Civil war up close: Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez

“Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.”
.                                                                  MARX

 So begins Blood of the Dawn, the devastating debut novel by Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez. This slender volume that captures, at gut level, the horror of the “Time of Fear”, the years when the Shining Path insurgency was at its most intense is tightly bound to the intimate feminine experience. It is an exercise with little narrative distance—one that takes three women from very different backgrounds, closes in on their unique perspectives, backgrounds, and motivations, and weaves back and forth between their stories. When their disparate trajectories intersect, their individual fates, at least in that time and place, become shockingly similar.

In 1980, a  fringe group of Maoist terrorists stole ballot boxes and burned them in the public square of the town of Chuschi, setting off a time of fear and violence that would, over the next twenty years, leave 70,000 dead. Set primarily during the first decade of this “People’s War,” Salazar Jiménez’s novel is a bold attempt to give voice to those not often heard. On both sides of the conflict.

There is Marcela, a disillusioned, yet idealistic teacher who is seduced by the message of the Shining Path and its charismatic leaders. Abandoning her husband and young daughter, she joins the battle. Her first person account is reported from prison, where she looks back at her childhood, early adulthood and her time with the guerilla group. In the face of regular interrogation she is still defiant, still holding on to a loyalty that cannot quite be dissolved despite the atrocities she has observed, participated in and experienced. Hers is a complicated narrative that takes the reader right into the conflicted reasoning, force of conviction, and group dynamics that shape a terrorist.

The women advance, marching along the gray patio. The first of them holds a banner with the image of Comrade Leader. Honor and glory to the proletariat and the people of Peru. Hair trained under green caps. Red blouses. Aquamarine skirts to the knee. Marching in formation. Educated in the shining trenches of combat. Jail others call it; prison. All at the same pace. Give one’s life for the party and the revolution. Banners of red flags with a yellow star. Torches in hand. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Drum one. Drum two. Drum three. The feminine ferment rising. We travel a shining path. We struggle without truce to the end.

The second character is Melanie, a young photojournalist in love with a female artist who has moved to Paris. She imagines that the conflict in the mountains holds the story she is meant to record. A city dweller, she is quite unprepared for the harsh realities she finds. Her story is told in a first person present that highlights both her passions and her naivete. She will discover that her camera is neither welcomed by the villagers she meets, nor does it provide a shield against the sights, sounds and smells that will come to permeate her very being.

The next hamlet is a cloud of smoke. It’s hard to make out anything clearly. My camera feels heavier than usual. That’s fine; its weight anchors me to reality in this spectral place. What’s left when everything is done? Nothing. Where should I go look now? What should my lens focus on?

Finally, the truly innocent victim in the situation is the Indigenous peasant woman Modesta, who will lose everything as insurgents and soldiers repeatedly cross through her village, leaving a trail of rape, torture and murder. Her account is reported in the second person—a startling powerful perspective—until, toward the end when she finds her own voice and picks up her own thread. By then we see her slowly finding a resilience and strength that is fragile and determined at once, caught in war that makes no sense to her.

Every day at exactly four in the afternoon, new words parade into your ears just like the terrorists parade every morning. That if the class, they say, that if the proletariat, they say; that if the revolution, they say, that if the people’s war, they say, are saying, say. You only nod in agreement, already tuning out. They speak of people you don’t know, a certain Marx, a certain Lenin, a certain Mao, and a certain President Leader who is boss of them all. We’re all going to be equal, they say.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Wound through the plaited threads of the women’s stories are episodes of unattributed stream of consciousness and short quotes from political and philosophical sources. Repetition is employed to reinforce the relentlessness of the savage violence, and the point at which the narratives of the three protagonists blur in identical experiences of excruciating violation. The anonymity of the moment is in sharp contrast to the differing paths that lead each woman to that point, and the diverging courses their lives follow afterward. In an interesting Translator’s Note, Elizabeth Bryer brings to light some of the challenges of reflecting, in English, the different voices through use of rhythm, ideological focus and cultural references as appropriate to each woman.

In the end, Blood of the Dawn comes very close to risking losing its impact with the bludgeoning effect of the brutal tableau that unfolds. Fortunately this a spare, tightly controlled work and, to its credit, one that raises more questions than it answers, even leaving its own characters uncertain. A brave debut, indeed.

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Deep Vellum.

