Readers of Michal Avjaz are on familiar ground when, in his story ‘The Wire Book,’ lengths of wire bent into whole sentences are discovered lying on a seabed, and later turn out to be the work of the dead son of a country’s new president. The wire book is entrusted to a team of restorers all sworn to secrecy regarding its contents, gagged until the ‘book’ is cleaned of clinging sea creatures and ready to be shown to the public. That day comes some months later and a deal is brokered to publish the book that the people have been waiting so eagerly for, ready to be moved by the stirring words and themes of justice and freedom from tyranny one would expect from a martyr. But what’s this? The novel defies all expectations, confounding critics and advocates alike. Experts can make no sense of it and so, like hermit crabs, empty it of meaning and fill it with their own. The first two sentences freed from the metal tangle will serve to indicate the general tenor of the novel:
As Richard’s car plunged toward the green hillside of the Chapultepec, a dark figure holding a sub-machine gun leaned out of the back window. There were three flashes and the sound of three short bursts of gunfire.
Car chases and gunfights and demons and roadside motels are the stuff of the novel and to the noses of the educated such genre trappings are as odious as the sea-slime that the words once hooked. Like hermeneutists they stood ready to receive the message and enlighten the myopic masses as to its meaning, but the message was not one they had prepared for.
Borges famously said that it is a “laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and to that end never wrote anything more than a score pages long. Trending thought it did toward the small, yet his work cannot be labelled minimalist. There are pages, rather, that contain entire worlds, paragraphs as vast as the universe, and sentences that hum with the impossible magic of quantum mechanics as their limit approaches zero. Borges’ stories are profound and playful and the delight he took in the paradoxical palpable. He was a puzzler who knew the value of a puzzle is not in its solution; games of ontological chess were played with adversaries such as Nietzsche, Plato, Zeno of Elea, Bergson, Schopenhauer, & co. With formidable erudition and singular vision it was inevitable that Borges should become as influential as he is. But, lest the reader think this the preface of an article on his greatness, allow me to turn to the matter at hand: a few pale and wanting thoughts on the short fiction of Peter Adolphsen which, it will be noted, exhibits Borgesian traits.
Toomas Vint’s story ‘Beyond the Window a Park is Dimming’ opens with the closing of the day. Dusk is settling, the light is fading and Vilmer, “a relatively well-to-do businessman of fifty-eight” looks out from his apartment on a darkening park as he waits for his date to finish whatever she is doing in his bathroom. (She is certainly taking a long time.)
A prisoner arrives at a Soviet hard-labour camp and is asked the length of his sentence. ”Twenty five years,” he replies. ”For what?” he is asked. ”For nothing.” ”Impossible, for nothing you get ten years.”
My first thought on reading Frenchman Eric Laurrent’s ‘American Diary’ was on the reception it might get from American readers. The story is some dozen entries of a diary written by a Frenchman (thus inviting us to identify the diarist with the author, a presumption Laurrent does nothing to dissuade) that reads as xenophobic and dismissive, the condescension of a refined man of taste touring a glittering cultural wasteland. Laurrent’s distaste is there from day one as he describes the imitation of Gothic Venetian architecture and the bastardization of high art (Boticelli’s Venus as a bathing-suited, roller-skated tourist sans the shell) of the Venice Beach hotel in which he is staying. What follows is a satirical slideshow of the diarist’s misadventures as he travels from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Salt Lake City and in between.
In all ages of man there have been women who treated their bodies as currency, and men of all ages have been only too willing to treat the vagina as a purse of bottomless bounty. Social standing, personal favours, pay rises, material goods – there’s nothing that can’t be purchased with a wink, a flash of skin, and a taste of sin. Albert Karbelashvili has a fridge to sell, and Zhuzhuna’s in the market for one. Zhuzhuna is a woman of easy morals à la those described above. Normally, trading sex for gain works because the buyer is so sexually attractive that the value of her money is superseded by the promise of her body, or the seller is so desperately lonely that his desire to have sex trumps all sense. Neither of these scenarios apply in ‘Sex for Fridge,’ a story of just such a transaction, a disappointing comedy of uneven results.
