A chronicle of pain: Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi

The pain had come at eight in the evening. Hem with all her experience had said, It won’t take time, Ma. The womb has started pushing it out. Hem held her hands and said, Let all be well. Let God bring you back, the two of you separate.

Sujata’s story is framed and defined by pain. As it opens she is asleep, her dreams have transported her back twenty-two years, to the morning following an agonizing night of labour and emergency surgery when she gave birth to her fourth child and second son, Brati. Now she is awoken by searing pain once more, on the same date, January seventeenth, but this time an inflamed appendix is to blame. Once her abdominal distress begins to settle, a glance at the calendar takes her back to the early hours of yet another January seventeenth, just two years earlier, when the telephone suddenly rang. At the other end of the line, a voice summoned her to the morgue. There she would find her beloved son reduced to a numbered corpse, 1084.

Set over the late sixties and early seventies, during the first phase of the Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgency in West Bengal, Mother of 1084 by Indian writer and activist, Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016), is a focused examination of the impact of targeted violence on those left behind through the story of one woman stranded in her loss and grief. Sujata comes from a background of privilege, raised in a wealthy Calcutta family and afforded an education, but in marriage her life is constrained by the roles her social class expects of her. At the time of the critical events in this novel, she is in her early fifties. Her oldest son and daughter, Jyoti and Neepa, are both married and each have one child. Jyoti and his family, as custom would have it, lives in the family home. The younger daughter, Tuli, has a serious boyfriend. Her husband, Dibyananth—or as he is often described, “Jyoti’s father”—is a successful businessman with, once his wife decided she wanted no more children, a string of mistresses on the side. Sujata also has a job at a banking office, taken on her own initiative when her mother-in-law was still alive and commanding the daily affairs of the household. It is something she has refused to give up.

Brati, the youngest son, had always been unlike his other siblings. Imaginative and sensitive, he was easily frightened and deeply attached to his mother. From his earliest years on through adolescence, their bond was close while there was little love lost between Dibyananth and his second son. Naturally Sujata was blamed for spoiling him and making him weak. When Brati is killed with a group of young Naxalite revolutionaries, his father’s immediate concern is to assure that no one knows of his involvement. He pulls a few strings and Brati’s name is omitted from the news reports while at home all evidence of his existence is cleared away and locked in his bedroom on the uppermost floor. Sujata finds herself on the wrong side of her own family, on the side of the dead man who had failed to consider the shame and embarrassment he would cause. She is left alone to try to make sense of why her son had been drawn to such a radical movement and to understand the events of the night on the eve of his twentieth birthday that had cost him his life. It was a death that could not be classified in any of the usual ways—illness, accident, crime:

All that Brati could be charged with was that he had lost faith in the social system itself. Brati had decided for himself that freedom could not come from the path society and the state offered. Brati had not remained content with writing slogans on the wall, he had come to commit himself to the slogans. There lay his offence.

Extending from morning to evening over the course of a single day, exactly two years after his death, Mother of 1084 chronicles Sujata’s attempt to honour her son’s memory and perhaps find some sense of closure. At home, Tuli is preparing to hold her engagement party. Although it is her brother’s birth anniversary, the date has been determined by her future mother-in-law’s American guru—her own mother’s feelings be damned. Between attending to the necessary arrangements in the house, Sujata will make two excursions that will help fill in some of the missing information she craves, but not necessarily bring any peace.

In the afternoon she travels out from central Calcutta to the colony where the mother of Somu, one of Brati’s friends, lives. The young men killed had spent their last hours in her house. Sujata had first met Somu’s mother when she went to identify her son’s body and she had found in this poor woman a kind of a kindred spirit, another mother who understood the loss. But face to face with the graphic details of that fateful night and the absolutely devastating effect it has had on this impoverished family, she is reminded that her social status will forever be a barrier that cannot be wished away. The two women, brought together in shock and pain at the morgue and the crematorium, share an affinity that can never be more than temporary:

Time was stronger than grief. Grief is the bank. Time the flowing river, heaping earth upon earth upon grief.

