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

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

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

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

After the first month he stopped counting.

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

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming out elsewhere: Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall

Pride Month is typically a difficult time for me; it was worst in the years when I was trying to find a space within the LGBTQ “community.” For many, no matter what label(s) one lines up under, it can be an uneasy fit. Definitions are at once elastic and exclusionary and today, more than two decades after I first recognized myself as a trans man, I find myself drifting away from identities (in all aspects of my life) and exercising caution with language I do use to talk about who I am. However, there was a time—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when self-identification was critical and a “queer” network (print, virtual and face-to-face) helped me come out, make the decision to transition, and cope with the fallout. Although my location and circumstances were far from those detailed in this book, it brought that time back to me all the same.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by activist and writer Pawan Dhall, traces the challenges, achievements and evolution of a fledgling  queer initiative in West Bengal and Odisha, one that was  driven by a need to provide connection, support, and sexual health resources to a variety of individuals who otherwise faced isolation, stigma, discrimination and physical threat. To read this account, one senses a time of darkness, concern and excitement, yet, although much has changed for queer people in India, especially in recent years, significant challenges still exist.

This slender, illustrated and referenced volume, part of Seagull Books’ Pride List series, presents a sort of textual and visual documentary of the early queer movement that began in Kolkata, eventually spreading out into rural areas and across state lines. As such it is a part of a broader story of queer life in India and across the globe, a story that in many countries still remains to be lived, let alone told. The author is a journalist with an archivist’s calling, and his intention is neither to explain nor justify the need for a queer movement; his focus is on the how, not the why. He relies on research into the archives of some of the earliest support forums in the area, and introduces many of the individuals who were involved with these groups or who sought their assistance at a time when resources were few and far between.  Where possible follow-up interviews were conducted in 2017. Allowing this story to unfold through real-life experiences, framed historically and in the present day, makes for a remarkably engaging read.

Central to the early queer mobilization as explored in Out of Line and Offline, is a support group called Kolkata Counsel Club, formed in 1993 by a small number of gay and bisexual men including the author. Dhall had already started publishing a queer themed newsletter on his own and it soon became the house journal of Counsel Club and a beacon for countless isolated, uncertain and questioning queer people who wrote letters seeking advice, validation or contact. As Dhall says, “This was the pre-Internet era; even acquiring a telephone connection was a tough task.” Younger folk coming out in the age of social media and a ubiquitous online world likely have little understanding of how vital books, photographs, and newsletters could be to people desperate to come to terms with feeling different, uncertain if anyone else like them exists. I remember it well.

In time, the group would grow and its sphere of influence would expand beyond that of men who have sex with men. Two female university students wrote to them, wishing to find a way to be together away from their families’ objections, so arrangements were made to help them “escape” to Delhi, a success that would not always be feasible for other such young women, sometimes with tragic consequences. Transgender women (often, but not always, hijras) would also find a place the queer movement, as well as representing an important target of sexual health advocacy, especially in poorer, rural communities. Of particular interest to me was the account of a young student who wrote to Counsel Club in 1999 from the small state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. An article on “women in love” had drawn their attention and through it they found the group’s mailing address. This individual (called “Ryan” in the book) claimed that although born a girl, they had the attitude and behaviour of a boy. Ryan was seeking help to have a sex-change. Dhall was struck by the absolute helplessness expressed and wrote two letters in response offering what empathy he could, albeit with a clarification that article that inspired the exchange had been about lesbians. Ryan did not write back, leaving much unresolved. Today Dhall is careful not to assign any label to his troubled correspondent—his own understanding has evolved with the changing awareness of a range sexualities and gender identities. This sensitivity is the mark of someone who has spent many years directly involved with the expanding queer community in India:

But I have also experienced the pitfalls of activist enthusiasm to get the terms right at the expense of the priorities of the person across me. Many of us have come around to believe (through day-to-day interactions, research and training) that there is no one way to be a man, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, Hindu, Muslim, Indian or anything else. Thus it should not have been my place to ‘correct’ Ryan if they somehow felt kinship with the women in love portrayed in the magazine.

Of course, Ryan’s sense of kinship makes perfect sense to me and, like Dhall, I hope they found a way to reach their goals. But I also wish more activists were similarly open rather than dictatorial in their approach.

