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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes: Nancy by Bruno Lloret

Nancy, the debut novella by Chilean writer, Bruno Lloret, is a curious read. Somewhere in northern Chile, a woman is dying of cancer. She is looking back over her adolescence and early adulthood—a rather unusual existence marked by poverty, encounters with gypsies, Mormon missionaries, and itinerant filmmakers. Some readers have imagined her an old woman, but even though time references are not reliable, it seems likely that she is only in her late twenties or thirties. At least that is what the nature of her aggressive cancer and the compressed quality of her adult experience would suggest. But I could be wrong. Hers is a tale filled with holes.These holes are made manifest in a most ingenious manner. The landscape of Nancy Cortez’s mind is framed within a sea of X’s. A flood of the symbols open and close her story, and mark sentences and spaces—gaps or silences—along the way. Between these X’s the language is notably stilted, there is little effort to set a scene, descriptive details are offered only as required to provide a basic context for the experience Nancy wishes to share, lending the text a spare, often awkward, quality. This is intentional. The author has claimed that his goal was to allow readers to engage with the work in different ways and to that end the X’s, and I would suspect, the embedded images of x-rays and other objects, are intended to break up the reading.

If this sounds cluttered and disruptive, at times it is, but the actual story reads easily and  smoothly. Nancy is an eccentric narrator, with a voice that is sarcastic yet notably flattened in affect. Her account opens with her escape from life with her sad, troubled father at the age of seventeen. She arranges to be smuggled into Bolivia where she meets the gringo Tim, quickly gets married, and ultimately ends up back in Chile. The marriage is less than happy, and ends with Tim’s bizarrely tragic demise after Nancy’s cancer has already taken a toll on her body. She describes the ravages of the disease quite vividly, talking about the fear of dying, and the loneliness of waiting for nature to take its course.

And then she retreats into her past. The X’s retreat too, leaving more room for words to fill the page. Her mamá, she advises us, was erratic and abusive, her papá quiet and oppressed by life, her brother Pato a refuge. She reports on adolescent experiences with sex, social outings to the beach, and periods of isolation at home. Everything starts to shift when her brother disappears and her mother walks out, leaving her at home with her bereft father who, in his distress, soon falls prey to the advances of a pair of Mormon missionaries:

But the Brothers really had managed to get my papa interested X X The Word of God had done its work, and via those missionaries with their tanned necks and yellowing armpits it moved him, drawing him slowly into their embrace X Damn the Word and damn the sneaking Truth, taking advantage so cruelly, so mockingly of a man who up until a few minutes ago believed he had no soul X X

This conversion, the transformation of papá tonto into papá santo, will have a significant impact on Nancy’s teenage years—in strange and unexpected ways the missionaries and other local Latter Day Saints will feature in the adventures of our heroine and her hapless father moving forward. Until, of course, the story circles back on itself, completing its narrative loop in a thickening pool of Xs.

Throughout, this narrative has a certain unevenness. Details are sometimes mentioned out of place, and there is a conversational coarseness and odd tone that surfaces. Nancy is not well read or particularly engaged in school, so her account does not have a literary flourish. This is an appropriate quality, given the protagonist’s background and deteriorating health, but does it work? Clearly for many enthusiastic readers it does, but I confess that I found it difficult to care about Nancy or the characters who people her tale. No one, not even the narrator, feels real. The eccentricity of the overall story was not in itself a problem; the disconnect lies in the fact that very little emotion is registered. Nancy typically shows an odd detachment and lack of concern for anyone, even for herself. The veracity of her account cannot be taken for granted if her memory has gaps, but people who confabulate to compensate for memory loss tend to show engagement with their stories all the same. I respect the attempt to create a first person narrative that defies typical lyrical expectations that can feel artificial given the narrator’s life circumstances, but as X’s filled the final pages, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Nancy by Bruno Lloret is translated by Ellen Jones and published by Giramondo in Australia and Two Lines Press in the US.

Eating Cheaply: The Cheap Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

A new edition of a lesser-known Thomas Bernhard novel is, for those of us who collect his varied works, a reason to be excited. Originally published as  Die Billigesser in 1980, The Cheap-Eaters rests more than midway through the Austrian writer’s career, and offers another nourishing helping of his idiosyncratic style of long-winded, circuitous, single-paragraphed fictional expositions of human eccentricity. Now in a fresh new translation by Bernhard enthusiast Douglas Robertson, Spurl Editions has served up this novel, or novella, in a handsome, nearly pocket-sized volume—a virtual literary take-away, the perfect companion for, say, a saunter to a nearby park for a little open air reading in these days of pandemic defined recreation.