From Goethe to Nietzsche to Thomas Mann, the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy is a concept favoured by German writers. This might be accounted for by the Weimar Classicism movement of the early nineteenth-century and the focus on classical philology in the school curriculum that bloomed in its wake. As a student of classical philology, Ingo Schulze is aware of the tradition in German letters, and in his story ‘Oranges and Angel’ he would add his name to that illustrious roster.
A Google image search of Palma Vecchio soon reveals to the uninitiated the Venetian painter’s preoccupation: many of his works are of golden-haired women, solid of build, broad-shouldered and pale, air of the coquette, negligent dressers. Time and again his work shows this figure with slight variations in posture or dress, sometimes baring a nipple, sometimes two, often a hand touching – not covering – the breast. The neck and gentle slope down to the breasts occupy the centre of many of the paintings. One in particular is striking: “A Portrait of the Young Bride as Flora,” depicting Vecchio’s broad archetype, blonde head turned to expose light to the right side of her head and throat and falling across her chest, beneath which there hangs in a white chemise a breast, like a moon from behind a cloud, from which all the light radiates. In her right hand Flora, Roman fertility goddess, holds a small bouquet of coloured clover and leaves, and her left hand is holding a green mantle, whether to cover her nakedness or reveal more is not certain. Her eyes are opened but not widely and her lips curve slightly upward above an unassuming chin, her right ear is exposed. She is an open figure: ear, eyes, neck, breast: she is willing and waiting, a portrait of anticipation.
For the cinephile a montage is more than a quick-jab sequence of boxing and triumphant stair climbing, more than the sugared sobbing shots that come when the love interest is revealed to be (gasp) already married. The occasional movie watcher might be forgiven for thinking this was their only purpose: condensing long periods of time into a score of seconds; few are the popular films that employ the technique for other reasons. But this wasn’t always the case. In cinema’s infancy in the first half of the twentieth century some of the larger studios (and this may still be the case today) such as MGM and Warner Bros employed montage specialists whose job it was to compose montage sequences from strips of film supplied them by the film makers. Hollywood’s use of the technique was largely literal – the images followed one from another and were intended simply to show that time had passed. Soviet Russia, however, had a more sophisticated and refined method: contrasting images unrelated to the film were often juxtaposed to create cinematic metaphors, images could be linked with each other through association. Sergei Eisenstein even argued that montage is inherently dialectic, and invoked the imprimatur of Marx and Hegel.
The title of the story in which he appears gives away Doctor Carl O’Connor’s worst-kept secret, that he is self-medicating with one of the world’s most traditional anaesthetics: alcohol. ’Doctor Sot,’ by Irish writer Kevin Barry, follows the physician as he buys his “naggins,” volunteers for a health outreach programme, meets some “new-age travellers” and crashes his car. Somewhere among all of this Doctor Sot runs his surgery, is moved by the beauty of a strange young woman, and has a rushed lunch with is wife. This is a busy story that reads like an episode of Heartbeat but is not without irony, tenderness, and genuine sadness.
Clara’s day begins poorly: leaving it to the last minute, she misses the garbage truck, and knows that the garbage will rot while she holidays overseas for a few weeks. That’s what Clara does: careless and disorganized, she leaves everything until it is almost too late to do it. It is no surprise, then, that she has to spend her last two days driving around the streets of her home in south Dublin completing her preparations before she leaves to visit her son in San Francisco. What is a surprise however, given her passive temperament, is that by the end of the day she will have cut an old woman’s throat and left her to bleed to death.
The Greeks called it ονειρομαντεία - the interpretation of dreams. Artemidorus, author of the five-volume Oneirocritica, was the ancient world’s chief adept. The modern age has handed the crown to Freud, whose cold clutch holds it still, at least in the popular mind. It is an ancient science that once divined from dreams as a source of prophetic vision, but now attributes to them the repository of repressed memories and urges. If the latter is truly their function, to house things we’d rather forget, then one night, when I am safely abed asleep, I shall once again have to endure reading Marco Candida’s ‘Dream Diary’.
