Why “I Am the Brother of XX” by Fleur Jaeggy shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

Jaeggy

When I went to school – albeit a long time ago – first we were taught the alphabet, I can’t remember those dim dark ages, however I think I knew ABC before I started formal schooling, I’d ask my mum to confirm but that would result in an extended telephone conversation, in this world of instant gratification, short attention spans and meta fiction I simply cannot afford the time for such a trite confirmation.

Once the whole class had mastered the alphabet, we moved onto words, Apple, Bee, Cat, etc. Again, we waited until everybody had mastered these basics, you know the drill, cater for the average, don’t get too far ahead, or too far behind, that could upset the whole education system.

Once we knew how to spell a few basic words, we moved onto sentences, now this is where things became really tricky, you had to string words together. I was taught that a sentence contained a number of words. It would have been much later in my schooling, once I had learned words more difficult than basic animals and fruits, I believe I was taught that a sentence contains a subject and predicate and consists of a main clause or one or more subordinate clauses. Unfortunately I didn’t keep my school books from the 1960’s, they could have proven a useful reference tool fifty years later….Here is ant and bee and a red dog playing ball…

This was back in the dim dark ages of being taught a language, where nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, clauses, tense and, heaven forbid, punctuation were taught as part of our comprehension.

Grammar – wtf is that?

Why my schooling as a long introduction? Because. Fleur Jaeggy’s “I Am The Brother of XX”, translated by Gini Alhadeff, contains many. One. Word. Sentences. ONE. WORD.

No bicycles, and again, clearly marked, At any time. Ever. Unnecessary noises. It is a timeless quiet zone. And that is greatly reassuring. Even voices seem to become muted. Maybe passers-by don’t quarrel. Maybe it’s an almost happy earth. Iosif looks at the towers. The fireman’s boat, with paddles resembling fans made of water, glides by. In the dark sky the flight of dark birds. On the opposite short, large warehouses, depots. And in direct line of sight, the towers. It is what Iosif sees, the Twin Towers. They were, once. (from ‘Negde’ pp27-28)

If sentences were meant to be one word then there wouldn’t be the word “sentences” would there? Everything would suffice as “word” wouldn’t it?

Back to the digital age and short attention spans, obviously this style of book made up of twenty-one short stories and running to only 133 pages (these are short short stories), appeals to those who struggle to concentrate beyond the length of an iPhone screen. Short dark tales that you can skim in the time it takes to log onto Tinder. The traction and hype on social media when this book was released reached fever pitch, 280 characters the ideal medium to spruik the wares of a bleak dark collection. “This. Book. Is. Sooo. Brill.”

Almost “gothic” in style, with class and language well beyond any “Twilight” series, this books deals with haunting, disturbing themes. Just when you think every story is going to deal with mystical, ghost themes, your ideas get turned on their head and an unsettling tale from left field comes from along to push you further into the mire.

When I talk my sister pays too much attention. She watches me. Maybe she is writing my story, as long as I am not dead yet like my parents. I’ve always wondered whether one of them might have died because of her. Then I think that parents always die because of their children. One always dies because of someone else. I don’t know if it’s correct to say ‘because of’. But one dies for others. On behalf of others, might be more correct. (from “I Am the Brother of XX” pg13)

As Susan Jacoby advises us in her new release “Why Baseball Matters’, because this is a highly relevant title when discussing translated fiction from Switzerland, “…conversation itself has become one of the many cultural casualties of the computer era.” That probably explains why Jaeggy’s stories contain little, if no, conversation. If it does appear it is muted like the rest of the book;

Old age, she said, is horrible. It’s all horrible, I’d tell her. With a kind of glee. I tried to convince her that it’s all truly horrible (at that time our lives weren’t bad at all) and I meant it. Then her eyes radiated happiness and years went by. Swift. (from ‘The Aseptic Room’ pg50)

Time for a quick reference check, something that I can find on the internet, and something that is a paragraph long, don’t want to waste too much time researching my subject matter, there are Facebook notifications calling my attention, cat photos to scroll through. According to Wikipedia after “completing her studies in Switzerland, Jaeggy went to live in Rome, where she met Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard”. This collection shows a poetic style, could it be the influence of those writers (?), which allows the reader to build mental images well beyond what is presented on the page.

It had been snowing. For years, it seemed. In a desolate town in Brandenburg a boy shouts a Christmas sermon through a bullhorn. The town has few inhabitants. The houses are surrounded by a wall. On the wall the photograph of a German shepherd. Ich wache. I watch. It looks like a ‘Wanted’ poster. The photograph of the owner is missing. One watches, the other incites. The moment anyone walked by the wall a fierce barking was heard. There are no shops. (from ‘ The Hanging Angel’ pg 108)

Susan Sontag is quoted on the cover of the And Other Stories publication, “A wonderful, brilliant, savage writer”, obviously that brilliant and wonderful that it has only taken at least fourteen years to get these stories into English? (Sontag passed away in 2004 so I’m taking a punt that her quote was made prior to her passing).

A collection of dense, dark tales, masterfully sculpted to inhabit and haunt the reader, I believe this is a book that will probably make the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award, simply because of the carry on that I noticed when this book was released, you’d think she’d won the Nobel Peace Prize!!! Published by And Other Stories in the United Kingdom and New Directions in the United States there’s no excuse for not joining in the “Women in Translation” movement and grabbing a copy of this. Instead of twiddling your thumbs, you could read a story whilst your apps are updating to the latest versions. Wonderful. Brilliant. Savage. Pity I was getting increased blood pressure from these clipped sentences.