Later that afternoon, Sujata makes another outing, this one closer in location and class, but again one with a divide that cannot be breached. For the first and last time, she visits Brati’s girlfriend Nandini who has recently been released from prison, bearing the injuries of torture and incarceration. In this encounter there is a bitter demonstration of the activist’s unshakable resolve, something the grieving mother will never fully appreciate. Upon returning home to where guests are gathered, Sujata is clearly affected by her experiences, and all of the memories and details that have come back to her over the course of that day. But even as pain rips through her abdomen, she must once more attempt to play her role as wife and mother. At least for the moment.

One of Devi’s most widely-read books, Mother of 1084 is not explicitly concerned with the broader political context of the Naxalite insurgency, rather it turns its attention to the intimate human experience—the appeal of the movement to individuals from different backgrounds, the reality of betrayal, the brutality of the violence, and the wide range of responses from the families and communities affected. That is not to suggest that this is not an intensely political work, but by centring an apolitical protagonist who finds herself navigating the space between the shocking indifference of her family and social class, the devastation of the bereaved who exist in the midst of conflict and destitution, and the anger of the activist committed to the cause at all costs, Devi crafts a powerful, unforgiving narrative. Sujata is the troubled conscience of this tightly woven novella but one is ever aware how very small she is against society’s pretense of normality in a time of upheaval.

Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi is translated from the Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay and published by Seagull Books.

So much space to fill: Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou

Today it’s twenty-five years since I killed my sister.

Nobody has ever said it out loud, but I can hear other people’s thoughts loud and clear. And the unmanageable ones have a special sound: they make a low constant rumble like waves crashing against docks, like high heels as you carry on walking, resisting and smiling.

My mother says it wasn’t my fault.

My mother wears them often, high heels that is.

The voice of Maria, the narrator of Erica Mou’s debut novel Thirsty Sea, sings with a heady mix of guilt, defiance and insecurity. Not always likeable, sometimes driven to over dramatic metaphor, she manages to maintain an irresistible, infectious flow that carries you right along with her, even if you may sometimes wonder how or why other the characters in her life put up with her at all. She’s a little injured perhaps, but you can’t help hoping she will find a way to start to heal. It makes for a strangely captivating read.

Thirsty Sea is the first offering of Héloïse Press, a new venture dedicated to publishing contemporary female narrative that launched in the UK earlier this year. Mou is an award winning Italian indie singer-songwriter who brings a free-spirited musical energy to her writing, a vitality that is captured with creativity by translator Clarissa Botsford. In her introductory note, Botsford describes the challenges inherent in translating the work of an author who delights in playing with double meanings. It was necessary at times to make changes and alterations, especially to the short poems that occur within and at the close of each chapter. These brief verses have a title that reflects back on the theme just covered and, as such, it was not always possible or desirable to translate directly from Italian to English. Fortunately she had an opportunity to meet and work with Mou herself and the author was more than open to the idea of “trans-creating.” As she said: “It’s my text. We can do with it what we like.”

Watermark

All you needed to do was pick me up and shine a light
to see whether I’d ever been there

Maria, named after her two Maria grandmothers, is a thirty-two year-old woman living in Bari, Italy, with her extraordinarily patient partner Nicola. He is a pilot and she is the proprietor of a rather unlikely business, a gift-finding service—unlikely because she herself has never liked receiving gifts. This resistance, like most of the self-imposed roadblocks in her life and relationships, has its origins in the tragic death of her younger sister, Summer, when Maria was seven and her sister three. Despite frequent reassurances from her mother and several therapists, Maria cannot let go of a sense that she was somehow at fault, that everyone who knows of the situation sees her as a murderer. Her unyielding monologue continually turns comments, questions and recollections into varieties of self-accusation. Her sharp tongue is turned on herself and everyone else, though, for the most part, she manages to keep from expressing her harsher observations out loud.

