I want to be ordinary: Special Needs by Lada Vukić

On the surface, Special Needs by Croatian writer, Lada Vukić, appears to be a simple and straightforward story, told by a boy who does not engage with the world the way others do. He knows he is different. Special. And he does not like it. His classmates taunt him, his teacher barely tolerates him, and his aunt suffers him without affection. His single mother struggles to support the two of them by working as a seamstress for a manipulative, abusive boss, their nosy neighbour is alert to any sign of possible dysfunction, and a small-time drug dealer turns him into an unlikely accomplice. Lots of room for misunderstandings, the wisdom of the innocent, and maybe, if we’re lucky, a happy ending. Except that luck is in short supply for our hero and his mother, intimations of tragedy lie beneath the surface in an intriguing novel that succeeds on the uncommon strength of the perspective through which it unfolds.

I tend to be skeptical about child narrators who can veer too far toward the irritating or be exceptionally precocious. I am equally wary about narrators with some obvious emotional/cognitive impairment which often is imagined somewhere on the autism spectrum—which, in reality, is a very wide range. Put both together and the results can be a voice that is overly naive or unrealistically charmed. As the parent of two children with learning disabilities, one of whom also has mental health concerns, and as someone who has worked extensively with disabled populations from extreme physical and developmental disabilities to mental illness to a great variety of adult acquired brain injuries, I opened Special Needs with curious caution. And was immediately drawn to the narrative voice.

Born with an unspecified disability that others allude to but never name in his presence, ten year-old Emil is a selectively mute child with some deformation or inflexibility in his hands and feet. His reasoning is highly logical but on his own unique scale of understanding, to the point that he appears to others far less intelligent and intuitive than he is. The fact that words so often freeze in his mouth, adds to this perception. He believes he has problems with abstract thinking but rather he seems to lack a certain flexibility in some areas and an idiosyncratic frame of reference in others, often linked to his love of nature programing on television and an almost magical level of auditory acuity only his mother understands. He engages in some ritualistic behaviours and has an aversion to being touched. This cluster of qualities may or may not conform to any typical diagnosis but, if you work or live with disability, you know that there is no such thing as “typical,” or rather typically atypical. From Emil’s point of view, he is used to people failing to understand him, it’s a frustration he is quite capable of articulating if not verbally expressing. But what he really longs to do more than anything is shed the heavy corrective shoes he is forced to wear, get a pair of trainers, and run. That is the dream he holds to.

You can’t buy my shoes in a shop. They’re not displayed in the shop window like other shoes. And they don’t have the logo of a famous brand. I get them from Uncle Mario. So, no Nikes, no Adidas, just – Uncle Mario. Who wants shoes called Uncle Mario? I mean, nobody normal. And I’m normal, though sometimes they say I’m not. First, he makes an imprint of my feet, which are then used to make the shoes. I’ve seen that he does the same with others, so I’m not the only one. There are others like me, with special feet. But that doesn’t mean anything to me because I don’t like being special. I want to be ordinary.

Life is difficult for Emil and his mother. He is teased at school and unable to perform as expected by his teacher. The only subject he really enjoys and in which he demonstrates an uncanny, if pragmatic, understanding is religious studies—a class he is only allowed to attend as a viewer. His mother is a woman whose faith, if she ever had any, has been tried and found wanting. She colourfully expresses her anger at the school’s lack of patience and appreciation of her son, but she is unable to afford any supports for him, has lost the natural social network she once enjoyed, and gets no empathy from her bitter, intolerant sister:

Auntie Zrinka told mum that she had only herself to blame for the situation she found herself in. No, nobody else was to blame, just her! What was happening to her now was the consequences of past mistakes. What mistakes? Clearly, those when she should have gotten rid of me in time. (?!) Alright, she saw that the words “get rid of” were too strong, what she meant was some sort of institution for children like me. (?!) And yes, how many times did she have to tell her that she was stupid because she wasn’t even asking the boy’s father for child support. (!?)

Emil’s super hearing allows him to eavesdrop on conversations he is not meant to hear, nor fully equipped to understand. He tries to connect the nonsensical facts as best he can. The larger implications are apparent to us as readers, but many details are left out. An incompleteness is allowed. Emil draws his conclusions, we draw ours. He is also granted, by virtue of his hypersensitive ears, an ability to hear the hearts of others crashing around in their chests in times of fear or excitement, and when he confesses that he has detected a second faint heartbeat in both his mother and his teacher, he inadvertently tosses a wrench into several lives at once. Emil’s extra-special special needs add an important quality that enhances the appeal of the story without reducing the reality of challenging circumstances and disadvantages that he and his mother face. Nor will it help avert tragedy.

Special Needs’ true strength is the tightly controlled narrative, preserved beautifully in Christina Pribichevich-Zorić’s confident translation. Vukić never loses the voice of her young protagonist, maintaining the authenticity and appeal of Emil and his uniquely matter-of-fact worldview, while letting his self-awareness to begin to slowly evolve as the story turns in an unexpected direction. This work, her first, which won the V.B.Z. award as the best unpublished novel of 2016, is steady, strong, and a subtly different take on the exceptional child narrator, one that may be of particular interest to those who have spent time with the extraordinary ordinary people who see the world in a way that exposes truths we so often pretend to ignore.

Special Needs by Lada Vukić is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books.

