Finding allegory in an ancient disease: Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic

“Eternal hope: it kills us as much as Hansen’s does.”

Hansen'sIn his introduction to the second English edition of Hansen’s Children, BBC Correspondent Nick Thorpe visits a real life leper colony, the last in Europe, in the small hamlet of Tichieletsi in south-eastern Romania where a dwindling number of disfigured patients live out their final years, tended by medical professionals while enjoying the companionship and domestic tranquility of their close knit community. He then goes on to examine the way that Montenegrin novelist Ognjen Spahic re-envisions this leprosarium against the dying months of the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989; creating a perfect, if horrifying, template against which to explore questions of power, corruption and violence throughout the history of Europe – looking to the past, the present and the future.

The “children” of the title refers to the unfortunate souls infected by the bacillus first identified by Gerhard Armaeur Hansen. It is a term by which our unnamed narrator, our leprous Homer, refers to himself and his fellow inmates as he recounts the tale of life within the fenced grounds and the cold damp confines of the aging three-story building that serves to house the remaining inmates of the leprosarium. At the time he arrives they number eleven men and one ancient woman. Outside the gates, a fertilizer factory, ubiquitous on the Romanian landscape, belches out smoke and receives a rotating contingent of increasingly disgruntled workers. From his window he gazes longingly at the Transylvanian Alps, dreaming of freedom from exile and confinement. In fact we learn at the outset of his account that his dear friend and roommate, an American man named Robert, has secured false passports and made arrangements for their escape. This hope will not only feed our hero’s ego, but give him a will to live no matter what the cost, as conditions inside and outside the leper colony decline. In desperate circumstances, brutality knows no boundaries.

Perversely the leprosarium becomes a microcosm of the very divisions that divide human beings in the broader world. For example, when the inmates become aware of a new scourge on the rise outside their gates, HIV/AIDS, two men who have fallen in love will suffer the consequences because “this new disease was misunderstood and homosexual acts per se were seen as spawning the new evil. Mstislaw and Cion were shunned… like lepers. It was kind of understandable.” Mirroring the deteriorating conditions unfolding across Romania, and presaging the fate that awaits Spahic’s own Balkan homeland; power struggles, violence and death escalate within the bounds of the small community. As the conflict to free Romania approaches its final days, helicopters and gunfire splitting the air, our narrator lies in bed and imagines what such a new world could bring. He realizes the sad truth: “I knew that even in a world like that I would be where I was now. I would dream the same dreams and speak the same words. I would remain a leper.”

The picture this novel paints is not a pretty one. It is however strangely engaging and, in the end, deeply moving. The graphic, disturbing details of the progressive ravages of the cursed disease on the bodies, organs and functions of Hansen’s children is painted with a healthy serving of satire. Black humour and tragedy are deeply entwined.

Apart from this novel, only a few of Ognjen Spahic’s short stories have been translated into English although he has published three story collections. Hansen’s Children, which was originally released in 2004 when he was still under 30, has received several important European awards.His most recent story collection won the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature for Montenegro and in an interview on the site he describes himself as more of a short story writer than a novelist and speculates that prizes can increase international attention and encourage translations. I, for one, would be keen to see more.

Note: In addition to his story “Raymond is No Longer With Us – Carver is Dead” which was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press), the story “All of That” can be found on the online journal B O D Y and the title story from his latest collection Head Full of Joy can be found at the European Union Prize link above (following the original Montenegrin version).

Hansen’s Children (2nd edition), 2012
translated by Will Firth, Istros Books

A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Valentines Day. It has been many years since I have had a true object of romantic affection. This annual occasion tends to come and go without my notice. Even my children are too old to warrant the heart shaped candies and chocolates I used to purchase. And yet I have to stop and wonder why I do not feel the absence.