In fact, Pawan Dhall’s holistic, inclusive perspective is the greatest strength of this book. He accepts the choices others make without judgement even if they are not immediately easy to understand. He sees value in all the people who become involved in advocacy and activism, recognizing that no matter what their background or identity (several of the key figures here are straight, drawn into work with queer communities by virtue of their professional or academic interests). Recent events—the repeal of Section 377 which decriminalizes consensual same sex activity and the passing of the controversial Transgender Bill—point to significant, if complicated, progress. Class inequality is still a critical issue as many queer people are marginalized, in urban and rural settings alike. And, of course, the ubiquitous online world of dating apps, support groups and hyper-visibility is at once a blessing and a curse. So there is always more work to be done and more people who need to be reached.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall is published by Seagull Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise, fall, and redemption: The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi

“With us, everything begins with a song and everything ends with another song.”

Or, one could say: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was put to Music and Song was born, and thus the song came to be the driving creative force of the universe.  This is the nature of the world as we are invited to experience it in French-Djiboutian writer, Abdourahman A. Waberi’s imaginative novel The Divine Song. Yet, it is clear from the outset, that this is no ordinary musical journey we are about to embark on—it is, instead, the story of one man’s life  with its genius and its frailties, woven into the broader tapestry of African American literature, music and history, orchestrated by one singular feline. Yes, you heard that right, the narrator of The Divine Song is Paris, “an old bachelor cat on the threshold of his last life.” A Sufi cat, no less.

In an earlier incarnation Paris was a Persian named Farid, companion to Mawlana, a venerable Sufi master whose teachings continue to provide guidance in his present role as the self-described guardian angel to a most unlikely soul. He knows he does not possess the power to protect his charge from adversity, but he can, and will, bear witness—a mission he attends to, from the opening pages, with a blend of spiritual wisdom and street (cat) sense:

Life is beautiful despite its vagaries and my nine lives show this clearly. Life is beautiful on the condition that you serve it. In other words, helping others, the brothers and sisters you meet along the way. And for me, that other brotherly face is above all Sammy, the mage who burned his life at both ends.

This Sammy, to whom Paris is devoted, is the brilliant, yet deeply troubled, musician Samuel Kamau-Williams, a man whose life shares the outlines of that of African-American singer, composer and writer, Gil Scott-Heron—an echo, an homage, a point of reference perhaps, but with a story of his own.  And a most unusual biographer prepared to tell it.

The course of the impassioned account Paris proceeds to deliver is framed against the closing months of Sammy’s life: his last musical adventures in Europe, and his final days back home in New York. Against this canvas our narrator sketches out the details of his subject’s life, his family, and his influences. We meet his self-sufficient mother and his Jamaican-born father, a soccer player who disappears early in his son’s life to play abroad, first in the UK and later in Brazil. And we are granted a close, affectionate view of Lily Williams, his grandmother, who cared for him until he was twelve. Sammy’s time with her in Savannah, Tennessee proves formative for the future musical prodigy while Lily herself provides a spiritual and historical link her young grandson’s roots in the depths of Africa generations earlier. By his teens, Sammy is back with his mother in New York City attending good schools on the strength of his excellent grades, playing sports and exploring rock and blues with friends before starting to chart his own course as an artist and politically-minded poetic force. The road from there on will be marked by success and marred by drugs and illness.

Mind you, Paris’ narrative is anything but straightforward. It winds its way back and forth, casting Sammy’s biography against a wide mystical landscape. He sees the magic—good and evil—casting it into a broader backstory at times, and frequently draws on the Sufi traditions that are so intrinsic to his being. Most of the time he speaks directly to his readerly audience, but at one point he steps into a journalistic mode, bringing in the views of several of Sammy’s school mates, documentary style, and on a few occasions he turns his attention directly to his subject, addressing him in second person, often with some of his most critical words. And, of course, he regularly weaves in elements of his own story—his early ninth life on the thankless New York streets, and his years living and travelling with Sammy—frequently reinforcing the very unique connection he shares with the man he calls the Enchanter. Here, for example, he describes his morning ritual:

I let silence settle into my carnal envelope; I pay attention to my breathing. In complete awareness. Then I send my whole being into orbit, I simply point it in Sammy’s direction. And wherever he may be on this earth, inside or outside the territory of the United States, I’m at his side or more exactly at his back. My soul sticks to his coattails. I hear his breath coming out of his throat in little jerky exhalations. I do not relax my attention. My breath superimposes itself on his. Gently. That’s the way it’s been since the beginning of our relationship. There’s no reason for it to change.

Not a pet, this cat. But a wonderful narrator.

