Searching for a future in a devastated landscape: Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Ellmiger

There were no maps, no more accurate maps for the northern coal district. It was absent on all the plans, it was one large absence, so to speak, the course of the roads had long since slightly shifted, hills diminished, towns abolished.

Beneath the surface of a once prosperous coal mining district, flames from a fire in the tunnels has been smouldering for decades; above, the land has largely been laid to waste. Pit frames dot the horizon while in some places the land has caved in, sometimes taking livestock or an unfortunate human resident with it. Towns stand nearly abandoned, home to only the stubborn and the eccentric who have held fast. In one such community, two young women—daughters of the police commander and the last remaining youth—have never known anything but this desolate territory. It is their sole inheritance, all they have to look forward to. Their future is bleak, but they are determined to salvage some sense of optimism.

For Margarete and Fritzi, the protagonists of Swiss writer Dorothee  Elmiger’s award winning debut Invitation to the Bold of Heart, an old map indicating that a long-forgotten river once flowed through the region offers a spark of hope that drives a determined search for evidence that it still exists somewhere—even if it has temporarily disappeared below ground. If they can locate this elusive Buenaventura River, they believe they may be able to begin to make sense of a past, including their own family history, that no one wants to talk about and create a base from which they can start to look forward on their own terms. It’s an ambitious and enormous goal.

Bookish and studious by nature, Margarete is the official archivist. She devours the books she finds in the apartment above the police station where she and her sister live with their father. Natural history, science, and literature. On a Remington typewriter lifted from one of the policemen she types her account and makes notes of details that seem relevant. Facts about rivers and deserts, about mines and mining appear and reappear throughout. Moodier and more carefree, Fritzi makes little direct contribution to the narrative. She is the restless explorer. What she adds, however, through her reported observations is thoughtful and wise, such as this reflection on their surroundings:

For a long time, she said, I have been trying to comprehend the landscape here. She said, I look at the pit frames rising up to the sky, and I look at the railway lines running deeper and deeper into the ground because they’re sinking and sinking. I look at the sky, because the sky might also be symptomatic, the sky is also part of this landscape. I count, she said, I count the colours; my vocabulary is exhausted after brown, olive and black, and when I think about it those are all the colours that are here.

Of course, to affect a thorough search both girls have to head out, together or apart, on foot, by motorcycle or car, and eventually, in the company of a horse named Bataille that Fritizi finds and brings home. Meanwhile, the policemen who have little need to patrol, spend most of their time glued to the television set, hardly noticing the sisters’ comings and goings.

Characterized by a spare disjointed style, the novel most often resembles an attempt at record-keeping, a report for a future that is vague and uncertain, set in a surreally dystopic present that seems willfully disconnected from its own past, or simply exhausted by the weight of the space it occupies. The adults are either oddly apathetic or completely absent, like their mother who holds an almost mythological place in their imaginations. A female Hemingway-like character, she smoked cigarettes, cut her hair short, and one day simply drove off into the distance. Together they fantasize a series of daring adventures for her. On the other hand, they typically refer to their father as simply Heribert Stein or H. Stein, reflecting a relationship that seems cool, even antagonistic.

The fractured, loose-limbed narrative is, at one level, rather unsettling. It is, not unlike the sisters own place in the world—ungrounded, suspended somewhere in a geological timeline between oceans and deserts. They have facts and coordinates and maps, but no direct knowledge beyond the borders of the territory they’ve always lived in. One has the sense it has been intentionally cut off, guarded to keep outsiders at bay. This uncertainty which reflects the sisters’ own isolation is never resolved. A wealth of intertextual references woven freely into the text further offset the environment of the novel. It is a daring approach and, for the most part, very effective. Yet, in the innovative voice of Invitation to the Bold of Heart, one in which the narrative often appears to wander, ramble and repeat, pulling in facts drawn from a variety of interconnected sources, one can hear the qualities that Elmiger will develop and refine in her more mature and startlingly impressive second novel, Shift Sleepers. Without question, she is an author to watch closely.

Invitation to the Bold of Heart, by Dorthee Elmiger, is translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and published by Seagull Books.

Tales within tales: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

Oh, she serenades me so lovingly in the crepuscule of the park, the last lark. Does she really want to fraternise with this fluorescent shade? You are from the social services, Mevrouw? What? Come closer chincherinchee, I’m hard of hearing. You’re from the service that does the annual census of rough sleepers? She looks at me! Oh what an expert gaze rests upon me! Diva of the indolents in the catacombs of Krijtberg, sleep-counter of the stone-broke in the Heiligeweg!

At the end of July I shared a few thoughts about translation, arguing that a translated text need not be cleansed of all the linguistic flavour of the source language, especially slang, vernacular or wordplay woven into the original narrative. It may not always be possible or desirable to maintain certain elements, and sometimes transferring the rhythm and feel of an idiosyncratic expression may require the creation of a new word or the unconventional use of English, but it’s a balancing act. Strip away too much and, unbeknownst to the reader, the smooth sounding rendition they hold in their hands may have come at the cost of much of the energy and charm of the original. It might arrive prechewed, if you like, as if to make it more digestible. And unless you know the source material and language, who’s the wiser?

With Marlene van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, you will have no doubt that you are dipping into the slippery terrain between languages. Originally published in Afrikaans, and translated into Dutch and English, it almost feels as if more than one language is meant to interact on the page at times. As a collection of four longer short stories—two set in Amsterdam, and two in South Africa but with a significant connection to the Dutch capital—there is room for a little playful linguistic overlap. And English language translator Marius Swart is quite comfortable allowing that to happen, when appropriate.

