A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa

“THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.” Yells Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the opening line of her prose debut ‘A Ghost in the Throat’. I will not be ignored, I will not be erased, this will not sit in the shadows of texts written by men…The book closes with the same line, delivered with less force “This is a female text.” More on that later. Here is a blend of auto-fiction, research, memoir, translation and the story of poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is a female text.

‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, translated by Doireann Ní Ghríofa as ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’, (and which appears in both Gaelic and English at the end of the book) is an Irish lament composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (referred to by our author as ‘Nelly’). It has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, in the main, composed the keen about the death of her husband Art on 4 May 1773. And despite the claim of being the greatest poem written during the 1700’s, little is known of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and our author sets out to right this wrong.

However, this is no standard biography, award winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading us through her journey of discovery, as well as her own life of motherhood, domesticity, the endless chores that fill her days, donating breast milk…

My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my miniscule victories.

But to focus on the chores, with an occasional slip into Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem and life, in no way gives justice to this complex, multi layered revelation of a book. The poetry, and the possible life that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill lived, leaks into our writer’s daily life. In the 1700’s the literature of women was not written down so the poem survived in oral form and was eventually transcribed in the 1800’s, by another woman, Nóra Ní Shíndile, our writer having to explore other female threads, for example letters, to somehow decipher the life of her subject.

I have come across a line of argument in my reading, which posits that, due to the inherent fallibility of memory and the imperfect human vessels that held it, the Caoineadh cannot be considered a work of single authorship. Rather, the theory goes, it must be considered collage, or, perhaps, a folksy reworking of older keens. This, to me – in the brazen audacity of one positioned far from the tall walls of the university – feels like a male assertion pressed upon a female text. After all, the etymology of the word ‘text’ lies in the Latin verb ‘texere’: to weave, to fuse, to braid. The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

The theme of being “carried in female bodies”, obviously, comes through with our author detailing her pregnancies:

In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.

As Doireann Ní Ghríofa researches her poet, she slowly reveals her life through others, letters of others, she is performing a delicate dissection, this is shadowed by her own experiences of first year medical training at University. Whilst delving into another’s life our writer is revealing more of herself, layer by layer. This is a beautifully constructed revelation of both a writer and her subject, whilst concurrently explaining the erasure of women. Whilst on a journey to the area where Nelly’s twin sister Mary lived, Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to find the house, the rooms, to reconstruct, even in her own mind, the lives of these women:

He knows the Baldwins’ old place, he says, leading me to the wet meadow where Mary’s rooms once stood. ‘See?’ he says. ‘Nothing.’ He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany: the parasols, portraits, and books, the blue vases and embroidered blankets, the drapes and sideboards, the letters, the combs, and the coats, the spoons and looking-gasses and scrubbing cloths, the coal buckets and diaries and piss-pots. Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.

This text reflects Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s allegory of being woven, fused, braided, the complex layering here is only revealed when you flick backwards and re-read passages, each section representing another thread that up close looks like nothing more than a single thread but once you stand back the full complexity of a stunningly woven tapestry is revealed.

How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?

There are even reasons for the addition of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, previous mediocre attempts, male translations, and our author is very modest when it comes to her work, not believing she has the talent to do the keen justice. Alone this closing of the book makes it a worthwhile addition, another “Women in Translation” addition. And when you reach the final words “This is a female text” you will be drawn back to those same opening words, written in a different tone. It is as though you’ve shared private moments with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now the tale is complete, she is going to write a book about it.

An absolute revelation of a work, moving, powerful in its admissions, honest, brave and unique in style and substance. A book that offers up many interpretations, I’ve seen one where the rooms are presented as the theme, these threads, so many you could follow. A poet who has created a stunning prose debut, one that will surely take home more awards (it was recently crowned with the An Post Irish Book of the Year Award for 2020), be glowingly reviewed again and again as the US publication draws near, and be lauded by readers and writers the world over. A book so unique that I feel ill equipped to write about its power and beauty. Interestingly the small independent publisher “Tramp Press” is now out of stock, great to see titles by small presses, who champion the cause of this style of book, having to go to reprints.

Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist 2021

The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016.  Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.

The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.

Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).

“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.

On 11 February 2021, the shortlist for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the publishers.

Sara Baume, ‘handiwork’ (Tramp Press) – Non-Fiction

handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.

Amina Cain, ‘Indelicacy’ (Daunt Books)

In an undefined era and place, a cleaning woman at a museum of art aspires to do more than simply dust the paintings around her.  She dreams of having the liberty to explore them in writing, and so must find the way to win herself the security and time to use her mind. She escapes her lot by marrying a rich man, but having gained a husband, a house, high society and a maid, she finds that her new life of privilege is no less constrained. Not only has she taken up different forms of time-consuming labour — social and erotic — but she is now, however passively, forcing other women to clean up after her. Perhaps another and more drastic solution is necessary?

Indelicacy is an exquisite gem of a novel about class, desire, friendship, art, and the battle to find one’s true calling.

Elaine Feeney, ‘As You Were’ (Harvill Secker)

Sinead Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can’t go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the ward, Margaret Rose is running her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. In the neighbouring bed, Jane, rarely but piercingly lucid, is searching for a decent bra and for someone to listen. Sinead needs them both.

As You Were is about intimate histories, institutional failures, the kindness of strangers, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland. It is about women’s stories and women’s struggles. It is about seizing the moment to be free.

Wildly funny, desperately tragic, inventive and irrepressible, As You Were introduces a brilliant voice in Irish fiction with a book that is absolutely of our times.

Caleb Femi, ‘Poor’ (Penguin) – Poetry

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.’