Leaving the narrative in the hands, or rather, paws of an animal can be a risky venture, but Paris not only carries this tale like a seasoned raconteur, he can take a perspective and a tone that an ordinary human could not. Clearly he is a magical character, but for all his un-animal-like abilities and his enthusiasm to put right his dear Sammy’s tale, he remains conscious (and perhaps relieved) that he is a cat. He is not naïve, but he holds, in comparison with his human subjects, a certain universality. And most critically, Paris is a storyteller with the soul of a poet and a timeless story to tell.

Rise, fall, redemption.

As a novel, then, The Divine Song is somewhat of a literary chameleon. With a tragic hero woven into so deeply into African American history and  musical heritage, it is easy to forget that this is the work of a francophone author from Africa. The ghosts, the magical energy, and the enigmatic feline narrator arise in the Old World, freed from chronological constraint to focus themselves in the person of  one musical genius whose own life shadows that of a real person. It’s a heady mix. But it’s more than that. The Divine Song is a hymn, an exaltation of the power of music to redeem a nation, a people and a man.

The Divine Song by Abdourahman A. Waberi is translated by David and Nicole Ball and published by Seagull Books.

 

The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Tell stories and let stories be told: Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz

Venturing into the fictional territory defined by Swiss writer Klaus Merz, one immediately notices the lightness of his imagery and the marked economy of his language. His narratives are slowly and carefully crafted, allowed to form one brushstroke at a time. Anchored in a lush landscape mirroring his native canton of Aargau in northern Switzerland, his characters and the lives they live are at once simple and exceptional. Sensitively translated from the German by Tess Lewis, the present volume, Stigmata of Bliss, gathers together three of Merz’s best known novellas, and, as such, offers a fine introduction to his distinctive restrained poetic prose.

The collection begins with Jacob Asleep (Jakob schläft). Originally published in 1997 with the curious subtitle Eigentlich ein Roman—Actually a Novel—this tale of an ill-starred but strangely resilient family won several prominent awards including the Hermann Hesse Prize for Literature. The story opens at the graveside of the eponymous Jacob, the narrator’s older brother, who died at birth and as such was officially named “Child Renz”. Although he is gone, in the heart and imagination of the protagonist, Jacob is ever present as a sleeping angel of sorts to be called upon in times of need. And there will be plenty of those.

The narrator is, from an early age, surrounded by eccentricity and illness. A younger brother, Sunny, is born with hydrocephalus; his father, a baker, develops epilepsy; and his mother grows increasingly despondent as the years pass. His grandfather takes a turn at raising birds and then fish before turning with passionate intensity to beekeeping, while his grandmother becomes a faith healer who is undeterred by any apparent lack of response to her charms. Finally, an uncle, Franz, is a reckless daredevil with an unfettered lust for adventure that takes him, fatefully, to Alaska. But, ever the pragmatist, our hero recounts his family’s tragedies and joys with calm resolve and no small measure of peculiar pride:

In our family, illness had priority over all else. After Grandmother walked barefoot through the snow in her religious frenzy and, weightless as old, brittle leaves, was carried out of the house with the first spring storms, my brother was once again the most seriously ill member of the family, so ill that people gladly came often to visit him. Out on the street, everyone, young and old, turned to stare. They tripped over kerbstones, caught their trousers and skirts on garden fences and knocked their gaping heads on telegraph poles when I pushed him along the road in his high-wheeled cart.

There were only a few television shows at the time and the tabloids were still restrained, so, live and in real time, we satisfied some of the local craving for entertainment.

Given the premise of this novella, there could easily be a tendency to slip into pathos, but such is not the case. The spare prose, vivid images filtered through memory, and the charismatic narrative voice facilitate smooth transitions between scenes of boyish bliss and accounts of loss and pain, between times of happiness and hardship. No moment is oversold. Only the most essential details are offered, often indirectly, set up in such a manner that ultimately a simple sentence is left to carry the weight of all that has been left unspoken. One of the most powerful episodes in the text occurs after the narrator and his father pick up his mother after a stay at a sanatorium. Nothing is explicitly said of her experience. It is not necessary:

The first thing Mother did at home was to get rid of the electric blanket that had always warmed her bed. And she adamantly refused to let us replace it with a better one.

For fear of electric shocks.

What remains, at the end of this finely honed tale, is a sense of the light that lingers in the memory assuring that in a life filled with many hardships, the darkness is not denied but it need not dominate.

