Everything is fine: Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig

Tolstoy’s famous adage about unhappy families might well apply to dysfunctional families, but as Ulrike Almut Sandig demonstrates in her starkly disarming debut novel, a harsh sameness can run through seemingly dissimilar families with equally tragic consequences. Sandig, a poet and writer born in Saxony in 1979, famously began her writing career as guerilla poet, posting poems on lampposts and handing them out on flyers. She has published four volumes of poetry and two collections of short stories and engaged in collaborative projects with composers, musicians and visual artists. Her poetry is at once politically charged and playful, as evidenced in her collection released in English translation in 2020, I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other, which examines such subjects as the fate of migrants, the nature of modern warfare and the rise of nationalism through the revisiting of themes drawn from European folklore, in particular the tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unvarnished form provide ideal instruments to explore the barbarity of human nature. One could say that with Monsters Like Us, she is fashioning an elaborate, contemporary fairy tale that revolves around one of the most brutal realities haunting too many families. And like the original Brothers Grimm, the darkness runs deep.

So, off the top, let it be known that this is a story about families and it is a story about childhood sexual abuse. There is humour, there is affection and there is horror. The family as a microcosm of the world at its best and its worst, reimagined through a narrative that simmers with poetic intensity and suppressed rage.

Monsters Like Us is a coming of age story set in a rural village in East Germany during the final years of Communist rule. Ruth, like Sandig herself, is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a chemist’s assistant. She has an older brother called Fly, a reference to his love of being in the air whenever and however possible, and their lives revolve around their father’s profession, which, given the political context, makes him a bit of a reactionary. But their home contains a degree of tension, a feature not unknown in other homes in the community where a certain measure of negative physical interaction commonly marked the relationships of spouses, and parents and children. Ruth narrates the opening and closing sections of the novel, addressing a Voitto—a future lover, it turns out—with a matter-of-fact tone that increasingly appears to mask her emotion. Early on she describes overhearing a confrontation between her parents that ends with a slap:

That is the first slap in the story, Voitto. No idea whether it was Mother or Pap who delivered it and whether it was Pap or Mother on the receiving end. But after a few times round this haematoma of the sun, I can tell you this for one: it all starts with believing a slap can be the natural conclusion to a conversation. Fly and I turned over onto our sides and rolled in under our duvets. Then Fly turned off the light.

Soldiers on maneuvers were a frequent sight in the area due to the fact that barracks were located nearby. One day a new boy appears in Ruth’s kindergarten class, tall with white blond hair and a face that wrinkles when he smiles. Viktor’s father was a non-commissioned officer in the barracks of the People’s Army of the Republic, located next to the Soviet barracks, and his family had moved into a newly developed part of town. This all set him apart, earning a frequent “that Russian boy” epithet. Although he was not Russian, his mother spoke Ukrainian to him at home, a background she endeavoured to hide. Ruth is drawn to this strange new boy and they soon become fast friends. Unknown to one another at the time, it will turn out that they each harbour terrible secrets: Ruth’s maternal grandfather touches her inappropriately every chance he gets, a behaviour she does not understand but fuels a fascination with and fear of vampires; Viktor’s brother-in-law, his half-sister’s husband, enters his room whenever they visit or are invited to babysit, and forces him to engage in sex acts.

Neither family suspects a thing—after all, are these not trusted people in the children’s lives? And the children themselves? “If you don’t talk about it, then it hasn’t really happened,” Ruth says. “That’s right, isn’t it, Voitto? That’s how we learned it.” As the years pass, Ruth seeks to find escape in music. Naturally gifted she spends hours with her violin. It allows her to forget everything. She is aware that her playing seems to have an emotional affect on anyone else listening, even if she feels nothing. And that is fine. Viktor pours his energy into his body, building his muscles, protecting himself with a veneer of power, while at school he works his way into the local gang of tough kids, a group that will become small scale neo-Nazi styled punks as they get older.

The second half of Monsters Like Us, takes an unexpected turn. Unable to find work in the now united Germany and eager to put distance between himself and both his extended family and his rough riding friends, Viktor heads west to France where he has applied for a position as an au pair, feminizing his name on the application to aid his ability to secure an placement. As he gets off the train at the station in a town near Marseilles:

These were the last few metres during which the boy felt completely himself. That didn’t occur to him particularly at the time. But by the time he had left the platform, he was just another exhausted passenger arriving. Later he would be a salaud de Nazi. The stubborn boy with the inadequate vocabulary, the East German colossus in combat boots, Germanic giant-child, a case, a traumatized hobgoblin and other things besides. For his parents, he would simply be our successful son travelling abroad.

For the wealthy family in the expensive villa, he is an unwelcome surprise. But as he is the sixth au pair to be with the family, they have little leverage with the agency and have to give him at least a week or two. He will stay for months, gradually improving his French, preparing complicated recipes, ironing their laundry and walking the children to and from school. It is a most unlikely outcome. Yet behind the fancy façade, a very damaged family drama is playing out, one that daughter Maud is too young to understand, and Madame is either too naïve or too proud to acknowledge. Viktor recognizes his own agony magnified in the son, Lionel, who refuses to meet his eyes for the boy’s circumstances are an order of magnitude more terrifying than his own troubled history. As he keeps telling himself “everything is fine” he knows that it is not.

It may be hard to imagine, given this very rough outline, but this is a brave novel charged with a brutal beauty. The underlying subject matter is exceptionally difficult, but is dealt with with great care—openly as needed, but more often alluded to indirectly, echoing that unspoken awareness no one wants to address. The effect is all the more powerful for it allows the tension build within the reader. Where Ruth suppresses her pain, channelling her energy into her music, quiet, sensitive Viktor is potentially a ticking timebomb. Sandig’s lyric prose, captured brilliantly by translator Karen Leeder who has translated two volumes of her poetry, is tight and spare, directed into carefully crafted scenes that often end on an open note. Her narrative sensibility is well played. Ruth’s first person account, directed to an otherwise unknown adult contemporary captures a child’s spirit through a more mature perspective. Viktor’s time in France is a third person narration, from his perspective, with the regular insertion of Maud’s child’s eye observations and commentary. Although young, she is perhaps the most sensible member of her family, but one can only worry about the ultimate fate awaiting both of the unfortunate children of the wealthy Madame and Monsieur.

As her poetry clearly shows, Sandig does not resist shining a light on the darkness in our world. With Monsters Like Us she turns over another stone that many try to ignore, and shows that it would be easy to point to a troubled state that is falling apart to explain a level of domestic discontent and even violence, but this is far more than a fairy tale set in a crumbling landscape, it is a horror story that can just as easily unfold in the most ostensibly desirable settings of wealth and privilege. And if the “monsters” of the title refers, as it does, to those who have been hurt by time or circumstance, the true monsters too often go unnoticed and unpunished. This vital book is one of the most intense and moving works I have encountered in a long time.

Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

 

Reading Women in Translation: Looking back over the past twelve months

For myself at least, as Women in Translation Month rolls around each August, there is, along with the intention to focus all or part of my reading to this project, a curiosity to look back and see just how many female authors in translation I’ve read since the previous year’s edition. I’ve just gone through my archives and am pleasantly surprised to find twenty titles, the majority read in 2022. Within this number are several authors I’ve read and loved before and a number of new favourites that have inspired me to seek out more of their work.

First among these is Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, whose The Last Days of Mandelstam (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) so thrilled me with its precision and economy that I bought another of her novellas and a collection of poetry, Alphabet of Sand (translated by Marilyn Hacker). I’ve just learned that another of her Russian poet inspired novels, Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, will be released by Seagull Books this fall. I can’t wait!