Coincidentally, it is a walk to a park that stands for Koller, the protagonist of The Cheap-Eaters, as the single most important factor leading to the discovery and facilitation of his life’s work. As our unnamed narrator, an old school friend, explains at painstaking length, his, Koller’s, chance divergence from the park that was his usual destination to another where he encountered Weller, an industrial glassmaker, and his dog was a pivotal event. A most fortunate misfortune. The dog bit Koller’s leg which in turn had to be amputated, and this injury not only provided, via a lawsuit, a guaranteed income for life, but it also caused him to happen upon the cheap-eaters when, after his release from the hospital, he stopped into the Vienna Public Kitchen, or VPK. The four regular diners welcomed him, one-legged and with crutches, into their fraternity and over time they became the subjects of what was soon to become his obsession: his so-called Physiognomy.

For years he had fraternized with the cheap-eaters and had eaten cheaply with the cheap-eaters, had eaten more cheaply with the cheap-eaters than anywhere else and actually he had never eaten both as cheaply and as well anywhere else, for in the VPK he, Koller, had always eaten cheaply and well and he had never yet been able to eat both more cheaply and better anywhere else. He said that he actually owed to the VPK nothing less than the fact that he was still alive today; nothing less actually than the fact that I still exist! he had once exclaimed in my presence, and nothing less than the fact that he had made it through so many appalling Viennese years…

More than a place to partake of the cheapest of the available cheap meals with such suitable companions, Koller credits the VPK with his bodily existence, and more critically, his very intellectual existence.

At the point in time when our narrator is winding and unwinding his long-winded account of his somewhat repellent and yet somehow appealing friend, this friend, Koller, has already devoted himself to his particular studies for sixteen years. He is now, he says, ready to begin to unveil his findings. It is, of course, perfectly fitting that a Bernhardian hero should be consumed with an appropriately outdated pseudoscience like physiognomy, the supposed practice of determining a person’s personality from their external appearance, especially facial characteristics. Koller speaks of his Physiognomy with reverence; he approaches it, as one would expect, from the altitude of his superior intellectual energies, devoting his full attention to understanding it through careful study of his constant dining companions.

If The Cheap-Eaters purports itself to be a novel about the four men who gather together, with Koller, to eat cheaply at the VPK, it is, yet it is more explicitly an expose of Koller’s own eccentricities as recounted by a narrator whose own attraction to his subject is as curious and questionable as Koller himself. And given the way our one-legged hero is portrayed, one might even suggest that the cheap-eaters who so dominate his thoughts are remarkably normal by comparison. But then, this is Bernhard and would one expect anything less?

He had always felt sorry for so-called healthy people because in his view they never emerged from the swampy lowlands of absolute intellectual torpor and moreover were condemned to languish all their lives in this brutish intellectual torpor of theirs, no matter who they were and no matter what they did, and he despised them quite openly and invariably seemed to derive a certain enjoyment from this contempt of his for these miserable, good-for-nothing, mind-damaging creatures as he had actually once described them to me verbatim.

Anyone familiar with Bernhard in his longer form work, will not be surprised to find that the narrative progresses in a doubly-, sometimes triply-nested and convoluted fashion, treading over the same well-travelled ground repeatedly, slowly adding new details and bits of commentary along the way. Robertson’s translation handles this labyrinthine movement nicely. And, of course, all this wandering is rewarded as everything begins to take shape, the cheap-eaters are finally given individual dimension, and then—well, you have to read it yourself to find out how the story concludes.

I will say that The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Douglas Robertson and published by Spurl Editions, is a welcome addition to my own curious and eclectic collection of Bernhard’s work.

I am the hard one: Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

destructive is my normal state (37)

Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen is a singular force of poetic vision. Intense, strident, futuristic. Outgoing Vessel, newly released from Action Books, is the follow up to her award-winning Third-Millennium Heart, a powerful reading experience I loved so much that I responded in verse with an experimental review published here (open the PDF to read). Translator Katrine Ogaard Jensen is on board again for this new journey and, as with her previous work, Outgoing Vessel unfolds over a sequence of poetic movements to form a 193-page, book-length poem that is both epic and operatic in scope. I was not surprised to learn that Olsen is also a librettist. As with her earlier project, the “singer” here is an enigmatic narrative force—perhaps the same one, I don’t know, though I hear a companion rather than a continuation myself.

no one except me can hate feelings
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they still succumb to them
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they, in weak moments
open up to them and

and become soft with longing

among all time’s winners
i am the hardest (8)

