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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Translation Month 2019: Some off-the-radar reading suggestions and my own modest proposal

Each August is Women in Translation Month, a time set aside to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English and, of course, encourage increased translation of these authors into other languages so that they may be more widely read.  This initiative, started by blogger Meytal Radzinski, is now in its sixth year.

My best ever effort to participate was during 2015, my first year as a blogger. Not only was this before writing critical reviews and editing commitments started to creep into my reading time, but I was also recovering from a cardiac arrest and could stretch out on the sofa and read without guilt. Doing much else was painful! Since then, each year I have made public or private commitments to toss a few extra appropriate titles on the TBR pile and, if lucky, read one or two.  I console myself by remembering that reading women in translation is something that naturally seems to occur throughout the year in the course of my normal reading. As so it should.

This year I have a few books earmarked for the month (fingers crossed), but I thought I would take a little time to suggest some titles that might not be so well known. They’re all taken from my own bookcases and most are (as of yet) unread.

I’ll start with those that I have in fact read and reviewed. First up, poetry:

From the bottom up:
Korean poet Kim Hyesoon won the 2019 International Griffin  Poetry Prize for this book Autobiography of Death, a cycle of 49 poems and one longer piece inspired by national tragedies and personal experience. Her daughter’s distinctive illustrations accompany this powerful collection translated by Don Mee Choi.

Thick of It by German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is a wonderful blend of the magical and the everyday. Fresh and alive.

Finally, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor, is a spare and delicate collection that invites rereading. Earlier this year she and I were able to meet and spend a few days together in Calcutta when my visit happened to overlap with a residency she was doing in the city—evidence that reading the world makes the world smaller in unimaginable ways!

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Second, I wanted to highlight a book I recently reviewed that I am afraid has not had the attention it deserves:

Croatian writer Olja Savičevič’s Singer in the Night features a wildly eccentric narrator and a highly inventive style to tell a story that paints a serious portrait of the world that her generation inherited after the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth, this book is already available in the UK and well worth watching for when it comes out on October 1 in North America.

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Third, I have an impressive stack of Seagull Books by female authors that I am ashamed to say I have not read yet (save for the poetry title tucked in here). The interesting thing for me about this selection is that although I did purchase many of these books, other titles arrived as unexpected—but very welcome—review copies by writers previously unknown to me.

Most of the above are German language writers; two, Michele Lesbre and Suzanne Dracius are French, the latter from Martinique. The review copy at the bottom of the stack is East German writer Brigitte Reimann’s diary I Have No Regrets.

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Finally, I wanted to include a couple of translated titles by Indian women writers. Two vastly different offerings.

Translated by Kalpana Bardhan and published by feminist press Zubaan, Mahuldiha Days is a novel by Anita Agnihotri, one of West Bengal’s best known writers. She draws on the decades she spent in the Indian Administrative Service in this story of a young civil servant caught between her obligations to the tribal community she is working with and the state.  By sharp contrast, I Lalla, gives a fresh voice the poems of fourteenth century Kashmiri mystic poet, Lal Děd. A detailed introduction by translator Ranjit Hoskote provides a fascinating background to her life and the tradition to which she belonged, opening a world little known to most Western readers.

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So, what are my best laid plans for this month? I would like to read one or two titles from my Seagull stack—not sure which—and I have a new Istros title Wild Woman by Marina Sur Puhlovski on my iPad in PDF format, but the following three books have been patiently waiting for August:

The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart, is a recently released collection of short pieces, including “The Swan Whisperer” which was published as part of the Cahier Series.  I ordered it as soon as I heard of it—new van Niekerk is a rare and special treat.  Aviaries by Czech writer Zuzana Brabcova caught my attention when fellow readers and reviewers started talking about it so it’s another title I sought out when it was released here this spring. And last but not least, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years now. Will I fit it in this August? Time will tell. And, of course, I reserve the right to change my plans altogether…

The nice thing about books is that, at least with the old fashioned solid form variety, they don’t vanish at month’s end if you don’t get to them. They will still be there on the shelf waiting no matter how much time I do or do not have to read amid all my other projects on my plate this August!

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.