Unfolding over the course of one twenty-four hour period, from one evening to the next, Maria gradually fills in details from her life, colouring in a self-portrait of a woman burdened by guilt, feeling crushed by her mother, alienated from her father and stifled by Nicola who wants to have a baby. She is weighed down by a block of marble she imagines carrying in her chest. Everything with Maria is intensified, technicolour, against the grey backdrop of her mother, her father’s crumbling edifice and Nicola’s pristine white palette. Almost the only person she trusts with the occasional honest expression of her feelings is Ruth, an American she met while visiting London in her youth. But what comes through loudest is the sense that Maria is truly isolated by her own inability trust herself. She cannot shake the trauma of her sister’s death no matter how unaffected she attempts to sound.

As the narrative unfolds and the pieces start to fall into place, tension builds. By this point we are attached to this wounded but entirely relatable soul as she nears a critical turning point. All we can do at that moment is trust that she will know what is right. For her. With Maria, Erica Mou has created a truly engaging, oddly eccentric character and a well-paced narrative that leaves one wondering where the future will take her. Definitely a writer to watch.

Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou is translated by Clarissa Botsford and published by Héloïse Press.

The conversation we can’t have: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik

Loss and grief are experiences that inspire and drive so much literature. For a writer there seems to be a compelling need to try to sort out the complicated flood of emotions that the injury, illness or death of a loved one releases with the only tool that makes sense—the pen. But that response typically requires a certain degree of distance before the diaries and records can be weighed against whatever it is one feels at the time and in the aftermath. The exercise of writing immediate grief is much more difficult. In his memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke seeks an element of closure by writing about his mother within two months of her death. He wants to honour her life without slipping into sentimentalism but discovers the peace he seeks is elusive, he cannot keep himself out of the story, and that is the best part of this raw, affecting meditation. More successful precisely because it was never intended for publication, is Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. This collection of fragments, scribbled on scraps of paper during the first days, weeks and years following his beloved mother’s death is entirely unselfconscious, honest and stripped to the barest essential emotions. As such it is one of the very few books a recently bereaved person can turn to for company. There are no conclusions, no prescriptions, and many unanswerable questions.

One could say that Hanne Ørstavik’s Ti Amo is also an exercise is immediate grief writing, but she turns to fiction, choosing to hold close to the details of her own life, and at the time of writing—or at least beginning to write—her ailing husband is still alive. Her unnamed narrator, a Norwegian novelist, is living in Milan with her Italian husband who is dying of cancer. The work she is writing, addressed to the man she loves, is an attempt to put some kind of meaning to a time in which their relationship, and the expectations and dreams they once had, is shifting, losing direction. It is an effort to reach out across the space that has opened up between their respective realities:

Why can’t we speak the truth? Why can’t we say things the way they are? Why do they have to hide your death from you? Do you really not want to know, not be in contact with, not feel, the truth about yourself?

“Ti amo”—I love you—is the phrase that links the narrator and her husband, becoming in moments of physical and psychological distance, a mantra that reaches out through the fogginess of medication and the void created by that which is not being said. At the time when he first became ill, they were still in the early, heady years of a mid-life romance. He was her Italian publisher and, as their desire to be together intensified, she relocated from Norway to Milan, immersing herself in a foreign culture and language. Their lives were filled with travel, literary events, social engagements. When the first indications that something was wrong appeared, they both tried to imagine it was nothing but before long his symptoms could no longer be ignored. A diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy followed but the cancer is refuses to be stayed. In the present moment of the emerging text, it is early 2020. Their relationship goes back only four years and almost half of that time has unfolded under the shadow of serious illness. Even their marriage, the formal recognition of their partnership, was a response, at his insistence, to the suddenly altered circumstances.