The early suites of Outgoing Vessel seem charged with negative energy, often erupting in harsh declarations of hatred that begin with the self and extend outward.  The voice is hard, constrained. Darkness and destruction are evoked frequently. Yet the motion is self-driven, Olsen owns her language, and the direction she is moving toward (and expecting others to align with) is not symbolic, but it is futuristic. She seems to be intent on encasing her darker, grieving being, containing it inside a container—described as an orb:

which I will send off as the outgoing
vessel that it is
after which the new human can arrive in its

incoming (48)

Third-Millennium Heart built on a tension between the clinical and the organic, pregnant with promise, anger and grief, rupturing ultimately into a powerful post-human feminist vision—one which gives birth to the possibility of a cyborg-like hive-heart existence. Heart’s speaker devoured and contained. Vessel’s is more isolated, inward focused and philosophical. Pain, grief, and an existential disconnection drive her rhythmic reasoning as she moves toward the foundation of a technological ontology, a science fiction solution, and a re-imagining of a new human beingness.

we must assume there is an original alienation:
first the estrangement, a person, a stranger to themselves
stranger to others, the person exists deep inside their
distant interior, without knowing, they must escape to the
surface, from inside, to become human (108)

The futuristic tone becomes more prevalent as the sequence progresses, propelled in no small part by the “technoscientic” poems that close each section of the work. As translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen explains in her note, Olsen “created these poems by piecing together lines from each suite, running the text through multiple languages in Google Translate, translating it back into Danish via Google Translate” then, from the resulting document, the final piece was created employing a cut-up method. This mechanical process allows for a new tone, energy and uncertainty to enter the cycle (not mention an added challenge for the translator to meet in a satisfactory measure):

human nature
in the coffin, a
relic, collection of Bones and Hair
encapsulated and stored in
a humane vacuum

this is
the refuge (94)

The strange brutality of Olsen’s poetry, the slogan-like chants, and the tightly-honed anger can be off-putting, but as with Third Millennium Heart, I find it oddly therapeutic. Anger in its shades and intensities can be a positive force—it is the healing movement of the cycle of grief, it pushes you forward, up and out of the sandpit of sadness that follows loss, trauma, heartache. It sounds counter-intuitive but I saw it many times working with survivors of acquired brain injury. Yet it is hard to allow it in oneself, for fear it will erupt in uncontrollable ways. Through the course of Outgoing Vessel we witness the speaker’s emergence as a voice of concern, intent on invalidating loneliness—through her outgoing/incoming vessel she comes to a radicalizing understanding of empathy and experience.

Olsen is a poet who, as her translator Jensen freely admits, cannot be neatly and directly rendered into English—her work is highly inventive, rife with cultural references, puns, neologisms, and experiments with language. Rather than attempting to produce an exact copy, Jensen aims to stay true to the “spirit of the work,” allowing it to find its own form in translation. This is, it turns out, an ideal approach for a poet who sees her own  work as a “translation of an idea”. As such, she is simply the first translator and Jensen is the second. The result is a sequence of poems that carries its own fresh energy. Tight. Terse. Tender. And ultimately affirming in its futuristic vision.

Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen is translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. It features stark, spare photographic works by Sophia Kalkau and is published by Action Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise, fall, redemption.

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

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

 

An island to hold in the palm of your hand: Purple Perilla by Can Xue

Imagine. Islands of words, small self-contained worlds of ideas, stories, exploration. Points of reference in a sea that is increasingly uneasy, uncertain to navigate. This is the vision of isolarii, a project designed to revive the notion of “island books”—collections of literature and art united on a singular idea and bound into a single volume—that first appeared during the Renaissance, but was lost as other literary forms began to take precedence. Now, under a bimonthly subscription model, the tradition has been reborn in miniature.

Purple Perilla by Chinese experimental writer Can Xue is the third offering in this series. Beautifully presented, complete with a translucent dust jacket, this tiny book is about the size of a deck of cards and contains, in just under 150 pages, three delightful short stories: “An Affair,” “Mountain Ants,” and “Purple Perilla.” Xue offers these tales, which move from an urban to a wild setting, as a lyrical reaction to our contemporary condition. Her trademark measure of unreality permeates each piece.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Can Xue is a very idiosyncratic writer. She allows her fiction to spill forth in what will be its finished state—she writes, one hour a day, without rereading or edits. As a result, her stories and novels have a wandering quality, with a real, yet unreal atmosphere. Much like a dream. The best way to approach such work is to read as Xue writes, one word at a time. This is against an attentive reader’s natural instincts, but looking for patterns and clues will not help. However, this is not to say there is no form, no direction, no meaning—only that one is forced to be patient, to listen and see where the story takes you, not worrying if it seems to tumble along freely at times. Reader and author are essentially on a journey together. As Can Xue says:

Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s.