Departure is Liberation: All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

On a journey the face of reality changes with the mountains and rivers, with the architecture of the buildings, the layout of the gardens, with the language, the skin colour. And yesterday’s reality burns on in the pain of parting; the day before yesterday’s is a finished episode, never to return; what happened a month ago is a dream, a past life. (“The Steppe”)

Swiss writer, photographer and journalist, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, remains, coming up on eighty years after her untimely death at the age of thirty-four, an enigma. A striking androgynous beauty, she grew up in luxury, and was dressed as a boy by her bisexual mother with whom her relationship remained complex and codependent.  Yet, a certain estrangement with her family began when she befriended Thomas Mann’s children, Erika and Klaus, both of whom were homosexual and politically engaged in anti-fascist movements. They introduced her to an intellectual environment in which she could express her own attraction to women, but they also introduced her to morphine, leading to an addiction that would haunt the rest of her life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Annemarie began to travel, frequently on her own, through the countries of the Middle East, forays that would establish her career as a photojournalist. Over the course of her lifetime she would make return trips to Persia, two trips to America, travels through the Baltic States and up to Moscow, but it is perhaps her journey in a Ford, overland from Geneva to Afghanistan in 1939, with ethnologist and filmmaker Ella Maillart, that has become synonymous with the reputation as an adventurous early  LGBT icon that she has acquired since her relatively recent “rediscovery.”

Ella Maillart’s account of their trip, The Cruel Way, was published in 1947, five years after Schwarzenbach’s death from a brain injury caused by a fall from her bicycle. It is considered a classic of travel literature, but the name of her troubled and transcendent companion was changed to Christina, presumably at the intervention of Annemarie’s family. Although Schwarzenbach herself was a widely published author in her time and did manage to place some of her own Afghan-related material while the Second World War consumed journalistic attention, it was not until a curated selection of her essays and reflections on the experience was published in Germany in 2000, that her own version of their journey was given full voice. All the Roads Are Open: An Afghan Journey 1939 – 1940, published in 2011 by Seagull Books, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid translation, offers a mix of automotive adventure and a lyrical, passionate account of a land and the people that enchanted her.

Although I didn’t realize it when I started reading, All the Roads Are Open is not intended as a single cohesive piece, but as a thematic, roughly chronological assemblage of short pieces written largely as Schwarzenbach made her way by steamship back to Europe from Bombay. As such the “chapters” have a quality not seen in more typical travel writing—these are descriptive passages tied to communities, encounters, and landscapes, and the images which hold most vividly in her memory drive her account and are revisited in several pieces. Thus it is clear which experiences had a profound impact on her. At the same time, there is little about the deterioration of her relationship with Maillart, and no mention of her romantic attractions or resumed drug use (if such material exists at all as much of her work was destroyed by her mother after her death), but a kind of sadness and isolation does rest beneath the surface in some passages. As well, certain described episodes seem to be the possible product of poetic license, but none of this matters; Schwarzenbach leaves us with a memorable, exciting and insightful look at a way of life in Afghanistan that was on the verge of disappearing—in more profound ways that she could have imagined.

The journey, two women travelling alone across a rugged, lonely terrain on roads that could fade into rough tracks, was met with concern and skepticism by many. Schwarzenbach revelled in the independence and their decisions to take the more challenging routes—confident in her ability to make basic repairs on the road or, if needed, secure assistance from the rare individuals in the communities they passed through who might have any experience with cars. Her description of Mount Ararat is moving, her evocation of desolate landscapes graphic, her account of three passages over the Hindu Kush invigorating, and her remembered belief that they never had to worry where they would stay, or how they manage is admirable. She speaks regularly of the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people, be they nomads on the plains, or leaders in towns and villages. It is, again and again, her most cherished memory. Her writing, at times punctuated with a plethora of exclamation marks, is neither idealistic nor romanticized, nor condescending. But, by contrast, she has a few choice comments for some of the British and European expats they live among in Kabul or others who display their prejudice:

Recently, a Swiss man asked me whether the natives’ food was even edible and whether I hadn’t been afraid to sleep in these people’s midst without any protection. The good man really had no idea of Afghan hospitality! Despite the various mentions here of rich, spicy pilaf meals, it must be said that by far not all the inhabitants are able to afford rice and mutton. In the nomads’ tents, there is often nothing but sour milk and a little bread. And in many villages the poor people don’t even have that. In Turkistan, where the gardens and bazaar stalls brim with fruits in the summer, a few months later I saw the relentless winter loom. Then the same landscape was reduced to a wasteland scourged by the icy wind and cloaked in dense swaths of dust, and life in the farmers’ clay huts was quite spartan. But despite these worries, it was at this very time that laughing, waving women met me in the last village on the desert’s edge. (“Two Women Alone”)

One thing that does regularly concern Schwarzenbach, however, is the life of the girls and women in the communities they pass through. As an emancipated woman, the sight of another woman encased from head to toe in some regions is disturbing. But even in other towns and villages, a visible absence of women is noted—they are not seen. However, when invited into the inner garden of one home where their host’s wife and daughters greet them without head coverings, the travellers are able to enjoy a precious interaction afforded to them because they themselves are female. For Schwarzenbach there seems to be great satisfaction in engaging with women and, at the same time, being included with the men on hunting outings, as she is during a period when she works temporarily on an archaeological dig.

Once war is declared, the political climate in the world starts to shift, and Schwarzenbach’s restlessness grows. As the end of 1939 draws closer she prepares  for another departure, anticipating climbing the Khyber Pass in her beloved Ford and passing into India, on the first stage of a journey home. But, even as the steamer pulls out of Bombay, it is evident that Afghanistan has touched her deeply. More than she anticipated, perhaps. One of the most poetic essays, placed at the end of the penultimate section of the book, is “Chehel Sotum,” in which she recalls an experience years earlier at a small palace in the Persian city of Isfahan.

The palace, whose name means “Forty Pillars”—a reference to its twenty pillars and their corresponding reflections in its pool—inspires an Afghan friend to inform her that in his homeland there are forty kinds of grapes:

Overcome by memory and homesickness, he spoke of nothing but the bewitching forty-fold profusion of the grapes of Herat and Kandahar. But though I listened to him and these words about the forty kinds of grapes lingered in my mind, tied to the vision of a promised land, at the time I did not even desire to set foot there. You cannot love what you have not embraced and seen with your own eyes; longing itself is never anything but loneliness surging and bleeding away.

Once she had herself embraced Afghanistan, she understood. One can only imagine how she would be heartbroken by the tragic condition of the country today.

