A ghost from Calcutta revived: Herbert (or Harbart) by Naburan Bhattacharya

With an opening not for overly delicate sensibilities, Harbart (or Herbert depending on the edition) takes you down into the darkened streets of Calcutta where a group of intoxicated men vomit and piss their way home, and a “rag-clad mumble-mad woman” washes herself at the neighbourhood water tap. They’ve spent the evening partying at the home office of “Conversations with the dead” with the proprietor, the title of the character of the book, who has by now, unknown to them, slit his wrist and lies bleeding to death while a blue fairy frantically presses at the window unable to alter his fate.

Recently released in a brilliant new translation by Sunandini Banerjee[1], this beloved cult classic is a spirited—and spirit-filled—story of a man who never quite manages to fit himself into a world that is in upheaval, through a time of shifting social and political uncertainties. If our hapless hero exercises a certain practical and historical indifference and finds himself caught up in a number of currents he does not understand, his creator was anything but complacent. Writer and poet Naburan Bhattacharya was a dedicated humanitarian, passionate about the lives of all members of society—a man who was, as his daughter-in-law remembers him, keen to explore “the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically.” This inclination shines through warmly and vibrantly in this, his first novel, originally published in 1994.

From its ominous, dramatic beginning, the narrative slips back in time to fill in the gaps, and make its way forward to close the circle of Harbart’s short, unfortunate life. From the start, tragedy marks him. Orphaned before the age of two after his father is killed in an automobile accident, and his mother accidentally electrocuted while hanging laundry on a wire, Harbartt ends up deposited at his father’s family home in Calcutta where he “proceeded, through indifference and neglect, toward adulthood.” His aunt Jyathaima will be, throughout his life, the sole family member to show him kindness. His cousins, especially the greedy Dhanna-da, resent his presence, abusing him whenever the opportunity arises, while his uncle whose unrestrained fondness for whores leaves mentally incapacitated as the result of venereal disease, spends his time circulating from room to veranda with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, screaming “Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!” This Hindi version of the brain-fever bird call, meaning “Where is my love?” becomes a running gag in the book—just one small indication of the humour and character that runs through the story.

Although Harbart spends a few years in school, he finds it not to his liking and drops out, preferring to read on his own and even, for a brief time, dabble in some, less than elegant poetry. Had his father not been obsessed with movies and squandered his share of the family fortune on film projects before his untimely death, this entire tale might have been quite different. But, instead, what he and the boy’s beautiful fair-skinned mother leave their son is a handsome profile, a Hollywood-ish, Leslie Howard-ish air, and a notably shahebi name—Harbart (or Herbert).

Early on, Harbart develops an interest in the dead when he find a human skull and a few bones in a trunk in the house. He eventually takes them to cleanse and release them into the waters of the Hooghly River, but from that point on he starts to immerse himself in two tattered books on the occult that had once belonged to his grandfather. This is not, however, the beginning of his career as a communicator with the deceased. His cousin Binu, a young man with connections the Communist Party had come to the city just as political tensions were rising in the early 1970s and is killed by the police. Despite his attention to Binu as he lays dying in the hospital, the incident slips from Harbart’s memory until, many years later, he recalls his cousin’s long forgotten last words in a dream and, before long, his fortunes take an unexpected turn:

Herbert could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Herbert’s time now. He would have to produce panic-pandemonium. Rip apart everything, torment-turmoil everything until the entire universe whirled in the dance of devastation.

All of a sudden, Harbart is in business. At the same time, a chain of events is set in motion that catches the naturally anxious proprietor unaware. It seems that there are forces intent on cashing in on his talents and others determined to shut him down.