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Year of the Wasp – Joel Deane PLUS bonus poet interview

Wasp

The 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards both featured Joel Deane’s “Year of the Wasp” as a shortlisted title (the winners were Anthony Lawrence for “Headwaters” in the PM award and David Musgrave for “Anatomy of Voice” for the Qld Award), the book also winning the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and making the John Bray Poetry Award shortlists. More remarkable is the fact that poet Joel Deane, at the young age of 42, had suffered a stroke in 2012. Previously a finalist for the Walkley Award and the Melbourne Prize for Literature, Joel Deane was an established writer at the time, with three books (one non-fiction and two fiction) and three collections of poetry to his name. As the back cover tells us, “Year of the Wasp” is a book about Joel Deane’s “battle to rediscover his poetic voice”, however I would like to add that it is also a story about the commitment of his wife to the poet’s recovery (more on that later).

The books is made up of three sections, “Year of the Wasp”, “Eight Views of Nowhere” and “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”. The first primarily focusing on Joel Deane’s stroke and subsequent hospitalisation. On page 2 Tithonus makes an appearance, drawn from Greek mythology Tithonus became a cricket, eternally living, but begging for death to overcome him.

It was foolish to hope. He prayed
               for rain but the heavens let fall
Tithonus instead,
                             whose every atom
was transfigured into a wasp. And
every wasp was born in fury
               and showered down and
                              stung and did not slake the thirst.

The first twenty-seven pages relaying the stroke, the trip in an ambulance, the hospital, the realisation of what has happened and of course the wasp;

                   The wasp
that was inside
                                the ward
is now inside
                   (his head)

Matching mythological characters, Tithonus, Icarus etc. with plagues of locusts and wasps the tragic event takes on Biblical and mythical proportions, this is not a simple revelation, an expected event. The setting of a dry mid Victorian country town adds to the effect of a disparate place, lonely and under attack. Effectively using the space on the page to create a sparse, deserted place, the marrying of environment and the gaps in the brain’s function are expertly sketched.

Section two, “Eight Views of Nowhere”, is where Joel Deane reflects on his place in the world, his relationship, his existential thoughts, his lot in life:

Contemplate her eight views of nowhere:
                     these eight views of myself
to which she made me an accessory.
Gaze unblinking into the mirrored,
reversed world of an extinction in progress,
a transfiguration from infinity to infirmary,
                    delusion to allusion, god to wasp.

In the final section Joel Deane takes on the political, as mentioned in the introduction Deane has been nominated for the Walkley Award, this is a yearly award for journalism. His book “Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power” was an insider’s account of the Labor Party’s run in state politics in Victoria in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. During this period of a powerful run in State politics, Joel Deane was speechwriter and press secretary for premier Steve Bracks. There is a poem with a political refrain;

Let us pilot a drone in Afghanistan from
a penny arcade in Anaheim.
Let is ride Magic Mountain until the trees
runout of leaves. Let us fly
under five thousand feet so
they can feel our engines humming,
hear the whiz of each and every M-69.
Let us explain that what we did was not Guernica
nor Bergen-Belsen nor Dresden,
was not war nor terror not crime
                   – just slaughter. Let us argue
at the Hague that the prisoners of Manus Island
are not people but haunted boke-zukin –
and that what is hidden beneath those hoods
is no longer human.

This is only a section of a much longer poem. The final section also explores his relationship with his wife, who has been his tower of strength throughout his ordeal. There are words of gratitude, words of appreciation, words of love.

This is a powerful collection of poems, where you can read the struggle to regain a language, where the finely crafted poems show meticulous work, a labour of love unfurls in front of you, you are imbued with gratitude that your everyday language remains, but at the same time you feel a wonder at the poet’s rediscovery of his voice.

For more about the book, including snippets of a number of reviews head to Joel Deane’s website 

As always I would like to thank the generosity of the poet in answering my questions, as always I hope the interview adds another layer to the collection as well as giving an insight into poetic practice. The interviews I have been conducting here have been extremely educational for myself and with over 30 different Australian poets now appearing at the blog I hope these short interviews help readers to discover poetry, new books and engage a little more with the art form.

Thank you very much to Joel Deane for making the time to answer my questions and for his patience as it took me five months to get to him after my initial request for an interview.

For interested readers, in his answers Joel Deane refers to a poem that was read at the anniversary of the Bourke Street attack, that poem can be read here .

Q. The out of control brain damage, from your stroke, is played out through the hospital scenes, but also through a wasp in your head, (“The wasp / that was inside / the ward/ is now inside / (his head)”), where do the marrying of the traumatic event and the wasp spawn from?

One morning, in the winter of 2012, I woke up, walked out the front door to fetch the newspaper and fell over. Couldn’t stand up. It felt as though the ground beneath me was a skateboard ramp. Later that morning, after a ride to Box Hill Hospital in an ambulance, I was told I’d had a stroke. There was no reason for the stroke. I was 42 years old and in good health. I didn’t think, “Why me?” My oldest daughter, Sophie, was born with Down syndrome and significant hearing loss, and one of the many things she’s taught me is that shit happens. What I did think about a great deal was, “What now?” I wasn’t sure to what degree I’d recover. Wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again. Wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to be a husband to my wife or a father to my children. That realisation led me to dwell on transfiguration; on becoming something else and, ultimately, becoming nothing. I also began to see things – animals, insects, elements – that both were and were not around me. It was as though the world was a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. For instance, one night, lying in bed, I was sure that there was a wasp in the ward, doing flyovers, and I felt that I was the wasp. I internalised all that in the weeks after the stroke, then, over the next few years, found myself unable to write about that trauma. It took a few years for it all to come out again in poetry, and when it did I found myself constantly surprised by whatever word came next. I didn’t write Year of the Wasp. It wrote me.

