The melancholy wanderer: War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda

Fresh air streamed in through the window. When the dining-room clock struck three, I rose and left without even washing my face and, you might say, with only the clothes on my back. I had taken some fifty steps when something made me turn around and glance back at the house. The moonlight fell full on it. My father stood at the door watching me, holding me–still a little boy–in his arms. It was the first night that I roamed alone through streets outside my neighbourhood. I ran. Goodbye carnations, adéu!

With this ghostly image of his deceased father holding his infant self, Adirà Guinart, the fifteen year-old narrator of Mercè Rodoreda’s poignant novel War, So Much War, turns his back on a fractious relationship with his mother and a life growing and selling carnations. He is seeking a life of adventure. Yet, as one must be careful what one wishes for, he is about embark on a journey that will leave him irrevocably changed, and sadly and wistfully mature for his age.

War_So_Much_War-front_largeAlthough the place and conflict is never explicitly named, it is assumed that the setting is Catalonia, the author’s homeland, during the Spanish Civil War. But in truth the exact details do not matter, this is a novel about the wide sweep of war beyond the front lines, about the damage, destruction and despair that works its way into the landscape, the villages and the lives of the people who are often hard pressed to explain who or why they are fighting. Yet, the bleakness is, in Rodoreda’s hands, filtered through a surrealist lens that renders it at once engaging, wise and profoundly sad.

Idealistic and bored, our young protagonist leaves home to join the war effort, but he is quickly disillusioned with the soldier’s life, and runs away again, falling into a life that suits his temperament, that of the wanderer. Unfolding over the course of a series of short episodic adventures he encounters an array of tragic comic characters–the bereaved, the abandoned and the eccentric–who share their wisdom, offer him lodging or seek his assistance. Classic folkloric elements are present, including a strange castle, an enigmatic young woman, an ugly old hag, a hermit with a tale of hard earned humility and a mysterious benefactor with a haunted mirror.

But War, So Much War is more than an allegory or a fairy tale, there is something profoundly serious and unsettling beneath the surface. The narrative, unadorned and seductive in tone, fuses sensuous evocations of natural beauty with brutal images of suffering and death. The ground is worked to plant crops in one place, only to be dug to bury piles of corpses in another. Our hero approaches each task without question, claiming resistance to the more tangible horrors of death; fearing instead the unseen,  phantasmagorical horrors that pursue him. But is there really a difference? In his world, reality blends with dreams, and the narrator treads a ground that gives away to as readily to natural beauty as to nightmare.

Even in romance, that line is readily crossed. Early on, Adirà falls in love with Eva, a free-spirited young woman. He is drawn to her most critically because she refuses to be held and restrained by anyone. As much as he admires that aspect of her character, a quality he also claims for himself, he begins to long for her as his journey moves, at least in spirit, toward home. Her ultimate fate is perhaps the most melodramatic, yet deeply tragic element of the entire tale.

The constant reminders of war–hunger, fear and confrontations with the stark face of human depravity–do not defeat Adirà, but their presence eventually closes in on him, working its way into his weary bones. At heart this pastoral novel is an existential coming-of-age story that leaves our hero enlightened but aged beyond his tender years. He is both a boy and an old soul at once. With so much disruption and young men lost to war, older men in particular seem drawn to his company. When a fisherman with who he has spent a couple of days invites him to stay on, become as a son to him, he explains:

My life is my own . . . A few months ago, I don’t know how many, I still had a pocket knife with a fork, spoon, corkscrew, and screwdriver that my father had given me, but I gave it away. And now the only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it. He gave me a pat on the back, almost laughing as he did so. I know , I added, that all lives are more or less the same in the essentials. He thrust his head back and closed his eyes, leaving just a slit open to spy on whatever it was he wanted to see. Don’t make me laugh. What will you do, restlessly drifting from place to place? Do you want to end up sleeping on the street or in a church portico when you are an old man? I don’t care. I want to roam the world. Be from everywhere and nowhere.

For all its sadness, there is much wisdom in these pages. Rodoreda’s smooth, clean prose with its seamless flow between speakers without breaks or quotation marks, adds to the dreamlike, reflective feel of the narrative. For all the fairy tale elements that feature in Adirà’s wandering, the underlying current of his journey is marked by despair and hope. This is a novel that is not only timeless but, sadly, still very relevant today.

Mercè Rodoreda was born in Catalonia in 1908. Her native language, Catalan, was banned under Franco’s dictatorship, but she continued to write in the language throughout her career, even while living in exile following the Spanish Civil War. Today Catalan is spoken by only about nine million people and translations are critical to help keep the literature alive. Originally published in 1980, War, So Much War is translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, and published by Open Letter.

* War, So Much War has been shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award.

Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

Collector of Corpses: Zone by Mathias Énard

Where to start with Zone by French author Mathias Énard?

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

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

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

This is not a leisurely read.

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

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

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

Zone 2

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

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

I don’t know.