Rachel Long, ‘My Darling from the Lions’ (Picador) – Poetry

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Carmen Maria Machado, ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) – A Memoir

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.

Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ (Tramp Press)

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ (Peepal Tree Press)

April 1976: St Constance, a tiny Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch, at the start of the rainy season. A fisherman sings to himself in his pirogue, waiting for a catch – but attracts a sea-dweller he doesn’t expect. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries. And she is entranced by this man David and his song.

But her fascination is her undoing. She hears his boat’s engine again and follows it, and finds herself at the mercy of American tourists, landed on the island for the annual fishing competition. After a fearsome battle, she is pulled out of the sea and strung up on the dock as a trophy. It is David who rescues her, and gently wins her trust – as slowly, painfully, she starts to transform into a woman again. But transformations are not always permanent, and jealousy, like love, can have the force of a hurricane, and last much longer

The novel’s characters are an unlikely mix: a mermaid, a fisherman, a deaf boy, a Caribbean artist and sweetman and a benevolent white landowner. Miss Arcadia Rain’s own love story is interwoven with Aycayia and David’s and the rivalries and affections in both family and community are brought brilliantly to life. Themes of unconditional love, friendship, family and loss, are examined without sentimentality. Roffey manages to write convincingly about a mermaid, a ‘legend drawn from the sea’, returned to land, to survive, heal and live again, as a real woman in modern times.

This year’s judges are T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Roger Robinson, the Irish writer, editor and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor. A well-balanced jury indeed, the winner could be the Irish debut novel (Feeney) or the Irish non-fiction (Baume) or one of the two poetry collections or any of the other four titles!!!

The 2020 Prize was awarded to Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate) becoming the first female writer to win the award.

Astute readers and followers of awards will have noticed that Monique Roffey’s wonderful ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has appeared on yet another award list and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ was also longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize announced only a week prior, and Sara Baume was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize back in 2017 for her novel ‘A Line Made By Walking’.

I’ve recently reviewed Monique Roffey’s novel and will possibly get to Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s, a few others are tempting (especially Sara Baume’s ‘handiwork’) however I am unlikely to get to many of these books before the winner is announced on 24 March 2021.

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has a very interesting back story, one I think is worthwhile sharing here, before I look at the book itself. Firstly the book was crowdfunded back in September 2019 to get into print, with an acknowledgement page appearing at the back of the book thanking the people who funded “this book out into the world.” Since then it has received rave reviews in the mainstream media and has appeared quickly on three respected Prize lists.


In October 2020, the novel was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and Award established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” It didn’t win the Prize, losing out to ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison.

In November 2020 the novel was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, an award for the most enjoyable books of the year by writers resident in the UK and Ireland” and last month it was named winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year.

Then in February 2021 the book was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, an Award to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees.

A flurry of Award announcements and interestingly deemed not “daring” enough for the Goldsmiths but “enjoyable” enough to win the Costa.

The Publisher

As the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize attests, this novel is published by a small press, less than five full time employees. Peepal Tree books “a small publisher that has consistently supported international Caribbean writing for 35 years.” Two days after the Costa announcement the press had sold 12,000 copies, having to move to a different printer to cope with demand.

There is an interesting article, and interview with founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting available at ‘The Bookseller’ where he speaks of their list of 450 titles still being available, how ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ was crowdfunded to even get printed and the demands of a small publisher having a best-selling title in their catalogue.

The novel

We were both lost people.

David Baptiste is a fisherman in the small Caribbean enclave of Black Conch, one day whilst smoking a spliff and strumming his guitar on his boat, he spots a mermaid, Aycayia. A young girl who has been cursed for her beauty and temptation of men and sealed up with a tail and forced to swim the oceans for eternity. During a big game fishing competition she is caught by “those white men from Florida”.

This novel is told in a variety of voices, excerpts from David’s journal, short innocent lyrical poem like musings from Aycayia and the omniscient narrator, using local language and slang:

The Black Conch men, Nicholas and Short Leg, backed away from the stern. Like Nicer, they knew this was wrong. They fraid bad jumbie get ketch. They didn’t want to help. They were lost for words and for what to do. The white men wanted to pull this creature out of the sea. But this fish was half-woman, plain enough. Everyone had heard of the mermen in Black Conch waters, but a merwoman? No. She carried with her bad luck, at best, and her hair had frightened them – like she could kill you with just one lash from those tentacles. She could poison them all. They’d seen spikes on her back, dorsal spikes. Scorpion fish spikes, They had seen a bloody, raging woman on the end of the fishing line and now these white men wanted to bring her in. Nah, boy, they all said to themselves.

More than a simple love story, although the cover does say “a love story”, this is a complex study revealing misogyny, sex, the colonization and maltreatment of indigenous peoples, the destruction of the environment, modern day man’s move away from spiritual connection to their environment and the USA’s domination of the Caribbean amongst many subjects, all wrapped up in a tale of David Baptiste and Aycayia’s love.

The locals see the catch of a mermaid as potential bad luck, the Florida fishermen see the potential financial rewards. David sees his friend from the ocean, all strung up like a trophy catch and has to release her:

The old man, Thomas Clayson, had spent a second day at sea. He’d taken a rifle with him, this time, and some marine flares in case they got into trouble, also an axe and a cutlass as back up to the gun. He would shoot her if need bel that would be the end of it. He’d shot big game before. He’d shot a lion in South Africa, once. The head had been stuffed and mounted and was now above his desk in his den at home. He’d shot a buffalo in the Yukon, a female too; he’d even shot a grizzly bear, once, up in the Rockies. He would shoot the bitch, no messing, bring her in. No beers on the jetty; he’d take her straight, by truck, to the other end of the island, to the port at English Town, where she would be tagged and photographed and packed on ice and taken to the larger island/ There, she would be airlifted back to Florida. This time, he knew what he was up against; a big, bad motherfucker of a mermaid. He paid his crew double. He was furious over the theft of his catch, with the incompetence of the villagers, and mostly with his weak-minded sissy of a son.