I am not sure it is coincidental, but romance does not seem to figure highly in the work I tend to read. Lost love, dysfunctional relationships, misplaced attempts to find affection, yes; but it tends to be the underlying elements of discord that create dramatic tension and literary interest for me. Tolstoy’s unhappy families and all that. So in thinking about today’s exaltation of romantic love I decided to turn to a book I read last year but did not review, a novel that holds, at its heart, the account of a deeply felt but unrequited love: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

In this fictionalized biography of EM Forster, Galgut re-imagines the eleven years of frustrated creative blockage that spanned the time between Forster’s initial conception of his “Indian novel” and the final product, A Passage to India. Along the way we meet Syed Ross Masood, the Indian man with whom Forster will fall passionately in love – a love that will shape, define and haunt his romantic sensibilities – but which will remain one that the heterosexual Masood is unable to return in anything but platonic terms. During the World War I years in Alexandria, Forster finally loses his own virginity at the age of 37 but his meagre intimate relations will remain a sorry, even pathetic, attempt to achieve the emotional and physical comfort he longs to find in another man’s arms. Sexually repressed and closeted until his death, he is, nonetheless, able to channel his affections and experiences in India into one of the finest English novels of the early 20th century. It would be the last work of fiction Forster would produce though he would live and continue to write and engage actively in the literary world for another 45 years.

arctic summerIn my first encounter with Arctic Summer last fall my reactions were mixed. I was a great fan of Galgut’s more typical pared down, ambiguous and haunting novels and I was immediately struck by the more claustrophobic atmosphere he had created to evoke the sensibility of the world in which Forster lived and wrote. At times I felt it weighing on me as a reader. Having the good fortune to hear Damon speak in person and meet him when he passed through my home town with our writer’s festival while I was in the midst of my reading, I was aware that he had found the process of writing a historical novel rewarding but not one he would be anxious to repeat. That awareness may have been a factor but I suspect there was also something more at play. After all, as readers, we enter into any work with our own issues, histories and expectations.

At the timel I was still struggling to break down the barriers that I had constructed over the preceding decade or so to keep those around me from getting close. By that point I was painfully aware that I had re-closeted myself in the world to avoid emotional risk and vulnerability. At one point, despairing of ever experiencing desire in the way he longs, Galgut’s Forster reflects:

“His own sterility was apparent to him and would soon, he felt sure, be visible to others. Curiously, he didn’t feel depressed at the prospect. He was almost intrigued by the idea of giving in to his oddness, turning into one of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to normal people.”

I was struck by that passage, I remember where I was when I read it and the page number in my paperback American edition is burned into my memory. Although I had been, oddly enough, a single male parent for years, through my determined unwillingness to express romantic interest or engagement with anyone, female or male, I had stubbornly sought to neuter myself in the world. Unpeeling those layers of defense and reclaiming an identity, especially one that falls outside the default mainstream, is not easy. Forster’s dilemma was hitting too close to home.

As I have since learned to re-embrace my identity and sexuality, I did briefly imagine that I was ready to open myself again to the possibility of falling in love. The result was in influx of a emptiness and longing. I began to feel the absence and did not like the void. So I have decided to turn my focus to building an emotional support network based on common interest and experience. It is, I realize, a much better place to start. If, somewhere along the way, the potential for romance arises I would not necessarily reject it, but it cannot be the grounds for meaning and value in my life.

Now, four months after I first finished Arctic Summer, I have occasioned to revisit A Passage to India, and have found myself dipping back in and out of Galgut’s novel simply to savour the restrained beauty and sensitive recreation of the writer’s inner personal and creative journey against the lush landscape of India. The work has simmered in my consciousness and increased in the power that it holds for me as a reader. I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Forster’s love for Masood had been reciprocated. I am not sure he would have ever been able to even crack open the closet doors and I suspect that he might have ended up even more deeply torn between his homosexuality and his attachment to his mother. For better or worse he was able to channel his energy into writing, friendship and a long life.

Well lived? For his sake I hope so.

Releasing words from the page

In the opening pages of Teju Cole’s Open City, his narrator, the young medical resident Julius, introduces the reader to his own reading habits, setting perhaps the tone and frame of mind for the recollections and encounters that will unfold over the following pages. He explains his fondness for internet classical music stations, commercial free broadcasts from countries where the foreign languages of the announcers blend into, rather than distract from the musical tapestry. Settled with a book on the sofa he confesses that:

“Sometimes, I even spoke the words in the book out loud to myself, and doing so I noticed the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers, or with the thin texture of the violin strings of the orchestras, all of this intensified by the fact that whatever I was reading had likely been translated out of one of the European languages.”

