Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore (and a few words about Seagull Books for World Book Day 2022)

As I write this, it is World Book Day, April 23, 2022 and it seems the perfect time to call attention to a man who has dedicated his life to making important, challenging books available to eager readers and celebrating the book itself as a work of art, an object as delightful to look at and hold as it is to read. And now, that man, Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, has a book of his own, Knotted Grief—a collection of piercing, spare poems that turns its attention to sorrow and anguish as experienced in both national and intimate spaces.

Poetry is, for Kishore, as I understand it, the product of a daily practice of writing—of putting words to the page every day, regardless of available time or present situation. As a friend, it is a discipline he has recommended to me, rather insistently in fact, but I fear I fell off the page some time ago and am only just climbing back on. His poetry has also been shared with those around him, appearing online here and there, even arriving on occasion in my own email inbox. One could even say that poetry tends to inform and permeate his prose and his speech—as if it has become, not a vocation or an exercise so much as a way of being in the world.

Knotted Grief, coalesces around “Kashmiriyat,” an extended cycle inspired by the devastating events in Kashmir in recent years. Across 105 spare verses Kishore paints a pained portrait of violence, misery and loss. The flickering light of candles, personified shadows, cold winter winds, bloodied earth, strangled silence—images of war fold in on one another, frozen by the photographer-poet’s eye and trimmed to their bare essentials, then revisited again and again.

6
bird stripped
of sight
seeking
refuge
in a sky
full
of bullet wounds

Most of the verses are short, a handful of lines, but midway through the sequence—50, 52, 55—stretch out, with anger and desperation rising:

elsewhere the echoes
of a candle flame muffled
by fingers that knew no pain

the stone floor
beginning to feel the cold
as bare footsteps walked over its grave

like a whisper
the angel gliding past
its silhouette fighting shy of the firelight

on a clear and blue sky is heard
the song of the winter wind
utterly and completely silent

a child’s memory of the future? (from 55)

Sadly, armed conflict and occupation are not unique to any one place or time and to read this poem as war rages in Ukraine and elsewhere, the words are not in any way diluted. Rather they dig deeper, strike closer to the core. In the following sequence, “Street Full of Widows” the painful universality of the human cost of war strikes hard:

Go gather the flowers               for the wreaths
go                   from door to door
                      gathering
.                            sheets for the shrouds

 

there is no time to grieve

When, then, we might ask, is the time to grieve? Grief is a fundamental part of life and living, complex and compounded as we grow older, and this theme in its more intimate sense guides the balance of the poems in this collection. The weight of sorrow is, at times, heavy, and Kashmir still lingers in the shadows, while the interplay of memory, dreams and desires carry the later pieces in a more fanciful and uplifting direction. Throughout, an unmistakable energy lifts and carries the poetry, rising and falling in mood and intensity, the weight and balance of each line carefully measured. One might imagine that the poet’s background in stage lighting serves him well. Certainly Naveen Kishore’s deep association with theatre, literature and photography stretching back over more than four decades fuels this moving debut.

Writing about books these past few years has opened for me a network of independent publishers I might never have encountered had I continued to let the literary bestseller lists guide my fortunes. It is, I suppose, one of the small gifts of having to leave my profession earlier than planned. I bought my first Seagull Book in 2015 and made my first pilgrimage to Calcutta in 2018. I’ve been back to the city once but hope that, if all goes well—as the world conspires against us daily—I will be able to visit Naveen and the rest of the Seagull family on this, the fortieth anniversary year of operations for a publisher that believes in the power and beauty of literature.

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore is published in India by Speaking Tiger and in Australia by Gazebo Books

The weight of emptiness: The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam

This is my life, my story: it has a lot of drama, successive doses of profound distress, and a lot of peculiarity, to the extent that I continually imagine myself a mere character in the novel, choreographed by the hand of a brilliant writer, but he overburdens me with unusual loads. I don’t mean in a literary sense—that’s for the critics—I’m talking on a human and personal level. He always puts me in the most complex scenarios, boiling over with seemingly cosmic plots, or at least in pivotal points of tearful collective historical plots, always overturning places on my head.

The narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, Akram Musallam’s metafictional meditation on loss, identity and emptiness, is at the mercy of his own pen as he endeavours to commit his own story to the page, a story which finds him at the intersection of a lineage bound by village and familial legend and a series of events that define the history of Palestine in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He is his own anti-hero, haunted by successive losses, disappearances and absences that undermine his efforts to write himself into being. The resulting novel-about-a-novel-about-loss, by turns melancholic and absurd, thus becomes a mirror of much larger questions haunting the Palestinian imagination.