Symptoms vary amongst brain diseases, but memory seems to be an almost universal casualty. It is an indispensable element of one’s identity, and any impairment of its function can only mean an erosion to the self. But memory is a mysterious thing, and not something that is always subject to our will, in the way that fine motor skills are. Proust, though not alone, made the distinction between “voluntary memory” – that which one recalls at will, and “involuntary memory” – a memory that comes upon one suddenly, often without stimulation, seemingly all the more clear for its sudden appearance. Memory seems to follow no rules but its own; a capricious, untamed beast who only grows more recalcitrant as it ages and fails, along with its frail and deluded “master”.
To hear him tell it, author Stefan Sprenger’s native Liechtenstein has no national literature. It is a small principality of approximately 36,000 people and has long been surrounded by such towering cultural colossi as Austria and Germany. Yes, there are a handful of writers, but the absence of any kind of domestic publishing industry means that the books they write are published by foreign press, and the books they read are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, foreign. Given such a literary climate it is inevitable that Sprenger’s story ‘Dust’ will resound with the echoes of German literature and culture.
There is an episode in Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King where protagonist Eugene Henderson enters his maid’s cottage after her death. He is astonished to find a mass of objects, piles of string and cord, china doorknobs, buttons, baby buggies, all sorted into mounds as though in their very physical tangibility Henderson’s maid, Miss Lennox, might fool death and dissolution into passing her by. But it is all vanity and the mounds are no more than bric-a-brac pyramids. Sensing her own moribund corporeality the old woman gathers to herself the detritus of her own sepulchre. Her choice of things to collect, unlike a magpie’s, is not based on their glittering splendour, and the bowerbird is no model to follow. Rather, they are all objects without function, superannuated, as she knows she herself soon will be. And so they are simply objects whose mundanity, ubiquity and sameness mean they can be nothing more than “things”: the doorknobs open no more doors, the spools of string bind nothing. Lithuanian writer Danutė Kalinauskaitė has written a short piece – less a narrative than a discursive meditation – on the effects things have on our lives while we are living and after we have died that shares with Bellow’s novel a delightful fertility of detail written in resplendent prose.
Macedonian writer Blaže Minevski has written a ghost story. “Academician Sisoye’s Inaugural Speech” is not a story about ghosts (well, in its way, it is that) but one seemingly told by a ghost, by something less, even, by a narrator – Sivakov – who lays claim to evanescence. Floating in free space, as it were, this story is in no way vaporous or nebulous, but pulses with comedy, vibrant and exuberant, charming and ludic.
Iulian Ciocan’s story Auntie Frosea opens with the eponymous character rushing home under the heavy load of overfilled shopping bags. She is not alone in her haste as the streets empty of people: mothers dragging behind them tired children, motorists speeding away and out of sight. “From the window of a block of apartments, an elated housewife shouted down to her husband, beating carpets in the yard, to drop everything…” “The only sound [from Auntie Frosea's apartment block] was the squeaking of a swing from which a little had leaped but a minute before, impelled by an irresistible desire.” “What kept you woman? “Isaura’s started!” That last is Auntie Frosea’s husband, and the Isaura he refers to is a Latin American soap opera, “the first…ever to be broadcast on Soviet television”.
The statistics are worrying. More time is being given to the watching of television than to reading. Ink and paper are losing to light and glass. Mobile “reading devices” that can store many hundreds of books in electronic format make even the idea of a bound book seem quaint, its reader conservative. The moribund technology of printing has (and has had for some time) its elegists who fight to stop the book from becoming a Relique. I am thinking of the American critic Sven Birkerts and his beautiful, personal book of essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, named for the inventor of movable type. This theme of literature’s endangered existence is one taken up (though not as engagingly as Berkerts) in Ognjen Spahić’s story Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead.