*

The second novella, A Man’s Fate (LOS. Eine Erzählung,2005), feels, perhaps, denser and heavier in tone. The style is still spare, but here the third person narrative takes the reader deep into the consciousness of a man, Thaler, who is at a crossroad in his life. A teacher, married with children, he is feeling cramped and constrained. He heads to the mountains hoping a hike will help clear his mind, allow him to figure out what he wants. Armed with his favourite snack—honey and lemons—he travels by train, on his way to a cabin where he plans to spend the night. At the same time his thoughts travel back, digging through his earlier adventures and affairs.

Thaler is a troubled man, weighed down by a certain nostalgia for his youth and a frustration with his present circumstances. Yet it is not clear what it is that he feels he has lost or what potentials he yearns for. The memories he keeps rifling through do not seem that exciting—but, then, mid-life tinges the past with regrets and what-if’s. His restlessness is echoed by the train:

His train gathers speed. Nowhere does he feel as secure as in a train. Surrounded only by chance companions. He finds them to be the most reliable and he feels closest to them.

Travelling divests one. Like a lover. Like a lover who leaves unnoticed after making  love to return to her own life, having washed up only cursorily yet unhurt. And safe elsewhere.

Thaler’s thoughts regularly swing back to women, leaving little wonder that his marriage is in trouble. He seems indifferent to his wife and children. However, there is, of course, more going on, and a chance mishap will upend everything.

*

The final novella in this volume, The Argentine (Der Argentinier. Novelle, 2009) is an account of the life of the colourful “Argentine”, a man who, in his youth, left Switzerland for a life of adventure in the New World. In Argentina he became, so he claimed, a gaucho and a celebrated dancer. Yet, once the desire to escape cooled, he returned to Europe, married his sweetheart, Amelie, and devoted himself to teaching. But he maintained a larger-than-life aura, his tales fueling his own mythology and his assorted wisdoms enlightening both his family and generations of students.

The Argentine’s story, however, is not told directly. It is recounted by his granddaughter Lena to a primary-school friend, the narrator, during a gathering of former classmates. His own memories and observations, as well as brief conversations about his and Lena’s present lives, filter into the narrative which continually circles back story of the Argentine, or simply “Grandfather” as he is called. The result is a portrait conveyed in segments, coloured with multilayered memories. A story within a story within a story and at the centre one remarkable man.

After his return, Grandfather created a different climate in each of his classrooms: an African climate in one, icebergs as in Patagonia in another or the blooming spring of the Wachau Valley in another. He wanted his students to be prepared for any circumstances when they had to face reality—actual or perceived—whether at home, out shopping, before a screen, in Shanghai or in bed. They should have emergency resources that come from worlds described or worlds still waiting to be described. With such inner resources, they will never die alone or of hunger, he always said.

Although published separately, there is a wholeness that can be found in reading these three novellas together. The same spareness marks each one, though the narratives have a different texture and energy. No piece extends beyond 60 pages (including the drawings by Heinz Egger that grace the text), but each offers a rewarding and intimate experience that lingers long after the reading has ended.

Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz is translated by Tess Lewis and published by Seagull Books.

Caught between seasons: Camille in October by Mireille Best

There is a chill that runs through Camille in October even though the seasons change—somehow it always feels like autumn, in the way that for some of us adolescence can feel like an interminable autumn. Growing up can be so complicated. And so it is for the critical, pensive, passionate narrator of this luminous novel, a young woman whose academic inclinations and sexual attractions increasingly alienate her from her working-class 1950s French neighbourhood. Familiar territory perhaps, but Camille’s distinctive voice and keen, if not entirely reliable, observations give it an undeniable energy and urgency.

Part of Seagull Books’ Pride List, this is the first English translation of a work by French author Mireille Lemarchand (1943-2005) who wrote under the pseudonym Mireille Best. Born into a working-class family in Le Havre, France, health problems kept her from attending university so she worked in a plastics factory and later as a civil servant. Known for her fiction featuring lesbian themes, Best published four short story collections and three novels with the French press Gallimard during her lifetime.

The world in which Camille and her siblings are growing up is one of relinquished dreams where the men are beaten down by hard labour and often turn to alcohol and violence, where housewives gather to trade gossip and offer criticism and support, and where few of their children will go on to complete their baccalaureate or go beyond that. The scars of World War II still run deep. And yet it is a tightly bound community.

