Of insects and island men: Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan

Bees are disciplined and predictable, but the outcome of their labour is uncertain, the same as happens with the deeds of men…

The setting is Elba, the year, 1814. Napoleon having abdicated in Fontainbleu, has been exiled to the Italian island where Andrea Pasolini, a beekeeper with a secret passion for philosophy, awaits anxiously for an expected encounter with the Emperor. It seems that, along with an innate island sensibility, the two men share a fascination with and passion for bees. This is the simple premise of Napoleon’s Beekeeper, a fanciful novella by Spanish writer José Luis De Juan. Combining details from history with a contemporary understanding of apiculture, he constructs, through a series of short, crisscrossing chapters, a vivid portrait of two very different men whose lives seemed destined to intersect at what could be a critical moment in history.

Elba’s honey had, at the time, gained a far reaching reputation for its quality and curative powers. Passolini inherited his official vocation from his father, but his true love, nurtured under the tutelage of a free thinking priest, Father Anselmo, who had been, like Napoleon, exiled on the island for a number of years, lies elsewhere. Through him, the farmer’s son had been introduced to philosophical thinking far beyond the accepted scope of the Church. Reading became his greatest love, one he took great pains to keep hidden, first from the townsfolk and later from his own wife and family. But when he can find time he retreats to a room hidden in his cellar where he reads and fills notebooks with his thoughts and experiences. This most unusual beekeeper exercises a careful pattern of behaviour to reveal his private pursuits to no one, even more so now that Bonaparte is on Elba.

It so happens that Passolini has dedicated himself to studying the Corsican’s career for decades, inspired by an anonymous account of an odd behaviour observed during the Marengo battle which caused him to suspect that the Emperor’s adoption of the bee as a symbol and his apparent appreciation of varieties of honey signified a deeper obsession.

From that day forward, after he learned of the connection between Bonaparte and bees, Passolini’s routine as a beekeeper found a new release. He started foraging in the backrooms of booksellers located in Pisa, Luca and Florence, getting hold of the tiniest booklets with some special tidbit about the First Consul, the most intimate detail, the most secret.

Over time, the beekeeper begins to see, in the behaviour of the colony and the structure of the hive, a key to understanding, even predicting, the outcome of military actions. He comes to view Napoleon through the hexagonal lens of the honeycomb. However, this knowledge also has him caught as a pawn in a larger political scheme he no longer wants to be part of. Now that the object of his attention is close at hand and interested in meeting and touring the island’s hives with him, his anxiety and paranoia grows steadily.

Meanwhile, the Emperor spends his early months in exile keeping his leadership muscles as toned as they can be under the circumstances. Down but not defeated. However, the days begin to drag and soon Napoleon finds himself alternately frustrated by circumstances and troubled by doubts and insecurity. He passes his days with a measure of regimented boredom as he rules over his diminished domain. The glory he once tasted begins to feel more distant, less possible:

I confess I’m an impostor. I was never the youngest general of France. I never conquered the north of Italy or reached as far as Naples to cleanse the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of its bandits. My great Alexander dream was just a boozy night in a tavern. I no longer make the foolish claim of having kept the Revolution from turning against itself, of having tackled the Terror, promoted civil justice, set the lazy clock of the centuries racing.

Of course, relieved, at least temporarily, from the full demands of his former existence, Mr. Bonaparte has time to indulge his interest in apiculture and from his arrival on his present island realm, that is one of his goals. He was already aware of Passolini, having received an unexpected missive from the modest beekeeper many years earlier and imagines the humble farmer to be a suitable guide to the island’s apiaries. Arrangements are made.

As the narrative inches toward their planned meeting, moving not chronologically but rather slipping in and out of the past to sketch out and fill in the characters of the Emperor and his would-be beekeeper, dropping into their dreams and nightmares along the way, a lyrical, slightly magical story unfolds. This is historical fiction at its most spare and whimsical, but grounded in possibility, that ultimately becomes a double stranded portrait of two sad figures longing to escape their circumstances.

Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Giramondo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“what I am is a window”: At An Hour’s Sleep From Here by Franca Mancinelli

as the world was collapsing
at night I would walk among the clods of dirt
over a hill on which you cannot tell
if it is slowly swelling into a mountain
or swallowing you up in its hollow

now a light lifts the soil
or is it the whirl once the foot touches
the rolling grains of earth within the darkness.

from On the Train of My Blood

I first came to know of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli in late 2018, when a collection of short, delicate prose poems called A Little Book of Passage arrived at my home, an unanticipated yet welcome surprise courtesy of translator John Taylor and Bitter Oleander Press. The shifting, transitory quality of these fragmentary pieces spoke to me immediately and I knew I had encountered a very special poetic voice. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that our paths would cross last February in Kolkata where she was set to spend a month or so as Poet in Residence. Missing India and the City of Joy most acutely at the moment, it has been no small comfort to spend the past few weeks immersed in her most recent release in English translation. At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) comprises Mancinelli’s first two collections, Mala Kruna and Mother Dough, and is based on the revised versions included in a similarly named Italian volume, along with Out of Focus, Out of the Fire, a sequence previously published in a different version at the online site On the Seawall. As with A Little Book of Passage, this is a dual language Italian/English edition, again translated by John Taylor.

An extended conversation between poet and translator, together with translations of the longer prose poems included in the Italian edition of At An Hour’s Sleep and several other unpublished pieces, can be found in a special focus on Franca Mancinelli in the Autumn 2019 edition of the journal, The Bitter Oleander. This interview offers a window into her perceptive and intuitive approach to the creative process, an articulation the grounding of the writer’s place in the world. She speaks of an early awareness of an otherness, a feeling of somehow being set apart from her peers, that drew her to sketch out her thoughts in words as a way of trying to connect:

I believe that writing is a form of re-union: a way home, a possibility of returning to the original unity. The “fracture,” “fissure,” or “crack” that marks our identity as something separate and distinct belongs to us as a distant inheritance, received when we come into existence. It seems so essential to stay in the world that we are led to experience this fracture, while forgetting it. One who writes is, instead, called to perceive it clearly, with all the pain that it brings, along with grace. I think I started to experience it in childhood. It was like an extended solitude. A sort of condemnation and at the same time a salvation from whatever happens in daily life. The fracture can be opened as a refuge that preserves us, from which we can look out at everything flowing by in the splendor that belongs to life, in whatever form and state it presents itself, even in its most destructive and distressing appearances.

Reading the poetry of Franca Mancinelli one cannot help but recognize a kind of quiet urgency motivating her perpetual need to re-connect—this is writing as a vital act, as necessary as breathing. We all breathe as long as we are living; she seems determined to slip into the spaces between breaths and take us with her:

like stubborn insects
we keep flying against this
light that will not open, that smashes us

how much longer will we beat
on the windowpane separating
oxygen from the heart?

from Mother Dough

*

Mancinelli’s debut collection, Mala Kruna, opens At An Hour’s Sleep from Here. Originally published in 2007 when the poet was but in her mid-twenties, (the title means “Little Crown” in Croatian) this work contains four sequences that call into a shimmering, striking relief images from childhood and early adulthood, first encounters with love and passion, and, in the final sequence, The House in Ruins, intimations of a darker, wiser maturity. The central sequences The Sea in My Temples and On the Train of My Blood are especially powerful—the first conjures a dreamlike landscape within which the boundaries between the self and the lover and the natural environment blur:

at night an estuary your arms
are oak branches
a bottomless sieve
bright plummeting pebble
clump of dissolving dirt

I’ve always been here
at life’s onset
looking at these things
moving in your eyes.

The second sequence sounds the alarm, crossing into that space in which the relationship, now wound too tight, distorts, pains and eventually becomes undone. The separation is slow, the hold that the “he” has on the speaker is insidious, threatening her ability to maintain a separate agency:

one can breathe from his mouth
like someone drowning and walk
stepping on his feet
yet the legs would like to float
like seaweed to the sound of his voice

and he keeps pushing the cradle,
his body like a thumb.

Passage by passage, she traces the conflicted emotions that accompany her effort to “undo the dress that the lips / have sown stich by stitch.” It is an agonizing letting go—recognizable, raw and real.

Mother Dough, Mancinelli’s second collection builds on the same imagery and themes—especially intimacy and self-identity—but with a new confidence. Still searching, still questioning, still exploring voids and spaces that overlap, the poet’s voice has a stronger presence, one that is evident from the opening poem:

a spoon in sleep, the body
gathers the night. Swarms buried
in our chest arise, spread
their wings. How many animals
migrate within us,
passing through our heart, halting
on the curve of a hip, among the branches
of the ribs, how many
would rather not be us,
not be ensnared
between our human contours.