There are interlocking love stories, abandoned single mothers, deaf children with connections to the environment and weird happenings, such as the skies raining fish, a wonderful blend of folklore, romance, and a race against time. Aycayia’s short melodic interludes dragging you back to simpler times:

I swam away, the dive deep
My terror was ENORMOUS
I swam but I still ketch
I want to go down to die

Enough shame put on my head
I was a human woman once
some thousand cycles past
Cursed to be lonely
with no love

They curse me good
Goddess Jagua was the goddess of their curse
She keep me lonely all those years

I miss my life in Black Conch
I was human woman again
after they ketch me good

There is also the underlying uneasiness of a “home”, is the mermaid’s home back on land from where she was banished, is it the sea? Are David’s roots in Black Conch? Is the white overseer’s place Black Conch? This pervading sense of displacement.

Baptiste is plantation owner name, French man name from way back. Yuh think I happy with that? I figure my real name would never be known to me, a mystery.

A wonderful blend of readability and prescience, a blend of tragic love story, environmental warning, folklore, with the pace of a thriller. A worthy winner of the Costa Prize and it is magnificent to see a novel that had crowdfunding beginnings, find a small publisher and then find success.

Dublin Literary Award 2021

Viewing statistics on my blog show people love a list. So today I bring you the 49 novels nominated for the 2021 Dublin Literary Award, the longlist was announced on 4 February 2021.

Long term followers of this blog would know I have been an advocate and supporter of the Award over the years, this is an Award where the titles are drawn from member libraries all over the planet, with the longlist of 49 titles being filtered down to a shortlist of ten.

Although 49 titles could appear daunting, have a look at the last eight awards and the number of books on the longlist:

2013 – 145

2014 – 144

2015 – 133

2016 – 150

2017 – 138

2018 – 141

2019 – 141

2020 – 156

This year’s judges, Jan Carson, David James Karashima, Dr Rita Sakr, Dr Martín Veiga, Enda Wyley and non-voting chair Professor Chris Morash, have an easier time than the previous judges!

The prize for the Award is €100,000 and is awarded to the author of the winning book, if the winning book is in English translation, €75,000 is awarded to the author and €25,000 to the translator.

Of the 49 books nominated by libraries from 30 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand, eighteen are novels in translation, the titles span ten languages and ten of the books are first novels.

Onto the list (listed alphabetically by author)

‘Clap When You Land’ Elizabeth Acevedo

‘Things That Fall From The Sky’ (tr from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) Selja Ahava

‘Until Stones Become Lighter Than Water’ (tr from the Portuguese by Jeff Love) António Lobo Antunes

‘Homeland’ (tr from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam) Fernando Aramburu

‘The Vanishing Half’ Brit Bennett

‘The White Girl’ Tony Birch

‘It Would Be Night in Caracas’ (tr from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer) Karina Sainz Borgo

‘The Cat and The City’ Nick Bradley

‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ Sara Collins

‘The Innocents’ Michael Crummey

’The Pelican: A Comedy’ (tr from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder) Martin Michael Driessen

‘Catacombs’ Mary Anna Evans

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ Bernardine Evaristo

‘The Other Name: Septology I-II’ (tr from the Norwegian by Damion Searls) Jon Fosse

‘Gun Island’ Amitav Ghosh

‘When All is Said’ Anne Griffin

‘The Eighth Life (for Brilka)’ (tr from the German by Charlotte Collins & Ruth Martin) Nino Haratischwili

‘Beyond Yamashita and Percival’ (tr from the Malay by the author) Shaari Isa

‘Tyll’ (tr from the German by Benjamin Ross) Daniel Kehlmann

‘The Ditch’ (tr from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) Herman Koch

‘While the Music Played’ Nathaniel Lande

‘Lost Children Archive’ Valeria Luiselli

‘The Boy’ (tr from the French by Emma Ramadan & Tom Roberge) Marcus Malte

‘Auē’ Becky Manawatu

‘The Glass Hotel’ Emily St John

‘Apeirogon’ Colum McCann

’Hurricane Season’ (tr from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes) Fernanda Melchor

‘The Silent Patient’ Alex Michaelides

‘Cilka’s Journey’ Heather Morris

‘Dark Mother Earth’ (tr from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac) Kristian Novak

‘Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars’ Joyce Carol Oates

‘Inland’ Téa Obreht

‘Shadowplay’ Joseph O’Connor

‘Mona in Three Acts’ (tr from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison) Griet Op de Beeck

‘This Excellent Machine’ Stephen Orr

‘Mary Toft; Or, The Rabbit Queen’ Dexter Palmer

‘The Pine Islands’ (tr from the German by Jen Calleja) Marion Poschmann

‘A Chronicle of Forgetting’ (tr from the Slovene by Rawley Grau) Sebastijan Pregelj

‘We Cast a Shadow’ Maurice Ruffin

‘Beside Myself’ (tr from the German by Imogen Taylor) Sasha Marianna Salzmann

‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ Elif Shafak

‘The Subtweet: A Novel’ Vivek Shraya

‘Crossing’ (tr from the Finnish by David Hackston) Pajtim Statovci

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ Ocean Vuong

‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ Eibhear Walshe

‘The Nickel Boys’ Colson Whitehead

‘Reproduction’ Ian Williams

‘The Bird King’ G. Willow Wilson

‘The Yield’ Tara June Winch

Most years I have read quite a selection from the list, but with the last twelve months being less than ideal for my reading output, I have only read three of the 49, and I did not write a review for any them (one I actually despised) and they were all read in 2019!!! That is quite embarrassing. I do own another handful of titles, however the challenge of securing and reading 46 more novels before the shortlist announcement on 25 March 2021 is beyond me. Getting through the ten shortlisted titles is a more achievable task with the winner being announced on 20 May 2021, leaving you almost two months to read ten books, let’s see what my mojo is like come 25 March 2021, however I must say I will be focusing on the Republic of Consciousness Prize at the same time.

