Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A map of your absence: If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani

Some novels greet you at the door—or in this case, just beyond the baggage claim—engage your attention, and hold you, sentence by sentence, through the past and the present, until you reach your final destination. If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Italian writer Andrea Bajani, is such a book. Yet the magic of this story lies entirely in the telling—in the delicate balancing of select, sharply depicted images within a spare, measured narrative that simmers with barely restrained emotional tension. On the surface, it’s the tale of a young man grieving his mother’s legacy of repeated departures and arrivals, the mainstay of his childhood, while he attends to her final dispatch in Romania, the ultimate faraway destination from which she would never return. His prospect of achieving closure, however, is tenuous for beneath the surface, complex and conflicted feelings remain unresolved.

The novel opens with Lorenzo’s arrival in Bucharest and his initial contact with Christian, the driver who will serve as his guide to the city and his means to understanding some elements of his mother’s life. Although she is dead, she is never far away—Lorenzo’s account is essentially directed toward her—but his tone speaks to an unbreachable distance. After enough time, absence no longer to makes the heart grow stronger. Addressing her is perhaps the only way to make sense of his loss:

You started leaving when I was young. The first trip was for pleasure, to go meet some friends who were off trying to strike it rich. You drew the world on a sheet of paper the night before, to show me where you were going. We’re here, you said, and tomorrow I’ll be right down here, in this spot. You drew a line with a red marker from home to there. It’s a bridge, you said, it’s like crossing the river to the other side. And under the bridge we colored everything blue; we filled in the water of Europe. Then we taped the picture to the refrigerator, and that’s where it stayed for years to come.

His mother’s trips became more frequent. Promotion of her egg-shaped, sweat-inducing weight loss machine takes her around the world. The souvenirs she brings home multiply in her son’s room, mapping her absence. When she is home, the increasing presence of her business partner in her life begins to put a strain on her marriage. Before long, the partner and the promise Romania holds as the ideal base for their enterprise is too strong and finally she is gone for good. Left behind in Italy, Lorenzo and his dad will never see her again; even the phone calls will dwindle as the years pass.

Now grown and finally in Romania himself, Lorenzo is reunited with Anselmi, his mother’s business partner, a loud, brash Italian who has clearly found a level of success and self-importance that would have eluded him at home. He is of a breed, not uncommon in the country—latter-day middle-aged foreign opportunists—and Lorenzo will encounter more than a few men of this type, including another long-time friend of his mother who reveals to him the shocking and sorry state of her final years. No one is exactly forthcoming with details, but Anselmi has taken up with a young Romanian woman named Monica who seems less than thrilled with her circumstances and rather attracted to the young Italian she has been ordered to attend to. Lorenzo, however, is seemingly most comfortable in the company of Christian, his mother’s long time driver. With him he is able to be present without pressure. Together they visit Ceausescu Palace, spend time in the city, share both laughter and silence. Lorenzo is gently attentive to the hidden strengths Christian seems to carry, leaving a faint erotic tension in the air.

If You Kept a Record of Sins offers an account that rides as much on what is unspoken as on what is shared. The narrative is economical and precise, moving from one finely honed image to another. Lorenzo’s mood is lonely, detached. He is cautious in his engagement with others. The abandonment he felt at a young age comes through even as he recalls tender moments of play or adventure with his mother. As an adult he appears to be grasping at something to feel for someone he hardly ever knew. Her own family, he is aware, were oddly unforgiving and remote themselves, while her final years in Romania were marked by romantic betrayal and self-destruction, but how to make sense of the damage she was responsible for between those two ends? A mixture of love and ambivalence fuels this bereaved son’s ongoing one-sided conversation with this mother as, for example, in this account of his first night in her apartment:

The mirror was too low—it cut off my head—and to think there was a time you used to lift me up, to look into my eyes. I was still wet when I left the bathroom, a trail of droplets behind me. I turned off all the lights, except the nightstand lamp. I took my pajamas from my bag, put them on, and went over to your bed. I dropped onto it, tried to bounce, then slipped under the covers. And it was almost as if I felt your bones, under there, that I was lying between bone and muscle and had to stay very still, or else I’d hurt you.