The protagonist of Manon Uphoff’s Desire courts a bad ending. As a teenage girl she possesses all the attendant curiosities that come with the transition from adolescence to womanhood, the outward flowering of a dormant sexuality that marks the maturing of a young woman perhaps more than the first swelling of the chest or the first menstruation. Read the rest of this entry »
The act of making a choice is an expression of freedom. When there is only one path to take, and that path steep and stony, we feel keenly our privation, the injustice of it, often hopeless, and we shuffle along it fettered, as it were, by a fate incorrigible. Most often, however, the truth is that we have only ourselves to blame for such a harshly determined existence. And so while we yet have the choice to make, while we remain undecided, we stand in the knowledge of our freedom, feeling that we have some control over our lives. In this state of perpetual indecision is how the narrator of Frode Grytten’s short story Hotel by a Railroad wants to live.
She had a large head covered in growths and lumps. Her small, ever-tearing eyes were set close under her low, furrowed brow. From a distance they looked like narrow chinks. Her nose looked as if it was broken in many places, and its lip was a livid blue, covered in sparse bristles. Her mouth was huge and swollen, always hanging open, always wet, with some sharply pointed teeth inside it. To top it all off, as if that wasn’t enough, her face sprouted long, straggling, silken hairs.
In his story Six Tales, Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares gives us six short, unrelated pieces, parables that range from mundane simplicity to the macabre fantastic. Taken singly, these pieces have little effect beyond what amusement they may provide in their telling, from the droll irony of the first piece, “The Ingenuous Country,” where the citizenry is so sad that it is paid by the government to smile, reminiscent in tone of Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, to “The Old Man,” where a man races against age and failing sight to read the title of every book in a library, believing that in doing so he will get the essence of the text without having to read the entire book, a radical abridgment, which calls to mind the themes and ideas of Borges’ fiction, but stands in opposition to his exhaustive reading life.
Carefree vagabonds, itinerant peddlers, hokey globe-gazing fortune-tellers. Gypsies are popularly romanticised and imbued with a spirit of nomadic adventure. But there is a darker side to the mythology that presents them as petty thieves not above kidnapping children, practitioners of a dark magic, furtive and wild. The mystery of their whimsical but innocuous way of life clouds over with the suspicion that they are a people steeped in secrets, ultimately unknowable. The truth is that the Romani people, as they are known and name themselves, are descendants of exiles who fled northwest from India into eastern and central Europe, where they spread to every nation of the continent. For centuries, because of their fractured and isolated communities, the Romani have been the victims of persecution most notably in recent history by Nazi Germany whose pogroms are estimated to have murdered anywhere from 200,000 to well over 1,000,000.
Superstitious fears have long been an instrument of repression. As such these fears reached an apotheosis in Middle Ages Europe when the Catholic church governed the actions and beliefs of all men (what’s more terrifying than eternal damnation?), and to stray beyond the pale, that is, to think for oneself, was not only impious but openly transgressive, heretical; to press and probe with one’s fingers God’s perfect spherical domain is to shape an egg from which nothing good can hatch.
Time is common to all men as is the secret hope that our portion of it should prove to be, against all reason, infinite. It is an elastic phenomenon and our perception of it is, mercifully, saltatory: we are none of us Borges’ Funes. Time changes speed, it accelerates and decelerates according to no discernible law, and though we charge our calendars and watches and sundials with its regulation, we know that they too are subject to its universal dissolution.
In his short story The Prophecy, Slovenian author Drago Jančar parallels the fall of socialist Yugoslavia with the parable of the last king of Babylon taken from the Book of Daniel. Belshazzar is feasting his entourage in his palace, an opulent event, lavish, complete with gustatory blasphemy (the king and his guests drink from sacred vessels taken from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem), decadent, doomed. Read the rest of this entry »
Despite the stirrings of political agitation and the breath of dissent blowing across her steppes the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris was dominated by the achievements of the glittering Russian Empire. Amongst the wonders and showpieces Russia boasted a Grand Prix de Champagne-winning wine (a coup in France), the awarding of a gold medal to Lavr Proskuryokov for a bridge in Krasnoyarsk, and the appearance of a cultural icon that has become more than just a child’s toy, it has become a tangible metaphor for recursive phenomena: the matryoshka doll. These dolls, you probably know, are (traditionally) carved wooden dolls, hollow, that come in a set of about a half-dozen. They are of a size that the largest of them encapsulates the penultimate doll, which in turn encapsulates the next smallest (and so on), down to the diminutive last. Matryoshka dolls, in their recursive function, serve to illumine the structure of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Best European Fiction 2011 story Far from Here, and it is for this reason that they open this review.