Q. “The are of becoming nothing / is redaction:” do you see poetry as a way to fill in the gaps, ensure there is “a word printed // on the page”?
I don’t know if I have the words to describe what poetry is to me. I’ve always thought of poetry as using words to say that which is beyond words. I write, therefore, when I’m bewildered by the world and don’t know what to think, and the poetry that comes from that bewilderment helps me find a way. And, if I think the poems are good enough to make sense to someone else, I send them out into the world. They’re not a way to fill in the gaps, then; poems are much more important than the pages on which they are printed. Poems are alive. They have energy, they have force, they make things happen; and to tap into that all we have to do is internalise the words that have been wrested from the lives we live.

Q. You use space, blank areas, effectively, to stress the loss of a name, or of language or of memory. Can you explain a little about how you shape/form your poems?

Every poem has an ideal for, but it takes time to find that ideal form. Sometimes, especially if I’m working in traditional forms, that can be relatively straightforward. On other occasions, such as the Wasp poems, finding the ideal form can be as bewildering an experience as finding the right words. I wrote the Wasp poems in many different ways, and kept rewriting them until they looked and sounded and felt right. It was very labour intensive and intuitive. My previous collection, Magisterium, was different. On that occasion – and, again, I was writing to try to come to terms with the trauma of losing three children to miscarriages and a stillbirth – I used traditional forms to try to and force myself to make sense of things. That worked then, but, with Wasp, it didn’t. It took me years to get the poems right. To be honest, writing the poems was an obsessive process – and, yes, it was detrimental to my health.

Q. You’ve married trauma and poetics, can you explain the battle to rediscover your poetic voice?

Part of the problem with having the stroke was that I didn’t realise how fucked up I was for a few years. I came back from it like a maniac, insisting I was fine and that nothing had changed. My wife thought I was trying to kill myself and sent me to see a psychologist. That helped. Still, it took me two or three years to start to realise what I was blind to. In hindsight, the aftermath of the stroke was like driving on a freeway in heavy fog with the high-beam lights on. I thought I knew where I was driving, but all I could see was white. It wasn’t until the fog started to clear that the poems started to arrive. Some days are still foggy

Q. “Year of the Wasp” is a cycle of poems, a greater sum than the individual that you were reluctant to publish with the whole. How did you keep the motivation and the belief in the project going?

Writing the poems didn’t feel like a project. It felt like I was buried alive and was trying to find my way back up to the light. The writing was an act of desperation.

Q. The other memories in the third section, “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”, seem all the more vivid, a life rediscovered maybe, put against the trauma of section one, “Year of the Wasp”, are you still celebrating the “daily bread”?

“Time’s Carrion Compass Course” is the third and final section in the collection, and most of the poems in there were the last poems written for the collection. By then, I felt more fury than fear. The last poem, the one that has the line about the “daily bread”, was the very last poem written in the collection. It’s a love poem, addressed to my wife. By then, I was closer to the space I’m in now than the way I was at the beginning. The space I’m in now is simple: I’m grateful. Grateful to have people to love who love me, and determined to make the most of what I have while I have it.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and a great reading list is building up by doing so, what are you reading at the moment and why?
I’m reading a lot of Irish poetry. That’s because I was lucky to win the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and spend February and March in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It was a wonderful trip. I got to meet dozens of poets and am now reading their works. The quality of poetry coming out of Ireland and Northern Ireland is extraordinary. Here are a few of the collections I’m reading and rereading at the moment: On the Night Watch by Ciaran Carson, Bindweed by Mark Roper, Poems 19080-2015 by Michael O’Loughlin, Oils by Stephen Sexton, Foreign News by Aifric Mac Aodha, A Quarter of an Hour by Leanne O’Sullivan, Selected Poems 1978-1994 by Medbh McGuckian, Mountains for Breakfast by Geraldine Mitchell and Playing the Octopus by Mary O’Malley.

Q. Finally, another I normally ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about, will there be “happy endings”?

A clutch of poems have arrived in the past six months. Most of them were sparked by the death of my father. One of them was different. That poem, “January, 2017”, was written to mark the first anniversary of the Bourke Street attack when six people lost their lives. I’m also working on some fiction. I haven’t written a novel since the stroke, so I want to find out whether I can still climb that mountain. There are no happy endings, but, as the Wasp poems say, there can be “grace ephemeral” – and that’s enough for me.

 

Why “Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

Ghachar

My second post in my series “Why xxx can not win the Best Translated Book Award”. Today I look at “Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag (Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur).

Let’s state the obvious (might have to be a standard opening line for this series!), the Best Translated Book Award is for the small independent publishers to highlight their wares. The publishers that have taken home the fiction award to date have been Soft Skull, Archipelago, Melville House, New York Review of Books, New Directions, Yale University Press, And Other Stories and Open Letter, “Ghachar Ghochar” is published by Penguin, yes there’s been a big one before but c’mon Penguin stop raining on somebody else’s party!!!