This is a novel at once sombre and hopeful. Beautifully translated by Elizabeth Harris, it never falls in to oversentimentality. Grief is idiosyncratic, sometimes elusive, and Bajani captures this complexity well. The cast of complicated secondary characters add depth to Lorenzo’s experiences without ever distracting or weighing them down. Reading fiction this well-crafted is a joy.

If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Andrea Bajani is translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and published by Archipelago Books.

Troubling the alphabet: Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi

What can a language reveal? What can it obscure? If your memories were birthed in one culture, can they be retrieved elsewhere? What is gained and what is lost when you migrate from one land to another, from one language to another? How does this shift affect the spelling and the telling of a life?

Wittgenstein’s aphorism: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ is false; there were thoughts that lacked words. We doused ourselves in neologisms. Dorothy repeating ‘there’s no place like home.’ A memory burn: the first time I saw a man kissing another man. (from Chapter 9)

The thirty-nine part prose poem that comprises Australian poet Harold Legaspi’s pocket-sized volume Letters in Language seem to dance around these questions, indirectly entertain them. Flirt and tease. Lean in closely. Look away. Catching, again and again, his own reflection.

Drawing inspiration from American Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Legaspi has entered into his own experimental autobiography. Hejinian’s ground-breaking work, as published in 1980,  featured thirty-seven non-narrative prose poems, each thirty-seven sentences long—one for each year of her life at the time of writing. A second edition, revisited the project, growing with the poet, to forty-five pieces of forty-five sentences each. These sentences refuse direct connection to one another, defying the sequential illusion of conventional life writing. How do we remember ourselves? In fragments and moments, yet somehow, through the translation into language, patterns  and a sense of wholeness emerges. But is it real?

To read My Life is to let the words, the sentences, flow over you. There is a continuity of voice, and of the nature of images that interconnect when memories arise—details of a childhood for example may include activities, rooms, sounds, objects, and observations from a mature vantage point—but the intentional corralling of these images into narrative form distorts the truths it endeavours to preserve. The reader is invited, not to interpret and decode, but to respond from their own experiences of life.

Letters in Language mines a similar domain—life lived—but within the context of a Filipino family, a displaced culture, and multifaceted  questions of identity. I don’t know the author’s age at time of writing, but he does not hold to constraints of length. Legaspi’s language is playful, sentences often clipped and short, with images drawn from pop culture, even current realities like Covid-19 tossed in. The lines tumble over one another, appear connected for a stretch and then not, punctuated with aphorisms, self-reflection, rhetorical questions. The sentences have a transitory relation to one another, as if meaning is, at any single moment incidental and yet sensible. Not unlike the way the fragments and pieces of our own lives are shuffled and reordered each time we pull a memory card from the deck. New contexts constantly reshape who we think we are, refashion our ever-fluctuating histories.

Ever present amid the poems that fill these pages is the author’s lola—his memories of his grandmother fuel his own. The opening sentence reads: “My lola swept autumn leaves with walis tiniting, burned them in a can, wearing her grand billowy housedress.” Walis tingting is a Tagalog word for a broom constructed of coconut midribs. It sweeps its way through Filipino households. Likewise, the expression sweeps its way through these poems—a recurring image or an action that seems to signify the way we sweep through our memories, sweeping some to the forefront, others under the rug.

I who thirsted for knowledge. My niche unknown. Underneath the black economy. Where dry spells quelled my dysphoria. Fixed under the shade of a Bodhi tree. Away from air-conditioned air. Reborn. Conquered. A tangential awakening. Slid straight through, vagina dentata. The tip of my bayonet inched in her spine. Folk tales whispered, they got rid of me efficiently, like a baby out with the dingo. My mother, no shrinking violet. Did what was necessary. To cover up the blame. Walis tingting. As for the men, whose words were carefully chosen—passed on their phobias. My uncles. After thirty-nine years of solitude. Raised me like their own. Classed as a freak, unable to procreate like their sons and daughters (from Chapter 26)

