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.

 

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.

Caught between seasons: Camille in October by Mireille Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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