The poems that follow are tightly honed with an often disquieting beauty. Unexpected images are merged with an assured hand, lines trespassed with such ease that one is frequently called to read and reread each piece to soak in its delicate incongruities. The flow of images draw on nature—animate and inanimate—and experience—physical and spiritual—but her observations are fleeting, ephemeral, tenuous marked by a continual opening up, a breaking apart, an aching thirst. A restlessness. A transition from one state to another. Throughout her work, the notion of metamorphosis plays an important, if sometimes unsettling, role. This transformation is often expressed in a fracturing of the body, natural features and objects as part of a constant process of reconfiguring and reimaging, and reflects the poet’s search to understand in her own place in her body and in the world. Intrinsic to her poetry, then, is an abiding existential uncertainty, a continual reframing of Being—a gathering together of explorations into the ongoing process of coming into being, ever sensitive to the elemental, fractured and fragmentary quality of the self.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here is a beautifully presented volume with an illuminating introduction by the translator. Mancinelli’s verse is spare and fragmentary, and as such, whiteness—a representative silence—becomes an essential element. Few of the texts extend for more than ten lines; blank pages set each sequence or section apart. This minimalism is more than a form of poetic expression—it is a searching for meaning, for an understanding of how it is that we create a space in an unstable order of things. A searching we are invited to join.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

Addressing a captive audience: A Slap in the Face by Abbas Khider

Set in the earliest years of the twenty-first century, Abbas Khider’s A Slap in the Face confronts the complicated realities of the mass migration driven by conflict, poverty and the hope for a better life that has become such a definitive and disruptive feature of this new century. The novel opens with an actual slap across the face. The narrator, Karim, a young Iraqi refugee facing deportation from Germany, has accosted his caseworker in her office and taped her to her chair. Frustrated, anxious and unable to consider returning to his home country, what he really wants to do is force her to listen. Karim rolls himself a joint and launches into his story. Bound and silenced, Frau Schulz, as a representative of a dispassionate bureaucratic system, will now have no alternative but to hear him out:

Here you are. Helpless. All trussed up like a parcel. Sitting there in your expensive black leather chair. You were a goddess, a force of nature, exercising your authority over other people. I was at your mercy, but like a mythical hero I have risen up and stormed Olympus. And soon I’ll leave you to your tiny pen-pusher’s office again. You’ll be left sitting here, a lonely as a creator whose creatures have forgotten him. A god without believers doesn’t exist. That’s true of goddesses too. I’ll leave you behind and go away to a distant land.

What unfolds is one very human account of the complicated forces that can drive one man to leave his home and family behind, taking on, at great cost and risks, with uncertain hopes of success, a flight to a new land, together with a broader portrait of the haphazard expat communities that form in the limbo of an asylum system that can be painfully slow and impersonal. It is a story Khider is well suited to tell. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he was a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. Upon his release in 1996, he fled, making his way through a number of countries before landing in Germany where has been living since 2000. Writing in German, A Slap in the Face (originally published as Ohrfeige; translated by Simon Pare) is his fourth novel.

Karim’s intended destination upon setting out from Baghdad is Paris where he has a relative, but in submitting to the whims of people smugglers, he finds himself dropped off on a rural road in Germany in the dead of winter. He manages to make his way to a train station where he is immediately picked up and placed in a windowless cell in Dachau. In retrospect he is relieved that he naively does not know the association of that location beforehand. He is terrified enough. From that point, he is funnelled into the confusing, often tedious, administrative  system that will determine his fate, ultimately ending up in a small Bavarian town. Here he will build connections with a small group of fellow Iraqis, each carrying their own pasts and burdens that remain unshared. They exist as loose association of men bound by common country of origin, amid a fractious community of other refugees.

Woven into his account of the trials and tribulations that arise as he navigates the complicated asylum application process, periodically reminding Frau Schulz where she has played a role, Karim shares childhood losses and adult longings. Despite his momentary position of power, he comes across as a vulnerable figure, focused and determined but cautious to try to play by the rules. When he reveals the deep secret that lies beneath his initial desperation to head to Europe—an unexpected circumstance that I personally connected with in a way others might not—the space he occupies, slightly offside that of his peers makes perfect sense. He has a very unique reason to want to stay—one he has revealed to no one, least of all the officials at his asylum hearing.

