Voices from the margins: Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

There seems to be considerable debate these days about where the line should be drawn between the literary license to imagine and the appropriation of  voices of those of different genders, sexualities, cultures, ethnicities and racial identities. What was once considered acceptable is now questioned. And, although race is often considered a boundary to be respected or only be crossed with exceptional care, in a highly stratified cultures, class or caste or ethnic heritage may also come in to play. The concern is that the dominant voice will not only be given more attention, but that others risk being reduced to stereotypes and caricatures.

I recently abandoned a book that, despite some very witty and engaging writing, seemed to be freely exploiting mental illness, poverty and family dysfunction as justification for a smart-assed narrator with all the warmth of a sociopath. Anyone who has been suicidal or lost a loved one to suicide will know it is no laughing matter. The charm quickly fizzled and turned to distaste for me. Apparently the poor and mentally ill are still fair game for slapstick humour and humiliation.

However, it is entirely different when the humour, social commentary or complex stories are owned from within a community, told by its members. That is, I would argue, the importance of supporting and encouraging contributions to literature, theatre, film and the arts from marginal voices.

Cue Mundo Cruel, a series of short, sharp stories that take you into the heart of a small community peopled with eccentric, mostly queer characters—a world that Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón knows well. It is his own:

Santurce, Puerto Rico, once known as Cangrejos, meaning Crabs, but no longer. Santurce. Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you can get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework.
.                       —from the “The Vampire of Moca”

A striking array of voices and personalities pass through the stories in this slender collection, and their lives are often disturbing, filled with misfortune, dark humour and an uncanny resilience. Most of the pieces are first person narratives, often presented as monologues or one-sided conversations, and, in one instance, as a series of increasingly desperate notes  without a reply. The opening piece “The Chosen One” will challenge a few readers with its precocious young narrator, gleefully recounting his very early initiation into sexual activity with boys and men, experiences bound, as he sees it, to his “special” role within the church. Crude, unnerving, and funny this is in its way a backhanded satire on the degree of sexual abuse that can and does occur. But our young narrator refuses to see himself as the victim. His story sets the stage for the hustlers and the heartache that re-emerges in later stories, but it is not typical. Truth be told there is no “typical” here at all.

What is remarkable about this collection is the variety—each story is different in style and tone. Negrón channels a wide range of characters with compassion and affection, even those who espouse homophobic and xenophobic views, allowing each to demonstrate his or her own narrowness or generosity. The one-side conversations and observed dialogues are particularly effective in this regard, allowing us to eavesdrop, without further comment. The infectious, campy energy of “La Edwin” offers a perfect example:

Ahá! . . . Listen, changing the subject, did La Edwin call you? . . . Yes, Edwin. The one who thinks she’s a man. Honey, the one from the support group . . . That’s weird because that little queen is calling everybody . . . Yeah, her, that’s the one . . . Oh I didn’t know they called her that. You’re bad, girl, bad, bad . . . Well she called me last night, drr-unk out of her mind . . . Saying that he felt all alone, that for him it was difficult to deal with all this shit, meaning gayness . . . I let her go on . . . So she could get it out of her system. Wait a second, I’m getting another call . . . Aló, aló. Aló, aló. How weird, they hung up . . . The thing is, a man left her . . . Yeah, girl, she got involved with one of those lefty fupistas who plant bombs and want the ROTC out of the university . . . Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re going to liberate themselves sexually.

It’s a fun little romp, but the story it tells about queer identity and sexual insecurity is serious.

Most of the stories in Mundo Cruel are quite short, or rather, as long as they need to be. None feel like they are dragged out too far, preferring to offer snapshots of life in this marginalized community. As is typical, some are stronger than others. Likely each reader will have their own favourites. For me it is the sad, but beautiful, story, “The Garden”. Set in the late 1980s, it is the account of a love affair between a young man and his older lover who is dying of AIDS. Nestito’s boyfriend, Willie, shares a house with his sister Sharon who has a longstanding, secret love affair of her own. Together the three of them make an odd, but happy family. As Willie nears the end of his life they plan a party. Another indication of Negrón’s versatility, this is by far the tenderest, most heart-wrenching piece in the collection:

I lay down next to Willie. He had recently taken a bath. He had changed with me ever since he became bedridden. For months he ignored me as at the party where we had met. I wasn’t me, I was part of a duo with Sharon. “You two this, you guys that.” I looked closely at his body and passed my hand over his chest. His armpits were tender ground for little flowers. I hugged him gently. His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek. I looked into his eyes and found, finally, after eight months and sixteen days, desire.