 

The advent of the war in Ukraine instantly drew my attention to a tiny book I had received from isolarii books. The name Yevgenia Belorusets became suddenly and tragically familiar as her daily diary entries from Kiev were published online. I read that small volume, Modern Animals (translated by Bela Shayevich), drawn from interviews with people she met in the Donbas region and as soon as it became available I bought and read her story collection Lucky Breaks (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). Although both of these books reflect the impact of war in the east of the country, they could not be read without the context of the full scale invasion underway and still ongoing in her homeland.

Another author I encountered for the first time that inspired me to read more of her work was Czech writer Daniela Hodrová whose monumental City of Torment (translated by Elena Sokol and others) is likely the most profoundly challenging work I’ve read in along time. Upon finishing this trilogy I turned to her Prague, I See A City… (translated by David Short and reviewed with the above) which I happened to have buried on my kindle. A perfect, possibly even necessary, companion.

My personal Norwegian project introduced me to Hanne Örstavik, whom I had always meant to read. I loved her slow moving introspective novel, The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) and have since bought, but not read, her acclaimed novella, Love. However, lined up to read this month, I have her forthcoming release in translation, Ti Amo, a much more recent work based on her experience caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer. The only other female author I brought into this project was Ingvild H. Rishøi whose collection Winter Stories (translated by Diane Oatley) was a pure delight. I have been making note of other female Norwegian writers to fill in this imbalance in the future.

The past year also brought new work by two of my favourite poets: a book of prose pieces by Italian poet Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery (translated by John Taylor), and the conclusion to Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s epic experimental trilogy, My Jewel Box (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). In May I had the honour of speaking with Olsen and Jensen over Zoom for a special event—it was a fantastic opportunity I won’t soon forget. I also became acquainted with a new-to-me Austrian poet, Maja Haderlap, through her excellent collection distant transit (translated by Tess Lewis) and have since added her novel Angel of Oblivion to my shelves.

Among the many other wonderful women in translation I read over the past year, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) needs no introduction—it is an exuberant, intelligent and wildly entertaining read. On an entirely different note, Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of Colette’s classic Cheri and the End of Cheri completely surprised me. I had no idea what a sharp and observant writer she was, in fact I didn’t know much about her at all and I discovered that she was quite the exceptional woman. Changing direction again, In the Eye of the Wild, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of her terrifying encounter with a bear in a remote region of Siberia (translated by Sophie R. Lewis) approaches the experience in an unexpected manner that I really appreciated.

Keeping with nonfiction for a moment, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker), a collection of essays about contemporary Mexico, was a difficult, necessary read. Annmarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her overland journey to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart in 1939, All the Roads Are Open (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) was another book I had long wanted to read that did not disappoint but which carries much more weight given the more recent history of that region. Finally, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (translated from Tamil dictation by Nandini Murali) offers vital insight into the lives of hijra and trans women and trans men in India from a widely respected activist. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book to an international audience later this year.

Rounding out the year, were three fine novels. First, I after owning it for years, I finally read Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell) and was very impressed. Last, but by no means least, I read two new releases from Istros Books who have an excellent selection of women writers in their catalogue. Special Needs by Lada Vukić (translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) captures the slightly magical voice of child narrator with an undisclosed disability in a remarkably effective way, while Canzone di Guerra by the inimitable Daša Drndić (translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth) offers a fictionalized account of her years in Canada as a young single mother that was most enlightening for this Canadian reader.

I have, at this point, seven books selected for this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) and we’ll see how I manage—and now I also have a goal to exceed for the eleven months before August 2023! I would, by the way, recommend any of the titles listed above if you are looking for something to read this month.

A storyteller from Gujarat arrives: The Shehnai Virtuoso by Dhumketu

The short story is that which, like a flash of lightning, pierces right through while establishing a viewpoint; without any other machinations, simply gestures with a finger to awaken dormant emotions; creates an entirely new imaginary world around the reader. The novel says whatever it wants. The short story, by rousing the imagination and emotions, only alludes to or provides a spark of what it wants to say. That is why the writer of the short story needs a reader who is impressionable, emotional, swift and intelligent; to such a reader, he will be forever in debt.

– Dhumketu, Introduction to his collection, Tankha I

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the South Asian literature that commands the most immediate attention outside the sub-continent is that which is written in English—even within India, English-language authors occupy a considerable amount of shelf space. Yet, the Indian Constitution recognizes 22 official languages and there are hundreds of other spoken languages and dialects, including English. So one might imagine that we are only able to access the tip of a rich literary iceberg. However, with the recent International Booker win for Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi), the first ever Hindi winner, a heightened awareness of the riches of translated and yet-to-be translated literature from across South Asia is spreading near and far.

How fortuitous then, that in this increasingly welcoming environment, a magical Guajarati storyteller has arrived on North American shores to share a broad selection of his well-loved tales with a wider contemporary audience, a journey made possible by an attentive and gifted translator. Writing under the pen name Dhumketu, Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892 1965) was one of the most prominent and prolific Gujarati writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He produced work across a broad range of genres, but was especially notable as a master of the short-story, publishing twenty-four volumes during his lifetime. When one enters this newly-released collection, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, it is best to prepare to settle in and be carried away—it is difficult to resist the temptation to “read just one more…”

In her helpful Introduction, translator Jenny Bhatt traces the evolution of the Gujarati short story and the influence of European, Russian and American literature on the form. However, Dhumketu (whose chosen name means “comet”) distinguished himself from his contemporaries in a number of important ways. Firstly, he invited the reader into the inner worlds of his characters through skillful use of plot, theme, action, setting and dialogue. A second critical feature was his “focus on people from all walks of life—rural to royal, young to old.” He also set many stories among the poor and lower classes and castes, characters often either overlooked or caricatured by other writers. Finally, his stories often depict strong-willed, independent women and sensitive men, granting them varied roles and circumstances within his work in a manner that was progressive for his time and, as a result, relevant for ours.

The Shehnai Virtuoso gathers twenty-six stories that span Dhumketu’s career, opening with his best-known work, “The Post Office”—the melancholy tale of a man who waits in vain for a letter from his daughter. This piece sets the tone for a varied collection that touches on a wide range of deeply human themes. Although the majority of the tales are set in rural Gujarat, a few are set elsewhere, like Darjeeling, Karnataka, and an ancient kingdom in what is now Bihar.

Throughout, Dhumketu demonstrates an uncanny ability to pull a reader right into a story with little fuss, a skill that seems to become even tighter and more focused over the course of his career, and thus over the course of this volume. And even though there are definitely some themes that recur, the perspective, approach and atmosphere shifts from story to story, keeping his tales fresh and engaging. Nonetheless, he knows the innate value of timeless themes—jealousy, greed, heartbreak, loss—exploring them through the adventures of devious, manipulative personalities, ill-fated lovers, tragic heroes and quiet, isolated souls who express themselves most fully through music.

Not openly active in the political struggle for Independence that marked his time, Dhumketu did not shy away from allowing his characters, narrators and plots illustrate and express important ideas of freedom and matters of social injustice, recognizing perhaps that literature provides room for more complex and nuanced presentations to emerge, even in short form. The play of power and status, born of wealth, class and caste, is an intrinsic element of many of his stories—the vulnerability of the simple soul and the tragedy of the combination of beauty and poverty held a particular appeal—but he resists proselytizing. Rather, wonderfully wise and pertinent observations are regularly woven into his narratives that he trusts his readers to understand.