However, 9/11 and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq upends his dreams. Everything changes almost instantly:

From that accursed day onwards, the main term used to describe us Arabs in Germany was ‘suspicious’. I would never have thought that terrorists hiding in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains could, by their attacks in the United States, plunge my life in the Bavarian town of Niederhofen into such disarray. That’s what you call globalization.

Caught up in the confusion of this rapidly changing atmosphere, Karim and his friends struggle with conflicted emotions as they watch broadcasts of the destruction being wrought on their homeland and worry about the safety of their families. Yet around them, fundamentalist passions rise among some, fueling bitter divisions within the expat community itself and further anxiety among the German population. But, once Saddam Hussein is neutralized, Karim finds that his contrived claim for refugee status no longer carries any weight, and his asylum status is revoked, but going back is not an option. He has too much invested in his hopes for a better—even normal—future. So with Frau Schulz as his silent witness, he is unburdening himself as he prepares to take flight again after three years in Germany.

A Slap on the Face offers a look at the reality of arriving in a strange land with little more than the hope for a better future. It does not glamourize the experience. The administrative roadblocks, the uncertainties, the poverty, the prejudice, the appeal of drugs or petty crime for some, and the loneliness or isolation for others all ring true. Karim’s story tumbles out—part confession, part diatribe—fueled by the frequent joints he rolls and his controllled contempt for Frau Schulz and the system she represents that has so heartlessly decided that his years of waiting and working hard mean nothing. It’s difficult not to like Karim, to feel his frustrations, and it is this connection that lends his narrative a such compelling, earnest urgency.

A Slap on the Face by Abbas Khider is translated by Simon Pare and published by Seagull Books.

Delirium, desire and despair: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

The Blind Owl is a not an easy book to read. A hallucinogenic, opium-soaked account of a lonely pen case illustrator’s decent into madness, it is disorienting. Unpleasant. Consumed with death, decay, sexual obsession and frustration. After finishing the last page it sits heavy in the gut. And then, as you start to unwind the experience, it takes on an eerie, impressive, surreal quality—no less dark—but unlikely to easily slip from the imagination once wedged there.

A classic of twentieth century Iranian literature, The Blind Owl was composed during the latter years of the oppressive reign of Reza Shah and first published in 1936 in Bombay where the author, writer and intellectual Sadegh Hedayat was studying. On the first page, Hedayat famously wrote: “The printing and sale [of this work] in Iran is forbidden.” Although the setting of the story the Iranian city of Rey, and, briefly, in India has a classical atmosphere, there is a strong, idiosyncratic modernist feel. The influence of writers like Jung, Rilke, Poe and most notably, Kafka is strong, but this absurdist tale seems to be driven by its own cluster of existential horrors. It can, and has been analyzed, symbolism examined, but that seems less interesting to me having finished the book. It does not matter how much of the author’s own psychology is embedded here (he will commit suicide in 1951 in Paris at age 48), the real power of this work lies in its ability to create a tortured, internal irreality that spins on its own frenzied axis to reach a bizarre climax that, in the end, leaves more questions than answers.

The novella is presented as a confession, the narrator feverishly scrawls out his account, addressing it to an imagined confessor, a shadow on the wall of his room that resembles an owl. In the West, the owl is commonly associated with wisdom, but in Iran and India the bird is considered a bad omen and, as the translator notes, Hedayat was likely aware of both of these contexts—the pen case painter seems to be uncertain if he hopes to understand or exorcise the demons he carries, the macabre dreams and visions that haunt him, and the crime he may, or may not have committed. A delusional narrator driven beyond despair is hardly reliable.

But he can be hard to forget.