All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

A different kind of time made visible: The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott

Many things are contained within others, and not only in names; in the north there is also a south and a west. The Badrain Jaran desert is indeed to be found within the Gobi desert. But it too contains within it the Takla Makan. And within that again, somewhere there, even if not precisely there and now, lies the untouched centre of the earth, the Desert of Lop.

What is the meaning of home? Is it a place, a person, a state of mind? Some know without question. For others it is an idea that is impossible to hold on to—like a handful of sand, it slips through your fingers. That is the essential spirit that comes through in Raoul Schrott’s delicate, spare novella, The Desert of Lop. Over the course of 101 very short chapters, almost prose poems but not quite, it traces one man’s relationships with three women, the places those relationships take him and the way they became undone. Detail is scant, connections are sketched and filled in with images of sand—dunes, storms, waves of shifting sand.

Schrott, an Austrian poet raised in Tunis, has an interesting background. He studied philology, had a strong interest in Dada and surrealism, has translated and adapted Homer and Gilgamesh in German and speaks a number of languages including Breton, Basque, Corsican and Gaelic. I first encountered him through his extraordinary, sensual unclassifiable work The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven, a collaboration with Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O which was published by Seagull Books in 2018. Loving it, I immediately sought out any other available works in English. The Desert of Lop, written in the same general time as Sex of the Angels, but published in 2004 (and likewise translated by Karen Leeder), was all I could find and, even then, it took some time to track down a copy.

In simple terms is about a man named Raoul Louper who is living in a village near Alexandria in a simply furnished room. The only described decorations are three objects in the window—a pine cone, a gree-gree (an African charm) and a stone—mementos of three women he once loved. Francesca, Arlette and Elif. Each week he takes the bus to Cairo. He meets with Török, a Hungarian professor with whom he visits geological formations in the area. They share an obsession with sand. Sometimes he joins the professor and the Egyptian woman he lives with for supper. As his story unfolds, they offer a solid counterpoint to Raoul’s restlessness. They have created a home, the very ideal Raoul seems to long for and yet cannot realize. They listen to him, challenge him, and all though his wandering carry him around the globe, it is in their kitchen that his life seems to have any tangible form at all.

His first wife he met near Grosseto on the Mediterranean. Francesca, is a free spirit when he they meet; he is equally ungrounded. Once he has made enough money he leaves for Japan—images from the country punctuate the text but his stay is not described—and when he returns he and Francesca make an effort to make a life together. Without success.

His second wife, Arlette, he meets in a bar in Quimper, a city in Brittany in northwest France. He finds work on a trawler out of the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, across the Atlantic. With his pay he drives across the US to see the western edge of the Pacific and slowly makes his way back to Quimper where, before long, the walls close in on his relationship with Arlette.

In Raoul Louper’s love for Arlette there was always something that was still waiting to change shape. It was like one of the drawings of a Necker cube that one finds in magazines sometimes; its upper edges can only be held in the foreground if one concentrates hard.

He sometimes looked at Arlette absent-mindedly. She did not know what to make of it; she thought when he looked at her it was always with questions.

Raoul avoided giving an answer; there are some things one does not say to a woman if one wants to love her.

The third woman, Elif, comes in to Raoul’s life in Iquito, Peru. Twice abandoned by love, he has accepted a job offer from a man who, having won the lottery, left Naples to set up a hotel in South America. Elif is working as a guide in the National Park, but it turns out that she grew up in Toulon, Raoul’s birthplace, and that they share a birthday. Despite being very different, these unlikely similarities lead, in time, to love. This, is the relationship that will cover the most mileage, first back to France when Elif’s job ends and eventually on a  journey into the desertified heart of China where too much togetherness threatens to push them apart.

Like Sex of the Angels, this is a very sensual work, not just in the remembered intimacies of love, but in the description of sand, deserts and the dunes that rise and fall across the landscape. Scientific descriptions are woven into the overall narrative, at times directly, at other times in the observations of Török or others, but always with such a light, poetic touch, that it never feels contrived. Sand, sculpted by wind and time, is an essential element of this tale, a story that builds layer by layer, but retains a haunting sense of instability and incompleteness.

Is a sand dune ever a finished object?

A dried-up riverbed, or the arms of a delta, drought; a bush, some pebble or other, even a termite mound, sometimes: it’s all the wind needs.

In the wind cornices line up and grow into dunes; they form chains and banks, they take on the shape of an egg, a heart or a star.

The suspended load of the wind; it blows each grain of sand from the windward, hardly higher than a foot or two off the ground, until they are pressed together on the crest, only to slip down the steep face in its lee; it is just the same as with waves.

The Desert of Lop maintains its inherent spaciousness through its narrative voice. The elusive narrator speaks of Raoul in third person, telling his story for him from an uncertain vantage point—sometimes slipping into a scene or adding a comment in first person, as if a companion on some outing or otherwise present—but the exact connection is unknown. Yet the haziness of the boundary is acknowledged: “It is no longer me telling this story. It has long since grown beyond the evenings in Cairo, the table with its chessboard pattern of tiles.”

As spare as it may be, especially for readers unaccustomed to checking a map or slipping down rabbit holes, this is not a directionless narrative. China is on the horizon throughout. Elif and Raoul embark on a journey to Dun Huang, the ancient city on the edge of the Gobi desert with its Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. With their guides they travel through distant provinces—Kamul, Tangut—in the footsteps of Marco Polo, following after Genghis Kahn, moving inexorably toward the extinguishing of anything that might hold them together against the shifting sands of time. Along the way: Lop Desert. Barren. Flat. Once the likely location of a lake, and of life more plentiful and diverse than that which remains, it became, as many other desolate locations have, ideal testing grounds for nuclear weapons. For we allow imitations of our destructive potential to proceed in the natural spaces we consider empty enough to bear the weight of our sins. As the desert will test Elif and Raoul. And his longing for some vestige of home.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Picador.