Born in 1972 in Talfit, near Nablis in the West Bank, Musallam is a journalist for the Ramallah daily Al-Ayyam. The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, first published in Arabic in 2008, is his second novel, his first to be translated into English. And although its premise may sound bleak, this playful tale manages to be both sorrowful and fun to read. The magic lies in its charming and determined narrative voice.

The novel opens with a dream-like account of a night in late 1988 when our protagonist, a teenager working in a hotel across the border in Israel, has his first sexual encounter with a young woman who has a freshly tattooed scorpion at the base of her spine. At one point he asks her to stand, naked, facing the mirrored wall behind the carpeted stage in the “dance hall” where he slept each night. He traces her hips on the reflective surface with lipstick. The girl, a visitor from Paris, would leave for home the next day, disappearing from his life forever. However, she and her scorpion would begin to revisit him in his dreams, lying beside him once more. As he stroked the deep-blue design on her lower back the creature would come to life, slip off her skin and struggle to climb up the mirror to find its place between the lipstick lines drawn there. This scorpion in its desperate attempts to reclaim a perch on something that no longer exists, haunts the narrator, who adopts it as an identity for his story’s hero. “Isn’t this a novel-esque dream, or a dream of a novel?” he asks himself and the answer, he knows, is yes. Which I suppose means it’s both.

It is mid-2006 when he finally commits himself to realizing this novel-esque dream. He arrives at a parking lot in Ramallah and offers to rent a particular stall although he has no car to park there. He simply wishes to sit there, on the ground or on a plastic chair, think and maybe even write a novel. The attendant is uncertain, but the parking lot manager, a former political “prisoner” jailed for his actions during the Uprising, is smitten by the idea of hosting a writer. As the author-narrator’s story unfolds—that which we are reading and/or that which he is writing—the “prisoner” becomes his audience, his cheerleader and his challenger to the truth of the narrative as presented. But, just as real-life has dictated the narrator’s story, the liberties he takes in recording it are often the only way to begin to adequately—and safely—address the huge gaping holes that fate and history keep placing in his way.

‘Names aren’t that important, believe me, usually there are no names in my novel, haven’t you noticed that? Names are constraints for the characters and me, I don’t like them. I prefer to describe my characters according to what sets them apart. Then, my friend, you want a novelist to write “real-life things.” Listen: in order to be able to speak the truth, you have to wait for a lot of people to die; in the same way, speaking the truth may end up killing a lot of people.

The Scorpion’s earliest life memories are charged with absence. When he was very young his father lost his leg, the result of a workplace injury attended not by doctors but by construction site “first aid” of a much more basic sort. As the only child it would fall to our hero to scratch his father’s missing foot—not the stump, but the space where his foot once was. It was an early, tangible experience of emptiness and perhaps began to condition him for life in a time of conflict in a land under occupation, insofar as one can ever be prepared to have the places most important to you, your key touchstones, destroyed or irrevocably altered—to have your history erased. He would have preferred that the war would stay out of his life, but it kept intruding, driving the plot. For the narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, his connection to lost places may seem exaggerated at times due to the magical tone of his tale and his tendency to limit or avoid identifying details, but they are not only fundamental to his sense of self and his ability to tell his own story, they echo the broader collective concerns that haunt the Palestinian people.

This is, then, a deceptively quirky, light tale filled with eccentric characters and family legends woven against historical events—the Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Second Intifada, the 2002 Invasion—that is deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves to address loss and emptiness, to remind ourselves that we do exist. As the narrator insists “my game, our game is a game of stories.” It is also about the stories we can dare to tell, especially in dangerous times. So, as his own manuscript takes shape, it isn’t completely clear where the novel we are reading and the novel being written diverge, if in fact they do. The scorpion is an enigma. Who is the scorpion? The narrator or his self-protagonist? Or a dream symbol of the impossible? A scorpion that can sweat, struggling to hold on to a memory and an idea of a time, a place and a nation that holds an increasing amount of absence as time goes on.