When I pick up a book from India, I expect a caste struggle or a historical fiction, moving from colonial rule to independence. Rohinton Mistry gave us the untouchable leather workers Ishvar and Omprakash, in “A Fine Balance”, Salman Rushdie a protagonist, Saleem, who was born at midnight on 15 August 1947, the exact moment India became and independent country.  And I could cite example after example of what I expect when reading fiction from India. Here there’s not an untouchable in sight, and there is a small veiled reference to progress;

The walls are panelled in wood to shoulder height. Old photographs hang on the sturdy square pillars in the center of the room, showing you just how beautiful this city was a century ago. The photographs evoke a gentler, more leisurely time, and somehow Coffee House still manages to belong to that world. For instance, you can visit at seven in the evening when it’s busiest, order only a coffee and occupy a table for two hours, and no one will object. They seem to know that someone who simply sits there for so long must have a thousand wheels spinning in his head. And they know those spinning wheels will not let a person be. Eventually, he’ll be overwhelmed, just like the serene spaces in those photographs that buyers devoured and turned into the cluttered mess we have around us today. (pp1-2)

Here we have a novel where the unnamed narrator, protagonist has moved from a poor upbringing, a crowded home infested with ants, to living a life of relative luxury, a director who doesn’t have to work, a member of the middle class. This change in fortunes comes about through an uncle who has successfully set up a spice distribution business, the family who all live together have moved from struggling to bourgeois;

Our only fear now is he might lose his mind with age and become ruinously entangled in some philanthropic enterprise. So we try to keep him in a good mood, making sure he doesn’t lose his taste for food or develop other ascetic tendencies. We steer him clear of thoughts about the futility of life and so on. An unfortunate consequence of this is that we must endure his garrulity whenever he emerges from his shell – the same old stories, again and again. Who knows what pleasure he gains from reminding us of the days when we struggled to get by in this city on a tiny income. (pp23-24)

However the story is not simply about the rise from poverty to relative wellbeing, it begins in a coffee house with the narrator reflecting upon his life of luxury and reminiscing about the journey that led to him whiling away the hours sipping coffee, the main theme being family bonds, were times better when money had to be watched, when budgeting was required when a new pair of trousers were required;

Soon the house was crammed with expensive mismatched furniture and out-of-place decorations. A TV arrived. Beds and dressing tables took up space in the rooms. In retrospect, many of the new objects had no place in our daily lives. Our relationship with things we accumulated became casual; we began treating them carelessly. (p52)

I want a story like “Slumdog Millionaire”, you know the type, rise from depths, become successful, have your success cruelly taken away, these are the successful story lines that should be promoted, none of this “the biggest drama in my life is some unknown woman vying for the man of the house’s affections” rubbish. And what an incomprehensible title, you can’t give an award to a book you can’t pronounce!!!

The next morning, we woke up in a hopelessly rumpled bed. I entwined my legs in hers and said, “Look, we are ghachar ghochar now.” She did not laugh. She must have thought I was making fun of her. Of course, those words could never mean to me all that they meant to her; nor would I ever utter them as naturally as she did. But she had shared with me this secret phrase that didn’t exist in any language, and now I was one of only five people in the world who knew it. (p78)

A novella that is constructed with simple concise and familiar prose, believable well shaped characters, a tight knit family who is presided over by the male character who dragged them from the mire;

It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind. (p53)

Finally the other downfall is the length, this runs to a mere 118 pages, it is a book you can read in a single sitting. Where’s the knitted brow as you decipher philosophical existentialist angst, where grand literary themes are presented in a labyrinth of complexity? This is what I expect from translated fiction, an independent publisher exposing me to the cultural nuances of a region I know nothing about, not a comfy family drama of the middle class, well to do in India, what on earth are these judges thinking???

Why “For Isabel: A Mandala” shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

ForIsabel

There is a tradition for the Best Translated Book Award, each year the twenty-five fiction titles get a write up at the “Three Percent” website, each review having the title “Why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award”. Being a stubborn old bastard, and pretty much having an opinion on just about anything, I thought it might be a good idea for me to run a series of posts for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, “Why xxx should NOT win…”

Today I start this occasional series with a look at Antonio Tabucchi’s “For Isabel: A Mandala” (translated by Elizabeth Harris).

Let’s start off with the obvious, a mandala (apparently the Sanskrit word for “sacred circle”) is the work of the devil. With the rise of adult colouring books, where numerous versions contain a mandala, there was also a plethora of warnings about them being the work of demons. Here’s just a few quotes I have found on the internet about the evil work of mandalas;

Focusing on mandalas is a spiritual practice where you merge with “deities”–this practice opens the door to demons.

A mandala is a key tool to practicing a religious ritual, and it opens people up to trances.

it is knocking on the door of a false temple.

(https://thelasthiker.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/adult-coloring-books-and-mandalas/)

And this is from a simple colouring book, imagine a whole novella that is constructed as nine concentric circles? It may be a wonderful construct and a revelatory approach to telling a story of searching for a lost woman and an ingenious way to build upon the concept of elusive truth, but don’t be fooled.

As readers of Antonio Tabucchi would know, he is a meditative writer, his work constructed of short contemplative sentences, to take the form to another level and write a book that is a mandala in itself is taking things a bit too far. Reading him I am running the risk of “knocking on the door of a false temple”.