Assuming I am not in a public space where others would likely look on in askance I am likewise inclined to read aloud to myself at times. Meditative, less conventional, writing forms itself especially to this practice, not only obvious writers like Cole or WG Sebald, but wonderfully spare and introspective works like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room or the experimental The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves. And Thomas Bernhard, even though I cannot read him in the original German, flows with energy and intensity against JS Bach. I often stop and read a few pages out loud when I feel that I may be losing my moorings in the book long paragraph structure of his novels. Similarly José Saramago and Javier Marías are authors that more people might be able to connect with by inhabiting the language through reading portions out loud.

I have also had the experience of coming to appreciate a piece of literature in an entirely new way through hearing an author’s reading. Last year I read All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews, the story of two sisters, one deeply depressed and suicidal, and the other faced with the dilemma of if and how to assist her beloved sister in achieving her goal. Being much closer to my own recent breakdown and knowing that Toews had drawn on the tragic history of suicidal depression in her own family, I read it seeking insight into the suicidal sister’s perspective. I was disappointed. But hearing Miriam read from her work and having the opportunity to meet her last fall, I suddenly realized that I was expecting something the story could not deliver and had, consequently, missed the self-deprecating black humour in this challenging, compassionate tale of unconditional sibling love.

Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"
Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

So if the experience of prose can, at times, be enriched by being read out loud, poetry would seem to be an obvious aural experience. Poetry readings have a long standing literary history, joined now with the likes of slam poetry and rap. What a surprise then to have someone on another readerly space I frequent declare that he is against reading poetry aloud. Assuming he was not typing with tongue in cheek, for who can tell, my immediate response was one of disbelief. Excuse me? I cannot imagine not reading poetry out loud. I even make an effort to commit the poems that I find especially powerful to memory, to recite them, to myself and, on occasion, to others. Hearing authors read their own work has a special value and impact. Listening to a poem shared aloud by a passionate reader can allow the words to be transformed and re-interpreted in a new and personal context.

Have you ever encountered a piece of prose or a poetry so breath taking that you had to stop and re-read it, mark or circle it in the text if you are so inclined, copy it into a journal or print it out to keep close at hand? Do you feel compelled to repeat the words out loud to yourself, inspired to share them with others? For me that is the beauty of being in love with language. Sometimes words just have to spill out beyond the confines of the printed page and be granted a full existence in the world.

Gendering my bookshelves

A conversation on another bookish refuge of mine about the gender of the authors we tend to read has been both informative and unnerving. It has had me standing before the random selection of bookcases in my house taking stock of the novels lining the shelves. I have conducted no scientific calculation but I would hazard to guess that over 90% of the fiction collected, read and to be read, has been written by male authors. And that is without even digging up my electronic files.

Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.
Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.

I console myself by calling to mind a number of women peopling my hypothetical list of intentional reads for the upcoming year. But I know myself. I am idiosyncratic and tangential in my reading proclivities. I find myself unable to create a stack or list of titles and systematically make my way through from top to bottom. And although I do not intend it, novels by women are frequently pushed down the line by something else that comes into view.

Perhaps there is a question of subject and style. I am presently reading with a strong critical intention to exploring a way of telling a story that I have to tell and, for better or worse, the authors who are coming to my attention tend to be men. That may be accidental rather than intentional on my part. But my bookshelves hold a record running back over decades and the gender imbalance is consistent (and, by the way, not reflected in my non-fiction collection which tends to have a much more equal divide).

Now I could launch a defense for this heavily weighted scale. I suspect I do know some of the reasons why I am drawn to certain tales told from a male perspective, reasons rooted in my own differently gendered history, but at the end of the day I am only accountable to myself for that reality. I do not believe that I eschew female novelists on the basis of gender alone, but there are certainly stories and themes that do not draw me in. And I do not feel obligated to read women writers to understand women better, I spent the better part of four decades trying to jam my own square self into that round hole and accept that there are things I am not programmed to learn. I have female friends. I have a beautiful daughter. And it is not like I never read or fall in love with books by female authors. I am open to the opportunity to explore more. But setting a quota is disingenuous.