Happy reading.

Republic of Consciousness Prize Longlist 2021

The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by author Neil Griffiths with £2,000 of his own money to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Small presses being defined as having fewer than five full-time employees. The first Prize was awarded in 2017 to John Keene’s ‘Counternarratives’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and subsequent winners have been Eley Williams’ ‘Attrib. and Other Stories’ (Influx Press) in 2018, Will Eaves for ‘Murmur’ (CB Editions) in 2019 and last year Jean-Baptiste Del Amo took home the prize for ‘Animalia’, translated by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions).

The Prizemoney has changed this year with the publisher of all longlisted titles receiving £1,000, at total of £10,000. A further £10,000 will be split between the shortlisted titles, which will be announced in late March.

Earlier this week the longlist for the 2021 Prize was announced. Here are those books (listed alphabetically by publisher as the Prize has chosen to do):

•A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, tr. Fionn Petch (Charco Press)

•The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

•Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press)

Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

•Unknown Language by Huw Lemmey and Hildegard von Bingen (Ignota Books)

•Lote by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda Books)

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)

•Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman (Peninsula Press)

•Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, tr. Jim Dingley & Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press)

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

I have read three of the titles, only giving my thoughts on one here (‘Mr. Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths), however I will write up something about the other two in the coming weeks and will also get to a few more that sit on my shelves, hopefully before announcement of the shortlist. Links to my reviews will be updated on the list here.

This year’s judges are:

Guy Gunaratne, his first novel ‘Our Mad and Furious City’ winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Authors Club Best First Novel Award in 2019, also longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize.

Eley Williams, winner of this Prize and the James Tait Black Prize in 2018 for ‘Attrib. and Other Stories’ (Influx Press).

John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound the book crowdfunding platform.

Prizemoney is largely donated from two sources: The University of East Anglia, through the UEA Publishing Project; and The Granta Trust, with the remainder of the prizemoney being raised through donations and through the Republic of Consciousness small press book club. I have been a member of their book club for a little while and as part of your membership you can choose to receive a fresh small press title each month, sometimes giving you a sneak preview as to the following year’s longlist.

If you would like to join their book club visit their website here for more details, I recommend it, a new book a month (even if mail to Australia is slow), and the knowledge that you are supporting a prize for small presses, those who push the boundaries and publish “brave literary fiction”.

Hellfire – Leesa Gazi (tr. Shabnam Nadiya)

The suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is Lovely’s birthday and she is heading to the markets, it is the first time she has been allowed to go outside the house unaccompanied, Lovely is forty years old today.

So opens the wonderful ‘Hellfire’ by Lessa Gazi, stunningly translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya. Forty years pretty much confined to her home, outings always with her elder sister Beauty or her mother Farida Khanam.

The holy prophet received his revelations from the Creator at forty. Which meant that even in the eyes of Allah ‘forty’ held some special meaning. Something special happened at forty, something special was going to happen today.

The scene is set in the first few pages that “something special” is going to happen today. ‘Hellfire’ is a novel that explores a single day in the life of a single family in Bangladesh, the rituals, the food, and of course the fact that Farida Khanam, and her passive husband Mukhles shaheb, keep their two daughters under tight lock and key.

Their lives had changed drastically after they were caught sneaking to the rooftop when they were fourteen. That was when the Monipuripara house was built. Until that house went up, the two sisters spent their days in harsh imprisonment. If husband and wife went out together, they locked the girls in with the older maidservant. But neither of the parents really felt comfortable with that. Sometimes they would get halfway to their destination and come back. Sometimes they would go but spend the whole time feeling uneasy. Farida Khanam staked everything she had on building the Monipuripara house, and, even before it was complete, she moved them in.

As the story unfolds, of Lovely’s day in Dhaka, we learn more about the forced “imprisonment” and the “man inside her head”, whose voices guide her on her journey.

(‘Apumoni, listen carefully to what I say. Do you want to go home now?’)
(‘Even if you leave right now, you can’t be sure that you’ll be out of danger. You’ll reach home by two, for sure, but it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to provide a suitable explanation about what you’ve been up to all this time. You didn’t even get much shopping done. But if you’re late getting back, then you’re done for – doomed. So what I say is, you’re in trouble anyway, whether you’re one hour late or three hours. What’s the point of worrying so much? You’ve come out by yourself this one time in your life. Just take in some air, chill, chat with people, then go home. There’s no harm if you don’t go back at all.’)

This is a novel revealing and depicting the women of the household, they are the primary players, with the men, bit players, sickly, resigned, or impassive, excluding the man inside Lovely’s head. Lovely’s older sister Beauty, and her motivations, her desire to keep Lovely underneath her in the pecking order, or her bitter relationship with her mother and father is also explored, through the rituals of being locked up not knowing when they’ll be allowed out of their rooms.