And I have been a fan of Tabucchi’s work for a number of years, I thoroughly enjoyed his nine short stories collected together as “Time Ages In A Hurry” (translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani), a reflection on memory, a journey through Europe and a melancholic view of everyday occurrences, a dinner, a visit to the beach, or the dripping of morphine being dispensed through the intravenous tube to a terminally ill patient.

Or “The Women of Porto Pim” (translated by Tim Parks), a “travelogue”, blended into fiction, and taking place in the Azores, an archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Europe and America. The Azores were colonized by the Portuguese in 1432 and Tabbuci visited the islands, in his Prologue telling us:

I am very fond of honest travel books and have always read plenty of them. They have the virtue of bringing an elsewhere, at once theoretical and plausible, to our inescapable, unyielding here. Yet an elementary sense of loyalty obliges me to put any reader who imagines that this little book contains a travel diary on his or her guard. The travel diary requires either a flair for on-the-spot writing or a memory untainted by the imagination that memory itself generates – qualities which, out of a paradoxical sense of realism, I have given up any hope of acquiring. Having reached an age at which it seems more dignified to cultivate illusions than foolish aspirations, I have resigned myself to the destiny of writing after my own fashion.

But the last published book by this prolific writer is off kilter, all of a sudden Antonio Tabucchi is writing as a dead Polish writer who has returned from space to track down Isabel. Did the old guy focus on his mandala colouring book too much? Men from outer space as narrators? Before Tabucchi writes his nine circles of the mandala, he gives us a “Justification in the form of a note”;

Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.

The opening two words “Private obsessions”!!! Sorry Mr Tabucchi, your private obsessions should remain private, a “Mandala of Consciousness” that a monk made for you obviously flipped your lid, an Italian who was obsessed with the Portuguese writing about a Sanskrit spiritual, ritual aid to meditation…

The book may be short, and as his previous works, meditative and contemplative, but opening yourself up to the chance of being possessed by a false deity? Reading this book you’re participating in the spiritual ritual without even knowing it. Be warned you may come out the other side in a trance.

Saudade – Suneeta Peres Da Costa

Saudade

I wondered what home may mean and what different routes one might take to get there.

Independent publisher Giramondo, has recently released two books in their “Shorts” collection, one titled “João”, a collection of sixty-four sonnets by John Mateer, the other a short novella, “Saudade”, by Suneeta Peres da Costa an Australian born author to parents of Goan origin.

This short work consists of eleven single paragraph chapters, runs to 114 pages, and is a coming-of-age story set in Angola, a colony about to move from Portuguese rule to independence. The cultural hybridity that I recently discussed with Asian-Australian poet Adam Aitken really comes to the fore in this novella with the protagonist narrator and her family being Goan immigrants in Angola. They had fled Goa, India, after the Indian “liberation” of the state from Portugal in December 1961. From one Portuguese colony that had been “liberated” to another which is now undergoing a similar fate.

Written in the first person, the book opens with childhood memories of a young girl and the simplicity of simply observing her mother, however there is a juxtaposition of fear, with the image of the dead walking backwards shimmering on the periphery. She is safe in her mother’s presence, but as a reader you know that fear and danger is always lurking in the shadows.

Told through the innocent eyes of a child the unsettling nature of being an exile in a land where you may soon be exiled is a wonderful balance of innocence and vulnerability.

I could hear them talking in lowered voices in Kimbundu. Ifigênia had been told to speak Portuguese in my company but she often forgot and spoke Kimbundu anyway. Though I could understand only a smattering, I found Kimbundu, with its spirited rhythms, beautiful. And if it did not occur to me that they may have been talking about me, this was less because of humility than beacause it has not yet dawned on me that Kimbundu might be the language, as I might be the source, of some of their plaints and grievances. When this became evident I might find Kimbundu a cacophony, at the first sound of which I would reach for pliable beeswax to stop up my ears! (pp 15-16)

Our narrator when young refuses to speak, but occasionally sings, and the awkwardness of being a single child, adoring of her mother, is beautifully presented through personal recollections and simply crisp language.

When the soldier had gone, her mother struck Inês across the face. Susana looked away ashamed and so did some others nearby, yet no one protested against this act of cruelty and little Inês herself seemed well acquainted with it; she only folded up her legs, rocked and murmured quietly to herself. I turned over the insight – those who hurt you may be the same who otherwise claimed to protect your interests and care for you – (pp 59-60)

A tale that has elements of domestic violence, fear, infidelity, but these are matter of fact events, part of our narrator’s make-up. It is the mother-daughter relationship that is more forefront here, even in the quote above it is not the shock of a domestically violent situation that comes home to roost with our young girl narrator but more the realisation that those who love you may also hurt you.

On the morning of my Crisma my mother braided my hair with moringa from the garden. She stood back after plaiting the buds into my hair and, congratulating herself on the work of art which I, lace dress, lace veil, and wearer of her well-tended blossoms had become, said see what a pretty girl I could be. The more often she said such things, the more I resented my sex and the awkward complications of my body. I looked with envy at boys my age, kicking footballs, able to go out late and return whenever they pleased, and swearing in the street. If I were a boy, I believed, I might escape all that those blossoms and my mother’s words seemed to prefigure… (p69)

The title of the novella, Saudade, means melancholy in Portuguese and it is through melancholic eyes that our protagonist views the end of colonial rule, with an innocence of youth and of being an immigrant.

Although short, this book opened up an understanding of Portuguese rule in Angola and Goa for me, it was only through reading this work that I spent some time reading more information about the political situations in those countries/states in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is one of the beauties of reading fiction from many cultures, it expands my understanding of other diasporas, it opens my eyes to displacement and multi-culturalism from many different angles.