Of course, this approach is entirely in keeping with the text at hand. This set of loosely intertwined tales is concerned with storytelling—with language, translation, sound, and images. With what can be told and what cannot. With what should be said—that is, the storyteller’s social obligation—and what should not. And with how to open oneself up to what is being shared.

The opening story “The Swan Whisperer” will be familiar to anyone who chanced to read it in a slightly different form in The Cahier Series edition which featured the striking images of William Kentridge. Rereading it again I was as captivated as ever. Presented in the form of a lecture by a South African teacher of Creative Writing who shares the author’s name; it is an account of Kasper, a misfit student who unexpectedly sends her a long missive from Amsterdam where she had secured him a writing bursary. He is in the hospital, but wishes to explain why he is dropping out of his degree, and recount the most unusual and transformative occurrences which he has experienced. She is not impressed. No, she is even a bit angered. Reads a little and tucks his letter away. When a second package arrives, this one filled with cassette tapes and a so-called Log Book of a Swan Whisperer, she retrieves the letter, reads further and learns about her student’s infatuation with a drifter who appears to be able to communicate with swans. Reluctantly she finds herself drawn into the strange and compelling mystery her former student represents, and caught up in the project captured on his tapes—one where translation leads beyond the structure of ordinary language, grammar and meaning.

The second tale, set in Amsterdam, takes the form of a lengthy, rambling eulogy for Willem,  a writer of some renown. Jacob, his best and perhaps only friend, is a clockmaker who sets out to describe the last day of Willem’s life, one they spent together. The writer had been seeking feedback on his latest story, “The Percussionist,” and now Jacob has brought the unfinished manuscript along. It forms the unlikely backbone to his address to the gathered mourners. He reads from it, imploring the restless assemblage to help him complete the tale. As with all of Willem’s stories it was inspired by someone he had become fixated on and studied through his binoculars:

I would always know when he was having a crush on someone new, and that he’d write it up as soon as it was over, and that I’d once again be called as his witness. Not to witness the infatuation, but to attest to the fantasy. Because nothing meaningful ever came from these so-called great loves of Willem’s. The stories were all he retained. He held on to them for dear life. They were his real lovers, I only realise this now.

Their final day together ended in a riotous, childlike trashing of Willem’s apartment, as if he somehow sensed it was his last, but his friend, left to gather up all the pieces is the one who now has nothing to hold on to. Even as much as he resists it, the funeral also has to come to end and he must go home in his aloneness.

The title story “The Snow Sleeper” is the point at which the threads that tie the stories together intersect, though, the way they actually connect, or the extent to which the narratives and characters can be trusted, is not entirely certain. Here Willem’s younger sister Mevrouw, with both her father and her brother dead, is engaged in a study of Amsterdam’s homeless for her thesis. She finds herself under the spell of a “radiant vagrant,” an enigmatic and articulate jester holding court on a bench in a city park. Unfolding as a series of transcriptions from her interview with him, interspersed with memos that record her reaction to her curious subject along with memories of her own father who had similarly wandered in his later years, lost and restless until he was contained in a nursing home. She is, in guilt and grief, vulnerable to the strange charm of an eccentric drifter determined to tell her a story about a snow sleeper while she is intent on recording responses to the questions on her questionnaire.

Where I’m from, that’s what you want to know Mevrouw? Don’t they teach the art of the diplomatic approach any more, there in your lieweherehogerschool? “Where” is a vagrant “from”, did you hear that, dear listeners? Where from!

Fromness is for someone with a bed in one place, dear lady, but I sleep outside, I come from a cucumber and blow where I will, I know all the spots, the summer houses and the short stays, this park bench is my Xanadu, but I’m actually a man of snow, I drink my own thirst, with a horseradish for a nose and three chestnut buttons on my stomach, a cruel infestations of imaginings in my breast.

Among the tales he spins for his interviewer, is one of a doleful young man whom he tricked into believing he had the power to call swans, and a photographer for whom he performs the construction of a winter bed of cardboard and plastic. He has been, he implies, the ultimate jack of all trades—reciting poetry for a few coins in the park, seducing the lonely souls out of their own security and onto the streets. And for Mevrouw? He haunts and disturbs her thoughts as they share that park bench and day fades to evening:

If you’re going to split your fire for me, I wanted to tell the drifter, if that’s what your story is about, about how you consume people by whom you feel threatened, then I will burn like the wood of a plum tree, you will see all your language burn, soaked into my fibres, you will hear the echo of your impossible tale, a suitcase full of popping coals.

The interview ends when her tapes run out, but she is altered. Not even certain how. His stories nested within her own memos is a searching for answers.

The closing story, “The Friend,” returns to South Africa. The narrator is again named van Niekerk, caustic like the first one, but different in nature. She tells of a friend from school to whom she was unnecessarily cool when she was a young politically engaged activist and he was an awkward character with a stutter and an interest in photography. She encourages him to turn his lens to the injustices of the day at their country’s critical turning point. And he does, becoming a famous documentarian—then going a step too far. Does he perchance end up in Amsterdam one winter? Paths cross, but this is a softly tragic tale about a different kind of storytelling. One with images instead of words. One that ends, like the first, beyond words altogether.

Marlene van Niekerk, known for large novels like Triomf and the monumental Agaat, is equally mesmerizing in a smaller format. The stories in this collection are dense with emotion, ideas, and textual cross references, yet each one feels like magic—sad and wonderful at once.

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk is translated by Marius Swart and published by Human & Rousseau. It is my final Women in Translation Month read for 2019.