The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam is translated by Sawad Hussain and published by Seagull Books.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

The Kindness of Strangers: Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rishøi

Those of us who live in northern countries know that winter is not just a season, it is a state of mind. Ice and snow, cold and short days can test resources and strengthen resolve. Everything, good and bad, can be heightened at this time of year. This is the mood that permeates Norwegian writer Ingvild H. Rishøi’s third collection Winter Stories, her first to appear in English. This volume contains three stories, two almost novella length, set in winter and featuring working class characters and their children or siblings. As such it is a book about families, what to means to be a family. Each story is anchored in a strong, distinct narrative voice—a protagonist caught up in a situation he or she had not anticipated, circumstances they cannot escape. They know they have some agency, but it is not that simple—their own families of origin are damaged, wounded, marked by poverty, mental illness, violence. Yet in each case the central figure holds to the hope that they can break the cycle, that things can be better, for the sake of the young children in their lives, the children who give their lives meaning.

The first and shortest story “We Can’t Help Everybody” features a very young single mother and her sensitive observant kindergarten-aged daughter as they make their way home from school on a rainy, cold afternoon. The mother, down to her last 60 kroner, is worried about how they will make it through the weekend. She is overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenthood, the weight of poverty, and, one gathers, little support from the child’s father. As her daughter argues that they must help a young man begging on the street, the narrator thinks back to her own childhood, growing up in a caravan. The picture she sketches of a troubled mother, and emotional instability, is scant but telling. The insecurities linger, but:

Now everything is so different.  One thing after another has changed, and now I have a job and a daughter and days like this, and here I sit on the pavement and she is five years old and shakes her head, and squeezes her eyes shut, but the sound of the rain creates something light in me.

That everything can be different again.

Everything can be fine.

On the surface, the challenges that emerge in this short piece may seem small—the decision to help a beggar, the desire to buy a new pair of underpants—but if you have ever faced the inability to meet basic expenses for your children, as I have, you know the feeling of despair can be crushing. And the smallest of miracles pure magic. This story captures a reality many know too well.

The second and third stories, each running to about 70 pages apiece, also take place over a short span of time, but offer the space for a greater development of the protagonist’s character, background and the circumstances behind the immediate events. In “The Right Thomas,” a man recently released from prison is preparing for his young son’s first overnight visit in over a year. He has studied the recipe he plans to cook, and with only a few hours to spare, sets out to buy a pillow for his son’s bed. Only thirty-three himself, Thomas’ route to fatherhood is a little unconventional. A one-night stand led Leon’s conception, and when the panicked mother-to-be manages to track him down, she makes it clear that she expects him to take on the role of co-parent, but she neither wants a relationship nor does she need his financial support. Thomas has a difficult past, with an abusive, violent father and a troubled recent history, but he longs to be a better man, a new man.

Now, back in the outside world, ready to make good on his resolution, Thomas still reads threats and accusations into even the most mild interactions. What he fears most is his own anger, that it will be triggered, erupt, be uncontrollable. It is a legacy he wishes to leave behind, but it stalks him everywhere, mitigated only by the words of his prison psychologist that echo in his thoughts:

‘You want to buy a child’s pillow,’ she says.

But this isn’t an attack. This is just something I don’t master, if you’ve felt under attack for your entire life, this is how you react, that is Stone Age biology, the psychologist said, the fear is embedded in the brain, but I’m not going to behave like a caveman, because I live in a time period with pillow shops and psychologists and traffic lights and if I continue to feel suffocated and lose it, then the same things will happen to Leon, my father scared the bejesus out of me, and I scare the bejesus out of him, but I don’t want to.

I want Leon to sleep peacefully in his bed.

His sincere wish is that his son can enjoy the confidence and success he feels his upbringing and failures have denied him. But will he even manage to make it through to this important opportunity to start over again?

The final story, “Siblings,” opens with seventeen year-old Rebekka ready to run away, essentially from social services, with her two young half-siblings. The children have no idea what is going on, but they trust her, even if she is not sure she trusts herself. She picks up the children after school, dumps their books in the garbage, fills their rucksacks with clothes she has stashed, and hurries them off to catch a bus out of town. As the story unfolds and the challenges that threaten her careful plans mount, the complexity of the underlying factors behind this sudden flight are revealed.

This is excellent classic story telling; as a reader it is impossible not to become invested in each scenario as it plays out. With empathy and a keen poetic sensibility, Rishøi creates deeply human, interesting characters and gives each one a compelling voice. She excels at building narrative tension, fueled as much by the outside circumstances that arise as by her protagonists’ own insecurities and growing doubts that they will fail those who depend on them most. They take risks, stumble and pull themselves together again. Success is not certain, there are no happy endings, but there is promise. And, sometimes, promise is enough.

Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rostøi is translated by Diane Oatley and published by Seagull Books.

“We know something of ourselves, but not much.” The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen

Beneath my clothes there is 1.8 square metres of skin stretched over five litres of blood, thirteen billion nerve cells and twenty-five billion red blood corpuscles.

I’ve got twenty-three chromosomes in each cell.

The chromosomes in each pair are the same length, apart from the fourth. There, one of the chromosomes is fractionally shorter than the other.

That’s why I can’t get up and walk out of this text.

One might hope that, at this point in time, especially more than two years into a global pandemic, that illness and disability might be understood as something that could strike anyone, at any time, even you or someone you love. But, as we have seen, human beings have a stubborn capacity to blame those who fall ill, experience extended symptoms or die for their outcomes, citing age, lifestyle, or co-morbidities. The stigma and shame well known by those of us who live, love someone and/or work with people who have a disability, has been replayed and reinforced  during this extended period of co-existence with a persistent, evolving virus with unknown long term consequences.

The events chronicled in Norwegian writer Thorvald Steen’s The White Bathing Hut illustrate the extent to which societal attitudes toward disability can lead to deception and family dissolution. The unnamed narrator is a man nearing sixty whose deteriorating physical condition has left him dependent on a wheelchair. One day, with the Christmas season approaching, he receives a call from a woman who identifies herself as his cousin, the daughter of his mother’s brother. The existence of an uncle and a cousin come as a complete surprise to him, but, as this woman, Eline, explains, his family had refused to have anything to do with hers and she had only come to know of him by chance. She also reveals that her father and their mutual grandfather both died of the same disease he has. This unexpected information leaves him wondering if his entire life was constructed on a web of lies and sets off a chain of urgent inquiries. His account unfolds through a spare, tight narrative reported from an unusual perspective, so to speak.

Several weeks after Eline’s call, while seated at the table trying to find a location on a map of Norway, our narrator leans forward, realizing too late that he’s forgotten to apply the brakes of his wheelchair, and he and the chair topple over as if in slow motion, each movement described and dissected in poetic and anatomical detail. “I land in a heap. / Soft and hard. / Textiles, hair, flesh and bones. / That’s all there is.” His wife has just left for a week-long business trip, his daughter is away for the weekend and his caregiver is off for the holidays. His phone and alarm are on top of a shelf out of reach and he is now consigned to a new vantage point… the floor.

Unable to get up, his thoughts turn to his own past, to the development of his disease, and the more recent investigations and interrogations triggered by his cousin’s phone call. He had been diagnosed in his teens with a progressive form of muscular dystrophy that causes gradual muscle degeneration and eventual paralysis—news that was a terrible blow to him as an athletic young man with a promising future as a ski jumper. But the reaction of his parents was even worse. They warned him to tell no one. They refused to speak about it. Tried to wish it away. So he was burdened with a secret that slowly unveiled itself as his muscles weakened. Now, armed with new information there is a further significance to his desire to better understand his place within the broader context of his family history: his daughter Karoline appears to have inherited the same crippling condition.

The spare, tight narrative proceeds in short, nonchronological chapters that move between the protagonist’s childhood, youth and adult years, and the few weeks that have just passed. He has recently made two visits to his recalcitrant mother who informs him she is dying of cancer but refuses to answer his questions. What little he can glean guides his search through archival sources for biographical details about his uncle and grandfather. As he looks back over his personal life experiences, his efforts to conceal his pain and growing weakness—often by putting himself at risk—is contrasted against the demonstrations of physical strength that marked his earliest years. The increased awareness of body difference and stigma lead him to believe he will be forever unloveable. As a young man, his future, as he sees it, looks bleak:

How could I make a plan of any kind? I didn’t know what I’d look like or be able to do in a few years’ time. I hated my body. If anyone had told me that I ought to think positive, I’d have hit them. The weekends were the worst. Sometimes I lay in bed the whole of Saturday and Sunday without the energy to sit, eat or drink. In the mirror I could see that a few of the little muscles around my eyes and mouth had completely disappeared.

This is a very physical text. A story that is bound to the body. Driving this physical aspect home are the poetic interludes, often containing minute skeletal and cellular descriptions, that regularly relocate the narrative in the immediate space, on the floor, where the narrator observes his surroundings and struggles to shift his reluctant limbs into a position that might enable him to push himself up. It is an exhausting, futile effort. With a steady resolve he returns to his account.