Another striking quality that emerges in some of the most powerful tales in this collection is Dhumketu’s capacity for an exceptional evocation of the depths of sorrow and loss.  The title story, for example, is one of several tales featuring gifted, yet mentally damaged musicians who suffer a loss that impacts and colours their ability to play and the soul wrenching effect of the notes their instruments produce. “The Shehnai Virtuoso” is a simple account of traveller who happens to stop in an unremarkable village on what happens to be a most fortuitous night—the death anniversary of the son of a talented shehnai (an oboe-like instrument constructed of reed and wood or metal) player, the only time when the devastated father picks up his instrument. No one in the village misses this annual moonlit performance. Our cynical narrator expects little when suddenly:

Through the air, such despairing, lamenting harmonies emanated from the sad tunes of the shehnai player that just single note of his falling on the ear felt like a language only the soul understands! As if today, having the opportunity to hear that language, the soul had rendered the entire body and all the senses and had overtaken the mind.

Oh to be present on that forested night! But for my money, one of the most moving stories from this rich and varied collection, is “The Prisoner of Andaman.” This is the tale of a man who returns to his native village after serving twenty years in prison for murder. Visaji, eager to see his home and friends again is met by the harsh realization that he has been forgotten, only his crime remains to distinguish him. The love that is “brimming over in his own heart” after so many years of penance and exile, is met with hostile indifference. Dhumketu portrays his growing anguish so acutely—“it felt as if his legs had broken. His heart was wounded”—that it is impossible not to share his pain, no matter his past.

In selecting the stories that comprise this collection, translator Bhatt wanted to showcase the range of Dhumketu’s work and encourage an appreciation of his chronological progression as a writer, so she chose one story from each of his published collections, plus two. As such she has created an excellent and entertaining introduction to this important Gujarati author—not an easy task over a longer volume like this. Her keen translation incorporates common expressions  and terms, explained in footnotes and a brief glossary only if necessary, thus preserving the flavour of the culture and the communities of Dhumketu’s fictional world.

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu is translated by Jenny Bhatt and published by Deep Vellum. An earlier edit of this collection was published in India in 2020 as Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (Harper Perennial).

The poet who learned to fly: The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli

In the years when written words were indecipherable signs, entrusted to a world that I couldn’t even reach on tiptoes, a book would be opened only for its illustrations or because my father’s voice was passing through it, over completely unknown roads, although his index finger seemed to trace them out, leaving short trails in which black letters, like objects in a magical night, came to life, silently spelling out in unison the same story which, open and ready to shift and change its pictures, my father was holding on his chest. It was his voice that brought the stories to us as we three were half-lying in the big bed where my little brother was staying up late, with his tiny ears that would soon close, containing a trail of sound and sense in the warm silence.

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

If the first books read to us as children opened a world of strange symbols, hypnotic rhythms, and elliptical meanings, translations from foreign languages similarly open a doorway to landscapes and experiences at once distant and familiar. They introduce us to the images and words of writers we might not hear otherwise. Their stories. Their ideas. Their poetry.

The work of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli was first formally made available to English-speaking audiences through a small dual language collection of enigmatic, fragmentary prose poems, The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor and published in 2018. These brief pieces which first appear to explore the vagaries of transit, packing, leaving, travel, soon begin to slide toward the examination of an existential space between internal and external reality—seeking form in that wordless, restless terrain of perception and experience. It was, and remains, a book that speaks to so much of my own sense of groundlessness. A collection containing Mancinelli’s two earlier volumes of poetry, At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007-2019), followed a year later. Once again her work is presented in a dual language format. Like her prose poems, her verses tend to be brief, spare, with an openness and space framing  unanswerable questions of identity, self and the insufficience of our connections with other beings.

Her newly released collection, The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008 – 2021), stands as an illuminating counterpoint and companion to Mancinelli’s poetic work. Her most important stories, personal essays and writings about the poetic spirit are gathered here, including several pieces which have not yet appeared in print in Italian, presented, as before in both languages, and completed with a comprehensive assessment of her work written by Taylor, her long-time translator. For someone who has read her poetry, this collection offers further insight into the creative heart and soul of the poet herself—and that is not to imply that she gives herself away, for Mancinelli is a poet who manages to address the intimate and the universal, by speaking from the essential boundaries of experience—because, in her prose, one can begin to feel how her poetic sensibilities were born and nurtured and share in her vision of where poetry comes from.

Of course, it is not necessary to be previously acquainted with her poetry to appreciate the stories and essays contained in The Butterfly Cemetery (although it may well inspire a reader to seek them out), because this work offers its own rich rewards. If Mancinelli’s poems tend to be very open and spare, in her prose there is a profound lyric intensity. Her writing breathes, deeply and slowly, as her images, ideas and reflections rise, disappear and surface again. The book opens with stories and essays that strike a personal note, evoking memories of childhood and early adulthood, some sentimental, some gently fictionalized, and others tinged with aching and longing. In many of these early pieces, one encounters a sensitive, wistful dreamer, as in the title story about a young child fascinated by butterflies who does not realize her desire to touch their wings will kill them, or the exquisitely simple “How the Fire Loves,” a fable of a little girl who escapes to the comfort of the fireplace after supper:

She had curled up alone on the sofa. The television was turned off, and she was watching the fire in the fireplace, shivering as if it were cold. The fire cannot be caressed by anyone. It is always a little distant from the others, in its own space, alongside newspapers and pieces of wood; they will be in its arms, until they become ashes. This is how the fire loves.

The second section moves further away from the childhood home and the confused pain of first love, to explore the self in relation to natural landscapes and urban environments. Mancinelli wanders, on foot, by ferry and by train, observing and meditating on the landscape and communities that have formed and influenced her. There is a branching out and a cycling back to the people and places of her homeland—the hills, fields, and the waters that have cradled her family for generations. The tension between the desire to leave, the pull to return and the attempt to delineate the fragile borders of a personal geography are recurring themes. One senses that the weight of existence in a land with such a long historical, artistic and intellectual legacy both grounds and troubles the questions of identity and belonging that emerge from the shadows cast by her words. She is ever aware, in her prose as in her poetry, of the importance of darkness as a fundamental source of growth and understanding.

And that brings us to the third and final section of The Butterfly Cemetery. Here, Mancinelli the writer turns her focus to the nature of her own personal, creative relationship with words, and, more specifically, with the existential origins of poetic expression. She writes about the absolute urgency with which she first turned to writing, beginning in adolescence, as a means of “speaking” that which she could not find a way to voice, isolated and alone on the edge of her circle of friends. Feeling she was yielding her words to others, she reclaimed them with her pen:

I wrote within myself, on my body so deeply that ever since, I have taken the road on which I now walk. If had brought that sentence to my mouth, today I would be another person. The part of my life that I have spent up to now would have been different. This is why for me, everything continues to be staked on words. With words I have an unsettled account. (“Yielding Words”)

She speaks about the process of writing poetry with honesty, from the tentative beginnings to the frustrated failures—the lines that will never take flight—in “A Line is a Lap and Other Notes on Poetry” and talks about being mistaken for a traffic policewoman as she stands on a street taking notes in the notebook she always has close at hand. But it is the vital connection to poetry as a “practice of daily salvation” that comes through in the most powerful of these essays. Mancinelli is attuned the essential quality of poetic language, tracing its existence to the moment before it comes into being. In the wonderful piece “Poetry, Mother Tongue” she suggest that writing is the act of trying to translate what is already written within us, of looking into the empty space between “the unknown and nothingness”:

I believe that poetry is a voice that passes through us. For this reason I always begin with a lowercase letter when I write. I’m not beginning anything. I’ve only caught something that I stammer into this broken language, which crumbles and breaks in silence.

Before the words there is a rhythm: a cadence that suddenly reaches us, in silence through a hollow space that we carry inside us.