The core of neighbourhood life is the group of women Camille refers to as the Mothers, her own included, who meet every afternoon to drink boiled coffee and talk about life. They are a regular presence throughout the book, a sort of opinionated, domesticated Greek chorus:

The Mothers should have killed themselves  Or let themselves die  It was the only logical step in the situation. But no. Very few died, of those among them. They had a stubborn resistance, animal-like  The passive resistance of things half-buried. The men climbed on top of them, knocked them about sometimes, weighed on their conscience as much as on the rhythm of their days  The kids screamed and vomited grew fell sick escaped went bad . . . The Mothers endured it all  The knocking down of days one after another endlessly  The eternal circuit house-shops-girlfriends and repeat

Yet if Camille’s cynical adolescent view of them is frequently caustic, she is often present at these gatherings, first with her siblings when they are younger, and later on her own, the misfit that everyone knows will never become a Mother like they are.

As for Camille’s family, they are strong characters, vividly portrayed. Her ever patient, loving mother harbours a dream of emigrating to Australia which her father, a veteran, refuses to even entertain. He’s a hard man, given to drink, and for a while Camille makes a few wildly unsuccessful, even humorous, attempts to kill him. Her younger sister Ariane is a firecracker, loud and fearless, possessed of resolute common sense that she never hesitates to dispense. A lively foil to her older sister’s intellectual seriousness, she is always ready to challenge anything and anyone. As one of the Mothers describes her:

—Poor little sweetie, says Gertrude. Not only does she think, but on top of that she thinks out loud . . . That age is carefree.

And finally, Abel, the youngest, has some kind of a seizure disorder of an unknown nature and his manner is oddly quiet with sudden outbursts. Camille reports that as a child he was “handsome in a strange and suspect way and it hollowed out around him an impalpable zone of emptiness.” As he gets older the strangeness comes to the fore.

Between her tough, firm sister and her soft but occasionally explosive brother, Camille describes herself as:

suspended in the atmosphere, participating in all realms. Endlessly permeable, I drifted, moved around like a fog. I was one or the other or everyone together, incapable of locating myself with certainty. I never really knew WHO I was. I don’t even know if this is a thing that gets better with time, or if I will never do anything besides wandering between contradictory solidarities, with bouts of intense haste when I become a pebble, a shell against the pain, an instrument of hatred.

This nebulous sense of identity is a quality that defines the narrative and gives it an authentic feel—this is the voice of a young adult who is increasingly out of place in her family and community. The black sheep with nowhere to go.

The central focus of Camille in October is a relationship between the protagonist and the dentist’s wife. It begins with tea and borrowing books, based on a common intellectual curiosity, but before long, Camille realizes that she has fallen for Clara. It is a deep and passionate attraction for an adolescent experiencing her first love, but one that is not so easily returned by a conflicted married woman. Theirs is a complicated friendship, beautifully and painfully executed. Camille as we come to understand her through her affection counterbalances the often harsh and cynical self defense she displays elsewhere in her account. Of course, although she is not the most reliable narrator, she is thoroughly engaging.

This novel, vibrantly translated by Stephanie Schechner, is a wonderful introduction to Mireille Best’s work. Coming of age / coming out novels often tread familiar ground. Place and personality set them apart. The 1950s working class setting would have no doubt mirrored the author’s own, but in Camille we have a contradictory and complex narrator. The intermittent use of an unusual punctuation style with dropped periods (as in the first quote above) grants a sense of urgency to some of her more idiosyncratic descriptive passages. Together with a broad, somewhat eccentric, supporting cast, Camille in October is a moving, thoroughly entertaining addition to the genre.

Camille in October by Mireille Best is translated from the French by Stephanie Schechner and published by Seagull Books.

Dark folksongs for a new millennium: I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig

we don’t know each other yet. I don’t even know
myself. every morning I get up and I don’t have a clue:
is it me, Almut? Ulrike? just who was that child under
its mother’s skirts? I am the mother, I am the daughter
I am the shadow for you to hide beneath

No question here. This is German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, an artist for whom performance and collaboration—with other poets, musicians and filmmakers—is very important. She is a literary multi-instrumentalist and that sensibility colours her very distinctive poetry. From the outset, her approach was less than conventional. She began by pasting her poems to lampposts and distributing them as flyers and free postcards—reaching out to those resistant to poetry by making it readily accessible through the use of familiar images, comforting rhythms and experimental presentation. Yet, like the traditional folktales from which she derives so much of her inspiration, Sandig’s simple, fanciful poems hide a darkly serious heart. Beneath the allure and beauty of her language, her work boldly addresses some of the most important political issues of the day.

The whimsically titled I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other is her second collection to be released in English translation, following 2018’s much more modestly named Thick Of It. Both works are translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books. The title not only reflects the names of the sections within the book, but is contained and echoed in a couple of pieces. As with her earlier volume, tracks and traces wind their way through her poetry, sowing connections, entertaining dialogue, evoking natural and fantastic elements, and openly comment on modern warfare, the misuse of science, the fate of migrants, and the rise of Right Wing sentiments. She is like a bright radical spirit emerging from a world of shadowy forests and bleak fairy tales.