Rumors, riddles and other stories: Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist

Sublunary Editions, the humble publishing venture started by Joshua Rothes in Seattle, Washington in 2019 has, over the past few years, expanded from a simple monthly newsletter featuring new works and/or translations, to a quarterly journal called Firmament, the Empyrean series of obscure/hard-to-find literary treasures, revived, researched and restored, and a growing catalogue of original and translated novellas, stories, poems and hybrid works. Best of all, the books are all small, shorter volumes easily tucked into a bag or jacket pocket to read on the go.

Their most recent offering, Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist is a perfect example of the kind of work that sets this small publisher apart. In his tragically short life, Kleist packed a lot of living—writer, dramatist, soldier, possible spy, and during his final year, newspaperman. When he died by suicide at the age of thirty-four, he left behind a profoundly influential body of work. This collection of short stories and anecdotes originally published on the pages of the Berliner Abendblätter, were written over the course of one year, between 1810 and 1811, the span of time from the daily newsheet’s inaugural issue to their author’s death. As such they represent the first extensive collection of Kleist’s short work in English translation and an important, exciting addition to the Sublunary line-up.

Born in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1777, Kleist lived during a particularly unstable era in European history. Conflict with France was the major political concern for the German states throughout his adult years, and he served in the Prussian Army, spent some time in prison, and became an early supporter of German nationalism. He would come to be known as one of the finest literary stylists of his time, but during his lifetime he realized little of that acclaim. His daily compositions for the Abendblätter, from which the pieces in Anecdotes are drawn, provide a somewhat different insight into his gift for wit, satire and social commentary. Kleist was the editor and chief contributor to this publication and, as translator Matthew Spencer notes in his Introduction, this forum shows him to be “studiously evenhanded” taking aim at his subjects from all sides. At least while he was at its helm, the paper showed great promise. But it would not last long and might well have disappeared from memory altogether if not for a fortunate circumstance:

while Kleist began, through his plays and novellas, his posthumous ascent into the literary canon, the anecdotes remained largely underread, out of print. Much of the Abendblätter would have been lost if not for the Brothers Grimm, who collected issues specifically for the anecdotes, considering them small masterpieces of vernacular literature.

Although the critical value of these stories, witticisms and anecdotes, was debated by many, future admirers like Franz Kafka and Robert Walser, found in them an inspiring comic spirit to treasure.

The works collected in this volume run from the absurd to the tragic to the ribald, and are at times, remarkably timely. Some read as historical accounts, some as mock news items, and others as entertainments. Healthy doses of sarcasm drive home subtle and not so subtle attacks on military culture and the art of war. Folk tales and fables take clever turns. A few may miss the mark (or may have not survived the distance from their original context), but most of his tales are quite funny—even if darkly so. Where a little extra background is needed, Spencer includes brief historical or linguistic footnotes.

The pieces gathered here range from very short amusing accounts, bizarre Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not type reports, to imagined news stories and, even, in one instance, a letter to the editor (crafted by Kleist himself of course) responding to a “reported” proposal for a cannonball postal delivery service. The postal system, it seems, is a an ongoing concern going back centuries. Another anecdote echoed almost a century and a half later with the play Twelve Angry Men, is “A Strange Case in England” which records the debate among a dozen jurors in a murder case but which ends with an unexpected twist.

As much as I enjoyed the anecdotes, my favourite pieces were the last two, somewhat longer stories, “A Ghostly Apparition” and “Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music.” Both are more along the lines of gothic tales but demonstrate Kleist’s ability to tell a solid, entertaining story. While the original issues of the Abendblätter would have included more conventional “news” and “information”, the selection for this project was guided by literary interest. As such, Anecdotes provides either an excellent first introduction to Kleist or a welcome treat for English language readers who already know him well.

Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist is translated by Matthew Spenser and published by Sublunary Editions.

Station to station: The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig

Will we survive this century? asked the lonely reader in his train compartment. Yes, surely we will survive this one last century.

East German author Wolfgang Hilbig was not the kind of writer one associates with sunshine and bucolic scenery. His skies seem to be forever suffused with pale white winter sun, his landscapes marked by the residue of post-war industrial expansion, his urban streets draped in shadow lit only by dim pools of artificial light. His characters typically wander through this environment, never certain where they came from, where they are going and who they are meant to be—pulling and chafing against the constraints of a life they cannot fit into. Their situations and circumstances vary, but they are all lost in some kind of provisional existence.

The Interim, the most recent Hilbig release from Two Lines Press, takes, as the name implies, this sense of impermanence and makes it explicit. This novel, originally published in 2000, is, as with previous translations, rendered into fluid, incisive English by Isabel Fargo Cole. It follows the emotional and physical restlessness of C., an acclaimed writer from the GDR who is afforded the tenuous “freedom” of life in the West in the years immediately leading up to reunification. It is a time of shifting energies on both side of the Wall and C. finds himself completely adrift, caught between the crumbling social infrastructure of his homeland and the hollow promise of Western capitalism. He endeavours to perform the part of the celebrated author, often without either ease or grace, while he struggles with writer’s block and resists committing to the woman he genuinely feels he cannot live without. Trapped in a cycle of relentless anxiety, depression, and addiction, his only refuge is the train with its familiar chain of stations carrying him back and forth across the border, between an equally elusive past and future.

To be honest, I was apprehensive about this book, afraid somehow that it would be a 300-page pilgrimage through one man’s dark and decaying life, claustrophobic and bleak. And, in a way, it is most of those things except that Hilbig is an exceptional writer. Even if he is, as ever, narrating from the edge of his own existence, he has, in this novel, wisely stepped back into a more conventional third person perspective to examine his protagonist from the distance necessary to be honest—to his character and to himself. The result is an engaging narrative tracing loss, displacement, creative struggles and romantic failures washed down with too much alcohol and self-loathing. There are unpleasant moments—wandering about drunk in strange cities, taking in pay-per-view porn with an almost clinical sense of disconnect, mopping up vomit with a book from the “Holocaust & Gulag” section of his personal book collection—but the main thrust of the narrative is fueled by real human longing, stark humour, and much of the kind of mesmerizing existential questioning that drives the dreamlike, meandering narratives more typical of his work.