There is a strong sense in Mancinelli’s view of poetics that writing itself is a dangerous act, one that calls us to face the dark and the difficult, one that takes us into our own “darkroom,” that place where we are most vulnerable. “Writing,” she tells us, “is a soul surgery that calls for a steady hand, and a deep place to which uncertainty and tremor can be convoked. It is an act of internal self-surgery.” And yet in the writing, there is a possibility of decentring and being set free. Poetry (and prose) that arises from within, although grounded in direct experience and observation, allows for space and a measure of abstractedness to guide writer, and reader, from the individual toward the universal.

But, to return, once more, to the ability of translation to open doors to those who lack the fluency to read a writer’s work in its original language, John Taylor’s collaboration with Franca Mancinelli, has brought one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Italian poetry to a wider audience. Unexpectedly that has also come to have a special resonance for me. Shortly after I read and reviewed The Little Book of Passage, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the poet in Kolkata when a visit I made happened to overlap with her poetry residency in the city. Her English far outpaced my non-existent Italian and although I felt no lack in our conversations, all of the subsequent interviews, poetry and prose that has become available in English has only deepened my appreciation and affection for her sensitivity and vision. Translation truly expands the world as we know it.

The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

At the threshold: City of Torment (and Prague, I See a City…) by Daniela Hodrová

Founded, according to legend, with the prophetic proclamation of the mythical Princess Libuše, Prague rose from a hilltop settlement to become the political and economic hub of Central Europe. Forged in stone, blood and bone over a thousand years it is a place dense with history, a city that cannot escape itself, often depicted as a labyrinthine maze of magic, madness and despair. City of Torment, a loose trilogy by Czech author and theorist Daniela Hodrová, falls into the literary tradition of writers like Karel Hynek Mácha, Gustav Meyrink and Franz Kafka in its portrayal of the city as a distorted space within which the individual can become lost or disoriented. Her Prague is a layered, cyclical place in which spatial and temporal dimensions shift, trapping its living and the ghostly inhabitants in a grand circle game, one that plays out again and again in a number of distinctive settings or “stages” throughout the city centre. As such, the narrative that runs through the course of the three novels that comprise City of TormentIn Both Kinds, Puppets and Theta—is fragmented, kaleidoscopic and cumulative, peopled by characters that defy boundaries between life and death, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

There is no succinct way to provide an outline of City of Torment as a cohesive work of fiction; it is akin to an organic, evolving entity that gradually takes on a life that even seems to confound its own author by the time we reach the third part. It was not conceived as a trilogy. Hodrová began the first novel, In Both Kinds, in December 1977 and finished it the following year, but, like the two novels that would follow, it could not be published until after the fall of the Communist government. This work, narrated by an omniscient third person narrator that occasionally takes on the direct voice of a character or an object, is centred around an apartment block across from the famed Olšany Cemetery, and those who reside in or pass through in the building and the graveyard. It opens near the end of the Second World War, as young Alice Davidovich throws herself from the window of the building’s fifth floor flat to avoid being taken away to the gas chambers, thus making a direct transit from the building to the cemetery. Alice, who will spend much of her after-life repeating a fruitless rush to meet her beloved Pavel, is the central female protagonist in this first book, and provides a critical yet curious continuity linking the women at the heart of each of the following texts.

A wide cast of eccentric characters populate the pages of In Both Kinds. The living, the dead (recently and long dead), and the few who have found themselves charmed (or cursed) with the ability to negotiate a space in between the two states, exist alongside one another. Souls trapped inside inanimate objects, or transformed into birds interact on both sides (with both kinds) and, naturally, many characters will make the passage from the world of the living to the community of the dead over the course of the novel. Their personalities and the events or activities marking their lived existences follow them to their graves. Clothing and objects—a sweater, a coat, a mother of pearl button, a Persian lamb muff—become talismans, symbols (but of what?). And woven into all of this are historical personages and events that appear or are referenced, exaggerated or confined by the mythology that has grown around them over time. It is a strange and wonderful ensemble piece, but hanging over it all is a disquieting sense of directionlessness.

This sensation becomes more pronounced in the second novel, Puppets (Living Pictures), composed between 1981 and 1983. Composed of one hundred and twenty-six “living pictures” or vignettes, this novel focuses closely on Sophie Souslik, a seamstress at the Realm of Puppets, and her parents and grandparents. Prague with its warren of streets and public squares forms a wider backdrop against which the action—much of it imagined, remembered and echoed—is staged. And staged is the appropriate word, Prague has become a city of marionettes. But something darker lurks here. Specific spaces and objects, like the courtyard with its rug beating rack or Sophie’s father’s office with its heavy black furniture and spinning chair, hold special powers and seem to become portals to painful personal and historical pasts, hidden or forgotten. There is a significant and welcome crossover of characters from In Both Kinds as well as new characters that sometimes act as alternate versions of previous actors. For example, Sophie is sometimes mistaken, at least briefly, for Alice Davidovich, and she also has a boyfriend named Pavel. Identities are frequently confused, experiences are repeated merging the familiar with the strange, and characters increasingly begin to change—humans metamorphize into insects and birds, while statues and household objects fall in love with people and long for release from their solid states. Still, an atmosphere of detachment colours the text.

With the third and final novel, Theta, composed between December 1987 and January 1990, the project that will become City of Torment begins to take form (the books will ultimately be published individually before being gathered together into a single volume). It opens with a variation on the first lines of Dante’s Inferno. Prague is now clearly depicted as its own special version of hell, a city of torment. The title, Theta, has a double meaning—it’s association with death, Thanatos, and its use, θ, as a proofreader’s symbol for “delete”—and as soon becomes apparent, “this novel” now exists an entity within itself. Here, the solitary, curious female protagonist, Alice and Sophie’s heir/doppelgänger, is Eliška Beránková (Lamb). But, not only is she less satisfied to stay within the confines of the text, Daniela Hodrová continually allows the boundary between herself and her creation to blur, even disappear. In a full metafictional turn, the author enters her own novel, and, at one point, Eliška steps out and tries to become a living being. Fiction and fact clash. Some new characters that initially appear to be entirely the product of the text grow more transparent. Others openly straddle the line between fact and fiction. For example, Hodorva introduces her real life husband, trying and failing to keep to the fictional name she assigns him. She grants Eliška imitations of her own life, consciously negotiating her two identities as the manuscript on her desk grows. Through her alter ego, Hodrová, the author, merges with the central figure who is descending into the city of torment in search of her own past.

If this all sounds like an overload—and these are densely packed works—Hodrová writes with a style that constantly refers back on itself, without being repetitive, so the reader does not lose track of who is who. Her narrative second guesses itself constantly (questioning meaning in parentheses) implying that nothing is certain, nothing is written in stone. There is, however, much more going on beneath the surface—historical, literary and place references that would likely be less of a mystery to those familiar with Prague—but for a visitor stumbling into her City of Torment with less background, the Appendix that closes out the work might not quite suffice. So I turned to Hodrová’s Prague, I See A City…, written after the completion of the trilogy, first as an alternative guidebook, but then released as a kind prologue/companion piece to her major work. A short, engaging, magical exploration of her hometown, this book is a perfect follow-up read, not only because it will fill in some of the biographic, geographic and historical details behind the novel, but because, written in 1990, in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution it looks forward, however cynically, to new possibility, with hope of shedding the weight that had oppressed the previous decades.

As noted earlier, the first two novels of City of Torment are characterized by a certain flattened affect and sense of detachment. Composed during the restrictive Normalization period under the Communist government of the 1970s and 1980s, Hodrová was writing without knowing if, or when, it might be possible to release her fiction. It must have felt akin to writing into a void in a world where the dead seemed more alive than the living. The final novel was composed at the end of this period, a time of turmoil, and, when the government fell she stopped writing it, not knowing how a dynamic text informed by a city (or a city formed by a text) might now be altered. In Prague, I See a City… she says of this time:

A revolution of words, an almost fairground battle of words really did take place last year, though its tumult now reaches us only dimly. The city is once more slipping back into its sleep, its unconsciousness, its oblivion.