Harbart’s business may be a sham, but it is not conducted with an entirely mercenary intention. On the one hand, he is too inept to concoct an illusion worthy of the mediums of the past, like the personalities who populate the reference books he clings to, on the other, the painful stories of those who seek his services tug at his heart. It is exactly this weakness that allows him to fall into the trap set by those intent on discrediting him. But is he really hurting anyone? He is accused of playing on the desires of the bereaved to believe ghosts exist. And yet, in truth, Harbart’s own ghostly ancestors are never far away. His deceased parents huddle close by whenever their son is in trouble, his progenitors confront him in a terrifying god-like vision, and they all will cluster around at his unforgettable cremation.

This slender novella moves with a force and energy of its own—stretched out in places, sliding sidelong in others—and packs an entirely unanticipated punch at the end. By turns funny and tragic, it sings with the spirit and energy of the Calcutta streets and neighbourhoods, which are slowly changing, where modernization—like the satellite dishes sprouting on roof tops—is leading to more isolation and less compassion. It’s a world where a lonely misfit like Harbart, clinging to illusions (like that afforded by the moth-eaten Ulster great coat he walks around in, or his infatuations with a lady doctor he happens to see in passing or a stone fairy in a store window) hardly stands a chance.

Finally, I have to add a few words about the two editions of this book. I bought and read the New Directions edition first and thoroughly enjoyed it. The language is vibrant, coarse, and playful. Calcutta as I’ve experienced it comes alive on the pages. But I was curious about the different spellings of the title character’s name. It is not unusual for a book published in North America by one publisher and in the UK and the rest of the world by another to have two different titles, or small variations in the edits, but the name is rather obvious. Harbart is the Bengali rendition of “Herbert,” the name the Seagull edition uses which, depending on how you choose to look at it, given that this is an English translation, the protagonist was given an English name and he likes to imagine that others might detect in him a whiff of “white blood,” there is a fair cause for an English spelling but it’s not a major concern for me. In this review, I decided to hold to the US edit. However, the quote above is from the Seagull version, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, the delightful hyphenated rhyming or alliterative verbs and nouns that litter the text in this edition have been, largely diluted, sometimes even replaced in the New Directions edit. Same with some of the vernacular. Given that the translator is the senior editor at Seagull who are themselves based in the heart of Calcutta, this noticeable difference begs the question: Was the translation deemed too lively for American audiences?

Both Seagull Books and New Directions are publishers I greatly respect and I don’t want to belabour the differences. This is an exceptional, moving and important book—not to be missed, no matter the edition!

 

[1] This new translation has been published by New Directions in North America as Harbart, and by Seagull Books in the rest of the world as Herbert.

A few thoughts about language and reading in translation

I am presently reading Herbert, the Seagull edition of the Bengali cult classic by Nabarun Bhattacharya. I just finished reading in the New Directions American edition, published as Harbart. I will write a review after this second reading, not as point of comparison because both are publishers I greatly admire and strongly support. However, it is impossible to read both and not wonder what, if any, small changes are made in making a text more, shall we say palatable, for a particular English language audience. Don’t worry, the ribald, piercing vibrancy of Sunandini Banerjee’s translation shines through in both editions celebrating a work that is gritty, funny and tragic in equal measure. That’s not the issue, but so often when one sees a critical assessment of a translation by someone familiar with the original, the translator is the larger and obvious target of an attack, one often illustrated with specific examples that are seen as muting or distorting the original. Invisible in the equation is editorial input. Translations, like any literary work, are subject to editing before they are published.

The differences here are, so far as I can tell, primarily language choices—what do you leave in a vernacular, what do you edit for the ease of an American or a British audience (as relevant)? This is a frustration I have long had with translation, something that  bothered me, for example, with South African books edited for audiences outside South Africa, especially translations from Afrikaans. With my favourite writers I have tried to obtain the original South African translation if possible. One that hasn’t been sanitized for an “average” English language reader (whatever the editor  feels “average” is).