 

Heat wave: Summer Resort by Esther Kinsky

It’s summertime, somewhere in the vast Hungarian plain, and this one’s a scorcher. The heat presses down on the residents of an unnamed village and threatens to reduce the river—the refuge and solace toward which the winter weary turn to enjoy what little holidays they can scavenge—into a fetid stream. But at the nearby üdülő, the local holiday site with its beach and bar and holiday homes on stilts, seasonal activities will not be curtailed:

On weekdays it was still quiet in the üdülő, but the bar already smelt of what had been left behind from the weekend: spilt beer, sweat, the girls’ summer perfumes, the exhaust clouds of the motorcyclists and helpless chlorine bleach with urine. Around midday clouds appeared over the bend in the river. The sky turned white, the river dark, the heat did not abate, became dense, bright, the poplar leaves rustled, sounded like whirring metal scarecrow strips. The small boats lay pale grey by the bank, motionless, congealed into a river panorama, from which only a powerful gust of wind or the hand of a wrangler or rower could awake them.

On the beach and back in town this will be a summer filled with drama, heartache, and melancholy—business as usual, but with a twist. This year there is a stranger in their midst, the New Woman, who has arrived from afar and settled in with Antal, the mason, who has in turn abandoned his wife and son. Such is the basic outline of Esther Kinsky’s first prose work, the novella, Summer Resort, a short, playfully poetic fable filled with a seemingly endless cast of tragicomic characters and bursting at the seams with striking and delightful wordplay.

With the attention that has come with the publication of River (see my review at Music & Lietrature), Kinsky’s only other translated work to date is likely to attract renewed interest. Compared to River, this earlier novel lacks the emotional resonance and meditative depth that one looking backward might hope for, but what it does offer deserves to be appreciated in its own terms, as an exuberant display of highly-charged linguistic energy, and a clear indication of the animated imagination, attentiveness to nature and the astute eye for detail that will characterize the prose in her longer, more serious work.

Summer Resort is an exercise in tight, contained story telling peopled with eccentric characters. Many exist almost as caricatures, like the Kozac boys who maintain a certain status in town and at the beach—admired, tolerated and resented in turn—the Onion Men, and the generic Marikas and Zsuzsas in their bikinis and glitter sandals. Others fall into closer focus. Lacibácsi the scrap yard dealer who runs the bar at the üdülő each summer aspiring to be a “manbytheriver, a poplarshadowman, a confidant of drunks,” his wife Éva (christened Ruthwoman by the New Woman) and Krisztí, the leather-clad woman who settles herself at the bar, a welcome if uninvited assistant. But at the heart of the story are Antal, his ex-wife Ildi, and son Miklós who each take a brief turn directly narrating pieces of their lives, now forever changed by the insertion of the mysterious New Woman into their midst.

More than anything though, this village and its inhabitants serves as a broad tapestry for Kinsky to weave her poetic magic. Her characters are the ordinary folk, the policeman, the railwayman, the small-time hustlers, the day labourers and the farm workers. Victims of shifting economies, closing industries and faded hopes. The üdülő is a place to lose themselves, to play and dream, but this year of heat and drought, is marked by fires, a shrinking river, and restless bodies tossing between sweat soaked sheets. There is an affectionate sadness that rolls across the surface of the narrative, and a quiet resignation that seeps into the dialogue. But the language is fierce, the imagery vivid: “Katica’s mouth was rose red with lipstick, there was so much red on it that it stood out in the üdülő like a wound.”

This is a startlingly sensual work. Here we find the elements that will later become so essential to the absorbing intensity of River. Kinsky has an unwavering awareness of detail, colour, scents, and sounds. Nature contains both the beautiful and the bleak, the lighthearted and the devastating. As is the case with the river that here, on this flat, unforgiving landscape, is a primal force:

What belongs to the river, what to the land? The floods come swiftly and silently. The river swells up, in the course of a night it casts of the sham cloak of gentleness, bursts its banks, spills over tops of embankments, carries off objects, animals, people. The undertow and thrust of the water changes the landscape. Sky, water, destroyed treetops, helpless house roofs as far as the eye can see. Then the river creeps back into its gentle course, trickles sweetly between the devastated rampant undergrowth of the bank which sticks this way and that, reflects the sky and sun, has long ago secretly discarded in the bushes what it has snatched away, where it is transformed, missing persons first become foul impediments, the vermin of the riverbank and water meadows gathering around them in great clouds, then pale, hollow bodies, through which the wind blows the quiet music of melancholy, which always lurks here in the undergrowth.