So who is the “I” who lurks in this extended prose poem? A poet who exposes himself through his passions—emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual—played out against a formative soundtrack of music, films and books; bound by friends and lovers, and framed within a multigenerational Filipino family. Letters in Language never drifts far from the unresolved reality of the migrant existence, from the feeling of being defined by and yet disconnected from a land that is now somehow alien. After his grandmother, his unaltered link to the Philippines, has passed, Legaspi becomes aware of a kind of anchorlessness. One that rests in language, between a present language that cannot contain the loss, and an ancestral one not comfortably in hand: “Where English was an oblique mirror to my alter ego. I found myself faint with anxiety, a fictional object my truth. A truth with no original, veiled, forsaking to journey where it all began.”  The need to acknowledge this fundamental lack of grounding is then reflected in the closing sections of this text. Chapters 34 to 37 are composed almost entirely in Tagalog, a shift accompanied by translated versions. Thus, of all the questions of identity that surface and resurface throughout this poem, it is the poet’s own bilingual identity that troubles the deepest waters. Casting uncertainty on what has come before. What, if anything, has remained unarticulatable? Lyn Hejinian’s original autobiographical project is essentially unfinished, with material appended over time. Like life. What of Letters? That is not a question to anticipate in advance. Like life.

Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi is published by flying island books, ASM, and Cerberus Press.

The ties that bind: The Promise by Damon Galgut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the brotherhood of sleep, all sleepers are equal: The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany

It is said that we spend one-third of our lives sleeping, sometimes struggling to fall sleep, other times either struggling to stay awake or seemingly lost to the world. Some, like me, even wear trackers that weigh, measure and rate the quality of each night’s rest, but no matter how you consider it, sleep has a claim on us all. We are all sleepers. Yet, apart from typical biological and psychological considerations, what does that actually mean? What is the nature of sleep? And how might the sleeper be understood in relation to the waking self and in relation to others? These are the kinds of questions that percolate through Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep, questions examined and entertained in a space removed from conventional approaches to the subject. An open space.

The reality of sleep is not antithetical to that of waking; it is an extension of it, a reordering. Sleep suspends gravity’s pull, it confuses inner with outer, while waking restores gravity and divides reality into an exterior space which we share with others and an interior in which we close in on ourselves.   (from “The Sleeping Space”)

Over the course of eighty-six short non-narrative prose pieces—most no more than one or two pages long—El Wardany employs philosophical, political, and literary devices to think about sleep and the sleeper. The resulting work is one that defies easy categorization—a thoughtful, fragmentary, poetic imagining and reimaging that reaches widely. However, it unfolds in the shadow of the rising unrest in Egypt that marked the spring of 2013 during which the book was written.

The Book of Sleep rests on an understanding of sleep and the sleeper as existing in relation to other objects or beings. It is a perspective not commonly taken, one that allows for a natural progression of reflections that move from the individual to the group. In a conversation recently re-run on the ArabLit site, El Wardany describes for Roger Outa his approach the questions of the identity of the sleeper and the meaning of sleep (translated by Book of Sleep translator Robin Moger):

The book contains three sections on the sleeper. In the first I write about the relationship between the sleeper and the unseen social. In the second I discuss the relationship between the sleeper and the social body: how sleep opens a space in this body and opens it up to another body. In other words, sleep is body opening up to body and all the desires and fears and dispositions in contains. In the third section, I discuss the sleeper’s relationship with the individual and the group and try to escape the binary or introgressive categories this relationship carries with it to say that the group may be other than what we assume: it may be a collection of non-existent people, or of non-human creatures, or of things, or places, and so on, In any case, I do not seek to define the sleeper or compile a list of its possible meanings, because my aim is not to author an encyclopedia on sleep, but rather to write down ideas and observations, which is why I chose fragments.

The format of the book with its many brief open-ended chapters, offers the attentive reader plenty of room for self-reflection, in fact it invites personal engagement. Notions are explored through observations, micro-essays, allegories, and fictional vignettes. Dreamscapes are entered, anchored in a somewhat altered reality save for the presence of the dead. Fellow literary companions are summoned, most notably Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Nancy, two thinkers who present views of sleep that have clearly had an impact on the author’s musings. Throughout this intelligent inquiry, questions are asked, situations are presented, and possible understandings are offered—this is not an argument to be fought but a hopeful reframing of a subject long constrained by black and white reasoning.