She walked alone: I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd

Wear the robe of wisdom,
brand Lalla’ s words on your heart
lose yourself in the soul’s light,
you too shall be free. (146)

For Women In Translation Month 2019, as we watch signs of escalating global turmoil—rising racist and xenophobic tensions, political insecurity, increasing inequalities, and serious environmental threats—the voice of a fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic may seem an unlikely source to turn to. Or it may make perfect sense. After all, her homeland, with its fractious and turbulent history, is in an ever more precarious state now. And eerily, some of her poems even seem to foreshadow this ongoing state of unease, one with deep and troubled roots.

There’s bad news, and there’s worse.
Autumn’s pears and apples will ripen
with apricots and summer rain.
Mothers and daughters will step out,
hand in hand, in broad daylight, with strange men. (36)

Lal Děd is Kashmir’s best known spiritual and literary figure. She has been revered by both Hindus and Muslims for almost seven centuries and, although scholars on both sides have wanted to claim her for their own and her earliest English translators wished to reinvent her through a Victorian lens, she has, and continues, to inspire those fortunate enough to come to know the body of work attributed to her. With this translation, first published in 2011, poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote offers a fresh approach to Lal Děd for the twenty-first century reader, one that is vital and alive, and supported with a thoroughly researched, detailed introduction and notes. What comes through is the spirit of a singular visionary seeker:

Across the expanse of her poetry, the author whose signature these poems carry evolves from a wanderer, uncertain of herself and looking for anchorage in a potentially hostile landscape, into a questor who has found belonging beneath a sky that is continuous with her mind.

Little is known with certainty about the historical Lal Děd, or Lalla, as she is widely and affectionately known. It is thought she was born in 1301 or between 1317 and 1320, and died in 1373. Her life has generally been understood in terms of an archetypal narrative—born into a Brahmin family she was married at the age of twelve, but was restless within these confines. As a woman, the rigid medieval society within which she existed offered little freedom. Her family eyed her meditative and spiritual leanings with suspicion, so at twenty-six she renounced her marriage, left home and sought a guru. Once her discipleship was completed she set forth into the world, becoming an itinerant wanderer and seeker. She founded no school, had no formal following, and appointed no successor, but she would have a profound influence on Kashmiri religious life and inspire generations of devotees to pick up her poems and carry them on, adding to them in a spirit of honour and devotion to her. As such, Hoskote sees the body of work attributed to Lal Děd as rooted in the life and teachings of a real person, but the product of a contributory lineage “comprising people of varied religious affiliations and of both genders”, a socially and culturally diverse living archive amplifying her voice down through the centuries. He expresses his understanding of the mystic and her poems—which he describes as “utterances” or vākhs—quite beautifully: “Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vākhs; rather she is the person who emerges from these vākhs.”

I didn’t believe in it for a moment
but I gulped down the wine of my own voice.
And then I wrestled with the darkness inside me,
knocked it down, clawed at it, ripped it to shreds. (48)

To complete this new translation, Hoskote spent twenty years immersed in Lal Děd’s teachings—working with the original material, earlier translations, and academic and religious commentaries. It was a journey of his own, one that took him from youthful  academic to early mid-life—from student to respected poet, translator, and cultural critic and curator. The intimacy of his association with the material is reflected in the extensive introduction which offers a thorough, yet fascinating, preparation for reading the vākhs themselves. He provides a background for understanding Lalla and her times, her importance, her placement within the spiritual histories and currents of Kashmir up to the present, and finally, his own approach to translating this material. The notes at the end of the book take a closer look, as needed, at each poem.

For this book, Hoskote selected 146 of the short verses that comprise the LD corpus and presents them in “a sequence that suggests the journey of an evolving religious imagination, from the phase of self-doubt to those, successively, of visionary experience, the discovery of wisdom, and the sharing of that wisdom through teaching.” This decision to order her vākhs along a trajectory that imagines the mystic’s growth and spiritual progress, while clustering companion pieces and utterances that share a common theme (often reflected in a similar image or final line), allows for an organic and rewarding initial reading—an encounter that opens up a wealth of avenues for return engagement, deeper contemplation.

My willow bow was bent to shoot, but my arrow was only grass.
A klutz of a carpenter botched the palace job I got him.
In the crowded marketplace, my shops stands unlocked.
Holy water hasn’t touched my skin. I’ve lost the plot. (12)

The imagery is sharp, often unexpected, sometimes relying on scenes and tasks from everyday life to address a wide audience in familiar terms, while at other times, the sensual and ecstatic comes through vividly:

I, Lalla, came through the gate of my soul’s jasmine garden
and found Shiva and Shakti there, locked in love!
Drunk with joy, I threw myself into the lake of nectar.
Who cares if I’m a dead woman walking! (68)

Toward the end of this sequence, as the focus turns to Lalla, the mature teacher, we find her tone more inclined to be firm, her wisdom offered with images from nature and daily life, her intention unambiguous:

I can scatter the battalions of southern clouds,
dry the ocean, play physician
to the most lingering fever and cure it.
But I can’t knock sense into a fool. (127)

I’ve finished what I can only describe as a first read-through of I, Lalla with careful attention to the introduction, and then the 146 utterances, each one a four or five-line verse. I thought I would read them all and attend to the detailed individual notes later, but that’s not possible. For each vākh that would strike me, pull me up short, or echo back to something discussed in the introduction, I would find myself looking up the relevant note.

Of course, this book’s not finished with me yet. I need to spend some more time with Lal Děd. At the moment, one of the most striking features is that, in light of the current state of affairs in Kashmir, her voice (and those of the others who, in devotion, contributed to and transmitted her teachings down through the years) is especially vital and important. Hoskote’s care, attention to detail, and obvious deep personal and political interest in the material, make this a valuable addition to the understanding of this revered mystic, and an inspiring volume for contemporary readers from all backgrounds.

Who’s there? Who’s there? Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger

Question: How many roads can be used to enter Switzerland? Answer: Several hundred.