Only 91 pages long, Mundo Cruel offers a wonderful introduction to a skilled, sensitive storyteller and the strange, sometimes dark little corner of the world he knows and clearly loves.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and published by Seven Stories, I read this book as part of the Spanish/Portuguese Literature  Month (and, to be fair, the tail end of Pride as well).

Some measure of an innovative response to Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature

So I’m sitting here at looking at my copy of Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature and feeling sick when I think about whether or not I can, or should, write about it. Which makes it sound like I did not enjoy the book. Or that it is not worth reading. I did. And it is.

But, can I talk about the way it also twists me up inside? That a book that I should connect with on a level beyond the written word leaves me wondering if there is a space for me? On the back cover (which on my copy is terribly warped after a fall on snow-covered ice landed me with a concussion) editor Isabel Waidner is quoted:

If there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be what the queers and their allies are doing, at the intersections, across disciplines. This avant-garde would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left).

I like the sound of this. But is this what the queers and their allies are doing? Possibly. I am the ineptest (gosh I didn’t even know “ineptest” was a word, but Word suggested it and I kind of like it) queer writer ever because, off the page, queer is the loneliest reality I’ve ever known, and the many queer writers included here seem to have lives in which their queerness is essential, not accidental. And that makes me feel as alienated as my real life adventures in queer spaces do. I’m awfully pasty white and ordinary, and although my mother’s family were, at one time, potato famine refugees from Ireland, and I was not born in the country where I live, I am a migrant on an axis other than the here-to-there displacement in space. The only true migration I have ever made—the one that I am always making—is the one from female to male.

And I am not even certain how to think about “working class.” If it’s about wage-labour, a blue- and pink- collar, and sometimes white collar existence, then for the exception of about one decade of my life, I’m your man. But I’ve always preferred to think of myself as under-employed, as if the status was temporary, collarless. Over-educated. Just barely keeping my head above poverty level. You know: What are you going to do with an arts degree? Or two? When things are good where I live, blue collar workers can haul in six-figure incomes. Classless, misfit, my work-life fits into no definable category.

At 57, I’m not even under-employed any more. I’m not employed at all. And too old to start over. (Which leads me to wonder, while we’re being all diverse and intersectional, where disability lies in this re-invigorated literary avant-garde.)

But, enough wound-nursing and equivocating. Back to the task at hand.

I do love the idea of literature that is innovative, experimental, and breaks boundaries especially in my arena, that of the essay/memoir. And, did I mention that nowhere in Isabel’s detailed and entertaining introduction (check it out, if you want, at 3:AM) does that over-used term “genre-bending” appear? The writing she invites the reader to envision, “itself must transgress the various structures through which the avant-garde literary canon has perpetuated itself and its exclusiveness.” Okay, now we’re talking. She goes on to say:

To reiterate, the writing needs to work across various systems of oppression (intersectionality), across formal distinction (prose and poetry, critical and creative, and the various genres), and across disciplines. Same goes for publishing, editing, reading, referencing and designing curricula. Change literature (or what is defined as such) and the discipline will diversify. Diversify the discipline and the literature itself will change. Liberating the canon depends on inclusion and formal innovation in equal measures. The two are interrelated.

And the question then becomes: Just how liberated is this canon? How much of a meaningful advancement have we made toward this ambitious goal by the selections gathered in this anthology?

Honestly, I am not so sure. (Maybe I am.)

I already tend to read a fair amount of innovative literature, and have admitted to a hunger for work that pushes the confines of literary style and form, so the more experimental pieces really, uh, turn me on. The contributions from Mojilsola Abedayo, Joanna Walsh, Isabel Waidner, Timothy Thornton, Mira Mattar, Nisha Ramayyar, Richard Brammer (cheating I skipped this having already the entire book from whence it came) and Nat Raha were, for me, standouts. The most explicitly trans pieces were my least favourite, pushing subject more than form, but as an idiosyncratic, fickle reader—a body dysmorphic, ex-gender dysphoric soul—I am looking for a transvant-garde that speaks to trans in a way that would make me say “HELL, YES.”

This canon still needs to be loosened a little further, I suppose. Or rather, the liberation is just starting.