‘How long does she keep you locked up?’
‘It depends. Sometimes it’s just two or three hours, but sometimes it’s like two or three days. Amma opens the door and brings in food, she stays and chats, asks what we want for lunch or dinner. Sometimes she sits and watches television with us, then she locks the door and leaves. At some point, we figure out that our doors are no longer locked, that we can come out of our rooms and everything is fine. We’ve grown used to it. Today when I get home, she’ll probably lock us up for a month. When Amma locks us, she locks both of us up. It’s good though; we don’t have to do any household chores during those times. We don’t have to do the ironing. We just eat, chill out and watch TV. If anyone comes to visit our home when we’re locked up, Amma unlocks our doors. We go out normally, and then go back to our rooms when the guests leave. We don’t get many visitors anyway. And anyway, both of us do a lot of skin and hair care during those times. We rub eggs and henna in our hair. And we rub turmeric paste on our arms and legs. It brightens our complexion. Amma has the maid get everything ready for us. Generally, I’m not that into beauty care. I don’t enjoy it, and I’m lazy. But when I’m locked up, I do it.’

Lovely eventually goes home, and then the day begins again, this time from the mother Farida Khanam’s (also referred to as Amma) perspective. It is from then that the backstory unfolds. We learn of Farida Khanam’s marriage, her fears, relationships and reasoning behind locking her daughters away. Early in the novel she comes across as simply a domineering character who snaps at the hired help, always complaining about cleanliness, timeliness or cooking, but as her backstory unfolds, a sprinkling of compassion and understanding comes into play. We also learn of why she gave permission for Lovely to go out without a chaperone, and numerous other family issues that are, of course, kept behind closed doors.

When Farida had left the bustling home of her parents in the village to build her own family and household with her husband, she wasn’t sad at all. She hadn’t been one of those girls who were mad about weddings; neither was she the kind who played with dolls from the age of ten, as proxies for their own children and households. But her tie to what was hers, her blind devotion to what belonged to her, had always superseded everything else. My house, my siblings, my parents – this concept of mine was dangerously alive in her. What could be more ‘mine’ than her own husband and her own household? The day she first set foot in her husband’s house, ‘my husband’ and ‘my household’ easily became closer to her than ‘my father’s home’ or ‘my brothers and sisters’. Everything else could be cast aside when compared to husband and home.

A single day in the life of a dysfunctional family, where the characters of Lovely, Beauty and Farida Khanam are revealed in all their ugliness and splendor. A very enjoyable read from a country I haven’t visited often enough in my reading journeys. Translator Shabnam Nadiya has translated Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel ‘The Mercenary’ for Bengal Lights Books 2016 and Seagull Books 2018 and her work here, splattering the novel with real Bengali names for food, or terms of endearment, allows the reader to feel a part of the Dhaka family life.

Subtle references to the Holy Prophet and “something special” happening on a fortieth birthday are sown throughout, with symbols of impending doom, black crows, or potential escapes, a man wearing a “red-muffler”, all add up to a haunting but gripping read. Highly recommended.

Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word Is a Traitor – Alexander Kluge (tr. Alta L. Price)

In 1957 Fritz Bauer, a German Jewish judge and prosecutor, relayed information about the whereabouts in Argentina of fugitive Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann to Israeli Intelligence (the Mossad) that allowed Eichmann to be captured. Fritz Bauer also played a role in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, Bauer died, aged 64, drowned in his bathtub. A postmortem examination found that he had taken alcohol and sleeping tablets.

‘Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word Is a Traitor’ by Alexander Kluge, in collaboration with Thomas Combrink, (translated by Alta L. Price) comes with a byline, “48 Stories for Fritz Bauer” and opens with a short anecdote “To Live a Decent Day”, the narrator (one assumes Alexander Kluge) is on his way to Fritz Bauer’s funeral service. A mention is made of the Minister of Cultural Affairs losing his best friend:

On the other hand, none of the present friends or political authorities would have been available had Fritz Bauer tried to reach out to them before he died, or sought someone to talk to. No one among this country’s overburdened leadership had the time or energy required for friendship or human intimacy. ‘Anyone who utters a consoling word is a traitor.’ Bazon Brock

The forty-eight stories that make up this collection come in many varied voices, first person, third person, each a short revelation of the atrocities of Holocaust, a sketch, enough detail to give the reader a shock, for you to question morals, standpoints, political affiliations, but the stories do not contain enough detail for you to feel as though this is a collection of investigative journalism.

The story “On the Bureaucratic Tracks” reflecting on 1944 and the weekly death-camp railway transports from Hungary to Nazi occupied Poland and, ultimately, Auschwitz.

Suggestions began flowing in: could Soviet paratroopers or the Polish underground army be on standby to occupy and destroy the Auschwitz death camp on short notice?

Repeated requests had been made (most recently on 31 March 1941, by a Slovak rabbi) to bomb the railway line between Budapest and Poland, thereby making it impossible for the transports to pass. None of the other territories occupied by the Reich had such reliable informants, or any resistance that came close to becoming and armed insurrection. The easily destroyable 30-metre bridge over a river was a particularly vulnerable point along the railway. It lay directly before a tunnel entrance which such a bombing could readily block. The transports would have had to resort to a long detour via Austria, over strategic railway connections to the Balkans and Greece; in terms of sheer duration, this would be so burdensome that the PART OF PRACTICAL THINKERS would have ceased further evacuation. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis in Switzerland shared this message with the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in New York. Isaac Strenbusch passed it along to Roswell McClelland, the representative of the War Refugee Board in Bern. ‘We request air raids be carried out on the cities of Kaschau and Preschau.’ Reference was made to the Vrba-Wetzler report. In a letter to his fellow associates in the US, Swiss resident Weissmandel added, ‘How guilty will you feel if you do not move heaven and earth?’
All these recommendation and instructions were given to John W. Pehle, the US Department of Treasury lawyer, who was also head of the War Refugee Board. He wrote a carefully weighted, indecisive letter to John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War at the Pentagon.
On 4 July 1944, McCloy responded that, in accordance with Pehle’s sober assessment, the proposed airstrikes could NOT BE CARRIED OUT. They would call for considerable air-force support that US troops in the Mediterranean required instead.
At the same time, Rudolph H
öss was once again summoned from Berlin to Auschwitz in order to continue preparations for the Hungarian Jews’ destruction. He returned to Berlin on 29 July, and was awarded the next higher rank of the War Merit Cross for his additional contributions.