Compared to Thick of It (reviewed here) which was originally published in German in 2011, I am A Field which originally appeared five years later (2016) is a much more complex and unapologetically political exercise. ballad of the abolition of night (Sandig’s titles are always presented in bold either as headers or within the text—a convention I will hold to here) bluntly depicts instances of torture reported in American “Black Sites” or detainee camps, each verse beginning with the refrain

underneath the utterly cloudless sky
of a state lagging somewhat behind
on the historical timeline of our kind
in a camp for detainees

and each situation, so uncomfortably familiar from the news, loses none of its horror in poetic form.

The fate of refugees fleeing twenty-first century conflict is another theme that reappears several times throughout. This is captured with particular power in almost thirteen questions about Idomeni, 2016 AD. Based on an article about an expanding community of migrants trapped on the Greek border, it begins:

and what if love is not the answer after all?
and what if that dove doesn’t go out and
fetch the first leaf it finds and bring it
back as a sign: land in sight? and what if
there’s no daylight on the waters ahead
but instead just women and children
sinking? and what if there’s not a single
jot of good Deutsch to be found in this
Land of mine, but tarred and feathered
pity as a hyperlink, until I go and forget
my own language too?

Unforgiving in its sentiment, the poem highlights apathy and an unwillingness to engage with the plight of the migrants one way or another, ending with reference to the gorier original version of Cinderella:

coocoo, coocoo Idomeni, there’s blood in
the shoe. I wash my hands in the rain.

At the end of the day, there’s no question who will be disfigured and who will feign innocence.

As in Sandig’s earlier work, European folklore is an important influence—she reimagines nursery rhymes and fairy tales and, along with a fondness for lowercase letters and limited punctuation, this lends a magical atmosphere to her poems. However, not unlike the tradition she is calling on, these elements often serve as the perfect vehicles to explore the brutality of human nature. In I Am a Field, this aspect is pronounced with the inclusion of the “Grimm” cycle which is explicitly based on tales from The Children’s and Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unsanitized original versions, could be gruesome and unsettling to say the least. In Fitcher’s Bird, for example, she gives poetic voice to the young woman who disguises herself to rescue and reanimate her older sisters who’ve been murdered and dismembered by an evil sorcerer:

I dipped myself in
a barrel of honey
slit open the bed and
rolled in the feathers.
now I am an odd
bird, nobody
knows me, I
scarcely know
myself. a globe is
stuck in my throat
I can’t get it down:
a monstrous great
round chamber
of wonders racing
through the dark.

Yet, in rescuing her sisters, the narrator is extending her intention to heal all who have been butchered. Other poems in this cycle evoke drone warfare, IS converts, and the reality of life for migrants in Germany and other contemporary realities. In her generous end notes which provide basic background, as needed, to the political and/or lyrical inspiration of many of the pieces, translator Karen Leeder indicates that knowledge of the fairy tales is not necessary to appreciate the Grimm poems, but that German readers might identify intertextual phrases and references even if their origins might not be immediately recognized. And since many of the stories may be lesser known, her short notes offer a little guidance to any interested reader who wishes to know more. She  adds:

The German word “Grimm” also, however, means rage: a rage that permeates the cycle as a reaction to the darkness in the collective German consciousness.

I would suggest that some of that rage underscores much of the collection as a whole, as an invigorating energy that refuses to be silenced. There is beauty and ugliness here, balanced against anger and hope: a collection as strange and strangely intriguing as its wonderfully eccentric title.

I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Noticing the unnoticed: Wildfire by Banaphool

Those who love my writing need no introduction to it. Those who do not, need it even less. As for those who are unfamiliar with my writing, they will recognize my nature as soon as they read my stories. I have nothing particular to say to them, either.

In this brief introduction to the collected volumes of his short stories which, over the course of his lifetime amounted to some 578, the Bengali author Banaphool sets out all one really needs to know about his writing. Or to be more exact, the spirit of his work.