To attempt to describe the course of events laid out in this story would be pointless. The same images are endlessly cycled and recycled throughout. The first section appears to recount a vision, a strange visit, and an unexpectedly gruesome event which is echoed but not explained in an extended surreal, feverish central sequence that makes up the core of the book—a relentless nightmarish account of delusions and bitter memories dominated by a preoccupation with death, decay, and decomposition. What appears, at first, to be the narrator’s attempt to fill in his background history, his childhood and miserably unhappy marriage, quickly loses chronological sense. Boundaries between memory, dream, hallucination, and obsessive paranoia melt and blur. The motifs that recur in varying forms—bruised morning glories, clotted blood that can’t be washed off, characters shaking with a harsh convulsive laughter, a butcher chopping up an animal, the narrator’s inability to recognize his own changing face in the mirror, houses with odd, uninhabitable geometrical shapes and shadows that stretch, bend and distort—lend the work a distinctly Expressionist quality. At times I found myself picturing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari re-imagined in a Persian context. But with a much, much darker undertone:

I saw that pain and suffering existed but they were devoid of any purpose or meaning—Amongst the rabble I had become an unknown and unfamiliar breed, so much so that they had forgotten that before this I was a part of their world. What was frightening was that I felt I was neither completely alive nor completely dead, I was but a moving corpse that could neither join the world of the living nor partake in the oblivion and peace of death.

It is hardly surprising that this book has frequently been censored in Iran, attacked by Islamists, and has served as the unfortunate inspiration for suicide among some readers. It is a vital, if disturbing, piece of literature all the same.

However, a discussion would be incomplete without a word about translation. Several versions of The Blind Owl have been published in English over the years, D. P. Costello’s (1957) being the best known. I chose the 75th Anniversary Edition translated by Naveed Noori, the first to be based on the original Bombay Edition. As a native Persian speaker fluent in English, Noori examines a number of significant inconsistencies in Costello’s text, relative to the original, and considers the likelihood that he was working at least in part from a French translation and a typed Persian version that contained errors and typos. This is, for those interested in debates about translation, where the rubber hits the road.

Those familiar with Persian will benefit most from Noori’s detailed introduction, but he brings up a very interesting matter. “Costello’s translation,” he tells us, “is entirely fluent and reads well;  however, in doing so, the narrator’s voice is changed, and the text has become domesticated.” Domesticated. An example is offered where tones and subtleties are missed, not without admitting that it is always a challenge to balance the tendency to domestication against the risk of foreignization. Smoothness is frequently championed as the hallmark of success in a translation. But at what cost? Noori chose to begin with a foreignized bias and work toward the centre with repeated edits to improve the flow. That means, at times, employing more unconventional English usage, to retain a meaning closer to the original Persian. As well, whereas Costello’s translation is apparently relatively calm and controlled, Noori follows Hedayat’s practice and employs the repetitive use of dashes to heighten the agitated discomfort of the narrator’s collapsing mental state as he frantically scribbles his confession:

Before I leave I only want to bring out on paper these pains that have devoured me in the corner of this room, bit by bit, like leprosy or a festering wound—for in this way I can make my thoughts more orderly and organized—Is it my aim to write a will? Never. I have neither money that the court can swallow up, nor religion that the devil can take away, besides what on this  earth can have the least bit of value for me—that which was life I have lost, I let it and wanted it to slip away, and after I am gone, to hell with it, whether someone reads my scraps of writing, or whether they go unread for seventy black years—I only write for this need to write has now become vital for me—I am in need, more than ever I’m in need of connecting my thoughts to my imaginary being, my shadow—this sinister shadow that, in front of the light of the tallow-burner, is bent over on the wall, as if it is carefully reading and devouring that which I write—This shadow must surely understand more than I!

Now, I cannot compare Costello’s well-loved version, and The Blind Owl is available in at least three English translations along with many more in other languages. However, as a reader interested in the art of translation, I am very glad I happened to select this one for my first introduction to Iranian literature.

The Blind Owl by Sedegh Hedayat, translated by Naveed Noori, is published by l’Aleph under the auspices of The Sadegh Hedayat Foundation.

The theatre of the desert: Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust

Last week, as I sought a text to carry me across the midnight bridge between decades, I wanted something that might, even for a moment, turn the world on its head. What could, I wondered, be more fitting than to spend New Year’s Eve and the following day in the company of Pierre Senges. After all, a voyage with the French writer, be it brief or extended, is guaranteed to offer a taste of the unexpected. The world he inhabits exists on the edges of maps, in the margins of manuscripts, in the creases between pages, and tucked into the corners of the imagination. If it looks familiar that’s because you have been there, wandered its streets, navigated its seas, crossed its stages. But when you stop to adjust your compass, or try to align yourself with the stars, the needle tends to spin, shudder to a stop, and, then, as soon as you think you know where you are heading, a flood of literary, historical, or starkly contemporary references will slide into the narrative and lead you off track once again. To read Pierre Senges is to embark on an adventure, one that may just as easily take you travelling halfway around the world as stumbling down the block and into the local pub.