This book could be considered a primer. An Anglophone primer. An anthology of primarily UK based writers with a few US contributors tossed in for good measure. How about round two? With a glance to Canada (where I am), Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and desi (South Asian and diaspora) writers.

Ah, one can dream. But if this book can exist, anything is possible.

So, there you have it. I have written about Liberating the Canon without really writing about any of the varied pieces contained within. You’ll have to read it, if you dare. Or desire. Or are simply curious.

It’s worth the risk.

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, edited by Isabel Waidner is available from your friends at Dostoyevsky Wannabe.  To be printed at your pleasure, and obtained through a distributor like that place that starts with A.

Ancient sorrows, modern woes: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

Don’t let the current fashionable popularity of flash fiction deceive you—it is a form with a long history in Arab literature, an allegorical tradition to which Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar proudly belongs. But, as an immigrant living in exile in the United States, his tightly crafted parables and short fictions have a quality that is both timeless and timely. We cannot but recognize ourselves and the world we live in today.

Free Elections
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.

In his most recent collection,  The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories, Alomar employs this traditional manner of storytelling to craft pieces that range from a single sentence to a page or more. Animals and objects—man-made and natural—are often animated to take centre stage, offering philosophical reflections on life, humanity, or wondering at strangeness of the universe. His narrators and protagonists, human or otherwise, speak to sadness, loneliness, and injustice while the shadow of his troubled homeland hangs over their tales. It cannot be ignored. The futility and violence of war is a frequent theme. These pieces may read like age-old wisdoms, but their message is immediate. If they sound timeless, it is because, at the end of the day, little changes.

The Dark Side
The moon wished to punish humans for the many transgressions and frightful crimes they commit against each other and against nature. She decided to hide her lighted side so that they would curb their behavior and return to reason. And so the eclipse took place. But great was the surprise of the moon when she saw millions of people coming out of their houses to enjoy the view of her dark side.

His style is spare and unsentimental. The shortest entries have a sharp aphoristic tone, whereas the longer ones, with a wider stage on which to play out contemporary themes, are painfully heart-wrenching. “Love Letter” is a long message addressed to a woman with whom the narrator was involved. It speaks to intimacy against a backdrop of war and revolution, an intimacy that deepened even after he left the conflict zone. When her letters and emails stop he fears the worst but holds to faint hope. “The Shining Idea,” one of my favourite pieces, is a dialogue between an unconceived child and the man he hopes will give him life. The would-be child sees only the beauty and joy in the world beyond the transparent boundary that contains him. The father he beseeches knows only suffering and poverty and cannot be convinced that his is a world worth bringing another life into.

Time and again, knowledge, compassion and understanding are the ingredients most at risk, or missing altogether in the world Alomar presents us with. His weary narrators and anthropomorphic characters know this well. But, in keeping with the tradition from which he emerges (Kahlil Gibran is one of his heroes), his messages are never forced or dogmatic. They are simply laid bare for the reader to encounter:

 Never Been Touched
A book sitting on the shelf with torn covers and pages filled with comments and notes in the margins said to his colleague who stood behind him, “I envy so much your freshness and your eternal youth!”
But his colleague answered him dejectedly, “I never been touched!”

With over 160 stories spreading across no more than 95 pages, one might be tempted to consume the accessible, entertaining short fictions that comprise this collection in quick succession, swallowing one after another. However, these fables, wisdoms and cautionary tales are best digested slowly, over a few days perhaps. At once beautiful and urgent, they deserve a little extra attention. The chorus of their voices deserves to be heard.

The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories by Osama Alomar is translated from Arabic by C J Collins with the author, and published by New Directions.

Crazy in love with words: Attrib. by Eley Williams

Many year-end lists, especially those with an eye to the world of indie publishing, have been abuzz with praise for the linguistic gymnastics of Eley Williams and her debut collection Attrib. and Other Stories. And rightly so. Even those readers who might be strangers to experimental fiction have found themselves captivated by the slippery, dazzling wordplay on display. This book—which I read with this month’s Guardian Reading Group, a forum I’ve scarce had time for in recent years but where I probably first learned to analyze, articulate and defend my response to literary works—is certainly a highly entertaining, intelligent, tightly crafted foray into a slightly surreal space where words have a weight and reality that seems to hang in the air, creating the ground for an unusual assortment of narratives.