Imagine a novel that refuses an ordinary logic but contains within its pages a multitude of overlapping narrative accounts from a cluster of speakers sharing a space vaguely defined in place and time.

Imagine a novel that exists on the threshold. A performance art piece rendered in writing. With a cast of characters who bring their memories, experiences and unbound images (The place I’m thinking of is a common refrain) weaving in and out of one another’s stories, through accounts that are sometimes offered within reported letters or phone calls, even though that same character is also apparently present. Or perhaps not.

Born in 1985, Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Kelag Prize in 2010 for her first novel Invitation to the Bold of Heart. Her second novel, Shift Sleepers, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Megan Ewing, is a bold and breath taking approach to story telling that defies expectations, but does so in a seamless and engaging manner that, under a heavier hand, could have read terribly forced and artificial.

Set in a house in some unspecified location, presumably in Switzerland, a seemingly eclectic group has gathered. It includes a translator troubled by dreams of collapsing mountains, a logistics expert suffering from prolonged insomnia, a travelling writer, a female academic named A.L. Erika who talks of a significant period of time spent in Los Angeles, a journalist, a student from Glendale, California, and the restless Fortunat Boll whose pursuits have taken him to Texas, Portugal and other locales. On the sidelines, so it seems, are the logistic expert’s sister and brother-in-law and Mr. and Mrs. Boll. Although a few of the characters carry the bulk of the narrative, their stories are not only interrelated, but as listeners they are actively engaged with and attentive to one another—questioning, urging the speaker on, offering supplemental detail. If that sounds odd, well it is. But it is remarkably effective. This is not a random multilevel conversation so much as it is an orchestrated, open ended meditation on a number of vital, and difficult inquiries that affect us all on personal and political terms.

Their conversations touch on art, music, writing, justice, migration, trade, and belonging. Their discourse rises as a polyphonic hymn to the nature of movement across borders—ideas in language, language to language, country to country, wakefulness to sleep, sleep to dreams, life to death.

But is it readable? I found it endlessly fascinating myself, but I imagined it as a play, as a performance art project rather than any kind of conventional narrative. The voices and their stories are what matter and the author wants to ensure that you listen to what they say. Thus, more than a house, the setting is akin to a stage, or a room into which many doorways or thresholds converge. Characters come and go, retire to their rooms, assemble to share a meal. But the action, if it can even be called that, is minimal. Movement happens elsewhere. In memories and dreams. And it is in these reflections, and the questions that arise, that the novel’s power lies.

Shift Sleepers is a fragmentary work, but one in which the fragments blur and blend into one another. In the course of one paragraph, a number of voices many pick up a thread, carry it for a sentence or two and step back. The key characters slip in and out of singular accounts that go on for a several pages at a time, continually resurfacing through the course of the book.

Each person is essentially exploring the same issues that, in different contexts, ask: What does it mean to be alive? In this moment? At any moment or place in time?

It is human to want to know where one fits in and with whom: Who’s there? the opening words of Hamlet, form a frequent refrain.

The figure of central concern, the one who embodies within himself, the primary focal point of engagement for this ensemble, is the logistics expert who has a background in customs, monitoring the transport of goods across borders. In his recent state of extreme sleeplessness, he describes no longer being able to distinguish between events near or far, or to determine what is relevant. Caught in a state of strange alertness, detached hyperawareness, he experiences himself wandering through streets and towns, bombarded with images from North Africa, particularly Djerba, an island off Tunisia, seeing an owl, images of bees and being routinely distracted by a child playing a flute. Strangers sit in his apartment, people come and go, but he is unable to fall asleep himself. He describes his desperation:

even the attempt to remove myself from the city and the events led nowhere, these things were happening everywhere, I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t imaging things, I was continuously awake and saw everything with my own eyes. In Djerba too, in Athens too, in Florida too everything would have continued the same way, everything actually behaves this way, the Customs manager produces risk analyses, two men allow their bodies to be rolled up in rugs to cross the border, the Swiss farmer has no more use for the asylum seeker when he fails to understand for the third time how to pick crops, the mountains form a natural border, the shift sleeper is in search of a new domicile.

The shift sleeper of the title has a historical context stemming from the second half of the nineteenth century when migration into the urban centres of Europe led to a shortage of available and affordable housing. Newcomers might be forced to rent a bed during the hours its regular occupant was out or otherwise engaged. Without an unconditionally secure place to rest, they would grasp at sleep for a few hours at a time. These individuals or transient existences were a source of public distrust. They still exist of course. Today’s homeless person, refugee, and migrant continues to live this way—in streets and alleys, couch surfing, in camps and settlement centres, and too often, wherever they can.

Not surprisingly, the body is a striking and recurring image in this novel. Several speakers admit to their own varying degrees of personal bodied discomfort, and metaphysical disconnect, while the bodies of others—of smugglers, migrants, victims of physical violence—become an object of fascination and concern. Even obsession.

Other motifs that recur throughout the conversations that comprise this work are movement, passages, across bodies of water, through forests, on foot, by train. Safely, legally, or otherwise. Falling is also a frequent image—from the crumbling mountains of the translator’s dream that opens the book, to regular references to the work of Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared in 1975 during a solo transatlantic voyage launched from Cape Cod. Encounters with his work, which often deals with falling, sit as a reference point connecting many of the characters to one another. And his fateful final “performance” is echoed with historical references to earlier transatlantic migrations toward North America. Historical themes are blended with contemporary images throughout.