C. is, by the time we encounter him, living in Nuremberg. He has been in West Germany, for several years—how many, he is never sure—with an expired visa, living in a small apartment near that of his girlfriend Hedda who is losing patience with his constant insecurities and consistent unreliability. Back in Leipzig there is another girlfriend, Mona, whom he has avoided on visits home but has never properly broken off with. Both women are aware of and challenge his insistence on holding to a series of “interim solutions” as an excuse to never have to accept any tangible solution to the existential restlessness that haunts him. But there is a sense, for C. that his entire identity is false, lacking, provisional. Especially as a writer in the increasingly forced ecosystem of the literary world around him where authors use their miseries justify their writings:

in some convoluted way he believed in the creative power of tormenting experiences (while Hedda disputed it, claim­ing that pain merely silenced people), and he’d always sus­pected himself of lacking that experience. – In fact he’d always written offhandedly, looking away from his words, which had flowed from him effortlessly. In his life he’d never done a stroke of real work, he’d done everything in passing, for the interim, as it were. The real thing is yet to come, he’d always thought, as though he had infinite time at his disposal. Now he was pushing fifty—just three years left to go—it was high time for the “real thing”…and suddenly nothing was coming at all!

If The Interim never expanded its focus beyond C.’s self-recriminations, sodden or sober, it would run the risk of becoming weighed down by its own protagonist, spinning through a circuitous, non-chronological narrative that turns in on itself to travel wide but get nowhere. But C.’s inability to find himself reflected in his own country’s marginal, backward declining state, or the West’s flashy commercialized culture of consumption, allows Hilbig to make sharp, cynical observations on the state of the world as the twentieth century is nearing its end. A century of lies, as C. describes it. Technology has fostered progress and destruction, looking back to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Gulag, and ahead to the escalation of depersonalization and commercialism under the force of Capitalism. Is the latter a saviour from the godlessness of the former or simply a new God? C. is not so sure as, from the window of a West German train, he observes cars racing along the autobahn:

Disciplined and united in close-massed squadrons, united for one minute, identical lobotomized brows behind the windshields, bodies perching their death-packed asses on a power that wasn’t theirs, fused to a steering wheel that mastered their fists, they’d flee onward as if set in motion by the lash of a great herd-driver’s whip. And that great shepherd was Capital…he said to himself each time he looked out the window of the train at the inter­twined chains of dimmed headlights, a light-suffused gas-cloud over them, a cloud of sweet Arabian perfumes as of burning pipelines, a cloud of colored miasmas that drifted along with them as they rushed down the course in formation, gigantic glittering automobile hives, and the shepherd whipped them on from one gas station to the next, where they filled themselves with their manna, tanked up on their divine gas. – Stick it to them! cried the shepherd, their God, who had long since grown weary of his flock.

If C. can never quite decide which side of the border he belongs to, within West Germany itself he is equally unsettled. He moves several times and travels for readings, tracing a network of cities through their train stations, their hotels and their seedy bars. He convinces himself that Hedda is the reason he stays at all, but he cannot understand why he seems destined to sabotage what they have. Whether it is a fear of failure or a fear of commitment, Hedda is certain that the problem, not only in their relationship but in his inability to write, lies in an unwillingness to address his childhood fears.

One of the later sections of The Interim takes C. back to memories of his childhood and youth, to an early secret love of writing through his lonely apprenticeship in a machine shop. His writing remains a hidden activity for many years, while conflicts between what he longs to be and what others expect him to be grows wider, more fraught, echoing themes that course through the pages of Hilbig’s strange and wonderful novellas. This book is essentially about becoming a writer and coming apart as a writer, while clinging to a transitional existence during a transitional time in history. In turning C.’s trauma into literature, Hilbig accomplishes the one thing the novel’s protagonist is presently unable to do.I have read, and written about, almost all of Hilbig’s work translated to date and have had the opportunity to discuss it at length with Isabel Fargo Cole who has done so much to help bring his writings to an English language audience. I loved this book. But I am not certain if I would recommend it as an introduction to his idiosyncratic writing. I feel somehow that if one has read and enjoyed other titles, especially Tidings of the Trees, Old Rendering Plant and his short story collection, Sleep of the Righteous, The Interim will feel like an opportunity to see the “Hilbig protagonist” and his creator in what might be his most true-to-life work—gritty at times, melancholy and dark, but filled with powerful language and insightful observations. Be warned, though, C. is an anti-hero unlikely to find redemption or accept it if offered.

The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press.

“Imagination is resistance against life and nature”: Wolves by Bhuwaneshwar

In the course of a human life, a stage arrives when even change is conquered. When the rise and fall of our life doesn’t mean anything to us, and neither does it interest others. When we live only to remain alive, and death arrives yet doesn’t.
(from “Aunty”)

Some writers appear, seemingly from nowhere, burn brightly for a short time before disappearing into disarray and obscurity. Hindi writer Bhuwaneshwar is one such author. Neither end of his life can be firmly dated—born in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh between 1910 and 1915, he ended his days sometime in 1957, in Varanasi, where he was last seen ill and living among beggars. In the years that intervened there was a moment when this man with an exceptional gift for words appeared poised to lead Hindi literature into the future. His promise—and his pessimism—was recognized by Premchand, the prominent Indian writer known for his dedication to social realism. By contrast, his young protégée was more subversive in his approach, intent on shattering society’s myths and illusions to reveal its underlying darkness, a vision that won him both attention and distrust in the literary community. Yet, although his career was short, bookended by poverty and neglect, he left behind an important collection of stories and plays, along with Hindi translations of Gogol and Oscar Wilde—a body of work that has tended to remain largely forgotten in his homeland and essentially unknown in the English-speaking world. Now, with the release of Wolves and Other Stories—a slender volume containing twelve of Bhuwaneshar’s melancholy tales—translator Saudamini Deo has rekindled the voice and spirit of a man whose work captures a sense of ambiguity and anxiety that seems especially timely now, the better part of a century later.