In those November days, something fundamental happened to the life of this city, to my life. I finished writing Theta at the very moment the battle broke out, for at that moment the city ceased, at least briefly, to be a city of torment.

Far from a conventional travel guide, Prague, I See a City… serves as an immediate refocusing of Prague after the fall of Communist Czechoslovakia and as an introduction to Hodrová’s world-view. As she wanders her city, as if in a dream, the boundaries between the real and the imagined blur. The city she sees is perhaps on the cusp of a new beginning, but the weight of the past, historical and literary will not pass lightly. She reflects on her own childhood, comments on the novels of her trilogy, and visits museums, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle and other sites, evoking the lives of long dead kings and more recent political environments along the way. Published before the recent complete translation of the trilogy, this book could easily be read first, and for its own merits alone, but it is just as effective (if not more so) read as an extended (and exceptionally entertaining) epilogue that offers a fuller understanding of both Hodrová’s literary vision and her idiosyncratic relationship with Prague.

In Both Kinds is a revised translation by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (an earlier English translation by Tatiana Firkusny and Véronique Firkusny was published in 2015 as Kingdom of Souls). Puppets is translated by Elena Sokol and Véronique Firkusny, and Theta is translated by Elena Sokol. Prague, I See a City… is translated by David Short.

Daniela Hodrová’s City of Torment, Prague, I See a City… and Kingdom of Souls are all published by Jantar Publishing.

 

 

 

Pride Reading 2022 – One: My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi

I have touched on the question of Pride before here on roughghosts. Each year as June comes around I face the increasing onslaught of rainbow enthusiasm with trepidation. It brings up a lot of complicated emotions for me as someone who technically falls within the LGBTQ spectrum but has never managed to find a home within that space. I am not ashamed of who I am, but I feel no thrill of connection with the notion of Pride and have some very painful memories of the rejection and intolerance I’ve encountered from within that “community.” However, every June I promise myself that I will face my anxieties head on with some sort of nod to the season, and, since my city does not celebrate Pride until late August, it’s more of an abstract goal. I don’t have to be out there, so to speak. I can read my way through.

This year I decided to read three books, two from India, one from the US. Two of these books are trans-specific, one of the Indian titles and the American work, both nonfiction. I don’t think I’ve read any trans-related nonfiction for at least twenty years, since the time when I myself was exploring transition and beginning my own journey. The works I have on my shelves and the common language and perspectives typically held within the transgender male support networks that saw me through the early years tend to be, to a new, vocal generation, offensively outdated. Distance and experience shape each trans person but, unfortunately, true diversity is not always applauded within groups of marginalized people who tend to be just as capable as any other group of fracturing along lines of race, class, sex, sexuality and gender, and insisting that those who are not like them do not belong. Trans people seem to be centre stage right now, inspiring plenty of negative and positive reactions in the process, but my own feelings about all of this, more than twenty years post-transition, are conflicted. I will just say that I am glad I came out and transitioned before the advent of social media.

The first book on my list is one I’ve been curious about for years, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, a trans woman and activist from India. Published in 2016, this book is a follow up to her popular memoir, The Truth About Me (2010). She does include an overview of her own basic life experiences: growing up longing to be a girl, running away from home to join a hijra community, her family’s often violent reaction, her eagerness to have surgery—castration for which she was awake—the dynamics within hijra society and the necessity to engage in begging and sex work for lack of other options. The world she describes is one which provides support but is also strictly hierarchical and sometimes cruel. It is an honest account, nothing is idealized, but she expresses pride in herself as woman and has tirelessly advocated for hijra and other transgender communities.

Revathi’s account of her work within not-for-profit agencies dedicated to supporting sexual and gender minorities, is quite telling. Initially she was welcomed to help expand their mandate, but it was often a fraught relationship in which, as a non-English speaking trans woman, she still battled the stigmas faced by hijras and other gender different persons. As her advocacy opened up to include the concerns of lower caste, dalit and adivasi (tribal) populations, the persistence of class biases even within organizations devoted to marginal groups ran deep. She spent a decade working with an agency in Bengaluru, an experience which offered a dignified, if less lucrative alternative to sex work, and taught her how to effectively advocate for trans people,  fight for their (and her own) basic rights—ID cards, passports—provide crisis support and legal resources, speak to international audiences, and much more. However, in the end it became clear she would never gain real respect from her co-workers. As she says:

We say that we work for the non-English speaking working class, for sexual and gender minorities. But I realized that as a director you are respected only if you are upper class and English speaking.

After leaving the agency, Revathi was again faced with the question of making a living without returning to the only avenues typically available to hijra. She decided to write a book. Sharing her story brought her attention and increased opportunities to speak for transgender people. Her memoir, originally published in her native Tamil, has subsequently been translated into English and a number of other Indian languages. Although a current of financial insecurity, family conflict and the tragic loss of friends and “chosen family” members runs through her life, I found her enthusiasm and heartaches to be endlessly moving. She seems to be forward looking, ever seeking to improve her own life and that of her community even when it has meant resisting the norms of traditional hijra culture. At the same time she alludes to moments of devastating despair along the way. Although my own experiences were not complicated by the extremes of class inequality and poverty faced by so many trans people in India, it was not and has not been easy. Discrimination, loss and isolation are very real for many of us. But what really excited me about this book is the extensive coverage of trans men who not only tend to be less visible, but lack the type of support network available to hijra who in turn frequently look at them with distrust, refusing to accept them as men. Revathi admits that she also had to overcome her own initial skepticism about the validity of the female to male experience—no surprise, I’m aware that many people, even trans women, still do not know we exist.

Included in My Life in Trans Activism are five profiles of trans men, transcribed from interviews the author collected, and two autobiographical pieces. I recognized these stories, but within the Indian context poverty, social class and the severe expectations and limitations placed on girls and women, especially in villages and small towns, vastly increase the challenges faced. The two personal essays were of particular interest to me, especially “Emperor Penguins” by Gee Imaan Semmalar who was involved in the theatre at the time of publication of this book but is now (I just had to search) a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. His account is striking because his mother, like mine, was supportive and his top surgery botched. Similarly, a long, lonely search for other trans men, a difficult decision to transition, then saving and searching for surgeons within a nascent resource network were challenges familiar to me, but this passage spoke clearly to concerns that never go away:

Health care (or the lack of it) is one glaring example of how trans people across caste along with the millions of poor dalits, Muslims, and adivasis of this subcontinent are denied basic rights. And so, every time a speeding ambulance goes past me on the streets, I relive my worst nightmare—of being in an accident and taken to a hospital on time, unconscious, with nobody to ‘explain’ why my body looks the way it does.

Health care where I live, even in an emergency, has been remarkably safe and respectful, but over the past few years I began to travel. I’ve made several trips to India where I am keenly aware of the relative security looking like a man affords me on streets where I sometimes see few women alone. But the thought of an accident or illness that would send me to hospital with a body that would instantly betray me is unsettling. I do have friends in the country who are aware of my status but I don’t think any realize what a predicament I could find myself in.

My Life in Trans Activism has an accessible, colloquial quality. Revathi was unable to physically write the book due to back problems, so she told her story in Tamil to Nandini Murali who translated it into English. Both women describe their working relationship as a special friendship and as such the narrative retains a natural conversational feel. What comes through repeatedly is Revathi’s passion and vision. She has observed divisions arise among members of the trans community within organizational settings, a not uncommon phenomenon within the wider LGBTQ community as well, but she continually speaks to unity that respects diversity, among trans people:

I believe that we are who we are. Being a transgender is all about who you are deep inside, not how you appear on the outside. Whether we call ourselves male to female trans persons, female to male trans persons, gender queer, we have to negotiate our transitions and our place in the world and struggle against oppression.