Originally published in 2014 as the migrant crisis was raising alarm in Europe, Shift Sleepers is even more unsettling in light of Trump’s border detention camps and the increasing nationalism and xenophobia spreading worldwide every day. At one point, the logistics expert recounts a phone call from the journalist, wondering how he could be so complacent when so many people were risking everything everyday by simply crossing the national border that ran past his house. These people, he is warned could disappear, find themselves in remote enclaves:

He himself had tried in vain that day to enter a so-called reception centre, even though these centres and cells, these sensitive zones, were easy to find and he could go there without much issue either on foot or by car, as he explained on the telephone—at the same time it was impossible for him to ever actually enter these places for as soon as he set foot inside their rules lost all validity as concerned his person.

These spaces, he explained, essentially established two different categories of persons—and two separate categories of being. Further along, another character, speaking of a visit to the US will wonder why it is easier for some people to cross borders than others? Or rather, why can an American cross a border without changing, whereas a Mexican crossing the same border becomes a different person?

 One of the counterpoints played out against the increasing divisions between people and kinds of people, is explored in the idea of the possibility of harmonious communities. Fortunat Boll, a man who is present with his parents, speaks of his own innate loneliness, his travels to Texas and interest in La Réunion, the utopian socialist colony founded in Dallas by Victor Propser Considerant in 1855 to which his own supposed relative naturalist Jacob Boll briefly belonged, and of his father’s own bee colonies. Both the colonies, human and apian, had in this case failed. Fortunat wonders if he could ever live with others or would he always need to be apart.

Today I live alone, do I feel lonely? Hardly. Over time I have lost a certain vulnerability, I rarely have strong emotions whereas everything weighed heavy in my youth, I was driven by feelings. This tuba tone is finite and vanishes in the air, it means two things that are mutually dependent, the place of my childhood and the distance from it, such antagonisms are beautiful because they are simple, now I see the world as a complicated structure, everything possible exists within it simultaneously.

One has to wonder about unusual ensemble within which, at least for the duration of the book, he has found himself. What strange spell holds it together? There is a sense of cohesion borne of the questions asked and the answers given, in how stories are shared, often the same experience told from different angles, sometimes first- other times second-hand, stories nested with stories—like sets of personal and communal Russian dolls.

Images are echoed and revisited as the book progresses. However, rather than feeling repetitive, these returning accounts add to the density of the narrative, becoming threads woven into a self-referential intertextual tapestry. There are few answers to the uncertainties and concerns the various characters carry with them. There is no explanation as to how they all arrived at this one place or why they’ve gathered. This is a story about questions, not answers, about the personal concerns about our lives, bodies and relationships that are ever evolving, and the broader issues—migration, justice, and global trade—that threaten our ability to share this planet.

Shift Sleepers is a symphony of inquiries. Elegantly composed and executed. A very impressive achievement for a writer who is still very young.

Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger is translated by Megan Ewing and published by Seagull Books. It is my second read for Women in Translation Month 2019.

Love is blind, sometimes stubbornly so: Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski

Right from the very first passages of Marina Šur Puhlovski’s Wild Woman, her unnamed narrator offers no niceties and lays out no illusions—she is a perfect mess, housebound, disheveled, surviving on breadcrumbs and red wine, and slipping out only at the beginning and end of the day for the sake of the dog’ business. Her husband, we soon learn, has been gone for three days, the marriage finally over. At first she was delighted, now she’s delirious. The apartment around her, the same one she grew up in and has always lived in, has been prepared for renovations that never started, fleas have infested most of the rooms, yet she is miserably philosophical about her state of affairs:

I usually prefer the south, warmth and lots of light, but not now. Now I could do with the other side of the world, with the north and its perpetual cold and dusk, its connection to Hades where I landed when I collapsed on the floor and clearly died. Died as the wife of my husband, as his partner, died along with love, faithfulness, loyalty and everything that goes with it, all shattered by the broken vow of “forever”, now nothing but an empty word. Because nothing is “forever”, not the dog, not me, not the damned insects or this apartment or this building or this tree or this town or this planet or the Milky Way and the Universe with it, everything changes, and so do words, which are basically always a matter of politics, in other words, a bitch…. We belong only in our thoughts – me now and me once upon a time – and in photos, and these photos keep us together like Siamese twins attached at the head, making it impossible to separate the two. Except with a knife. When one of us will drop away.

Ah yes, she is resentful, defensive, and defiant—angry at herself and the world. But she is also the indefatigable force behind one of the most honest, human and sarcastically humorous narratives I’ve encountered in a long time.

Newly released from Istros Books, in a translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, Wild Woman is Puhlovski’s sixth novel. Enthusiastically received in her native Croatia, her introspective narrator practically bristles with attitude—think Knausgaard on speed—and yet beneath the surface of her non-stop monologue is a painfully recognizable portrait of the perils of falling in love with love, against the backdrop of life in Communist Yugoslavia.

To explain just how it is that she has found herself in such a pathetic state, the story moves back seven years. At the age of nineteen, with the excitement and promise of university ahead, our protagonist has, along with her desire to study literature, the determination to score romantically. It’s the 1970s and, as far as she is concerned, the two go hand in hand. It is, she will realize too late, a misplaced goal. But for now, the arrival of the maxi-skirt on a fashion scene long dominated by the mini-skirt is going to be her saviour. With her heavy legs hidden she believes she will finally be on an even playing field. She finds a pattern, the idealBe careful what you wish for: fabric and corrals a tired relative to construct the dress of her dreams. Perfect! She will be magnificent, divine! “And what I want to happen happens,” she reports, “the skirt does its job, it sweeps, it collects, it drags some thoughts underneath it, adopts them, imprisons them. I have no idea that from then on I will be imprisoned myself, that the game is over.”