The stories that comprise Wolves were originally published between 1935 and 1941, the majority in Hans, the literary magazine established by Premchand. The Indian Independence Movement was in its final stages, as reflected in an atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades these tales. But Bhuwaneshwar is not explicitly political in his writings. He is asking more philosophical questions about what it means to be alive in a world that is increasingly inhumane and unforgiving. His mood is grim, death is a regular presence, but his characters manage to salvage some measure of humanity, against the odds.

These stories tend to feature lonely, isolated people—even if they are not necessarily alone—unmarried women, abandoned children, students, soldiers, doctors, drifters and others who, for some reason or another, have found themselves at odds with their families, communities or societies. Some of my favourite stories are centred around women. In “Aunty” Bibbo is a poor woman, old “as if she’d originated old in the womb and turned immortal for a never-ending, unthinkable period,” has been seen as ever solitary and ancient by her neighbours. But she had, in her life, given her love and attention twice over, first to her nephew, abandoned to her care when her sister died. After that child grew up and moved away, he returned years later with his own son, now motherless, and begged his aunty to take care of the child. Again Bibbo consented, at great financial and emotional cost. She has her revenge though, in the end, in a small attempt to hold on to her dignity.

The dying woman at the heart of “Mothers and Sons” is also being exploited, on her death bed as her family gather around. Seen from her perspective, she revisits her dismay and disappointment in her sons and daughter-in-law’s as they imagine her clinging to more noble thoughts and argue about medical options. As death approaches, Bhuwaneshwar captures her shifting emotional state with remarkable intimacy:

At midnight, everyone was sleeping on mattresses on the floor, only Amma was awake and, as if drowning. Wondrously, even her troubles were drowning. She started thinking of faraway things. Meaningless, unparalleled. Some house, some man, once glimpsed somewhere, she started hearing strange sounds. But this state didn’t last long. She started feeling nervous, as if she was frightened of being alone on a dark road. There was no energy in the body, she had known for a while, she had grown used to it, but she was ready to fight for that energy now. Everyone was sleeping. She could hear their breaths, she recognized them, but what is all this to her when she has no more energy?

A wide range of voices emerge throughout this collection and the settings of the tales are varied, sometimes grounded in ordinary settings—hill station, post office, train compartment—others incorporating ghostly or somewhat surreal circumstances such as “Sun Worship” which follows a doctor and a raving madman on a strange urban journey. But the crowning entry is the title story, one of his best known, which closes this volume.

“Wolves” is presented as the reported account of an old gypsy of a horrific adventure from his youth. He and his father were making their way along in their family caravan which was heavily laden with pots and pans and three fifteen year-old acrobats when they were set upon by an unruly, insatiable pack of wolves. Forced to lighten the load, first with objects, then with passengers, the wolves just keep coming, consuming everything in their way. Relentless and unyielding, the story offers little respite. But its wolves are familiar—in our world today and no doubt to a man who saw beyond the façade of his own society and turned his visions into stories, stories he would come to imitate in his own life. He was pursued by wolves himself. Bhuwaneshwar’s later years were marked by mental illness—first his brother was committed to an asylum, and then he too was lost to madness and homelessness, like a character in his final unwritten tale.

Wolves and Other Stories by Bhuwaneshwar is translated by Saudamini Deo and published by Seagull Books as the first in a new series featuring Hindi literature.

The living dead man: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.

Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.

Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.

After the first month he stopped counting.

Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.

The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:

The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.

He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.

Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.

The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.

The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.

As long as I live in poetry: Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.
.        – from “The Lamp”

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019) the much loved and highly respected Bengali author, scholar and feminist was a versatile and prolific writer whose extensive bibliography includes fiction, essays, children’s literature, travelogues, political columns and more. However, throughout her life she identified herself as a poet, first and foremost. As the daughter of two acclaimed poets, she began writing poems when she was a young child. In her comprehensive Introduction to the present collection, her daughter Nandana Dev Sen—not a poet herself, but a writer, actor and activist—reflects on the way poetry served as a vital and constant companion, one that was not always easy to satisfy. As Nandana records, in her mother’s own words:

“Poetry is like war,” she wrote. “A war with oneself. Finally, only when there is victory and peace, poetry follows. Poetry has to be earned.”

This sentiment can be felt in the clarity and precision that marks her work.

Acrobat presents a selection of poems that span Dev Sen’s career from the late 1950s through to 2019. It is very much a labour of love between a mother, the poet, and a daughter, the translator. Although she would not live to see the final publication, Nabaneeta Dev Sen was very excited about this book which would be her very first major release from a western publisher. She was gravely ill but undaunted when the project began and while translations of some of her poems already existed, she desired newer versions. A modest list of poems was compiled, but that was as far as mother and daughter could go together. Nandana translated those pieces and many more over the following months, gathering them together with a number of poems her mother had translated herself, a few that she had written in English, and one translated by her sister, Antara Dev Sen. Her Introduction includes a biography, personal in tone, and a discussion of the challenges of translating poetry and the considerations she followed when bringing her mother’s Bengali into English.