This is then, in many senses, a manifesto, one that ends with hope for a better world in which differences no longer tear people apart. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that may yet be a long way off.

My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, as told to Nandini Murali, is published by Zubaan. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book in the fall of 2022. I imagine it may be updated as some of the legal circumstances impacting sexual and gender minorities in India have changed in the past few years. If so I will be curious to know her response to the current state of affairs.

Among the immortals: The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann

Franz Fühmann was a prolific and important East German poet and writer whose own life was fascinating. Born in 1922, in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, he was the son of an apothecary who fostered the development of an ardent German nationalism. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he volunteered for the Wehrmacht but was deemed to be too young so he joined the Reich Labour Service which performed construction work for the military. He saw little direct action until the end of the war when, between 1941 and 1943, he was deployed to various areas of Ukraine. Then, as Germany’s final retreat began, he was transferred to Greece, an experience that would later have a significant influence on his writing. In the closing days of the war he was captured by Soviet forces and would spend the next four years in a POW camp in the Caucasus.

Fühmann emerged from captivity passionately converted to the tenets of Soviet Socialism; he had rejected the Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and was dedicated to the vision of a new world view. He chose to settle in the GDR where his mother and sister were living. He would remain there for the rest of his life, working solely as a freelance writer from the early 1950s until his death in 1984, but his conviction to the realist approach to poetry and literature favoured by the government soon wavered, as his writings grew increasingly confrontational and, to the Stasi, suspect. He would, however, go on to produce work in a wide variety of genres, for both adults and children, and became an important advocate for the translation and publication of authors previously banned in East Germany and a mentor for younger non-conforming writers like Wolfgang Hilbig and Uwe Kolbe.

I have previously reviewed Fühmann’s story cycle The Jew Car, which offers a fictionalized account of his childhood and war years, and his magnificent final major work At the Burning Abyss, a meditation on poetry—in particular that of Georg Trakl—and its power to speak to what is fundamentally human. In this essay he reflects on the way Trakl’s poetry triggered a crisis of literary faith, so to speak, allowing him to heal and understand himself in a way no rigid doctrine could ever manage to do. Both books are translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books, as is the very different Fühmann title I am looking at here, The Beloved of the Dawn, a slender volume comprised of four retellings of Greek legends, beautifully presented alongside vivid digital collages by Sunandini Banerjee.

As mentioned, Fühmann spent time in Greece toward the end of the war. As translator Isabel Cole indicates in her note at the end of The Jew Car, this opportunity to spend time in the country was especially valuable: “Since childhood Greek mythology had fascinated him, and the confrontation with Greek reality, the juxtaposition of myth and war, would inspire much of his literary work.” This awareness charges his personal take on these stories—drawn from a collection originally published in 1978—with a certain tension that gives them a contemporary energy. Despite its colourful presentation, this is not a book for young children, rather he is speaking to young adult and adult readers, fleshing out well known incidents with a very human, somewhat subversive tone.

The first of the four legends to which Fühmann turns his imagination in this collection is Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite (219-239) which chronicles the love of Eos, the goddess of the dawn, for the mortal Tithonus. She begs Zeus to grant him immortality so they can spend eternity together, but forgets to ask for eternal youth. The reality of life with an immortal mortal is vividly evoked. The second tale focuses on Hera’s magic-enabled seduction of her wandering husband as depicted in Homer’s Iliad, chapter XIV, portraying the great king of the gods, he of enormous appetites, in his moment of weakness and subsequent bitter revenge:

That night, three hundred years, he’d sworn fidelity: one night, but what a night!—He was Zeus, and he was who he was.—Then he’d deceived her ten thousand times: with her sister, with the Wanton One and her retinue, with all the nymphs, all the Muses, all the Horae, all the Charities, with all the wives of all the gods and all the daughters of all of the goddesses,  even with his own, not to mention countless mortals: she-humans, she-beasts, and even plants, and with boys, too, with monsters, with ghosts.—He was who he was, and now he was one who desired Hera and none other.

The third story—dedicated to Heinrich Boll— recounts the silenus Marsyas’ reckless challenge of Apollo to a musical duel with melodious pipe cursed by Athena. In its graphic depiction of agony, this version makes the hideously aging Tithonus’ fate seem mild. Marsyas’ grisly destiny is hinted at throughout, but he ignores the warnings of dreams and even fails to believe his opponent is serious in exercising his reward for winning as the blade slips beneath his hide. Fühmann makes visceral what no marble statue and few paintings can aspire to.

The final tale similarly breathes depth and life into another of the less fortunate characters in the Greek pantheon of major and minor deities, in this case Hephaistos the physically disabled god of fire, the eternal guardian of blacksmiths, craftsmen and artisans who was, in this role, worshipped and yet required to serve in Olympus. Fühmann portrays this conflicting position, its balance of strength and weakness clearly in his hero. The story at hand is, of course, the famous account of Hephaistos’ response to the news that his wife, Aphrodite, is having an affair with Ares, the god of war. The crafting of an invisible, infinitely strong web to capture a theoretically invincible foe is depicted with poetic, elemental detail:

He laid his hand on the pristine metal.

The beauty of its coldness and resiliency, and the force of the fire that conquers them both.

He melted off a handful of the material and once it had cooled began to rub it between the fingertips of his right hand while stretching it out with his left. When the hot metal had a ductility, when a cool hardness such as he had never encountered, such as could arise only here, as the solar plexus of all metal veins between the heart of the earth and its diaphragm.—Soul of matter: his medium.—What he need now was the finest of eyelets: a flake from a diamond, shot through by a sunbeam.

The net he weaves and the trap he sets succeeds, but only so far. Hephaistos is too bold, and too stigmatized to not be mocked even in his triumph. The resulting story is one of a bittersweet and complicated relationship between a gifted genius and his fellow gods and goddesses, even his beautiful wife.

The strength of each of the tales collected in The Beloved of the Dawn lies not in the overall arc of events which have been illustrated and revisited countless times, but in Fühmann’s ability to tell them anew. His distinctive prose style which employs poetic fragments and a frequent use of em-dashes, often to open new sentences, allows him to add colour, shadow and character to these archetypal figures and convey a relatable, recognizable agency to his portrayals of these familiar legends. His narrative acknowledges that many poems and artworks have come before, and openly claims to be more interested in some of the lesser known backstory, but he never abandons the mythic form. Witty and sharp, he is having fun with these timeless tales of Gods behaving badly.

The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books with full colour illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee.

You who have loved me: Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette (A new translation by Rachel Careau)

“My poor Chéri . . . It’s strange to think that in our loss—for you of your spent old mistress, for me of my scandalous young lover—we have lost the most honorable thing that we possessed on earth . . .”

It might surprise many English speaking readers to learn that writer, journalist and actress Colette was one of the most important literary figures in twentieth-century France, second only to Proust. Beautiful, resourceful, and sexually liberated, known for her liaisons with women and younger men, her persona may seem to overshadow her talent even though her better known contemporaries held her in very high esteem. And, of course, there is the matter of her gender and the name she ultimately chose to use which, contrary to expectation is not a diminutive but rather her last name. She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, would be the first woman elected president of the Académie Goncourt and, upon her death in 1954, she was given a state funeral. Yet if, as Lydia Davis suggests in her Foreword to the recently released edition of Chéri and The End of Chéri, Colette has not generally been afforded the respect she enjoyed in her native country, that may begin to change thanks to Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of two of her best loved works.