These “factual” reportage “stories” give the impression that they could be snippets from Fritz Bauer’s files, notes that need further investigation so potential legal action could be launched or people charged with war crimes. These stories move between the distant reportage style to first person accounts, are they actual accounts, are they fictionalized stories, are they accounts that have been changed to a first-person voice? As a reader you become disoriented, overwhelmed with frustration and sadness of these “stories” but at the same time, lost in a maze of atrocities. There are escapers who are then conscripted, empathetic doctors alongside monsters, each time you turn the page you do not know what is in store.

A Touch of Liveliness That Surprised Proust

The eight young officers – exactly as they had left company headquarters on the front lines outside Verdun for the weekend, ‘disreputable’ in their tight uniforms insofar as they stank after the long nighttime journey, but nevertheless ready for amorous adventures – raced into the Duchess of Guermantes’ GRAND BALLROOM. Proust noted their arrival. Later on, he sought to get closer to the youngest of these senior officers, whose calling card bore the name Helbronner. Unnoticed by the latter, Proust lingered for some time, making small talk, trying to stay in the vicinity of this tall youth. The writer was intent on capturing the appearance of this war god amid these society folk in a portrayal that would last for all eternity. At the same time, he was also looking to stand out in the officer’s memory – the officer who would leave for the front, and perhaps death, the very next day. As Proust frantically jotted down scraps of conversation on the back of a menu, he lost track of the gang of sprightly pleasure seekers who had enlivened the ballroom and then taken off. Proust looked among the dancers, the turmoil of spectators, the lounge area near the toilets and by the exits, but Hellbronner was nowhere to be found.

A short collection of anecdotes, very short forays, and observations, one that highlights the atrocities of the Holocaust but at the same time highlights how we continue to ignore the warning signs, has history taught humans anything? A collection that reads like forty-eight scraps for potential further investigation by Fritz Bauer.

Copy courtesy of the publisher Seagull Books.

Suite for Barbara Loden – Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon)

United States, 1970, Kent State and Jackson State shootings occur during violent student protests, there’s a burning disenchantment with President Nixon and the Vietnam War, the previous year’s Woodstock Festival is released on film, along with the counterculture films ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘M*A*S*H’. At the 31st Venice Film Festival a small independent film, ‘Wanda’ premiered, winning the Best Foreign Film gong.  Despite the award ‘Wanda’, directed by Barbara Loden, was released in a single theatre in New York, “Cinema II”, and was never shown in the rest of the country.

It quickly slipped from view “Forgotten in the United States”, but “much admired in Europe”, screening at various festivals and events.     

Pick up a recent textbook about Hollywood movies from the 1970’s and you are likely to come across a ‘Wanda” reference:

…although the auteur renaissance introduced a new American cinema, this generation of movie directors was still by a vast majority male. The few women directors working at the time did not benefit from the commercial Hollywood financing that their male counterparts accessed and instead were relegated to indie micro-financing and playoffs at the art house, university film series, and museum showcases. Even the best of the films made by women in the 1970s remain difficult to find and screen today. For example, in 1970, the accomplished stage actress Barbara Loden produced, wrote, directed, and starred in a terrific no-budget film, Wanda. The film tracks its title character as she stumbles upon a petty criminal with whom she goes on the lam. He treats her with casual cruelty, but she stays with him anyway, because her life before she met him (drinking, sleeping around, sponging off her sister) wasn’t any better. Creatively financed, shot on a shoestring, and distributed by a company otherwise specializing in martial arts imports, Wanda grossed on its first run, such as it was, just over $100,000. “When the Movies Mattered : The New Hollywood Revisited” edited by Johnathan Kirshner & Jon Lewis

This short precis does not give the film any justice, Wanda, disenchanted with her life leaves her husband and children, in search of something better, throughout she carries a large oversized handbag, which contains her worldly possessions, she grips it so tightly you can also believe it contains her hopes, her memories, her desires.

Fast forward forty odd years, and Nathalie Léger has been asked to provide a short encyclopedic entry on ‘Wanda’, and/or Barbara Loden. Her research, obsession, exploration becomes far too detailed to be an encyclopedia entry, it has become a journey, a book, ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and thankfully the wonderful Dorothy Project has brought this French work to English readers.

What is it that attracts me so to Wanda? I have never been homeless, I have never abandoned my children, I have never given over my existence or even my financial affairs to any man, I don’t think I have ever entrusted even the most banal area of my life to anyone. I’ve left men, sometimes heartlessly, with the trembling joy that one feels slipping away down a side street, or vanishing into a crowd, or jumping onto a passing train, or standing someone up; the acute and rare pleasure of avoiding something, of evading something, of disappearing into the landscape – but never the experience of surrender. And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was enough, but who hasn’t experienced that – not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it, yielding to the mortal threat, escaping in the end by withdrawal, absence, slipping to the ground, no longer even offering him the gift of fear, no longer pretending, no longer thinking the unthinkable, protecting oneselg in shock, vomiting, the lusted-after body suddenly repulsive, leave me alone, leave me alone. But mostly what happened is that I’ve allowed myself to be pushed around, just waiting for it to be over, preferring misunderstanding over confrontation – it’s impossible in moments like that to think that defending my body could be worth the effort, and anyway what does that mean, “my body,” at the age of fifteen? Only this matters: not to be alone, not to be abandoned.