If revolution is awakening—a long awaited anomaly that brings a deep collective slumber to an end—then is not sleep a return to dispossession? Is it not a synonym for failure? A failure to reshape reality? An inability to alter the circumstances of life? A defeat in the struggle to redefine the self? But a closer look at what takes place in the instant that we enter sleep tells us something different: this moment does not mark the onset of failure; it simply concedes it. It is the moment in which the sleeper surrenders to his drowsiness and his inability to stay awake. The failure comes first, whether it is the failure of  the self to maintain control or the defeat of the collective in its fight for change.       (from “Coma”)

It is difficult to capture the experience of reading The Book of Sleep without resorting to catch phrases. In truth, the entries, the titled prose pieces, play against one another, approaching the evolving images of the sleeper, sleep and all it might mean from different angles, bringing in varied techniques to flesh out ideas. Some fragments directly echo one another, others revisit and build on themes touched on earlier. A strong poetic sensibility runs through every piece. It is, in the end, an exercise in how to interpret anew, in the possibilities of literature as a “methodology for thinking” that can be applied to other topics that have been suffocated under rigid preconceptions. A process that can open fresh ways of understanding.

In the brotherhood of sleep, all sleepers are equal. Their experiences, their selves, their memories, all are dispersed equally among them: even their unshareable absence is held in common. Sleep proposes another kind of community, a community that does not define the group in terms of its members’ presence but as the product of a shared absence: a bond of kinship that connects all those who have departed; or rather, if the expression holds, a bond of unrelation.
(from “A Bond of Unrelation”)

A book rich in unexpected images and interrelations, this engaging volume invites a reader into a deeply rewarding interrogation of a state of being that consumes so much of our existence—one that we tend to accept with our eyes closed, so to speak.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany is translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

And so it goes: Nancy by Bruno Lloret

Nancy, the debut novella by Chilean writer, Bruno Lloret, is a curious read. Somewhere in northern Chile, a woman is dying of cancer. She is looking back over her adolescence and early adulthood—a rather unusual existence marked by poverty, encounters with gypsies, Mormon missionaries, and itinerant filmmakers. Some readers have imagined her an old woman, but even though time references are not reliable, it seems likely that she is only in her late twenties or thirties. At least that is what the nature of her aggressive cancer and the compressed quality of her adult experience would suggest. But I could be wrong. Hers is a tale filled with holes.These holes are made manifest in a most ingenious manner. The landscape of Nancy Cortez’s mind is framed within a sea of X’s. A flood of the symbols open and close her story, and mark sentences and spaces—gaps or silences—along the way. Between these X’s the language is notably stilted, there is little effort to set a scene, descriptive details are offered only as required to provide a basic context for the experience Nancy wishes to share, lending the text a spare, often awkward, quality. This is intentional. The author has claimed that his goal was to allow readers to engage with the work in different ways and to that end the X’s, and I would suspect, the embedded images of x-rays and other objects, are intended to break up the reading.

If this sounds cluttered and disruptive, at times it is, but the actual story reads easily and  smoothly. Nancy is an eccentric narrator, with a voice that is sarcastic yet notably flattened in affect. Her account opens with her escape from life with her sad, troubled father at the age of seventeen. She arranges to be smuggled into Bolivia where she meets the gringo Tim, quickly gets married, and ultimately ends up back in Chile. The marriage is less than happy, and ends with Tim’s bizarrely tragic demise after Nancy’s cancer has already taken a toll on her body. She describes the ravages of the disease quite vividly, talking about the fear of dying, and the loneliness of waiting for nature to take its course.

And then she retreats into her past. The X’s retreat too, leaving more room for words to fill the page. Her mamá, she advises us, was erratic and abusive, her papá quiet and oppressed by life, her brother Pato a refuge. She reports on adolescent experiences with sex, social outings to the beach, and periods of isolation at home. Everything starts to shift when her brother disappears and her mother walks out, leaving her at home with her bereft father who, in his distress, soon falls prey to the advances of a pair of Mormon missionaries:

But the Brothers really had managed to get my papa interested X X The Word of God had done its work, and via those missionaries with their tanned necks and yellowing armpits it moved him, drawing him slowly into their embrace X Damn the Word and damn the sneaking Truth, taking advantage so cruelly, so mockingly of a man who up until a few minutes ago believed he had no soul X X

This conversion, the transformation of papá tonto into papá santo, will have a significant impact on Nancy’s teenage years—in strange and unexpected ways the missionaries and other local Latter Day Saints will feature in the adventures of our heroine and her hapless father moving forward. Until, of course, the story circles back on itself, completing its narrative loop in a thickening pool of Xs.