In her extensive and informative Translator’s Note, Careau discusses the unique qualities of Colette’s language and exposes the challenges of preserving the taut beauty of her prose:

what becomes most apparent to the reader of her work in the original French is its extreme and seemingly effortless economy: it contains no excess, no ornament, nothing beyond the essential. Her sentences can feel skeletal, the flesh carved away to convey their meaning with the fewest possible words. A master of concision, subtraction, condensation, renunciation, she is always trying to do more with less: “You become a great writer,” she states, “as much through what you refuse your pen as through what you grant it.”

This economy is difficult to capture without the temptation to fluff the pillows a little, correct her punctuation, fill in missing conjunctions, relative pronouns and even invent adjectives so as to keep her language from appearing too stiff—a tendency that marred earlier translations. But then one risks losing the spirit that animates her work. At once ornate and lean, her sentences flow unhindered by unnecessary clutter. Fond of ellipses, she paints small details with carefully selected words, side glances and intimations allowed to just drift unfinished into the air. Her ear for dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, is finely tuned, sharp and sharpened with complex emotion and barbed intensity. Chéri and its companion novel, The End of Chéri offer, in Careau’s crystalline translation, a welcome opportunity to fully appreciate the power of Colette’s literary talent.

Chéri, originally published in 1920, famously revolves around the affair of an aging courtesan, Léa, and her lover, affectionately called Chéri, a vain and spoiled young man nearly twenty-five years her junior. Set in the final years of the Belle Epoque, amidst the acquired (and sometimes feigned) luxury of the leisured class—not the uppermost layer of society but the strata composed of courtesans, former prostitutes and dancers—hers is not a work of social commentary. Colette’s tapestry features the intricacy and dynamics of human interaction: affection, obsession, deception, hostility, even tedium. She was a keen observer, not only of people, but of plants and animals. Small dramas play out on the page, but the magic lies not so much in what is happening as in how it is depicted in her precise, spare elegant prose.

Chéri has a languid pace, despite the inevitable romantic dissolution that lies at its core. It opens with the petulant, self-absorbed Chéri, playfully donning Léa’s pearls while she observes him from the depths of her bed. They have, at this point, been together for six years although she has known him since he was a small boy as he is the son of a long-time friend and fellow courtesan. He is twenty-five, while she is nearing her fiftieth birthday. The dynamics of their relationship are dissected, dramatized in intimate detail. Colette zooms in on the hint of a smile, the arch of a brow, the subtle movement of a limb. Repeated images—the cast of light, mirrored reflections, passing aromas—serve to heighten the tensions simmering beneath the surface of every thought or interaction. Chéri is aware of his beauty, terrified of losing it, suspecting perhaps that little lies beneath the surface. Léa is also conscious of the creeping ravages of time but her confidence and security runs deep after a lifetime of carefully leveraging her charms:

She stood up, wrapped herself in a dressing gown, and opened the curtains. The midday sun entered the cheerful, overly decorated pink room whose luxury was dated, double lace panels at the windows, rosebud-pink faille on the walls, gilded woodwork, electric lights veiled in pink and white, and antiques upholstered in modern silks. Léa would not relinquish either this cozy room or her bed, a considerable, indestructible masterpiece of copper and wrought iron, severe to the eye and cruel to the shins.

It has always been inevitable that Chéri would one day be expected to take a suitable bride, but when that day arrives suddenly and sooner than either he or Léa anticipated, neither one is prepared for how it unsettles their personal and emotional  equilibrium.

The End of Chéri, conceived of separately and published six years later in 1926, is essentially a companion piece and completion of what can be understood as one work. It is now 1919, six years after the setting of Chéri, and war has changed everything and everyone except, tragically, Chéri himself in spite of his time in the trenches. Still beautiful, his beauty will no longer suffice. His young wife, Edmeé, to whom he was needlessly cruel, is now more than capable of holding her ground. The only character who insists on calling Chéri by his proper name, Fred, she is managing a hospital for wounded soldiers, clearly in love with the head doctor, and together with Chéri’s mother, managing the family fortune. Unable or unwilling to take up any meaningful labour, Chéri drifts through the days, looking for an anchor in past connections and spiraling deeper into depression.

The End of Chéri has a darker, even tighter tone. Physical descriptions can be brutal, grotesque—and often wryly funny—filtered through the thoughts of the characters, revealing more about the viewer than the viewed. Chéri is at once the central and increasingly isolated figure. New power dynamics are revealed, playing out between the many female characters who are strong, independent, even eccentric. Likewise, the fabrics, the colours, the floral displays, the household routines evoke an atmosphere that drives Chéri to become more bitter and defiant. Léa, in their shocking reunion, quickly diagnoses him:

 “You have altogether the look of someone who suffers from the sickness of the times. Let me speak! . . . You’re like all your fellow soldiers, you’re looking for paradise, eh, the paradise that’s owed to you, after the war? Your victory, your youth, your beautiful women . . . You’re owed everything, you were promised everything, well, it’s only fair . . . And you find what? A nice ordinary life. So you become nostalgic, spiritless, disappointed, depressed . . . Am I wrong?”

“No,” Chéri said.

Because he thought he would have given a finger off his hand to make her shut up.

The impact of the war is present throughout this novel, but always beneath the surface, a tribute to Colette’s impeccable restraint. The characters, their appearances, conversations and mannerisms hint at how great a shift has occurred. The world will never be the same, and, sadly, some of the most profoundly wounded victims are those who were untouched in battle.

Chéri and The End of Chéri is my first introduction to the work of Colette and I am grateful to have made my acquaintance with her through this attentive and astute translation. I came to know of Rachel Careau through her translations of another very different and yet very distinct French author, Roger Lewinter. With this release, English language readers finally have the opportunity to appreciate the economical beauty of Colette’s prose, her strong, independent female characters and her ability to expose the timeless vulnerabilities and strengths of the human condition.

Chéri and The End of Chéri  by Colette is translated by Rachel Careau with a Foreword by Lydia Davis and published by W. W. Norton.

Seven (slightly vain) exercises in style: Rabelais’s Doughnuts by Pierre Senges

French writer and playwright, Pierre Senges, is a most subtle conjuror who casts a sidelong glance and exercises a sharp pencil to bring literary, historical, and contemporary notions together in unexpected intermixtures of fact, fiction and philosophy. An erudite alchemist, he spins extravagant, satirical, richly intertextual essays and imaginings that exploit that hallowed ground between the actual, the probable and the impossible. He may be dancing in the footsteps of Borges and Calvino, but Senges is the choreographer of his own inimitable style.

I have read and reviewed several of Senges’ works—the brilliant The Major Refutation, a conspiracy theory for the ages, the collaborative Geometry of Dust, and the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis—but on the menu today is an assortment of his idiosyncratic musings, half a dozen plus one tasty treats gathered together for the first time as Rabelais’s Doughnuts. Translated, like the other works, by Jacob Siefring, a veritable Senges evangelist, this slender volume is published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, their third contribution to the mission to bring more of the prolific French writer’s oeuvre into English. Six of the seven titles included in Rabelais’s Doughnuts were previously published in a variety of online and print journals over the past decade, but Siefring’s translations have been revised for this collection.