Fortunately for me, I had recent translations of two rather different texts by Senges on hand, both translated by his tireless advocate Jacob Siefrig, and published by a couple of inventive small publishers. The first, my New Year’s Eve companion, was the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis. Published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, a project that began in mid-2019  to produce original literary offerings distributed as a monthly print newsletter, this small, pocket-sized volume marks their first foray into the big world of book publishing on a manageable small scale.

Senges delights in taking characters and themes from literature and history, reimagining  them in terms that stretch from the mildly satirical to the strangely absurd, and then proceeding to fashion tales shot through with sharp, dry humour—one that can, at times, be lost on readers who like their humour to be more, shall we say, in your face. In this regard, Falstaff: Apotheosis, taking as its subject Shakespeare’s most misunderstood minor character, is an ideal bite-sized introduction to his singular style. More than a comic foil, Falstaff is presented as an ingenious master of humiliation as a heroic act. His crowning glory, or apotheosis, is his bold and daring performance of a deceased figure on the battlefield, an act that sets the stage for a treatise on the ethics of playing dead:

To be the master of one’s own death, what a timeless caprice: the trick being to lie down not just any old way, rather to adopt the humble simplicity of the sandbag, or the hieratism of the tree trunk, or the mannerist posture of a hunting dog, or an expressionism inspired by anatomies of past centuries and the bold contrasts of cinematic skills—to breathe out one’s last sigh, but exhale it negligently, instead to opt for the Romanticism of the last and lightest breath, like the breath a child turns on a dandelion. . .

What makes Senges so successful is his language—long winding sentences filled with wise and wonderful imagery, holding fast to a measure of seriousness in the narrative voices he employs.

My into-the-new-year Senges was Geometry in the Dust. Published by the bold, experimental Lawrence, Kansas-based publisher Inside the Castle, this is a longer, more elaborate ruse—a delicious anachronistic tale presented as a report to a desert-bound prince keen to construct a city in his kingdom of sand, from his loyal minister who has been sent on a mission to learn about the features of a real-life city and advise his ruler on what will need to be considered. Echoing the spirit of the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, our narrator is attentive but a step out of time, observing the modern metropolis, but not always connecting the dots completely. The result a strangely insightful and original reflection on the nature of the urban landscape.

His observations are often trapped in time. He seeks out the city scribes at one point, hoping to be able to compare his ideas to theirs and finds, rather than rows of copyists at their desks he finds that calligraphers ply their trade by night, running through the darkened streets, clutching paint, hurriedly scrawling messages on walls. The intensity of city life overwhelms him, continually exceeding his expectations, but leading to wonderful portraits as he seeks to describe the indescribable to the sheltered and isolated ruler he serves:

To define a city for you more or less: it’s a danse macabre every single day of the week: it seems to me that the idea of the danse macabre will help you put your finger on what a city is, because it communicates to you a scraping of nail on bone, as well as a gnashing of teeth. The danse tells us all we need to know about the city’s circular nature (not so long ago cities were contained within wooden circles, like certain soft-rind cheeses; although they tried hard to emancipate themselves and go over the walls, they still retain a bit of this roundness: it will be necessary to take this design into consideration)

Yet, even if the noise, chaos and moral loose edges of the city challenge our often judgemental traveller, he is determined to make sense of everything (including the curious cul-de-sac) and advise his prince on the extent to which all architectural, cultural and social intersections should be designed so as to leave nothing to chance. It’s difficult, of course, not to be struck by the degree of hubris driving the ambitions of this desert monarch and his faithful servant, especially on their shifting terrain of sand and dust. But then again, perhaps it is only in the space of pure fancy that the ideal metropolis can exist. Paired with the artist Killoffer’s grotesque depictions of the hectic, congested modern city, Geometry in the Dust offers a fantastic meditation on the impossibility of reducing a concept as complex as the city to a few lines scratched in the dirt.

For a taste of this work and Senges’ inimitable style, see this excerpt from Geometry in the Dust with illustrations by Killoffer at 3:AM Magazine.

Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges are both translated by Jacob Siefrig and published by Sublunary Editions and Inside the Castle respectively.

Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.