This short work is a blend of auto-fiction, research and memoir, like Wanda, Nathalie Léger is carrying around a metaphorical oversized handbag, a repository for her thoughts, a place to store her memories, and her bag becomes the pages you read.

I watched ‘Wanda’ a few years ago when I was doing a 1970’s Hollywood counter-culture binge, and revisited the movie last year with a poet friend of mine, whose insights into the female psyche added an extra layer to this wonderful film. Now I’ve experienced Nathalie Léger’s response, her “Suite for Barbara Loden” and the appreciation again increases.

Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion, of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in to whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it – how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?

The book also plays through the various scenes in the movie, “she sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out”, and then fallows Nathalie Léger’s personal attachment to each scene. A short work, this is also a fine accompaniment to a wonderful film.

I have seen a few reviews, of this book, that are quote scathing and I wonder if the reader hadn’t had the opportunity to view Barbara Loden’s film before reading, it was very hard to find, until recently when the Criterion Collection released a restored print. My reading journey was brilliantly enhanced by having a solid grounding and relationship with the film ‘Wanda’ and a fair understanding of Barbara Loden’s struggle to raise funds, be recognized, be acknowledged as someone other than Elia Kazan’s wife, and her subsequent death at only forty-eight years of age. This allowed me to travel with Nathalie Léger and see her peeling away the layers of the film, applying them to her own experiences, justifying her obsessive travel to understand more about Barbara Loden and simply relishing in a gem of a movie that could easily have been lost.

Once again the Dorothy Project delivers a thoughtful and provocative work of feminist literature, a collection of works that deserve wide readership.

The Juniper Tree – Brothers Grimm, T.S. Eliot & Nietzchka Keene

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,

Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,

Forgetting themselves and each other, united

In the quiet of the desert.

T.S. Eliot

Black screen, white text, so opens the 1990 film ‘The Juniper Tree’, written and directed by Nietzchka Keene, based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. The quote is a short piece taken from the much longer work by T.S. Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday”.

The juniper tree is mentioned only twice in Eliot’s poem, both references in part II of the poem, the one above appearing at the end of the section, the other reference at the beginning:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been


In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

Reading Eliot’s poem, I found the juniper tree reference removed from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, although there are some similarities.

‘The Juniper Tree’ published in the Grimms’ collection was written by Philipp Otto Range, and has been seen as a counterpart of the Greek myth of Cronus, who devours his children in order to ensure he retains his power. The tale opens:

A long time ago, as many as two thousand years ago, there lived a rich man with a wife who was both beautiful and good. They loved each other dearly, but they had no children, even though they longed for them. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still they had none.

She becomes pregnant and “in the seventh month, she picked the berries from the juniper tree and gorged herself on them until she became miserable and was ailing. According to the classical antiquity physician Galen, the juniper tree’s berries can be used for contraceptive purposes and to induce abortion. However the mother eventually “bore a child as white as snow and as red as blood. When she saw the child, she felt so happy that she died of joy.” The child was a boy, the husband buries the mother under the juniper tree.

He remarries and his second wife gives birth to a daughter. “When the woman looked at her daughter, she felt nothing but love for her, but whenever she looked at the little boy, she felt sick at heart….The devil got hold of her so that she began to hate the little boy, and she slapped him around and pinched him here and cuffed him there.” The second wife eventually beheads the young boy by slamming the lid of an apple chest onto him as he is reaching for an apple. “The mother then took the little boy and chopped him up. She put the pieces into a pot and cooked them up into a stew.” The father thought the stew tasted really good and as he ate “he threw the bones under the table.” The daughter collects the bones in her silk handkerchief and puts them “down in the green grass under the juniper tree.”

“The juniper tree began stirring. Its branches parted and came back together again as though it were clapping its hands for joy. A mist arose from the tree, and right in the middle of the mist a flame was burning, and from the flame a beautiful bird emerged and began signing gloriously.”

The bird, the boy reincarnated, sings:

“My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!”

Singing and collecting, a golden chain, a pair of red shoes and a mill stone. Continually singing his song, he drops the golden chain for his father, the red shoes for his sister and drops the millstone on the mother’s head crushing “her to death.” The smoke, flames and fire return and the “little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the three of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

A fable filled with eating aligned with death, gorging the juniper berries, apple chest, the child cooked as stew, happily dining once the step-mother is deceased, it is also a tale of childhood innocence vanishing and, according to the notes in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”,  “by crushing the mother and joining the father, the children have been seen as “successfully” negotiating the path from dependence to autonomy.”

T.S. Eliot’s poem has a few similar references, primarily the bones, other interpretations of his poem state that the juniper tree in Eliot’s poem references the Bible – I Kings 19 (in some Bible versions it is a “broom bush” or “broom tree”, however in the King James Bible it is a “juniper tree”).

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.

The poet is lost in the woods and like Elijah in the Bible, who is lost in the desert, he is nourished and renewed by an angel.

Onto the film, where we have a single father, with a son, Jonas, and two sisters who are seeking a new home as their mother has been stoned and burned for being a witch. The older sister becomes the stepmother, by using witchcraft, potions and incantations to attract the single father as her husband. The connection to nature, as appears in the Grimm Brothers tale is here, an early scene showing Björk, who plays the youngest sister Margit, reciting an incantation to stop the buzzing of the fly, and soon thereafter she entertains the young Jonas with shadow puppets, using her hands, whose actions align perfectly with the crowing of the rooster or the barking of the dog. Margit has a power over nature.