It tends to be difficult to succinctly summarize a Senges story/essay without tripping over one’s words. The most straightforward pieces here are two that involve Michelangelo’s famed painting Last Judgement. The first, “Last Judgment (detail),” is one of my favourites, revolving around a real person and situation that I was unaware of and would have thought to be entirely fanciful were it not for our friend Google. (One of the great joys of reading a writer like Senges is that he inspires a reader to look up an individual or a circumstance to find out what he is referencing—for those more cultured than myself that might be unnecessary, for those to impatient to seek out the subtext it could be frustrating, but in my mind it is a bonus.) This first Michelangelo piece considers the fate of Daniele Ricciarelli (called Daniele da Volterra or “il Braghettone”) who was commissioned to add tasteful coverings to several of the unsuitably exposed figures in the great artist’s masterpiece. With a certain empathy, Senges considers the task, the betrayal of his master, to which Daniele Da Volterra is committed:

When he draws, he draws, when he paints, he paints: depending on the point of view, the veils of the Braghettone benefit from his skill as the author of a Descent from the Cross, which has since become famous (famous as a reference, not as a celebrity). Or rather, it’s quite the opposite, one hundred and fifty veils fastened like so many pairs of underwear on the men and women of Judgement Day, all stretching towards their salvation or damnation, and disregarding as they would disregard a prune a nakedness that is more or less suited to the gravity of the occasion, one hundred and fifty veils are a valuable exercise for a painter.

The other Michelangelo related piece, “Measure of All Things,” imagines its way into the mind of the influential and critical writer Pierre Aretino who wrote an open letter to the artist offering his opinion on The Last Judgment.

Other works sing the dubious praises of the six hundred page novel, riff on one of Heinrich von Kleist’s prescient anecdotes about possible long distance communication, dragging it piecemeal into our modern world of the internet and Amazon, muse about writing exercises, and take on the character of a counterfeiter baring his sorry soul, such as it is, to a client. Figures from history and literature appear throughout, sometimes even providing a framework for Senges’ wide-ranging reflections. “Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon” is a perfect example. He wanders through the libraries of a host of real and fictional characters, from the scant collections Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky granted his impoverished characters, to the actual library an aging Giacomo Casanova found refuge in, this tribute to libraries great and small will resonate with anyone who collects more books than they can ever hope to live long enough to read. In this, one English writer’s despair at the incalculable extent of available material speaks volumes (so to speak):

The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time—to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery”, but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”

Senges’ elaborate language and dry wit allow him to take a small idea and expand it into an intelligent, extravagant exercise, one that takes chances but always steers close to the truth, or a truth, digging freely into the past to make astute observations about the here and now. If you are new to his work (or well acquainted), this short collection is a an ideal way to meet (or spend more time with) this witty, intelligent writer.

Rabelais’s Doughnuts by Pierre Senges is translated from the French by Jacob Siefring and published by Sublunary Editions.

No promised lands: Canzone di Guerra by Daša Drndić

Each time I come back to Croatia, I see that it is not the Croatia I left, that I am not the person who left. Today, every lengthy departure from Croatia promises a still more difficult return, an ever more remote chance of establishing a firm, tenuously secure basis for living. Today, when I leave, I no longer know who I will find alive when I come back.

Croatian writer Daša Drndić was singular literary force, able to deftly weave facts—often gathered and presented in an unapologetic, even confrontational manner—with fiction to create compulsively readable, powerful works. Her novels incorporate lists, historical details, interview excerpts, documentary asides and lengthy footnotes into a character-driven story to achieve more than what either fiction or nonfiction could do alone. In Canzone di Guerra, recently released in English translation from Istros Books, we see an early form of this distinctive approach to storytelling, deeply political yet strikingly novelistic, echoing the author’s own experience in Toronto, Canada, as a single mother escaping conflict as the former Yugoslavia was falling apart in the early 1990s. Given this context, this work also stands as an increasingly relevant portrait of the immigrant experience—one in which my own country does not come out too well.

Originally published in 1998, Canzone di Guerra’s opening chapters zero in immediately on the narrator’s decision to leave Croatia and the varied circumstances immigrants and refugees face in Canada after the collapse of “Socialist Yugoslavia.” Framed by short digressions about the origin and fate of certain varieties of pigs—parables of culture, dislocation and loss—Drndić quickly shatters idealistic illusions and hints at the embedded inequalities and ethnic divisions that her superficially homogenous community carries with it to new shores. Imagined, in part, as the transcript of a radio documentary we hear the voices of an array of characters struggling to find work, dismayed at the lack of recognition for their professional credentials, and coping with loneliness and alienation:

Here we sleep peacefully, there’s no shelling, but we’re waging a different war. A war in the soul, a war in the head. Why did we come? We thought Canada was a country of great possibilities. I don’t know why no one told us the truth.

Beneath the dialogue, footnotes discuss the disappearance of trees in Sarajevo parks, coping strategies for stretching food or resources, even quote George Orwell. Throughout the text, such notes offer the opportunity for a multilayered discourse. There is always more going on beneath the surface.

Of the migrants, seeking a better life, some will thrive, some will not. The narrator, Tea Radan (“my name in this story” as she later says), has her young daughter Sara, to consider. She has to hope for the best. But what is she really hoping for? That is, at best, uncertain. Prior to moving to Canada, Tea and Sara had lived in Belgrade before moving to Rijeka in her native Croatia. Her sister lives in Slovenia, her brother is restless but goes nowhere. Those she knows want to leave but most don’t get far. However, the distance that her ability to migrate affords her seems to focus her attention back on her family, her parents and grandparents, and their actions and political associations during and after the Second World War. Her grandfather’s letters and mother’s diary entries help flesh out the story, but questions remain unresolved.

A romance with a fellow Croatian immigrant sets her off on an extensive, obsessive search through archives and records available in Canadian libraries, triggered by the notion that his family’s circumstances may have been connected to her own, most particularly to a betrayal of her mother during the war. It is not a healthy basis for a relationship, but it spurs a journey that leads Tea from one rabbit hole to another, as she delves into the history of Croatian communist and fascist movements, through the treatments of Jews in Canada, to tragic accounts of the concentration camps Theresienstadt near Prague and Jasenovac in Croatia. It is a gut-wrenching whirlwind tour, one that invites readers to slip down their own rabbit holes. Yet the intensity of her investigations, only trigger more questions:

The more I read, the less I knew. No one was entirely innocent, no one was entirely guilty: not the cardinals, nor the bishops, nor the popes, nor the churches, nor the Vatican. Nor the communists. As for the Ustasha ‘truths’, I read them too, but I didn’t believe them. They all had their version of history. Those who survived. The CIA had its truth as well. America and Great Britain their own.

Uncomfortably, for a Canadian reader, Drdnić, through her narrator, is unsparing in her critique of Canada’s failure to deal with a number of high profile war criminals who found their way here—something I was not unaware of but was chastened to review it all again.

This novel is, nonetheless, more than a vehicle to delve into past darkness. It is charged with a certain humour and warmth as Tea and her daughter navigate life in a new country. It is not easy. Along with other migrants they are forced to seek social supports, take degrading work under the table, and scour second hand shops for clothing and shoes. It sounds bleak, but Tea’s defiance and Sara’s spirit carry them through the endless bureaucratic mazes of the modern capitalist state.

Entertaining, intelligent and disturbing, to read Canzone di Guerra today, thirty years after the time when it was set, is enlightening. Immigrants still face the same frustrations finding support, resources, and work that recognizes their training. Yet, as refugees from the war in Ukraine flow into Canada and many other countries—often moving ahead of those waiting in line much longer—it is clear that all refugees and immigrants are not treated equally. The migrants arriving from the collapsing Yugoslavia note at one point that they are invisible compared to other more “obvious” newcomers. But visibility is not an asset, as long-time Canadians from visible minorities can attest. Racism and xenophobia has grown even more over the past few decades, buoyed by the same kind of nationalist sentiments that played such a key role in World War II and the Balkan Wars alike.   Daša Drndić’s work remains, as ever, clear-eyed, critical and timely.

Canzone di Guerra by Daša Drndić is translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books.