When presenting work drawn across a period of six decades, there is a common tendency to allow the date of publication to dictate the order. In Acrobat, however, the poetry of Nabaneeta Dev Sen is sorted along thematic lines. The book is divided into five sections, each named for a phrase pulled from one of the poems within it. A chronology is included at the back so one can, as I did, check to see the decade a particular poem belongs to. Such an organic approach makes for a wonderful reading experience, allowing one to appreciate the way the poet’s work visits and revisits similar subjects over the span of her life, with styles and perspectives shifting over time and place. Dev Sen married young and spent her twenties and early thirties living in the US and UK where her academic work eventually drew her away from poetry for a while. In 1974, when her marriage to economist Amartya Sen began to falter, she returned home to Kolkata. As a newly single mother with two daughters amid the scandal of divorce, poetry took on a new importance as a personal space in which to explore her pain, her identity, and her place in the world. In contrast to her scholarly writing which was primarily in English, for almost all of her creative work, she made the “political” decision to write in Bangla—not only a reflection of her feminist values and her language activism but as a voice for deeper emotional exploration and observation.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry, to my reading, is distinguished by an alertness to the moment in all its strangeness and wonder. She is attuned to the anxieties and the triumphs of life, distilling key elements into vivid images. This is beautifully illustrated in an early poem, “The Great Fair” that appears in the first section which revolves around the notion of time. The speaker is waiting with a cup of saved coins for an adult who has promised to return to take her to the Great Fair. She lists wonderous toys and treasures she expects to be able to buy, but:

As I waited on my steps
My limbs grew long
My list blew away in the wind
My cup of change became a trunk of gold.

There is nothing left for me to buy
From your Great Fair anymore.

I am going to get up from my steps now

There is a remarkable sadness and defiance in the voice of the speaker; that complicated mix of emotion that comes with growing up, letting go of, or seeing through, the illusions of childhood.

As a passionate advocate for the preservation of Indian tongues, a translator and a promoter of the voices of women, it is not surprising that poetry, words and language, frequently appear as subjects in Dev Sen’s poems. She approaches the theme with humour, with elegance and with pain. “The Year’s First Poem,” for example, begins:

Pretending
as if nothing at all has happened,
picking up the heart
from the sand, dusting it clean
pushing it back inside my blouse
secretly, the first year’s poem gets written.

Other themes that resurface include identity, relationships with others, and a search for deeper truths in life. These are, of course, not unique as poetic topics. It is the distinctive voice, the vulnerability and the openness that combine to make the poems in this collection so strong. But, more than that,  Nandana Dev Sen’s translations and her loving curation of this volume—which opens with an Introduction that is both biography and translator’s note and closes with an open letter to her mother—makes Acrobat at once a beautiful memorial that honours Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s life and spirit and a vital introduction to her poetry for English-speaking readers.

Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen is translated by Nandana Dev Sen and published by Archipelago Books.

A map of your absence: If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani

Some novels greet you at the door—or in this case, just beyond the baggage claim—engage your attention, and hold you, sentence by sentence, through the past and the present, until you reach your final destination. If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Italian writer Andrea Bajani, is such a book. Yet the magic of this story lies entirely in the telling—in the delicate balancing of select, sharply depicted images within a spare, measured narrative that simmers with barely restrained emotional tension. On the surface, it’s the tale of a young man grieving his mother’s legacy of repeated departures and arrivals, the mainstay of his childhood, while he attends to her final dispatch in Romania, the ultimate faraway destination from which she would never return. His prospect of achieving closure, however, is tenuous for beneath the surface, complex and conflicted feelings remain unresolved.

The novel opens with Lorenzo’s arrival in Bucharest and his initial contact with Christian, the driver who will serve as his guide to the city and his means to understanding some elements of his mother’s life. Although she is dead, she is never far away—Lorenzo’s account is essentially directed toward her—but his tone speaks to an unbreachable distance. After enough time, absence no longer to makes the heart grow stronger. Addressing her is perhaps the only way to make sense of his loss:

You started leaving when I was young. The first trip was for pleasure, to go meet some friends who were off trying to strike it rich. You drew the world on a sheet of paper the night before, to show me where you were going. We’re here, you said, and tomorrow I’ll be right down here, in this spot. You drew a line with a red marker from home to there. It’s a bridge, you said, it’s like crossing the river to the other side. And under the bridge we colored everything blue; we filled in the water of Europe. Then we taped the picture to the refrigerator, and that’s where it stayed for years to come.

His mother’s trips became more frequent. Promotion of her egg-shaped, sweat-inducing weight loss machine takes her around the world. The souvenirs she brings home multiply in her son’s room, mapping her absence. When she is home, the increasing presence of her business partner in her life begins to put a strain on her marriage. Before long, the partner and the promise Romania holds as the ideal base for their enterprise is too strong and finally she is gone for good. Left behind in Italy, Lorenzo and his dad will never see her again; even the phone calls will dwindle as the years pass.

Now grown and finally in Romania himself, Lorenzo is reunited with Anselmi, his mother’s business partner, a loud, brash Italian who has clearly found a level of success and self-importance that would have eluded him at home. He is of a breed, not uncommon in the country—latter-day middle-aged foreign opportunists—and Lorenzo will encounter more than a few men of this type, including another long-time friend of his mother who reveals to him the shocking and sorry state of her final years. No one is exactly forthcoming with details, but Anselmi has taken up with a young Romanian woman named Monica who seems less than thrilled with her circumstances and rather attracted to the young Italian she has been ordered to attend to. Lorenzo, however, is seemingly most comfortable in the company of Christian, his mother’s long time driver. With him he is able to be present without pressure. Together they visit Ceausescu Palace, spend time in the city, share both laughter and silence. Lorenzo is gently attentive to the hidden strengths Christian seems to carry, leaving a faint erotic tension in the air.