And feeling guilty wastes precious time that could be spent reading.

Channeling Bernhard in the Balkans: The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis meets Bernhard’s Gargoyles

SonThere comes a moment in Andrej Nikolaidis’ novel The Son where the unnamed misanthropic narrator, confronted with a hideously deformed family of lepers who have taken up residence in an abandoned car park in the Montenegrin city of Ulcinj, imagines that he is “a piper with a funny Tyrollean cap, which Thomas Bernhard would find laughable, and (…) dressed in green knickerbockers with suspenders like Heidegger used to wear” who proceeds to march through the streets of his home town gathering a following of the wretched, desperate, and diseased denizens of the streets, dark corners and hovels and leading them right down to the seashore, where he proceeds, walking out across the water, while the “grisly army” he has amassed disappears beneath the waves.

The Son is a dark, unrelenting journey into all the misery and disappointment that life and, those who claim to be your friends, family and lovers can bring. Our anti-hero is not a warm, generous soul. Admitting to his own perverse, gruesome obsessions in the early pages, he reports that his wife has just left him and he is bitterly alienated from his father. He perseverates about the cruelty of the forgiveness his father repeatedly bestowed upon him regardless of the destructive nature of his actions. He manages to vent anger at everyone he encounters, remarking at one point that he was “reminded once again that the nicest things we can say about a person is that one day they will die and cease to bother us.” As readers we are swept along on a scotch fueled odyssey into the heart of the city where a series of old acquaintances and disreputable characters seem to fall into his path where they are treated with a curious mixture of revulsion, pity and disdain. He is, in essence, the most vitriolic Bernhard monologuist transported from Austria to Montenegro and boiled down to the meanest bare essentials. By contrast, my current Bernhard read, his early break through novel Gargoyles, seems airy and light.

LosersPublished in 1967, Gargolyes was given its title in the English translation (the original German translates closer to something like distress or disturbance) presumably drawing attention to the grotesque series of characters encountered by the narrator, a son home from school, as he accompanies his father, a rural doctor, on his rounds to a series of isolated, ill and mentally unstable patients. The themes of madness, isolation and suicide recur as they make their way to Hochgobernitz where the aging Prince Saurau takes centre stage for the second half of the book, embarking on an increasingly intense monologue, mourning his own estranged relationship with his son who is away studying in London, and philosophizing about the hopeless and inevitable destruction and collapse of human society.

For my money, the characters that inhabit the pages of The Son are every bit as grotesque as those in Gargoyles, if not more. In both cases they serve as extreme, cartoon-like voices for exploring themes that are in turn horrific, humourous and deeply human, pivoting coincidentally around the relationships between fathers and sons. Amidst the rants against man’s inhumanity to man and musings about the madness and disease of modern society; a desperate compassion comes through. That is the compulsive beauty of reading Bernhard and, for those curious but afraid of the endless single paragraph style typical of most of his work, Gargoyles is a perfect introduction. For his part, Nikolaidis seamlessly transports the energy of Bernhard to the post Balkan War reality of a country he clearly loves passionately. As with his earlier book The Coming, it is also a dark meditation on Montenegro’s rich, complex past and uncertain future.

In a guest blogpost for Winstonsdad’s Blog (a great resource for works in translation), Andrej Nikolaidis reflected on his love for Bernhard and the influence he has had on his own work. Upon his first encounter with The Loser, (also my first introduction), the Balkan war was raging and he could see timely parallels in Bernhard’s existential analysis of Austrian society in a state of decay and collapse. He also finds in Bernhard the prose response to poet Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Fugue of Death’ or ‘Todesfuge’. He hears the rhythms of Bach ring through the works of both men – and Bernhard was a musician first – envisioning Celan as a character who could have walked out of a Bernhard novel. With The Son, and a sound track updated to incorporate the noisy sound styling of Sonic Youth, Nikolaidis’ work carries the banner forward.

The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis (trans Will Firth) – Istros Books                                     Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard (trans Richard and Clara Winston) – Vintage Books

Home is wherever you find yourself: The Alphabet of Birds by S.J. Naudé

birdsFor all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.

Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.

These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”

I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.