“An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a thirty-six year old teacher, living in a city, who receives a most unusual love letter from a man who claims he has seen her on the bus. He neither reveals his name nor provides a return address, admitting he does not expect she would want to write back. This odd, enigmatic correspondence haunts Fay, leading her to wonder what kind of hold this mysterious man has on her imagination. Eventually she sets out to find him, or find out more about him, by travelling to the far end of the city where he told her he works at a cigarette factory. What she discovers on her strange, convoluted mission seems to tell her more about herself than any mysterious suitor.

The second tale, “Mountain Ants,” is set in a small city surrounded by mountains. Lin Mai lives with his parents in a mansion which is oddly isolated despite being surrounded by buildings. Visitors are rare. The boy spends much of his free time interacting with a large nest of ants in his yard. One day an old man appears at his gate. He tells Lin Mai that he lives in the mountains and has followed the ants to his home. This man, who is called Grandpa Wu, shares some knowledge about the ants and promises that one day he will take Lin Mai up a mountain. As this magical story unfolds, Lin Mai learns some curious information about his parents, the beggar known as Grandpa Wu, and the importance of tending to his own and several other mountain ant colonies in the city.

The final story “Purple Perilla,” the most dreamlike and magical of the three, ultimately carries the narrator into the wilderness, where a friend and his grandma have gone to live among the wolves. To young Chickadee this friend, a boy he has long admired, has uncanny qualities:

Unwittingly, I followed Nigu. He was so profound that he wasn’t like a child, but like … what was he like?

“I’m my grandfather’s grandfather.” Nigu turned around and spoke to me. I was stunned—he actually knew what I was thinking!

“I’m really like my grandfather’s grandfather. I think I am. Chickadee, don’t be afraid of me; I won’t hurt anyone…”

Read as a cycle, these short stories walk headfirst into the unknown. Here, questions are transformative in themselves—it’s less a matter of securing answers than of finding comfort in mystery. Bound together in this portable format, they offer a direct engagement with the magic and vision of one of China’s most inventive writers.

Each volume in the isolarii series is accompanied by several forewords. Presently, Scholastique Mukasonga’s prose riffing in response to a sentence or two from each of Can Xue’s stories is available online. It can be found here. Reading this small volume is a uniquely pleasurable experience. And, it’s worth noting that although the book is small in size, the font is not nor do the stories feel compressed or compromised in any way. It has been a while since I last wandered in Can Xue’s world and my first encounter with her short fiction, but I am now keen to return, before long, to her dreamscapes in a longer work or collection.

Purple Perilla by Can Xue is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. It is the third volume in the isolarii series published by Common Era Inc.

Love is at the heart of everything. Everything except for love itself: The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović

“We only know their story as they told it. Like in books. The only way their story can be told is the way they want to tell it. Isn’t that beautiful? Like a fairy tale. The only pictures we’re left with are the ones our minds created, as we listened to their storytelling.”

The back cover of Slovenian writer Goran Vojnović’s award winning novel, The Fig Tree, promises a “multigenerational family saga…spanning three generations”—exactly the type of description that typically has me thinking twice if not turning away altogether. However, trusting on the strength of Vojnović’s Yugoslavia, My Fatherland—a tightly woven tale of a young man who discovers that his father, long thought dead in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s, is not only alive, but a fugitive war criminal—I had no hesitation to take on this newer (2016) work, recently released from Istros Books in a translation by Olivia Hellewell.

The Fig Tree is an ambitious undertaking. It is multigenerational in the sense that we all exist within the framework of those who came before us and those who will follow. Here the central concern is that of the narrator, Jadran Dizdar, a man in his 30s who is, it seems, adrift within his own life. His grandfather has just died, perhaps under curious circumstances, his father has been gone for many years, his mother is bitter and resentful, and his wife has just walked out on him and their young son. He is trying to make sense of himself by coming to understand the decisions and actions of those around him. But is he avoiding asking the questions only he can answer?