Esther Kinsky is a German poet, writer and translator. She has translated literature from English, Russian and Polish, including works by Olga Tokarczuk and Magdalena Tulli. Folkloric tones, reminiscent of some of their work come through here, perhaps, as does a pure poetic sensibility. A restless incantation for the loves and lives that collide in the course of one brittle, unrelenting summer, Summer Resort is a work well worth visiting for anyone interested in tracing the headwaters of River. And anyone else who simply enjoys a good tale.

Summer Resort is translated by Kinsky’s late husband, Martin Chalmers, and published by Seagull Books.

To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books. An edition is also available from Peter Owen.

To be someone: The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

It may seem counterintuitive given the immediate obsession with death and a life unlived, but this quirky little book, opens with promise. Mathea Martinsen, the self-deprecating narrator, is an odd character, an elderly woman as afraid of living as she is of dying.  What concerns her most is that she will pass unnoticed, that her existence will not be registered. With an irrational fear of other people, and a preference to stay home watching TV and knitting an inexhaustible supply of ear warmers, she has reached the far side of life and is given to morose reflections on the fact that she has failed to make an impression on the world. Each morning she reads the obituaries, relieved not to find herself listed there. And yet, she reasons, an obituary would be proof that she had been someone, if only a presence noted in passing. She considers writing her own obituary and sending it in to the paper so that it will be on hand when the time comes, assuming that is, that someone notices that she is missing (or registers a smell coming from her apartment).

Cheery? Well, having just witnessed an increase in nuclear posturing between the US and North Korea, riots on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, mud slides in Sierra Leone, and carnage on the streets of Barcelona, one could argue that The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Norwegian writer Kjersti A. Skomsvold is the perfect, light refreshing read—intimations of death notwithstanding. And it is an enjoyable diversion, but strangely unconvincing if one is looking for a meaningful meditation on what it means to be alive.

Serious times welcome distractions. However, is that enough?

Mathea and her husband live in a cooperative where they stick to themselves as they have for decades. High school sweethearts, were brought together after Mathea, a natural loner given to lurking on the edge of the schoolyard, attracted not one, but two bolts of lightning, one after the other. This exceptionally unlikely occurrence caught the attention of a similarly unpopular classmate with a penchant for statistics:

“The chances of being struck by lightning twice in the same spot are less than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity” was the first thing Epsilon said to me. “It’s completely unbelievable.” He didn’t know how truly unbelievable it was, because nothing had ever singled me out. The spun bottle never pointed at me, the neighborhood kids never found me when we played hide-and-seek, and I never found the almond in the pudding at Christmas, one or the other of my parents always found it, which was almost a bit suspicious.

Epsilon works as a statistician, continuing well beyond retirement years, and measures life in statistically accurate probabilities. He is as eccentric as his wife, but at least he gets out of the house and, one suspects, has some semblance of a social existence. His career gives his life meaning—calculable and quantifiable—while his wife, with mortality facing her, has not even begun to figure out how to live.

She walks to the store, sometimes giving the time of day, literally, to a strange man she sees on her way, and buys countless jars of jam, hoping she will chance upon one she can actually open. She buries a time capsule and calls information repeatedly to request her own number, just to register the sense that she is a popular person. She likes to rhyme her thoughts, a strange game that affords for rather clichéd statements which one hopes may be in part an effect of translation. Nonetheless, Mathea comes across as a rather shallow, even irritating character—one can sense Epsilon’s stoic resolve and patience pushed at times to its limits—and she almost appears to recognize her own obstinacy. Yet she is powerless to fight it except in the most strangely counter-productive ways. What is humorous at the outset of this novella, quickly grows strained.

In the end, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am is somewhat like the meringues our narrator prides herself on making. Not enough substance to work as an allegory. Not dark enough to turn Mathea and Epsilon’s strangely isolated existence into a mildly gothic tale. A charming read on a week that, in world news, was in sore need of some charm, but, in the end, likely too lightweight to linger.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive.

The loose ends of memories: Before by Carmen Boullosa

The opening passage of Mexican writer Carmen Boullousa’s novel Before—the first she wrote, albeit the second to be published—is, at first blush, disorienting.

Where were we when we got to this point? Didn’t they tell you? Who could tell you if you had nobody to ask? And do you yourself remember? Particularly if you’re not here… And if I keep on? Well if I keep on perhaps you’ll show up.