However, as one might expect, some stories are more effective than others, and though each reader is likely to measure impact differently, I couldn’t help feeling that the whole was somewhat more than the sum of its parts. This is a book well worth experiencing, but one might wonder where Williams could take this type of wordplay from here. Could it be expanded to novel length or does she have her sights on other literary visions? Fortunately, as Reading Group participants, we were able to pose our questions to her yesterday, and rather than rehash that discussion here, I would suggest anyone interested in getting a sense of the exuberance and energy that virtually bounces off the pages of Attrib., to have a glance at the webchat —the same spirit and charm comes through in her responses.

The stories that comprise Attrib. find their origins in the simplest ideas. In the most basic pieces, dictionary definitions and wordplay spark clever scenarios; in the more substantial offerings, her protagonists have odd occupations, want to express how they feel but lose themselves in microscopic self-inspection, or are beset by strange psychological afflictions. Somehow Williams manages to have fun and touch at real anxieties and emotions at the same time, even in the most curious tales.

Her gift for juggling words is evident from the opening entry, “The Alphabet,” artfully subtitled: “(or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)”. Here the narrator is dealing with a progressive form of aphasia, trying to hang on to her ability to use language as it erodes and, along with it, her relationship:

The plot, yes—the condition of its being lost. I have a great deal of nostalgia for having the plot and a full vocabulary. Both have been lost gradually along with the—what is it—marbles. My marbles, specifically. We have come to specific marbles. I have lost it, I have lost my marbles and I have lost the plot—the Holy Trinity of losing I have lost my faith in—wham bam thank you m’—ma—mate. Maybe the plot was connected with my marbles in some way. Maybe one plays marbles on a plot, plot being synonymous with pitch or field or court. I lost them all long ago is what’s important. Two weeks ago. You took my marbles and it with you and I appear to have mislaid the plot.

In my years working in brain injury, I encountered many people dealing with varying degrees of aphasia, and this bittersweet story captures beautifully, the spirit of losing one’s facility with language.

The title story, “Attrib.”, which, according to her Guardian Q&A was completed just before the manuscript of this collection was submitted, is a stand out—the magic of inspiration under pressure, perhaps? The narrator who has a hypersensitivity for sound, is Foley artist working to create incidental sounds for a soundtrack to accompany a gallery exhibition on Michelangelo which will feature reproductions of his major works. How exactly do you capture just the right sound to signify the Creation of Eve anyway? The theological and practical considerations that arise make for a most amusing dilemma.

While Williams shows herself capable of spinning the simplest idea into delightful yarn, one of my favourite pieces, “Bulk,” demonstrates her ability to orchestrate an eccentric cast to create a story with surprising depth of character. The narrator is a natural history museum employee who joins a collection of onlookers gathered around the carcass of a dead whale washed up on the shore. The protagonist, ostensibly the professional in the situation betrays a lack of confidence and unwillingness to take control that seems, more than anything, to reflect the smallness of humanity against the mass of the proud creature who has met such an unfortunate, undignified end:

‘I will touch it!’ declared the young woman suddenly with a renewed vigour and she slipped from her partner’s arm and ran in an arc out towards the head of the whale, picking out a route over the rocks with shoeless feet. There was an ungainliness about her small size next to the great bulk of the whale. There was an unbalance to the scene on the shoreline generally, as if a note was being sung off-key, or somewhere a pair of parentheses had been left unclosed.

Finally, the majority of the stories are first person narratives and in most cases, the gender of the narrator and, if relevant, the love interest is left unspecified. As a differently gendered reader I tend to be both gender sensitive and gender ambivalent. I like the openness that this approach allows in the reading, and I often prefer it to the awkwardness that sometimes comes through in cross-gendered narratives (authors writing from the opposite gender perspective), but whereas one can develop the personality of the narrator in a short space, the “you” addressed in the more romantically themed pieces can reduce the potential emotional depth of the situations. It is even more challenging when this kind of approach is extended over a longer format. This was the nature of the question I posed to Eley Williams in the chat (you can see it under my uncreative user name “jmschrei”). She responded that she left gender unspecified when she did not think it was crucial to the story but admitted:

I didn’t find writing ‘genderlessness’ a constraint, not wittingly anyway: I think for a reader confused acts of heroism don’t require specific or non-specific awareness of genitals.

Nice answer. I wish real life was more like that.

Attrib. and Other Storiesby Eley Williams is published by Influx Press.

The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.

Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.

To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books. An edition is also available from Peter Owen.