While maintaining a busy medical practice in Bhagalpur, Bihar, Dr. Balaichand Mukhopaghyay (1899-1979) produced an astonishing quantity of stories, poems, novels, plays and essays that reflect his deep sensitivity to the human condition and do full justice to his chosen pen-name Banaphool, which means “wildflower” in Bengali. As he was advised by Rabindranath Tagore, the wildflower blooms along the roadside, unnoticed but by creative vision. For a writer who wished to bloom outside the formal literary garden and from this unique vantage point, notice the complexities of the human condition that were often otherwise unnoticed, the name was a perfect fit. Frequently compared to O. Henry and Chekov, two authors he came to know of only after he himself started producing fiction, the similarities are there, but his world is distinctly Indian. The tensions and anxieties that ripple through many of his stories not only reflect the nation’s troubled emergence from colonial rule, but are still tragically disruptive today.

Wildfire is a collection of forty-four pieces translated by Somnath Zutshi, published by Seagull Books in 1999 and reissued in 2018. Most are very short, three to four pages or less, stark and straight to the point with little build up or fuss. There are fables, morality tales, ghost stories and character studies. Banaphool does not shy away from timeless philosophical questions, contemporary politics, or long-standing issues of caste and social class, but he does not proselytize. He expects his reader to fill in the blanks. To read between the lines. He creates characters who are either brave or blemished (or both) with compassion and without judgement. Petty rivalries can have tragic consequences, and vanities can invite supernatural intervention, frequently of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety. As such, a measure of moral messiness is typically allowed; his stories often end with an unexpected twist, a surprise revelation, an act of courage, or an unembellished sucker punch to the gut.

The range of the tales in this collection reflects the author’s extensive exposure to a wide range of human personality and behaviour in the course of his work, but although many of his protagonists are also doctors or other middle class professionals, he grants voices to people from all backgrounds as well as natural objects, animals, the dead, and, in one striking example, “Creator”, to a piece of paper whose screams of protest are inaudible to the artist applying paint to its surface. In this way, his work reaches across traditions, but never feels dated. Psychological themes are common, as in “The Human Mind” which tells the tale of two brothers, one devoted to science, the other to religion, similar only in their shared devotion to their orphaned nephew whom they have raised together. When the boy becomes gravely ill their differences are tested.  Other tales examine the vagaries of pride, greed, love and loss.

However, it is notable that a number of the stories speak to political discontents that are still very current in his native country. I brought this book home earlier this year, not long after the deadly riots in northeast Delhi, in late February. By chance the first story I happened upon was “During the Riots” set during the Bihar riots of late 1946. It opens:

Even the air had stopped moving in terror of the Hindu-Muslim riots. The days passed somehow but the nights seemed to last for ever. The blare of the conch shell from one direction, shouts of ‘Vande Mataram’ from another! At the slightest hint of a disturbance, we scrambled up to the terrace. Not a lot happened, generally; things quieted down in a couple of minutes. Moreover, the bitter cold made it impossible to stay on the terrace. My wife spent her time checking to see the various doors and windows were bolted and secured. We took turns staying awake.

As the narrator and his household struggle to arm themselves against certain attack, he thinks about the Muslim man who ran his father’s farm, whose wife had suckled him at her own breast. At several points the interdependence of the two communities is laid bare. But the speed and ferocity with which rumour spreads as tension rises demonstrate that even without WhatsApp and Twitter, misinformation is rampant. Through the narrator’s rising panic, encouraged by his neighbours, Banaphool deftly brings the story to a devastaing conclusion. One that sounds so freshly familiar.

Finally, included with the multitude of short short stories is one novella length addition, “Bhuvan Shome”, the quiet, extended study of a bitter, isolated Railways official who learns a valuable life-altering lesson from a young peasant girl on his annual hunting trip. A slow, complex character study, both sad and comic, this story was made into a Hindi-language movie by celebrated Indian film maker Minal Sen. The narrative takes much more time to build, at first a sharp contrast to the other condensed tales that populate this collection, and yet, even in this longer piece, the initially unpleasant main character is presented with empathy, encouraging the reader to hear what is not being said, and to realize what Bhuvan Shome, for all his self-obsessed rumination, cannot see. He is a classic Banaphool protagonist. An embodiment of the adage that there are none so blind as those who do not wish to see. It is to his good fortune that he comes to recognize the fact before it’s too late—so many of the characters who haunt these pages are not so fortunate.

But such is the view from the roadside sometimes. . .

Wildfire by Banaphool is translated with an introduction by Somnath Zutshi and published by Seagull Books.

Searching for answers to unaskable questions: The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

Some readers love nothing more than to lose themselves in vast, sprawling texts, happily admitting that the longer, the better. It’s a rare occasion that I share that sentiment—I’m inclined to insist that most of the time, less is more. Often much less. Like French author Michèle Lesbre’s The Red Sofa. At just over one hundred pages, this award winning novella is a small, quiet, perfect book—one that touches at the very heart of what it feels like to be adrift in life, to be searching for answers to questions one cannot articulate.