Nela and the Virgins by Mercè Ibarz is a celebration. It is a woman’s recollection of her teenage years spent in revolutionary 1970s Barcelona. Valentina, Isi, Nela, and the unnamed narrator have all moved from provincial Spain to the capital of Catalonia, to an exciting but dangerous urban sprawl that offers the carnivalesque pleasures of a modern, progressive city and none of the stifling parochial conservatisms more generally associated with the rural population. Most children chafe at the bit. We struggle to leave the nest as soon as we can, convinced we have what it takes to make it on our own. The city, with its promise of freedoms, tumescent with the fantasies of youth, is a magnet. Ibarz’s story is as much an ode to a time and place – 1970s Barcelona – as it is an ode to the new experiences of our young selves, when each day brings with it the loss – and here is introduced a small sadness – one of our many virginities.
Other animals have preyed on it, gutted it, picked it clean, following the rules of the game. So one might say. That’s why I’m looking for the place where the disemboweling happened. I would like it to be a place that, by human standards, is cruelty-free. I would like to know a good word for the absence of cruelty.
Torture. Murder. Mutilation. These are actions that belong solely to human kind. Along with abstract reasoning and other cognitive phenomena, it is this that separates man from beast: there is nothing on earth that can treat another creature with such savage disregard as man does his own. I can furnish this claim with countless examples, drawing from a pot older than the first cities and as vast as the globe. From pogrom to pogrom, from Holy Inquisition to Holocaust, one could cross the Pacific Ocean on the backs of history’s victims and not wet so much as a single toe. Read the rest of this entry »
A translator is someone from whom we expect complete fidelity in their work, or as close to it as is possible. Indeed, their identity qua translator is bound with the degree to which they faithfully reproduce the prose or poetry they translate: the more freely they interpret the text, the more creative they get in their rendition of the poet’s verse, the less they could be said to be translating, and would instead find themselves more on the creative side of things. But the difficulty with translation is in the semantic differences between the original work and its translation. Those writings that have a strong national flavour often use language that is charged with strong social and cultural meaning, much of which might be lost – as Robert Frost defined poetry to be – in translation, particularly when heavy with idiom or patois. Some texts are so laden with such local colour that they are all but destroyed in the attempt to translate them. Fortunately, this is not the case with Ersan Üldes’ story Professional Behaviour.
The ordeal of the family dinner is something not soon forgotten, nor the guilt soon assuaged, by those families who count among their members a sufferer from an eating disorder. The guilt that comes from the anger, the anger that comes from the frustration, the frustration that comes from not understanding why a few small potato chips (oven-baked! not even deep-fried!) are such an insurmountable obstacle, why the peas are haggled over until a compromise is reached: nine, and not a single one more. Furtive sessions of high-intensity exercise, secreting uneaten food in clothes to be disposed of later: anorectics are masters of deception and subterfuge and it is only with time that one learns all their tricks. They are skeletal prestidigitators performing the ultimate vanishing act. But it’s not about the body, they will say. It’s not about being thin. It is, rather, all about control.
The Professionals by Welsh writer Wiliam Owen Roberts is the story, broadly sketched, of the personal and professional relationship between two men. I say broadly sketched, because there really isn’t much more to the piece. One of the men, the unnamed narrator, is a therapist of the Freudian psychoanalytical school, and the other, his patient, Mathew (name changed to preserve doctor-patient privacy), is a banker, “not the sort…our fathers used to beg a loan from in their best suits, more the flashy transnational deal.”