The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010

Dreams and determination: A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

It is, of course, a harsh coincidence, perhaps no more than that, but the first two murders of the year in my city took the lives of two young members of our 5,000 strong Somali community. The first of the two unrelated incidents occurred just ten blocks from my home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, the second the following day. To many here in Canada, Somalis, if they are thought of at all, are conflated with pirates.

I have watched with dismay, the rise of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the increased visible ethnic diversity that has spread across the country, changing the face of a city that was, when I was young, predominately white. My city that is only 130 years old, most of us have come from elsewhere recently or within a few short generations. And those who were here before, our First Nations, still have to struggle to call attention to their circumstances. But we are lucky, this is a land of peace, a land of promise.

GoodhopeAgainst this context, a review in The Observer drew my attention to A Man of Good Hope, a new book by South African writer Jonny Steinberg. In my work I encountered and supported many young men from the troubled Horn of Africa, but the depth and complexity of the political and human realities that have been endured by many of the refugees who ultimately make their way to our shores are far beyond my imagining from my safe space. However, I was not quite prepared for just how difficult that journey can be.

The life of Asad Abdullahi, the young Somali man at the heart of this biography, is changed forever when his mother is shot by militiamen in Mogadishu when he is 8 years old. As he flees with relatives he begins a long, at times circular, journey of hopes and repeatedly dashed dreams. Lacking formal education he is gifted with determination, a proud sense of identity, an unflagging work ethic and an ability to assess any situation to determine where a living can be made. But at every turn there are losses, challenges and continued threats to life and limb that mount and threaten to drag him down. He is forced to grow up fast. Eventually he makes his way to South Africa seeking the wealth and security he hears fellow Somalis talk of only to find that even for the successful migrant, the end can be sudden and brutal.

Economic opportunities for newcomers like Asad, who are forced to live with temporary documents, are limited and often place them into the hostile and difficult environment of the townships where loyalties can turn on a dime. His beloved wife, unwilling to face the rising danger, heads home to family with his children. He stays, holding on to the dreams of America that have long called to him and endures the rising xenophobic violence perpetrated by black South Africans against the tide of incoming African migrants. His diligence will be rewarded, but not without great sacrifice.

Steinberg recounts, with care and compassion, a tale that has more breath taking twists than a thriller but exists on a plane on which dreams, hopes, memories and regrets blend to create a story that is at once deeply human and ultimately elusive. On a more immediate level, the view into the the ancestral dynamics of Somali history and culture that provides a background to Asad’s story has added, for me, extra poignancy to the recent New Year’s Day killing near my home. The victim shared the family name Abdullahi.

A love-hate relationship with a city

The City
         C. P. Cavafy (1910)

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.
                   (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

My city was new when Alexandria which inspired these words was old but the sentiment  rings across the century, speaking to me.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

I live in a glass and rock cast stucco bungalow, the kind of finish that will slice your palm if you lose your balance and put a hand out to stop your fall. It sits on a 6500 square foot lot overgrown with 60 foot spruce and spiky hawthorns. The garage stands, roof sagging, without a foundation and no more than a scratch coat for stucco that was never applied, at best a large shed. It is only a matter of time before the sewer line to the street which is already oval shaped, collapses in on itself. After a few years of eager redecorating, projects remain incomplete, even though all the paint and supplies were purchased long ago.

This year my house will be 62 years old, I have lived here for 20 of those years. Due to the location, the lot size and the high property values in this city, it is assessed at a value that shocks me. I have ample equity in this house I own, but no secure income. And you can’t eat equity.

More and more the house is closing in on me. It is filled with the artifacts of 20 years of raising children. And a 25 year-old alcoholic son who seems to have taken root in the basement. After being a single parent for so long, I am done. My career prospects hanging on a thread frayed by mental illness; I feel haunted by the house, the responsibilities that weigh on me, and the fatigue of facing it alone.

And this city is no more a home than it has ever been. Without my job it holds nothing and never has. I love the pathways and wild areas, I love the wide open skies and the mountains on the horizon, the rolling foothills stretching to the west. But the city has no soul, or at least not for me. My relationship with this city, one to which I chose to return at one time, is fraught with complicated anxieties.