This is such a simple story. The narrator, Anne, is travelling by train to Siberia in search of Gyl, a man she once loved many years earlier who had suddenly given up everything to move to Russia, take up residence on the shores of Lake Baikal to paint and put on plays. The revolutionary aspirations of their youth never quite left his system. Their friendship had endured long after their relationship ended but about six months after his arrival in Irkutsk, he suddenly stopped writing. Naturally she is worried, but whereas his political passions had not dimmed, she has grown more cynical and critical over the years and finds herself without solid beliefs to cling to. It is but part of the unease that she carries with her on this journey to find—what?—she is not quite sure.

As the miles pass beyond the window of the train, Anne’s thoughts often go back to Clémence, her elderly neighbour at home in Paris—the owner of the red sofa of the title— whose memory is fading fast. Anne had regularly visited the old woman to read to her of strong eccentric women, often following up with a trip to a local café to enjoy a glass of wine. A close, if unlikely, friendship had formed between them. A former milliner with closets filled with her marvelous creations, Clémence had had a full and vibrant life, but her heart had always belonged to her first love, Paul, who was tragically killed young.

Anne is uncertain where her own heart belongs, perhaps she is looking for it. The dreamy shifting landscape of Russia, and the drift of an unanchored life give the narrative an uneasy, contemplative quality.

Most of the time I would wake up very early, at the break of dawn. Pines and birches were hardly emerging from an ocean of fog in which the train ran blindly and a few swarms of grey isbas floated—their wood, worn by the frost and the brutal summer sun, looked like papier mâché. The dull light became progressively brighter, revealing a dizzying sky. I would follow it with my eyes until it took refuge in the horizon. What horizon? Everything seemed far away, inaccessible, too vast.

As an obvious outsider on a regular commuter run, Anne enjoys her solitude among her assorted compartment-mates. The absence of reference points, her limited knowledge of Russian, and the monotony of the days allow her space to think, relax and read—that is, until Igor boards the train. She becomes obsessed with this stern, silent figure who puts her in mind of the central character of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Her attractions are not reciprocated, but she imagines him as a critical guide into her own personal Zone, her own search for meaning. The landscape reinforces the allusion:

The forests became the image of a possible paradise which men did not deserve and that only the trees knew how to incarnate. This grandiose, devastated landscape, heavy with melancholy, spoke to me of everything I already knew but with a force, a cruelty I had not expected. It would remain with me for several months after my return and settle into my life as other journeys had done, thus constructing a singular, imperfect, emotional and sometimes imaginary world—mine.

Memories, distant and more recent alike, haunt the narrative, woven effortlessly into a powerful evocation of the strange dislocation that being in a foreign country allows—and the gift that it offers. Anne arrives in Irkutsk ostensibly looking for Gyl, worried about his well-being. But what she discovers is complicated, at once inviting and alienating. The few days she spends alone in the city before she can fly back to Moscow help her begin to move toward freeing herself from the kind of intangible, limiting snares in which we sometimes find ourselves in life. My own rather directionless travels in recent years, walking through the streets of cities in India and Nepal, were reflected in her own urban wandering:

I was finally finding myself in that pleasant sense of abandonment, that way of breathing and thinking differently in a foreign city, in a state of weightlessness, with the feeling of belonging to the world, to that ideal humanity I was seeking in the faces, the music of the language, the gestures, and the smallest details that link us all together in spite of everything. I was letting myself be swallowed up by the sounds, the rhythm, and the invisible current that ran through the city.

Anne returns to Paris almost, but not quite, prepared to move on with her life. What awaits her will offer the final release.

This thoughtful, meditative novella is quite wonderful. The story that unfolds is filled with poetic beauty and bold personalities, but much is left untold or unknown. However, it does not feel incomplete or lacking. That is the beauty of a spare, dream-like tale such as this—a story of loss, disillusion, desire, and learning to live again.

Originally published in 2007 as La canape rouge, it seems to be the only one of her novels to be available in English to date.  The Red Sofa is translated by Nicole and David Ball, and published by Seagull Books. Curiously this is one of the books I brought home after my first trip to Calcutta several years ago—an impulse purchase from the publisher’s storefront that sat neglected on my shelf of French translations. It somehow feels right to read it now with its evocative tribute to the space—mental and emotional—afforded by travel, at a time when travel is on hold for the foreseeable future.