When she arrives at uni in her custom-made maxi skirt ensemble, designed to flatter, she has a particular target in mind. He and his friend stand at the back of the hall. He doesn’t sound like much—fair-skinned, hair thin, but dark—while his companion is healthier-looking with thick blonde hair. However, her sights are already set on the, objectively speaking, less promising specimen. The fact that they are studying literature as opposed to some boring practical subject is a big part of the romantic appeal. She is imagining a meeting of the minds, à la Sarte and de Beauvoir, the seedlings of a great intellectual and artistic love affair. When the two men hurry off after class she is not so sure; when they return in the evening her faith is restored: “Amazingly, they kept coming regularly, in the morning and in the evening, with the other one taking notes, like me; but my guy didn’t, he didn’t even carry a notebook with him, ignoramus, I thought, but I didn’t hold it against him.” She’s resolved to forgive any hint of a shortcoming, dismiss any reservation, before Mr. Right even knows she exists. Not exactly a good start.

In the early days of distant admiration, she analyzes his physical features in detail. He comes up short. She vacillates, she reconsiders. What draws her in should, and would, in hindsight be a warning sign, ones that no one so desperate to secure her chosen mate would want to acknowledge:

Inwardly, I was attracted by the very things that put me off, the look that needed softening, the smile that needed coercing, and then the weariness, especially the weariness, with its hint of something tragic, of the predetermined downfall of the novel’s hero, he exuded an unhappiness that needed soothing, a pain that needed easing, a wound that needed healing, it was all written there in his eyes and on his brow, especially on his pale, high brow … Suddenly he became gorgeous.

Had he flown red flags that would have been visible from the moon, she would have looked the other way. And there are plenty of pieces that fail to add up from the very outset, but she keeps recalculating to achieve the number she desires, and tucks any remainders left from the equation away like unused furniture “building my room for the unspoken, undiscussed comments I kept to myself, afraid that talking about them would force me to draw conclusions.” Later, she would be compelled to confront her commitment to the cause—to him—but by then, she would be in too deep, caught up in a complex and complicated mess of doubt and devotion, exasperation and obligation.

As the narrative unspools, the narrator casts an unsparing eye at her own naiveté, mocking her own blissful blindness, casting gossipy aspersions at an entire cast of supplementary characters whose own lives have tumbled sideways, even long after she has begun to suspect her own bed of roses is in fact lined with nails:

There’s something wrong with that boy, my mother said, worried, two months after I had brought him home to introduce him to my parents so that he could come to the house and visit me. He isn’t just my boyfriend, he’s a colleague from uni, we have the same interests, books, the same plans for life, I explained to my mother, my feet weren’t on the ground, I was on cloud nine, thrilled to have found a soulmate, with whom I was in love, because there were plenty of guys around for the physical part, but to find a kindred soul, mused the virgin who had yet to be penetrated and whose sexual life was therefore a matter of fantasy.

A premonition of the possible fate awaiting her could be found  close to home, in that of her own family and in that of her “one and only’s” but her response as a daughter is to question her mother’s concerns even as they secretly eat away at her.

And on it goes, each chapter adding another cause for concern or attempt to wash it away. Pieces of his apparent history fail to add up, like two years spent in Italy that no one can confirm and a troubling tendency to disappear that begins early in their relationship. He puts little effort into his studies and she soon ends up spoon feeding him the answers he needs, effectively doing his degree and hers at the same time. Even his friends seem at odds to defend him, but they have their own demons and obsessions too. And behind it all, is the very real sense that for these young adults, family background, class, political affiliation and ghosts lingering from the war have already composed their future prospects. The narrator’s fantasy of an intellectual life inspired by her philosophical and literary heroes is as unrealistic as the personal romantic ideal she clings to. Plenty of illusions can be shattered between nineteen and twenty-six.

However, even though we know we are heading for what seems—at least from the vivid descriptions of her present state of utter dis-repair—to be a tale of loss and destruction, the narrative account of how she gets there never sinks into self-pity. Almost a rant, her monologue is spiked with a healthy measure of dark humour, seasoned with the hard-won wisdom of hindsight. One can’t help but root for her. And one can’t help but suspect she will, in the end, not allow herself to be defeated.

Tellingly, she never names her beloved, and every time she refers to “my darling” or “my one and only,” you can almost hear her sneering—at him and at herself for being so willfully blind for so long. But, of course, it’s not so simple. In real time it never is. She has made her bed and for a long time seems resigned to lie in it. She has, it turns out, fallen for a replica of her own father—lazy, capable of cruelty, and prone to illness. With her father, alcohol is the cause whereas her beloved suffers from an acquired condition with a less certain prognosis.

I never hit back, he’s sick, I might hurt him, so I just twist away, try to fend him off with my hand as I used to with my father who also hit me, when he was drunk, not on the head, my mother would cry out, but it was no use because, if I protected my face, his hand would automatically go for my head. And it stopped when I told him that the next time he hit me I would kill him, I was already of age. And then I brought my husband into the house only to have it continue, as if I couldn’t live without being hit.

The extent to which his illness, a small cerebral angioma, is an actual contributing factor in his odd behaviour, and how much it is a convenient excuse to avoid ever making an effort at anything, it is hard to say. Either way, her complicated sympathies to both her dying father and her needy partner hinder her ability insist on the boundaries and respect a healthy relationship requires.

And this is the true beauty and power of this book. It speaks volumes about the decisions we make when we let love cloud our judgement, or allow societal, cultural or other personal pressures to push us into relationships. I married young myself and defended my ex against all criticism for a long time, I’ve seen others similarly make ill-advised or hasty commitments—and it’s not simply a hold-over from earlier generations. It still happens today, although perhaps not quite so young. And it’s not only women who feel the pressure, nor is it a feature unique to heterosexual unions.