A most unlikely welcome. But then our winsome young narrator is not here either. She greets us from a point beyond bodied existence, beyond a life cut short with the advent of puberty. She is lost in a realm of troubled memories, and in an attempt to find herself, to talk herself back into being, she invents a listener, one who is likewise no longer alive, to whom she can recount her recollections and, she hopes, confront the trauma that has continued to haunt her. “How would I like you to be?” she asks her conjured audience, “I’d like you to be whatever you were!”

As she revisits her past, attempting to start at the very beginning, with her own birth, memories and emotions pour forth in a jumble of childhood anecdotes crossed with her reflections about the limitations of language and the perplexity of familial relationships. Her estranged connection with her own past is palpable. She describes playing games with her older sisters, her fondness for her father, and the sense of security she feels with her grandmother. She paints vivid images of life at her Catholic girl’s school. But she speaks of her mother, whom she insists on referring to as Esther, with an odd, pained distance. And she is hypersensitive to noises, creating a “lexicon” of her own. She finds comfort in the ones that can be explained by the light of day, but fears the insistent sound of footsteps that haunt her in her dreams, that wake her in a state of panic. The steps threatens to envelop her in darkness. She seeks refuge in both practical and enchanted solutions. She feels she just barely escapes their pursuit:

I didn’t know what I could do against this persecution. When I was younger, I stayed in bed or ran to my parents’ bed to let them protect me, but Dad never let me sleep in their room, thinking my nighttime terror was “clowning,” which was the word he used to describe it. Some nights I managed to trick them and stay asleep on a rug at the foot of their bed, thinking their closeness would defend me, but when I was older, let’s say around the age of nine, I stopped having recourse to the rug; if I didn’t stay in bed waiting for the noises to hit me, I walked through the house trying to elude them.

Her memories are not orderly, they vie for her attention, and often require the insertion of backstories to give them context. This allows for an odd logic, a somewhat disjointed storytelling. Some memories bring her unexpected joy, make her feel “alive again,” while others rekindle fears and mock her loneliness, her “opacity” and “sadness.” As a ghost, her connection with her life is complicated, suspended on the cusp of womanhood. The stories she shares often take on magical overtones in the retelling. Some of this reflects the enthusiasm and imagination of childhood fantasy, but as she gets older, an ominous superstition grows. As the narrative progresses, our heroine is winding her way toward an event almost too unbearably painful to return to. As readers we know that her death awaits, but there is another heartbreaking loss that precedes it.

Underlying this fragmented account of a privileged childhood in Mexico City, is the sense that adults and children exist in separate spheres. A rotation of caregivers passes through their lives and the eldest sister takes on some of the surrogate parenting roles, while the mother and father pursue careers and social engagements. When her sisters become young women, seeming to enter overnight a world of brassieres, stockings, and nail polish, the narrator promises that she will not follow suit. She does not realize, she admits when she confesses this, that she has sealed her fate with this wish.

There is an uncanny urgency and intensity to this ghostly coming-of-age story. Boullosa’s own Catholic upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, and the early death of her mother when she was fifteen are echoed here, suggesting that it may have been as imperative for her to tell this tale as it is for her protagonist to share hers. And what better way to create a distance, a place of relative safety, than to root a narrative in the afterlife? Not that any of her narrator’s animated energy or distracted childhood logic is lost in the process. Rather, we are presented with a unique blend of curiosity and innocence, tinged with wisdom and sorrow.

A most unusual and affecting tale.

Originally released in Spanish in 1989, Before is translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, and published by Deep Vellum.

Women in Translation Month: Some suggestions and my goal for this year

August is, as you may know, Women in Translation Month—a broad based initiative to promote the reading of translated literature by women, hosted by Meytal Radzinski.  Anyone and everyone is welcomed to take part in any way, large or small, to help celebrate, promote, or explore translated works by women writers.

This month I have several significant reading projects that involve writers that, if in translation are not female, or if female are not translated works. However, I have, as ever, made a selection of titles to choose from with the hopes that I will be able to work at least a few in over the weeks ahead. Being a painfully slow reader, and an even slower writer, I have been careful to keep all potential contenders at or below 200 pages—sometimes well below 200 pages. From the books pictured here, Carmen Boullosa’s Before and Magdaléna Platzová’s The Attempt are at the top of my must read list for this year’s WITMonth. I will be happy to manage to fit in four.

This modest collection includes works originally published in Afrikaans, Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, French Canadian, French (France), Norwegian, Polish, and Portuguese. And, of course, I reserve the right to choose something not pictured here, but I don’t want to let the month pass without honouring this worthwhile, and important, project.