Throughout, this narrative has a certain unevenness. Details are sometimes mentioned out of place, and there is a conversational coarseness and odd tone that surfaces. Nancy is not well read or particularly engaged in school, so her account does not have a literary flourish. This is an appropriate quality, given the protagonist’s background and deteriorating health, but does it work? Clearly for many enthusiastic readers it does, but I confess that I found it difficult to care about Nancy or the characters who people her tale. No one, not even the narrator, feels real. The eccentricity of the overall story was not in itself a problem; the disconnect lies in the fact that very little emotion is registered. Nancy typically shows an odd detachment and lack of concern for anyone, even for herself. The veracity of her account cannot be taken for granted if her memory has gaps, but people who confabulate to compensate for memory loss tend to show engagement with their stories all the same. I respect the attempt to create a first person narrative that defies typical lyrical expectations that can feel artificial given the narrator’s life circumstances, but as X’s filled the final pages, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Nancy by Bruno Lloret is translated by Ellen Jones and published by Giramondo in Australia and Two Lines Press in the US.

Memory is a record book of errors: The Town Slowly Empties by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

We take the everyday for granted. The history of the everyday, as Gandhi said, is never written. We don’t write the history of harmony. We write of history with a capital H. The history of strife. The history of the everyday is the history of a time that exists in the blurry lines between memory and forgetting. The days we remember are the days of events, personal, social or political.

It seems such a long time ago that the world slipped into lockdown as a strange, invisible threat began to spread causing illness and death. Where I am in Canada, our first lockdown was the strictest even if it was considerably less severe than in many places. Dramatic charts were hauled out, ominous predictions were made and the outside world suddenly seemed to become a dangerous place. Yet, the feared explosion of cases never materialized except in nursing homes and long term care. We slipped out of confinement into a summer of somewhat reduced freedoms but plenty of elbow room. The consensus: the lockdown was extreme and unnecessary. Of course, it’s impossible to convince a skeptic of the success of a measure by the absence of the thing you set out to prevent.

So we became our own control group. Winter brought a second wave and only when cases and deaths started to rise exponentially were some restrictions brought back. Protestors took to the streets to decry their loss of freedom in the name of an imaginary illness that, even if it existed, was primarily taking only the oldest and weakest among us. Nothing but the flu.

Now as Spring slowly settles in, we are into a third wave, fuelled by variants, striking a much younger cohort and rapidly expanding. The government is responding with weak-kneed measures—even less intense than the last round—figuring we will vaccinate our way out while ICU beds fill up with the sickest group of Covid patients yet. Yes, perhaps fewer of them will die. But anyone who arrives with a serious condition that would normally warrant an ICU bed will have to be weighed for worth, for likelihood of survival, against some young, otherwise healthy Covid patient presently gasping for breath. And people will die who would not have died otherwise. How serious are things? Today the case rate in my city was more than twice that of India.

India. A country that has come to mean a lot to me these past few years is presently on fire—metaphorically and factually. It is painful to watch, heartbreaking to think of. Here in the West, even when things are bad and resources are stretched beyond reason, illness and death is sanitized, hidden behind closed doors, underestimated, forgotten.

All of this is but a long, yet timely, introduction to my review of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Indian poet and writer Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. This has proved a very difficult book to write about. In fact, as the present crisis in India began to escalate, I found it increasingly difficult to read. Not that it isn’t good. It is a most wonderful, personal engagement with the early weeks of the sudden, strict lockdown imposed on India last March. Exactly a year ago as I was reading. At first there was a definite sense of déjà vu, but soon the altered routines, unexpected observations, and thoughtful reflections began to feel, quaint, otherworldly, against the horrific backdrop of the second wave now battering the country. Yet, the current state of affairs should in no way undermine the merit of this chronicle of adjustment to the limitations and possibilities of mandated isolation. In truth, it makes it all the more relevant.

The Town Slowly Empties—the title comes from Albert Camus’ The Plague—unfolds as a series of journal entries beginning on Monday, March 23, just after a complete lockdown has been declared in Delhi. Within days the entire nation will follow suit with only four hours’ notice. The daily reflections continue until April 14, the end of the first phase of restrictions. Each day’s record is a melange of domestic activity, pandemic progress reporting, political and social contextualizing, philosophical musing, and the sifting of memories, all woven together with  literary references, film commentary and a passion for food. Lockdown life offers an uncanny blend of the exceptional and the ordinary. Something frightening is lurking close at hand, just outside the door where the streets have grown quiet, while inside time has expanded, leaving even more empty space to fill, more anxious thoughts to fill it, especially supercharged in those early days.