However, in Wild Woman, as in real life, it is the women who do, more often than not, end up short-changed. Their men tend to be lazy, selfish and unfaithful, for varying reasons and to varying degrees. But in the narrator’s mother’s generation the inclination is to endure a losing situation, stick it out for better or worse, is greater. That shift is occurring. The narrator finally has to accept that she has married a man who is inclined to treat her as her father treated her and her mother. The cycle repeats itself.  Unless  she can break it—no, smash it to smithereens—it will continue. In 1970s Croatia, that might just entail entertaining a little wildness, but if anyone has it, Puhlovski’s insanely wonderful, wise and witty narrator has it in spades. She just has to find it first!

Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books.  An excerpt can be found at 3:AM Magazine.

A ghost from Calcutta revived: Herbert (or Harbart) by Naburan Bhattacharya

With an opening not for overly delicate sensibilities, Harbart (or Herbert depending on the edition) takes you down into the darkened streets of Calcutta where a group of intoxicated men vomit and piss their way home, and a “rag-clad mumble-mad woman” washes herself at the neighbourhood water tap. They’ve spent the evening partying at the home office of “Conversations with the dead” with the proprietor, the title of the character of the book, who has by now, unknown to them, slit his wrist and lies bleeding to death while a blue fairy frantically presses at the window unable to alter his fate.

Recently released in a brilliant new translation by Sunandini Banerjee[1], this beloved cult classic is a spirited—and spirit-filled—story of a man who never quite manages to fit himself into a world that is in upheaval, through a time of shifting social and political uncertainties. If our hapless hero exercises a certain practical and historical indifference and finds himself caught up in a number of currents he does not understand, his creator was anything but complacent. Writer and poet Naburan Bhattacharya was a dedicated humanitarian, passionate about the lives of all members of society—a man who was, as his daughter-in-law remembers him, keen to explore “the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically.” This inclination shines through warmly and vibrantly in this, his first novel, originally published in 1994.

From its ominous, dramatic beginning, the narrative slips back in time to fill in the gaps, and make its way forward to close the circle of Harbart’s short, unfortunate life. From the start, tragedy marks him. Orphaned before the age of two after his father is killed in an automobile accident, and his mother accidentally electrocuted while hanging laundry on a wire, Harbartt ends up deposited at his father’s family home in Calcutta where he “proceeded, through indifference and neglect, toward adulthood.” His aunt Jyathaima will be, throughout his life, the sole family member to show him kindness. His cousins, especially the greedy Dhanna-da, resent his presence, abusing him whenever the opportunity arises, while his uncle whose unrestrained fondness for whores leaves mentally incapacitated as the result of venereal disease, spends his time circulating from room to veranda with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, screaming “Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!” This Hindi version of the brain-fever bird call, meaning “Where is my love?” becomes a running gag in the book—just one small indication of the humour and character that runs through the story.

Although Harbart spends a few years in school, he finds it not to his liking and drops out, preferring to read on his own and even, for a brief time, dabble in some, less than elegant poetry. Had his father not been obsessed with movies and squandered his share of the family fortune on film projects before his untimely death, this entire tale might have been quite different. But, instead, what he and the boy’s beautiful fair-skinned mother leave their son is a handsome profile, a Hollywood-ish, Leslie Howard-ish air, and a notably shahebi name—Harbart (or Herbert).

Early on, Harbart develops an interest in the dead when he find a human skull and a few bones in a trunk in the house. He eventually takes them to cleanse and release them into the waters of the Hooghly River, but from that point on he starts to immerse himself in two tattered books on the occult that had once belonged to his grandfather. This is not, however, the beginning of his career as a communicator with the deceased. His cousin Binu, a young man with connections the Communist Party had come to the city just as political tensions were rising in the early 1970s and is killed by the police. Despite his attention to Binu as he lays dying in the hospital, the incident slips from Harbart’s memory until, many years later, he recalls his cousin’s long forgotten last words in a dream and, before long, his fortunes take an unexpected turn:

Herbert could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Herbert’s time now. He would have to produce panic-pandemonium. Rip apart everything, torment-turmoil everything until the entire universe whirled in the dance of devastation.

All of a sudden, Harbart is in business. At the same time, a chain of events is set in motion that catches the naturally anxious proprietor unaware. It seems that there are forces intent on cashing in on his talents and others determined to shut him down.

Harbart’s business may be a sham, but it is not conducted with an entirely mercenary intention. On the one hand, he is too inept to concoct an illusion worthy of the mediums of the past, like the personalities who populate the reference books he clings to, on the other, the painful stories of those who seek his services tug at his heart. It is exactly this weakness that allows him to fall into the trap set by those intent on discrediting him. But is he really hurting anyone? He is accused of playing on the desires of the bereaved to believe ghosts exist. And yet, in truth, Harbart’s own ghostly ancestors are never far away. His deceased parents huddle close by whenever their son is in trouble, his progenitors confront him in a terrifying god-like vision, and they all will cluster around at his unforgettable cremation.

This slender novella moves with a force and energy of its own—stretched out in places, sliding sidelong in others—and packs an entirely unanticipated punch at the end. By turns funny and tragic, it sings with the spirit and energy of the Calcutta streets and neighbourhoods, which are slowly changing, where modernization—like the satellite dishes sprouting on roof tops—is leading to more isolation and less compassion. It’s a world where a lonely misfit like Harbart, clinging to illusions (like that afforded by the moth-eaten Ulster great coat he walks around in, or his infatuations with a lady doctor he happens to see in passing or a stone fairy in a store window) hardly stands a chance.