It may be my fault. Perhaps I am the one who failed to open up and build connections. But that has never been easy and the more I go out to meet people or attend events, the deeper the loneliness settles in on me the next day. Like it or not, there is a fundamental disconnect between me and this city of glass towers and oil executives.

As I walk these streets I am haunted by the sense that I have wasted so many years here, not certain what I have to show for it, feeling all is lost, fearing that I am, as the intended recipient of Cavafy’s advice, destined grow old in the same neighbourhood, turn grey(er) in the same house.

In praise of moral ambiguity : The Impostor by Damon Galgut

With no particular allegiance to astrology, I have often mused that my tendency to take on the role of the devil’s advocate fits well with a Libran temperament. My natural response to a harshly judgmental statement is an immediate inclination to flip the coin and present an argument for the other side.

I like to think that I carried this tendency into a career working in social services where the complexities that define and refine, strengthen and restrict the way that people respond to, survive or succumb to, the pressures they encounter in life cannot be understood in black and white terms. Motivation, decisions, and actions have contexts that run deeper than the actors or observers understand. When talking to clients or their families I would try to open up questioning to allow those I was supporting to look for their own answers. I was aware that I could offer suggestions but no guaranteed solutions.

Why then does literature so often try to provide answers, lead us to scenes of redemption, close out with a moment of denouement? Life, in case you haven’t noticed, is not always so neat and tidy. Sometimes we are not really sure what happened or why we might have acted in a certain manner. Our natural instinct is to explain our feelings and behaviours, to others and, most critically, to ourselves. But that is not always possible. We act irrationally, selfishly, even, as those of us with mental illnesses know, when we are not in our right minds. So why do we want our literature served up with moral certitude?

When I read a book with a dark context, whether on a large or small scale, I feel let down if an author fails to push the envelope, to take the risk of leaving the reader with a feeling of unease, a question of moral ambiguity. Oh sure, it is nice to be comforted, but more often than not, I read to be challenged, to be shaken, to be exposed to experiences, places and circumstances I have not known. That is one reason why I tend to be drawn to literature from countries other than the one in which I live.

ImpostorSouth African author Damon Galgut is decidedly unafraid to tackle the shifting landscape of political and economic power in his own country post Apartheid and show how easily the ordinary, average individual can get swept up in situations they have neither the awareness or the initiative to appreciate. Someone like Adam Napier in The Impostor, a man who discovers, too late, that his very unimportance makes him expendable in a game he didn’t realize he was playing. Or did he just not care enough to take notice?

After losing his job and house to the new racial and social realities arising in Johannesburg, Adam finds himself cut adrift in mid-life. He seeks refuge with his younger brother Gavin who is taking calculated, ethically questionable advantage of a burgeoning property market in Cape Town. Sickened at the prospect of accepting the job his brother offers he accepts instead the refuge of a neglected house Gavin owns in an isolated town in the Karoo. Here, he reasons, he will dedicate himself to writing poetry and find himself anew. What he finds, instead is a curious figure from his past, a school friend he cannot remember even though this man Canning insists that they once shared a very special bond, one to which this bland effusive stranger is clearly indebted.

Without admitting his complete lack of recall for this supposed friend, Adam is soon drawn into spending his weekends with Canning and his alluring black wife Baby up in the lush mountain retreat Canning inherited from his father. From here on things become complicated, tragic and eventually frightening. More than one moral compass is unloosed and all of Adam’s apparent values are tested and found, well, the reader is left to decide…

Tense and brilliantly spare in the telling, Galgut draws from the hostile environment of the Karoo, to create a fable with no clear moral reckoning, no redemption, and a heaviness that sits in the stomach of the reader long after the last page is turned.

I wonder if my fondness for literature from South Africa and Europe comes from the fact that conflict is never far from the surface in lands that have known so much recent turmoil and disruption. The result is a literature that, at its best is vibrant, alive and emotionally challenging. In Canada it is perhaps too easy to affect a measure of complacency even though, if you turn a few stones and look closely enough, our history holds plenty of darkness that seeps into the present day. And as the world effectively becomes smaller, racial and xenophobic tensions rise, examination of the legacy of our treatment of our Aboriginal populations takes greater precedent, and our commitment to true acceptance of diversity is properly addressed; literature that risks posing the questions that lack obvious answers will become more critical.