We have become watchmen, standing guard at ourselves, at our shadows. We terrorize ourselves with caution. We become extremely careful about what we touch, and if we touch, we immediately wash our hands with soap for at least twenty seconds. We are mindful of the merest hint of a sore throat, or rising temperature. We also have the time now to watch others, and not just the human species. We carry the virus in our heads, in our sleep, and some with intense paranoia, perhaps even in their dreams. Fear is our only mode of retaliation. We are brave, we fear bravely. We cannot laugh at ourselves. The absurdity of survival must be taken seriously.

For Bhattacharjee these extra hours afforded by lockdown are measured out in poetry, prose and film. A host of writers and filmmakers become his companions, offering illustrations, examples and inspiration as the days roll by. Along the way he calls upon TS Eliot, Rimbaud, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Pessoa, Kafka, Agha Shahid Ali, Zbigniew Herbert, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray and many others, engaging with their ideas and imagery. This is, then, far more than a record of news reports, readings and recipes, though there is a clear sense of the quotidian routine—waking late, securing provisions, morning tea, making lunch. Each day brings new circumstances, spectacles, and tragedies to process: face masks, Zoom meetings, lost lives translated into statistics, hungry migrant workers desperate to get home. The daily act of processing such experiences through writing opens avenues for the past to enter the stream of the present. Thus, this journal also becomes a memoir and a meditation on memory.

As the days pass into record and reflection, Bhattacharjee will recall moments of his childhood in Assam, his college years, his courtship with his partner, and his pathway to a love of cooking. But the memories he visits are as often collective as they are personal, of mutually shared experiences, or times captured in historical and literary record. For we live not only in our own pasts, but through the lives of others. Under the shadow of Covid-19, we look for meaning not only in pandemics and plagues, but also in disaster. One of the most interesting entries—and now eerily prescient given how the second wave is currently devastating India—moves through film and literature, from Chernobyl to Bhopal, tracing a landscape of disaster in the words of two writers formed in their wake—Svetlana Alexievich and poet Jayanta Mahapatra. Both chronicle the pain and destruction of scientific catastrophe as written on the body and the spirit. Both speak to the necessity of remembering. But how?

Science has no memory. Memory has no science. Science is an idea of progress without memory. Memory is a shelter. Memory looks for shelter. When a scientific experiment goes wrong, it affects nature. The sky, the sunlight, and even the silence turn toxic.

Covid-19 presents a complex interaction between nature, science and society. It is an event that has been anticipated for years, but the degree of disaster experienced reflects lack of planning and uneven response. Vaccines are welcome, if they can be produced and obtained, but the refusal of politicians and people to listen to the scientific advice they do not like—to wear masks, maintain distance, lockdown when needed—has led to unnecessary illness and loss of life around the world. What documentarian or poet will be the one to bring science and memory together to bear witness to this pandemic? For now, we can only meet the moment.

Today many people are starting to imagine a day when the pandemic finally recedes in the rear view mirror. Others are still fighting. Until the world is vaccinated, Covid will still be with us. It may always be with us. With this in mind, Bhattacharajee’s book is both uncomfortable and comfortably nostalgic. There was a sense of global unity to those early days. Yet there is much more within these pages. Reading The Town Slowly Empties is akin to spending time in the company of an intelligent, poetic friend—the sort of person who always has an interesting story to tell, a poem to quote, a book or movie to recommend. To that end, this friend has been sure to leave you, his reader, with a select bibliography, a filmography and extensive notes. You are not left empty handed.

The early months of the pandemic generated a flood of “Lockdown Diaries.” 3:AM, the magazine I was editing for last year, ran such a series as did many other venues.  A friend of mine in Bangalore dutifully maintained a daily record, with an eye to economics and social policy among other topics. He has picked up the thread again; at last count it was Day #415. Plague-themed literature also experienced a revival. For a while it seemed as if it was all too much. This warm and thoughtful work reminds me that there cannot be enough. Lest we forget. This experience will look different in a few years’ time, but already our world and our way of being in it has been altered in ways we could not have imagined when we first retreated into our homes in what sometimes feels like another lifetime.

The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, featuring a foreword by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Headpress.