Although the disability central to this novel is explicitly visible, The White Bathing Hut manages, without ever exercising a heavy hand, to call attention to the extent to which any disability—physical, cognitive or mental—is met with a social stigma that extends beyond the afflicted individual to the family and their contacts. It also alludes to an even darker subtext, that of Norway’s difficult historical relationship with eugenics. Of course, neither of these factors are unique to Norway, nor are they entirely behind us. Shame associated with disability still exists, and the ability to selectively control for desired sex, against congenital conditions, or even for other qualities raises serious ethical questions. Through this book’s very honest, resilient and endearing narrator, many of these critical issues are brought to light.

The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

The seasons of love and death: The Year by Tomas Espedal

When something hurts
you shouldn’t avoid it
no
you should meet the worst
with all your weakness
and allow yourself to be destroyed.
You should seek out loneliness
to feel that you are alone
to feel that you are desolate
to feel that you have loved
to feel the love
that can obliterate you entirely.

Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal’s uniquely autobiographical fiction rests close to his own life. From one work to the next, his narrator, ever aging as he does, is restlessly questing, his explorations at once intimate and yet maintaining a certain personal distance, or opaqueness. In his last book, Bergeners, his protagonist, nearing fifty, is seeking to understand the meaning of home as he tries to adjust to both the departure of his adult daughter and the unexpected loss of his girlfriend. He wanders the streets of his hometown and travels abroad, but cannot escape the deep loneliness that settles into his bones. Now, with The Year, his most recent work to be released in English, a few years have passed but Espedal’s fictional Tomas has been unable to let go of his love for his former girlfriend, Janne, and now, wondering if he is destined to spend the rest of his life alone, he seeks advice from another man who loved only one woman, from his first sight of her to the end of his life—Francesco Petrarch.

Thus, The Year begins on a meditative, melancholy note. Our narrator states that he wants to write a book about love, with the initial objective to record the events of each day for an entire year. Ah, but where to start? He decides upon the sixth of April, which is, appropriately, the day in 1327 when Petrarch first set eyes on his beloved Laura, the date in 1348 that she died, and the framework within which he structured the 366 poems that comprise his great Canzonniere—his celebration of his boundless affection for the woman he loved so faithfully, from afar and forever. So, on the sixth of April, seven centuries later, another lovelorn man is making his way by train to Avignon, and then by foot to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to stay for a time near the house that Petrarch built there. And we are with him, riding along on the flow of his thoughts. Bergeners combined a mix of fragmented poetry and prose, but The Year is a novel written entirely in free verse, a compulsively readable style that very effectively captures the protagonist’s reflective, frequently repetitive and increasingly neurotic consciousness.

Having already spent a year immersing himself in Petrarch’s writing, the narrator is on a sort of pilgrimage. If the Italian poet could love so completely and purely, he must have known something about living with the one he loved. After several weeks living in the area, it is time for him to approach the master directly. On Easter Sunday, an imagined encounter and walk along the river occurs, echoing the Petrarch’s imagined discourse with Saint Augustine recorded in his deeply personal Secretum. They even stop at a café where the narrator’s ghostly companion challenges him, accuses him of being banal, and shares some of the wisdom the saint disclosed to him. Still, the unanswerable question remains: How is it possible that love remains, year after year, even after the one you love has left you and hurt you so deeply? How?

After tracing and retracing Petrarch’s steps and agonizing over his peculiar predicament and the way it has left him emotionally paralyzed, it is time for the protagonist to move on. There’s a writer’s festival to attend in Montpellier where he drinks heavily, has a brief encounter with a woman, and escapes from the hotel the moment she starts to talk about catching up with him once he is back home in Norway. He catches the first southbound train. The atmosphere and mood has shifted.

There’s nothing better than being inebriated
on a fast train at such high speed racing away
from everything you’ve done as a stranger
in a strange city it’s almost
as if you’d never been there I say
aloud and drink some wine
write in my notebook I’m back
to normality writing and drinking
on a journey on the train
the first of May
under way
to or from
it makes no difference
it’s good to be on the move
it’s good to be nobody.