Finally, I have to add a few words about the two editions of this book. I bought and read the New Directions edition first and thoroughly enjoyed it. The language is vibrant, coarse, and playful. Calcutta as I’ve experienced it comes alive on the pages. But I was curious about the different spellings of the title character’s name. It is not unusual for a book published in North America by one publisher and in the UK and the rest of the world by another to have two different titles, or small variations in the edits, but the name is rather obvious. Harbart is the Bengali rendition of “Herbert,” the name the Seagull edition uses which, depending on how you choose to look at it, given that this is an English translation, the protagonist was given an English name and he likes to imagine that others might detect in him a whiff of “white blood,” there is a fair cause for an English spelling but it’s not a major concern for me. In this review, I decided to hold to the US edit. However, the quote above is from the Seagull version, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, the delightful hyphenated rhyming or alliterative verbs and nouns that litter the text in this edition have been, largely diluted, sometimes even replaced in the New Directions edit. Same with some of the vernacular. Given that the translator is the senior editor at Seagull who are themselves based in the heart of Calcutta, this noticeable difference begs the question: Was the translation deemed too lively for American audiences?

Both Seagull Books and New Directions are publishers I greatly respect and I don’t want to belabour the differences. This is an exceptional, moving and important book—not to be missed, no matter the edition!

 

[1] This new translation has been published by New Directions in North America as Harbart, and by Seagull Books in the rest of the world as Herbert.

A few thoughts about language and reading in translation

I am presently reading Herbert, the Seagull edition of the Bengali cult classic by Nabarun Bhattacharya. I just finished reading in the New Directions American edition, published as Harbart. I will write a review after this second reading, not as point of comparison because both are publishers I greatly admire and strongly support. However, it is impossible to read both and not wonder what, if any, small changes are made in making a text more, shall we say palatable, for a particular English language audience. Don’t worry, the ribald, piercing vibrancy of Sunandini Banerjee’s translation shines through in both editions celebrating a work that is gritty, funny and tragic in equal measure. That’s not the issue, but so often when one sees a critical assessment of a translation by someone familiar with the original, the translator is the larger and obvious target of an attack, one often illustrated with specific examples that are seen as muting or distorting the original. Invisible in the equation is editorial input. Translations, like any literary work, are subject to editing before they are published.

The differences here are, so far as I can tell, primarily language choices—what do you leave in a vernacular, what do you edit for the ease of an American or a British audience (as relevant)? This is a frustration I have long had with translation, something that  bothered me, for example, with South African books edited for audiences outside South Africa, especially translations from Afrikaans. With my favourite writers I have tried to obtain the original South African translation if possible. One that hasn’t been sanitized for an “average” English language reader (whatever the editor  feels “average” is).

Why is so hard to imagine a readership unable to guess at the meaning of a word from context? For the purist there is always Google, but that is ultimately as fallible as trusting any one editor’s word preference. Even in our native languages we often encounter words whose meaning we are at best vague, if not entirely off course with as to the exact definition. With learning a second language this disorientation is increased, but it should not necessarily be a barrier, students are encouraged to try to fill in the gaps from what they do know about vocabulary and grammar as their fluency improves. Is it an extension of some skewed political correctness that we should never meet a word we don’t recognize?

This is why I love Michel Leiris. I am currently working on a critical essay about his work. He loved language, delighted in meanings. And misunderstandings. In the way an assumed meaning is sometimes more magical than the actual one. Or how a door is opened when we take it upon ourselves to become enlightened as to the nuances of a word or expression’s meaning. Or it’s relation to root forms or variations in other languages.

In a translation there is a place for a glossary, but it ought to be a carefully mediated tool. Broader political references or identification of figures of importance mentioned in the text are one thing, especially in a novel as socially and politically charged as Bhattacharya’s. However, deciding  which idiosyncratic word or expression must be defined or replaced is a question of balance. Less is more, I’d argue. If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way? I suppose it is, in the end, a question of what kind of traveller one is—of how one wants to experience the world. You can pop in, hire a car and see the main tourist attractions then fly off to the next stop. Or you can find a path or two and navigate it until it feels, even for a few days, familiar. I am of the latter sort.

My first few days in Calcutta in February of 2018—my very first days in India ever—were ones of complete and total culture shock. I was aware of nothing but the mangy dogs, the tired poor, the crumbling footpaths, the incessant noise. It took a few days of making my way through the city on foot to begin to see it. To begin to open my heart to it. I spent a full two weeks there and didn’t go anywhere else. I took the Metro, rode ferries and yellow cabs. Met up with friends, sat in restaurants, coffee shops and parks.

I returned to the city again this year fresh from my first encounters with a wider range of Indian cities—Bangalore, Bombay and Kochi—and saw Calcutta from a new angle once again. Everything is relative. The traffic that had horrified me on my first visit now seemed remarkably—or almost—orderly (albeit still incredibly loud).

Granted, I read books from many countries I have never visited, translated from languages I have not even a passing acquaintances with, so I rely on the wisdom of translators and their editors. It’s a tricky thing, I know. I was once faced with editing an excerpt from the translation of an Arabic novel, a situation in which I respected both the original author and the translator very much. But I was afraid to question anything, for fear of showing my ignorance. Surely the process leading to a final published book would ideally be one that engages the editor, translator, and if possible, the author (or those who knew him or her well). Should I be tasked with taking on that entire manuscript—one of the most startling and discomforting I have ever read—I would have to overcome that fear.

Herbert or Harbart is a very special little book, one that is inextricably bound to the city in which it was birthed; its power is not lost in either edition for the very minor differences. It is also a book that benefits from a re-read, beginning as it does with the end of the story some of the magical elements can be lost on a first encounter.

Why read both editions? Why not?

So that is where I am at the moment. I’ll be back to write more about this wonderful book soon.