Eating Cheaply: The Cheap Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

A new edition of a lesser-known Thomas Bernhard novel is, for those of us who collect his varied works, a reason to be excited. Originally published as  Die Billigesser in 1980, The Cheap-Eaters rests more than midway through the Austrian writer’s career, and offers another nourishing helping of his idiosyncratic style of long-winded, circuitous, single-paragraphed fictional expositions of human eccentricity. Now in a fresh new translation by Bernhard enthusiast Douglas Robertson, Spurl Editions has served up this novel, or novella, in a handsome, nearly pocket-sized volume—a virtual literary take-away, the perfect companion for, say, a saunter to a nearby park for a little open air reading in these days of pandemic defined recreation.

Coincidentally, it is a walk to a park that stands for Koller, the protagonist of The Cheap-Eaters, as the single most important factor leading to the discovery and facilitation of his life’s work. As our unnamed narrator, an old school friend, explains at painstaking length, his, Koller’s, chance divergence from the park that was his usual destination to another where he encountered Weller, an industrial glassmaker, and his dog was a pivotal event. A most fortunate misfortune. The dog bit Koller’s leg which in turn had to be amputated, and this injury not only provided, via a lawsuit, a guaranteed income for life, but it also caused him to happen upon the cheap-eaters when, after his release from the hospital, he stopped into the Vienna Public Kitchen, or VPK. The four regular diners welcomed him, one-legged and with crutches, into their fraternity and over time they became the subjects of what was soon to become his obsession: his so-called Physiognomy.

For years he had fraternized with the cheap-eaters and had eaten cheaply with the cheap-eaters, had eaten more cheaply with the cheap-eaters than anywhere else and actually he had never eaten both as cheaply and as well anywhere else, for in the VPK he, Koller, had always eaten cheaply and well and he had never yet been able to eat both more cheaply and better anywhere else. He said that he actually owed to the VPK nothing less than the fact that he was still alive today; nothing less actually than the fact that I still exist! he had once exclaimed in my presence, and nothing less than the fact that he had made it through so many appalling Viennese years…

More than a place to partake of the cheapest of the available cheap meals with such suitable companions, Koller credits the VPK with his bodily existence, and more critically, his very intellectual existence.

At the point in time when our narrator is winding and unwinding his long-winded account of his somewhat repellent and yet somehow appealing friend, this friend, Koller, has already devoted himself to his particular studies for sixteen years. He is now, he says, ready to begin to unveil his findings. It is, of course, perfectly fitting that a Bernhardian hero should be consumed with an appropriately outdated pseudoscience like physiognomy, the supposed practice of determining a person’s personality from their external appearance, especially facial characteristics. Koller speaks of his Physiognomy with reverence; he approaches it, as one would expect, from the altitude of his superior intellectual energies, devoting his full attention to understanding it through careful study of his constant dining companions.

If The Cheap-Eaters purports itself to be a novel about the four men who gather together, with Koller, to eat cheaply at the VPK, it is, yet it is more explicitly an expose of Koller’s own eccentricities as recounted by a narrator whose own attraction to his subject is as curious and questionable as Koller himself. And given the way our one-legged hero is portrayed, one might even suggest that the cheap-eaters who so dominate his thoughts are remarkably normal by comparison. But then, this is Bernhard and would one expect anything less?

He had always felt sorry for so-called healthy people because in his view they never emerged from the swampy lowlands of absolute intellectual torpor and moreover were condemned to languish all their lives in this brutish intellectual torpor of theirs, no matter who they were and no matter what they did, and he despised them quite openly and invariably seemed to derive a certain enjoyment from this contempt of his for these miserable, good-for-nothing, mind-damaging creatures as he had actually once described them to me verbatim.

Anyone familiar with Bernhard in his longer form work, will not be surprised to find that the narrative progresses in a doubly-, sometimes triply-nested and convoluted fashion, treading over the same well-travelled ground repeatedly, slowly adding new details and bits of commentary along the way. Robertson’s translation handles this labyrinthine movement nicely. And, of course, all this wandering is rewarded as everything begins to take shape, the cheap-eaters are finally given individual dimension, and then—well, you have to read it yourself to find out how the story concludes.

I will say that The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Douglas Robertson and published by Spurl Editions, is a welcome addition to my own curious and eclectic collection of Bernhard’s work.