In Barcelona he has arranged to meet his father, for a time panicked that he won’t find him among the mass of tourists arriving, then disappointed to see how old he looks when he does. Together they board a luxury cruise ship, a self-contained city of its own where the days pass, their calendar designations blurring. Our middle-aged narrator seems to view his father with a mix of admiration and contempt. The older man, who has lived by himself since his wife died seventeen years earlier, now clearly shows the weight of his age. This triggers a range of complicated emotions in his son who is secretly fretting about his own life unfolding empty and alone to the end. When, sitting in the ship’s casino, his father says something he knows well—all my life I’ve loved just one woman—the truth suddenly hits home:

He’s always been what I shall become.
All my life I’ve loved just one
woman they’re my father’s words and
they’re Petrarch’s words in a letter
to Boccaccio
and as I’d searched for Petrarch’s history
I had without knowing it
searched for my father’s history
I’d searched for a love story
which I thought was my own.
I’d searched for my father
here he sits
and I hardly see him at all.

I know only too well
why I don’t see him
it’s because I
resemble him.

Father and son, hard-headed, each with a fighter’s instincts and a stubborn inability to let go of love, are an odd, yet endearing pair. The narrator cannot help measuring himself against his father, for better and worse. The dynamics of their relationship plays out while we learn more about the circumstances that led to Janne’s leaving and discover our protagonist is nursing not only an unhealed broken heart but an unresolved grievance. The tension rises as he hatches a plan to resolve it.

The Year is book that, by virtue of its internalized poetic narrative, moves swiftly, swirling around a core set of ideas or, shall we say, obsessions, but shifting and changing shape along the way. In the early pages I took a little time out to glance sideways into Petrarch’s life and writing, but as the narrator’s short pilgrimage draws to a close one soon comes to understand that although he can be meditative and thoughtful, he can also be neurotic, edgy, and a man with a tendency to drink too much. Through this year, spring to autumn, Petrarch continues to surface, as does the initial reflective tone and, amid the ongoing questioning of life, love and death, profound, wide-reaching observations are raised, anchoring Espedal’s work, as ever, in the world in which we all exist.

The Year by Tomas Espedal is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

Departure is Liberation: All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

On a journey the face of reality changes with the mountains and rivers, with the architecture of the buildings, the layout of the gardens, with the language, the skin colour. And yesterday’s reality burns on in the pain of parting; the day before yesterday’s is a finished episode, never to return; what happened a month ago is a dream, a past life. (“The Steppe”)

Swiss writer, photographer and journalist, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, remains, coming up on eighty years after her untimely death at the age of thirty-four, an enigma. A striking androgynous beauty, she grew up in luxury, and was dressed as a boy by her bisexual mother with whom her relationship remained complex and codependent.  Yet, a certain estrangement with her family began when she befriended Thomas Mann’s children, Erika and Klaus, both of whom were homosexual and politically engaged in anti-fascist movements. They introduced her to an intellectual environment in which she could express her own attraction to women, but they also introduced her to morphine, leading to an addiction that would haunt the rest of her life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Annemarie began to travel, frequently on her own, through the countries of the Middle East, forays that would establish her career as a photojournalist. Over the course of her lifetime she would make return trips to Persia, two trips to America, travels through the Baltic States and up to Moscow, but it is perhaps her journey in a Ford, overland from Geneva to Afghanistan in 1939, with ethnologist and filmmaker Ella Maillart, that has become synonymous with the reputation as an adventurous early  LGBT icon that she has acquired since her relatively recent “rediscovery.”

Ella Maillart’s account of their trip, The Cruel Way, was published in 1947, five years after Schwarzenbach’s death from a brain injury caused by a fall from her bicycle. It is considered a classic of travel literature, but the name of her troubled and transcendent companion was changed to Christina, presumably at the intervention of Annemarie’s family. Although Schwarzenbach herself was a widely published author in her time and did manage to place some of her own Afghan-related material while the Second World War consumed journalistic attention, it was not until a curated selection of her essays and reflections on the experience was published in Germany in 2000, that her own version of their journey was given full voice. All the Roads Are Open: An Afghan Journey 1939 – 1940, published in 2011 by Seagull Books, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid translation, offers a mix of automotive adventure and a lyrical, passionate account of a land and the people that enchanted her.

Although I didn’t realize it when I started reading, All the Roads Are Open is not intended as a single cohesive piece, but as a thematic, roughly chronological assemblage of short pieces written largely as Schwarzenbach made her way by steamship back to Europe from Bombay. As such the “chapters” have a quality not seen in more typical travel writing—these are descriptive passages tied to communities, encounters, and landscapes, and the images which hold most vividly in her memory drive her account and are revisited in several pieces. Thus it is clear which experiences had a profound impact on her. At the same time, there is little about the deterioration of her relationship with Maillart, and no mention of her romantic attractions or resumed drug use (if such material exists at all as much of her work was destroyed by her mother after her death), but a kind of sadness and isolation does rest beneath the surface in some passages. As well, certain described episodes seem to be the possible product of poetic license, but none of this matters; Schwarzenbach leaves us with a memorable, exciting and insightful look at a way of life in Afghanistan that was on the verge of disappearing—in more profound ways that she could have imagined.