Congratulations have to go to Giaramondo for delving into the publication of shorter works, in the United Kingdom we have Peirene Press whose motto is “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film” and it is a welcome addition to Australian publishing to have a similar outlet here for smaller works, books that fit somewhere between a long short story and a novel.

A lingering work that may not answer the question of what routes need to be taken to get home, or what home may even mean – but you may need to read it to see if it does!!!

Archipelago & Notes on the River by Adam Aitken PLUS bonus poet interview

ArchipelagoAdam Aitken has been shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, more specifically the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, for his book “Archipelago”, the winner being announced on 30 April. He also has a chapbook, “Notes on the River” that has recently been published by Little Windows Press in Adelaide. You can buy the hand printed chapbook here, I suggest buying the collection of four books as the other writers are Jen Hadfield, Kathryn Hummel and the recipient of the 2017 Yale University’s Windham Campbell Prize Ali Cobby Eckermann, these chapbooks having a limited edition print run of only 111.

Adam Aitken’s “Archipelago” is a poet’s journey through France, an outsider observing the culture of another nation, however not purely as a tourist, more a world visitor observing the minutiae of small villages. The opening poem “Tributaries of the Seine” is rich with metaphor:

Hypothermic, I become obsessed with thermometers,
the way a red line rises, correlates, and falls
with the price of belief,
just like firewood, wool, or
fresh beetroot in summer…

This wonder of new surroundings, the connection to the environment is a theme throughout, with an underlying current of the human relationship hovering slightly out of view. You know the poet is travelling with a partner, and is staying in local’s house, however it is the connection to the place that always bubbles to the fore.

Using a harsh juxtaposition to inland Australia “Yuendemu” (sic) with dismantled chateaux’s looking different in the light “unseen in England or Australia”. And referencing Wollongong in “The Revenant” “a ghost looking over my shoulder”, the Australian is still not far from home. The passing through a foreign territory, it is an experience but one that is not the poet’s alone “- of the region – / of you and your territory” (from “Maruejols”) there are also the observations of others ways of life “These are mudflats of someone’s youth / small town genealogy…” (from “Tributaries Of The Seine”).

Very early on in the collection I found myself referencing the places on a map, following Adam Aitken’s journey, getting a sense of the places, and then delving further into information about the places (Google got a real workout as I worked through this collection, a plethora of places that I knew nothing about, their monuments, the architecture…)

Postcard

Chère Margaret,

Thank you for letting us stay so long.
Last night a bowl of water
froze overnight on the kitchen windowsill.
The digital thermometer I planted
seized in its small frost-frilled bowl.
A Siberian polar vortex
is putting us to death.
Mt Aigual is Raybans sharp in the alpine distance.
We have bought new wood
though it is green and won’t be usable till next year.
I am yet to cough up blood.
The other day I found a dead thrush in the letterbox.
I swept a few frozen comrades off the driveway.
Every day they are falling out of the sky.
Bud-sap of faux-spring in retreat
going back into the roots.
Much survives.
But not Danielle’s pintards
– they’ve all been plucked and eaten.
Young women in short skirts
are flagging down trucks
on the frosty road to Nimes
working hard, even in this weather.

A thank you note to the person whose house the poet is living in, a familiarity but at the same time anonymous and filled with calamity.

There is a poem where snippets of caught conversations at the Allicance Francaise are presented back to us, showing a cultural breadth and depth, all the time while attempting to learn French. There are also three ekphrastic poems, again I’m getting online looking at the artworks/photographs and getting a richer understanding of the artwork through the eyes of a poet.

LittleWindows

The chapbook “Notes on the River” uses a number of research style techniques and presents the Meekong, the fish and both sides of the banks, yet another cultural separation, another “border” that the poet has identified.

Both assured and environmentally connecting works, poems that have a real sense of place, vividly painting out a view for the reader to interpret, a poet moving through but a world weary one, a poet who has travelled far but still has much to learn and observe, and us as readers can learn plenty from him too.

Over to the interview. I am very grateful to yet another poet who has agreed to an interview and I hope these insights into the Australian poetic works demystify the art a little.

Q. You use a wonderful Geoffrey G. O’Brien quote to open “Maruejols”, ‘…begin / with reference to the territory…’, and your work has a real sense of ‘place’, but it is someone else’s ‘place’. After the immediacy of the connection to where you were did the poetic process take some time to gel or was it an instantaneous process that happened throughout your travels?

Adam: The places referred to in Archipelago are almost all in France. The collection grew out of a project I began when I was selected for the Keesing Studio in Paris in 2011. I wanted to write a book of poems that were responses to Europe and France, and to write back to Australian poets who had written about Europe, like Kenneth Slessor, Pam Brown, Martin Harrison and many others. Previous to this my poetry has been concerned with Sydney, Indonesia, Thailand, Central Australia and Hawai’i. I have been a travelling teacher and academic, but I prefer to stay in a place for long periods of time, so as to learn about it deeply.

Q. You were the Poet in Residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris, were these poems written whilst you were a resident or during another visit to France? Can you tell us a bit about your Residency, the travels themselves?