Tracing the onset and progression of illness against an account of their lives before and after diagnosis, the narrator is continually seeking to understand what she feels and who she is in relation to a man who often seems so helplessly far away. Through the maze of appointments and tests and endless trips to the pharmacy in the hope that the prescribed pain meds have finally arrived, small things, the simple moments together—stopping for hot chocolate, buying suet for wild birds, tea in the morning—take on an added poignancy. The narrative is nonlinear but regularly circles back to January, 2020, as the last of the normal treatment options have been exhausted. And still, they are not together in accepting the one truth that hangs in the air.

Ti Amo is novel of passion, commitment and confusion. It is an open window into the complicated, often conflicted, emotions of caregiving without the numbing effects afforded by time and distance. Details of the ravages of an aggressive cancer are laid bare, woven into a story of two people brought together by a love of literature, art and travel. Two different natures, she reasons at one point, recalling that he always exhibited a certain degree of hesitancy while she always carried “a compulsion for truth that feels like my very life force itself.” Is that why they can’t approach the topic of death?

This is, of course, a one-sided story. The narrator’s husband is hostage to pain and its pacifiers, grasping at normal whenever he has the strength, and much of the time that entails going into the office. As if a semblance of work will keep him alive. But isn’t that what the narrator turns to as well? Her own work? “I write novels,” she says, “It’s my way of existing in the world…” If he will not or cannot ease her through her fear of bereavement by bravely accepting his own death (for is that not what lies behind her sense of loneliness?), she will turn their situation into a novelized love letter.

The resulting brief novella, written in just ten days, overflows with warmth, tenderness and  grief rendered in spare, poetic prose. Through her looping narrative style, Ørstavik allows emotional tension to build, in her protagonist and her reader, as a moment of reckoning dawns for the narrator and her husband in their separate but parallel journeys. However, the end, as such, lies outside the frame of the story. The author’s real-life husband, Italian publisher, translator and painter Luigi Spagnol, died on June 14, 2020. Ti Amo, in arising so directly from her experiences and emotions in his final months, is more than autobiographical fiction or memoir—it is also a deeply personal tribute to power of love.

Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and will be published by Archipelago Books in North America and And Other Stories in the UK in September.

Somewhere between night and day: Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy

Dark, endless,
lampless
behind the windowpanes

the night

Yet even it
ends up famished
can be heard fidgeting,
shrinking to better flee,
suddenly escaping
over the roofs

Spare, essential in its spirit, the voice of Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy strikes a distinctive note  from the first lines of “The Corridor,” the poem that opens Before the Night, the first part of her book Trás-os-Montes—a note that continues to rise off all the pages that follow. Born in Lausanne in 1954, Tappy is a highly respected writer, researcher and translator. The present collection of poetry, her seventh, was awarded the prestigious Swiss Prize for Literature in 2019 and is now available in a dual language French / English edition in John Taylor’s translation. (Her first six books were released in a single volume as Sheds / Hangars in 2014, again in Taylor’s translation, available from Bitter Oleander Press.)

In his Preface, Taylor provides an overview of the key poetic elements at play in the poems, linking them, where appropriate, to a continuation or development of approaches emerging in Tappy’s earlier poetry. His long association with the poet and her work allows him to contextualize the themes that arise, but a conversation between poet and translator recorded and published in translation in The Fortnightly Review, offers a valuable opportunity to hear Tappy discuss her poetic philosophy and this work in particular. In speaking about her own poetic evolution, she notes that Spanish and Latin American poets have had an abiding presence in her life and writing. Taylor wonders how this influence is reflected and she responds:

Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.

This sensitivity to the human-natural interplay of intense landscapes is directly evident in Trás-os-Montes which is set in Portugal and Spain, along with an extended poetic epigram set in Greece. The first series of poems, Before the Night, feature a village woman, Maria, as she tends to the tasks of her daily life in “Trás-os-Montes” (which means “on the other side of the mountains”), an impoverished, isolated region of northern Portugal with an aging population clustered in small villages, almost forgotten by the rest of the country, bound to this austere lifestyle by deep ancestral roots.