The journey, two women travelling alone across a rugged, lonely terrain on roads that could fade into rough tracks, was met with concern and skepticism by many. Schwarzenbach revelled in the independence and their decisions to take the more challenging routes—confident in her ability to make basic repairs on the road or, if needed, secure assistance from the rare individuals in the communities they passed through who might have any experience with cars. Her description of Mount Ararat is moving, her evocation of desolate landscapes graphic, her account of three passages over the Hindu Kush invigorating, and her remembered belief that they never had to worry where they would stay, or how they manage is admirable. She speaks regularly of the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people, be they nomads on the plains, or leaders in towns and villages. It is, again and again, her most cherished memory. Her writing, at times punctuated with a plethora of exclamation marks, is neither idealistic nor romanticized, nor condescending. But, by contrast, she has a few choice comments for some of the British and European expats they live among in Kabul or others who display their prejudice:

Recently, a Swiss man asked me whether the natives’ food was even edible and whether I hadn’t been afraid to sleep in these people’s midst without any protection. The good man really had no idea of Afghan hospitality! Despite the various mentions here of rich, spicy pilaf meals, it must be said that by far not all the inhabitants are able to afford rice and mutton. In the nomads’ tents, there is often nothing but sour milk and a little bread. And in many villages the poor people don’t even have that. In Turkistan, where the gardens and bazaar stalls brim with fruits in the summer, a few months later I saw the relentless winter loom. Then the same landscape was reduced to a wasteland scourged by the icy wind and cloaked in dense swaths of dust, and life in the farmers’ clay huts was quite spartan. But despite these worries, it was at this very time that laughing, waving women met me in the last village on the desert’s edge. (“Two Women Alone”)

One thing that does regularly concern Schwarzenbach, however, is the life of the girls and women in the communities they pass through. As an emancipated woman, the sight of another woman encased from head to toe in some regions is disturbing. But even in other towns and villages, a visible absence of women is noted—they are not seen. However, when invited into the inner garden of one home where their host’s wife and daughters greet them without head coverings, the travellers are able to enjoy a precious interaction afforded to them because they themselves are female. For Schwarzenbach there seems to be great satisfaction in engaging with women and, at the same time, being included with the men on hunting outings, as she is during a period when she works temporarily on an archaeological dig.

Once war is declared, the political climate in the world starts to shift, and Schwarzenbach’s restlessness grows. As the end of 1939 draws closer she prepares  for another departure, anticipating climbing the Khyber Pass in her beloved Ford and passing into India, on the first stage of a journey home. But, even as the steamer pulls out of Bombay, it is evident that Afghanistan has touched her deeply. More than she anticipated, perhaps. One of the most poetic essays, placed at the end of the penultimate section of the book, is “Chehel Sotum,” in which she recalls an experience years earlier at a small palace in the Persian city of Isfahan.

The palace, whose name means “Forty Pillars”—a reference to its twenty pillars and their corresponding reflections in its pool—inspires an Afghan friend to inform her that in his homeland there are forty kinds of grapes:

Overcome by memory and homesickness, he spoke of nothing but the bewitching forty-fold profusion of the grapes of Herat and Kandahar. But though I listened to him and these words about the forty kinds of grapes lingered in my mind, tied to the vision of a promised land, at the time I did not even desire to set foot there. You cannot love what you have not embraced and seen with your own eyes; longing itself is never anything but loneliness surging and bleeding away.

Once she had herself embraced Afghanistan, she understood. One can only imagine how she would be heartbroken by the tragic condition of the country today.