The Keesing Studio is in Central Paris is a rather imposing 60s complex. It’s rather a lonely place with hundred of rooms full of artists. The Australia Council sublet the Keesing Studio and offer a 6 month residency to Australian poets and other writers. After my term was up I stayed on for three months in the South of France, wintering in a small village called Maruejols. The change in context could not have been starker. In Maruejols I read the Romantic English poet John Clare and essays on the archaeology of the region. Maruejols has a population of about a 20 farmers. I was also learning French. My English mother-in-law literally lived in a farm house down the road, so many of yhe poems in Archipelago are about her life as an expatriate rural person.

Q. The book “Archipelago” contains three ekphrastic poems, can you talk a little about that process for you?

Adam: I studied Art and Fine Arts at uni and I’ve always been interested in describing visual art and am a keen photographer. I think I’ve been doing ekphrastics for a long time. I have certainly been a fan of the New York School of poems like Frank O’Hara and his poems about his friends, who were often painters. I also studied Auden’s Shield of Achilles, and Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn. I read about the New York photographer Alfred Steiglitz and was fascinated to learn about how much time he spent in a darkroom, and how he had waited for hours in a blizzard, just so he could photograph passing traffic in that atmosphere. I wrote the ekphrastic poems for a themed issue of Axon, a University of Canberra publication, and for a themed issue of Cordite. They were accepted and so I put them in Archipelago.  Les Wicks had also invited poets to write about a collection in the Manly Art Gallery, so I Ashton’s Notre Dame, as I had already been trying to write my own poems about Notre Dame (which are in Archipelago also). For a few months I had been walking past Notre Dame three times a week on my way to a French class, so it become part of my neighbourhood.

Q. In an article you wrote for “Southerly Journal” in 2013 you spoke about cultural hybridity and that theme is prominent in both of your collections. Can you explain that a little more in relation to these two books?

Adam: Actually Archipelago is my fifth collection. Are you referring to the memoir One Hundred Letters Home? All my writing refers to hybrid identity, as I my mother is Thai and my father was Anglo-Celtic. In the early 80s I spent some months living with my Thai family, and I became acutely aware of how I was Australian, but I also felt a bit Thai. I am fascinated by the experience of “being not one, but both”. this is not always a positive situation to be in, especially in societies that fear the ‘contamination’ of other cultures. But cultural hybridity is for me a normal part of modernity – especially in a multicultural society like Australia’s. it is no longer exotic to be Asian-Australian, but I still write with this in mind. With the memoir of my parents, the subject is their original attraction to each other, and their subsequent drifting apart. The “hybridity” could describe the way each influenced and changed the other, and how my father, especially, overcame a very Anglo-Celtic upbringing and came to appreciate Southeast Asian cultures. The story is also about my mother’s own story of becoming a ‘Europeanised” Asian migrant in London, and then in Australia.

Q. The title, “Archipelago” brings to my mind an extensive set of islands, are your poems travels at a micro-level and is that how the title came about?

Adam: Archipelago references geographic sets of islands, the nature of our fragmented sense of self, and also the philosophy of the French-Caribbean scholar Eduard Glissant. Glissant was interested in what we thought of as the origins of an archipelagic network of cultures. He thought about the centre of a culture, and about where it might evolve to. The archipelagic metaphor is also Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – that cultures grow and spread laterally, with not central root systems or vertical power hierarchies. Archipelagos are often sets of linked cultures, but each part of that set is individualised, not homogenised. Empires have always sought to control their heterogeneous colonies, but people at the margins always influence the centre. Also, the archipelago on the cover is a photograph of a French cemetery map, Montmartre. The numbers are islands of the dead, each a tomb or grave of a celebrity who died in Paris. I thought it was a funny conceit to compare the map to an archipelago. On a deeper existential level I feel that an island is our subjectivity, and the network that connects us all depends on the poetics of ‘living together’. As Barthes ask: “Comment vivre ensemble?” – how do we live together, or how does it all come together? In 1976 Barthes was lecturing at the College de France, and his first lecture was about how to find the right distance between yourself and your neighbour? He invented the term the “idiorhythmy”  to refer to one’s own rhythm of life, a rhythm that allowed you to live with others. I have to say that my friend musician and naturalist Alex Chapman introduced me to the term.

Q. In “Notes On The River” we have separation, different tribes to the east and west, the left and right sides of the brain, do you see borders in every subject matter?

Adam: Yes, I tend to be analytical, and as a child I almost decided to become a biologist or a geologist. I love categorising things. The evolutionary tree of life fascinates me, as does anything to do with archaeological timelines. But also, I really think that my brain and thinking processes are quite clearly divided into intuitive and analytical. With my writing I think as a linguist and as a poet. I love grammar and studying narrative patterns. But I want poetry to have emotional impact.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and a great reading list is building up by doing so, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Adam: I have been reading writing by George Saunders, Marguerite Duras (again), Joan Didion, and Helen Garner. They are all on my MA Writing subject which I teach at the University of Technology Sydney. I just finished a book of poems by the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski, and a novella by Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade. I am in the middle of Martin Edmond’s biography of New Zealand expatriates. There’s a ton of recent Australian poetry I am reading too, too many new volumes to mention. On the “theory” front I am about to read John Kinsella’s monograph on pastoral poetry Disclosed Poetics. The French experience brought me to a deeper contact with the land and with farming (in all its traditional and modern aspects) and ecology, and I hope to keep going with this subject when I go back to France later this year. John’s insights will be very inspiring I think

Q. Finally, another I normally ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?”

Adam: I have a body of poems that didn’t make it into Archipelago because they didn’t fit the “place” constraints. I hope to bring them together for another collection. I will be spending a few months in France, in another village, and a very different one and far less rural, but still a village. I really want it to be a collective portrait of the people there, but also a kind of poetic treatment of the current social politics of that part of France. Unfortunately, the village is a bit right wing and suspicious of foreigners. I hope to understand that better, but also to uncover the less well known lives of the Algerian and Moroccan immigrant community who work in that region.