Tiny and bent over
the sink, so far from us
in her blue apron, lost
in her rain boots, she’s sorting
the black cherries, setting the ripest
off to the side, separating them
from the rotten ones

She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips

behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains

We see her tending her garden, cleaning her home, straightening a fence, heading off to market, engaging in communal activities. But this is more than a quotidian cataloguing of chores or portrayal of a life shaped by the forces of nature and defined by time. The precise, economical language carries its own emotional and existential weight. Through the speaker’s observations of this woman who is at once a real person and someone who stands for a kind of “universal humanity,” Tappy is exercising a form of distanced depiction to ask questions about what life means. She says:

This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.

This sequence of poems, then, lays the groundwork for those of the second section, The Blank Hour. Here the tone is more personal, while landscape—natural and man-made—becomes an even stronger feature, as trails and roads lead the speaker into an encounter with an intimate past.  Although in neither section is a location explicitly stated, these poems are ostensibly set in the Balearic Islands of Spain where Tappy has spent much time during her life. The imagery is bleak and beautiful, coloured with an atmosphere of memory and loss that grows deeper as the sequence proceeds.

But for those who go afar
with neither lamp nor landmark
under a sky of black snow,
the earth with its lighthouses,
its bits of bone, its rockets,
the earth so noisy during the day,
every evening closes up
like a wooden chest
over hope

There is, again, a real person at the centre of The Blank Hour, someone Tappy once loved who has passed away. Her speaker, the lyric “I” which she understands as “an ‘augmented I,’ as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination,” addresses this individual and encounters his absence in the places they once knew together. Her language, so evocative, illuminates the experience of sorrow and grief so perfectly. Our losses always seem magnified, not only by specific locations but by the vastness of the universe itself.

Today the tamarisks
covered with dust from the trucks,
pink stars become gray
that you’ll never see again,
persist,
and the enamel-bright houses
bunch together. In silence
they stand, staving off
absence

A single fault line suffices, however,
and that look from the past returns,
slipping by mistake
into the heart, reopening
what had been locked up so well

a nearby star twinkling
and ripping

In reading Trás-os-Montes, one has a sense of journeying alongside the speaker, yet at the end we are each, poet and reader alike, left alone to understand the destinations we have reached. Tappy’s poetic process is openly existential in a way that prescribes no specific conclusion. The story she is telling, she claims, is not her own but rather a means to self-understanding: “By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.” As such, the story we read, is, at least to some degree, our own, shaped and coloured by our lives and experiences. And that is the true beauty and power of poetry.

Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy is translated from the French by John Taylor and published by MadHat Press.

Welcome to Casablanca: Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf

First, read the stories. Unsettling, allow them to assault your senses. Enter a world marred by poverty and illness, poisoned by the values of traditional patriarchal society, infused with everyday magic and superstition where women and men are trapped in roles defined by factors beyond their immediate control. This is the Casablanca of Malika Moustadraf’s fictional landscape, the space in which she ignites fires, large and small, and lets them burn. Finally, turn to the Translator’s Note and realize just how important and tragically small this remarkable work truly is.

Blood Feast (published in the UK as Something Strange Like Hunger) is a slender volume containing all of the stories the Moroccan Arabic-language writer wrote during her short life—fourteen tales, some only a few pages long. Together with one novel (Wounds of the Soul and Body) self-published in 1999, they form the sum total of her literary output. During her lifetime she was, through her writing, an out-spoken activist, with a style and thematic focus on gender, sexuality and class under patriarchy that challenged what was acceptable for turn of the twenty-first century female writers in her home country. Yet, until recently all of this work had long been out of print in Arabic and none was available in translation. Today she is recognized and celebrated as a feminist icon.