All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

“Imagination is resistance against life and nature”: Wolves by Bhuwaneshwar

In the course of a human life, a stage arrives when even change is conquered. When the rise and fall of our life doesn’t mean anything to us, and neither does it interest others. When we live only to remain alive, and death arrives yet doesn’t.
(from “Aunty”)

Some writers appear, seemingly from nowhere, burn brightly for a short time before disappearing into disarray and obscurity. Hindi writer Bhuwaneshwar is one such author. Neither end of his life can be firmly dated—born in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh between 1910 and 1915, he ended his days sometime in 1957, in Varanasi, where he was last seen ill and living among beggars. In the years that intervened there was a moment when this man with an exceptional gift for words appeared poised to lead Hindi literature into the future. His promise—and his pessimism—was recognized by Premchand, the prominent Indian writer known for his dedication to social realism. By contrast, his young protégée was more subversive in his approach, intent on shattering society’s myths and illusions to reveal its underlying darkness, a vision that won him both attention and distrust in the literary community. Yet, although his career was short, bookended by poverty and neglect, he left behind an important collection of stories and plays, along with Hindi translations of Gogol and Oscar Wilde—a body of work that has tended to remain largely forgotten in his homeland and essentially unknown in the English-speaking world. Now, with the release of Wolves and Other Stories—a slender volume containing twelve of Bhuwaneshar’s melancholy tales—translator Saudamini Deo has rekindled the voice and spirit of a man whose work captures a sense of ambiguity and anxiety that seems especially timely now, the better part of a century later.

The stories that comprise Wolves were originally published between 1935 and 1941, the majority in Hans, the literary magazine established by Premchand. The Indian Independence Movement was in its final stages, as reflected in an atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades these tales. But Bhuwaneshwar is not explicitly political in his writings. He is asking more philosophical questions about what it means to be alive in a world that is increasingly inhumane and unforgiving. His mood is grim, death is a regular presence, but his characters manage to salvage some measure of humanity, against the odds.

These stories tend to feature lonely, isolated people—even if they are not necessarily alone—unmarried women, abandoned children, students, soldiers, doctors, drifters and others who, for some reason or another, have found themselves at odds with their families, communities or societies. Some of my favourite stories are centred around women. In “Aunty” Bibbo is a poor woman, old “as if she’d originated old in the womb and turned immortal for a never-ending, unthinkable period,” has been seen as ever solitary and ancient by her neighbours. But she had, in her life, given her love and attention twice over, first to her nephew, abandoned to her care when her sister died. After that child grew up and moved away, he returned years later with his own son, now motherless, and begged his aunty to take care of the child. Again Bibbo consented, at great financial and emotional cost. She has her revenge though, in the end, in a small attempt to hold on to her dignity.

The dying woman at the heart of “Mothers and Sons” is also being exploited, on her death bed as her family gather around. Seen from her perspective, she revisits her dismay and disappointment in her sons and daughter-in-law’s as they imagine her clinging to more noble thoughts and argue about medical options. As death approaches, Bhuwaneshwar captures her shifting emotional state with remarkable intimacy:

At midnight, everyone was sleeping on mattresses on the floor, only Amma was awake and, as if drowning. Wondrously, even her troubles were drowning. She started thinking of faraway things. Meaningless, unparalleled. Some house, some man, once glimpsed somewhere, she started hearing strange sounds. But this state didn’t last long. She started feeling nervous, as if she was frightened of being alone on a dark road. There was no energy in the body, she had known for a while, she had grown used to it, but she was ready to fight for that energy now. Everyone was sleeping. She could hear their breaths, she recognized them, but what is all this to her when she has no more energy?

A wide range of voices emerge throughout this collection and the settings of the tales are varied, sometimes grounded in ordinary settings—hill station, post office, train compartment—others incorporating ghostly or somewhat surreal circumstances such as “Sun Worship” which follows a doctor and a raving madman on a strange urban journey. But the crowning entry is the title story, one of his best known, which closes this volume.

“Wolves” is presented as the reported account of an old gypsy of a horrific adventure from his youth. He and his father were making their way along in their family caravan which was heavily laden with pots and pans and three fifteen year-old acrobats when they were set upon by an unruly, insatiable pack of wolves. Forced to lighten the load, first with objects, then with passengers, the wolves just keep coming, consuming everything in their way. Relentless and unyielding, the story offers little respite. But its wolves are familiar—in our world today and no doubt to a man who saw beyond the façade of his own society and turned his visions into stories, stories he would come to imitate in his own life. He was pursued by wolves himself. Bhuwaneshwar’s later years were marked by mental illness—first his brother was committed to an asylum, and then he too was lost to madness and homelessness, like a character in his final unwritten tale.

Wolves and Other Stories by Bhuwaneshwar is translated by Saudamini Deo and published by Seagull Books as the first in a new series featuring Hindi literature.

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.