Why is so hard to imagine a readership unable to guess at the meaning of a word from context? For the purist there is always Google, but that is ultimately as fallible as trusting any one editor’s word preference. Even in our native languages we often encounter words whose meaning we are at best vague, if not entirely off course with as to the exact definition. With learning a second language this disorientation is increased, but it should not necessarily be a barrier, students are encouraged to try to fill in the gaps from what they do know about vocabulary and grammar as their fluency improves. Is it an extension of some skewed political correctness that we should never meet a word we don’t recognize?

This is why I love Michel Leiris. I am currently working on a critical essay about his work. He loved language, delighted in meanings. And misunderstandings. In the way an assumed meaning is sometimes more magical than the actual one. Or how a door is opened when we take it upon ourselves to become enlightened as to the nuances of a word or expression’s meaning. Or it’s relation to root forms or variations in other languages.

In a translation there is a place for a glossary, but it ought to be a carefully mediated tool. Broader political references or identification of figures of importance mentioned in the text are one thing, especially in a novel as socially and politically charged as Bhattacharya’s. However, deciding  which idiosyncratic word or expression must be defined or replaced is a question of balance. Less is more, I’d argue. If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way? I suppose it is, in the end, a question of what kind of traveller one is—of how one wants to experience the world. You can pop in, hire a car and see the main tourist attractions then fly off to the next stop. Or you can find a path or two and navigate it until it feels, even for a few days, familiar. I am of the latter sort.

My first few days in Calcutta in February of 2018—my very first days in India ever—were ones of complete and total culture shock. I was aware of nothing but the mangy dogs, the tired poor, the crumbling footpaths, the incessant noise. It took a few days of making my way through the city on foot to begin to see it. To begin to open my heart to it. I spent a full two weeks there and didn’t go anywhere else. I took the Metro, rode ferries and yellow cabs. Met up with friends, sat in restaurants, coffee shops and parks.

I returned to the city again this year fresh from my first encounters with a wider range of Indian cities—Bangalore, Bombay and Kochi—and saw Calcutta from a new angle once again. Everything is relative. The traffic that had horrified me on my first visit now seemed remarkably—or almost—orderly (albeit still incredibly loud).

Granted, I read books from many countries I have never visited, translated from languages I have not even a passing acquaintances with, so I rely on the wisdom of translators and their editors. It’s a tricky thing, I know. I was once faced with editing an excerpt from the translation of an Arabic novel, a situation in which I respected both the original author and the translator very much. But I was afraid to question anything, for fear of showing my ignorance. Surely the process leading to a final published book would ideally be one that engages the editor, translator, and if possible, the author (or those who knew him or her well). Should I be tasked with taking on that entire manuscript—one of the most startling and discomforting I have ever read—I would have to overcome that fear.

Herbert or Harbart is a very special little book, one that is inextricably bound to the city in which it was birthed; its power is not lost in either edition for the very minor differences. It is also a book that benefits from a re-read, beginning as it does with the end of the story some of the magical elements can be lost on a first encounter.

Why read both editions? Why not?

So that is where I am at the moment. I’ll be back to write more about this wonderful book soon.

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

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

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

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

Or just let it be.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

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

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

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

(trans. by Esther Kinsky)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Calcutta! Reflections on my second visit to the City of Joy

A week in Calcutta, my second visit to the city, now lies behind me. I am back in Bangalore again, looking out over the rooftops as the sounds of a busy Saturday remind me that life is ever alive and vital in a large Indian metropolis. But, as I sit here, the sights, sounds and scents of Calcutta are still coursing through my imagination. It’s a hard city to shake once it gets into your system.

Last year, as my first introduction to India, Calcutta was not what I expected. A full assault on the senses in ways I was not prepared for. It is still is, but this year I returned with a little bit more perspective, however limited. Unlike some people I’ve spoken to who cannot imagine why anyone would want to, or dare to, go to Calcutta, picturing the city at its most difficult times (enhanced perhaps by a little Hollywood melodrama as well), I had arrived expecting it to be more modern than what I found, especially in the grand, old, if somewhat decaying central parts of town. This time, however, I noticed more office complexes and taller buildings although somehow Calcutta manages to do “modern” and yet maintain a distinct element of shabby chic. Either that or, as in the new curator’s offices at the stately Victoria Memorial demonstrate, create a generic and unremarkable annex completely at odds with the echoes of the past. It’s a wonderfully eccentric we’ll do it our way way of being as stubbornly defiant as the hand pulled rickshaw drivers that continue to make their way along the back streets.