The story begins in 1955, in Buje, Croatia, close to the Slovenian border where a young Aleksandar Đorđević is due to take up a post as forest warden. Arriving from Ljubljana in Slovenia, the newcomer bears a Serbian name and birthplace, but his heritage is complicated and uncertain. He soon takes a fancy to the nearby village of Momjan where, against the concerns of his pregnant wife, Jana, he decides to build a home—the house where they will raise their two daughters, and where one day the garden will be graced by a huge fig tree. It is also where the very next chapter opens. Moving ahead to the present time, Jana is gone, having faded away in a steady loss of memory, and now Aleksandar, Jadran’s Grandad, has also died. That event and its consequences—his daughters’ differing reactions, his grandson’s suspicion that he may have taken his own life, and his cremation and burial—form the backbone upon which will Jadran flesh out the story of his family’s near and distant history.

As a novel focused on family dynamics, it is natural that relationships—especially those between husbands and wives, parents and children—should be the primary focus of The Fig Tree. And so it is. This is a novel about all the complicated facets of love. Jadran is intent on retracing his parents’ early romance, his own love affair with Anya, and the factors that shaped his grandparents’ final years. But his connection to his father, Safet, who has made himself so strangely absent, is possibly the most nebulous element of all, one that haunts both him and his mother. When Safet disappears to Bosnia in 1992, my immediate thought was that he would get caught up in the war. However, his existence in Otoka where he assumes residence in his grandmother’s empty house, is at once mundane and mildly eccentric. He is perhaps trying to connect with his own family’s past, while escaping the family and life of his present. Five years after his departure, his son comes to visit. In his father’s absence, Jadran had created a Bosnian dad fantasy that Safet could not even begin to live up to. He has to come to terms with the truth of the man who is not an idealized hero but:

just like the person who was waiting for me at the bus station in Bihać: scrawny and greying, oddly dressed, the sort of person who offered his hand and asked how my journey was, and whether I was hungry, the sort who, after I replied that I was, glanced around confusedly, not knowing where to take me to get something to eat; unprepared, lost.

Their brief reunion is awkward and strained, both parties are uncomfortable, but the reader may well wonder if there is discomfort in the son finding an unwelcome reflection of himself in the father.

Some of the most powerful passages of The Fig Tree trace the gradual decline of Jadran’s grandmother Jana following a likely stroke. Aleksandar’s complicated reactions as his wife gradually slips away from him—loss, guilt, frustration, redefined love—is wonderfully imagined. It is also one of the spaces in which the wars which tore apart the Balkans enter the narrative:

I know who that is, she said to him, turning away. It was of no interest to her that the country was collapsing, because that was beyond her comprehension. And what she didn’t understand didn’t interest her. The present became increasingly demanding, and one evening she got up, said that she couldn’t watch any more of it, and left the present behind.

Her world no longer extended beyond the walls of their house, and Aleksandar was left alone with the impending times, with a sense of dread, alone with everything that was happening on the outside.

The conflict and its implications are echoed in personal concerns about ethnic identity and nationality. Jadran’s family is rooted in Slovenia, but he and some of the characters have a complicated heritage—something which always matters on some level but holds greater relevance as the former Yugoslavia comes apart and borders take on new importance. The arc of this story may extend beyond the war, before and after, but underlying tensions and repercussions cross into the everyday throughout.

The Fig Tree is a deeply immersive, highly rewarding novel. However, I would suggest that it might take a little time to find one’s footing within the narrative flow. This is, perhaps, because Jadran can be a somewhat difficult narrator to warm to. At times he seems colourless, willing to slip into the background or even slip offstage altogether, allowing accounts drawn from his parents’ and grandparents’ lives to be told from afar. At other times, when he is front and centre, he can get bogged down in his own mix of blame, bitterness, and limited self-awareness, on occasion even falling into unbroken passages of running thoughts, a near stream of consciousness. Early on, shifts in the storyline seem a little odd, characters and situations are often introduced in a sideways fashion, with explanations and clarifications arriving only in time. Yet, once one gets accustomed to the manner of telling, the characters and their stories become increasingly compelling. And if there is a strong current of uncertainty running through Jadran’s account, it is not surprising, there is so much he is trying to resolve, so much that may never be known:

The coffin is no longer visible. The cranking of the mechanism that lowered it down has stopped. The sound of the furnace, however, grows louder. I hear the last of Grandad’s secrets burning, I hear it all disappear. All that remains is doubt, for doubt is the only thing that’s eternal.

Then, as the novel nears a close, Jadran makes a confession that I did not see coming, but one that reveals what I had already sensed. It’s a twist that brilliantly reframes everything—not only the text that has just been read, but the notion of writing a family history at all.

The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović is translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell and published by Istros Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For fear of electric shocks.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Caught between seasons: Camille in October by Mireille Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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