The film is filled with religious symbolism, crucifixes, prayer as well as the witchcraft elements. Margit also having visions of a mother figure.

Whilst the film does have elements of the Grimm fairy story, it deviates in a significant number of areas, a stand alone work that feels more aligned to religious and witchcraft themes, and less to the family, natural world, eating associated with death and childhood growth themes.

I loved the Brothers Grimm tale for its extreme themes, I rather enjoyed the movie and I question the T.S. Eliot reference, did the director just see a juniper tree in a poem and thought “I’ll make that the epigraph”?

The Last Days of Mandelstam – Vénus Khoury-Ghata (tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan)

We live, not feeling the ground under our feet,
no one hears us more than a dozen steps away,

And when there’s enough for half a small chat –
ah, we remember the Kremlin mountaineer:

Tick fingers, fat like worms, greasy,
words solid as iron weights,

Huge cockroach-whiskers laughing,
boot-tops beaming.

And all around him a rabble of thin-necked captains:
he toys with the sweat of half-men.

Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
he’s the only one looking, jabbing.

He forges decrees like horseshoes – decrees and decrees:

This one gets it in the balls, that one in the
                forehead, him right between the eyes.

Whenever he’s got a victim he glows like a broad-chested
Georgian munching a raspberry

  • Quoted from ‘Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (translated bby Burton Raffel and Alla Burago) (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973)

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam penned this poem, credited as “Stalin Epigram”, a satirical description of Stalin and the prevailing climate of fear for artists in the 1930’s in the Soviet Union, I like the line “huge cockroach-whiskers laughing”. It is two lines from an earlier version of this work that forms a leitmotif in this novella ‘The Last Days of Mandelstam’;

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer

This poem, “Stalin Epigram”, was recited at a few small private gatherings in Moscow, and a copy, using the term “peasant-slayer”, so the earlier version, was handed into the police. Given the risks involved, neither Mandelstam, nor his wife Nadezhda, had written down the work and therefore one of their so-called trusted friends who had heard the recitation had memorised and copied the piece before handing it to the police. As it was common for the death penalty to be carried out on “dissidents” such as Mandelstam, he rightfully became very concerned and a campaign was launched by his wife Nadezhda and the poet Anna Akhmatova to save him. He was exiled to Cherdyn, in the Northern Urals.

Anna Akhmatova, shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, has her own backstory, her first husband Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviet secret police, and her son Lev Gumilyov and her common-law husband Nikolay Punin spent many years in the Gulag, where Punin died

For Mandelstam, there was to be suicide attempts, a return to Moscow where his home was now occupied by others, begging for food, clothes and housing, and further arrests and persecution. All of this captured by Lebanese born, exiled in Paris, writer and poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata in the haunting and reflective work ‘The Last Days of Mandelstam’.

At the beginning of this short work, we join Mandelstam “lying for months – how many? – on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.” And we have many a short reflection on his life and the situations that led to him in being in a transit camp near Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, awaiting his transportation to a correction camp to serve a five-year sentence for “counter-revolutionary activities”.

A frightened old man under his blanket, with his hallucinations and delirium.

The voices of his neighbours reach his ears through the tattered screen of the fabric.

He catches one out of two of the words they speak.

How difficult it is to put the words together in a sentence.

To give meaning to what seems to be important to them.

Listening to them, they have nothing to regret.

Conscience as white as the snow of the Urals but they found themselves in the wrong place, at the mercy of raids.

Should have moved before, left no trace behind.

No telephone or electricity, no children registered at birth, no schooling, no hospitalizations.

No death certificate.

To fade away. If needed, penetrate underground. Di one’s own lair. Imitate the hare, the ant, the weasel…

Wild imaginings flourish in the camp where the dead and the living are piled up like sardines.

Everyone shares his story. The others need not necessarily believe it.

Short, sharp sentences, the blank canvas of Mandelstam’s life populated with a broad brush, minutiae, memories, snippets of experiences, with no sequential order, blur and highlight the poetic, a voice that Mandelstam refused to renounce.

This novella is populated with the memories of other writers, Boris Pasternak who helped Mandelstam whilst remaining in favour with the authorities. According to a biography of Pasternak, in April 1934 Mandelstam recited his “Stalin Epigram” to Pasternak. After listening, Pasternak told Mandelstam: “I didn’t hear this, you didn’t recite it to me, because, you know, very strange and terrible things are happening now: they’ve begun to pick people up. I’m afraid the walls have ears and perhaps even these benches on the boulevard here may be able to listen and tell tales. So let’s make out that I heard nothing.”

There is also the harrowing tale of Anna Akhmatova and her husband’s execution and son’s exile to the Gulag.

Mandelstam, Akhmativa, Tsvetaeva and so many other muzzled poets, isolated from their young readers, deported.

Deportations often followed by executions. Gumilyov, Akhmatova’s husband, shot without a trial at the age of twenty-seven.

Her son Lev deported, Akhmativa didn’t write any more. Her poems could potentially aggravate her son’s case. You had to be invisible to survive. Pretend not to exist.

This is a beautifully rendered, if harrowing, insight into Mandelstam, his persecution, madness, and death in exile. The language flowing poetically, the snippets, fragments slowly forming a picture of a man reduced to a threadbare blanket, stripped of his poetry, his creations, reduced to begging for food from a rapidly decreasing circle of friends.

Vénus Khoury-Ghata uses poetic techniques, such as repetition, divergent metaphors, to recreate the final days of a persecuted, now celebrated, writer. Extremely moving and bringing to life the persecution of artists, some forgotten, but Stalin’s figure remains.

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer

Copy courtesy of the publisher – Seagull Books.