And speaking of streets, after a taste of the traffic in Bangalore, Mumbai or Kochi, Calcutta is comparatively ordered and slow. Very slow. Typically vehicles stay in their lanes, and the traffic police ensure a general order, lights at intersections are obeyed, and major roadways can be safely crossed. Which is saying a lot to be honest. It is a walkable city. The pathways can be rough at times, or filled with street sellers and food vendors, but if necessary one can generally manage to travel along the edge of the roadway. Some of the backstreets are fairly quiet and empty much of the day. But if a single vehicle comes along, you will hear of it. More than one vehicle and you won’t be able to hear yourself think. The noise of the car horns can be ear splitting. I’m inclined to think that anyone out to acquire a new or used vehicle must head to the showroom, car lot, back alley or wherever such transactions might occur and simply lean on the horn. If a few windows shatter, it does not matter if the wheels are falling off, it’s good to go!

Another traffic related observation I noted this time is the increased use of helmets on motorcycles. Friends told me that it has been a point of enforcement over the past year. And a good thing too. I was heading up a major thoroughfare on my way to meet a friend at the Marble Palace, when I came across a motorcycle accident. There were two children and one or two adults on the cycle, all fortunately with helmets. The one boy must have fallen off. As I passed, they were carrying this dazed child to a bus stop bench and a large crowd was gathering all shouting and offering their opinions. Without helmets it could have been far worse. All I could think of was the woman I saw speeding down the expressway in Bangalore with her young daughter on her lap, neither with helmets. But of course, where I live, motorcycles are a seasonal mode of transport, not a practical necessity as they are in this part of the world.

Traffic and faded architectural glory aside, to be back in Calcutta felt like coming home. A place I returned to seeking to refine a creative focus. On my first visit I came fully intending to write; this time I came with no such illusions. I came to experience, to meet other creative spirits, and to reconnect with all the good people at Seagull Books who have become dear to me. This time my stay was shorter, but coincided with so many wonderful visitors and events. It began, the night I arrived, with the opening of Removing the Gaze, an exclusive showing of collages by German artist Max Neumann. Monday morning began with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank’s masterclass at the Seagull School of Publishing, followed in the evening by my conversation with him at the Victoria Memorial (still fretting a little at what I had hoped to talk about but didn’t, I’m afraid). Tuesday it was my turn to lead a school session. As with my first experience last year, I was caught off guard by how quickly the three hours passed and by the engagement of the students. Wednesday was a full day of sightseeing with a new friend, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who, by coincidence, has been in the city on a residency, and Thursday morning featured a masterclass with conversationalist extraordinaire, Paul Holdengraber. Throughout the week I also had a number of meaningful conversations with Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books who was staying at the same residence where I was and doing some work with Seagull. Along with many visits to Seagull Books’ new office in their former school space, now newly opened up—a bright, cheery and inspiring creative environment—this was week packed with literary energy.

Now to see if I can carry some of the inspiration and focus I was seeking forward.

In Bangalore tonight, the friend I am staying with remarked on a new sense of perspective, of direction, and perhaps peace. As if India does give me something I need. The one thing it won’t give me is planned time for the two of us to travel, as unexpected circumstances now call him to be with his family. But such is life. This leaves me with a little over a week, and apart from one more overnight journey out of the city, much needed time and solitude to put some perspective to my own writing goals and direction before I return to the distractions and demands of life at home.

Of course, I will be back. India is not finished with me yet. Nor I with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— from “behind my eyes”

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

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

— from “this photos of us”

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

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

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

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

Suspended in time: The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.