But, again let’s have a look at the stories. The first ten pieces were published in Arabic in 2004 as Trente-six, a project supported by the Moroccan Short Story Research Group. Her settings tend to be squalid, pungent and unpleasant. As are the people that inhabit them. Slang, harsh language, and cultural references abound. Her female narrators, are typically facing the consequences of severe gendered oppression, propagated by callous fathers, abusive partners, or the demands of unreasonable, outdated social norms. Her male narrators often echo the sexist attitudes of the system they were raised in, unable or unwilling to rise above it. And yet there is a defiance, a resilience, and a conscious weighing of the odds motivating many of her protagonists’ actions—even those that are unlikely to improve their situations. The narrator of “A Woman in Love, A Woman Defeated,” for example, visits a seer to find out how to make her husband return even though she herself wonders why she even wants him back. Looking out at her very pregnant cat, she says:

She left home a while back, chasing after a scabby tom who had seduced her, and then later she came back, rubbing herself up against me like nothing had happened. I did the same thing, left everyone behind and followed him. He wasn’t handsome. He looked like a little bald bear with a saggy paunch hanging down past his genitals, and he had a huge ass and a round face. I always hated men with huge asses and round faces. So how did I fall in love with him? Love is like that, it always shows up without an appointment. Love is like death, like illness, always arriving when we least expect it, at the most peculiar times and places. Love makes us behave like irrational children. Why can’t they just invent a vaccine against it?

Within the tight scope of her characteristically brief stories Moustadraf was able to paint claustrophobic portraits that often explored territory that was extraordinarily progressive, given the time when she was writing. The narrator of “Just Different,” for instance, is a gender non-conforming prostitute whose identity is never clearly defined. Perhaps an effeminate gay man or a transfemale or even intersexed person—that which is undefined leaves possibilities open— reflecting, on a quiet night working the street, back on childhood and their father’s brutal hostility toward any hint of feminine mannerisms. Later in this collection, among the four stories completed following the publication of Trente-six (three of which were published after her death), her protagonists appear to have somewhat more agency, and two even engage in online flirtation—probably, as the translator suggests, “the first ever published literary depictions of cybersex in Arabic.” One can only wonder what she might have produced if her health and economic situation had not conspired against her.

As it was, she died in 2006 at the age of thirty-seven, from the complications of chronic kidney disease and her inability to obtain the life-saving surgery she needed. The exact biographical details of her life are not well known but she seems to have been diagnosed with kidney disease and started on dialysis in her teens. She famously resented the fact that women writers were assumed to be only capable of writing autobiographical fiction, denying that they, like men, could have access to a robust imagination. However, the title story of the present collection, “Blood Feast,” can be read as a powerful exception to her rejection of autobiographically inspired themes. In this story, dedicated to her sister Karima from whom she received an unsuccessful transplant, the male narrator is struck with kidney disease shortly after his wedding. The bride is blamed, alternate understandings are sought, and the proclamation of the female doctor is met with distrust. But when he finds himself flat on his back in a putrid hospital, he becomes the unwillingly captive audience of his smoking fellow patient who imparts his wisdom about navigating the almost hopeless process of applying for financial assistance for the necessary treatments in a corroded semi-privatized system, a reality the author knew only too well.

Moustadraf faced her own host of impossible barriers in her journey, yet as her illness progressed, her literary spirit only burned brighter. Writing was her way of coping, one that paradoxically weakened her health when she had to go without medications to be able to afford to self-publish her novel. The challenges she faced, physically and artistically, to bring her work to light adds an important context and power to her bold voice, amplifying it far beyond her relatively small oeuvre. And at last she is getting her due, in no small part, thanks to the dedication of her translator Alice Guthrie who literally fell in love with her work when first invited to translate a piece for the online journal Words Without Borders several years ago. She has ensured that Malika Moustadraf is no longer forgotten.

Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf is translated by Alice Guthrie and published in North America by Feminist Press. In the UK, this same collection was published by Saqi Books under the title Something Strange Like Hunger.

Everything is fine: Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A storyteller from Gujarat arrives: The Shehnai Virtuoso by Dhumketu

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

– Dhumketu, Introduction to his collection, Tankha I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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