If You Kept a Record of Sins offers an account that rides as much on what is unspoken as on what is shared. The narrative is economical and precise, moving from one finely honed image to another. Lorenzo’s mood is lonely, detached. He is cautious in his engagement with others. The abandonment he felt at a young age comes through even as he recalls tender moments of play or adventure with his mother. As an adult he appears to be grasping at something to feel for someone he hardly ever knew. Her own family, he is aware, were oddly unforgiving and remote themselves, while her final years in Romania were marked by romantic betrayal and self-destruction, but how to make sense of the damage she was responsible for between those two ends? A mixture of love and ambivalence fuels this bereaved son’s ongoing one-sided conversation with this mother as, for example, in this account of his first night in her apartment:

The mirror was too low—it cut off my head—and to think there was a time you used to lift me up, to look into my eyes. I was still wet when I left the bathroom, a trail of droplets behind me. I turned off all the lights, except the nightstand lamp. I took my pajamas from my bag, put them on, and went over to your bed. I dropped onto it, tried to bounce, then slipped under the covers. And it was almost as if I felt your bones, under there, that I was lying between bone and muscle and had to stay very still, or else I’d hurt you.

This is a novel at once sombre and hopeful. Beautifully translated by Elizabeth Harris, it never falls in to oversentimentality. Grief is idiosyncratic, sometimes elusive, and Bajani captures this complexity well. The cast of complicated secondary characters add depth to Lorenzo’s experiences without ever distracting or weighing them down. Reading fiction this well-crafted is a joy.

If You Kept a Record of Sins, by Andrea Bajani is translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and published by Archipelago Books.

Troubling the alphabet: Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi

What can a language reveal? What can it obscure? If your memories were birthed in one culture, can they be retrieved elsewhere? What is gained and what is lost when you migrate from one land to another, from one language to another? How does this shift affect the spelling and the telling of a life?

Wittgenstein’s aphorism: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ is false; there were thoughts that lacked words. We doused ourselves in neologisms. Dorothy repeating ‘there’s no place like home.’ A memory burn: the first time I saw a man kissing another man. (from Chapter 9)

The thirty-nine part prose poem that comprises Australian poet Harold Legaspi’s pocket-sized volume Letters in Language seem to dance around these questions, indirectly entertain them. Flirt and tease. Lean in closely. Look away. Catching, again and again, his own reflection.

Drawing inspiration from American Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Legaspi has entered into his own experimental autobiography. Hejinian’s ground-breaking work, as published in 1980,  featured thirty-seven non-narrative prose poems, each thirty-seven sentences long—one for each year of her life at the time of writing. A second edition, revisited the project, growing with the poet, to forty-five pieces of forty-five sentences each. These sentences refuse direct connection to one another, defying the sequential illusion of conventional life writing. How do we remember ourselves? In fragments and moments, yet somehow, through the translation into language, patterns  and a sense of wholeness emerges. But is it real?

To read My Life is to let the words, the sentences, flow over you. There is a continuity of voice, and of the nature of images that interconnect when memories arise—details of a childhood for example may include activities, rooms, sounds, objects, and observations from a mature vantage point—but the intentional corralling of these images into narrative form distorts the truths it endeavours to preserve. The reader is invited, not to interpret and decode, but to respond from their own experiences of life.

Letters in Language mines a similar domain—life lived—but within the context of a Filipino family, a displaced culture, and multifaceted  questions of identity. I don’t know the author’s age at time of writing, but he does not hold to constraints of length. Legaspi’s language is playful, sentences often clipped and short, with images drawn from pop culture, even current realities like Covid-19 tossed in. The lines tumble over one another, appear connected for a stretch and then not, punctuated with aphorisms, self-reflection, rhetorical questions. The sentences have a transitory relation to one another, as if meaning is, at any single moment incidental and yet sensible. Not unlike the way the fragments and pieces of our own lives are shuffled and reordered each time we pull a memory card from the deck. New contexts constantly reshape who we think we are, refashion our ever-fluctuating histories.

Ever present amid the poems that fill these pages is the author’s lola—his memories of his grandmother fuel his own. The opening sentence reads: “My lola swept autumn leaves with walis tiniting, burned them in a can, wearing her grand billowy housedress.” Walis tingting is a Tagalog word for a broom constructed of coconut midribs. It sweeps its way through Filipino households. Likewise, the expression sweeps its way through these poems—a recurring image or an action that seems to signify the way we sweep through our memories, sweeping some to the forefront, others under the rug.

I who thirsted for knowledge. My niche unknown. Underneath the black economy. Where dry spells quelled my dysphoria. Fixed under the shade of a Bodhi tree. Away from air-conditioned air. Reborn. Conquered. A tangential awakening. Slid straight through, vagina dentata. The tip of my bayonet inched in her spine. Folk tales whispered, they got rid of me efficiently, like a baby out with the dingo. My mother, no shrinking violet. Did what was necessary. To cover up the blame. Walis tingting. As for the men, whose words were carefully chosen—passed on their phobias. My uncles. After thirty-nine years of solitude. Raised me like their own. Classed as a freak, unable to procreate like their sons and daughters (from Chapter 26)

So who is the “I” who lurks in this extended prose poem? A poet who exposes himself through his passions—emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual—played out against a formative soundtrack of music, films and books; bound by friends and lovers, and framed within a multigenerational Filipino family. Letters in Language never drifts far from the unresolved reality of the migrant existence, from the feeling of being defined by and yet disconnected from a land that is now somehow alien. After his grandmother, his unaltered link to the Philippines, has passed, Legaspi becomes aware of a kind of anchorlessness. One that rests in language, between a present language that cannot contain the loss, and an ancestral one not comfortably in hand: “Where English was an oblique mirror to my alter ego. I found myself faint with anxiety, a fictional object my truth. A truth with no original, veiled, forsaking to journey where it all began.”  The need to acknowledge this fundamental lack of grounding is then reflected in the closing sections of this text. Chapters 34 to 37 are composed almost entirely in Tagalog, a shift accompanied by translated versions. Thus, of all the questions of identity that surface and resurface throughout this poem, it is the poet’s own bilingual identity that troubles the deepest waters. Casting uncertainty on what has come before. What, if anything, has remained unarticulatable? Lyn Hejinian’s original autobiographical project is essentially unfinished, with material appended over time. Like life. What of Letters? That is not a question to anticipate in advance. Like life.

Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi is published by flying island books, ASM, and Cerberus Press.