 

Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translated by Susan Bernofsky)

GoWentGone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Susan Bernofsky, took home the last Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) in 2015, with “The End of Days”, the award merging with the Man Booker International Prize the following year, with the more well known prize pretty much taking on all of the eligibility criteria of the IFFP. “Go, Went, Gone” is the fifth time Bernofsky has translated Erpenbeck’s work (other titles are “The Old Child and Other Stories”, “The Book of Words”, “Visitation” and “The End of Days”), again resulting in a major prize longlisting.

Our protagonist, Richard, a University Professor, has retired, his wife is deceased, he has no children, how will he spend his newfound spare time?

The novel opens with two epigraphs, the first from Wolfgang Pauli;

God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.

Hinting that we need to look at what lies beneath. The book starting with various references to items below the surface, firstly a dead man at the bottom of a lake;

The lake is deep, eighteen meters. It’s lovely near the top, but in truth an abyss. All the local residents, including him, now gaze with a certain hesitation at the reeds, at the lake’s mirrorlike surface on windless days. He can see the lake when he sits at his desk. The lake is as beautiful this summer as in any other, but this year there is more to it. As long as the body of the dead man hasn’t been recovered, the lake belongs to him. All summer long – and now it’s almost autumn – the lake has belonged to a dead man. (p10)

Next the story of the subterranean catacombs under the Berlin Alexanderplatz, where people shopped whilst they waited for an appointment at the Town Hall;

Even then, unbeknownst to him, these hollow spaces were there beneath him, only a few yards of earth separating them from his feet. (p12)

An interesting history;

…the rubble-filled vaults beneath Berlin’s Town Hall escaped detection even by the Nazis, who contented themselves with flooding the subway tunnels in the final days of the war. Probably to drown their own people who had fled underground, taking refuge from the Allies’ air raids. There you go again, cutting off your nose to spite your face. (p12)

As Richard visits the Alexanderplatz there is a hunger strike by desperate refugees, he doesn’t notice the protest, it is a metaphorical blind spot, the educated not seeing the plight of the desperate. Here the references to the underground start to flow thick and fast;

Under the earth there is only more earth. What comes after that, no one knows. (p24)

What makes a surface a surface? What separates a surface from what lies below it, what separates it from the air? (p31)

…the earth is more like a garbage heap containing all the ages of history, age after age there in the dark, and all the people of all these ages, their mouths stopped up with dirt, and endless copulation but no womb fertile, and progress is only when the creatures walking the earth know nothing of all these things. (pp20-21)

Meanwhile the narrative remains quite simple, Richard finally awakes from his slumber and befriends a group of African refugees, men who are living in Germany, men who are asking for the right to work but are denied such as their route into German was through Italy so it is in Italy where the “human rights” obligations lie.  A subtle change from the oblique references to the underground and the surfaces then happens, where the topic now becomes “borders”. The obvious reference being the former Berlin Wall, with Richard being a former resident of the East, but there are also numerous other references in relation to the refugee crisis.

At the border between a person’s life and the other life lived by that same person, the transition has to be visible – a transition that, if you look closely enough, is nothing at all. (p39)

Early on this novel uses short meticulously crafted sentences, ones rich in meaning as we explore the surfaces, underground, and borders. The experience requires a measured reading. As the exploration of the uninhabitability of Europe for refugees comes to the fore, and the meshing of the West/East Berlin story with the balance of excesses (food, knowledge, reading, sheer volume of goods) against the bare essentials of those who are eternally wandering, the story becomes murky.

With references to the Iliad, Apollo, Hermes, and Johann Sebastian Bach, the story moves from one theme to another, and then the impersonal approach of our protagonist Richard, a person involved with helping the refugees, but at the same time divested, it all starts to lose its focus.

Clunky sentences, for example, “Just as initially, when the men were still living in the suburbs, he’d considered their cell phones a luxury (though admittedly a luxury of the most modest sort), he also couldn’t understand why each of the refugees required his own transit pass.”, that require re-reading suddenly make this book a bit of a chore.

Whilst exploring grand ideas and the current refugee crisis, this book does question your own fundamental beliefs;

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness. (p209)

The title a mish-mash of irregular verbs and highlighting language differences, however it does also have a more pertinent reference in the book;

…it occurs to Richard – it’s occurred to him many times now – that all the men he’s gotten to know here (these “dead men on holiday”) could just as easily be lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And conversely all the Germans who were murdered during the so-called Third Reich still inhabit Germany as ghosts, sometimes he even imagines that all these missing people along with their unborn children and the children of their children are walking beside him on the street, on their way to work or to visit friends, they sit invisibly in the cafés, take walks, go shopping, visit parks and the theater. Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin, he’s not sure why, maybe because as an infant, he himself came so close to going astray in the mayhem of war and slipping down into the realm of the dead. (pp221-222)

Starting with a wonderful premise, themes that could balance nicely against the reality of the current refugee crisis, this book is ultimately disappointing, slipping late into cliché and preaching. It promised a lot but delivered little. A fine writer, but for mine not a book that should be in discussions for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.