And more authentic.

This Is Paradise, or where does fiction meet real life?

I cannot remember ever really wanting to be anything other than a writer. How then did I get to mid-life believing that my aspirations would never extend beyond the inevitable writing and editing of newsletters and promotional material with every job or volunteer position I have ever held? Why have I been hit with a curious mix of pride and anxiety every time someone has commented on my facility with words?

In truth, there was a point in my late teens or early 20s in which I made the conscious decision to wait until I had lived a little before writing. I assumed a little experience would provide material and perspective. I had not bargained for the complicated experiences that awaited me or how long it would take for me to wade through and unravel it all. And when I did find my way through I found myself unwilling to bare my soul on the page. But every writer has a story they were born to tell, or as James Baldwin said about Go Tell It On the Mountain, the story they have to tell if they tell no other. Frequently it is a coming of age story, a coming out story, a tale of childhood loss or trauma. But that not need be the case. Nor is it necessarily the first story a writer sits down to tell. It can be recounted in fiction or presented as memoir, but the telling is essential, cathartic and close to the bone; even if no one beyond a few friends or relatives ever see the manuscript or hold a copy of a self-published book.

As I look back, I finally understand why I decided to put my writerly aspirations on hold so many years ago. I also understand the barriers I have placed between my impulse to protect myself and my identity and any story I thought I might tell. In this context those reasons are not important. I have also come to recognize the story that I really need to tell is one which I have only recently come to understand myself. So with the unexpected time that my present inability to return to work has afforded me, the gift of introspection and a desperate need to get this story out onto the page and hopefully gain some distance; I want to see what I can do.

But the challenge with stories that find their source close to life lived, is that this same life not only belongs to me. It cannot be divorced from real people. Or real experience. I am not certain how to balance the need to breathe truth into an experience and the desire to protect those I love.

paradiseMy latest read has inspired these questions. After my enthusiastic encounter with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, I turned to his 2012 novel This Is Paradise, which I have had on hand for nearly two years. The right book, at the right moment it seems. A relatively spare novel that is at once intimate and ambitious in scope, this book opens with Emily Allden’s difficult pregnancy with her fourth child, and closes decades later following her death. Benjamin, the youngest, unborn at the beginning is an enthusiastic traveller on his first chance to join his older siblings and parents on their regular holiday trip to France in the first half of the novel. In the second half Benjamin, now grown becomes the lens through whom we see the family – his well meaning but emotionally distant father; his intelligent but volatile older brother Clive (who is clearly dealing with perhaps aspergers or a mental health disorder) and his two sisters, the capable Liz and the delicate Lotte – as they cope with their mother’s increasing dementia, the decision to place her in a care facility, and the lingering final days of her life.

Eaves’ deft ear for the nuances of conversation, sensitivity for the complex social dynamics that bind and divide family, and keen eye for visual detail allow him to create a coherent interplay between the members of this large family and a handful of supporting characters across the decades. He does this by employing a style that is at times fragmentary, sometimes reflectively slipping back into passing remembrances, but always evocative of the way that we tend to think about and experience our lives over time. The result is rich with wonderful moments that add depth and resonance.

Yet as I was reading This Is Paradise, I was especially struck by the pivotal account of Emily’s illness, the details of her physical and mental disintegration, and the mixed emotions that rise and fall between the various members of the Allden clan throughout this process. It rang true in a way that made me wonder if it was grounded in lived experience. It was then no surprise to find that Will Eaves had in fact published an essay in The Guardian about his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. When he recounts an event repeated in the novel I naturally wanted to know where reality and fiction intersect in his story. And how does an author decide what to paint clearly and what to disguise?

To be honest I am not generally drawn to family dramas, especially ones with such a sprawling cast and ambitious reach across the years. Mind you in another writer’s hands this would likely be a book at least 600 pages long. In half that length, we trace a loving portrait of a complex and deeply human family from childhood spats through adult stresses and concerns to the bonding moment of shared loss.

And since it is from my own immediate family that the story I want to tell arises, I suppose I will be paying closer attention than ever to the way such dynamics are played out in literature.